[Anne Carson is appearing at the Vancouver International Writer’s Festival at the end of October. This is a feature that I did for the SRB when she was the Creative Scotland/Cove Park Muriel Spark Fellow in 2011. TM]
I first encountered Anne Carson’s poems at the University of British Columba’s Koerner Library in 2002. It was the year after Carson won Canada’s prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize for Men in the Off Hours. I sat by the window and turned the pages, moved by the ingenuity of form and allusion in her work.
Almost ten years later, I take two trains and a taxifrom Edinburgh to Cove Park, an artists’ complex near Helensburgh where Anne Carson is in residence as this year’s Creative Scotland/Cove Park Muriel Spark Fellow. In 2006, Margaret Atwood got the job and in 2008, it was David Malouf. This year’s writer is no less established, having won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacCarthy Fellowship, the T.S. Eliot Prize and the aforementioned Griffin Poetry Prize. She has also published fifteen books of poetry, essays, criticism and translation.
It’s a day of monsoon-like rain and Anne Carson greets me in jeans and welly boots, with a dark clip in her hair. She is tall and willowy, with high cheekbones and a gentle laugh. The wet weather doesn’t surprise her as she has lived in Scotland before. ‘I did one year of my M.A.in Philosophy at St. Andrews, where I studied Greek meter and Greek textual criticism’, she tells me. It was a ‘rigorous’ year she remembers, though studying was broken up by runs in the nearby hills and once, a frozen dip in the North Sea.
Readers familiar with Carson’s work will know that the classics provide much of her subject material. One of her earliest books, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), is a book-length essay on the text of Sappho. The acclaimed novel-length poem Autobiography of Red (1998) is a coming of age story about Geryon, a winged red monster. In her sequence ‘T.V. Men’ which is the central focus of Men in the Off Hours (2001), Carson interprets the lives of historical figures and intellectuals through the lens of television.
As she explains in her light and even voice, her interest in Greek language and legend began early. She discovered a text of Sappho in a bookstore in Ontario, the province where she grew up. Translating the text was achieved with the help of a high school teacher who knew both Greek and Latin. ‘So we did Greek at lunch for a year’, she remembers, ‘and that’s how I learned it’.
Carson’s use of the classics and her depictions of famous figures have not made her work inaccessible. Instead, readers become intrigued by Carson’s reinventions of legends and personalities. Carson also avoids writing in a high register but slips urban slang into the mouths of her characters. I ask her if this is a case of bringing these historical individuals into the present.She replies, ‘Not so much as to make them friendly to the listener. It’s more about ease. Creating a space of space of ease for the listener to listen in. ‘Cause paying attention is hard’, she smiles. In ‘T.V. Men’, Carson introduces Antonin Artaud:
Artaud is mad.
He stayed close to the madness. Watching it breathe
or not breathe.
This is a close-up of me driven to despair.
However, Carson’s repertoire is not limited to the classics. Other poem sequences focus on domestic and relationship issues. One of her devices in these poems is to incorporate texts that the narrator happens to be reading at the time. For instance, in Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’, a narrator reads Wuthering Heights on a visit to her mother’s, while privately nursing a broken heart. Carson writes:
The little raw soul was caught by no one.
She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage
success, a salary
or a fear of death …
Why did she bring Emily into the poem, I ask. Carson replies: ‘Your life often conforms to what you’re reading. I guess it’s subliminally a choice to read that because your life is already like that. It’s an amazing book and helped me make sense of some things I was thinking about at the time.’
Form is also an integral part of her work. In her 2005 collection Decreation, Carson includes short lyrics, essays, an opera libretto, the text of an oratorio, a list of cinematic camera views, and other long poems and sequences. The different forms respond to the collection’s theme of ‘undoing’. Carson tells me that, ‘Decreation’ means an undoing that’s not a destruction but a taking part of a form in different ways at different times, so the pages in all the genres presented in the book are taking apart ideas so that it adds up to a body… but a body that is reformed in different ways. It’s a good word, decreation’.
The visual arrangement of each poem on the page is a significant consideration for Carson when writing. In the poem ‘Guillermo’s Sigh Symphony’, the right-shifting text captures a wistful voice:
Do you hear sighing.
Do you wake amid a sigh.
Radio sighs AM,
Carson arranges material until the text finds an appropriate shape. ‘Especially in that book I was very concerned with the visual aspect of each one on the page. And the visual flow of the images, of the shapes, of the text through the book from beginning to end’.
This brings us to the strengths of Carson’s work. Each line of poetry feels deliberate and considered. Images are doled out sparingly and flare up in the reader’s mind. From sequence to sequence, Carson’s measured voice explores human conflict. Each stanza encapsulates a complete thought.
Of the fifteen books she has written, her favourite is her most recent Nox (Latin for ‘night’). The intricate box-shaped book is a tribute to her late brother. I ask her why she decided to arrange the book into a box. Carson replies: ‘I had this book that I made by hand. The box was Currie’s idea. He’s my collaborator-husband person. He figured out how it could be reproduced and still look like itself. He said that we should make it into an accordion-thing so that it’s all one page and folded out and we should put it in a box so it’s like a house. It’s an attempt to involve the reader in the intimacy of the experience of reading the thing.’
For the past forty minutes, Carson has been receptive and kind. Her answers are brief, but thoughtful and precise. When my questions dry up and I comment that the interview was perhaps too short, she jokes, ‘There’s no such thing as too short of an interview.’ I am reminded that this is a writer whose biographical blurb once consisted of the single line: ‘Anne Carson lives in Canada’. At the door she says, ‘See you Friday’.
Two days later, I attend a reading of Anne Carson’s and her UK editor, Robin Robertson at the CCA in Glasgow. Carson still has on wellies, but instead of a raincoat she wears an ivory jacket and different jeans. The soft lighting and red chairs in the auditorium establish a dramatic ambience. With the air of a seasoned lecturer, Carson takes the podium. She mentions that she had just finished a residency in Stykkishólmur, in a room under Roni Horn’s ‘Library of Water’, during a fierce Icelandic winter. ‘Indeed’, she murmurs with comedic timing. As she reads out a poem about her experience with poet Polly Clark, her husband Robert Currie creates string sculptures using the walls, the podium and Carson’s hand. The bright redstring unites the room.