This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Julie Carr’s 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta Press, 2010).
H. L. Hix: Re. § 31: Why must? Why here? (I don’t mean this only/primarily as an interrogation of the particular words in this sentence, but as one way of enriching my sense of the whole book’s structure.) The contrast between what “we” were (truthfully?) told and what the boy was (deceptively) told also seems significant and “structural.”
Julie Carr: While writing this project I found myself avoiding (out of fear) certain stories that felt too close to home. The story of the Capitol Hill Rapist was one such story. I knew I had to confront it/him because my intention was precisely to confront fears and to examine the violence that was nearest to me. “Here,” had to be placed 1/3 of the way into the book because it was there that such avoidance became obvious. But it also has to be “here” in the sense that my challenge in this book was not to pretend that violence is always elsewhere but to see into the ways in which it is always right “here.”
Throughout the process of writing and then constructing the book I tried to balance the lyrical with more objective and descriptive moments. I did not only want to “tell it like it is,” I also wanted to explore the inner-states of the person who I attempted to see and to describe. And I wanted to write from the particular music of the states of mind or emotion that arose. Some sections demanded a narrative or more flatly descriptive mode while others needed to remain lyrical and open, even fragmentary.
The boy in this poem is a real boy and what his parents said was also real. Obviously, any child would know that “she had an ow-y and she fell down,” was not an accurate way of describing what he saw. The utter failure of the parents to explain what he saw speaks to me about one of the central and anguishing aspects of this project. We do not want our children to know what they know. We do not want to tell them what we cannot help but tell them. And thus, protection fails; innocence is false. Something else must be taught to them, which is to say, something else must be taught to us. And that something else, I think, is that we must live within the paradox of our awareness of suffering coupled with our experiences of pleasure, hope, even joy. This is not an easy or even stable realization. The parents lie to the child in order for him to go on living. He knows they are lying, but he knows also that they are lying out of love and that love is powerfully contrasting and coexisting with the woman’s death.
HH: As long as I’m approaching the book through words that seem to have broad implications for the book, in both § 82 and § 88 “whereas” is obviously crucial to the individual poem. If my intuition about its “larger” importance is right, how would you talk about that importance?
JC: “Whereas” means “although” or “in contrast to” or “at the same time as” or “in view of the fact that.” In #82 I speak of my body’s openings: “whereas my mouth. whereas my vagina. whereas my nipples. whereas my ears. whereas my eyes.” These are the permeable spaces – the holes through which the world can enter or through which I create (give life, speak, feed, see or hear and thus understand the world). The poem references an earlier moment in which I allude to a series of rapes and consequent births. The body, but especially the female body, is vulnerable to penetration and thus to violence (violation), but it is also capable of expression (in both senses). The little poem is a love song for the self’s vulnerability and the self’s creative capacity. The “whereas” could be translated as “despite all that has been discussed in the preceding pages,” thus the poem could mean, “despite all the harm that could come to me and has come to others, I still praise my own vulnerability, which is also my reproductive and creative power and therefore my strength.”
The word grew in importance as I continued to write because it speaks of paradox. It says, despite that, this is also true. While one thing is happening, so is something else. The more I opened my eyes to the violence that was occurring in intimate spaces all around me (and within me), the more I had to believe that harm, violence and rage did not negate the other truths that we live by: that we are protected and can protect others, that our lives are worth living, that our lives can and should by joyous. “Whereas” simply points to these competing truths.
HH: § 47 seems to me to invite a lot of “mirroring”: seeing it as a kind of parable of this book (which, like the doctor, tries to see not only the violence per se but the backstory behind it), of poetry in general (similarly looking through effect to cause) and so on. Am I reading too much into this poem? If such readings of this poem aren’t too absurd, should I be alert to such readings of other poems in the book? of all the other poems?
JC: Yes, #47 is very important to the whole book. The doctor is right to look closely at the parent. Any injured child could potentially signal wrong-doing. And of course, when your own child is injured you look at yourself too, wondering if it is in some way your fault. The book is about this sense of self-implication, which I’d guess, we all carry around with us. Even if we ourselves seem innocent, how can it not be in some way our fault that others perpetrate or experience violence? We did nothing to stop it. We were not there where we should have been. I don’t think you have to be a parent to feel this ongoing sense of guilt, but I suspect that being a parent contributes to it, or makes it more apparent. The doctor in that poem is, in a sense, the book itself that is asking if you, the reader, are the cause of. It asks the same of me, the writer.
Are there other moments in the book that can be read in this allegorical manner? Yes.
I found a piece of writing by my daughter (then six) that read, “I want a horse. But I am a horse.” I placed this at the end of the paragraphs taken from the online firearm store in section #58, titled, “More Shopping.” For me these sentences say, “I want that violent thing, but in fact, I am that violent thing.” (The horse here is metonymic for the gun because of a horse’s martial implications.) Thus, when we project the source of violence outward onto an object or another person, we are ignoring the truth, which is that we are the violence we desire, we are the violence that we fear. My daughter’s private realization was that she was wanting something she already had inside of her. This became a kind of mantra for the book.
Another such moment occurs in #27, “Blind,” in which I describe kneading bread dough. Here I am meditating on the 1/100 of Americans who are at any given time incarcerated. I write, “Imagine bread dough. To knead it you must flatten and fold, flatten and fold. // Always much is hidden within the fold. / But the outside and the inside keep trading places, / under your hands.” I am thinking here about how we create nourishment, how we feed ourselves a nourishing life, but how in order to do this we have to hide the truths of our violent culture. And yet, we can’t hide these truths – inasmuch as we are one society, we are not other than those who are incarcerated. Our nourishment is blended with the culpability of the guilty and the suffering of the innocent. If the bread dough is this culture we are always in the act of creating, then kneading is a metaphor for how perpetrators and victims (in which category I include many prisoners) are enfolded within the same substance – under our hands.
Julie Carr is the author of four books of poetry: Mead: An Epithalamion; Equivocal; 100 Notes on Violence (winner of the 2009 Sawtooth Award); and Sarah-Of Fragments and Lines (a 2010 National Poetry Series selection). Her critical study of Victorian poetry, Surface Tension: Ruptured Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry, is forthcoming in 2012 from Dalkey Archive. She is the recipient of a 2010-11 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and is the co-publisher with Tim Roberts of Counterpath Press. She teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder and lives in Denver where, with Tim, she runs a small bookstore/gallery/performance space called Counterpath. A new book of poems, RAG, is forthcoming from Omnidawn Press.