An Interview with Carol Frost
By A.K. Huseby
Carol Frost is the author of ten collections of poetry, including Pure, Venus and Don Juan, Love & Scorn, I Will Say Beauty, and most recently The Queen’s Desertion (all from TriQuarterly Books). She is a four-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize and has been nominated for that award a remarkable 20 times. She founded the Catskill Poetry Workshop in 1988 and was its director until 2008. In addition, she served as one of two poetry editors for the Pushcart Prize Anthology XXVIII, has been the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and is presently the Theodore Bruce and Barbara Lawrence Alfond Chair in English at Rollins College, Florida. Her poetry, prose, and essays have appeared in literally hundreds of publications, including The American Poetry Review, AGNI, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Smartish Pace (issue 16).
A. K. Huseby: “All Summer Long” (Love and Scorn) is a transportive piece that describes a “lonely, happy child / … who hates silences.” You also speak of a woman with dementia in “Apiary VIII” existing in “her shell of silence” (Poetry 10/07). Then again, there seems to be something shameful in stillness and “dumb imaginings” in the solitude of “Country Marriage” (Love and Scorn). Is poetry a way to combat those silences, reach others, forestall the loneliness, and document memory?
Carol Frost: All of the above, to one extent or another, although there certainly are poems that affirm solitary thought. I speak of Robinson Crusoe’s joy in solitary pursuits, for instance. My Noah isn’t silent; he yells when he sees what God had wrought. At the heart of it, I suppose I could tell you that I dislike fabrication. I mean I think it’s easy to lie; people want nice lies, don’t you think? Perhaps that’s why so many of the people in my poems wander away from human company. But it’s very hard to stay in the region of imagination beyond the range of familiar truths. The familiar calls you back. It must be noted that the “lonely, happy child” is a good deal better off than the poor woman who no longer inhabits her mind.
AKH: Your piece “Lies” (Venus & Don Juan) speaks of “people made of glass.” As I read that piece, I could hear this abrasive laughter, these false apologies and grating politenesses: “Oh, really, you are too kind. So lovely to be included.” Even those who wish others “good luck” are
really seeking an out to the conversation. Do you think those small untruths stem from that comfort level, the need to return to the familiar?
CF: The sort of social behavior I meant is what semanticists used to refer to as "purr talk." We purr. Maybe it's an out, but it's also an in, until someone turns especially catty.
AKH: Your poems also often engage and challenge biblical passages, for example Eve’s consideration of eating the fruit and the time before and after that choice in “Matins” (Love and Scorn) and the insight that Noah’s ark would have been surrounded by floating corpses in “Joy” (Venus and Don Juan). With what intention do you approach such pieces? Do you write them to “push the button” in the way that Shakespeare approached social issues in his own time?
CF: I went to a Baptist Bible summer camp as a child, not for the good of my soul, I think, but because my mother could afford it. I was amazed by the stories from the Bible we were shown on filmstrips. One on stoning an adulteress was almost too much to bear. Later, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” had a similar effect on me. But from a quite early age I was fascinated by how we explain ourselves. (A favorite human foible of mine is hypocrisy.) I’m pretty sure that if I’d been introduced to Homer at that age, my moral referents would have come from the Iliad and the Odyssey. My intention, as far as I can tell, is never to use myths as overlay to what I end up arguing, if I may say that my poems argue—implicitly, perhaps—but by plumbing the depths of humanness from which the myths must have come. I won’t say I want to convince anyone of anything. Let’s call arguing asking, and whatever answers come, they exist momentarily.
AKH: What myth or Bible story do you find most interesting or disturbing?
CF: I write more about Genesis than the other books. But basically what the Bible gave me was entry into the sort of thought that I like to call when encountered in poetry "moral dreaming." As description or compass, the Bible seems skewed. But this isn't a bad thing for a young person with an open mind who gets thinking.
AKH: Reading “Morphine” (Venus & Don Juan), I felt so addressed by the piece, as though you brought me into the room to stand with you, to bear witness. I’ve never been present when someone passed away, but this poem is powerfully visionary in a way that left me feeling as though I had. Really, that piece does what great poetry can. Much of your work feels intensely biographical, specifically the pieces on dementia and childhood. Is it?
CF: What I’d wish is that the notion of autobiographical detail was a tertiary concern. If it sounds like it happened to me, that’s not a bad thing. Authentic is the term, I think, people use in this regard. Still, I try very hard to make a poem, and the made thing is more important to me than the material. A childhood is simply what you had. You don’t have the poems until you make them.
AKH: Yet, there are those in critical theory, deconstructionists like Derrida for example, who assert there is nothing outside the text (“Il n'y a pas de hors-texte”). Neither the author’s context nor the audience’s matter because they are constantly changed by time, location, etc. The author’s context becomes less important than what the reader brings to the work, and the work should stand on its own. Do you agree with that line of reasoning?
CF: Pretty much, although I'd like to say that "what the reader brings to the work" seems at odds with the notion that audience context "doesn't matter." Logic implodes in that contradiction. I do believe that a poem can stand on its own if it is beautifully made, even if readers misread the poem. Cogency is important, but design trumps cogency. We all know poems famously misread, and meaning or biographical truth are only two contingencies. I used to want readers to "get it"--what I meant, but now am satisfied with a poem I make lasting after it's read by anyone with any subjectivity.
AKH: Trinh T. Minh-ha said in her book Women, Native, Other that:
[W]riting … may be said to be concerned, not with inserting a "me" into language, but with
creating an opening where the "me" disappears while "I" endlessly come and go, as the
nature of language requires.
Should writing de-emphasize the author, making a universal point, if there can be such a thing, or alternately, by plumbing personal experience does an author end up making that universal point regardless?
CF: I shouldn’t like to say should when it comes to writers making choices about how to find rhetorical balance, linguistic pleasure, something like truth or beauty. I prefer to leave that up to the temperament of the writer. I prefer to think of the possible in poetry. Is it harder to write out of fraught memory to create a poem that resonates and lasts? Perhaps so and yet, funnily enough, many writers care to try it; anyway, to record the memory. Art be damned. And yet, who would want to suggest to such a writer that her or his “me” ought to disappear?
AKH: “Art be damned” – that reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray – “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. … All art is quite useless.” Though your comment indicated those who write to record memory only, do you agree with Wilde?
CF: I believe art matters, a belief that I don't quit on or second guess--rare for me. The question that keeps arriving and departing, I think, is really about how an individual defines art. Then: are aesthetics granite or water? You have wonderfully opened up what my mother would have called a can of worms. My original point is that individual writers will make their own choices.
AKH: Then, do you consider the rhetorical impact of your work as you write, or is that an afterthought?
CF: I wait as late as possible to take responsibility for what my poem says. I like surprises.
AKH: In “To Kill a Deer” and “Pure,” you used hunting as a narrative element. This is also the case with “Crows” (Venus & Don Juan). Do you hunt?
CF: Yes, I do hunt. I also fish. I use the fish heads for bait for my crab traps. I eat meat, fish, and crabs. I used to keep a large garden until late summer and autumn travel kept me from harvest, so now I only have a kitchen garden. I use the herbs to cook the animals and plants that I prepare for my family and guests. I understand that there are some monkeys who like to rinse their food in salt water, probably partly for flavoring.
Human nature includes these behaviors and others. I have a poem where I talk about when in our evolution procreation became love. I have poems that talk about language, birth, imagination, art, music, gods and angels, insects, sex, pets, time, mortality, morality, dementia; and I dare say I’ve not finished looking at all this from many different angles. The three poems about hunting that you mention are from three different angles. As I think I said, it’s hard to get to the truth.
AKH: It seems as though you have an encyclopedic approach to subject matter. Do you have a list of topics or issues that you want to cover, that you turn over to examine all the facets?
CF: Oh no. I simply have a restless mind, and is it a high or low threshold for belief? I mean I can't even believe myself for very long.
AKH: After reading your books, the tropes you return to began to stand out: bees, graveyards, gardens, dementia, silence. I wondered what made these places, items, and issues bring you back to them?
CF: I already mentioned the gardens I’ve kept. Graveyards are interesting historical resources, often beautiful, and in rural NY they are everywhere. The Pope cemetery is near us on the Otsdawa Road—a family cemetery that began to include the community dead in the nineteenth century. All the headstones face west, instead of east as is usual. Bees invited themselves into my poems, first in their humming sound just below sense. I write about mind and imagination, and when I started to write about dementia, the beehive seemed a decent metaphor to follow, especially bees deserting the hive. I ended up assigning myself that metaphor (hive for the mind) for the collection of poems about dementia recently finished—I think it’s finished. Let’s see: silence? Really, are there as many references to silence as to, say, loneliness or birds and fish and skyscrapers? I’m kidding about skyscrapers. In any case, I rarely think about the tropes.
AKH: You mentioned during our opening conversation that this is the first summer you’ve had off in 17 years because you are no longer directing the Catskill Poetry Workshop. Billy Collins has asserted that poetry workshops are not conducive to writing and titled one of his books Sailing Alone Around the Room to emphasize the notion that poetry is ultimately a solitary pursuit. Do you agree?
CF: I do agree with Mr. Collins. You know, I teach poetry, but my intention in teaching is to make it possible for the student to have as many teachers as there are authors. What can be learned is far and away broader and deeper than what a few workshops can tell one. In this sense one is never quite alone. Something else occurs to me—you know how different it is when you go to a museum with another person, and when you go alone? The poet may have hundreds of friends, but the poet needs to go alone.
AKH: Like your “lonely, happy child”?
CF: I guess so.
AKH: If you could teach an emerging poet only one thing and have them learn it well, what would that one lesson be?
CF: Learn to read as a writer and try everything—syntaxes, metaphoric takes, styles of lineating. Be ambitious for the work and not yourself.
AKH: Does learning to read as a writer just come with time or is it a skill that must be taught?
CF: I don't know. Some poets learn it on their own, I'm sure. I guess I did, though at the time I didn't even know I was. Maybe you have to be obsessed. I think it must be like learning to listen to music—the performance, technical take, interpretation of sound, source of energy. A person can help you to hear. A person can say, “Listen to the MUSIC.” In the end, the musician and the writer —out of love or obsession—will believe her or his smaller "gift" is good enough. It's also a kind of discipline, but it won't feel like it if the art is what you love.
AKH: I noticed that “Chimera” (Love & Scorn), written in 2000, and “Sea Hare” (Queen’s Desertion), written in 2006, are the same poem reworked. Which version do you prefer?
CF: I make lots and lots of changes in any poem I write, and the results, I’ve learned, better produce differences or something is terribly wrong with the poem’s contingencies. You’ll have noticed I used a different grammar in the two poems, and since the original poem was set in Florida, I thought I’d try writing it with the newer grammar. They are different poems in the sense that rondo is different from sonata. To be honest, I prefer the first. Perhaps the original poem had found its truest shape. Not all experiments result in significance.
AKH: If you preferred the first piece, why publish the second?
CF: The second was still a good poem. And it made a design point.
AKH: I’d like to hear about your process. How long does it take you to write a poem? When do you do the majority of your writing?
CF: Sometimes a poem will be in process for years and sometimes they seem to write themselves. Recently I broke precedent and didn’t write at home in my rather pleasant studio listening to opera or jazz. I was stuck in the Comfort Suites in Raleigh for ten days with my husband and our cat. Our transmission had broken and we were waiting on the insurance adjuster, parts, repairs, etc. It was awful, my patience awful, too. I wanted to be home and writing. After a couple of days of whining, I decided I’d work while we were stranded every morning, which is when I typically write. (When one writes and the daily routine puts me in mind of athletes’ fetishes. Or Schiller’s rotten apple.) I’ll embarrass myself if I tell you how much I wrote during those 50 or so hours, but something rather unexpected happened. I wrote drafts of the poems I needed to finish my book. I revised after we got home—with a second broken transmission. You know, I’d been writing the poems for the book for several years, so in a sense I’d been writing those last ones for a long while, too.
AKH: Schiller’s rotten apple! Since you hunt, I’m seriously hoping you’re not keeping anything rotten under your desk for inspiration! You do have a regular routine, though. Do you ever take a day off from writing intentionally?
CF: I write in intensive periods when I can clear time completely. I don't write all year around. When I find that time, and I like at least three weeks, I write from early morning till noon. I make myself stop near noon or one or two. See how it goes? Often, I have to make myself stop.
After not writing for several weeks, even months, it's all pent up. In a writing period I follow up by walking or some other physical pursuit. In Cedar Key, I head into the gulf by kayak or small boat. I like to clear my mind of my own words. I imagine the distraction will help my revisions.
AKH: How are poems born for you?
CF: There’s a poem I’ve been wanting to write, and I’m still waiting to see what possibilities my mind comes up with. A lot needs to be discarded. In essence, I’ve been working on it for about a year. The actual writing, pen on page, starts with a phrase or a sound.
AKH: At what age did you start writing poetry?
CF: I wrote nothing of any consequence until I was 26 or 27.
AKH: Was there an epiphany or breakthrough of some form, a moment you can recall feeling as though something had changed, when you began to create consequential work?
CF: This has happened several times, actually. When I was a young writer, I'd surprised myself with what I spoke of derisively to myself and close friends as translations from the Slavic or another, for me, impossible language. Then I figured it out. I found the stride, the strange gait, of making metaphor, a little akin to Donne, and I thought, I can do this. When I began writing the eleven line poems, my closest advisors thought it was the wrong sort of thing to write--not narrative enough. I think that at that point I realized that what I wanted to do was not so much find my voice or tell the truth, whatever those notions completely are, but to keep experimenting. What is art?
AKH: There we are back to Wilde again. You commented to me in an earlier conversation: “There was a reason, I say to myself, why John Donne's poetry first made me want to write poems--not BE a poet since the being a poet seems involved with a certain amount of frivolous acting. I want to write poems; I can't not write, not after Donne and others.” Could you explain that a bit more?
CF: I thought I’d be a photographer. Early artistic success came from my black and white photos, but during my husband’s sabbatical year, I stopped taking pictures. While he took care of the two little boys, I sat down morning for several months and taught myself the basics. North American Review took one of those early efforts. Writing poetry is so damned interesting, though I can imagine how to be bored writing poems—by rote, imitating myself, or writing what will satisfy a readership. It comes down to what I said earlier about contingency—every small alteration, any new sound, or verb, for instance, brings with it another array of possibilities and choices.
AKH: How did you figure out what worked and what didn’t?
CF: Your choose wrongly or rightly. You keep reading.
AKH: What other poets have influenced you?
CF: I have a large library. In the beginning, I was wonderfully perplexed by Donne and also by Wallace Stevens. I didn’t always know what the poems said but I loved the moments before I could understand—that’s where something we may as call beauty seemed to reside. I felt an affinity, young and foolish as I was, to their habit of mind—sound and figure to meditate. Yeats taught me that I needed to abstract. Larry Levis teaches how to sustain a poem’s energy. Hart Crane and Gerard Manley Hopkins for the singularity of their vision. Herbert and Berryman for form and structure. Dickinson for all the aforementioned. You know, I could go on and on, and that’s one of the pleasures of an art—what’s come before. But another important question may have to do with non-literary influences. If you ask me that question, I’ll tell you a few of them. Here’s one whether you ask me or not: Crusader Rabbit.
AKH: I’ll cop to googling Crusader Rabbit (for the curious: the first cartoon for television featuring an animated, knight in shining armor rabbit in episodic, satirical adventures). And I’ll bite: What non-literary influences are important to you?
CF: The land and ocean, their beauty and danger, the creatures, and the mortal process. The thirties and forties jazz my husband reveres. Verdi. Botany. Praying mantises. The Roman churches I visited, something Salvador Dali said to me at the opening of his great ‘60’s painting La Peche aux Thons in Paris during trip hitch hiking trip through Europe when I was nineteen. Sports.
AKH: Do you have a favorite poem, yours or someone else’s?
CF: Robert Haydon’s “Middle Passage” –a tour de force with all the linguistic and formal elements that he finds a way to reconcile. I’ll need to name others: Snow’s translation of Rilke’s “Washing the Corpse,” “The Perfection of Solitude” by Larry Levis, Frost’s “Directive.” “Eros Tyrannos” by Robinson, Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” “You, Andrew Marvell” by MaLeish, Bishop’s “At the Fish Houses.” I could easily go on—surely “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” These are very different poems but share a beauty of phrasing, a stunning event or stunningly rendered event, a new sense of structure (to me), and a deeply meant and felt significance.
AKH: Do you feel that you’ve emulated one of these poets?
CF: I read as a writer.
AKH: There are so many excellent poetry magazines and literary reviews that it’s difficult to estimate what might be interesting to their specific audiences or appealing to their editorial staffs. Did you or do you ever feel as though you’re not sure what to give to editors?
CF: I wouldn’t want to offend editors by saying that I don’t take special pains to match a poem or poems to an editor or a readership. I send out what I hope are good poems and imagine that if a poem is good enough it will get past initial aesthetic screening. Editors have temperaments and biases like everyone.
I did set up a strategy early on to place a poem or poems in magazines that represented each letter of the alphabet. I supposed and still think that it’s better to treat acceptance and rejection lightly than to agonize. Agony takes a lot of energy, and the energy might better be used in writing the poems.
AKH: So now I’m curious if you made it through the alphabet?
CF: The end of the alphabet is hard.
AKH: What do you read regularly?
CF: Just now I’m reading a lot of prose. I read all the books of poems and the magazines that some across my desk. My husband does the subscribing—Poetry, certainly, which he’s subscribed to for more than 40 years. I’ll add that I particularly enjoy books of poems and magazines that are outside of what some people might describe as my aesthetic interests. I also like to answer requests for poems from new magazines, if I have any. Sometimes I simply run out, likely meaning I’ve had a dry patch, or I’m doing too much teaching.
AKH: What is your next project?
CF: I hope to see Honeycomb into print. I want to write an essay about Bishop’s “At the Fish Houses.” I have all the drafts and with the help of a powerful magnifying glass have transcribed them. I’ve also located where the fish houses, near Lockport, Nova Scotia, likely were. As for poems, I’ll have to wait to see.