This interview focuses on Julie Carr’s The Silence That Fills the Future, a digital chapbook released by Essay Press in March 2015.
The full text is available for free download here.
ST: One of the things you seem to be doing in The Silence That FIlls the Future is claiming the simultaneous co-existence of a self constructed by and through narrative and a type of presence that exists outside of (and in some ways calls the lie on) that narrative self. The binary I’m offering is clumsy, and I don’t mean to offer clumsily what you’ve already performed deftly. What I’m asking is, do you see the assemblage itself: the gathering together and the ordering of the four works that comprise The Silence That Fills the Future, as a kind demonstration or performance of the way in which we live both inside and outside the narrative of self? Maybe even as a kind of rapprochement between those two locations?
I experienced it that way. Reading this chapbook made me more comfortable with my own experience of navigating those two terrains. I hope this can be read as a question and not merely a compliment. If it can’t, I’ll try again with another one.
JC: I like this question a lot. Let me see what I can do with it.
I’m going to answer this more generally, since for me the collection of those pieces feels provisional, like a resting point before the release of a few books in the future (hence the title). But in general what I would say is that for me writing itself is always an experience, or as you say “performance,” of that navigation—the navigation between a narrativised self and a self that refuses to be narrated. The self that refuses might be the self of sensation, presence, the body when experienced as itself, rather than as a walking emblem of the story of the self. But I want to resist hierarchies here. It’s not that one is more authentic than the other; we have to narrate ourselves to ourselves, we have to become, in that way literary, otherwise how would we function? How would we make meaning of the world, and how would we judge it and find ways to change it?
In some ways writing is particularly useful to us. It helps us “make sense,” and therefore it helps us make claims. But at the same time, in its improvisatory mode, writing is how we register the moment-to-moment awareness, the animal in us that just takes in and responds immediately. I don’t know if this is true, as I’ve always written, but I think it might be true that it’s harder to be aware of the dynamic between these two poles without writing or in some other way recording these processes as they occur.
Poetry seems especially suited for these recordings because it offers escapes from narrative even as it enjoys narrative or argument when it wants to.
Today when I think about a narrativised self, it suggests the self in relation to structures: the family, the institution, the state. There exists a desire to escape all that, if even only (and importantly) in one’s mind. Perhaps the recording of narrative-resistant experience is, in part, the record of that resistance.
ST: I’m interested in the ethical component of the “narrativised self” that you raise. In By Beauty and by Fear: On Narrative Time you write, “a poem, then, is an anti-narrative, which might be a good reason to fear it, or, if narratives lead only to horror or loss, might be a good reason to court it.” When I first read these lines the choice seemed totally clear to me (court it, court it!). But this ethical component you raise is chastening. If the self that hurts and experiences loss is the same one that has responsibilities and the capacity for action, it isn’t viable to jump ship on the self, however tempting that may be. I’d like to put this in conversation with some other lines from By Beauty and by Fear: On Narrative Time:
“‘Let me in,’ say the women, picking at their food.
For even more frightening than a narrative that features depravity is having no narrative at all.”
When I read these lines I felt a certain shudder of recognition. I had never before thought to connect the way in which I feel I have no narrative with the fact of being female. It seems like in By Beauty and by Fear: On Narrative Time you are raising the paradox that this navigation (between self outside of and inside of narrative) is deeply personal but is also acted out in relation to others, to society, to history, to cultural inheritance. And that there is bravery required! Can you speak to this?
JC: I think the sense that the narrativized self is both a burden and a choice comes more readily to those whose narratives have been written for them. Only 7-13% of all film directors are female, about the same percentage for writers and only 5% of cinematographers. In television it’s a little better, but still less than a quarter of creative work in TV is done by women. These percentages only tell a tiny fraction of the story, because so often the narratives we encounter about women are damaging, whether it be an article just out in the Atlantic explaining how successful female writers should only have one kid, or just the standard flow of images we deal with which describe us or attempt to make us. When you have daughters you see what this is really about. The girls have to fight against so many images (and images are narratives) from day one. They have to contend with such pressures and it’s hard; it’s a burden that is constantly part of their lives.
Something about poetry allows relief from these narratives that both keep us out and make us specific. The freedoms of poetry are infinite. The range, the field, the ability to create, uncreate, recreate, undo and un-commit are, I think, absolutely crucial for anyone pushing against a culture’s desire to limit and describe. I was just reading a great essay on the black and gay artist Glenn Ligon’s work in which the author, Huey Copeland, argues that Ligon turns to language in his work as a way to find “refuge” (Copeland’s word) from the violence of images that have been imposed upon the black body. I would suggest that the abstracted or in some way deranged language of poetry provides such refuge more readily than the familiar turns of narrative. And yet, I love fiction – and I want in. Why?
I think of Keats who wrote so beautifully about the freedom from “self” that poetry provides (“A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women…It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature – how can it, when I have no nature?”), but then worries in other letters and poems about the ethical responsibilities of the poet. He worries that by being a poet he will only be a bane and not a balm upon the world, only an idle “dreamer.” I think this worry is what draws poets to activism and to prose. It’s not enough to escape. You also have to argue. Even when escape from normative prose is a kind of argument, is a kind of refusal that is in itself political, there is still a way that one finds direct engagement is necessary. Think of the work that Rankine’s Citizen does. The moments that the reviewers quote, that everyone talks about, are moments of pure narrative. The book also has some much more poetic language that I find as compelling and powerful, but people rarely talk about that. It’s not as clearly readable as “argument.” Both, to me, are necessary. Rare to find both in one book!
And so poets write poems and then write pages and pages of prose (like this)!
ST: It’s interesting what you say about the response to Citizen. I recently reread A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, and was surprised to realize/remember that in addition to offering very sharp and prescient political/economic critiques, both are filled with moments of psychedelic poetry. But that isn’t how they’re canonized or taught! It’s as though we can’t handle poetry when it arrives within an essay or an argument, and choose to ignore it for the sake of categorization. In a way that’s what what my first question was trying to do with/to your work: unify and flatten it rather than accept it as an experience that transcends the fact or facts of its thesis. While I am on Woolf, I wanted to ask about some resonances I felt in this chapbook. The line:
Take off my face
from “A 14-line poem on progressive insurance” reminded me very much of Rhoda’s “I have no face” in Woolf’s The Waves. And the line:
Because I’m a child who outlives her mother
from “The War Reporter: On Confession” felt like the incredibly muted way in which the death of Mrs. Ramsay arrives in To the Lighthouse. Is there a real affinity here?
JC: So, yes, I read Woolf a lot when I was younger and her writing and ideas certainly influenced me, as I think they do everyone who reads her. But there is no direct response to those books in the writing – at least no conscious one!
Your question makes me want to re-read The Waves, though!
I don’t think prose’s relationship with poetry is an antagonistic one. Rather, I think what poetry does is push our thinking and prose (or conversation) is how we try to articulate that in a more overt, and therefore public, way. In my own work that dynamic between rhetoric, or discursive language, and poetry is pretty active.
ST: It certainly is! I’m fascinated with the mode by which these essays progress. I’m thinking especially of the “Beauty” section in By Beauty and by Fear: On Narrative Time. It has a sort of straightforwardly dialectical movement at first, moving from Wordsworth’s conception of beauty as the mind’s effort to “make coherent sense out of what it fears,” to the idea that beauty may be something that cannot tame fear and that is in fact in league with violence (which you illustrate with this wonderful motif of Aphrodite choosing Aries of Hephestus!), to beauty as something that might be able to save (the “fragile, temporary, wild beauty of song”) and might not. And then the essay gathers this unbelievable momentum:
“Wild nights-Wild Nights!”
and cascades towards this idea that in “emotions, once set into action, continue indefinitely like entropic molecules.” To me, it seems like a flawless construction and I can’t find the seams. I am wondering if you have a method or mode, or even an operative metaphor that helps you write your way through an essay like this- to make these wild leaps and still produce something cohesive, balanced, elegant.
JC: Oh my god, that essay took so long! And every time I read it I revise it. All I can say is that I began with the title – wanting to write about this line in Wordsworth and at the same time to think about fear and how for a while it was governing my life. I don’t remember the stages or steps along the way, but I do know that I struggled mightily, and still do, with how much to control, how much to associate – with freedom and limit – in the essay form. In poems the same issues arise, but I think I’ve pretty much decided to trust a poem’s intuitive leaps, even though when making a book I’m often worrying about how far afield I can go without losing a central core or focus. With essays the form requires so much more in the way of development, and that’s something I want. I want to make argument, to develop an idea. But then I also want that thing to happen where the reader follows and it feels right, but she isn’t sure how she got from A-Z, because for me this has been an incredibly pleasurable part of reading. When it works it means I am giving myself over, am trusting the writer – and in this way I know I am allowing myself to learn.
Some of the essays that inspire me for these reasons are Lisa Robertson’s (in Nilling especially), and Kazim Ali’s (he has a new book of essays out now titled Resident Alien), and the prose of Fred Moten. When I can predict the structure of an essay or feel that it’s too neatly put together, I get bored, even irritated. There’s a lot of those too.
ST: Part of the idea behind Essay Press’ EP series is to allow authors space in which to present a preliminary or excerpted version of a longer work. In your introduction, you present each of the four sections of The SIlence That Fills the Future as “future books, or dream events, or landscapes, or recording sessions, or fantasy vacations, or destroyed works, or small businesses, or emotion maps, or warm mirrors, or phantom cities, or provisional assertions, or architectural models, or cheap motels or late night bus rides.” Can you say a little bit about what has happened in the life of each of these four sections, since the publication of The Silence That Fills the Future?
“The War Reporter: On Confession” is the center-piece to a new book that will be out with Ahsahta Press later this year. The book is titled Objects from a Borrowed Confession. It’s a series of prose pieces circling around the idea of confession. There’s a novella, a number of essays, some poem/essays, an experiment in memoir, and a letter.
“By Beauty and Fear: On Narrative Time” is the second to last piece in that book.
“Spirit Ditties of No Tone: On Listening” is biding its time in an essay collection I’ve been trying to finish. It’s working title is The Poetics of Concealed Carry. For a while it’s been focused on feminism and emotion. I think I might have different ideas about emotion now and so will have to rethink the book. This one has been in the works for a long time, maybe five years. It’s ok with me to have a book on a very slow burn. As I write more essays I see if they are part of it or not. Slowly, it comes together.
The fourteen line poems are an aspect of another book I’m writing now titled Real Life: An Installation. This project has been obsessing me since I embarked on it near the end of 2011. I hope to be done in about a year. At the moment it’s an almost 500 page manuscript, 100 pages of which rest under my left elbow as I type. The fourteen-line poems form a kind of quick and clean break from some of the heavier material in the book – kind of like a sip of sake. When everything else in that book seems to be dying under its own weight, these still seem alive.
ST: I can certainly sympathize with the idea of material dying under its own weight. I think its pretty common for writers to use language to describe their own work that gives that work life and agency of its own. That’s how it feels, maybe that’s how it is. But if we were to take that personification or animation of the work very seriously for a moment, how would you conceive of, or cast yourself within the relationship with a work? For example, is it a relationship in which you must assert your dominance? Your submission? Something totally outside of that binary?
JC: Yeah- neither dominance nor submission. I think it’s about not being afraid of it and trusting it. I guess I have this feeling that where the work fails, where it is too timid or boring or the tone is off, it’s me not listening to and trusting it enough, that it’s always there talking to me and I just have to be courageous in listening to it. Just now I wrote something called “My Mother’s Ass.” I could have censored it, not because I’m embarrassed to talk about my mother’s ass, but because something about doing so seemed obvious. But then I’ve learned not to judge things because they are obvious, so I allowed it. I think actually I was afraid of it for its anger (it’s also about rape), and now that it’s there, I’m glad I trusted it. I think it IS weird that we divide the work from ourselves in this way, but I think it’s what writers have always done. That is the literary self – it is not “us” but it comes from us and from around us – like some ideas of God. So, definitely not dominance – and yet I don’t feel I am submitting because I don’t experience it as a violence. But you know when you are listening to someone who is saying some scary shit – you kind of want them to shut up but you hold your tongue because you know there is truth there – that is what it’s like.
ST: I’m thinking about what you said about being ok with having a book on “a very slow burn” and also what you write in the introduction to The Silence that Fills the Future: “For years I only worked on one or two projects at a time. I could not understand people who flipped back and forth between files on their computers like birds feeding various nests at once. But as the future looks shorter to me now than it did then, I began, for better or worse, to cram more into the days or into the computer.” Both of these raise questions about pace. I’m curious about how you think about pace, both in your work and in the most broad sense: how the pace of work proceeds within the pace of a whole career, a whole life.
JC: Good question! I don’t know! This is one of the hardest things for me because actually I’m very impatient and compulsive, so slowness is hard. But I do know that rushing things generally does not produce the best results. Rushing is tied to ambition and to the desire to be liked, and both of these things will probably produce work that is shallow and false. So slowness is important for honesty. But I’ve also watched how different moments lend themselves to more or less productivity and I’m learning to accept that. You’d think that with three kids I would have accepted it long ago, but actually it’s only been in recent years with my mother’s death and my older kids becoming teenagers that I’ve begun to shift my relationship to time. I do feel this urgency to get to the work and at the exact same time, I am trying to appreciate the kids’ presence and not wish I were writing. Kind of a paradox.
ST: I am enjoying writing back and forth with you. In a way the further (my) writing strays from the epistolary the less sense it makes to me. This chapbook is concerned very much with how a self arranges itself in the act of confessing, and in the act of hearing, both of which are built in to the epistolary mode. In writing for an unseen audience, however, or in reading the work of an author that is say, not a friend, not a contemporary, perhaps long dead, this transmission is slightly different. Do you think these various types of communion are discrete entities, or do they exist on some kind of spectrum? Do they partake in the same quality or degree of the imaginal?
JC: Recently Lisa Robertson was reading on my campus. During the Q and A I asked how we keep the writing real and urgent when the pressures of publication (and all that includes) creep up on us. Her response was that we keep our intimates in mind. We write with and for one another (or at least that is how I understood her words). This makes sense to me. I think of Dickinson’s poems written on the paper she used to wrap flowers in, or sent in letters. For me writing is almost always grounded in intimacy, and when it’s not, it begins to lose energy – I care less about it.
That sense we sometimes have that a writer is speaking our own thoughts, or implanting thoughts directly into our own mind, this sense that as we read we are somehow becoming the author or the book, this deeply invasive/intimate sense of becoming, is what made me a reader/writer. This feels especially powerful when the writer is speaking across a great distance be that of time, place, or experience. The book is not “relatable” because it tells me what I already know, but is transformative because it makes me someone new. I felt that reading Dickinson when I was a child, I feel it reading Fred Moten now. There’s something I don’t know I know, or there’s a mood, a feeling, an understanding that, as I read, begins to become no longer distinct, no longer estranged, but part of my own envisioning, even as full understanding (whatever that could be) remains always out of reach.
So when we talk about “influence,” for me it’s not about learning tricks. I could say I was influenced by the blend of prose and poetry in Williams, or by disjunction and play in Hejinian, or by sound in Hopkins. But what really happens, I think, is that reading these writers at some point begins to feel incredibly intimate. I find myself thinking along with them, and feel myself altered as a result.
To return to Lisa Robertson, in an essay on reading titled “Time and the Codex” (from Nilling) she writes “Here is the acutely sought ruin of identity. Readings begins in me an elaborate abandonment. Desire and identity are not the same. At times it feels like desire displaces, or replaces identity.” Reading, then, and maybe writing, puts one on the edge of an outside of whatever one figures oneself to already be. But that’s not to say that we become mechanical, unfeeling, disconnected from our own inner life. Instead writing/reading puts us on that watery, uncertain line between self and other which she calls here “desire.” And for this reason I think all writing is epistolary.
Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta, 2010), RAG (Omnidawn, 2014), and Think Tank (Solid Objects, 2015). She is also the author of Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry (Dalkey Archive, 2013). A chapbook of prose, “The Silence that Fills the Future,” was recently released as a free pdf from Essay Press. Objects from a Borrowed Confession (prose) is forthcoming from Ahsahta press in 2016. Carr was a 2011-12 NEA fellow and is an associate professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the English department and the Intermedia Arts Writing and Performance Ph.d. She regularly collaborates with dance artist K.J. Holmes and is the co-founder of Counterpath Press and Counterpath Gallery.