An interview with Julie Carr by Noah Eli Gordon (Issue #5: May 2012)
The following interview was conducted via email during the month of June, 2009. Julie Carr was gracious enough to share with me the manuscript version of her then forthcoming collection 100 Notes on Violence. This was originally published in The Denver Quarterly (Volume 44, Issue 3, 2010).
Noah Eli Gordon: Your new book 100 Notes on Violence is an extended serial poem, a form that seems to be your forte: your first book Mead: An Epithalamion was also a serial poem, and I’d argue that Equivocal is essentially a collection of four serial works somewhat thematically linked. When it comes to writing or shaping a book, what is it about this mode that you find so compelling?
Julie Carr: It’s tempting to talk about the serial poem in terms that Jack Spicer lays down: the poem is dictating its path to you and you follow that path rather than the other way around. The image he borrows from Robin Blaser is one I like a lot, which is of the poet wandering between dark rooms – each time you enter a new room, the light goes on, but just for a minute. Then you go into another dark room. The sections of the poem are, presumably, what you see when that light goes on.
For me, the idea to write Mead as a serial poem came out of an impulse to include the most mundane, trivial material – to be able to include materials that I would not imagine publishing as poems on their own. Since the book is about domestic life, I needed space for the fragments, for the seemingly insignificant pieces of days. In that book I got interested in the nineteenth-century figuration of domestic and public spheres: the “inside,” the domain of women and children, encompassing domestic life, emotion, sexuality, and spirituality; the “outside,” the domain of men, including markets and politics. Even though these spheres no longer pertain as such, the concept of there being an “inside,” or private life, and an “outside,” or public life, still has great power. It occurred to me that I was also thinking of my writing in these terms: inside were the pieces I considered to be real poems, outside were the mundane observations and thoughts, the overheard or read material. So seriality became a way to bring these arenas together. As I title one of the sections “the inside and the outside take hands.” A real inspiration for that book came from Coleridge’s notebooks. Profound meditations on time, poetry, mortality, and politics are interrupted by bits about his conflicted feelings of desire for Sara Hutchinson, his suffering from drug addiction, his terrible constipation, his competition with Wordsworth, and his observations of the weather.
Since then I’ve been more and more drawn to the form. I’m looking for ways to allow writing to have more freedom, to break out of patterns of control. 100 Notes on Violence is not only serial, it’s also just “notes”: I tried to keep my touch very light, as it were, to make space for things I didn’t understand, didn’t immediately like, felt were awkward or embarrassing. I’m still trying to do that in newer projects, still trying to find ways to let more in, to mediate less.
NEG: How does the freedom of writing under the banner of “notes” relate to the inclusion in the book of quotation from other poets, theorists, websites, etc?
JC: Well, in the most obvious way, I was taking notes on what I read, and these notes, often in the form of quotations, became parts of poems, or sometimes the entire poem. I was constantly aware that I was taking on a very big subject, one I was in many ways not qualified to take on. For one thing, I have lived a relatively peaceful life, and I had not, until this book, read deeply into the subject. I felt I had to let others speak for me or with me. Originally I thought of the project as more about representations of violence than about actual violence, but that changed in the writing of it. I should say also that the various kinds of outside sources have different meanings for me. It’s very different to source from a website than from, say, Dostoevsky, Whitman, or William T. Vollmann, for that matter. It feels entirely different to use a friend’s voice or tell a friend’s story, than it does to draw information from Human Rights Watch or The New York Times. So, the sourced materials have quite different motivations and meanings.
NEG: Would you talk about the feel of using a friend’s voice or telling a friend’s story? I’m thinking here specifically about section 19, which reprints a private email to you, some of the language of which is later threaded into other more lyric sections of the book. Was the author of this email aware of your future intentions? And for that matter, in your original correspondence, were you? This is to ask: how surreptitious were you in your gathering of stories, both with others and with yourself? And did you encounter doubt about the inclusion of any material, about whether it might fall too heavily into appropriation?
JC: I told many people—friends, students, and acquaintances—that I was writing a book about violence and asked them to send me any stories that they wouldn’t mind seeing in print. That email was in response to such an invitation. Nonetheless, I changed all the names and sometimes place names “to protect the innocent.” But there were other sections in which I used material that wasn’t solicited in this way. Since knowing that the book will be published, I’ve gone around asking permission of those who told me stories. I’m very worried about a couple of people who I now can’t find. So, to answer your question, yes I do encounter doubt; I have some concern about how people might feel when they see their words in print, even when they have given me permission.
I worry not at all about including the words of published authors. I trust that Dostoevsky, Whitman, Dickinson, and others won’t mind. But I do worry when using material about a real-life person who I do not know. The section that lifts from The New York Times article about a boy who was shot in front of his house concerns me, perhaps, most of all. The situation is so deeply sad—I don’t want to exploit the father’s grief. This is why I left the narrative entirely un-commented upon, entirely unadorned. I simply lifted from the Times article and left it at that. I also have concern about my own family. There is material in the book about my mother, who was, indeed, prone to rage when I was little, but I very much hope that I don’t misrepresent her. She had, of course, many other qualities as well. My hope is that the book communicates the very ubiquity of domestic violence, the insidiousness of violence in our homes and neighborhoods that seem, on the face of it, quite peaceful.
There’s been a lot of talk about appropriation these days, especially in relation to conceptual writing. I don’t use appropriation in this book out of some belief that we have arrived at a point where we need only to reframe what already exists. For me, such a stance gives too much credence to what already exists and denies the possibilities that come with new life, new thoughts, new voices. Language, as in, the English language, is remade with every speaker. I’m interested in the ways in which individuals reshape that language. Of course, one is always reshaping, whether using appropriation or not, and it can be argued that one is always appropriating, whether one knows it or not.
On the other hand, I do see the book as very much in collaboration with what exists. Included in what exists are the texts and other media that I encounter. Also existing: the world of lived experience, both mine and others. And also existing: the psychic, emotional, and aesthetic life and sensibilities of myself as a writer and of the writers I quote from. All of these go into the writing of any book, I imagine. The collage techniques of Williams, Zukofsky, and Olson have as much influence on this particular project as those of contemporary writers, such as C.D. Wright, Laynie Browne, Bernadette Mayer, and Eleni Sikelianos.
NEG: The book includes both a Works Cited and a Works Consulted page. Would you talk about your research methods, specifically about the difficulties of doing this sort of research? I’m thinking of this in light of section 23, where you write, “Because I cannot write the words ‘school shootings’/ into the little search box.” Were there things you found that you simply couldn’t stomach including?
JC: To answer the first part of the question: I read a lot—mostly anthropological and theoretical studies of violence. I returned to Dickinson and Whitman constantly because it seemed so obvious that it had to be done. At one point I was looking for a book called War against War! , which is a classic and foundational anti-war text from 1924 by Ernst Friedrich. The library at The University of Colorado had a copy in Special Collections, so I wrote to the librarians requesting the book. When I arrived, they had gathered an entire cart full of books on the topics of war, street violence, domestic violence, and crime. I wasn’t expecting these books and I was overwhelmed. At first out of politeness to the librarians who had done this work, I began to leaf through them. But soon I found myself entirely engrossed and came back day after day to read. Many of these books made it into the Works Consulted list, since I didn’t quote directly from them.
As for things I simply couldn’t look at, well, this is how the project began. In recent years I have found myself less and less able to tolerate images or text about violence. Even though I want to be informed, realistic, aware, I found myself turning off the radio, closing the newspaper, walking out on movies. Especially when the violence was aimed at children, I just could not take it. I embarked on this project in a sense to confront these fears and resistances. It’s not that I want to get used to it; it’s rather that I want to be aware, and turning away is not how one builds awareness. As a teacher of mine once said, to get to knowledge, you have to pass through grief. Actually, you have to remain with grief: they’re in the same room. Or, to quote Ecclesiastes: “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”
Nonetheless, I did draw the line at certain things. Especially when researching on-line, I had to be wary. My friend Linda Norton warned me from the start. She said, you are going into a very deep hole. Be careful. So I did not allow myself to open sites that featured child porn and I limited my exposure to other kinds of violence against children. It is true that I could not write “school shootings” into Google. I did not want to read the words of the parents. I once found myself reading accounts of abused and neglected children and stopped when I felt I was exploiting these children even though I wasn’t writing about them. It seemed, at least on that day, that I was reading these accounts for the wrong reasons. So it did get complicated. There were days when I read through my notes and wanted to throw up. I still feel that way about the book sometimes, even though it is not nearly as gruesome as it could have been. As a last point I’ll say that I purposefully avoided international violence and war. I wanted to keep the focus close to home.
NEG: The book strikes me as nearly electrified with an anxiety about violence brought on by motherhood. I believe you were working on the book at the same time you were going through the pregnancy and birth of your third child. Did the desire to “keep the focus close to home” relate to this link between an acute, pervasive awareness and worry about violence, in all of its familial and worldly conditions, and that of motherhood? In other words, does the book itself become a metaphoric version of the blindfold you mention in section 6 (“Still to do: bed, more thoughts, the thinking kind:/ whether to blindfold the children?”). And more broadly, can you talk about the link between motherhood and violence?
JC: I started this book shortly after she, Lucy, was born. But I was thinking about the topic and about writing about it long before then. My relationship to children has always been somewhat intense. Even when I was a child, I was worried about children. I had two younger sisters, and I worried about their safety a lot. My anxieties for children are not, therefore, assigned only to my own children. And to take that further, the anxieties in the book are not just about the risks or dangers that children face, but rather, those that everyone faces, though of course children are more vulnerable than adults. I don’t actually think of this as a book about motherhood, though inevitably, that’s a part of it, as it is a part of everything I do.
Motherhood brings one closer to violence in many ways. First, there is the violence at the center of pregnancy and birth. Perhaps violence is the wrong word, but giving birth is almost an obliteration of the self even while it’s an intense affirmation of selfhood. Certainly the physical pain is nearly unbearable, and the sense that one might actually split apart in order to allow this other person in has a strange parallel to violent acts, even though it is often (though not always) an act of love. And then there is the simple fact that giving birth brings you directly into contact with the thin margin between existence and non-existence. Many mothers experience violent fantasies when pregnant and when caring for infants. One finds oneself having thoughts like, “What if I just dropped the baby off of this bridge?” Or, “What if I just left the stroller in the grocery store? How long would it take for the baby to even notice?” Then there are the dreams, which are especially vivid during pregnancy, and are often about death. Later, when the kids are bigger, one experiences one’s actually violent tendencies (as opposed to dreams, fantasies, or random thoughts). Kids can inspire absolute rage, and it’s a challenge for most parents to keep that rage from becoming manifest.
The obvious answer to your question is that being a parent makes one aware of the various predators who are out there and who might get one’s kids. But it’s also important to say that being a parent makes one aware of the violence within oneself, and of the way that children sometimes seem to be devouring one’s life. We live in a culture that sees adults, especially adult men, as dangerous to children. And while that idea is often exaggerated and exploited, it’s impossible not to feel implicated by this, to notice the ways in which one is or could be dangerous to others.
I did not want to make a book about other people’s violence. I wanted it to be about a collective culpability.
NEG: There are a few moments in the book where you address the text that you’re writing—the book as it’s becoming a book—as a “compass.” Where did this particular word come from for you? I can’t help but read the intimacy inherent in such an address as an intentional echo of Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”
JC: The word “compass” came to me in a simple way. I had been referring to the book simply as “book,” and then “notebook,” and both felt clunky. I’m pretty certain I just flipped through someone else’s book, looking for a randomly sourced word-substitution. However, once “compass” came up, I thought about the phrase “moral compass,” and about William T. Vollmann’s attempt to create a “moral calculator” in his Rising Up and Rising Down, a project to which I owe an enormous debt. Vollmann is attempting to answer the question of whether or not violence is ever justified (he thinks it is). He admits the relativity of all moral calculators, but nonetheless attempts to create one.
My own book, much less ambitious than Vollmann’s (to put it mildly), is a moral compass only in that it is, as I said, an attempt to force myself into awareness (thus, not at all a blindfold; rather an attempt to rip off the blindfold). But the book is even more a compass in the following sense: it, the project, guided me further into itself. A compass keeps one “on track” when there is no track. You choose a direction and just follow it, and the compass allows you to do so. This brings me back to your original question, to Jack Spicer’s idea that the serial poem guides you, rather than you guiding it.
Donne’s compass is that other kind, a drafting compass, not a navigational compass. But I like that you brought this up: the project as the center leg, the firmness that makes my circle just. This book is so firmly “about” something – like Donne’s speaker, I had to stay focused, not wander too far off. As Donne says, “when the other far doth roam, / It leans, and hearkens after it, / And grows erect, as that comes home.”
NEG: Yes, and whereas Donne’s talking about the physical distance between lovers as breached by their firm dependence on one another, you’re presenting a kind of psychic split of the self—the “I” as the artist, the creator, and the creation as another, albeit separate, sort of self. The divide is further complicated when, in section 76, you write: “I am writing this, the reason I am afraid to write this, and the reason that writing this cannot be the only activity within any day that matters.” Would you talk about the motivation behind this split?
JC: Donne is writing about both bodies and souls, of course, and I like the idea of the book having a soul that one’s own soul, the soul of the writer, is circling around, especially since the circling leg of the compass would have a pen or pencil attached to it. There is the hinge that connects the writer to the project, but, as you say, there is also the split between the self who is writing and the self one presents (or discovers) in writing—Paul de Man describes this as the split between the literary self and the empirical self. This split allows for irony, de Man says. And Baudelaire, who also writes about exactly this split, says it’s what makes poets and philosophers able to laugh at themselves, to experience a kind of benign and divine humor. Recognizing this split allows one to write “autobiographically” with full acceptance of the artifice of all and any autobiographical writing.
Right now, though, I’m interested in that hinge—the place where the soul of the writer and the soul of the writing come together. To me the most profound moments of writing are when I return to things I have written even a day before and have no memory of having written them. The words speak to me as if from another world (again, Spicer!), and I listen to them quizzically, as I would to someone I’ve just met. I want to know what these words are telling me about my self and the world. They, the words, and me, the writer, have a relationship, but not one that I control. To return to motherhood, one makes a baby, but the baby is immediately someone else. To imaging oneself as the maker of that baby or child is ridiculous and absurd. She is a separate person with some very surprising messages to relate. The fact that this person came out of one’s own body and was created by the two bodies of the parents must be considered irrelevant, even though it is an open secret.
I think all writers recognize that what you make is both not you and no longer yours. And still, you must coax it along – thus I call the book my “sweet compass” as I would call my husband or child “sweet” in order to encourage him or her to do what I want and also in order to express my admiration and surprise for his or her individuality.
NEG: Is there a connection between these two kinds of compasses that you’ve mentioned?
JC: Donne’s compass is a metaphor for erotic love, the navigational compass is a metaphor for ethical guidance: the two are not unrelated. Especially when, by erotic, we mean—as Donne seems to—the distance (rather than the sameness) that love forces us to recognize between ourselves and others. The more tethered we are to another person the more we recognize their otherness. According to Levinas (and poets are always referencing Levinas), this is the basis of ethics. I think the same could be said for writing—the closer we grow to our own writing, the more we recognize its otherness. The Victorians used to embroider the phrase “welcome little stranger” onto blankets and other gifts for infants. This is, I think, how we should also welcome our own books: welcome little stranger.
NEG: I’m glad you bring up the Victorians, because I want to ask about your scholarly work. You did your PhD at UC-Berkeley specializing in Victorian literature. Is there a link for you between your scholarly interests and your own creative work? Do the two compete with or compliment one another?
JC: This is one of the questions I kept getting when I was on the job market! I’m pretty sure I didn’t have a good answer then, and I don’t have a great one now either. But I will say that specializing in Victorian poetry means that I know something about a group of poets few of my peers care much about, and that I like. Hopkins would be the obvious influence, on my work and on the work of many, but he’s certainly not a representative Victorian poet. Dante Rossetti wrote some outrageous, beautiful, and very strange sonnets in The House of Life, which I can’t recommend often or highly enough. And for me, “In Memoriam” is a foundational poem. I read it first in a bathtub when I was in college, and cried. Tennyson can still make me cry (“the far off interest of tears”). Christina Rossetti is much stranger and more interesting than even “Goblin Market” suggests.
But a more serious answer is to say that the period is one of great political transformation while at the same time, the movement in the arts as you near the end of the century is toward aestheticism and abstraction. I find this tension to be fascinating in their time and in ours. One of the ongoing questions of my critical work is, how do poets seemingly engaging mostly aesthetic or personal matters, like Dante Rossetti for example, actually manifest or push toward critique? I’m curious about the intricate and complex surface patterns in the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorians, and curious about how these surfaces, to quote Olson here, “involve a stance toward reality outside a poem as well as a new stance towards the reality of a poem itself.” Robert Kaufman addresses these questions in his work on Romantic and twentieth century poets with more intelligence, verve, and originality than does any other critic I know of. My hope is that I can do something even remotely as interesting for the Victorian poets.
In making my own work I draw from the Victorians an interest in three sometimes competing, sometimes mutually supporting elements: the surface pleasures, absurdities, and complexities of language itself; personal and emotionally grounded material; and the social relevance of that material or the critical thought that it might engender. This all sounds very earnest, but I hope I’ve learned something from Oscar Wilde too about irreverence and irony. You know, Dante Rossetti could also be very satirical and funny, but I’m pretty sure Hopkins never cracked a joke, at least not in writing.
NEG: I pretty clearly sense that triad of interest in 100 Notes. To move a little deeper into your own background, it’s my understanding that you were heavily involved in dance before coming to poetry. I’ve always found the lack of physicality in writing to be annoying, so much so that I’ll sometimes go on what I call poetry walks, if only to try and retain a connection to the body while writing. Does your history with dance inform your poetry? Has it opened up your sense of pacing or the line?
JC: I have a few answers to this question. The first is about discipline. Dance training is all about showing up. You can’t skip class, or get out of shape, and then just do the performance. You have to dance more or less every day, and that discipline works its way into all aspects of your life (sometimes to ill effect). The various techniques I studied were less rigid than many (for instance, I did little ballet, and avoided the very strict modern forms like Graham and Horton technique), but all technique requires constant application. I learned early on that I could dance no matter how tired I was, or what kind of mood I was in. This constancy has helped me tremendously as a writer. I feel plenty of self-doubt, am often exhausted, sometimes bored, but I don’t allow that to get in the way of actually writing: on the contrary, I use these feelings to motivate me.
The second answer has to do with the particular aesthetic education I got from the dance world I was part of. I studied and practiced with dancers who were part of, or descendent from, the Judson Church era: Steven Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Lisa Nelson, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham: in short, the leaders of avant garde and experimental dance from the early seventies on. These people invented their own techniques, techniques which respected the body’s natural relationship to gravity and momentum, and created dances which were based in chance operations, improvisation, and, sometimes, pedestrian movement. Many of their pieces were site specific, some demanded audience participation. From them and their students I learned how to value juxtaposition, the unexpected, the uneven: how to read collage, how to love abstraction. Then, since I was performing in the downtown scene in New York—PS122, Dancespace Project, DTW, DIA, The Kitchen—I was naturally exposed to other art forms that were operating within those same spaces. Even though in those years I was not part of the poetry scene in New York, I was certainly aware of it and went to readings, and some of the poets (like Edwin Torres and Eileen Myles) were collaborating with dancers, and I met them that way. As a curator of an enormous improvisation festival for seven years, I got to invite poets to participate, and so made some early inroads.
Many of the dancers I worked with were interested in creating dance-theater: works that incorporated dramatic impulses, character, and, often, text. Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson were huge heroes of ours. Because I wrote, I often found myself creating texts for dances I was in, or, sometimes, for dances I wasn’t in. I grew very curious about when text and dance worked well together and when they didn’t. It became apparent that it was when the relationship between the two was most open, least dictated, but not entirely arbitrary – that the audience was allowed to feel, rather than feel oppressed by, the connections between language and movement. For example, I think of a work by the amazing choreographer Ann Carlson in which she danced to a recording of her voice counting. The numbers meant so many things, but most of all they signified time, and thus, death and the attempt to control time in order to control death. None of this was explicit. It was extremely delicate. I think I have tried to maintain this delicacy in my written works. I’m not interested in pure abstraction, but I am interested in narratives that are sometimes more felt than imposed.
Finally, I practiced a lot of improvisation, both on stage and in the studio as a means toward creating choreography. This practice helped me to develop a pretty high tolerance for not knowing exactly what I am doing. However, improvising movement does not mean you just do whatever you feel like; there is always some kind of structure to follow. But most of the time, that structure would be pretty abstract – having to do with time, numbers, and space (rather than with dramatic intent or emotional content). I think this is directly applicable to the practice of writing. Even when writing something as content-driven as 100 Notes on Violence, I rely very heavily on the structures I set up, allowing for maximum freedom of content. Improvisers learn that tight structures (whether self-imposed or imposed from outside, like the jazz standard) allow for deeper and fuller range. If there’s no structure at all, then one generally just repeats one’s habits. We call that noodling, and while it can be fun, it’s the most boring thing in the world to watch. So, to sum up, I’d say dance taught me a lot about the balancing of discipline—or structure—and freedom, and taught me to hunger after both.
NEG: I’m curious about what prompted the move from writing text as dance accompaniment to writing poetry? You mentioned having been taken with Tennyson in college, when did you become, more or less, a fulltime poet? and how did this conversion happen?
JC: This is a more complicated question than it seems. I always wanted to write, and pretty much saw dance as a step along the way, though, for me, a necessary one. I was an English major in college and had written all throughout my childhood, starting with Emily Dickinson imitations and limericks. My mother kept books of poetry in the house and was always a great reader, so many of my most profound reading experiences as a child and teenager were of poetry, which is unusual.
But one answer to your question is that I was pregnant with my first child in 1997 and could not justify or afford getting paid five dollars an hour for rehearsals (when I was lucky), while paying the babysitter 10. Not that I was getting paid to write poetry! But I was paid to teach writing to kids in public schools through Teachers and Writers Collaborative and a couple of other organizations. And then I started teaching composition at NYU and was drawn more and more into the classroom as a place of great discovery, possibility, and community. Intellectual curiosity, career ambition, and desire for a change of scene: It seemed a logical next step to apply to Ph.D. programs, and with that, to stop dancing. Tim and I got married, and he was interested in checking out California, so we chose Berkeley.
The less nuts and bolts answer to your question is to say that it was becoming clear to me that there were limits to what I could talk about through dance. Some dancers (K.J. Holmes, Jennifer Monson, Jonathan Kinsell, Steve Paxton, Lisa Race, David Dorfman) seem able to say pretty much anything and everything with movement. I didn’t feel I had that range. Writing presents endless possibilities, which is both scary and exciting. So I went there to find out how many of these I could access. My curiosity about poems (my own and other people’s) is constant and constantly growing.
NEG: Is it this curiosity that prompted the creation of Counterpath Press, the publishing enterprise you founded along with your husband Tim (Roberts)? In just a few years the press has already released an impressive catalogue of over a dozen full-length titles. Would you talk about the aims of the press? Does working collaboratively on such a venture with your husband present any unique challenges or benefits?
JC: “A city must remain open to what it knows about what it doesn’t yet know about what it will be”
This is the last sentence of the quote from Derrida that we have on the Counterpath website. It’s meaningful to us in a number of ways. First is the metaphor we are implying: a press is like a city because it is a confluence of people, paths, constructions, voices, and ideas which sometimes come into a kind of harmony, or seem to (“Everything suddenly honks: it’s 12:40 of a Thursday”) and sometimes seem to be in a kind of beautiful discord. But this quote also reminds us that we started the press in order to be surprised by where it might take us, in order, in a sense, to learn from the authors we publish something about what seems necessary to do. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are passive or without judgment or plan. But it does mean that at every moment, especially when we are deciding about a manuscript, we try to drop our preconceptions about who we are as a press (therefore as readers, as people) in order to see who we might become.
So, yes, curiosity is one motivation. But another is to participate in creating and supporting literary culture at its most vibrant edges. The name “counterpath” comes from Derrida and Catherine Malabou’s book of that title which Tim worked on as a production manager at Stanford University Press. The book is a collaboration, and one across genders at that, so serves as an appropriate starting point. The word counterpath is, in French, contre-allee, and refers to the side road or alley that runs alongside the main road. The word in English suggests going against the main road (or mainstream), but in French suggests going alongside it, being always in relationship to it. There is really no way, or no productive way, to divorce oneself from mainstream culture, either as a writer or a publisher (certainly not as a parent!). One has to contend with and engage what is going on in a broader sense in our society. But we do imagine the press as creating alternate possibilities for readers and writers.
Running the New York Improvisation Festival for seven years taught me a great deal about how to survive as an artist. And by survive, I don’t mean pay the bills. The event brought over 80 performers from around the world to New York for two weeks each year, and my partner, Sondra Loring, and I organized performances, workshops and jams all over the city. What I learned from that experience is that when you participate in your chosen art by making things possible for other people, that’s when your own work grows, that’s when you can invest in the field with full participation. The striving ego gets stomped on by the demands of making things happen, and this frees you to really make work without as much self doubt or anxiety.
As far as my collaboration with Tim goes, the benefits are almost entirely on my side, since Tim has been working in publishing for many years and knows whatever there is to know about book production. He has a very clear vision and seems better than I am at sensing which manuscripts will really move us in a new direction. The challenges are, I suspect, the same challenges anyone faces within a marriage or partnership: power struggles, time struggles, periodic failures of communication. But I rely on Tim’s commitment to keeping possibilities open and his ability to carry a huge amount of the workload. I think he relies on me to be a kind of spokesperson for the press and to do a lot of the actual book editing, a process I greatly enjoy. I recommend spousal collaboration. It’s good to have something to talk about other than children or dishes or home repair.
NEG: Speaking of spousal collaboration and making things happen for other people, along with Tim, you’ve been hosting a poetics reading group out of your home in Denver for the last year and a half or so. I’ve been lucky enough to be a regular participant, but I’m hoping you might talk about the impetus behind forming the group, and your sense of the importance of community among writers. And perhaps how all of your various activities—as a teacher, writer, publisher, etc.—reflect this importance.
JC: Working in the margins of culture, even when one is fully committed to the value of the work, means that we rely that much more on each other for support. This is, I think, a good thing for the art. I don’t believe that writing for a small group of readers makes one irrelevant. Such a claim really disregards the history of literature and of art in general. Sometimes we are writing with a larger audience in mind, sometimes for just a few people, sometimes just for one! But there has to be that one. Otherwise it’s all inhale and no exhale. Someone has to receive the work in order for new work to emerge. The community receives it, if we are lucky. When I was first writing, all that mattered to me was that the 10 or so people I’d send my work to read it and liked it. I valued their opinions immensely, even though at that time not one of us had published a book.
Our current reading group makes me ridiculously happy. I’ve always wanted my home and family to be open to others – to offer a place where people can come for intellectual and creative companionship – on those Sunday nights, that’s what it is. William Morris’s Utopia, as he describes it in News from Nowhere, does away with private property (of course), but the spaces where people gather for meals are always filled with conversation, debate, and children who run around being loud and interruptive. He considers that somewhat chaotic scene to be a necessary part of the ideal society. This is the model I keep in mind, not just on those Sunday nights when the kids keep breaking in to ask for more dessert, but whenever the chaos of family life seems to be impeding on my work as a teacher, writer, or publisher.
I try to recognize and cultivate the connections between these various aspects of my life and to allow my sense of time and space to be large enough to include all of it all of the time. Teaching, then, is an extension of writing and reading, not an interruption. Publishing, even when most mundane, is also an extension of writing. And helping to create community is simply the most important (and pleasurable) way that I can nourish my own participation in all of these arenas.