Catherine Carter

Published in Panhandler Issue 5

Catherine Carter’s poems have appeared in Poetry, North Carolina Poetry Review, Cider Press Review, and other journals. A native of the tidewater region of Maryland, she now lives in Cullowhee, North Carolina, where she is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University. Her first book, The Memory of Gills, was published by LSU Press. Her second book, The Swamp Monster at Home, is forthcoming.

October 28, 2010

Brooke Hardy:  This is a question about your personal aesthetic with the collection. I noticed that a lot of your poems involve physical movement. Do you find that motion is central to your aesthetic poetically?

Catherine Carter:  I hadn’t actually noticed that. If it’s happening, it’s happening under the cover, so to speak. I’m a big believer in unintentional fallacy. I see what you mean, though, and I guess I would say I think most poems do that. Maybe it’s safe then to say that’s part of my aesthetic.

BH: One of the things I noticed in all of your poetry is a connection to nature. There seems to be a melding of the human and the natural worlds in a lot of your poems. Sometimes this takes the form of personification, other times it’s anthropomorphic. In poems such as the “Ants and The Double Helix,” the interaction between the human and natural worlds is somewhat indirect. How do you see this role of nature playing throughout your poetry?

CC: I think it’s very important. I think it’s central. It is one of my “things.” I think the non-human is a lot more like us than we normally know. Sometimes something reminds you. You can see something behaving in a humanlike way or you remember what animals we are, and actually, I think if that changed—and I don’t think slender volumes of poetry change it—the world would be very different. It’s all part of our sense of hierarchy and dichotomy and the way we tend to say this is “me” and that is “other.” We do it with gender, with race, with class. Just name something, and we say this is “me” and that is “those other people,” and it’s almost always so we can say I am better than “those other people.” It’s certainly human/non-human. If we thought that non-human people were some kind of people, we couldn’t do most of the things that we do as a species, and I think that would make a better world.

BH: I really liked how “Ants and the Double Helix” highlighted how we are a human animal, for instance, and how the interaction between the ants carrying the nail clippings shows at this very base level that what we’re all trying to do is the same thing. I really appreciated that you were trying to emphasize that connection. I really liked that.

Ashley Clark: Tying in with that connection between the human and non-human, in “Galas Again,” what is it about the September, tart apples that fascinates the narrator so much, particularly in the poem’s preoccupation with the seasons?

CC: When you come around to your fall seasons in some traditions, your new year happens in the fall—around Halloween, in fact, with your Mexican cultures—and the apple is part of that. You eat apples for it. If you cut open the apple, you find your five-pointed star, and it ties into all those other apples that everyone has to allude to in order to feel like they’re suitably literate: your Genesis apples and everything. So, I think if you read, you just can’t bite an apple without having a cultural resonance set up. But you know, the fall season is the change, is the death, is the dark season.

BH: I’m interested in the collection’s fascination with plants, particularly with skunk  cabbage and lettuce. Is this grounded in your personal experience as an author? What informed this repeated image of plants?

CC: I really like plants, even though I got a C in botany, but I blame that on my then boyfriend. I was in love and I wasn’t paying attention. But, my mother is a master gardener and father is a biologist, and in our childhood we were very fortunate. We coursed around the woods playing with things—plants and roadkill, getting fish, eating live minnows—so that was just part of the cosmos for me. But to take it further, really plants are also people, to go back to that non-human people thing. I’m kind of conflicted about this. I’ve recently tried to become a vegetarian, and I don’t feel like a very good vegetarian, but there are just so many reasons not to mess with meat. It just simplifies so many things. But I can’t do it out of the sense that animals are alive in a way that plants aren’t. That I not buy. Plants are the innocence of our food chain; they are the base of the food chain. There they are photosynthesizing happily or not so happily, and they will do their best to muscle anybody out of the sunlight just like we do.  But in terms of who lives without taking other life, it’s mostly plants. So, the rationale that animals are somehow better than plants or more alive than plants—maybe they are more sentient—but I don’t know if I even feel safe saying that. It’s not something we are in a position to know, obviously. But plants are pretty cool. My mother gardens, and gardens, and gardens, and when I lived at home, I couldn’t have cared less. I just didn’t want to mess with it. And you grow up and you move out and suddenly you have fifteen phone calls over one set of lettuce. I’m sure it’s very gratifying for her and I hope it is. They are really great. Plants are extremely educational.

AC: In a similar vein, I was wondering if “Leaving Love” is based on an actual beach.

CC: Yeah, we used to go to Nag’s Head off the North Carolina coast in the summertime. As you can see by the end of the poem, the conceit takes over, and I just don’t give a damn about the breakup; it’s all about this beach.

AC: Switching gears a little bit, many of your poems provide imagery of detachment from the body, particularly in “Evidence of Angels,” which is in line with a lot of what you’ve been saying about questions of personhood. How do you see that imagery of detachment working to provide some sort of overshadowing for the project as a whole?

CC: I think that detachment from the body is not really possible. You know, all we have to do to find out is let us hurt enough. Break your toe to find out everything you are is centered in the flesh. And whether there’s something beyond that, I don’t know. You see people who certainly indicate that there is. Stephen Hawking is maybe only the most obvious example. With that one, I thought that even the souls were embodied. I really like the buzzards for that reason. They are kind of a family totem. In fact, the family has fostered injured buzzards at various times and I could tell you buzzard stories until you’d beg me to stop. We have a buzzard song and we call ourselves “The Clan of the Buzzard” because they are scavengers, because they recycle. I love the buzzards, and I figured that it was this goofy fantasy about how the buzzards know.

AC: “The Handsome Dentist Files Your Teeth” is very clearly a both erotic and somewhat violent poem, as the mouth is described as “probing, squirting glands that lubricate your words, your kiss.” What should the reader make of the ordering of this poem in the middle of a section that otherwise largely deals with death?

CC: I was thinking of things that fail, things that are thwarted, things that are not meant to be. That was a failed desire. I have so many of those.

BH: That leads to a question that I had about the arrangement of the collection as a whole. I was curious how you arranged the collection in these sections. Did you write with a specific thematic bent in mind, or did you pull together various poems into something cohesive?

CC: The latter. With this one, I shopped this thing around from the time I was twenty-five until the time I was thirty-seven, and I kept changing it, and adding things, and taking things out. Finally, LSU picked it up, but even then it wasn’t any kind of hearts and flowers thing; they rejected it the first time, and I did things to it. The second time, I asked someone I knew to write a letter to LSU to ask them if they would at least take a look at it seriously. She did, and that was Kathryn Stripling Byer, and you know how much I owe her for that, I will never know. And then she got Fred Chapel to write a letter. How much do you owe these people? Everything. So, twelve years this thing was out there and three years before LSU actually printed it because they have a big backlog. So, I revised it again in that three years for the final copy and I still didn’t know what arrangement I wanted. I tried this and tried that, talked to my spouse and called my friends, and said “Hey, what am I going to do with this?” and eventually I had these kind of thematic groupings, but they were random in the sense that “this goes with this and this goes with this,” and I eventually though there was some kind of progression here and I think you can say that as you get to the back of the book, they are newer poems. I’d always heard you ought to begin and end with your best stuff, so I tried to put the things that I liked at the very end and a couple that I liked at the beginning. I certainly thought that the last four or five were the best. That’s one reason why they’re there. Coincidentally, they also had hints of redemption, which I think is a nice note to end on. You see that the book is pink. The whole cover thing was such an education because I had a friend that does graphic design and I said, “Would you make me something?” and she did. It was beautiful, and LSU wrote me note and said, “About that cover….” and I said, “I got this great thing!” They said, “Actually, we like to do that in-house.” Then they sent me this cover and they said, “How do you like it?” and I said, “Well, it’s very pink.” They said, “Glad you like it!” I said, “You know, I name like twelve fish in this book and this fish is not any of them,” and they said, “Glad you like it!” It really took me a while to come to terms with this pink cover, but in the end I was glad because it doesn’t say to the reader, “All hope is abandoned.” You know with collections, there are always gravestones on the cover and this kind of stagnant green. Eventually, I thought I hit it kind of lucky. But, at first I was just appalled. Wait until you do it. It’s very funny. You think you have this creative control and this power and they’re going to accommodate your wishes. No.

AC: What is the writing process like for you as you’re crafting your poems? Do you generally get a first line and go from there? Or do you work with images?

CC: If things go well, I hear a line. It’s usually the last line, and I have to forge my way to it. I also revise a lot. The poems sit around a long time. Usually, I have a feel after a couple drafts or maybe sooner that either it’s going to fly or it isn’t.  If it isn’t, I kind of let go of it. And if I think it is, I stick with it for as long as it takes, which is usually three to six months. Some of them you just get lucky and it’s pretty much where you want it the second or third time around.

BH: I can certainly identify with that currently. I have a long list of half-started poems and I’m not sure if they need to keep going or stop. They kind of take on a life of their own, I think. Sometimes, I get a really clear sense that it is over or this is it. Other times, it is frustrating because I see these poems take on lives of their own and they just keep saying, “Keep working on me. Keep revising me. Keep refining me.” So, I battle with them sometimes, like they’re something else. Like they’re detached from me.

AC: Yeah. On my stats sheet, I have how many I’ve written compared to how many I’ve published or tried to publish. It’s a lot. How many that have appeared in print came to something like six percent of the total output. I have a huge folder full of dead soldiers.

BH: I noticed that your poems go back and forth between working with form or rhyme and free verse. For instance, in poems like “Nine Lines from Some Dead People I’ve Lost” and “The Handsome Dentist Files Your Teeth,” there is, I would argue, a very subtle play with rhyme and form that doesn’t encourage the brain to fall into a rhythmic pattern while reading. I didn’t notice until afterwards that they followed a form. How do you see these experimentations with verse and form working in the collection?

CC: I really love form. I’m a big fan, but I also—and maybe this is just a function of where we are in the twenty-first century—I feel as though in some sense we’re not allowed to make it too obvious. But certainly, your sonic level is very important. You want it to be musical. You want to hook people through the ear. But what Pound called the metronome beat is probably not going to cut it now. I’m really into rich consonants. Those are some of my favorites. I love teaching them, and the poor students will look at me with bemused stares, but I love rich consonants. I love your alliterative Anglo-Saxon poetry and your Hopkins. The things that really work with sound in ways that are not your traditional metronome beat or your true end rhyme. If you don’t do true end rhyme, it gives you so many more choices. Heaven help you if you end with “love.” You’re really stuck, unless you can come up with something—dove, above, shove, glove. There you go. That’s all there is.

BH: Speaking of form, you mentioned that you have fallen in love with form. The paradelle poem really stands out. I had never seen that form before. I saw your footnote and I also looked it up. It’s a very interesting form, being so repetitive. Seeing as you said you like experimenting with form and working with it, how would you see something like a paradelle working? It seems unconventional in its approach of repetition. Do you find that as musicality, or just following what the formula is?

CC: I think that’s a really evil one. In many ways it’s just this kind of high jump to see if you can do it. If you’ve read Billy Collins’ paradelles, it’s just a joke. He’s playing a game. He’ll end on the word “the” just to get “the” in there. It’s very spoofy and playful. But it’s like the sestina or the villanelle where you keep coming back to stuff. So, it actually turned out to be a fairly grim paradelle because the stuff you come back to, you tear at, and gnaw at, and worry about. That stuff tends to be not so happy. It’s kind of a fluke that it turned out to be anything that I would put in the book. But, I thought it would work all right. But there are those forms that you want to work within and you really like them and they’re so cool. You so admire the people who do it, so you do it to see if you can do it.  For this most recent book—I have one coming out next year—I had these Sapphics. I thought they were utterly appropriate to their topic, which was ogling a young man. It was very “form follows function” on that one. But everybody told me that I should leave them out. They said the Sapphic rhythm was too jolty, too jarring, that I had not managed to incorporate it into the poem enough.  And whenever everybody whose opinion you respect tells you to take it out, you really have to take it out. But I’m still sorry because I really love that poem, and part of that is just “I can do Sapphics.”

BH: The persona of the poems… do you see that as a consistent persona, or do you feel that the voice changes throughout the collection?

CC: There are those places where I am working as a not-me persona, but for the most part if I say “I” and it’s not a mold spore, that’s pretty much me. I really appreciate the scrupulosity with which you are saying “the narrator says,” but it’s mostly me. There are a few where I had to use someone else’s voice, but for the most part it’s twentieth century lyric poetry.

AC: In “Letter Appealing a Citation,” the narrator is pulled over for driving too slow to avoid hitting the toads. What do you hope to convey by the juxtaposition of the toads and the road, and what is at stake for you in the figure of the toad?

CC: I thought the toads were the opposite of the voice of law. There’s this figure authority saying “Follow the rules,” and it’s also literally true that amphibians are the indicator species, and I think it behooves us not to run over them.  So I would appreciate it if people would try to not run over amphibians on the road—not to moralize too aggressively—but that would be a really cool outcome. But they are certainly the antithesis of the rule of law there.  And when toads do that, they’re usually going out to mate or playing in the rain and they’re having such a good time. They’re certainly an admirable role model.

BH: I really liked the poems “This Brassiere” and “Meditation on Lettuce.” Both seemed to deal with a need to break from convention and demonstrate a freedom based on liberation. What were you working with in those poems?”

CC: Well, the lettuce is the easier one. In other peoples’ work, I like poems that are both dark and funny. I really like Thomas Lux’s work for that; he can write the darkest funny poem you’ve ever run into. I’m not here to tell you that I’m Edgar Allen Poe and I set out to write a dark, funny poem. But it’s something I’m happy with if it comes out that way. With the lettuce, I meant it. We are sinning against the lettuce, but what are you going to do? This is the world where we eat each other and the lettuce tastes really good. And there’s not some moral, or if there is, it’s not in this world. I’ve got poem in the new book called “Cannibal Family” that’s more about that. With the poem, I wanted to raise the issue that it is this world where we eat each other, and that is both okay and not okay at the same time.  In “The Brassiere” doesn’t have that freight of guilt on top of it. I think “The Brassiere” was a happier poem. You know, you’re not really doing anyone any harm if your brassiere creaks. And it did. I had this weird bra that just creaked, and it was really associative. I thought, “Wow, that really sounds like the boats. There’s got to be a poem in that.” So, I just kind of followed along. I think the moral weight of the two poems is very different. In “The Brassiere,” death is by and large a desirable state, and in “Meditation on Lettuce,” not so much.

AC: “Power Failure” was probably my favorite poem in the collection. I was wondering what is at stake in the dimness and fragility of the light described in that poem, as we see it going down the corridors in the hallway, and what you see in that image that was evocative for you?

CC: That is one of the few overtly political poems. It was that morning after the 2004 election. We’d been up all night, and there we all are in the office with black circles under our eyes, glooming around, and the power goes out. I was lucky; I was on the second floor at that point with access to the only light. It was the kind of metaphor you can’t make up, the kind that just gets handed to you on a silver platter. Even allowing that things weren’t going the way I wanted them to go, that wasn’t really affecting my degree of privilege. Not at all. Quite the contrary, if anything.

BH: I was really interested in the poem “Bury” and was curious how this poem came about. It struck me as an interesting poem about how that word falls in your mouth and is sort of succulent but also how it works with rhyme.

CC: There was a period in the spring when I sat in on my friend Mary Adam’s poetry class, and I’m thinking I maybe wrote that in her class. I don’t remember. If God smites me, I hope you’re outside the blast radius.

BH: You were saying you are kind of in love with rich consonants, and that poem in itself seems to play with the sound.

CC: It was. I wanted things to rhyme, and I wanted the images that went with the sounds. It’s about language in a way that they aren’t all.

BH: It seems like a poem about writing. We all come across those. I am also one who in addition to having a bent toward imagery, I like words and sounds. Even though the poems aren’t read out loud, as they used to be in previous traditions in poetry, you can still feel that aurally.

CC: Yeah, there’s a voice in there that reads it to you, and I often wonder “Who’s is it?” I’ve never been sure. I thought the sounds in that one tell you death is sometimes this kind of richness. You think of going back into the biosphere and the buzzards getting you, and it’s the way it sounds that tells you. The “bury” versus “burry.”

BH: You being a teacher yourself of poetry and writing, where do you see—if you can even tell—the next generation or level of poetry going, or where do you hope it would go?

CC: Well, I don’t know. We’re all kind of stuck in post-modern. Apparently it’s been going on since 1945, and it drives people crazy. You can’t blame them. Someone somewhere years from now will say, “Oh, that ended in 1986.” But we don’t know. But if you’re offering me a chance to rule the poetic world, poems would have a clearer literal level. What happens or what is meditated on in the poem would be clear. I’m a big fan and maybe not a big enough fan. I don’t want my poems to be confusing, but rather, as clear as they reasonably can be. I’d like it if everybody did that, and I’d like it if people kept their poems under a couple of pages, unless we’re talking about the great epics. I think one of the great virtues of poetry is the compression—that it squeezes stuff down—and I think that’s very hard to do after page three. But, you know, those are personal preferences. Those are dictatorial. Obviously, the world is full of people getting a lot out of twenty-page poems, so it’s not that I wish they would vanish off the face of the earth. I’m just exercising my imaginary dictatorial privilege in accordance with that is basically a preference. But it’s really just a taste, like strawberries.

BH: A friend and I recently were talking about the state of poetry, and she was coming from a perspective of an adult education English teacher. We were talking about the accessibility of poetry, and she was saying she wished that poetry was more accessible to the general public.  She said that often Maya Angelou is looked down upon as being an intermediary between what’s really poety and what are popular attempts at poetry. That brought to mind what you were saying about things being clearer. Poems now often seem to be obfuscated or abstract rather than grounded in concrete things that people can relate to, not necessarily through things that are real, but things that the mind can piece together.

CC: I’m a huge fan of the concrete. I think abstraction is one of the things that gets us in trouble. You know, the poem doesn’t have to be simple, but the literal part, the what happens, should be clearer. I can’t believe poets are willfully obfuscating. No one would seek to be unclear, but at some point it’s got them by the head and I’s putting the shake on them. They need to go back to that and say, “Wait a minute, nobody in their right mind will know what I’m talking about.”

AC: What other poets or genres of writing would you say have influenced your own writing style?

CC: I enjoy reading just about anything that I don’t feel obfuscated by or manipulated by. I mentioned Lux, and of living poets, I like his work very much; even at points when he was sort of verging on the surreal, he seemed to have such a sense of responsibility to the reader to be as clear as he could and maybe to entertain, also. I think people like to laugh, and that is not an unworthy ambition. When I was younger, in what you might call “the formative years,” my mother read to me a great deal. The first writer I really took for my own was probably Frost, like everybody else. Judith Wright is not well-known, but she is a great poet. When I found out about James Wright, it was Thomas Lux who said that the creative writing academy world had been Wright versus Ashbery, and he thought that if Wright hadn’t died so young, Ashbury maybe wouldn’t have won. I found that a fairly compelling model that probably just appealed to me because it’s simple and full of dichotomy, when in actuality it’s much more complicated than that. Probably much more complicated than I’m willing to appreciate—there’s so much out there. There’s someone up in North Carolina named Sarah Lindsay. I doubt I could cite her as an influence because I came across her so late, but I really love her work. And some of your Harlem Renaissance people, they’re willing to kick stuff out into the middle of discussion, and it seems so obvious, but then it’s not. I’ve gotten into teaching Countee Cullen and his poem “Heritage.” It looks so simple, and it’s not. It’s like this textbook case of double vision; it’s just right out of Du Bois. One the one hand it’s an apology, and on the other hand it’s a death threat. It’s just great. It’s brilliant.

BH: Can you recall the first poem you ever read or wrote?

CC: I can recall the first one I read. My mother read it to me, and it was one of those Robert Louis Stevenson poems about the river. I think that was the first one I memorized, as well. I don’t remember the first one I wrote, although my mother claims she has them all—talk about blackmail material for a thousand years. I know at some point, I’m going to have to sneak in the house and burn them all to rid myself of the threat. I started keeping them when I was about fourteen, and maybe that was too soon. I was big on sonnets in those days, and it was before I understood how hard a good sonnet is to write. They were, I guess, okay sonnets for a fourteen-year-old, but now I don’t foresee myself ever attempting a sonnet again, except maybe in the throws of unrequited love or something. I really admire the sonneteers, though. You know, Edna St. Vincent Millay could probably be added to my list of influences. She was really good with the form and used such delicate language to say such sock-you-in-the-jaw things. She’s very out of fashion now, but she was one kick-ass feminist. And sonneteer. I guess for the twentieth century it’s Millay, and Berryman, and maybe Claude McKay and Marilyn Hacker. Those are the big ones.

BH: Do you mind telling us a little about your work that’s coming out next year?

CC: Not at all! I’m delighted to tell you! It’s called The Swamp Monster at Home and I’m gunning for a cover with a swamp monster on it. It’s kind of like this one. I think I didn’t break this new one into sections, because I remembered how hard it had been the time before and how futile it probably had been. It’s the poems I’ve written since about 2005 when this one got finalized. I didn’t think I was going to be that close. I was afraid it would take me another ten years. I don’t actually teach much creative writing. I’m the English Ed Coordinator at my university, so I spend a lot of time grooming little teachers and doing admin work. So, I wasn’t sure when if ever, and LSU had suffered terrible cutbacks, so I really wondered. But back last January, I counted and thought, “Well, maybe I do have enough.” I had a really good spring and was teaching a grammar class and having a really good semester all around. So, I started putting them in order, and it came much easier this time; I was able to send it out in about April and they took it in August. If I may offer you unsolicited advice, do not ignore the role of dumb luck in this stuff. It is huge. And knowing someone.

BH: How does your new book differ from or compare to this one?

CC: It’s newer. Actually, I can tell you; I don’t have to be coy. It’s an older book in the sense that I’m older. Back in about 2007-2008, my spouse and I had been very unsure about whether we wanted to have children, and in 2006 I had several miscarriages. It became clear that wasn’t going to fly. So, those poems are at the center of the book, and there are some relationship poems around them. I also have this habit of developing high school crushes on inappropriate people, largely for the poems because it gets me going. I highly recommend it. And it does not mean I do not want to be with my spouse or married to my spouse; he’s the greatest guy in the world, bar none. But it may be the family addictive heritage where you have to get addicted to something. Back several generations, there were all these alcoholics. So, I kind of see the book as coiling around this kind of change in my life and the various high school crushes that bracket it as ways of dealing with age. I’m forty-three this year. And you know, you go along and you’re twenty-five and thirty-five and thirty-seven, and it’s better than ever and just great, and then at some point it’s not better than ever. Some things are—tenure is great—but you know, you are changing.  And so I tend to see this new one as a book of change, but it’s certainly got all the old stuff in it.