by Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: “Geophagia,” a term that involves human beings’ ingestion of such items as “potting soil” (59), “gravel” (77), “pinecones” (68), wood (13, 27), paper (43), and flowers (47), is the title and subject of a series of poems that begins and ends Luscious Struggle (BrickHouse Books, 2019). Indeed, you place the nine poems at the beginning and end of each of the four sections, except that in the last one, it’s beginning, middle, and end. Since most poets who write in series put them all in succession in a volume, what impelled you to distribute the poems in the series in this way? Does it have something to do with the ebb and flow of the various geophagic speakers’ and characters’ desire for substances that make their digestive systems struggle?
Carrie Conners: I’ve always been drawn to works of literature that focus on the strangeness of “normal” people’s lives. When I was a kid, I loved Edwin Arlington Robinson’s The Town Down the River and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Later, I read (and reread) Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. That fascination for the strange within the mundane influenced my own work since many of my poems focus on the quirks or struggles of “regular” characters/speakers. I wanted the Geophagia speaker (it is the same speaker in all 9 poems) to be a touchstone for the reader, someone familiar to return to as they encountered other characters/speakers throughout the book. One thing that I especially enjoyed about Winesburg, Ohio was that it always returned to George Willard.
More contemporary works that scatter series of poems across a book rather than grouping them together are Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art (she has two distinct series of poems in that volume, “Incendiary Art” and “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure”), Jan Beatty’s Boneshaker (“My Father Teaches Me” series), and Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Paper Doll Fetus (poems titled in the pattern “X speaks from Y” or “X speaks to Y,” such as “The Phantom Pregnancy Speaks from the Belly of the Nun” and “The Liver Speaks to the Ectopic Embryo,” appear throughout the book)—I actually began the Geophagia poem series when I was a student in Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s poetry workshop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I like it when poetry collections have the thread of a fragmented series weaving throughout; it makes me flip back the pages to reread previous poems in the series and consider them in a new light. As a reader, I find it simultaneously grounding and energizing. I wanted the Geophagia series to serve as the thread in my collection.
Additionally, the Geophagia character goes through a transformation throughout the series, from her initial desire to consume non-food items to her strain against her cravings to a more hopeful acceptance. I didn’t want that progression to feel rushed, and I felt that placing all of those poems together in one section could have that effect.
Fink: You wrote your doctoral dissertation on humor in poetry—especially political humor. Though it’s also bleak, one of the funniest poems in the book is “What I Don’t Say at Group Therapy,” because you show that, despite the best intentions of those who created this kind of therapy, it may be a catalyst to worsen rather than ameliorate psychological problems:
I want to fuck Steve, the recovering alcoholic.
His determined coffee guzzling
makes me think he does everything
with energy and purpose. James, the male therapist,
speaks in such soft, soothing tones
that I want to punch him in the face.
Rob’s shoes are so fabulous
that I want to hire him as my personal shopper.
I think that Matt is a loser despite the fact
that his parents tattooed his back with a belt….
I think Nadine, the female therapist, goads us to fight
because she needs some drama in her life.
I feel sorry for Shannon’s children….
All this talking doesn’t change a thing. (70)
The speaker of the prose-poem, “Honeymoon, Mallorca 2008” declares: “I’m not interested in the surface of things, in the eerie shading that dusk casts on the winding cobblestone road we take into town for a late dinner” (56). The precise imagistic detail of the second part of the sentence undermines the assertion in the first. To a large extent, group therapy lacks efficacy for those who are too “interested in the surface” elements of fellow patients’ appearances and who mistake their synecdochal interpretations of each of their characters/psyches for the totality of their being. “Talking doesn’t change a thing” because she isn’t listening well enough—not according to such psychotherapeutic techniques as the “active listening” sequence—and she doesn’t think critically about her process of evaluation. How did this fascinating poem emerge? Do you see it as evidence of the futility of group therapy for most people? Or does it mostly represent a particular kind of person? Or were you going somewhere else with it?
Conners: I’m glad that you appreciate the poem’s humor! I love list poems in large part because the form’s capacity for comedy. Humor is an important part of my life. I’ve watched loads of stand-up comedy ever since I was a kid, and I come from a family full of quick wits. I gravitate toward literature that employs humor, make those works the focus of my scholarship, and frequently use humor in my own creative work. I appreciate your thoughts about surfaces. In this poem, the speaker’s focus on surface features was not intended to discount group therapy as a practice. I think that it can be very useful for some people. Full disclosure: I participated in group therapy once years ago when I was learning how to manage depression, and I thought that it helped me come to grips with some issues. The speaker’s focus on superficial characteristics was intended to show how she was resisting the process, and ultimately to show her fear. Group therapy requires people to share difficult, often traumatic experiences with strangers. It’s not easy for many people, especially people who are struggling to cope with mental illness. It’s much easier for the speaker to think about perceived flaws of the others in the group than to commit to the process, which requires opening herself up to other people’s pain and delving into her own. One of the things that the speaker doesn’t say to the group is how she feels about herself, “I disgust myself so much that I daydream / about peeling my skin off with a paring knife / and rolling around in a tub of salt.” She’s too afraid to admit that to others, and even to say it out loud and fully admit it to herself. The last line, “[a]ll this talking doesn’t change a thing,” reflects group therapy’s current ineffectiveness for the speaker because she isn’t fully engaged in the process and so isn’t seeing any improvement, but it also reveals her fear that the therapy ultimately won’t work, that nothing will, and that she will always feel as low as she currently does. That’s “bleak” as you aptly described it, and I find that humor is often a useful entrance into such difficult territory.
Fink: One recurrent thematic motif in Luscious Struggle is job dissatisfaction. This is not surprising, because I’m aware that you are writing a book on the theme of labor in poetry. In “Cooking Show Host Seeks a Career Change,” the host concretely catalogues her (two) “job skills” that ironically signal her sense of alienation at packaging her emotions for the fiction of TV “experience”:
1) smiling through anything, even cramping facial muscles or fingers
sizzling against the side of a cast-iron pan, 2) uttering fake, orgasmic
noises for the camera when she bites into food. (35)
If the “Ambulance Driver” has a different problem—too much (actual) emotional overload much of the time—he exaggerates that psychological condition in his fantasy life by manufacturing even more intensity and comically reversing his role as savior:
when there is too much of nothing he’d switch on his flashers,
speed to the 24 hour grocery like he was racing to a bus full
of burning and/or maimed children, sprint through the automatic doors
only to hungrily eye the sleepy clerk paging through The Globe.
Seething, he’d dash to the produce section, close his eyes
and strangle tomatoes until their juice oozed down his arms. (19)
In “Sunday Night Laundry,” the father, whose clothes are tremendously “greasy,” explains how he and his crew cope with their alienated labor by slinging insults (largely based on violent masculinist presumptions) to enrage one another:
My father claimed
the key to work
was to go in angrier
than it could ever
He and his crew
each other, claim
and mothers’ cunts
before punching in,
needing the blunt
hate of something
other than themselves. (57)
How do these poems reflect the intersection of labor and gender arrangements during what might be called late patriarchy? Certainly, the representation of this subject matter is a political act, but how does this political dimension complement or clash with an enactment of lyric subjectivity?
Conners: You are correct that my recent scholarship has been focused on representations of labor in poetry, specifically by working-class women poets. In my own poetry, work has always been a subject of interest, one that has intensified as of late. I’m currently working on my second poetry manuscript, and many of those poems take work as their subject. Both of my parents were involved in labor unions, and workers’ rights was a frequent topic of discussion in my family.
I’m also interested in how work affects one’s self-concept. The poems that you mention all explore that idea to some degree. The struggles of the host in “Cooking Show Host Seeks a Career Change” are absolutely gendered and recall the sexist suggestion that women should smile more, put on a happy face and suppress any other emotion or feeling. Of course, that is part of television’s façade, but that performance is one that many women feel compelled to enact in their jobs on a daily basis. The “Ambulance Driver” feels a rift between his experience as a small town emergency services worker and the sensationalized presentations of that work in books, films, and television shows. Those fictional stories regularly depict (often male) emergency workers as heroes, and the ambulance driver feels let down by his quiet reality. He ends of spinning his own fictional scenarios to cope with his boredom, but his dissatisfaction isn’t quelled by daydreaming and only finds a temporary release by doing violence to grocery store tomatoes. Both the cooking show host and the ambulance driver are isolated to a large degree, which contrasts with the father in “Sunday Night Laundry” who engages in a ritual of verbal aggression with his coworkers in order to make it through the day. Like the ambulance driver, the father has pent-up anger. His is directed toward bosses and the working conditions of the job, while the ambulance driver’s anger stems from his frustrations with the slow pace of his job. The father and his coworkers channel their rage at each other to create a kind of shield. Their anger, even though largely a performance, guards against feelings of degradation stemming from their work. Anger is a more socially accepted display of emotion for men than say sadness, so this coping mechanism does reflect gender norms.
Writing about labor, as you say, is political, and exploring the ways that gender affects labor shows the intersectionality of identity. Class, gender, race, sexuality, labor, etc., all affect one’s sense of self and affect the presentation of lyric subjectivity. Once particularly interesting concept in working-class literary studies has to do with collective sensibility. Scholars in the field note that even in working-class literature that relies heavily on the personal “I,” there is an impulse to connect with others who have similar struggles and a tendency to critique economic and societal structures that disempower them, thereby imbuing the work with a sense of solidarity. This impulse creates a lyric subjectivity that is more complex and outward facing than that of a romanticized individualism.
Fink: In “Resolution: New Year’s Day, Moundsville, WV, 1986,” you juxtapose the perspective of a mother who lives “across the street” (53) from a prison which is “100 men over capacity” and which has a “new sadistic warden” (52) and that of the prisoners rioting to claim their humanity. How does this perspectival doubling complicate and deepen the sociopolitical component of the poem?
Conners: This poem took a long time to feel finished to me. When I first drafted it years ago, the mother’s perspective was the main focus, but something seemed missing. The prison riot was described, but from a distance. A couple of years ago, I dug the poem up to workshop it with a writer friend, and she had a lot of questions about the riot and the penitentiary itself. Where did this take place? When? The original title was just “Resolution” and many of the details about the penitentiary weren’t included. Because I grew up across the street from the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville and was so familiar with it, I mistakenly left out details that readers who were not from my hometown would need to make sense of the poem or to connect to it. Based on her feedback, I added more description of the penitentiary, and I did some additional research about the riot. I had vague personal memories of it, but I was very young when it happened and wanted to fill in gaps. I was moved by the words of the prisoners in the old newspaper stories, and decided to include some of them. My hope for incorporating multiple perspectives was to show the struggles of people who lived so close to one another, yet were deliberately separated. Their situations, by no means equivalent, involve people straining against systems of power, and the poem felt both more complete and complex to me by juxtaposing them.
Fink: Various poems in the book probe the relationship of naming—and explanatory language in general—to the pursuit (or evasion) of identity. In “Namesake,” for example, the grandmother’s acquiescence to her former drill sergeant husband when he suddenly “assigns” her a new name, serves as a useful indicator of why the speaker would not change her last name to her future husband’s; the grandmother “never asked why he changed her name” (55), but the granddaughter supplies some hypotheses tied to the patriarchal male ego. “If France Is a Hexagon” offers a pointed critique of how metaphor and analogy are used coercively:
Our need for understanding
reduces things as delicate as a republic
and a barely breathing ball of fluff to objects
a child can draw with a protractor or thwack
with a racquet. We cling to our analogies,
ignoring their violence, wiping out
an entire people for the sake of asymptotically
approaching what we hope to be knowledge. (75)
Ironically, the speaker suggests that the possible cure for deceptive “philosophers’” violence is more violence: “tell him that his heart is a fist and hope/ that your right hook socks him back into the beautiful unknown” (75).
How do you view the relationship between these two poems of critical unnaming (which valorize acknowledgment of “the… unknown”) and the impulse in various other poems to enable readers to know through specific and evocative naming what has previously been obscured or under-recognized for many?
Conners: Interesting question! It reminds me of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, a favorite of mine. In it, the gunslinger warns the character “I,” (Quick aside for the uninitiated: Dorn’s hilarious choice to give “I” a personal pronoun as a name results in several who’s-on-first exchanges as well a literal enactment of Barthes’s death of the author when I dies. Not to worry, though. In Dorn’s drug-fueled universe, I is resurrected by ingesting gallons of acid.), “it is dangerous to be named” (32). The gunslinger elaborates:
If you have a name
you can be sold
you can be told
by that name leave, or come (32).
Dorn shows how language, and naming in particular, can be used to control or diminish others, especially within capitalist society. On a much smaller scale and in a much different context, the two poems of mine that you reference engage with a similar idea. There is power in naming. The one who names asserts a kind of ownership over the named, which can be abused. Overly simplistic comparisons risk misrepresenting someone or something, cutting out important parts of one’s identity or narrative. I think that the intent behind, or maybe, more precisely, the deployment of naming and describing is critical. Describing someone or something in detail to tell a bit of their story differs from trying to write over someone’s story or to fit someone or something into a neat box. The former allows for expansion while the latter seeks to compress.
I think that it’s important to try and tell stories of people whose experiences are too-often ignored, but it’s equally important to see those representations for what they are: interpretations of facets of individuals’ experiences, not the whole story of those individuals’ lives or the culture(s) with which they are associated. I’m thinking of J.D. Vance’s controversial Hillbilly Elegy. The book enraged me deeply for many reasons, and one reason at the top of that list is the way that Vance casually cast his own experience as representative of an entire culture’s. It’s useful to tell a version of your story or someone else’s story in specific detail and to share it with others in order to expand understanding of people’s lived experiences. But, it feels dangerous, to use Dorn’s language, to claim that one version of one particular story stands in for the stories of others.
Fink: Yes: the representative “I” shouldn’t arrogantly presume too much; it is never more than a partially and imperfectly representative “I.”
Luscious Struggle contains 16 prose-poems and 34 verse texts with varying stanza and strophe patterns. What factors enabled you to arrive at the formal features of particular texts? For example, how did you determine what would work as verse or as a prose-poem?
Conners: This is a great question and one that I think about often. Since I write almost exclusively in free verse, there are many possibilities for form, and those decisions come later in the writing process for me. My mode of composition is rather formless. When drafting, I always handwrite poetry (I actually handwrote first drafts of all of my critical prose, too, until my second year of graduate school), and form is not a consideration for me at that stage. I write in messy blobs that resemble prose. Since most of my poetry has a strong narrative impulse, I suppose that is not coincidental. When I type up a draft of a poem, I type it as a paragraph, revising language as I go. After, I read it aloud and try to think about what form it wants to become. Often, I try out different forms before settling on a final version.
I adore prose poems, and lately I’ve been writing more and more of them. I’ve done some critical writing on prose poems, by Russell Edson, Anne Carson, Harryette Mullen, etc., and have read a lot about what scholars and poets think about the form through that process. Although my thoughts on what makes a piece of writing a good candidate to become a prose poem are in flux, I think that the energy of a piece is a strong determining factor for me. If I write a piece that is high energy—and by high energy, I don’t mean just upbeat or intense. There are a lot of poems that are high energy because they leap from topic to topic or image to image—then I see how it reads as a prose poem, and many of those pieces keep that form. If I write a poem that has a more deliberate pace or seems to want to take its time or think through an idea, it usually ends up lineated, usually in stanzas or strophes.
In his delightfully titled essay, “The Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man: Some Subjective Ideas or Notions on the Care & Feeding of Prose Poems,” Russell Edson discusses dimensionality in poetry. He claims that “regular poetry” acquires a sense of dimension by its “song and shape.” For Edson, in prose poetry a “sense of dimension is given by humor.” He clarifies that he is not speaking of “banal” humor, but “the humor of the deep uncomfortable metaphor.” That concept resonates with me. Although humor features prominently in many of my poems, whether lineated or prose poems, I think that humor, whether light or “uncomfortable,” propels my prose poems. Perhaps that has something to do with the energy intrinsic to humor due to its disruptive nature. In any case, I think that prose poems need a dynamic element to sustain them, and in my work that element is often humor.
Fink: You’ve mentioned to me that you have a second volume of poetry close to being ready for publication. Do you think that the second collection, thematically and stylistically, will prove an elaboration of or a departure from the first, or partly both?
Conners: I hope to have a polished second manuscript in early 2020. Right now I have enough material, but I need to revise quite a few pieces and figure out the structure of the manuscript. I think that the second manuscript extends certain themes and stylistic choices. The majority of the poems in the next collection are prose poems, which is an amplification of a tendency in the first collection. Although there are others, the two main themes in the second collection at this point are labor/workers and animals/the environment. The working title is Species of Least Concern. I wrote a quite a bit about work in the first book, but that theme is more dominant in the second manuscript. As I began researching working-class women writers, work became a more conscious theme in my own poetry. I started writing poems about animals and the environment quite a while ago, and the Geophagia series and some other poems in the first collection involve those themes, but many of my newer animal/environment poems seemed to be doing something a bit different tonally and didn’t quite fit with the poems in Luscious Struggle. While poems about animals and the environment might not seem compatible with poems about labor and workers, when I put them together, I noticed how they spoke to one another and expressed similar sentiments, especially how humans treat one another, other living beings, and the world around them. Although those are serious, important topics, many of the poems explore them with humor, just like the poems in the first collection.