Anne Carson: ‘I do not believe in art as therapy’
The poet and classics professor talks about her new collection, Float, her love of volcanoes and the power of brevity
Sunday 30 October 2016 11.00 GMT
nne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, published in 2001, made her name; she became a poetic guru, revered as an original. Her writing is a hybrid – a wayward mix of ancient and modern. She is an essayist, translator and dramatist. Born in Ontario in 1950, she has worked most of her life as a classics professor. She appears in the newly launched Penguin Modern Poets Series and has just published a new collection, Float.
Your new collection is arrestinglyunconventional – can you say something about its form?
Float is a transparent slipcase containing 22 chapbooks to be read on “shuffle”. They were mostly originally performance pieces – composed and performed individually and often with other people – so the collection is just that, a collection, not an organic whole, not intended to be read in any particular order, not designed to flow from beginning to end visually and conceptually (as previous books were). I like some part of all of the pieces and all of some of them.
Your work extends our idea of poetry. Do you have a personal definition of what poetry is?
If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.
Do you think poets choose to become poets – or does poetry choose them?
I preferred drawing, but wasn’t very good at it. It was putting titles on drawings that eventually extended itself into writing. But on the whole, drawing doesn’t relate much to writing; they refresh one another, are alternate ways of using the mind.
Where did you grow up? What did your parents do?
I grew up in various small towns of Ontario. Father worked in a bank. Mother at home.
What is your first memory?
My earliest memory is of a dream. It was in the house where we lived when I was three or four. I dreamed I was asleep in the house in an upper room and that I awoke, came downstairs and stood in the living room. The lights were on although it was hushed and empty. The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls. It was the same old living room, I knew it well, nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different. Inside its usual appearance, the living room was as changed as if it had gone mad.
That sounds like a dream about unreliability. Was the life of a classics professor reassuringly reliable compared with that of a poet?
I have never wondered about this – reliability.
Stephen Burt in the London Review of Books wrote of you: ‘She seems at home nowhere, not in her own head, or in our time, or in the ancient world.’ Is this true?
I feel perfectly at home underwater.
You were an Oscar Wilde fan growing up. Are you still?
I just completed a project with others for Artangel which involved writing a letter from someone in prison to commemorate OW’s time in Reading jail.
How suited is poetry to memorialising?
I do not believe in art as therapy.
You like boxing: why?
A passing phase, it passed.
You and your husband claim to teach collaboration – but can it be taught?
No: you can only do it. We assign the students tasks to do together.
I’ve read that you have always been fascinated by volcanoes. How did that begin?
It was a time when I was painting. Volcanoes are dead easy to paint.
Do you knowingly look for the emotional subject that will make a poem and is there a danger such subjects will run out?
I’m not sure what is meant by knowingly – intuition being (maybe) our deepest form of knowing. As to the danger, wouldn’t I be the last to “know” this?
I like your poem Short Talk on Mona Lisa and wonder if she continues to be a riddle?
I never liked Mona Lisa. This continues.
Is it the case, as would appear from your answers, that you prize brevity?
Short Talk on Brevity… try to leave the skin quickly, like an alcohol rub. An example, from Emily Tennyson’s grandmother, her complete diary entry for the day of her wedding, 20 May 1765: “Finished Antigone, married Bishop.”