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Interview with Featured Poet Carolyn Moore

Carolyn Moore’s poems are exercises in allusion, hopping adroitly from voice to voice with unapologetic intelligence. The poems contain a great interplay of tradition, both poetic and cultural, that never becomes murky or convoluted for its complexity. Hrothgar’s hall stands next door to Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s mansion, while a miniature Jane Austen bangs her fists and fogs the plastic of her packaging with frustrated exhalations. Here, the author speaks with Interrobang?! about her poetic process, the riskiness of cultural in-appropriation and the importance of embracing the “literary genealogy.”

Thank you for agreeing to chat! Tell about yourself — who you are, where you’re from, where you are now?

     As a writer, I think of myself as a Jill-of-all-trades, mistress-of-none. My publications include two mystery novels, some published short stories and pieces of flash fiction, and many articles in several fields, though I quit writing book reviews or theater reviews so I could reclaim my innocence and unfettered pleasure as a reader and audience member. My chief love is poetry, by far the most demanding genre in which I’ve struggled and therefore both the most challenging and most addictive one.

     To support my poetry, I research and write passages for comprehension tests or re-write text for subjects ranging from ionic soil stabilizers to the history of the toothbrush (its precursors were found with Egyptian mummies). I taught for twenty years at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA but was not able to balance writing with teaching. A compulsive over-preparer, I watched teaching devour the time and energy for which my writing hungered. So now I am a feast-or-famine writer at last.

Do you have any particular writers or poets in mind that you count as inspirations or influences?

     Shakespeare, the dramatist rather than the poet, is my dearest wordsmith. I also love how the metaphysical poets, Marvell especially, celebrate the tackle and gear of everyday life and the tools for specific fields of science and inquiry, then elevate the ordinary to the spiritual. For several years now, the contemporary poet who most intrigues me is C.D. Wright. Her poetry leaves me breathless, throat aching from subvocally stretching after her lines.

One of my favorite aspects of your poetry is its inventive subject matter and voice. What prompted you to write about sloths, Jane Austen, or auditions at Hrothgar’s Hall?

     I am currently working on a chapbook I call The Seven Deadlies, and Sloth is the only deadly sin with an animal sharing its name. Jane Austen is my favorite novelist, though she was lost on me back in my literal, mathematical phase.

     Though I am fascinated with Old English and Old Norse or Icelandic texts for their own sakes, I wanted to introduce one to a present-day “epic,” The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and serve as maid of honor at their quirky wedding. I also have poems addressing or responding to Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” When we are young, we rebel against the “parental” texts. As we mature, we embrace our literary genealogy and work to find its relevance to our present lives.

You mentioned that you think of your poems as persona pieces. How do you find these different personas? What do they look like?

     In the nineties, I found myself squirming through too many poetry readings comprised of an unvaried litany of quasi-confessional or otherwise lyric poems. All that I, me, mine seemed so self-involved.

     A persona poem frees us to consider the Other, though we must be careful not to appropriate inappropriately the voices of other cultures, certainly. As a teacher of creative writing, I found that the persona poem widened the horizons of those young collegians who otherwise wallowed in confining self-importance. And the speaker needn’t be a human or mythical humanoid (e.g., mermaid). I have serious poems spoken by a toadstool, a ceramic cup, a music dictionary, an apple (THE apple, speaking to Eve), a multiple-choice quiz, and vinegar. While I have visions of these speakers, I usually leave room for the reader’s imagination to tailor how the speaker looks, tailor that to the reader’s needs and druthers.

     Another thing I enjoy about your poetry is the somewhat tongue-in- cheek word play (“Facts Curator”), the self conscious alliteration (as occurs in “Riff Raff). Some of my favorite lines from the former:

          “Some claim that in this quiz all querents find
          their niches, their nests fledged with flattery?
          A pox upon their house — may the numbers rot
          off its street address! May pustules blight
          their diction, suppurate, and leach it dry.”

Did you write these pieces intending them to be spoken? How prominently does the sound of words and the poem in general figure in your writing?

     All my poetry is meant to be spoken aloud, meant to be heard.

     The Beowulf/Riff Raff poem begins in loose blank verse but then self-consciously switches to the Old English convention of three alliterative words per line, two of them preceding the wide caesura and the remaining one following it. The poem ends in a blend of the two poetic conventions as poor Riff Raff struggles to fit into the Viking culture and its prosody into which he has accidentally “time-warped.” Alliteration anywhere is fairly unsubtle, as is much end-rhyme.

     In my other poems, I am more concerned with clustering sounds according to their wider families (e.g., fricatives, liquids). That effect is more subtle but is also pleasing to the ear. John Frederick Nims calls this “bond density.” I also like using vowel frequencies to stitch together a musical riff or to provide rupture and dissonance if these underscore what’s going on in the text. I am a firm believer in Pope’s dictum, “the sound must seem an echo to the sense.”

Though the sounds compacted in your poetry are great in themselves, the poems each have a consistent structure. When writing, do you think much about structure? How a poem appears on the page?

     Recently, I seem stuck in blank verse. Except for the Riff Raff poem, which is a mixture of conventions as discussed above, these poems are all iambic. The “Tongues” poem is in iambic tetrameter; the rest are in my personal flavor of blank verse. I usually run a poem through a contrasting structure when revising. Thus I put a blank verse on a free verse dietto to help me weed out phrases and words that function as unnecessary filler. Though I do have some syllabic poems, I chiefly use syllabics as a stage for boiling down a poem, reducing it to essentials. Then I let the iambs take over again if they get pushy about it. I especially like it when readers can’t tell I am working in blank verse. I like to believe that this means I am adhering to a structure that helps me tighten and refine but one that is not boringly predicable.

This is pure curiosity: do you have a particular time you choose to write? A place?

     I draft (first draft especially) as close to waking as possible, before the business of the day toggles on my analytic switch. While this may not be true for all poets, I have never understood how people could be creative at the end of a day spent in the analytic world.

     Setting? When I’m wrestling words to the paper mat, I don’t want other words cat-calling from the sidelines and distracting me from the muscularity of the bout. I work at a computer, which can be anywhere. The keyboard, for me, is freedom. Longhand is a prison sentence from which I cannot escape, through which words and ideas tunnel out and are lost forever.

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