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Interview with Anne Carson

Throughout her prolific career as a poet and a translator, Anne Carson has been concerned with combatting what she calls ‘the boredom of storytelling’. As she explained to Michael Silverblatt on stage at an event last year, ‘When your thinking is still, watching TV or whatever, thinking the same thing you’ve always thought, you might as well be dead… Living happens when your thought moves.’ To read Carson is to feel the parameters of poetry, translation and story-making move and unsettle. Or, to borrow a phrase of Carson’s, to watch someone ‘undo the latches’ of ordinary understanding.

 

Born in Canada in 1950, Carson has created one of the most exciting bodies of work in contemporary poetry. Since the publication of her first book, Eros the Bittersweet, in 1986, Carson’s output has varied in form (translations, a novel in verse, lyric lectures, short talks, fragments, a fictional essay in twenty-nine tangos) and format (chapbooks, pamphlets, paperbacks, boxes). In more recent years, Carson has collaborated with artists, and staged elaborate performances of her work. These can include dancers, or sound art, or video, or sometimes all three.

 

Carson’s work is characterised by an ability to break open form, to question it, and to see beyond it, even as she uses it. In the pieces she calls ‘Lyric Lectures’, Carson delivers texts informed by deep academic research but enlivened by poetic experiment. Her ‘Short Talks’ are short stories without the story (‘On Gertrude Stein’ about 9:30: ‘How curious. I had no idea! Today has ended.’) In Autobiography of Red, her translation of a long lyric poem by Stesichorus, its two mythic figures Geryon and Herakles are cast as gay teenagers living in modern America. Its sequel, Red Doc>, in which place, character and form have been reshuffled, was a radical challenge to the definition of a sequel. Her newest publication Float is a book that has been freed from order and sequence: a clear box which must be knocked open to release 22 chapbooks.

 

While Carson is best known for her studies of ancient Greek, a subject she has taught for many years – she has translated many of the major Greek texts, including the poetry of Sappho and the tragedies Agamemnon, Elektra and Orestes – her areas of interest have always been wide, and the connections she makes between subjects are unexpected and revelatory. In ‘Variations of the Right to Remain Silent’, one of the most astonishing pieces in Float, a line is drawn between Joan of Arc, Francis Bacon and Friedrich Hölderlin; a relationship is established between colour and silence.

 

Yet for work so academically rigorous Carson is unafraid of the confessional mode. A personal voice, plain and frank, is always present in her writing. Autobiography mixes with myth. There is, Carson seems to say, no separation between what we read and who we are. Carson creates a closeness between writer and subject that is so intimate it is as though they are breathing each other in and out. ‘I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë’, Carson writes in ‘The Glass Essay’, a poem that is as much an embodiment of Brontë as it is a critical study.

 

I interviewed Carson over a period of six months via email. As an interviewee, she was patient, prompt, and unusual. Her emails came in lower case, and I was always addressed by my initials. While Carson responded to some questions with paragraph-long answers, other questions would be answered in a word, or not at all. Sometimes an explanation would follow. ‘that thinking is over,’ read one email, ‘take it somewhere else. remember Catullus.’ The interview was a challenge to the expectation that a writer should explain themselves beyond the words they’ve already written. I began to see the absurdity of the interview form, where a writer is asked to endure our assumptions and validate our interpretations. I thought of the way Carson describes Joan of Arc’s interrogation in Float: ‘They prodded and poked and hemmed her in. Joan despised the line of inquiry and blocked it as long as she could.’

 

In the end, it was Carson who freed us. The interview was over, I had exhausted all my lines of inquiry, and then an email arrived. Its subject line was: ‘re self study’, followed in the body text by ‘(how it all begins to sound a bit false)’. Below, she had written the final lines of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Making Strange’:

 

… A chaffinch flicked from an ash and next thing

I found myself driving the stranger

through my own country, adept

at dialect, reciting my pride

in all that I knew, that began to make strange

at that same recitation.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Float picks up many threads started in earlier books. Despite its variety there’s a wholeness to your work, as though any line in any poem might connect to any other elsewhere (which is why a box makes sense as a container). Do you feel like you’ve always had the same broad concerns?

 

A

Anne Carson

— I’m not sure about broad concerns – how broad? Most of my concerns seem to me very narrow – the shade of difference between two synonymous adjectives in a sentence, whether or not to make an eyebrow with vertical or horizontal lines in a drawing, etc.

The rest is after-shock.

 

Q

The White Review

— So do you feel that you’re always working at a micro level?

 

A

Anne Carson

— Or perhaps working slightly behind my own ‘broad concerns’. They form ahead of me in big waves that crash down when it’s too late to save myself.

 

Q

The White Review

— I suppose another question here is, how do you feel when a work is being published; does the reaction to it affect you?

 

A

Anne Carson

— All different ways, depends which piece you mean.

 

Q

The White Review

— How about one of your lyric lectures, like ‘Uncle Falling’? And is it a different feeling to seeing a collection like Float out in the world?

A

Anne Carson

— ‘Uncle Falling’ was a performance done in different ways at different times with different people and each of those ‘publications’ was a lark and a joy and a deepening experience. Mostly because of the people. Especially Currie, who makes things go the way they should go.

 

Q

The White Review

— How do you feel about a piece once it’s finished?
A

Anne Carson

— Publication of a book is always a bit of a non-event. It doesn’t happen anywhere in space and time that you can get hold of or inhabit. Sending the book to friends by mail is charming but imaginary. Reviews may or may not dribble in but anyway by then you’re writing the next thing.
 

 

 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is co-publisher at Daunt Books Publishing.

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