Emily Carr says she “writes murder mysteries that turn into love poems that are sometimes (by her McSweeney’s editors, for example) called divorce poems.” She has lived all over the world and is the author of several collections and chapbooks of poems. After she got an MFA in poetry from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, she took a doctorate in ecopoetics at the University of Calgary. These days, she’s the program director of the low-residency MFA in creative writing at Oregon State University-Cascades.
Carr recently spoke over email with McSweeney’s editors Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan about her newest book,Whosoever Has Let a Minotaur Enter Them, Or a Sonnet—, the eleventh volume in the McSweeney’s Poetry Series.
McSWEENEY’S: If your poetry were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
EMILY CARR: During some recent group therapy, the facilitator asked us to list our three favorite animals, in order. Mine were the mermaid, the minotaur, & the pterodactyl. Which somewhat—& not surprisingly—stumped the facilitator. According to her lesson plan, the first animal represents how you want to be seen in the world, the second animal how you are actually perceived in the world, & the third animal is how you actually are. It’s best, I think, not to think too much about what these animals say about my personality. They might, however, offer some useful insight into my poetry, which, I must admit, I mostly get out of the way of. Which is to say: not knowing what I’m doing is pretty much how I get the work done. I’m a firm believer that craft comes before theory & that what theory is useful for is reverse engineering the moves that were made intuitively—&/or desperately!—during the act of creation.
McSWEENEY’S: How does the Tarot inform your work?
EMILY CARR: Mostly what happens, when I try to write a narrative, is that things go sideways. I’m always trying to tell a story, but I’m horrible with plot. & the Tarot is a really useful coach: it tells a story with enough flexibility that you can manipulate it to serve pretty much any purpose.
McSWEENEY’S: What do you mean you’re horrible with plot?
EMILY CARR: I like to say that I’m always trying to write a murder mystery but I accidentally end up with a book of poems. My unpublished Tarot novel, for example, came about because I thought I would write a choose-your-own-adventure murder mystery. Which is ridiculously ambitious for a poet who doesn’t, for the most part, get plot. But I was rescued when an old friend—a fiction writer—sent me a care package with a Tarot deck, some Elvis magnets, a homemade ceramic owl, and some really ugly princess figurines.
McSWEENEY’S: And what happened?
EMILY CARR: So it’s 2010, I’m in Florida: I’ve just finished my dissertation & I’ve run away from critical theory, the Canadian Rockies, & my husband. I am alone, I have no one but the black cat named Dirt & nothing but a red folding bike & my writing nest (which involves… (which involves a few throw pillows, some potted plants, the ugly princess figurines, a photograph of the writer as a soon-to-be sunburnt divorcee with a snapping turtle, the Elvis magnets & the owl, a collection of lost pennies, some strawberry-flavoured matches & all of Agatha Christie’s romance novels, Joy Williams’ Breaking & Entering, a tattered copy of Plath’s The Colossus & Other Poems, & three beeswax candlesticks from the farmer’s market over by the coffee shop with late night waffles & cheap Old Chubs) & a red folding bike, everyday I am combing the sea from my beautiful, salty uncut hair the water so blue I think I must be dead—
This is where I’m writing from: I am twenty-nine. I have a brand-new PhD & a first book I don’t know how to take care of. I am taking off my wedding ring. I am putting my marriage in a BandAid box, I am putting on a facemask & looking at the baffled guileless heart of the sea, this lavish fiction—
You see how easy it is, how necessary, that I should turn to the Tarot, that there should be not one story but many stories, which is a maneuver borrowed from Proust: the freedom to escape the story you are telling, & return to it…
McSWEENEY’S: How do you mean?
EMILY CARR: I think the Tarot is what Jen Bervin calls a happy accident. It’s become, over the last half decade, something of a life coach, too. It’s a source of narrative. A structure. It’s a parlor game that helps to flesh out a character or two when you’re trying to escape that incorrigible tyrant, the narrative “I.” It’s a useful strategy for relinquishing control without turning everything over to the readers. & I’d even go out on a limb & say the Tarot can be a helpful research tool, particularly when handling subjects that are, say, culturally over-determined to the point where the caricature has consumed the personality.
McSWEENEY’S: What is the crisis—or one of them—at the heart of your Minotaur poems?
EMILY CARR: Minotaur is an answer in need of a question. If there is a crisis at the heart of these poems, it’s just that: I’m falling out of love, & I don’t know it yet. In a recent “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett, David Whyte puts it far more eloquently: in these poems, I am overhearing myself saying things I didn’t want to know about the world, or about myself.
Minotaur was originally the third section of my dissertation, which means I composed it around 2008 or 2009. I ran away from my husband in 2010. In December 2013, I got divorced. In January 2014, McSweeney’s accepted the manuscript for publication & in early 2015, I believe, we worked together to finalize the collection for publication. It wasn’t until that moment that I started thinking about these poems in relation to my divorce, & falling out of love. So elegy, too, is a crisis at the heart of these poems; again, to borrow from Whyte, it’s a conversation between grief & celebration, between the past & the future, between what we know & what we can’t ever know (still) (again). It’s the shock of becoming the kind of person who… That acute moment of letting go—of the persons we hoped to be, or the lives we were supposed to live. & accepting that we have failed. The reality that, though an experiment we will never (quite) master, life is worth living.
In “Questionnaire in January,” from her latest book, C.D. Wright asks if poetry is a place to suffer formally. I don’t honestly know what poetry is to me—it might be a place to suffer formally. It might also be a place, as Whyte puts it, to greet the unknown with the willingness to change. Or the willingness to be changed. A colleague of mine says that if you enter into an ethical relationship with a text you have to put yourself in the position in which you might be changed. I quote this notion often, but I rarely think about the pain, & difficulty, & vulnerability involved in that sort of change. But as I’m thinking about it now (thank you for asking), I wonder if that’s my Minotaur—a book that, quite literally, changed my life profoundly, without asking permission, or if I was ready, or if I even wanted change. Someday I’ll think of this as a happy accident, too. For now: the grief of having fallen out of love without meaning to is still, in my life as I am living it, an answer in need of a question.
McSWEENEY’S: Can you tell us what “ecopoetics” is?
EMILY CARR: The first thing you should know is that I can’t—won’t—speculate about the field. I can, however, offer up some thoughts about my own little piece of real estate, which is twelve hundred square feet of high desert that is currently undergoing a low-tech lyric version of xero-scaping, which means I’ve just torn out all of the grass & there’s a sod-monster currently guarding my front steps.
That said: lately I’m most inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who’s fighting to replace the language of sustainability—which is based on the formula that we can keep taking from the earth in perpetuity—with the language of reciprocity: acts of care that don’t hinge on whether the earth loves us back, as well as acts of gratitude, which starts with letting be. These are the kinds of things I’m hoping to accomplish with an ecopoetics.
Some ways I try to engage these ideas: personification without anthropomorphization, foregrounding ways of being that happen on different scales, & recoding the grammar of the English language in a way that affirms (rather than negates) the personhood of other beings. Kimmerer uses this wonderful phrase—grammar of animacy—& for me that’s what I’m trying to do every time I write a poem, & what poetry offers the conversation that other discourses don’t—a language that listens to the ways of knowing of nonhuman persons & walks with them on that precipice between agency & responsibility.
McSWEENEY’S: Do you ever hate poetry?
EMILY CARR: Yes, of course. Well: I don’t ever hate poetry, quite. But there are times when it hurts, & I wish I could be more blissfully unaware of my mistakes. If poetry is overhearing yourself say things you didn’t want to know about the world, or about yourself, then there’s some real possibility for wounding yourself, without meaning to, or knowing precisely where the cuts are being made. I think writing poetry takes a real abundance of spirit because you’ve got to put yourself in that position, & stay there all the way through the writing, & the revising, & the publishing, & the living publicly with the poem. I’m preparing for a reading in San Diego today, & in my notes I wrote in my mind the Minotaur is a hopeful monster—a beautiful, difficult, impossible child, the classical precursor to Frankenstein’s monster, something we made before we were ready to recognize it. In this way the Minotaur is a good metaphor for poetry…
I think, like a Minotaur, the poem quite literally unmakes her creator & then, instead of hiding it at the heart of the labyrinth, we make it very public, we live with it every day by our sides & we take it out to readings & conferences & interviews & we hope some other folks write some generous reviews about it, & tell us some things about how our difficult child matters in the world. Most of the time I don’t think about how much that’s going to hurt, which is a lot. It’s the same with acts of the imagination: if we want our readers to be changed by our texts [& admit it! we do] then we ourselves have to be changed in the act of writing. Which is why I say earlier that we have to get out of the way. We have to get ourselves, & we have to get theory, & whatever else it is we think we know out of the way, so change can happen.
In my twenties, I think I was drawn to this kind of trouble like a moth to flame. Seeing how much I could let a poem wound me was something I needed, or craved in a desperate way. Now that I’m older & wiser I’m more cautious, & probably the wounds cut deeper, & heal more slowly. I’m more deliberate about entering into this ethical contract with a piece of writing. I write a lot more slowly now.
McSWEENEY’S: The poems don’t really seem to have titles, but they do have headers and footers, and the lines and phrases scatter on the page like an abstract painting. How did you arrive at the form?
EMILY CARR: For most of her life my namesake Emily Carr was refusing to squeeze the Western skies down &/or looking to tune the God quality in herself with the God quality in a tree. She spent her life talking back to the forest/taking back what the forest lost, devising a visual vocabulary for the last unsawn bit of the understory’s screaming heart.
McSWEENEY’S: Who is your namesake? I think you’re referring to the artist, Emily Carr?
EMILY CARR: Yes. Emily Carr had a pet rat to scare away the suitors. She was a pioneer of modernist Canadian painting who believed nature was a tangible expression of God & who is known today for her paintings of indigenous coastal communities & claustrophobic forest scenes of British Columbia. She has been called Canada’s Van Gogh &/or Canada’s answer to Frieda Kahlo, & she described herself as “a little old woman on the verge of no where, & liked it that way.” In later life she kept a monkey, a cockatoo, & some dogs & parrots, & transported her menagerie around the Canadian forests in a primitive portable shack known as The Elephant. In one of her many journals (all intended for publication) she wrote: “I have been sent more ridiculous press notices. People are frequently comparing my work with Van Gogh … I do hope I do not get bloated & self-satisfied. When proud feelings come I step up over them to the realm of work, to the thing I want, the liveness of the thing itself.”
McSWEENEY’S: You’ve written that at the MFA program you direct, the mission is “to wish higher. fail faster. be wilder.” Why do you think these are important?
EMILY CARR: The short answer is it looks like getting messy & making some mistakes.
The longer answer goes something like this: in the MFA at OSU-Cascades we are committed to growing whole writers with healthy writing lives.
Wishing higher, failing faster, & being wilder comes of this mission. I could—endlessly—define these two troubling, (hopelessly?) optimistic terms: whole writer and healthy writing life. Sometimes—on their evaluation surveys—our students do, & we take this to be a sign of very real & very necessary progress. I could say that whole writers are vulnerable on the page, which means they must start by being vulnerable with the self & in the community. I could say whole writers celebrate failure as a necessary—radical even—act. By which I mean the act of creation is something more than the product of one’s intentions (read: ego). I could say whole writers exist in a state of ambiguity: that unfinished, at-stake state where the tricks of self-certainty & external validation are not options. I could say whole writers are entrepreneurial by which I mean not caged by patterns of cultural expectations about success. I could say a healthy writing life is, to borrow from feminist science & technology studies scholar Donna Haraway, a passionate avocation. I could say a healthy writing life is dirty, and happens as much off the page as on. I could say a healthy writing life starts with self-care, which involves, but is not limited to, plenty of time for rest and sleep, physical activity, a well-balanced diet, & some combination of yoga/meditation/reiki/therapy. But the truth is, the healthy writing life is difficult, specific, & personal. It involves entering into a life-changing relationship with each and every act of creation—& that’s not just on the page.
As we practice it in OSU-Cascades MFA, the healthy writing life starts with “Chore Teams” & “Creative Skill Share” & ends with self-evaluation—with some stops along the way for ecowellness workshops with our collaborators in the Masters in Counseling program, compositional improvisation with TC Tolbert, & some (soma)tics with CA Conrad.
When we are in residency, every morning starts with work: forty-five minutes of basic food prep in the kitchen, under the supervision of our chef, a former student & graduate of the California Culinary Academy. Everyone—students & faculty alike—is on a rotating chore team. Chore teams allow us to eat healthy, locally sourced, delicious & conscionable meals while keeping food costs down. Chore teams also promote a sense of community, build the relationships necessary to be vulnerable in the classroom, & are an important opportunity to socialize informally & get to know each other before the workshop.
The collaboration (& character building) that we do in the kitchen extends into Creative Skill Share, which happens just after chores and just before workshop on three of the nine mornings we are in residence. Creative Skill Share is one way we explore the ways in which practical discipline is a useful and necessary complement to artistic discipline. Creative Skill Share is also a nontraditional learning opportunity that empowers our students & builds community. The rules: you can teach anything, but it cannot be directly writing-related, & it has to be somewhat physical. In past residencies, for example, we’ve learned Basic Aikido from Mike, How To Breathe from Laura, Belly-Dancing Stretches from Melanie, Surfing On Land from Shareen, Watercolours from Brittany, How To Choreograph A Kick Line from Joslyn, Active Dreaming from Jessica, & Introduction to CrossFit from Austin. This is a great way to start the day: to laugh, trade skills, & practice teaching.
The mistakes we make together—in the kitchen, while defending ourselves from imaginary knife attacks, or when performing our new kick routine —give us permission to make mistakes (get messy even!) with our art-making. It helps to remind us that even if we write a poem or two or ten or two hundred that “fail,” that doesn’t mean we are also failed as persons. (Admit it!) (We know better than this kind of thinking but we can’t help it.) (We do!) (Equate a failed poem with a failed person.)
We also work to shift the focus of grading in our program from performance to process & from punishment to practice. To this end, twice a year our students complete a rigorous self-evaluation, which asks them to evaluate their ability to be self-directed, to examine their own and their mentors’ expectations, & to discuss where they feel they have and have not met those expectations, whether they have in fact been self-directed, & why or why not. The self-evaluation is also a way of disabusing our students of the widely held illusion that the MFA is a pre-professional degree. It focuses their energies & attentions elsewhere: on risk and process.
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Whosoever Has Let a Minotaur
Enter Them, Or a Sonnet—
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