“(and I burrow down // amid beetles and muskrat // woodchuck and snake // worm and rabbit // tunneling in the sure)” (Scar, Shearsman Books, 2016, p.20)
Originally from Normal, Illinois, Carrie Etter has lived in England since 2001 and taught at Bath Spa University since 2004. She has published three collections: The Tethers (Seren, 2009), winner of the London New Poetry Award; Divining for Starters (Shearsman, 2011); and Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014), shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She has also edited the anthology, Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman, 2010), and Linda Lamus’s posthumous collection, A Crater the Size of Calcutta (Mulfran, 2015).
ML: I’ve just been re-reading your recent pamphlet Scar (Shearsman Books, 2016) which I understand offers a kind of prelude to your forthcoming full collection The Weather in Normal (Seren, 2018). What has been the creative relationship between these two publications and the process of developing this material, which in Scar tackles an ecological (and hence political) theme – namely climate change? In what ways does the full collection extend and develop what you began in Scar?
CE: The Weather in Normal weaves together family history, place, weather, and climate change, and I hope the result is a single, mostly cohesive tapestry. ‘Scar’ is included in its entirety, as well as several other, shorter poems about the effects of climate change on my home state of Illinois, as one stage in the collection. I’d say the book has three arcs: the loss of my parents; the loss of the place where I grew up on account of the ravages of climate change; and the loss, through sale, of the family home. It begins and ends with a kind of music, a night ode at the beginning and ‘a kind of song’ at the very end. Each of the three arcs has its own long poem as well as a number of short poems working with it.
ML: What particular approach have you decided to take in writing about climate change? Were you conscious of writing in a tradition of ideas and / or of adopting a deliberately innovative approach to ecological themes?
CE: I began with research—an entirely new approach in poetry for me, but something I was familiar with through my schooling, especially my PhD in mid-Victorian fiction and the emergence of criminology. I wrote a series of poems that were more informational than lyric, and the recognition of that fact lead me to ‘explode’ the poems, taking fragments from them and writing many new passages, to compose ‘Scar.’
I was partly inspired by Peter Reading’s tremendous book, a single poem on climate change, -273.15, with its multiple, interwoven threads. Sure, it had didactic moments, it had a lot of angry moments, and it also had a compelling lyricism and intelligence. I learned a great deal from that work.
Coming from the U.S., I think one of my primary values in poetry is originality. I always have to make it new—but not at the expense of lyricism or other values.
ML: That’s really interesting. I had no idea about your research interest in mid-Victorian fiction! In 2016 you published a wonderful flash fiction pamphlet with V. Press called Hometown. You have spoken before now about seeing distinct differences between flash fiction and prose poetry. Can you elaborate on this? The prose poems in Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014, shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award), for example, make strong use of narrative, albeit often in surreal and dream-like fashion. And yet you saw them, evidently, as prose poems not flash fictions…
CE: Thank you for the compliment of ‘wonderful’! For me, a successful flash fiction almost always has some semblance of a narrative arc, even if it’s simply the protagonist facing a conflict and responding to it (though sometimes that response is inaction), whereas in prose poems any narrative is in the service of an overall idea that the poem circles or inhabits. Hence the ‘imagined sons’ prose poems are all meant to be in service to ideas about the nature of what it is to be a birthmother, what it is to be adopted, etc., rather than the story taking precedence.
ML: It sounds as if you’re saying that the ‘imagined sons’ prose poems were aligned with a continuous overarching idea, which for you meant that they didn’t cross over into flash fiction, even though they were often narrative in content. Or is there more to it, at a technical level, in terms of what most of these surreal and dream-like narratives contained, or didn’t contain, at an individual level that meant that you wouldn’t see them as being able to be considered flash fictions? When I read, say, ‘Imagined Sons 9: Greek Salad’ [Link], I could imagine it convincing in a flash fiction collection just as much as a poetry collection, as its narrative arc seems quite fully developed. And there are others shorter pieces, such as ‘10: Mexico’ and ‘25: The Train Home’, that could surely do the same.
CE: I think in a prose poem narrative usually operates in the service of a larger, which is to say lyric, idea. In ‘Greek Salad,’ there are such fictional elements as characters, movement in time, even a vague semblance of conflict, but plot isn’t the motive of the piece—the motive lies in the idea(s) the narrative explores: what is the responsibility of birthmother to son? What constitutes care and affection in such circumstances? I truly can’t imagine Imagined Sons as a flash fiction collection, not least because you’d have to lose the birthmother’s catechisms which are crucial to the work as a whole. ‘Mexico’ has a suggestion of conflict, admittedly, but it’s foremost a poem about the recurring sense of loss when one gives up a child for adoption, and I see a fictional scene but no narrative arc in ‘The Train Home’.
ML: What possibilities do prose poems offer you as a writer that verse poems don’t? You have written previously about how a prose poem “wants to inhabit or circle A” whereas verse poems “make some kind of progression… from A to B”. Can you say more about this idea?
CE: For a poem in lines to succeed, there has to be some progression or development as it proceeds, some trajectory, however small. I don’t think a prose poem has so much a trajectory per se as a deepening understanding or appreciation of a single idea, mood or feeling. This means that more often, when I want to write, I have a form that will accommodate what I want to say. Thanks to my newly found half-sister, I’ve recently been getting into micro-memoir or flash nonfiction, too, and that’s opened up a whole other realm of possibilities for writing I want to pursue.
ML: How does this square with the possibility that someone might write a verse poem, then remove the line breaks (because they weren’t working, or weren’t adding enough to the meaning) and claim it as a prose poem? Or vice versa, putting line breaks into a prose poem? Do your own drafts never transition from one form to the other?
CE: I think a prose poem in which someone has removed all the line breaks and put it into prose would necessarily be less effective, and vice versa. Perhaps surprisingly, I know from the first impetus of a new poem whether a piece is formally suited to lines or prose, probably because the idea behind the poem has been percolating in my head for some time before I begin writing—I almost never go back to a prose poem and put it into lines and vice versa.
ML: Can you tell readers about differences between the prose poetry scenes in the UK and USA? And how is prose poetry changing these days (whether in the UK or USA)? How is the landscape different vs. 5, 10, or 20 years ago?
CE: Well, I grew up with prose poetry in the US; I was writing and publishing prose poems as a teenager in the 80s. Even now, you can hardly flip through a US literary magazine without seeing a handful of poems in prose, while here, with the exception of a few journals, it appears to be an anomaly. Many of my Bath Spa undergraduates say they didn’t know there was such a thing as a prose poem until I introduced them to the form. I’m excited that Jeremy Noel-Tod is editing an anthology of the prose poem for Penguin in the UK – I think the fact that a major UK publisher is bringing out such a book is a positive sign for the form becoming more widespread here.
ML: What do you think is still missing or lacking in the U.K. that has been preventing prose poetry being as widely published and accepted as it is in the USA? Has there been something historically in the UK poetry scene that has inhibited its uptake and would explain the difference between the two countries in this respect, for example some different relationship to form, or some other factor perhaps?
CE: There seem to be two factors that have, in your words, ‘inhibited the uptake’ of prose poetry in the UK: one, the reverence for traditional form seems more entrenched here, and two, perhaps more significantly, some of poetry’s ‘gatekeepers’—editors, publishers, and established poets—reject the form entirely, calling it a ‘fad’, refusing to publish it, not including it in teaching, etc. The latter can be dispiriting at times, but the excitement about the form I find from so many other editors, poets, and publishers leads me to believe the naysayers are in a shrinking minority.
ML: You’re a Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, with three full collections to your name (and a fourth on the way), numerous pamphlets, a blog, and you work also as an editor and critic. When you look back, what would you say were the formative influences led you towards writing?
CE: I think it was crucial that I grew up in a supportive household that believed in reading, in education, and in creativity. I’m adopted, and I sometimes wonder who I would have become if I’d been adopted into another, very different family. When I wrote my first poem outside of class at the age of 11, my mother was the person I ran to with it, and she listened encouragingly to many poor poems for years – I’m so grateful to her for that. A high school teacher, Peter Parmantie, showed me how my love of literature was necessarily also a love of language and etymology (we had to learn weekly lists of words’ meanings along with their etymologies): that led me to pursue Latin as an undergraduate at UCLA. I still wonder whether it’s possible for me to complete a minor in Classical Civilization–I’m sure I can only be missing one or two classes!
ML: Which writers or other artists (whether predecessors or contemporaries) have been influencers or “permission-givers” behind your work?
CE: Over the last couple years, the poets who have most inspired me are Juliana Spahr, Evie Shockley, Denise Riley, Cole Swensen, Claudia Rankine, and Anne Carson. All have set precedents for me for new things to be done in poetry and strengthened my ambitions for what I want to do in my own work. The fiction I’ve been writing recently has been more speculative, and Patrick Ness, Sally Gardner, and Iain M. Banks have all been inspiring in that realm.
ML: The government is eradicating literature by burning all books. You can save one from the fire and run away to the woods to preserve it, where you will share it with fellow rebels and future generations. Which do you save and why?
CE: That’s an impossible question for me. I think extensive, varied reading is crucial to improving one’s writing, so I’m always pushing myself to read more, read better. The list of my loves goes on and on. Recent ones include Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Cole Swensen’s On Walking On, and Juliana Spahr’s That Winter the Wolf Came (the latter two are poetry collections).
ML: Thinking about these diverse influences, I’d like to talk about the relationship between the experimental and more traditional and / or mainstream elements in your writing (these are approximate terms that I’m slightly uncomfortable using – but lack other alternatives!). Your work in your second poetry collection Divining for Starters (Shearsman Books, 2011) feels more “experimental” – for example many poems, especially the title sequence, involve incomplete sentences, or disjunctive leaps of meaning / tone / subject between lines. It might seem a move away from the style of your first book The Tethers (Seren, 2009), but in fact many of the more avant-garde poems in Divining for Starters were published in earlier pamphlets before The Tethers, were they not? In Scar and The Weather in Normal you return to more fragmented poetic lines again. How does your latest “fragmentary aesthetic” or poetics differ from the earlier style in Divining for Starters? How much do you feel you have been working more within the mainstream, or away from the mainstream, in different books?
CE: I think of The Tethers and Divining for Starters as my two first books, with each bringing together poems that were more similar stylistically. I always write across a range of styles, so one day I might write a surreal prose poem, the next some haiku, the next a poem composed of fragments, the next a narrative lined poem. I suppose in Scar and The Weather in Normal, there are more experimental techniques at play than in The Tethers, but the poems are more accessible than one might expect from such approaches. It may be that, stylistically, The Weather in Normal will draw on stylistic elements from all my previous works while also offering new ones (such as the long poem as a kind of montage in a poem called ‘Those Winters’).
ML: ‘The long poem as a kind of montage’ sounds intriguing – can you tell us more about it?
CE: Of course. In writing The Weather in Normal, I knew I had to have poems that conveyed my sharply different attitudes towards summer and winter, and that resulted in two long poems, ‘Come Summer’ and ‘Those Winters’ [Link]. Each consists of numerous short sections that include related family events, such as my mother breaking her wrist on the ice, and local season-specific passages, such as the practice of detasseling corn. Through the montage of different scenes in each poem, I try to create an overall impression of both tone as well as range of experience.
ML: Readers have seen poetry, prose poetry, and flash fiction from you in the last few years. What might we expect next?
CE: I’m working on quite a few different things. My new book manuscript in progress began with the referendum result and the American presidential election; in the wake of those events, I’ve been writing more politically oriented poems, and I’ve been exploring what it is to identify with both countries, in Transatlantica. Additionally, I continue to write short fiction as well as short memoir pieces; the latter I hope to start trying at magazines later this year. I have ideas, notes, and writing passages for various longer projects, but until I can obtain more time away from work, I don’t think I’ll be able to pursue them—longer works require more mental space, more time away from other demands. The Weather in Normal will be out this autumn, though, and I’m so pleased, relieved, and gratified for that!