Avatar Review

Interview of Julie Carter,
by Howard Miller

Featured poetry

Julie Carter, our Featured Poet, was born in 1971 in Appalachian Ohio and lives there still.  She graduated from the University of Notre Dame with unused degrees in English and History but says she regrets not becoming a chemist the way her teachers wanted.  She is vice-president of a manufacturing company, which sounds very grand, but she still goes to work in jeans and t-shirts most days.  She has a passion for baseball and genre fiction and is a political junkie.  She is trying to break herself of an addiction to Diet Coke but has been so far unsuccessful.  Her favorite food is cauliflower, but she understands the freakishness of that and apologizes for it profusely.  Her poetry collection Pseudophakia was published in 2006.  She is also assistant editor for the poetry journal Anti-.

When did you first begin to write poetry seriously?

Carter:  I had been writing angsty, lovey, teenagery sorts of poems for years before I went to university.  There I had a class on Spenser that changed everything.

I had thought that poetry was about feelings.  That professor, and Spenser, made me understand that poetry is about images and sounds and a richness of senses.  The biggest thing, though, was realizing that the poem wasn't just about me, and for me.  The poem had to strike out on its own.  I wasn't going to be able to stand over it for the rest of my life explaining it.  I had to work to put the poem in the poem, rather than acting like the poem was just a clue or a code.

Before then, I wore poems like you'd wear a new haircut, or eyebrows.  You never bother wondering what your eyebrows would look like if you weren't there.  Eyebrows don't have a separate existence, unless I've been misinformed.  And that's how I thought about poetry until I was around 20.

What writers have particularly influenced you?  Are there specific forms those influences have taken?

Carter:  Because of that class, and because he's brilliant, Edmund Spenser is usually the first name that comes to my mind.  Spenser's language is luxurious, completely over the top.  It slithers and slinks and piles layer after velvety layer.  Reading Spenser makes your ears tingle.

And that's where the influence is probably the greatest.  I love the sound of poetry way more than the sense of it.  I want the sense, but I adore--I need--the sound.  I think that's probably fairly noticeable in my work.

Music, too, has influenced my writing.  Opera, Paul Simon, and the bluegrass I grew up with. Songs and poetry are just two different ways of getting words and sounds and rhythms to work together to build meaning.  I played the piano long before I started writing and I think that has played a role in my understanding of rhythm.

Advertising, too, uses a lot of the same techniques.  And politics, but I'd rather be compared to a jingle writer than a jingo writer.

Much of your poetry is formal work, employing meter and frequently rhyme; what is it about those formal elements that you find attractive?

Carter:  I used to say that I appreciated the challenge of them, but when I think of forms that are more puzzle-like, forms like sestinas or pantoums, I realize that I'm not into challenge for the sake of challenge.  I have to love something about the form in the first place before I really care about the challenge of building a poem to fit.

So, the sounds.  The beautiful anticipation of a rhyme.  The sense of completion you get from a strong couplet.  Your ear can tell that the poem is done, even if you can't understand the words.

You also write occasional free verse; do you approach writing that type of poem differently from your formal works?

Carter:  It varies.  Most of the time, I come up with a line and I just go from there.  If I'm at a computer, it's slightly more likely to be free verse.  If I'm mowing the lawn or driving, it's slightly more likely to be a rhyming form, I think because it's easier to write meter and rhyme in my head.  I used to compose everything in my head before I wrote down a word, but those days are falling behind me now.  I'm too scattered, without that self-discipline.  I still write first lines, though, standing at the supermarket checkout, or watching baseball, or weeding.

Is there anything specific that helps you determine which type of poem a particular piece is going to be?

Carter:  Other than the rare times when I go into a poem with the intent of making it something in particular, for example I'm writing a series of Biblical sonnets and they are going to be sonnets if it kills me, the first line is everything.  I have been known to take extant free-verse poems and tart them up with rhyme and meter.  "Fall" in this issue started its life as free verse but it never quite made me happy until I took it apart and reassembled it.

Are there particular kinds of subject matter you find yourself drawn to?

Carter:  When I sent my manuscript out to a friend he said, "Are you aware how many times you mention death?"  And then I did look at that and saw that I mention it a lot.  Death, bones, blood.  I don't think I'm that morbid a person, but I do tend to be drawn toward extremely depressing, personally depressing, subject matter.

Which is funny because I'm not prone to talk about such things in my day-to-day life.  I think I write about things I need to process but don't want to talk about.

You published your collection Pseudophakia in 2006; would you talk a little about that title and its significance for you and for the collection?

Carter:  I can't remember the exact way I ran across that word, but the instant I saw it I knew it was my title.  It means a false lens, really talking about an artificial lens put in cataract sufferers, but I thought the idea of that word fit me and the poems I had written.  A few years ago, my mother read something I wrote and said, "I never would have seen it that way." That's what pseudophakia is about, I think, ways of seeing:  true and false and different.  So many of the poems are about such small things, things that need a magnifying glass or a poem to bring into focus.

How did you go about deciding what work you include in the book?  Did you have some kind of overall unifying concept in mind in making your selections?

Carter:  There is a unifying concept.  Or, rather, there was a unifying concept, but now I find it difficult to get back to that place or explain why each poem fits.  They are all about seeing.  At least, they are all about seeing to me.  I don't expect that they are all about seeing to everyone else.

How have you seen your work develop since you began to write?  Have there been changes in emphasis, in style, in subject, or in other ways?

Carter:  Lord, I hope there have been changes!  I think I'm a much different writer than I was ten, or even five, years ago.  I'm getting looser.  I think my previous work was very tightly knit, and maybe rigid at times.  I was in a conversation recently about how long we should let poems sit around before we edit them and think they are done and I was horrified at the thought that I should put a poem away and not touch it for years and come back to it and edit it.  To me, that's like asking me to edit someone else's poem and claim it as my own.

After realizing how dark and gloomy all of my work seemed to be, I made a conscious effort to lighten up.  I haven't been wholly successful, but I think my work is richer now.  I'm using more of my experiences and thoughts as fuel rather than just the horrible ones.  I hope I'm bringing more colors into my work instead of black and white with the occasional flash of red.

And I don't write as many sonnets as I used to.  I come back to them still, but they carry a lot of baggage for me and I don't seem to pack light.


Pseudophakia by Julie Carter

Home copyright © 2008 Avatar Review
All rights reserved to the author.