“I entered ‘the academy’ pregnant,” Julie Carr concluded in her presentation on “The Poet-Scholar” at this year’s MLA conference, a talk that electrified a packed room of poets and scholars, mothers and non-mothers, alike, and inspired comments such as “JCarr also kind of untweetably awesome” by Natalia Cecire, and “J Carr’s bravura conclusion must be read or heard verbatim” by Stephen Burt, both of whom live-tweeted the panel.
Carr brings bravura and awesomeness to everything she does. And she does a lot, whether as an ascendant experimental poet; a scholar of Victorian poetry; a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder; a publisher and bookstore owner via Counterpath Press; a gun control activist; and, of course, a mother of three. When we approached Carr about publishing the text of “The Poet-Scholar” on A. BRADSTREET (it’s our inaugural post), she told us she would be in our neighborhood for a couple events at Harvard University. We had the pleasure of sitting in on her recording session for the Woodberry Poetry Room (Fanny Howe was also in the listening booth), during which she read from her 100 Notes on Violence, a book that should be on all Congressional reading lists right now. Then Carr, who was once a professional dancer, gave a talk at the Carpenter Center on poetry and dance collaborations, alongside her own long-time collaborator K. J. Holmes. The following day we met with Carr at Café Pamplona in Harvard Square, where we conducted this interview and got a first-look at her new book on Victorian poetry and poetics, Surface Tension, published this spring by Dalkey Archive.
A. BRADSTREET: What books did you turn to, either for solace or inspiration, upon becoming a mother?
J. CARR: When my son, my first, was born, it was Fanny Howe. Her Selected Poems had just come out. I have a really strong memory of lying in bed with him, nursing and reading her poems. And yes, there is motherhood in those poems, but it wasn’t even that. She has this way, in her work, of just describing stuff– very simple things make their way into the poem, and there’s a real questioning going on, a metaphysical thinking, as these very ordinary and unembellished things are happening. So the revelation I had while reading the poems was not, “Oh, I can write about my son,” but, “Oh, I can write about that branch.” Somebody said to me, “When you have a baby, don’t try to write. Just take notes.” And I realized the notes could actually be the poem. Fanny’s poems are so short, discrete and contained, they seemed approachable in certain ways. That book was the reason I felt like I didn’t have to stop or give up writing.
After that, there were other women I read, like Brenda Hillman. Her work doesn’t always, or even that often, have her daughter in them, but her way of working through the poem allows for a lot of interruption and inclusion. The poems are long, but they are rangy. This is another way of thinking about writing when you know you could be interrupted or only have a short amount of time. You can keep things coming in, and there’s freedom there.
A poet my age who was really great for me was Laynie Browne. We became friends when my second daughter was born, so I had a four-year-old and a baby when I met her. She had two children almost the same age– kind of like how you two are friends. When I met her she was writing this book that Counterpath ended up publishing, Daily Sonnets. She had the idea that she would write a sonnet everyday while she had a baby and two-year-old. She thought of the sonnet not as this structure, but as a unit of time. She has a beautiful essay at the end of that book about how a sonnet can fit in the palm of your hand. It’s this thing you can manage. So in that book, there are poems with titles like, “Sonnet While Listening to So-and-so Read,” or “Shower Sonnet.” They are very influenced by Ted Berrigan and by Bernadette Mayer, of course.
That’s the other book. I could go on forever actually, but to name one more: Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. It’s very powerful for every mother who reads it, in that it chronicles the day, and the day matters. That is what is so amazing about that book: all this stuff that’s happening, and the chaos of it all– like when she describes what’s hanging on the hooks, and the shoes, and then this child is crying, and then that one wants something to eat– all that chaos was the poem, instead of being the thing you have to get out of the way. That was very liberating.
The other poet I have to think about is Alice Notley, especially The Mysteries of Small Houses from 1998, because of how she seems to be threading a mythology, a personal history, politics and poetics all together in one amazing poem.
A. BRADSTREET: This gets into more autobiographical territory, but I was really moved by an email you sent me, when I first contacted you, about strategies you used to incorporate caring for your baby while doing your scholarly work. I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about that.
J. CARR: That was just about being a graduate student and showing up at Berkeley pregnant and having, also, a little boy. I had to be kind of shameless about it, or otherwise I would have had to take time off, which I just didn’t want to do. I had to bring Alice [the baby] to class. There was one class, a Shakespeare seminar with Richard Halpern, where I was the only woman in class. It was not a big class, and he was very sweet. They were all very sweet, nice guys. And I thought, “I have to nurse, but whatever, I don’t care. I’m not doing the tent. I’m just nursing.” And it was fine, but what I didn’t anticipate was that babies spit up, and they poop, and they fart, and they make all this noise and do all these other things. Nursing is sort of elegant compared to other stuff that goes on! So I was mortified actually, but I pushed through that and kept going.
Then there was the issue of trying to read. My daughter wasn’t a hard baby, but she wasn’t like my son who would just sleep for four hours a day– so I would put her on my chest, and I would just walk around Berkeley, reading, doing my best, reading the book while sometimes balancing it on her head And then you just have to rely on other people. You have to get the partner in there, or get a babysitter and pay for it somehow. It’s just not feasible to not have other people involved. I have never been able to be the sole “mother at home.” I just can’t. I feel like I’m a good mother only because I’ve never done that. Some people can. I just can’t. So there’s always been a lot of help of one kind or another.
Two other really big things worked for me. The first is about time and structuring time really strictly. Always waking up at a certain time, early, and writing for a certain amount of time before the kids get up. And when they were really little and would get up early, I switched off days with my husband, who also writes. Not to say we didn’t fight about it sometimes, but we really had to stick to the schedule. The other thing was that all of it, whatever it was– whether it was reading for orals, writing a dissertation or writing a book– happened only when the child was at daycare or wherever they were going to be. I didn’t try to do that really hard work while they were around. And I set it all up and structured it so that I never went to the grocery store while I had a babysitter, never did the laundry. I absolutely refused to give up that time.
A. BRADSTREET: Did you figure that out along the way?
J. CARR: I have said this before, in some other place, but I had lived in New York and supported myself as a dancer. My life was about, “Okay, so you get up at 6, and then you go teach these people physical training, then you go to class, then rehearsal, then the other rehearsal…” It was very rigorous and very structured. Not that it didn’t change from time to time, but, you know, there were two hours for this, three hours for that, and then you’d have to do this, and then you have to do that, and it would go on all day long, just to make it work. And I was just used to that way of thinking about the day, as a series of units that had to happen. I already had an ingrained way of working, so I didn’t really have to figure it out later. But it does make you a rigid person, and when people spontaneously say, “Want to meet for lunch?” you’re like, “No, I don’t!” I’m still that way, and when I’m at home and in my working mood, I have a hard time breaking out of it for anything.
A. BRADSTREET: One thing you mentioned yesterday, in your talk at the Carpenter Center, was the importance of procedure in your dance training– that these are the themes, these are the frames, and then you create something within that framework. I wondered if, in terms of your work after having your children, you felt that procedure had an important role in your writing style and technique?
J. CARR: Yeah, absolutely. The first book I wrote was called Mead, and it’s a sequential book. The sections are numbered, there are 64 of them, and that kind of counting– you do this, and then you do that, then you do the next thing– really helped move it forward. All of the books I’ve published have been sequential books. Some of them are all the way through, from beginning to end, one sequence. Others are two or three different sequences. And that’s because it’s really a way into writing. What would be the alternative? A looser structure, just to write and then see what comes of it, could be less productive when you have a short amount of time. The thing I am writing currently, which is called Real Life, if there is such a thing, is a daily writing practice. The structure is to write everyday from Labor Day to Labor Day to Labor Day. Two years of daily writing, everyday at the same time of day, and then there is a structure around when it’s okay to edit. I can only edit at three-month intervals, so four times a year I have an editing period that’s about a week to two weeks. Then, at the end of the whole two years, there’s a full year of editing. That’s an arbitrary set of numbers, with arbitrary dates, sort of. And then that’s it. When it’s done, it’s done. I think Laynie helped me a lot with that, and other writers too. A lot of Language poetry is that way, structured around a set of pre-decided constraints or frames.
And at the same time, when I finished 100 Notes on Violence, I thought, “It’s too contained!” I’m happy with the book, but I still felt, “Alright, where’s the wildness? This is controlled by these numbers, these numbers are controlling it, so how can I do this and still let more wildness happen?” That’s the challenge that book left me with.
In this new book, RAG (forthcoming from Omnidawn), even the title is trying to tear at that kind of structure. Its forms are less rigid. What I set out to do is write one book-length poem without sections and without numbers, although it does shift between different forms. It’s not the same form for a hundred pages, which some people can do, but I have not been able to do. But I do consider it to be one poem from beginning to end. So that’s scary, this loosening of that structure.
The other thing about me is that, before I was a mother, I wasn’t really a poet. So there’s never been a Before and After. I was writing poems, but my primary identity was as a dancer. I didn’t really know what I was doing with writing; it was just something I did. It’s not that I could take it or leave it, but it wasn’t as central yet. So it kind of all happened at once: becoming a mother, and becoming a poet.
A. BRADSTREET: That’s heartening, because Rachel Zucker also told us that she crystallized as a poet around the time she became a mother.
J. CARR: Yeah, that is true for her, I think. Her first book was really great, but I can see her saying that. When I was pregnant, I told one of my poetry teachers– it’s kind of interesting to think back on the responses one got then, they were different than the responses you would get now, especially from men. This one teacher who was wonderful, Bill Matthews, he’s not alive anymore, he said, “It will be hard. And everything I learned about being an adult I learned from my children.” We become adults by becoming parents, in a way. Not that you can’t become an adult without being parent– that’s ridiculous– but for a lot of parents, there is this coming into your adulthood that coincides with your coming into yourself as a writer, and you’re going to feel that they are connected.