An Interview with Carolyn Hembree
The following interview with Carolyn Hembree was conducted by Erik Vande Stouwe on 27 June 2012, transcribed from voice-recorder by the latter, and edited by both parties. It serves as a companion piece to the Summer Local Writing Series feature on Hembree. The photograph of the author was taken by Lynda Woolard.
Erik Vande Stouwe: First tell me a bit about Skinny, and Skinny as a manuscript.
Carolyn Hembree: I was in graduate school, and I was trying to be Louise Glück or Robert Pinsky. Then I had some crazy-ass dream, which is the first poem of Skinny, and I started reading John Berryman. So, I realized there could be a speaker who is inhabited by many voices. That felt natural, as I had spent years acting, which I started to let into my poetry—the Method approach, the subject matter, and drama as a genre. I don’t know if that answers your question.
EV: It begins a lot more questions. One thing I was really curious about was the idea of characters in poetry. What is the role…the influences, Berryman, are there anymore?
CH: C.D. Wright. And Frank Bidart’s persona poems although my stuff isn’t usually persona but talking about a character.
EV: What governs the speech of these characters? Do they fit within the composition of the poem, or do they speak out of it?
CH: The rhythm comes out of the characters’ voices…I talk out loud the whole time I write. A lot of people hear voices, and I’m not one of those people.
But we say that euphemistically, like the voice in my head is telling me don’t do that. I’ve never had that. So the poetry has been an occasion to try to understand or enact that experience. Overheard conversation, a phrase from a billboard, TV show or radio dialogue — little snatches of speech can shape the poem’s rhythm, but I can later push on it and break the phrasing up.
EV: So the characters come to you and are changed, rather than…is it a question of…
CH: I don’t think they come to me; I think they’re already there. Bidart says that in the interview with Mark Halliday at the end of In the Western Night. They’re just me in different moods, times, dreams.
EV: Stretching oneself out. Stretching and dividing.
EV: Another thing I was very curious about reading your poetry…I’m going to use a term and feel free to say that’s not it at all…an aesthetic of ellipsis, or of breaking. Sort of…an interruption at every stage. Does that come to fore?
CH: Yes. Bingo. A lot of time there’s a style I’m reading that is pulling into my work. Multiple styles. As a reader (and that’s what it all comes back to) I want to be attentive and detached. One thing that bothers me is this idea, I’m a traditional poet while she’s much more avant, so I can’t publish in that magazine or invest in her work. That attitude is just boring to me. I would ideally like to read poetry blind: no poet name, no magazine name, no press — just have poems and approach them. I love straight narrative poems, too…I mean Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song” about a beheaded goat is gorgeous. But for me, a poem isn’t a single story. When I was a kid in my grandmother’s kitchen, someone would start in about the neighbor who shot through Granny’s picture window because of her red curtains (back during the Red Scare); then that got us on Dan’s pet bobcat; or Aunt Annie’s mama beating her outdoors until she married a man 40 years her senior. He had money. None of them needed to get finished because we all knew the endings anyhow. All the while, my mind was in it but wandering to a bird outside or my cousin’s motorcycle I could hear coming from the park. I might have twenty narratives in a forty-line poem: it’s how I’ve moved away from idealized poetry to what matters to me as a writer.
So, I’ve got my stories, tons of them. What I borrow more is syntax. Steal, borrow, steal, borrow…
CH: “Good writers, great writers,” all that bullshit, so I don’t know, maybe I’m borrowing. And you’ll see these tricks of the trade, contemporary modes, like the epistolary that never gets past the salutation: dear this, dear that. I did one of those.
EV: Yeah. The “moment of recognition.” I guess that segues into another question of narrative, which is, do you feel these narratives haunt you, and continue with them, or are they one-time usages?
CH: I write the same poem over and over again. Who said that? They may shift a little bit, but ultimately they boil down to the same obsessions.
EV: What’s having an immediate influence on you?
CH: Anne Carson’s Nox, Harryette Mullen’s Muse and Drudge, Etheridge Knight, everything Barbara Cully. I also just finished Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates, and D.A. Powell’s Chronic. And, God help us all, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. I’m living in the land of elegy and dirge right now.
EV: Can I ask, why the elegy?
CH: Because of the project that’s upcoming. I can’t say too much about that. I’m real spooky in that way, but I can tell you about the second manuscript I just finished.
It’s called Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine & Other Ways to Escape the Plague. It’s a journey book with an accursed wanderer. It takes place in Appalachia, which is where my people are from on my Dad’s side, going back to before the Revolutionary War. So that’s something that I just finished, which was a huge time consuming thing, and it ends with a coda where the poems try to answer some of Stephen Hawking’s questions about time.
EV: I’ve been asking you about narrative, about these strains of characters, how does sound fit into that?
CH: My father was a musician. My daughter, who is 2, already goes to the piano, and she plays music and sings. Now she’s making it up, but she’s on key, and she can hear immediately if something is in tune. She hears me sing and she puts her hands over my mouth and says, Mommy, don’t sing. Rhythm, for me, comes purely through syntax. I will graft syntax onto my language. I say things over again until they feel right. Or I might play with erasure to get a clotted feel to the rhythm. I feel when it’s loose, and there’s a lot of room. That’s music or rhythm to me but not how someone with a natural ear might talk about it.
EV: So to run with this metaphor: do you feel syntax operates by these density laws?
CH: Yes. Marianne Boruch had a great friggin article, “Poetry’s Over and Over,” in American Poetry Review where she describes repetition as “a voiced pause.” You hear it a couple of times and you take in the material, but after a while the refrain is like a spacer: you hear it and relax like into a chorus and wait for new information to come. I’m saying loose when the repetition comes; she would say voiced pause, and I think that’s the way to put it.
Erik Vande Stouwe is content editor for creative writing for NolaVie.