Christy Davids with Julie Carr

Christy Davids and Julie Carr

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.

Laynie Browne and Julie Carr

Julie Carr and Laynie Browne
Julie Carr and Laynie Browne

Laynie Browne and Julie Carr discuss their new Essay Press chapbooks, Browne’s Deciduous Letters to Invisible Beloveds and Carr’s The Silence that Fills the Future.

Laynie Browne: You write: “To see into something that can’t be seen, to name something that has no name, to speak to someone who cannot respond (to, in Lyotard’s terms, “bear witness” to “unpresentability”)—this seems to me to be the other work of confession, the work that can never be finished, that keeps confession alive.”

This notion is so compelling. The unseen. In linking this seeing to confession the question that I keep arriving at is: to who is one confessing? How then not to begin to see everything as confession? Even withholding, turning away from the confessional feels like a form of confession. Once begun it permeates everything. Is confession a mode of address, a method of thinking and being in relation, or one way to look at all conversation? On the surface, even dialogue which appears to resist confession becomes another form of confession. The weight of the unsaid, pregnant.

Rusty Morrison with Julie Carr

Julie Carr
Julie Carr

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 with Andy Fitch

Julie Carr
Julie Carr

Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Carr’s book Surface Tension: Ruptured Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry (Dalkey Archive Press). Recorded June 20th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: Could we start with the concept of surface tension, as borrowed from physics and applied to Victorian-era poetry—specifically in terms of how a purported aesthetic of surface can be read for its participation in broader political discourses?

Julie Carr: Surface tension explains why molecules at a liquid’s surface bond with stronger energy. They do so because, with no molecules on top, fewer molecules surround them. This creates a horizontal surface density, which became a useful metaphor for describing what can happen in a poem when you read for (let’s say, just using familiar terms) content. You’ll try to understand a sonnet’s argument, but various sound associations play out among the words as do visual patterns. Surfaces also can become dense with invented languages, or borrowed languages, or pastiche, or collaged language. This density at the textual surface complicates our absorption of narrative or message. And of course these issue arise often in contemporary poetry or in modernist poetry, but most readers of Victorian poetry don’t understand the work that way. Specialists do. But for the average, semi-informed reader, if you ask about Victorian poetry they’ll think of somebody like Robert Browning or Tennyson. They’ll recall some long narrative poem or poem of deep feeling—one which doesn’t seem to engage language’s materiality. So reconsidering the Victorian-era interest in surface, especially amid a poetics engaged with ideals of transformation or sudden ruptural change, drives this book. Here I focus on three poets invested in the aesthetic surface as a redemptive space but for different ends. They are not, all three of them, Marxist or revolutionary poets. William Morris does engage a Marxist discourse. But Gerard Manley Hopkins remains focused on some kind of conversion or Christian ontological . . .

Julie Carr with Andy Fitch

Julie Carr
Julie Carr

Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Carr’s book Surface Tension: Ruptured Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry (Dalkey Archive Press). Recorded June 20th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: Could we start with the concept of surface tension, as borrowed from physics and applied to Victorian-era poetry—specifically in terms of how a purported aesthetic of surface can be read for its participation in broader political discourses?

Julie Carr: Surface tension explains why molecules at a liquid’s surface bond with stronger energy. They do so because, with no molecules on top, fewer molecules surround them. This creates a horizontal surface density, which became a useful metaphor for describing what can happen in a poem when you read for (let’s say, just using familiar terms) content. You’ll try to understand a sonnet’s argument, but various sound associations play out among the words as do visual patterns. Surfaces also can become dense with invented languages, or borrowed languages, or pastiche, or collaged language. This density at the textual surface complicates our absorption of narrative or message. And of course these issue arise often in contemporary poetry or in modernist poetry, but most readers of Victorian poetry don’t understand the work that way. Specialists do. But for the average, semi-informed reader, if you ask about Victorian poetry they’ll think of somebody like Robert Browning or Tennyson. They’ll recall some long narrative poem or poem of deep feeling—one which doesn’t seem to engage language’s materiality. So reconsidering the Victorian-era interest in surface, especially amid a poetics engaged with ideals of transformation or sudden ruptural change, drives this book. Here I focus on three poets invested in the aesthetic surface as a redemptive space but for different ends. They are not, all three of them, Marxist or revolutionary poets. William Morris does engage a Marxist discourse. But Gerard Manley Hopkins remains focused on some kind of conversion or Christian ontological . . .

Julie Carr with H.L. Hix

Julie Carr

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.