Poems Are Night Fires: An Interview with Rob Carney
I mentioned Rob Carney before when he was gracious enough to share a writing exercise with us a couple months back. Let me expand on what I said there.
Rob Carney is an astounding poet and a professor at Utah Valley University. When Carney’s class was recommended to me, it came with one of the strangest testimonials I’ve heard: That the class didn’t feel like learning but playing. Nevertheless, after the class was done, it was clear that students had improved their craft.
I had the chance to take this poetry class from Carney, to take another class on dystopian fiction, to read his work, and to see him perform in the local slam poetry scene. And now, I’ve also had the chance to interview him. Thanks again, Rob, for agreeing to this.
Now, let’s launch into my questions and his responses.
Rob Blair: For those unacquainted with your work, how would you describe yourself? What style and thematic qualities would you say define your body of work?
Rob Carney: This might be an oddball way to answer, but I’m going to do it anyway. Sometimes I’ve started readings by saying something along the lines of “I’ll start with a poem that tells you a little bit about myself,” and the poem is this:
The Person You Love Is 72.8% Water
I don’t know if I’m going to hell,
but I like toast for breakfast,
and I can eat breakfast
any time of day.
A woman’s slender arms
make me wish I was a painter.
Cats belong in every bookstore. They’ll make the words
seep deeper in your bones.
If God and I were on a rocky beach,
we’d search out perfect skipping stones.
I’d tell Him my favorite miracle:
water into wine.
My favorite mood is Angry. That’s a lie.
My favorite sin is lying. That’s not true,
but it dresses up the story
like a good storm dresses up the sky,
like fire and fiddles take wood and make it speak.
I know, I know—water isn’t wine.
But at night, when someone’s thirsty,
you can bring it, cold as heaven. They can drink.
RB: If someone has never read your work, do you have a recommendation on where they should start?
RC: I’d suggest using these links to two journals because it’s simple that way.
It’s the advantage of so much being connected online. I’m not saying that as a cheer as much as acknowledging a plain fact.
I could offer others, of course, but these two journals are unique, more like museums if you want to look around widely at more than poetry and fiction, and they’re both rolling content (with archives) rather than monthly or quarterly. Art?—yes, tons. And activism, interviews, and heaps more.
After that, if the hook’s in your jaw at least a little, then my newest book is 88 Maps (Lost Horse Press, 2015), and both Story Problems (Somondoco Press, 2011) and Weather Report (Somondoco Press, 2006) are still in print (yes, through amazon and some others), and my fifth collection, The Book of Sharks, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press next year.
RB: One of the things that struck me about your poetry workshop was how many of the exercises felt like forms of play. How do you see this sort of “playing” in relation to the creative process?
RC: First, and quickly, I see it as successful since several of the poems in Weather Report and Story Problems were generated from those same exercises you’re remembering, two exercises in particular. I’m not kidding, about a third of the poems, probably, if I stopped right now and bothered to count.
But secondly, and more to your point, I see it as essential, and also a heck of a lot more fun. Not just for the maker, either. Listeners will have their own moments of lift off as the poem goes by, and chances are those moments will correspond with things in the poem that were happened upon rather than intently squeezed into language.
That “happening upon,” by the way, can also come in the revision process. Revising, to me, is at least as enjoyable as the initial draft . . . more like tinkering about with alternatives (playing around again, another way and another time) than some crappy requisite burden.
RB: A mean question I like to ask poets: What exactly is a poem? What defines it?
RC: Okay, I’ll try. But not “a” poem. That’s too singular. Even my own writing teaches me that poems are plural. I think the questions should be more like, “What exactly is this poem doing?” and “What defines it as a poem this time?” And then you’d grow a beard before I ever finished answering.
Let’s say, for instance, I’m a swimmer. I could write a book about it, but no one would learn how to swim by reading it. They’d have to get in the water. Let’s say, further, that I’m an orca. My clicks and whistles mean something to other orcas in my own particular pod (it’s true; the dialects and vocabularies of orcas aren’t universal), but they’d just click back, “Nice points, amigo, but we’re already swimming alongside you, so why not talk about mermaids or something instead?”
My guess is your readers are writing their own ways toward answers to this.
Or they’re curious onlookers who’d find my orca clicks more confusing than I mean for them to be, you know?
Or maybe your readers are people who just prefer the experience itself, so here’s a poem I love by Scott Poole that’s defined by its exuberant impulse and weirdo logical progression, and then by its sudden jarring contrast, and then by its perfect (though sad rather than happily-ever-after) resolution. What’s Poole’s poem doing this time?—it’s compressing the world into a familiar, brand new, one-minute story. What defines it?—
The Way Water Wears on Us
A man walks with a waterfall
cascading down his back. He wears
a plastic suit and a hat with a pump.
Moss has grown over his coat.
In the winter he freezes up but keeps on
walking. If you ask him what he’s doing,
he says every town should have a waterfall.
He got beat up the other day.
Punks smashed his pump and threw
his soft slicker in the river.
The people who watched
said his tears were quite beautiful,
how they would not stop coming down.
RB: And a cliché question: Where do you get your ideas? What launches you into new poems?
RC: Not cliché, no, but not answerable either unless you want 200 answers since the idea/launch is different almost every time. I’ll save you from all that and instead just share this thing the British playwright Tom Stoppard said once. Asked by an interviewer, “Where do your ideas come from?” he said, “I wish I knew. I’d move there.”
RB: What does your writing process look like?
RC: I’ve decided to take your question literally.
RB: In your poetry, you sometimes create new fables or myths (or riff off old ones). What is it that draws you to this approach?
RC: Tony Weller, a bookseller in Salt Lake City, had me in to the store to discuss this exact thing for about an hour, but I won’t take that long here, I promise.
It’s really more that I invent new ones than riff off old ones, probably because if I refashioned old ones not everyone would get it, wouldn’t know the originals, and so on. I mean, allusion can be a neat shortcut, I suppose, and do a lot of your background work for you, but not if someone doesn’t get the allusion. What everyone can get, right away, is the form: fable, myth, origin story. They’re archetypal, and they’re reinforced tons by children’s stories, parables in Sunday school, and movies.
Now, I know that as adults we don’t likely spend much time thinking about these things, don’t plan our day’s schedule around some lesson we learned once from Aesop. Still, if you put a new story in this old familiar shape, people do respond, do feel drawn to the surprise they know from experience is coming, if that makes sense. So I have a love poem called “The Man Has a Heart Like a Kite” that’s disguised as a fable. And a poem explaining why the raccoon’s tail has stripes. And I explain why we have fire by telling a story about the sky’s desire for a hawk before hawks existed. And I take people down a tunnel in my closet that arrives in a subterranean cave in order to depict, through an animal tale, what I think is always a necessary lesson: Don’t be a greedy. Not over water, or oil, or anything:
The Mole Measures Profit and Loss
under the yard, then deeper,past moles’ bones,
deeper than mine shafts and bedrock,deeper, to a secret lake,
whose water tastes like the night the world was born—like a fist: so cold it knocks the wind out—
a lake whose only color is the color of light,reflecting the candle, the lantern, acetylene blue,
whatever thing I bring to find my way.There are no boats allowed,
no sailing or exploring.
No shore birds. No sand flies. Not even sand.
Only drinking. And only with my own cupped hands.
That way, I can’t carry it back,
can’t bottle it all for myself or for sale . . .
not unless I put down my lantern first
and inch up the tunnel stone blind.
Of course, the quicker answer is just that I enjoy doing these abbreviated stories, and people seem to enjoy hearing them.
RB: One thing I appreciate about your poetry is that it’s accessible but layered with meaning. I also recall that a handful of your poems seem to address the tendency toward inaccessible meanings and highly elevated language in much of academic poetry.
RC: I think you’re recalling one of the movements in “Just Once I’d Like to Sneak Up on the Wind” in Story Problems, yes, where I compare this thing you’re talking about to a carpenter building houses without kitchens, who then gets ticked that no one wants to live in them and goes away to an island to shoot flaming arrows at the people back in their harbor town. Like that’ll really teach them a lesson.
RB: Do you feel that academic poetry has moved in the direction of elitism? Do you feel that accessibility is a virtue, or that inaccessibility is a vice?
RC: Well, vice and virtue, that’s a cool question, especially since I prefer Platonic Forms to relativism and get counseled by friends to back off speaking in absolutes. But I don’t know if I’d adopt those terms myself, the virtue of my thing versus the vice of what other poets do. Go for it, I guess, if that’s your preference, if that’s what you like to make instead of poems more like a window or a mailbox. But to me, personally, I find the whole inscrutability game you’ve sussed out pretty boring, sorry.
My taste, for instance, in sports isn’t a giant field, plaid ball, and zero-zero tie. My taste in board games isn’t the avataring kind with their compendiums of complicated rules; it’s chess. Simple. But also not. And my taste in poetry isn’t esoteric, especially not for hard-to-fathom reasons. Jack Kerouac wrote somewhere, “Why be subtle and false?” and that’s brilliant, and I agree. Frost, Whitman, Sexton, Roethke, Neruda—they’re accessible as they come. So are Robinson Jeffers and Richard Garcia, both of whom I love.
Now, Eastern European poets like Vasko Popa—that’s some zany amazing strangeness. I’m thinking of my book of his—Selected Poems of etc., I think; it’s just not jumping off my bookshelf right now, sorry—translated and introduced by Charles Simic. But Popa’s words aren’t hard to understand. It’s more like he’s thinking left-handed or something, so you have to adjust. But you can adjust, and it gets you to this surrealistic worldview that’s totally worth the initial need for backing up, slowing down, acclimating, starting over.
As for my own work, I don’t want anyone to feel walled out, or stuck in a perplexity headlock. I purposefully aim at being clear. I’m not saying I write “easy stuff.” In fact, the hard lessons and hard joy and hard imagining in accessible works aren’t nearly as easy as turning the page when some intellectual construct is all that’s there, disdaining narrative and sort of preening, you know?
RB: I’ve enjoyed seeing you perform your poetry live, including at some slam events. How has participation in the performance poetry community informed your craft?
RC: Thanks. I appreciate that. That’s always a huge compliment.
Let’s see . . . I’m not sure it has informed my craft as much as it’s helped to reinforce it. Years ago I found myself backing into the oral tradition, and then here were people for whom the oral tradition was the whole point: a return to the Viking mead hall. Not that most slammers do what I do, choose the forms I choose, or resemble my voice very much. But they’re live, and they know that poems are night fires we can gather around.
I don’t want to overstate this, though. Slams aren’t utopian. They’ve codified themselves also, just differently than universities or publishers. But slammers have, I think, as much guts as actors and musicians, which seems a great object lesson for all writers. They memorize and recite, and amen for that, and I do that too.
RB: This is perhaps a bit off topic, but in-class discussions in the dystopian fiction course you led made me think much more critically about the role of technology in my life and in society. Is there anything you want to comment on regarding that? Do you think there are areas where the question of technology (its goods and ills) are especially relevant to writers?
RC: Well, I hope there aren’t areas that are especially relevant to writers. I hope my assumptions about writers are spot on—that they’re more curious than complacent, more imaginative than satisfied, and more interested in questions than a ready supply of ready-made answers, and therefore less likely to be anesthetized by technology, which I take from your question to mean phones, computers, and that spawn. It’s harder, I hope, for writers to be co-opted by the lie that gizmos cure blankness better than books, or sports, or your own creativity.
And when did the word “technology” get elided with “social media”? The gearshift in my car is technology. A hot shower and toothbrush?—more technology. Delicious toast is still possible without resorting to Twitter (see also; syn. n., telegraph). And in my living room, I have this fantastic Scan-design recliner from the 1950s: tall-backed and narrow and made with springs and wood. Technology. Here’s where I ought to attach a .jpg so I can show it to you, but I don’t own a cell phone.
RB: What books do aspiring writers have to read?
RC: Scott Poole’s The Cheap Seats, and Hiding from Salesmen, and The Sliding Glass Door. Rick Bass’s The Watch: Stories. Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town.
And I’d be seven kinds of glad to hear that they were reading mine.
RB: What roles do writers play in the world? What obligations, ethical or otherwise, do they have?
RC: Dad, Son, Brother, Sister, Daughter, Mom, Spouse, Friend, Utah Utes Fan, Fisherman, Performance Attendee, Teacher, Spaghetti Maker, Wine Bringer, Stereo Player, Voter, Yeller-Outer of “The Emperor has no clothes,” Hawk Watcher, Mourner, Shaper of Praise Songs, Cat Companion, Story Teller, Good Kisser, Carpenter, One Who Is Impressed by Mountains, One Who Is Impressed by Longhorns, Take-No-Prisoners Satirist, Empathizer with the Powerless, Image Magician, Practicer of Jump Shots, Frisbee Tosser, Eater of Watermelon and Spitter of Seeds, Bowler of Strikes Down the Guttered Alley of Boredom, Partner to the Moon on a See-Saw, Ethicist, Map Maker, Yard Weeder, Coffee Drinker, Hope Coach, Sensualist, Fin in the Metaphoric Ocean, Librarian, Scribe.
RB: What do you believe the purpose of writing is?
RC: My own answer? Hmm. I know and like Frost’s (“It begins in delight and ends in wisdom”), and like the Williams/Pound maxims to make it new, to be news that stays news. I think Eliot’s thing in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” sounds both high-falutin’ and also pretty right on if you care to read (or re-read) that essay. But mine? . . .
I have a non-prose answer if you don’t mind me dodging in another direction, especially since the ending seems to address your question:
Coyote’s Daughter, Raven’s Son
The poem is a shapeshifter animal, a trickster.
One minute, it’s a sailfish. The next, it’s a hook.
One night, it’s an alley cat, urgent to get you outdoors,
get you on the fire escape and screaming. Another, it sleeps.
I remember there was a great migration—
poems soaring home.
And I remember, too, when they used to thunder like trains,
crushing the grass. I watched as the herd turned into crickets . . .
then rain . . . then into kids in the backyard, running for the house
before the raindrops turned into hail, and while I watched
I smelled my dinner burning.
“Well, what’s the good in that?” Not much.
“Then what the hell’s it want?” I don’t know—to astonish
like leaves do in autumn. To hope, I guess,
it says one small thing that lasts.
RB: Is writing worth it?
RC: Not financially.
But what choice is there? You can follow your calling—whether rewarded or not, whether difficult or not—or you can shrug and quit because it sounds like work and sit on your metaphysical ass instead. That second option seems dissatisfying, though. At least it does to me.