Interviews

Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88

Interviewed by Will Aitken

Anne Carson and I first met in 1988 at a writers’ workshop in Canada, and have been reading each other’s work ever since. The interview that follows is a mix of our usual conversation and discussion about topics that preoccupy Carson’s work—mysticism, antiquity, obsession, desire.

Carson was born on June 21, 1950, in Toronto, the second and final child of Margaret and Robert Carson. Her mother was a housewife; her father worked for the Toronto Dominion Bank. During her childhood, the family moved about from bank to bank in small Ontario towns like Stoney Creek, Port Hope, Timmins.

In the 1970s Carson studied classics at the University of Toronto and then ancient Greek with the renowned classical scholar Kenneth Dover at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1981, she returned to the University of Toronto to write a Ph.D. dissertation on Sappho, which later became Eros the Bittersweet— a brief, dense treatise on lack’s centrality to desire. Today, Carson lives in Ann Arbor, where she teaches classics and comparative literature at the University of Michigan.

Although she has always been reluctant to call herself a poet, Carson has been writing some heretic form of poetry almost all her life. Her work is insistent and groundbreaking, a blend of genres and styles that for years failed to attract notice. In the late eighties, a few literary magazines in the United States began to publish her work. Canadian venues were considerably less welcoming, and it was not until Carson was forty-two that a small Canadian publisher, Brick Books, published her first book of poems, Short Talks.

By the mid-nineties, Carson was no longer trying to find publishers; rather, publishers were clamoring to find her. In short order, three collections of poems and essays appeared— Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995); Glass, Irony and God (1995); Men in the Off Hours (2000)—as well as a verse novel, Autobiography of Red (1998), which seamlessly blends Greek myth, homosexuality, and small-town Ontario life. Two ostensibly academic books followed: Economy of the Unlostand and her translation of Sappho’s poetry, If Not,Winter, both in 2002.

Awards and accolades came tumbling in: a Guggenheim Fellowship (1995); a Lannan Award (1996); the Pushcart Prize (1997); a MacArthur Fellowship (2000); and the Griffin Prize for Poetry (2001). In 2002 Carson became the first woman to receive England’s T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos.

For the past several years, Carson has been working on a spoken-word opera about three women mystics—Aphrodite, the fourteenth-century French heretic Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil. Next year, Random House will publish Decreation—the eponymously titled opera—alongside new poems and essays.

We started the following interview just after Christmas in 2002. Exhausted by the joyous demands of the season, Carson stretched out on an orange velveteen sofa and we talked—fortified by cups of oolong tea—for several hours.

 

INTERVIEWER

I want to start with the poem that I always think is called “I Want to be Unbearable,” but that’s not the right title.

CARSON

Right, it’s called “Stanzas, Sexes, Seduction.”

INTERVIEWER

There was a line that stopped me right in the middle of that poem: “My personal poetry is a failure.” It made me wonder two things: What do you call your personal poetry? And do you really feel it’s a failure or is that a function of the persona of the poem?

CARSON

There are different gradations of personhood in different poems. Some of them seem far away from me and some up close, and the up-close ones generally don’t say what I want them to say. And that’s true of the persona in the poem who’s lamenting this as a fact of a certain stage of life. But it’s also true of me as me.

INTERVIEWER

When you look back on ”The Glass Essay” do you consider it a personal poem? Do you see it as a failure?

CARSON

I see it as a messing around on upper levels with things that I wanted to make sense of at a deeper level. I do think I have an ability to record sensual and emotional facts and factoids, to construct a convincing surface of what life feels like, both physical life and emotional life. But when I wrote things like “The Glass Essay” I also wanted to do something that I call understanding what life feels like, and I don’t believe I did. I also don’t know what it would be to do that, but if I read Virginia Woolf or George Eliot describing emotional facts of people, it seems there’s a fragrance of understanding you come away with—this smell in your head of having gone through something that you understood with people in the story. When I think about my writing, I don’t feel that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you don’t feel it because even though you’ve written about it, it’s still part of your ongoing personal experience?

CARSON

Well that’s possible. But how can one ever judge those things?

INTERVIEWER

Or that your personal poetry, to you personally, is a failure, but it might be a success for everybody else who picks it up?

CARSON

I think so because this capturing of the surface of emotional fact is useful for other people in that it jolts them into thinking, into doing their own act of understanding. But I still don’t think I finished the thinking.

INTERVIEWER

The other line, the one I persist in using as the title of the poem despite your efforts, “I want to be unbearable,” is one of the most startling lines you’ve ever written. I thought it was exact and expressive of you as a writer.

CARSON

I remember that sentence driving at me in the dark like a glacier. I felt like a ship going toward the South Pole and then all of a sudden a glacier comes zooming out of the dark, and I just took it down. I appreciate that it’s accurate of what I both have and choose to have as my effect on people. I don’t know exactly why that’s the case.

INTERVIEWER

You once said you meant “unbearable” in a metaphysical sense.

CARSON

Well, yes, it couldn’t be physical, could it? Unless I went around hammering people.

INTERVIEWER

There are those days.

CARSON

With sharp objects. It’s true, that’s why I go to boxing class, to learn those skills, but that’s just, of course, shadow boxing, as they say.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t actually get to hit anyone?

CARSON

You don’t hit anyone, no.

INTERVIEWER

But you often think about hitting someone?

CARSON

In boxing class, yes. That’s why I go. It’s always a surprise who turns up, in the mind, to be hit. It’s not usually the people you expect.

INTERVIEWER

Does your teacher encourage you to shout out names of people who are the target?

CARSON

No, but that would be a good idea.

INTERVIEWER

My teacher did that. Except I was in a class of mainly women, and they were shouting out “George,” and “Fred,” and “Tom,” and so I suddenly got into the spirit and yelled out, “Pierre!” And there was this pause. And then all the rest of the class yelled, “Pierre!” and we all slugged Pierre for a while.

CARSON

That’s good, though being unbearable hardly ever leads to that kind of group merriment. It’s a more solitary activity. But I don’t actually know what it is to be unbearable. I do think that something of the effect I have on people is to put everything on an edge where they’re both infatuated with a kind of charmingness happening in the person or in the writing, and also flatly terrified by a revelation or acceptance of revelation that’s almost happening, never quite totally happening.

INTERVIEWER

A kind of glare.

CARSON

Yes, a glare from behind the set where I’m standing. So if I’m a little actor on stage, there’s this terrible glare coming from behind me. And they feel that. And I don’t have to feel it, but I’m aware of it going past me towards them, and I see dismay on their faces mixed with this other thing. I think that’s why sometimes I am spooky to people. Because this glare is mixed with an infantile charm that disarms, so they have to deal with both.

INTERVIEWER

But what is that glare?

CARSON

I don’t know. It’s just absolute dread. It’s bumping up against the fact that you die alone. You think about that from time to time all through life, and it continues to make no sense against all the little efforts you make in your life to be happy and have friends and pass the time.

INTERVIEWER

Does everybody carry that glare around with them, or is it just more evident behind you?

CARSON

I think everybody can have access to it, only they mask it for themselves in different ways. I have fewer ways to mask it for some reason.

INTERVIEWER

Most people are not aware that you’re a visual artist as well as a verbal artist. You make books—a single book that you make for one person or another. I remember when we were going through the Ontario countryside, and everything was white, and at one point you pointed off in the distance and said, “I used to live there,” I think it was Port Hope? I looked out and thought, Nobody used to live there. There was just nothing there. Then you handed me this white book that you’d made for your brother Michael.

CARSON

When I go on the train from here to Toronto I always dread that passing of Port Hope because it was a place we lived for six, seven years and my parents for about fifteen years and my brother intermittently, so the book, because it’s about him, is connected to that place in some ways. But it’s a place where everyone’s life fell apart. That’s too strong. It was a place where we all, my brother and I, met the end of our adolescence. So that’s a serious order.

INTERVIEWER

But you wrote the book as a way of mourning your brother?

CARSON

Yes, I wrote the book because when my brother died I hadn’t seen him for twenty-two years, and he was a mystery to me, and he died suddenly in another country, and I had a need to gather up the shards of his story and make it into something containable. So it’s a lament in the sense of an attempt to contain a person after they’re no longer reachable.

INTERVIEWER

And it was based on a classical lament.

CARSON

It’s based on a poem of Catallus, the Roman poet, first century BC, whose brother died in Troy when Catallus was living in Italy. Catallus traveled to Troy, in Asia Minor, and buried him and wrote a poem about him, which has the refrain in it, ave etque vale (goodbye and farewell). In my book I printed out the text of the poem, and then took it apart. T.S. Eliot once said, “Poetry is punctuation.” I just read that in an article. It was followed by a quote from Jacques Laçan: “The reason we go to poetry is not for wisdom, but for the dismantling of wisdom,” which I thought was totally cool. So in this book, I dismantled the Catallus poem, one word per page, and I put the Latin word and its lexical definition on the left-hand side, and then on the right-hand side a fragment of memory of my brother’s life that related to the left-hand side of the page. Where the lexical entry didn’t relate, I changed it. So I smuggled in stuff to the left-hand side that is somewhat inauthentic. But it makes the left and the right cohere, so that the whole thing tells the story of the translation of the poem, and also dismantles my memory of my brother’s life.

INTERVIEWER

And you also used photographs?

CARSON

Yes, I used some photos of our family life, bits of text from his letters, actual pieces of the letters, some of my mother’s answers to his letters, paint, plastic, staples and other decorative items on the right-hand side. I also tried to give the book, on the left hand side, a patina of age—because it’s supposed to be an old Roman poem—by soaking the pages in tea, which added a mysterious sepia overtone.

INTERVIEWER

I was wondering about your preference for things that are old and battered, flawed and tattered.

CARSON

In surfaces, perfection is less interesting. For instance, a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains. Because the tea stains add a bit of history. It’s a historical attitude. After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage and I admire that, the combination of layers of time that you have when looking at a papyrus that was produced in the third century BC and then copied and then wrapped around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in a museum and pieced together by nine different gentlemen and put back in the museum and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those layers add up to more and more life. You can approximate that in your own life. Stains on clothing.

INTERVIEWER

In Michael’s book, you also used only the backgrounds of family photos.

CARSON

In most cases that’s true. I found that the front of most of our family photos look completely banal, but the backgrounds were dreadful, terrifying, and full of content. So I cut out the backgrounds, especially the parts where shadows from the people in the front fell into the background in mysterious ways. The backgrounds are full of truth.

INTERVIEWER

Did it help you to understand your brother?

CARSON

No. I don’t think it had any effect whatsoever on my understanding. Another failure of the personal, I guess. I finally decided that understanding isn’t what grief is about. Or laments. They’re just about making something beautiful out of the ugly chaos you’re left with when someone dies. You want to make that good. And for me, making it good means making it into an object that’s exciting and beautiful to look at.

INTERVIEWER

I think it’s interesting that you said object. I remember the first poem you gave me to read, “Total Collection,” about Noah collecting the animals for the ark. I got about four lines into it and I realized it kept getting thicker and deeper and harsher. It didn’t feel like a poem, it felt like falling into a painting, or as if someone had handed me a jewel.

CARSON

Yes, that you travel inside of. I think that’s what poems are supposed to do, and I think it’s what the ancients mean by imitation. When they talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.

INTERVIEWER

So it’s an act.

CARSON

It’s an action. It’s a practice.

INTERVIEWER

It’s an action for both the writer and the reader.

CARSON

Yes, it is, exactly, and they share it artificially. The writer does it a long time ago, but you still feel when you’re in it that you’re moving with somebody else’s mind through an action.

INTERVIEWER

Can you remember when you first felt compelled to commit that action?

CARSON

I don’t know when I thought of it as that, as mimesis, but I remember in grade two when we had to draw pictures of a barnyard one day, and the teacher said we could put a story on it if we wanted to, to explain our barnyard. That was quite a breakthrough moment. Putting the story as well as the picture together. And when I did my first book of poems, Short Talks, when I first produced that as a manuscript to try to publish it, it was drawings. A set of drawings that had at first just titles, and then I expanded the titles a bit and then gradually realized nobody was interested in the drawings and I just took the titles off and then they were pellets of a lecture.

INTERVIEWER

So the trout poem originally had trout in it? Like drawn trout?

CARSON

The trout poem has a picture of a fisherman. I have the manuscript at home, with all the drawings. No one ever liked my drawings. I don’t think I was that good. Maybe I could have been good as a drawer if I had done it as much as I did writing, but it’s more scary to draw. It’s more revealing. You can’t disguise yourself in drawing.

INTERVIEWER

I always assumed that because writing was your main thing, you did drawing as a kind of relaxation.

CARSON

No, I don’t.

INTERVIEWER

The writing’s a relaxation.

CARSON

It is. It’s play by comparison. Drawing is quite, quite naked. Horrifyingly naked. But I’ve always felt that if I could have forced myself to draw every day I’d be a better person. That it would pull me into an honesty and diligence about honesty that I otherwise slack off from. I also get very happy when I’m drawing, even when working on Michael’s book, which was a completely melancholy subject matter. I felt so happy, just fulfilled.

INTERVIEWER

And you never feel that when you’re writing?

CARSON

No, rarely. Maybe for a second, or a moment here or there, but not in any sustained way. It doesn’t gather up my being the way making an object does. Which goes back to your previous point, that even when the thing I’m doing is just writing I try to make it into an object. Try to make it something to look at or experience as well as read, so I worry about the topography and spacing, and just the presentation of it.

INTERVIEWER

When I went back to reread Autobiography of Red, I realized that it’s a story from all these different angles and interviews, and as the reader you have to keep shifting perspective. So it’s like architecture more than a conventional novel.

CARSON

That’s a good analogy. I think that book is like architecture because the poem, the original ancient poem which does exist, is in the center. But there’s nothing I could do with that, no adequate representation of it I could give, so I made up all these angles for it—the novel itself and the interview and the translation in the preface. So there are ways of moving into and out of a room from other rooms in the building, but really what I want to show is glimpses of that main room in the center.

INTERVIEWER

So that there is a rotunda and you take us down all the halls leading to it.

CARSON

The archaic lyric rotunda.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your life as a gay man.

CARSON

It’s been a somewhat checkered career as a gay man. I was never totally successful. I think it started in high school, when in grade ten or eleven I developed a fascination with Oscar Wilde. Some of my friends shared this fascination so we used to dress like Oscar Wilde and memorize his aphorisms and construct conversations in the lunchroom, as if we were Oscar Wilde and his friends.

But I don’t know how it developed. I can’t exactly remember why I fixated on Oscar Wilde, but I did feel that it gave me an education in aesthetic sensibility, and also a kind of irony towards oneself that was useful in later life, an ongoing carapace of irony that I think lots of gay men develop in order to get through their social and personal lives, and which I found useful for myself, too.

INTERVIEWER

There are two places in your books where the persona is a gay man or a gay boy. There’s Autobiography of Red where Geryon falls in love with Heracles and the little ménage á trois in Peru and all that, but also “The Anthropology of Water” in Plainwater.

CARSON

Oh, you think that’s a man?

INTERVIEWER

You identify yourself as a man at one point.

CARSON

That’s the other thing about being a gay man. Model yourself on Oscar Wilde and you just lie all the time.

INTERVIEWER

I remember I thought I was reading about you, and your kind of resentment/adoration of the older man who took you on a pilgrimage to Compostela, and then at some point in the essay you suddenly say something that indicates you’re a young man.

CARSON

I see. Yes, that may be true. I haven’t read that for a while. I’m sure it is true. I guess I’ve never felt entirely female, but then probably lots of people don’t. But I think that at different times in my life I located myself in different places on the gender spectrum, and for many years, throughout my thirties which is when I did that pilgrimage, I didn’t have any connection to the female gender. I wouldn’t say I exactly felt like a man, but when you’re talking about yourself you only have these two options. There’s no word for the “floating” gender in which we would all like to rest. The neuter comes up in the unbearable poem, the neuter gender, but that doesn’t really capture it because you don’t feel neuter, you feel just wrong. Wrong vis-à-vis the gender you’re supposed to be in, wrong vis-à-vis the other one, and so what are you?

Historically we use man for people of any gender because men win. So it’s useful to do that when cornered.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t have much interest in feminism when you first came to Montreal. But then you joined a group of women who got together and read. What shifted?

CARSON

Did I do that? That was brave of me.

INTERVIEWER

At first you were skeptical, even hostile, because the other women were quite feminist. But then something happened and next I knew, you were writing about women in dirt.

CARSON

Oh, yes. Yes, true, there was some kind of a sequence there. Well, let’s see, how does that seem to me now? I think that for a long time, I was just a solipsist. It’s not really that I was not a feminist, or didn’t understand feminism—I didn’t understand masculinism either—but that I just didn’t understand being human. And it’s a problem of extended adolescence: You don’t know how to be yourself as a part of a category, so you just have to be yourself as a completely strange individual and fight off any attempt others make to define you. I think most people go through that by the time they’re seventeen, but for me it extended to about forty. Until recently, I didn’t have friends I could relax around and be just as weird as I wanted to be. Now I do—people who didn’t leave the relationship as a result of me being weird. And my experience with men is that if they don’t like you, they leave.

INTERVIEWER

Is that what you meant when you said you think of yourself as evil?

CARSON

That may be another, more melodramatic way to describe this. “Evil” and “good” are terms I use from time to time, when I’m trying to shock myself into some better thinking. But it’s less about evil or good than about accepting your limitations. When I began to look at my limitations and accept them, I was able to move into being a person of gender, or thinking about it historically. After that came those essays like “The Gender of Sound” and “Dirt and Desire,” which are essentially anthropological investigations of female gender and its limits.

INTERVIEWER

In Autobiography of Red, there’s the sense that Geryon is evil, a monster. This is his own sense of self, it doesn’t come from anybody else. The same seems true of your conception of yourself. I wonder where that comes from. Part of the answer is obviously explored in “Dirt and Desire.” There’s this idea of women as being--

CARSON

Polluted.

INTERVIEWER

Polluted, uncontainable, they flow all over everything, they have holes, you always have to keep them in or they’ll just flood.

CARSON

Leak all over.

INTERVIEWER

That’s the historical answer, but is there a personal answer, as well?

CARSON

I don’t know. I was drawn to the Geryon story because of his monstrosity, although it’s something of a cliché to say that we all think we’re monsters. But it does have to do with gender, though I don’t know what it is about growing up female that makes one think: monster.

INTERVIEWER

Well, it’s certainly part of growing up gay.

CARSON

Yes. Perhaps that’s why I use the Geryon story rather than a story about a female monster. I could have written a novel about Medusa, but there’s something more narratable—is that a word?—and romantic and graspable about the monstrosity of the gay man, now, for us, in this moment of culture. Maybe the monstrosity of being female is just too huge an issue. It’s been going on for so long.

INTERVIEWER

I remember, and it wasn’t that long ago, when you couldn’t get arrested as a writer. You couldn’t get people to take your writing seriously. You used to say, “I’m going to be famous fifteen minutes after I’m dead.” But that’s all shifted in the last five years, and I wonder what kind of difference that’s made to you, again both personally and professionally, or if you think it has?

CARSON

Doesn’t make a lot of difference. It’s nice to be met at airports, I’ll say that. It has not made much difference inside the writing, either, except that I feel somewhat freer to do anything I want, and that’s both bad and good. Good in the sense that it’s an exploratory space, bad in the sense that I’m not sure anybody really thinks about judging me the same way as before. There isn’t a blank space in which the judgment happens, there’s a ready-made space, a judgment already there that you either live up to or don’t. It’s already altered by the time you enter.

INTERVIEWER

I remember sending your work to various literary shows and editors. The responses I got when anybody bothered to respond was just complete bewilderment. “But this isn’t poetry, this is clearly prose. This is in paragraphs, I can tell the difference between prose and poetry.” And they would just be completely dismissive.

CARSON

Yes, and since then there’s been what people call a paradigm shift, which means now you can’t do anything wrong, but which really means people are offering equally blind judgments of the work. I don’t know why that happens. I guess people are just afraid to think. They like to have a category that’s ready so they can say: “Okay, now we know this is good, we can enjoy it.”

INTERVIEWER

Did winning the MacArthur have a similar kind of effect? I know it didn’t lead to a more lavish lifestyle.

CARSON

How do you mean? I think I bought some socks. I bought socks and I bought a new pillowcase. Also, they let me in the bank at any hour now. Even after the door is bared they rush up and usher me to the back room. I find that charming. Otherwise not much difference. I’ve been able to pay people, though. That was good. I did some collaborative work last year and I was able to pay people to work with me, which I found satisfying.

INTERVIEWER

You have an interesting theory about money.

CARSON

It’s not that interesting. It’s just the inverse of the usual theory, which is that all money, indeed all numbers in life, should get to be bigger. But it doesn’t make sense that they should get bigger—why bigger?—so if you just switch it around and think all numbers should get smaller, it makes life better.

INTERVIEWER

Your dad was a banker.

CARSON

He was, yes. Dad didn’t take this view, I have to say. He didn’t understand my attitude to money very much.

INTERVIEWER

What was his attitude to money?

CARSON

Complicated. I don’t think that I grasped it. I only know that whenever we had conversations about economic affairs, we would end up sitting at the table, either at home or in a restaurant, surrounded by napkins covered with calculations, which he would continue to write as we moved out the door, adding calculations to the napkins. It was a situation of total dismay for us both.

INTERVIEWER

He didn’t start out as a banker, though?

CARSON

He wanted to be an engineer, but his father died when he was in high school, and since he was the eldest son, he had to go to work to support the family. He did that right out of high school and then joined the airforce in the war. When he got back and got married, he had to continue working in the bank to support his family. So he was trapped in the bank his whole life; I don’t think it ever made him happy.

INTERVIEWER

He was an itinerant banker?

CARSON

All bankers are itinerant in the Canadian system because it’s their policy to move managers every three years. To give them experience with different communities and kinds of banking. It’s hard on the family, good for the bank.

INTERVIEWER

So you were in a new school every three years?

CARSON

Pretty much, yes. Which I do believe added to my survival skills. I remember thinking one day as we were driving out the driveway and I was waving goodbye to my best friends, who were lined up beside my house, whom I would never see again, I remember thinking, Well the next time I go somewhere I’m just not gonna make friends; there’s really no future in it. And there was a sense of closing in, closing gates.

INTERVIEWER

And did you not make any new friends in the next town?

CARSON

I did, but it gets a little more gingerly as time goes on. At least half of your mind is always thinking, I’ll be leaving; this won’t last. It’s a good Buddhist attitude. It prepares you for life as a Buddhist. If I were a Buddhist, this would be a great help. As it is, I’m just sad.

INTERVIEWER

You would be well on the road to enlightenment if you were a Buddhist.

CARSON

Instead, I’ve avoided enlightenment resolutely.

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to talk a little bit about your discovery of ancient Greece. You first started studying Greek in high school?

CARSON

Yes. Grade thirteen.

INTERVIEWER

Was it immediately apparent that it was changing your life?

CARSON

Yes, immediately. Mrs. Cowan started to teach me Greek—she was our Latin teacher in high school, in Port Hope—but she also knew Greek, so she offered to teach me because she found out I was interested in it, so we did it on our lunch hour.

INTERVIEWER

There wasn’t a Greek class?

CARSON

No. No one was interested except me. We read Sappho together, and it was simply revolutionary. I don’t know every language in the world—maybe if I knew Sanskrit and Chinese I would think differently—but there’s something about Greek that seems to go deeper into words than any modern language. So that when you’re reading it, you’re down in the roots of where words work, whereas in English we’re at the top of the tree, in the branches, bouncing around. It was stunning to me, a revelation. And it continues to be stunning, continues to be like a harbor always welcoming. Strange, but welcoming.

INTERVIEWER

That must be really nice, to have that place to go to.

CARSON

It is. I’m sure it’s part of what mental health I have. A large part. It’s a home. It’s a home in my mind. And then to be able to make my living at it is a great benevolence of the universe.

INTERVIEWER

A lot of people say the ancient Greeks are really our contemporaries. Spiritually, I mean.

CARSON

I don’t feel much direct relevance of ancient things to modern things. It was the temper of the times, especially in the seventies and eighties when I was getting my degree and teaching, to claim that the project of being a classicist was to find relevance to antiquity and invent courses that convinced students that you could learn everything you needed to know about modern life from studying the ancient Greeks. Well, this is bizarre, to say the least. What’s entrancing about the Greeks is that you get little glimpses, little latches of similarity, embedded in unbelievable otherness, in this huge landscape of strange convictions about the world and reactions to life that make no sense at all.

INTERVIEWER

So there’s this dense otherness that you just want to find out about. Whether it’s relevant is besides the point.

CARSON

One thing I do understand about the Greeks is that they, too, understood this and valued it. That is what the god Dionysus is as a principle—the principle of being up against something so other that it bounces you out of yourself to a place where, nonetheless, you are still in yourself; there’s a connection to yourself as another. It’s what they call "ecstasy." The Greeks invented this concept, but they also embody it for us, which may just be just our utilitarian approach to them. But who can say. We are always going to be looking at the Greeks and figuring out who they are in relation to what we are. We can’t get out and be in a third place and judge both of us.

INTERVIEWER

From a nice objective place?

CARSON

There is no objective place, just like there is no third gender; you’ve got to be in one place or the other.

INTERVIEWER

Can we discuss the fragment from Sappho that you first wrote about in Eros the Bittersweet, and then in your opera, Decreation?

CARSON

Fragment 31?

INTERVIEWER

Fragment 31. Which in Eros the Bittersweet you use as an illustration of Eros’s lack. Sappho is at table with a man and a young woman, and she’s envying the man because he’s infatuated with the young woman, and so is Sappho. It’s this very fleshly triangle. And then when you come back to it in Decreation it’s an almost completely new reading of the poem in spiritual terms.

CARSON

Oh, that’s perplexing. Let’s see. The difference between the two readings derives simply from ignoring or taking account of the final verse of the poem in the manuscript that we have, and when I first talked about Fragment 31 in Eros the Bittersweet I ignored it, and then when I took up the poem again in Decreation. I considered it. It’s a completely puzzling half-verse having to do with daring and poverty, and when I took up the reading of this poem the second time, I decided to try to make sense of it, and the only way I could do so was in spiritual terms. The poem up until that point is secular, and is a finished thought about an erotic triangle, but then after describing the erotic triangle in this seventeenth verse, it goes to a new place. I chose to understand that new place as a place facing God. But I don’t know where spiritual reality goes for Sappho. The poem doesn’t go on after that half of a verse. But I was trying, in Decreation, to interpret it as a space of poverty in the mystical sense of the annihilation of the self.


Fragment 31

He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
           to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing—oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
           is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
           fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
           I seem to me. 

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty* 

INTERVIEWER

Which, in the poem, is a kind of ecstasy that arises from self-annihilation?

CARSON

Yes. In the poem Sappho doesn’t use the word ecstasy, but she talks about herself as standing outside herself and observing her own condition. It sounds as if she’s achieving the state of standing outside one’s own soul that constitutes ecstasy, but which also constitutes what many mystics strive to achieve in canceling their selfhood so that they can be empty vessels for God. I don’t think Sappho has that idea as such—it’s an anachronism to ascribe it to her—but I do think there is a deep spiritual substance to Sappho’s descriptions of gods and our relation to gods that ought to be taken account of in reading her poetry. But I don’t exactly know how. Anyway, in Decreation I tried to put the situation in Sappho’s poem up against a medieval and a modern mystical situation, to see if they would illuminate each other.

And they seem to, within the context of the opera. What’s connecting them is that trope of jealousy. In Sappho it’s not a trope, it’s an actual situation of jealousy. In Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil there’s some attempt to use jealousy as a metaphor for the displacement of self that the mystic struggles to achieve. So I think I put the three together to see what illumination would arise and some did, but I still can’t feed it back into the Sappho poem to finally understand what Sappho is saying. It still eludes me. But I do think there’s the radiance of an idea in Sappho’s poem that isn’t graspable but is much less simple than the first way I read it in Eros the Bittersweet.

INTERVIEWER

I can see the ecstasy and poverty in Sappho, Porete, and Weil. I can also see that idea of babbling into the void, because it’s the only way you can talk to God, or hope to reach him. Standing there and just spewing it out.

CARSON

No, I wouldn’t say spewing or babbling. In Sappho’s poem, her addresses to gods are orderly, perfect poetic products, but the way—and this is the magic of fragments—the way that poem breaks off leads into a thought that can’t ever be apprehended. There is the space where a thought would be, but which you can’t get hold of. I love that space. It’s the reason I like to deal with fragments. Because no matter what the thought would be if it were fully worked out, it wouldn’t be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the space gives you. Nothing fully worked out could be so arresting, spooky.

INTERVIEWER

You talk about Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil as writers whose work is an act of expression of the self, self-advertising, but also note that they’re all trying to flee self. This is a conundrum that comes up in Economy of the Unlost. At one point you say, “There’s too much self in my writing.” Is the range of the work that you do—poetry, essays, opera, academic work, teaching—is that a way of trying to punch windows in the walls of the self?

CARSON

No. I would say it’s more like a way to avoid having a self by moving from one definition of it to another. To avoid being captured in one persona by doing a lot of different things.

INTERVIEWER

In The Economy of the Unlost you suggest that academic work is, at its best, selfless. But then you retreat from that position and admit that your best academic work tends to come from the closed aesthetic room of the self.

CARSON

I was taught that objective reportage of academic questions is the ideal form for scholarship to take, but in pursuing scholarship myself I never found that possible. I never found it possible to think without thinking about myself thinking. And I’m not sure if that’s a casualty of being me or a casualty of being human, so I decided to assume the latter and just go ahead with the project of thinking of me as if it were a legitimate human enterprise and would be enlightening to other humans. So my scholarship, such as it is, is intensely subjective. But because I am aware of this as a problem, I make an attempt to continually bridge the gap between that subjective self and the reader. So although it’s a private vision, it also brings the reader into its vision from time to time.

INTERVIEWER

Is Catholicism a way out of self for you?

CARSON

No, quite the reverse. I don’t think I’m ever so resigned to myself as when I’m in church trying to understand why I’m in church. Sitting there thinking about my mother and all the times we sat together in church. The only good memory I have of it is leaning up against her fake fur coat during Mass. I remember the smell of that coat, how comforting that was on a cold winter day. But, no, it’s not a way out of self at all, it’s a way back into some self that I’m not sure is a good version, but which seems to be embedded or necessary.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as being particularly devout?

CARSON

No. I think of myself as being particularly baffled on the one hand, by the whole question of God and the relation of humans to God, but also, possibly because of lots of empty spaces in my life, open to exploring what that might mean. I have open spaces where I put that question and just see what happens. Going to church is one such space, though I don’t go with any expectation of fulfillment or illumination. I just go because I have gone, and my mother went and her mother went and there’s something there that happens to all of us. A kind of thinking takes place there that doesn’t take place anywhere else. No matter how unattractive the service—and nowadays the mass is rather unattractive in its modern translation—no matter how brainless the sermon, there is a space in which nothing else is happening so that thinking about God or about the question of God can happen. So I go there and let it happen. Nothing changes, I don’t become wise about this, I don’t become ethically better or more interesting. I’m just the same person, I’m that person with this space open and I do think that for me, in this life, that’s as far as I’m going to get with spirituality.

INTERVIEWER

So there’s not really a doctrinaire side to it.

CARSON

I wouldn’t say the doctrinaire side of Catholicism, for example, makes much sense to me in its details or its history. So, no, I don’t look to Catholic thinking as a guide to my life, how to live my life, but I do think it’s some aspect of being human to engage the question of gods and that engagement requires space and time. It’s a historical accident that I was brought up Catholic by my mother and that she was by her mother. So this tradition that carries us is just an accidental vessel. I could have been a Muslim and been equally confused, I’m sure.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as having a relationship with God?

CARSON

No. But that’s not bad. I think in the last few years since I’ve been working on this opera and reading a lot of mystics, especially Simone Weil, I’ve come to understand that the best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t. So, sad fact, but get used to it, because nothing else is going to happen.

INTERVIEWER

He’s not available because he chooses to remove himself or he’s not available because he doesn’t exist?

CARSON

Neither. He’s not available because he’s not a being of a kind that would fit into our availability. “Not knowable” as the mystics would say. And knowing is what a worshipper wants to get from God, the sense of being in an exchange of knowledge, knowing and being known. It’s what anybody wants from any relationship of love and the relationship with God is supposed to be one of love. But I don’t think any kind of knowing is ever going to materialize between humans and gods.

INTERVIEWER

Is it stymied because of the nature of the beast?

CARSON

Yes, because of the difference of the two orders. If God were knowable, why would we believe in him?

INTERVIEWER

That would be too simple?

CARSON

It would seem already ours; it would seem already appropriated.

INTERVIEWER

So he’s like the ancient Greeks, the “unknowable other,” whose presence is fascinating and in some way illuminating, but not really understandable.

CARSON

Yes. Not an available instrument of anything we need or do. Which isn’t the same as saying “not existing.” Yet with Simone Weil, one gets the sense that she came to the end of this conviction, the conviction that there’s nothing here to get hold of, and yet nonetheless decided to keep holding. She says somewhere, ”God does not exist, therefore I believe in him.” The mode of contradiction for her is the mode of placing oneself in that emptiness where God might intervene, if God cared to, but as it happens in the history of the world, God doesn’t. So it stays empty.

INTERVIEWER

In the essay on “Decreation” you talk about that attempt to have a dialogue at the edge of the abyss, the “babbling into the void” The ”I” / “Thou” where nothing is coming back from “Thou” but you just keep battling because somewhere in between those two is the only place it can happen.

CARSON

Babbling into the void is interesting in so far as it creates works of art. Marguerite Porete is somebody who spent a long time creating a work about her own attempt to love God, a work which keeps insisting that this very work is a lie.

INTERVIEWER

It’s not that different from Wilde, is it?

CARSON

No, Oscar Wilde certainly had his mystic aspects. Little more light-hearted in his earlier years.

INTERVIEWER

I was going to say, they didn’t burn him in the end but . . .

CARSON

They did away with him. They managed to make him extinguish himself. Marguerite Porete has her light-hearted moments, too. But what interests me in her book, and in the mystic project in general, is the attempt she makes to create a space of God that dismantles itself. She won’t let you enter a space and be satisfied with something there as a description of God or a definition of how to achieve God, she keeps giving you a program of how to annihilate yourself in God, but she also keeps taking it away. So in the end the work produces a vortex in which you, the reader, enter and spin around, and have the sense of spinning around in something, but the something is never given or defined. I think that’s a remarkable thing for a work of art to do.

INTERVIEWER

That’s probably the best thing, that kind of vertigo.

CARSON

It is the best thing and, in a weird way, selfless, although it takes a very committed, almost narcissistic self to produce it. She was that and so was Simone Weil.

INTERVIEWER

Porete’s book is called The Mirror of Simple Souls Annihilated And Those Who Only Live In Longing and Desire of Love.

CARSON

Yes, the mirror of simple souls, and what the mirror shows you is her. She is intent on that reflection. But it’s also a selfishness that, as she says, annihilates itself in producing the work.

INTERVIEWER

Is that what you were up to when you wrote “The Truth About God”? in Glass, Irony and God?

CARSON

No, I don’t think so. “The Truth about God” was playful. Like trying on costumes, religious attitudes. There’s an attempt to think in it, there’s some thinking, but nowhere is it mystical. I remember you read it and told me to go away, read John Donne, and try again. It was bracing advice. John Donne was a serious, mystical thinker, although he kept pulling himself back from the edge of mysticism into common sense or something. Very solid, common-sensical imagination. Dry, too. But no, “The Truth About God” was not a mystical effort, it was an intellectual narrative of, as one of my friends once put it, my “flailing at holiness.”

INTERVIEWER

You seem to work with this principle of linkage of things that nobody else in the world would really link or think of linking.

CARSON

The things you think of to link are not in your own control. It’s just who you are, bumping into the world. But how you link them is what shows the nature of your mind. Individuality resides in the way links are made.

INTERVIEWER

For Economy of the Unlost, what first prompted you to tape Simonides, who was the first poet to get paid and an epitaph writer—what did you see that linked him to Paul Celan, who’s however many centuries later?

CARSON

You know, I could list things I saw but that’s not why I put them together, that would be an afterthought. I put them together by accident. And that’s fine, I’m happy to do things by accident. But what’s interesting to me is once the accident has happened, once I happen to have Simonides and Paul Celan on my desk together, what do I then do with the link? What I do with it depends on all the thoughts I’ve had in my life up to that point and who I am at that point. It could be Simonides and celery, it doesn’t matter; it just matters in so far as I’m going to make a work of art out of it. It seems totally arbitrary on the one hand and on the other, totally careful about who I am as a thinker.

INTERVIEWER

So it’s less an intellectual process than like trailing a scent so that you familiarize yourself with one work and then the other until these initially inchoate connections start to appear?

CARSON

Yes, exactly. I have a sense of following, like a hound dog with my nose to the ground, but looking not just for a track of scent, but a track of shapes. I think of ideas as having shapes and when I sense that two different texts or writers have the same shapes in them, I know I can bring them together.

INTERVIEWER

Can you remember what the shapes were that unite Simonides and Celan?

CARSON

No, because they’re not shapes that exist outside of the similarity between those two things.

INTERVIEWER

Has coming from Canada formed you in some way as a writer? Or are there specific Canadian writers who have been enormous and important in forming who you are?

CARSON

No, I don’t think so. I don’t know if I’d be any different if I’d been born somewhere else. When I go to America I feel different but not in a paraphraseable way, and when I come back here I feel a sense of relief, perhaps just because it’s nice not to be conspicuous. And one can certainly be inconspicuous here. I do feel that I miss the rocks and the air, and the smell that the world has here. But I don’t feel formed by it.

INTERVIEWER

Are there contemporary American writers that you read who feed you in a certain way, or contemporary Canadian writers who have an important effect on the way you write? Does the anxiety of influence make you anxious?

CARSON

It makes me anxious to the extent that if I read somebody and I think, “Wow, I’d really like to do that,” I stop reading them because I don’t want to be an imitator. And I have a monkey side; I could easily just imitate, which becomes parodic. Parodic because I really don’t want to become that person and the only relationship you can have to someone you want to imitate and not become is parody. But I do like, for example, Mavis Gallant, and I try not to read Mavis Gallant when I’m also writing something because I just seep into her. So while I don’t have a sense of trying to craft a voice, I do have a sense of trying to avoid blending in with anyone else’s.

INTERVIEWER

I end up putting you and Alice Munro together. In each of you there’s an attachment to the physical world and the details of life—almost like you are reveling in them—whether they’re bad, good, painful, or whatever else. Does that seem right to you?

CARSON

I recognize that. Reveling is good. A good word for it. But she and I are very different. What we have in common is perhaps an attitude that however bad life is, the important thing is to make something interesting out of it. And that has a lot to do with the physical world, with looking at stuff, snow and light and the smell of your screen door and whatever constitutes your phenomenal existence from moment to moment. How consoling—that this stuff goes on and that you can keep thinking about it and making that into something on a page.

INTERVIEWER

And it goes on for everyone.

CARSON

It goes on for everyone, you can always communicate that. And for me, even when I read George Eliot, I read her for the descriptions of weather. Perhaps that’s the wrong way to read George Eliot, but how comforting, the way she describes light moving over trees and lying on a bench and somebody’s foot there.

INTERVIEWER

But you quote Eliot saying that attempts at description are stupid. Did she really say that?

CARSON

She did say that. But she keeps on trying to do it. She does limit it though. I think she has a much greater capacity for description than she allows herself. The weather is just a dab at the beginning of each chapter usually. Then she goes onto metaphysical dialogues where people discuss the meaning of life. But the weather is always there at the beginning, and it is undeniable. She just gets it. She describes clouds moving over the sun at eleven o’clock in the morning on a path in an oak forest and it’s just exactly how that it be. I admire that more than any other aspect of writing.

INTERVIEWER

She’s good at evening, too. At teatime. It’s like she describes the weather in the morning when the chapter starts and teatime when it ends. She gets dusk very well.

CARSON

Yes, and that’s the reason why I find Chinese and Japanese poetry satisfying. Because it seems to have the same aim. In fact, it’s their whole mechanism of insight into reality, to capture something of the phenomenal moment and then to let that exude a meaning larger than the moment. I think that’s some kind of final achievement in writing. Which in my practice gets all messed up with also trying to describe my mother or my socks or my love life, but I think if I were a better person, I could get all that out of there and just describe the weather, the snow or the moment of light and it would be a better work of art.

INTERVIEWER

Write all the way around it?

CARSON

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

I think you did it in an email you sent me on the anniversary of your mother’s death and you said, ”I miss her like an old sock.”

CARSON

One sock, you always need the other sock. Knowing when to stop, that’s the lesson of that email, knowing when to stop is what makes a good piece of writing.

INTERVIEWER

When you talk about your dad, I don’t ever get that clear a picture of him. When you write about your mom, she’s palpable, she’s in the room. Why is that?

CARSON

I don’t know. I think that has more to say about her than me. I certainly did love her and have a connection, but we didn’t really get it right all the years we knew each other. It wasn’t what I would call a successful interaction. In psycho-therapeutical terms. But she’s certainly real to me in a way that nobody else in my life has been. And maybe that’s all that love is, actually . . .

INTERVIEWER

Realness?

CARSON

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

She seems like she was on your side, too.

CARSON

Yes. I think that’s true. And I think it was hard for her to be on my side but that she thought it through and decided to be. But it wasn’t natural.

INTERVIEWER

Unnatural and something she arrived at intellectually.

CARSON

And emotionally. She had to make that choice. I was who I was and she would never understand it, but she was going to support it. It’s unconditional. I guess that’s what that word means.

INTERVIEWER

The last time I heard you read from Beauty of the Husband, you sounded as though you went completely out of yourself.

CARSON

That’s good. That might be the work where I’ve come closest to finding a voice that’s not me but is me. Oddly, since it’s such private material. But maybe that’s what it takes. Maybe you have to go so far into the center that you pop out the other side. Pop out the back to a neutral position. But I know when I was writing it, I was always writing it with the question, ”Can I read this in public?” Because by now I realize that when I write things I will have to read them. And so it was always being written with that circuit in it. Not just me talking to me in my head. That level of reflection was always present.

INTERVIEWER

In a way that hadn’t been previously?

CARSON

Never happened before. Although in previous works I could get from a sentence here, a sentence there, I could never get the whole mechanism of the voice on that level, coherently.

INTERVIEWER

I know you’ve been working on and off on the sublime. It combines Antonioni and Monica Vitti?

CARSON

Some parts of it did. But I think I’ve given up on the sublime. Some time ago I decided to try to understand it. For some reason, I felt that Monica Vitti embodied the sublime, especially in Red Desert. So I studied Red Desert for a while and wrote some stuff about it and worked my way into the theory of sublime. Various peoples’ versions of the theory of sublime—Edmund Burke, Kant, Antonioni himself. But it’s too big a topic for me so I wrote around in it for a while and then stepped out to see if there was any kind of thread there that I could develop and get a hold of, but it’s defeated me.

INTERVIEWER

I think particularly of that poem when Antonioni goes to the mad house.

CARSON

Yes, a true story. He went to film in a mad house. It was his first attempt to make a movie. He had the inmates perform for him.

INTERVIEWER

Did he tell the inmates what to do?

CARSON

He didn’t get that far. He went into the room and the inmates were brought it. He set them up in some formation and turned on the lights that were necessary for filming, and the inmates went nuts. Because of the lights, or so the doctors at scene conjectured.

INTERVIEWER

Your conjecture, at least by way you tell it in the poem, is that the inmates start rolling around on the floor, acting in crazy ways, but they’re doing it as a ruse, because they discover that they can kiss each other under the guise of being mad.

CARSON

It’s a complicated ruse. I think they have a general group ruse in any situation that suggests danger or novelty. They hit the floor and start rolling, just in case there might be death-defying events about to happen. So they’re rolling around on the floor and then some of them who happen to have affections for one another also use it as an occasion for kissing. That’s kind of incidental. Not the main motive of the rolling. In the conventional descriptions of the sublime, like Kant’s, there’s usually a trigger from the phenomenal world, a thunderstorm or a cliff or a vast starry night—vertigo of the infinite—from which the self recoils in horror or dread, and then recovers itself. There’s an ambivalent motion in that reaction to the sublime. Dread followed by a recovery of the feeling of mastery, a  soaring sensation of “look at this incredible dread, and how I rise above it with my amazing human mind!”

INTERVIEWER

Is there’s anything else you’d like to add?

CARSON

I’d like to add a piece of wisdom from Gertrude Stein: “act so there is no use in a center.” That’s what I try to teach my students.

 

*The mysterious half-verse to which Carson refers above.