Friday, 23 January 2009

Aggressive Interview #2: Carrie Etter, Poet, Lecturer

I’d like to know why you bothered with Yet despite the two real books you have lined up with Seren and Shearsman. Aren’t pamphlets just an ugly way of saying, “This poetry isn’t worth backing with real money and you’re probably wasting your time reading it”?

Ugly? Have you seen Yet?

Seriously, I think that a pamphlet can prove useful in a number of respects. Emerging poets can learn about editing and sequencing before they approach a publisher with a book-length manuscript, and using the pamphlet as a stepping stone also means such poets will take more time to develop their first books. For poets in between books, it may allow them to publish an independent sequence or work-in-progress, generating interest in the new work and potentially the next book.

With Yet, it had been ten years since I brought out a pamphlet (Subterfuge for the Unrequitable, Potes & Poets, 1998), and my experimental work had evolved significantly in that time. I wanted to cull the best of the work (that would cohere) since Subterfuge, both to show UK readers a significant selection (Subterfuge appearing only in the US) and take a look at the trajectory for myself. I’ve had an unexpected benefit in that I have a much stronger sense of the direction I want Divining for Starters to take, as it will include poems from both pamphlets as well as other work. That is to say, I think Divining for Starters will be a stronger book on account of Yet.

You talk about Yet as the distillation of ten years’ work. TS Eliot was equally notorious in producing very slowly, emphasising quality over quantity. The book industry has clearly taken a stance against poetry’s tendency towards low output, high costs, low sales. How do you feel about poets who do manage to get a book out a year?

I tend to be dubious about the quality of poetry that is produced by a book a year schedule, but I don’t rule out the possibility of its greatness, as I realise particular circumstances in one’s life can give rise to intense creativity without losing quality. This works both ways, of course. I suppose the fact that I worked from the age of fifteen and throughout my time at university has hampered my output. I fantasise about a sabbatical.

You’re an American-born poet living in England. I’m taking for granted that this invalidates your opinion about either country: you lack a history in one and up-to-date immersion in the other. So what do you write about that’s worth reading, given you can’t write about these issues?

While I was not brought up in the UK, I came here partly because I was completing a PhD in Victorian literature and criminology; specifically, my thesis was titled Class, Gender and the Making of the Criminological Subject in Mid-Victorian Fiction. This required a general study of criminology from its origins late in the 19th century through to the present and led me to learn about various historical developments, etc. along the way. Of course such a history is incomplete, but I think that is true for everyone; knowledge and experience of a country are always partial because of one’s situation.

I also stay up to date with the States by remaining in close contact with family and friends and visiting 2-3 times a year. My attendance at the Associated Writing Programs conference two out of the last three years has been helpful especially in my knowledge of what’s happening in contemporary poetry.

But I tell you this simply as a matter of course, not because I think the above validates what I have to say. I don’t think of my national identity as the reason I have anything to say worth reading; it might give me some additional subject matter, but so could any number of experiences.

What do I write about that’s worth reading? I’m not sure that’s for me to decide. As to my forthcoming books, The Tethers is interested in the kinds of bonds we form with one another, in time; Divining for Starters utilises, to use Lyn Hejinian’s phrase, “a poetics of consciousness” to explore those issues I often find more effectively approached in a nonlinear form, e.g. the erotic, politics, and selfhood.

Political poetry is a joke in the UK, the domain of peace-protest marches; yours included. Discuss.

I strongly believe that it is part of my work as a poet to address socio-political issues and to do so to the best of my ability. Mind, I say my work – it is a matter for each individual poet to decide for him/herself. Recently, on a panel on Yeats’ influence, Ian Duhig remarked that Yeats had addressed all the matters of life, and to do so necessarily meant he wrote about politics.

My commitment to political poetry also includes attempts to give it a larger audience than I generally seek for my other writing. For all of my readings from Yet, I open with ‘The Occupation of Iraq’; this introduces listeners to my style as well as the political bearing of some of my poetry. I also try to republish political poems originally published in the UK in US magazines, find publication in journals that do not cater only to other poets, etc.

How would you feel if one of the readers of Yet thinks it’s OK to wage war in the Middle East after they’ve read your poem on the subject?

Thinking of the political poetry I’ve written to date, I can’t imagine that any of it would produce such a response, as the poems tend to suggest an individual’s responses to specific events rather than a more general critique or call to arms. If such a reader responded that way, I would suppose that that idea or thought was there before s/he read my work. At the same time, I realise that all of us are only partially sighted and remain open to reconsidering such a possibility.

How welcome do you feel in the UK and the US, as a poet, an academic, a woman, and a politically-vocal person? What do you think you should do about this, if anything?

Thank you for referring to me as politically vocal. It pleases me that someone else regards me thus.

I have a strong sense of ethics, and I feel it is important for me to be true to them. I can’t separate the academic from the poet (partly because I don’t regard academic as a necessarily bad attribute), the woman from the politically-vocal, and realise that that combination is regarded somewhat more negatively in the UK; but that is also why I tend to feel I can do more in the UK to broaden people’s sense of what poetry and who poets can be. That excites me.

Carrie Etter is a Lecturer in Creative Studies at Bath Spa University. Her pamphlet Yet was published last year by Leafe Press and her first full length collection, The Tethers, will be published in July by Seren Books. She also has a second full collection, Divining for Starters, due in 2010 from Shearsman Books.

You can read Carrie's blog here.

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