The idea of poetry as capable of crafting relationships isn’t unheard of, but the notion of a poet as always being in relation to others certainly challenges popular tropes that place writers in physical and intellectual isolation. In this conversation, Julie Carr and Christy Davids discuss how a self is constructed through relationships to others and the ways that writing actively facilitates interconnection. Writers have readers, confessors have witnesses, selves have others. Carr’s new book, Objects from a Borrowed Confession (Ahsahta 2017), and this interview investigate the ethics of these relationships, the matter of subjectivity, the way we tell stories and to whom.
Christy Davids: Objects from a Borrowed Confession begins with the epistolary in “What do we want to know and how far are we willing to go to get it? A novella.” The letters to “J” that make up the opening section reveal a life—an “I” whose existence is at once grounded by the letters and unmoored by the contexts that shape the letters in the first place. You write, “The facts are such that at times I bow to them like a princess to an abusive king. I’m hoping, as I tell of these facts, that you will hear me as a priest hears his confessor—in the dark.” Very early on in the book, you establish the interplay of power and empowerment the act of confessing bears: the risk and the duty of telling. Objects, narrates the stories of a subjectivity through many formal modes, why does the work begin with the letter? How do you see form and confession working together over the course of the text?
Julie Carr: The letter is the primary confessional from. If you’re thinking about literary confession, there’s nothing more confessional than a letter. Autobiography can be confessional too, but it’s also concerned with creating a narrative, whereas letters—so fleeting and momentary—are more concerned with the details of a relationship, with the need to confess to one other person. I started with letters because they were so obviously about the thing that I was circling around and because they involve the erotic, which is one of the things we think about when we consider the confessional. These letters in particular engage the taboo of writing to someone who probably doesn’t want to hear from you and who isn’t writing back.
In a certain way, the novella is the riskiest section of the book because of how it details an obsession, but it’s also the safest in that it is fictional, or perhaps, auto-fictional. In the title section, which follows the novella, I wanted to shift to something that was very real, I wanted to think about how tone changes when you’re no longer playing.
The title section, “Objects from a Borrowed Confession,” is about a child’s death. The writing changes formally: it gets more spatial at first, less dense, and the tone is quieter, the rhythm slower. And of course, when sections have different tonal approaches, they also have different formal approaches.
CD: And each section offers different affective experiences. One thing I found interesting over the course of reading Objects is that there is a remarkable sense of consistency throughout the work in spite of the many formal shifts. Even letter to letter there is a great range of emotion, actual real-world experiences, and connections to politics. The “I” present throughout the book is a kind of loose “I”—it’s not a stable “I.” The unstable “I” becomes the constant, which asks readers to question what the confessional mode means and what form it comes in, and points to the limited ways we think about something like confession.
JC: One of the things that probably got me thinking about all of this is reading recent work on Sylvia Plath by people like Stephen Axelrod, Jacqueline Rose and Claire Raymond. These critics emphasize the performativity of her confessions so that we can think of Plath less as a truth teller, and more as a series of personae. To expand, we can think about confession as always a kind of lie, as always a performance. Objects, is not about honesty. It’s more about the attempt we’re always making to generate or manipulate some idea of a self (which is why the confession is “borrowed”). In the letter to Fred Moten at the end of the book, I’m alluding to Fred’s and other’s argument about how modernity’s “self” is deeply tied up with chattel slavery in that selves were always created and performed as a way to legally and socially define whiteness (since the black person could not be a self if they were a slave, an object). We had a conversation around these issues when we first met (I took a class he taught at Naropa) and I wanted to continue thinking about that, which is why I turn to him at the end of Objects.
CD: That turn to Moten also does the important work of pushing the conversation about confession outward by asking the reader to think of the way they form their own subjectivities in relation to others. We have to consider on whose backs, against what politics, from what regions of the world, out of what literary and historical movements the self emerges.
JC: Right. Like, is the self some kind of set of resistances or responses to an Other, or a shoring up, as Eliot says? There’s been a lot said about subjectivity over the last several decades and I wanted to play with those conversations and take them to, I hope, a different place, a series of different places—as desire, jealousy, envy, anger, motherhood, loss, memory, shame, and fear all come into play in relation to this idea of a performed and transformable self.
CD: Throughout the book, you make it clear that the relationship to what’s external or outside of the self is as responsible for creating subjectivity as what comes from within subject herself. That is, our selves are crafted by modes of relation. In Objects these exterior engagements include a mixture of literature and literary figures (from Donne to Wordsworth to Rousseau to Fred Moten) and private familial (or family adjacent) figures (mother, siblings, children, partners, “J”). You comment on the turn many women make when asked about themselves when you write, “Immediately upon being asked to write about the self, most women will turn their attention to another. To their mother, perhaps, or lover. Tree bark, whether rough or smooth, loose or tight, like skin to the self has the pretense of only containing, of not really being, the tree.” In what ways does confession have the ability to cut through the decorative, the surface, or the Other in order to reach the self?
JC: Your first observation is absolutely right, reading and family life have been preoccupations in all of my books, as I think about how we’re always forming and re-forming through those infusions—literal infusion of the mind, as when reading, and of the body through giving birth, nursing, sex, and simply touch. I was just speaking with my partner about the research exploring the chemical make-up of the womb, about how the infant’s and mother’s bodies are exchanging information at all times, which made me think about whether such research has been applied to exchanges between long-time lovers. Maybe this is a very romantic notion, wondering where my body ends and his begins, but I was thinking more chemically—thinking that all of the years of exchanging touch, fluids, and breath must mean that “I” am utterly altered by his chemical make-up.
This constant exchange means never having to decide “Am I this” or “Am I that” because you’re always both, or many. And this is true on a writerly level because I’m always reading and writing at the same time—the books are always open.
In response to your other question about confession’s ability to cut through the decorative, the surface, or the Other—I think what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t. I think what I’m trying to say is that even in the so-called confessional moments, we are still operating on the level of surface, if we think of “surface” as a kind of performance, a kind of decorative space.
CD: The notion of more surface lines up with your idea of performance—that the confessional mode openly curates a self and the performance of that self is actually legible and clear.
JC: The idea of reaching the true self, I don’t really feel that matches up with my experience. It’s more like setting up a self. Even when you’re in therapy and you’re like “This is the time I have to really tell the truth so I can find out the truth,” that’s not really what you’re doing. What you’re doing is creating a story to tell yourself—revising the story so you have a better one, one that works a little bit better, one you can feel better about.
CD: No matter what context we are in—we’re always plucking clues from the narratives around us so that we can build narratives of our own.
JC: Definitely. I’m sure you’ve had the experience—I have it all the time—of reading a book and then walking around with that author’s voice in your head, and you almost feel like it’s permanent. I will always be George Eliot; I’m not going to forget—I may leave her, and she won’t be as prominent, but she’s always there. Where I ended up with confession was not that it was about trying to reveal something true but rather that it was about trying to claim something, which is essentially one’s own vitality. To tell your (always evolving) story is to make a claim for your presence.
In the section of the book titled “By beauty and by fear” I talk about my mother losing her sense of having “colleagues.” She was really obsessed with this—it was earlier in her Alzheimer’s when she still had language—a weird language—and she kept saying, “Where are my colleagues? Where are my colleagues?” I wondered why she wasn’t saying friends or family—why colleagues, this formal group.
CD: It’s oddly clinical—
JC: Colleagues are people who are around you, but who don’t necessarily really know you—you get along with them, you work with them. It seemed to me that her using this term was important because she needed to have that sense of a self that you get when you tell a story, when you generate a semi-public self that you’re comfortable with. That dynamic is actually super important.
CD: Well, it’s tidy in a way, right? You know what’s expected of you and you know how to fulfill those expectations.
JC: Yeah, because you’re creating it, you’re generating it. It seems to me that a lot of confession happens with strangers. On an airplane, or a bus, or you go to a bar and get really into it with someone you’ve just met. Isn’t the desire to confess often with someone new? You meet someone and feel like, “She could hear my whole life story.” And you have a desire to tell, to see yourself reflected, reinforced.
CD: And it’s relatively riskless, which provides a space to perform whatever it is that you want to perform in that given moment. Because you may never see that person again, there’s no need to follow up or maintain the artifice of that particular interaction.
JC: When I was a dancer, I used to do a practice called “authentic movement,” which was developed in the 1950’s. It was really fun, I recommend it—but, basically, you get a partner who is your witness and you move with your eyes closed. The idea of it being authentic movement is that once you close your eyes you will do the movement that’s really ‘true’ to you. Your witness is there to keep you safe, and they are giving you permission. Of course, the thing about it being authentic is that you wouldn’t need a witness if it really was ‘true.’ I used to love doing it, and not because I felt like I got to have access to the ‘real me,’ but because it was so much fun to perform knowing that the witness is entirely giving you their attention—it fed a certain need or narcissism! In a way, this is the best version of confession because the exercise is structured so the witness cannot look away. And not only that, they are supposed to be writing what you do, note-taking. Contrary to the experience being authentic, it was performative. It reminds me now of the scene in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother when she is little and dictating her diary to her mother. The mother witnesses her self-making.
CD: The structure of that exercise makes me think about the way you structure your poetry. Your work seems very often to be grounded in projects, in a structural concept. I’m thinking specifically of 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta 2009)—the process of writing that book is featured in Objects. While there is often transparency when it comes to structure, your writing is far from being purely conceptual. I consider project-oriented frameworks to function in two major ways: 1) creating a unifying concept is like building a container for one’s thoughts and ideas—it’s what holds them together and makes their togetherness signal meaning 2) such a framework can also—to paraphrase Adrienne Rich—be like wearing “asbestos gloves,” providing a way of putting something between you and the objects you cannot safely touch without the protection the gloves offer. Can you talk a bit about your approach to conceptual writing across your works and in Objects specifically? Ultimately, what does having a structured framework do for you—what does it allow for in your writing?
JC: I love thinking about what is conceptual and what isn’t. When conceptual writing was king for five or ten years, I really hated it. I didn’t hate the projects, I just hated the idea of conceptual writing because it made it seem like other things weren’t conceptual writing, and I pretty much thought that all writing was conceptual.
I was always in a bad mood at that time, luckily it has passed (not so luckily for the people who were the leaders of it). What is interesting about that work is the idea of the idea being more important than the actual writing—that in a conceptual project one could include things that didn’t need to be read. That was interesting because it shifted a hierarchy we tend to have in writing: it’s the language that really matters and that once you get through the language you’ll get the idea. I guess in my books the ideas and concepts always came out of the process of writing, it isn’t as if I start with the idea. I believe that the writing teaches me to think, rather than the other way around.
CD: Which is true for Objects, right?
JC: Yes. Eventually you get your concept and then you’re writing into it, but not immediately—not top down like that, which wouldn’t have ever worked for me. The idea of a frame or a container is absolutely right.
To come back to dance, I used to be a dance improviser and one of the first things you learn when you study improvisation, whether it’s music or dance or theater, is that it’s really not “anything goes.” There’s always some kind of structural element that’s containing the material, and, often, the tighter the container the better. When you think of comedy or theater improve, the players often say, “Give us four words,” which become the container that allows the improvisation to take place. In dance it might be something like a time structure, a number of people, or it might be more of quality that you’re working with.
CD: It’s funny because all of those elements substantiate the illusion that it is anything goes. Ultimately, it’s the curated wildness that gives the experience a sense of thrill.
JC: Absolutely. And there is that wildness, but you know when you try it that if you don’t have some structure, you can’t really do anything—you’re paralyzed. You have to have something to push up against. Maybe it’s like what we’re saying about subjectivity: you have to have something else to push against in order to exist. My process is about having some writing structure, like a daily practice, or a specific form (like short lines)—something that’s very arbitrary and coming out of the desire for form. Once that’s happening for a while, I go back and evaluate what the content is. And then it’s all about the title. Once I have a title then everything works after that.
CD: So the title is like the symbol of the container for you—the direction, the constraint.
JC: If I know it’s about violence because the title is 100 Notes on Violence then everything just follows into that. And with Objects from a Borrowed Confession establishing the thread of confession in the title became incredibly important. I hope the title does the same thing for the reader.
The thing about projects is that I can’t write any other way. I’m kind of jealous of people who can write a really good poem, I just don’t work that way—I don’t think that way. I don’t think in terms of a page and a half, it just isn’t how my brain works. I only think in terms of much larger structures.
CD: Working with a bigger picture in mind means that approach to writing is also a kind of thinking that’s in relation and about relation.
JC: It’s true—nothing really stands alone. It’s like that thing they tell you in school—well they told me at NYU 20 years ago—they would ask, “Does it stand alone?” I would be really mad because my answer was “no” and I didn’t feel like poems had to stand alone because poems are in books; they don’t stand alone. On the other hand, some people do write that way, and you read their one poem and you cry because it’s a great poem. I certainly am jealous of that, but I don’t feel like I have that quality in my work, it’s always about building. If I could write that way I probably would, just because it would be interesting.
You’re also asking about the “asbestos gloves” and form as a way to create a distance from what feels unsafe to touch. That was true for the letters that begin Objects. If I didn’t write those pieces as letters, I probably wouldn’t have written them at all. I had to have that kind of formal distancing to get into that material.
CD: The letters are so tense, and intense, and as a reader it does feel like you’re stepping inside someone else’s body. All of which makes you anxious and curious about what the rest of the book will be like. This is further complicated by the idea that these letters are a novella, which asks readers to question genre.
JC: Yeah, I definitely admit to being influenced by all the auto-fiction that’s been spinning around for the last five years of my reading life.
CD: Speaking of the autobiographical (fiction or otherwise), I have to ask you about your use of the first person. Over the course of Objects, readers come to know the speaker’s “I” as multiple, malleable, even as fluid (or to be consistent with our conversation, destabilized). There is no such thing as one singular self. Object’s “I” is buried in a narrative of the self, which is buried in another context at the same time, always already. In “Pity Pride and Shame: A Memoir” you write of “The desire to strip and knowing there can be no stripping since we are already stripped” and introduce the term “unselving.” In “Chill Thy Dreaming Nights” a sub-narrative emerges, buried in parenthetical fragments: a self scattered, yet traceably whole. “(Embellishments only fill lacks),” you write. Can you speak to this notion of stripping down—to the myth of singularity and how are you are writing against that mythology in this work?
JC: So the fun part—which is clear in the notes at the back of the book—is that the parenthetical remarks in “Pity Pride and Shame” all come from Rousseau. It’s kind of a joke because Rousseau is credited for inventing the memoir and being the first Romantic confessional writer. Hopkins, Wordsworth, and Keats are all flowing through “Pity Pride and Shame” to support this joke insofar as I am using them in order to undo the myth about them. At the same time, I don’t actually read these writers the way a lot of people do, which is as this great confessional and prideful unveiling of the patriarchal self. When I think of Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” for example, I think it’s much more about these other things we have been discussing in this interview. I actually believe Wordsworth is trying to undo some idea of stable or whole selfhood in order to make a space for otherness as he encounters the radical ideas supporting the French Revolution.
Part of the point of that section was to argue with facile readings of Romanticism, which were also being spun by the conceptual writers. So many have posited, and continue to posit that Romanticism lead us to confessional poetry and keeps coming up in lyrical narrative poetry in bad and boring ways. My argument is that this is a misreading of Romanticism to begin with. It’s not that British Romanticism wasn’t in so many ways tied up with colonialism and patriarchy, or that we should forgive it for these ties. It’s just that it’s more complicated than that. Some of these writers were also struggling with dominant ideas of (patriarchal, white) selfhood in their writing, though perhaps not explicitly.
CD: In addition to examining the way poets have historically explored notions of selfhood, your use of the term “unselving” comes from your mother losing context for the world around her. It’s interesting because a lot of this book is filled with very declarative statements asserted in the first person. Is it the case that these declarations seem self reflective and sure, but are also an artifice of performance? If so, does this mean that language is stripping down and not stripping down at the same time?
JC: Right, that’s exactly what it is. There’s a lot to say about this, but one of the things that happened when my mother got Alzheimer’s is that I had to ask, “What is a self?” She was losing her memories and losing language, so often the two things we think of as making up the self. I suppose I was trying to understand if there was a self beyond or beneath, and in contrast to what we have been saying about the self as a kind of performance, I think there is something “else,” and that something else is the body. This is not to say that the body isn’t also fluid, it is—maybe especially the mother’s body—but it’s also specific to a person. So when we come to ask “Who is she?” if she can’t speak or can’t remember anything or doesn’t recognize us, then we turn to touch. She’s here because her body is here. We talk about her as Mom, we touch her, and touch facilitates a sense of connection. That’s really interesting at the conceptual level because it is also true that her body is my body. This makes us question whether there is a separation between our bodies now or if there ever was. Selfhood isn’t always linguistic or theatrical, it’s also a very physical and chemical reality that is not lonely.
CD: I thought of “unselving” as a kind of measurement: calculating the self in ways you don’t expect to until you’re confronted with having to do so. Stripping down, then, does not mean access to a transcendent truth. Objects does, however, continually return to questions about truth, which emerges as a theme throughout the book.
Using T.J. Clark and Martha Gellhorn as grounding guides in “The War Reporter: On Confession,” you establish that confession and truth are intrinsically linked. Specifically, you suggest that being seen—making the confession or truth visible—is core to what defines confession: the private turning toward the public. About Gellhorn your write, “her only weapon is description, telling what she sees, attention to the details of what is.” This is an idea that is complicated by the question you ask on the preceding page: “But is there, in seeing and describing what one sees, in attempting to ‘tell the truth’—to say what is—an ethics?” If Objects from a Borrowed Confession is itself a confession made visible, what are its ethics?
JC: With Clark and Gellhorn—who make for such an unlikely pair—they both consider their work as a kind of truth-telling, a witnessing. For them, writing is an ethical act because through it they are giving people eyes where most people didn’t have eyes. For Clark that’s important because he’s trying to establish the human—he’s a Humanist—he’s trying to establish the value of the human as opposed to, say, the digital or the marketed. For Gellhorn, writing is about chronicling human suffering. I was agreeing with Clark and Gellhorn on one level: there is an aspect of telling, of speaking one’s truth, that is about making a claim for what’s valuable. That’s a pretty common thing to say about poetry—that in poetry we claim the value of our identities and experiences. I do believe that on some level, but the other side of it is to realize that what drives the confession is not some ethical idea, but rather the basic need to be alive, to simply assert one’s aliveness. This is simpler, and also perhaps more complicated, than claiming one’s privileged position vis-à-vis some “truth.”
CD: Which is part of the exchange of someone seeing you, or having a witness in the dance exercise—that someone is attending to you.
JC: Yes. In that moment of confessing, you’re really asking to be acknowledged as a living being. And it might be confessional because it might carry with it the shame we have of being alive when others aren’t. We might question our worthiness—are we worth this life we have been given? This is what I was writing about in terms of my own mother, but it stands for Gellhorn and Clark as well. Gellhorn is writing about the war, and she’s constantly calling out to be seen, yet she knows that she’s doing that amongst so much death. And with Clark, at the end of his book, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art and Writing, which is an amazing book, you think, “What was this all about? Why is he constantly describing this scene?” and then you find out it’s because the scene in the painting he’s describing brings him back to his mother’s death when he was child. There is this shame resulting in his desire to be seen and acknowledged as living even though others aren’t—when “she’s” not.
To answer the bigger question—what are the ethics of the book?—that’s a tough one. I don’t want to make claims for it that it can’t fulfill…
CD: Well, you can think of it in a different way: How is Objects investigating ethics?
JC: Well that’s how. It’s primarily thinking about the ethics of interrelation, about how we owe others for our being—as we discussed in talking about the letter to Fred Moten. I want to think about and acknowledge how we are “not exactly” a self, which means that we are always becoming through our relations to others. Importantly, I didn’t make up the title of this book, it was invented by my friend K.J. Holmes. K.J. is one of the most crucial people to me because we danced together for many, many years and—literally—she’s in my body, she is in all of my movements, and also in my sense of humor. I am quite literally not myself if not for her in me. The title being hers (and she generously let me use it, “borrow” it) was a way to acknowledge that.
CD: You really connect to the idea of relation versus singularity in the line “A self possessed, not self-possessed. It’s what I’ve wanted to be.” Not only does this line speak to the notion of a self as always in relation (or “possessed” by others), it also seems to directly address the popular misreading of confessional poetry. What, even, does confessional poetry mean to you? This is perhaps the inevitable question. Given the legacy of confessional poetry, particularly the unfair association of women and an “I” that’s so often misread as solipsistic, how are you re-figuring confession or relating to its existing legacy?
JC: So the actual confessional poets like Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath? Well, I read them a lot when I was younger. And Adrienne Rich who is hugely important, she’s the reason I’m a poet—it was An Atlas for a Difficult World that made me decide as much. Speaking of a confessional moment, reading that poem—I was probably 23—I burst into tears. I remember putting the book down, lying down on my bed, and then finally getting up and saying “Well that’s it, I have to be a poet.” Merwin, Roethke—those were the poets who were all over the world that I was in (I grew up in Boston). I definitely read them all and thought that was what I was going to do as a poet, write “like” them. Then I went to school at NYU to study with Sharon Olds, who writes about her children, and having a period, those kinds of things. The minute I started writing, beyond being a teenager, my writing was not that. Maybe because I don’t have the skills or the interest to write a single narrative poem, but probably more because I was immersed in an avant-garde dance world, which had very different ideas about art that I was more deeply committed to.
I’m not trying to save the confessional poets from the ways they have been bashed because I don’t really think they need saving. Their legacy lives on in many, many writers today. It’s more that I want to rethink the whole notion of confession, so this work is distanced from the actual poems that we call “confessional.” However, I have to admit that the confessional poets are in my DNA because theirs were some of the first poems I read. I continue to be interested in breaking down these walls the poetry world really likes to build. Why not read Sylvia Plath as a conceptual writer? What would that do? Why don’t we see Robert Lowell as a documentary poet? He’s writing about this particular ethnic, social group in Boston, and he’s examining it. There are all these specific ideas about hierarchies and walls in poetry and I just kind of hate all of them.
CD: That speaks to your earlier point about what really is present—Sylvia Plath is mentioned once in the book, it’s like a blip—Objects really focuses on the Romantics, and of course that makes sense because of your scholarship, but it also makes sense in relation to your argument about conceptualism.
JC: Yeah, if you come back to the source, and you look at the source and ask, “What’s really going on in these poems?” you realize that the poems are so artificial. I mean, Keats is absolutely inventing a self through his poems; he’s also so interested in the surfaces of language, and sensation as this mobile and fluid thing. Wordsworth is asking questions about where language comes from, and he’s asking if he can use a language he wasn’t trained in—which is the language of the rural people—he wants to know if he can immerse himself in that language too. We could critique Wordsworth’s question as a reflection of his class, his gender or of British imperialism for sure, but he’s also getting at the idea of language as a permeable substance that moves between subjectivities, and the idea that language comes from people and entities that are outside of you. So, when I think about where American poetry is, I do believe there has been a misunderstanding at the core of some of our arguments.
Still, so many of these ideas can be found in other poetries. One doesn’t need the Romantics to find examples of poets thinking about the fluidity of self or language! But those ideas are in their work too, and it seems important (perhaps) to acknowledge that—to help complicate facile readings of history.
CD: Building off of the idea of the confession and how it’s been (mis)read, I want to ask you about feminism because it’s present in all of your books. How do you engage feminism as a writer? Is feminism one of the performances you feel like you have to assert, or it is more nuanced than that?
JC: I guess the idea of identity—in this case a cis female identity—is interesting because it’s something you’re always trying to escape, but can’t escape. We have these particular kinds of bodies and gender expressions, and we know that this isn’t anything in some ways—it’s just happenstance. On the other hand, it’s everything: gender is one of the ways the world sees you (the other main way being, of course, race). Certain things happen to us (or don’t) based on how we are seen by this outside, often hostile, world.
As soon as you start thinking about the body, and the female body in relation to the culture, you’re already a feminist—or you’re actively trying not to be—you’re already in the world of feminism. I don’t think my books have a feminist agenda insofar as they aren’t making feminist arguments (which I do make in other ways in my life). My books are less about “argument” than they are about acknowledging that there is no way out of the questions that gender identity impose on us all.
CD: Right, and I think the way that the culture uses the phrase “feminist agenda” is deeply troubled. But the following lines from Objects Illustrate so exactingly how always already gender difference is, and how it shapes our lived experiences:
It’s like this: I am a woman. This is a thought that passes my mind a thousand times a day and occupies my mind as I sleep. This might be, actually, the most persistent thought I have. With legs crossed to protect my sex, shielding the specificity of being female, I taste that.