Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process that brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes!–Rusty Morrison
This interview focuses on Carr’s RAG.
Rusty Morrison: The title RAG forcefully calls to my mind what is degraded, what is easily cast off. But this is only one of the many vectors that radiate from the word “rag.” Can you speak to your choice of this title and how it provoked, compelled, engaged you as you wrote these poems?
Julie Carr: Rag is a worthless or sensational newspaper, a discarded bit of cloth, a torn fragment, a slang word for menstruation, a degrading term for woman or girlfriend, a piece of syncopated music. It also means to tease, taunt or insult. All of these meanings were in my mind as I worked on this book. I wanted to write a book about women and girls, one that recognized vulnerability and suffering (not the same thing as victimhood). I wanted to think about how our films, myths, fairy tales and other media represent girls and women as fragmented, broken, even mutilated. But I also wanted to re-appropriate the term for its strength. It’s a nasty word, in a way, not that far from “rage.” Thought of as a verb, it speaks back with ragged rhythms. The rag takes marching rhythm and twists it, syncopates it, so the rhythm isn’t regular anymore. That breaking or teasing of rhythm lets a whole lot of things happen. A whole range of expression becomes possible, not all of it nice, not all of it regulated. I’ve also always loved the poetic fragment—the sense of brokenness and openness that fragments allow for.
RM: The poems in this collection seem to me to echo and extend themes from your two previous books (100 Notes on Violence and Sarah). How do you see this book in relation to those two works?
JC: 100 Notes on Violence is a response to real-life violence occurring in our communities. It involved a lot of research into gun-violence, child abuse, domestic abuse and other matters. And yet, it was also an attempt to face the very real fears that all parents deal with—to acknowledge the vulnerability of oneself and one’s children, and to acknowledge the violence that we all harbor. Sarah was born out of loss and gain: I was losing my mother to Alzheimer’s while pregnant with my third child, and wrote from a very visceral sense of the borders of being and language. But what ties those books together, and what ties them to RAG, is a commitment to writing into difficulty. I want work to challenge me on all levels—not just technically, but also intellectually and emotionally. I gravitate towards writing that confronts, that tries to grapple with crisis and suffering. From nineteenth-century guides (Keats, Hopkins, Dickinson), to the modernists I return to (H.D., Williams, Oppen, Niedecker), to contemporary poets I care a lot about (Lisa Robinson, Anne Carson, Jean Valentine, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Fred Moten, CD Wright and many others), there’s this willingness, or need, to open the poem to the world when the world presents us with its most palpable challenges.
RM: This text brings together a diversity of formal choices: from the placement of a single phrase on a page’s field, to dense prose blocks. And it also mimes, or mimics or interrogates the materials and methods of film and fable, and previous literary texts. Despite, or I should say, because of this diversity, this text coheres in the way that a complicated, multi-aspected life coheres. How, for you, does the diversity of form organically express the complexity of the poems’ concerns? Which poems/pages do you recall as being the most vexing to complete?
JC: When I write, I don’t say to myself that I’m writing poems. I say to myself that I’m writing. I don’t want preconceived ideas about form or genre to get in the way of whatever the piece of writing wants to do. I also don’t think very much about individual poems, but rather about books or projects. It seems I work better within the frame of 100-300 pages, rather than a single page or cluster of pages. Poetry gets to make use of the visual arrangement of words on a page, which opens up a huge range of possible tones, or shades. I’m always interested in that when I read and when I write. I try to vary form the way that a composer might move between dense and sparse lines of music, or the way a choreographer might shift from solo to ensemble and everything in between, altering space and time. Since I’m looking for maximal range.
Because I don’t think so much in terms of pages, I don’t know that I can answer your second question. Every time I edited this work, I changed many things on many pages all at once.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?
JC: I’m a feminist. Though I think that’s a redundant identity, because I’m a woman, or because I’m a person. I’m not sure how one could say “I’m not a feminist,” if being a feminist means supporting equity and justice. I grew up with a feminist mother; she was an anti-war activist, a civil-rights lawyer and the mother of four. Later, she gave up law work and, with her husband, became a craft-person, raising sheep, dying wool, making blankets that they sold through craft-fairs. These things are relevant, I suppose, because through her I learned certain values related to those activities. None of this was easy for her, but I think she set an example for the kind of life I wanted to live, which would include activism, work, making things, family. In some ways all of my books have been dedicated to her. But this one is also dedicated to my daughters, my sisters, my other mothers and many friends who happen to be women and who influenced me during the time I was writing this book.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently?
JC: I already named some of the key people. I’ll add to that Eleni Sikelianos, Andrew Zawacki, Andrew Joron, Cole Swensen, Kate Greenstreet, Chris Nealon, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Ronaldo Wilson, Inger Christensen, Judith Goldman, Gillian Conoley and Rob Fitterman. There are many, many others: novelists, philosophers and critics too. Those are just some of the poets currently nearby, meaning their work is on the table—I keep returning to it again and again.
RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?
JC: The image comes from Luther Price, from a slide projection he made titled Utopia. I saw Luther’s work for the first time at the Whitney Biennial in 2012. I was just entirely floored. His work does exactly what I want to do in language, but it would take a long time to explain why. Let me just say that I could look at his work for hours, and it wouldn’t stop amazing me. In this work he uses found footage, often home movies dug out of yard sales and such, and alters it with chemicals, mud, oil, bugs, whatever is at hand. He then photographs the film itself, creating the slides that become the piece. Since RAG is so much about girls and women and often references films, or seems filmic (to me) in its narratives, this seemed a perfect choice. I love the way her downcast eyes can be read as vulnerability and refusal at once. She won’t really let you examine her, which I appreciate. And then, when she looks up, she seems to challenge the viewer. That gaze turns back around.
Julie Carr is the author of five books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence, Sarah-Of Fragments and Lines and RAG. Think Tank will be out from Solid Objects in 2015. She also has written the critical study of Victorian poetry, Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry. She teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Colorado, Boulder and lives in Denver.