Transcript for Poesis with Anne Carson


Jim Fleming: Our final interview in Poems Old and New is with a writer who’s constantly rearranging poetry’s furniture. Anne Carson has written short talks, verse novels, essays as tangos, prose poems, illustrated poetry collections, and more.  Carson is also a classic scholar, who’s translated or re-translated Sappho, Euripides, Sophocles, and other ancient writers. In book after book, Carson forges new poetic forms. I asked her about the shapes poems can take.


Anne Carson: For the ancients form was, they didn’t have a word for that really. They had genres but genres arose out of occasions. So if you were getting married, you would hire a poet to make a wedding song and if you had a death you would hire someone to make a funeral lament. There weren’t people sitting around trying to think up forms like sonnets and villanelles just to amuse themselves with language.  But we have a completely different view of how poetic activity works and we don’t have those kind of occasions anymore, demanding certain kinds of language. So it’s all become an invention. So form now is a way of setting the thought free.


Fleming: So it’s important but in a new and more modern way, I guess.


Carson: Yeah, more modern or at least more, I don’t know, egotistical really is the difference. Everything in modern culture is about being original and making your little face visible amongst massive other little faces on the screen so forms become about inventing something that wasn’t there before. For Homer, that wasn’t the case. He was happy to settle into the old dactylic hexameter and do it just the same as everybody always did.


Fleming: Somehow that doesn’t sound quite right though, does it?  Because he seems unique.


Carson: His thought is unique but there’s a kind of collaboration between his thought and his form that’s already available to him when he sits down. It’s already there. He locks into a method and he goes ahead like a train on a track. For us there’s a tension. There’s always a search. In between there’s a gap. In between what we want to say and how to say it.


Fleming: Is this one of the reasons why you have worked in so many different forms? Your work is so varied. You’ve written essays. You’ve written poems. You have what look like poetry to me but you call them short talks. You’re searching all the time for the best way to present your ideas?


Carson: Yes. It’s searching. That’s exactly right. Or groping. Searching sounds more positive and directed. It’s more like groping because really the form has to arise out of the thought so it’s a way of setting it free somehow from all the things that are impediments to what it wants to be. There is some of kind inherent form in an idea, and I don’t think that I can find a way to let the idea come out unless I get the right form.


Fleming: How does it work? Do you know when you approach an idea what the best way to present it is going to be?


Carson: No, I hardly ever know.  I mess around, and mess around, and mess around, and look for accidents, just to try to make something come out of unexpectedness. And then I get into a free space where the thing, the thought, and me are working together without presumptions about each other.


Fleming: Maybe we could take a couple of examples to get a feel for it.  The short talks are something that I found very appealing. They look pretty standard on the page.


Carson: Well that’s now a good example of the function of accident, because those were originally drawings. Mostly in my early years I had no interest in writing. Particularly I wanted to be a person who made drawings and did a lot of drawings and I made a book of drawings called short talks which had titles and nobody liked the drawings but they did like the titles so I started to expand the titles into very long titles and then they became talks and then the drawings kind of faded out the thing and it got published as a book. But it was entirely backwards you see the way it came to be a little thing on a page that look like a lecture was not what I intended at all.


Fleming: I love some of these maybe it’s just that the way in which you phrase them brings those pictures so to life. The little short talk on reading. The last line when you say, I do not look at her on female flesh without thinking deciduous.  Is that a real memory for you of being in the car while your father drove you and you read in the back seat?


Carson: No, I made that up. But it came out of a drawing of a mountain. See that was the interesting thing about having the drawings subtracted forcibly by somebody else from the book is that I then had to in my own mind put the drawing back into the language without having the drawing be there as such. So that’s what made the language different. I think that what makes it satisfying to the minds eye.


Fleming: Maybe that’s an interesting point to turn to Nox, the work that began as a collection of things as you thought about your brother. The production of the book is also changed from the way in which things like that are usually presented. It comes in a box and it is essentially and accordion fold so you could put it up on the wall the way you could put a panorama.


Carson: Yes you can unfold it on your kitchen floor or a better thing to do if you have a multi-story house is to go to the top of a stairway and drop it down because it makes it, it unfurls at page by page and it makes this wonderful crackly sound as it unfurls.


Fleming: So it adds one more element of sound.


Carson: Yes and performance.


Fleming: You know this isn’t what most people would call poetry. Do you call it poetry?


Carson: No I don’t think I do really. I don’t think, I don’t know what to call it. In ancient Greek they just call poetry making you know poiesis means making. That seems respectful of the activity. I’ve written a lot of things that I called essays because no one can exactly say what that is.


Fleming: Speaking of essays, I was reading one recently about technique and form and it argued that writers need to learn to excel in classical forms in order to refine their craft. I suppose the idea is that they need to learn what the constraints are so they can surmount them. It’ll somehow make them better writers. Does that make sense to you?


Carson: Well, I don’t know much about forms, Standard English forms. I think I never was trained in that so I guess for me that kind of exercise would be a way of putting in time until you have an idea and then once you have the idea, well it will come with its own form and then you do that. So yeah, I don’t do a lot of sitting around writing villanelles to train myself.


Fleming: What’s fascinating in a way is that I understand you were a classical scholar by training a professor of classics. A lot of people would assume that that means you would have a thorough understanding of forms. You’re saying that’s completely untrue.


Carson: Well I never took English so the English forms are foreign to me. I took Greek and Latin and as I say those forms are genres. They’re occasions of life. They are not invented literary artifacts. It’s a whole different approach to what a poem does for its audience.


Fleming: I think that’s fascinating because you’ve done so much translation. You say you never took English, so your translation was from something you knew inside out into something you hadn’t studied except as a, like the rest of us, a normal person who speaks the language.



Carson: An amateur, yeah totally amateur, yes. But the thing about being an amateur is that it opens out that space for the third thing to happen. If I’m totally professional and locked in to my credentials as a professional, I can’t let you have a thought about what I am telling you. I have to make you have my thought about what I’m telling you and I just don’t like doing that. It’s not teaching, it’s closing off teaching.


Fleming: Well I’m thinking now about how this affects the reading of the fragments of Sappho that you have offered. There isn’t a lot of Sappho for us to look at, is there? There’s what, one more or less complete Sappho poem?


Carson: Yeah, just one. The rest are fragmentary.


Fleming: And in that sense you have to find a way to take those fragments and make some sense of them.


Carson: Yes, but sense you know, we’ve all learned from the history of psychoanalysis that any five words on a page will become a story when go in and start thinking about your childhood. There just is sense everywhere. So I think with Sappho, the main thing to do is to hold off giving a sense and let the sense emerge for the reader from what’s left there and from the spaces around it. However it’s an interesting thing with that book, and the response to it. Several people I would say maybe half a dozen people since I published it have written to me or sent me projects that they did filling in all the blanks. So making Sappho a complete text was sentences that go from right to left or right of the page and that it’s kind of an endearing to do but it’s so hopelessly silly.


Fleming: And yet I suppose that is in some ways what each of us does looking at it. You have not on the pages perhaps that have 17 blanks and one word.


Carson: Well you do in a way but here’s what you really do with that. You have the text there with the blanks and you have filled in supposition in your mind and somehow both of them are able to be layered and to be real in you consciousness at the same time. So you have the presence and the absence together which is totally thrilling. I mean that’s what we like about poetry, that it does that all the time. It gives and it doesn’t give at the same time.


Fleming: Anne Carson’s latest book of poetry is called Nox. She’s also recently re-imagined Antigone in illustrated play called Antigonick. You can hear our extended interview with Carson on our website: And though she doesn’t use classical forms much, she did perform a series of sonnets for dance. Here’s one called Sonnet Isolate performed at New York’s 92nd street Y.



Carson: Sonnet Isolate. Epigraph. I force myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste. Marcel Duchamp. A sonnet a rectangle upon the page. Your eye enjoys it in a ration of eight to five. Let’s say you are an urgent man in an urgent language, construing the millions of shadows that keep you alive. If only it were water or innocent of a hawk from a handsaw. If only you were Adonis or Marcel Duchamp. If only you were Adonis or Marcel Duchamp settling into your half hour of sex or chess, not this raw block cut out of the fog of meanings, still damp. But no, you are alone. Whatever idea here rises from its knees to turn and face you quicker than a kiss or a hyphen or the very first moment you felt the breeze of seeing a creature who will die one day, not this, will ask of you most of your cunning and a deep blue release like a sigh, while using only two pronouns, I and not I.




Fleming: It’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. I’m Jim Fleming. If you want to hear some of these poems again, follow us on Facebook or Twitter where we’ll be sharing poetic links. You can buy a copy of the program by calling the radio store at 1-800-747-7444. Ask for Poems Old and New. To the Best of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio. This hour was produced by Sarah Nics with the help of Doug Gordon, Veronica Rueckert, Anne Strainchamps, and Charles Monroe-Kane. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson. Our technical director is Caryl Owen. 


Comments for this interview