The Poem as Archive:
A Conversation Between Carrie Olivia Adams & Kristina Marie Darling
Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago, where she is a book publicist for the University of Chicago Press, the poetry editor for Black Ocean, and a biscuit maker and whiskey drinker. She is the author of Forty-One Jane Doe’s (book and companion DVD, Ahsahta 2013) and Intervening Absence (Ahsahta 2009) as well as the chapbooks Overture in the Key of F (above/ground press 2013) and A Useless Window (Black Ocean 2006).
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of nearly twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, forthcoming). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.
Carrie Olivia Adams’ first book, Intervening Absence, played with ideas of form. Her second book, Forty-One Jane Doe’s, brought the ideas to praxis: she made films in the hopes of creating immersive companions to the cinematic language of the text.
Throughout, Adams’ work has drawn from the language of mathematics, architecture, medicine, and astrophysics in order to create a hybrid voice—one that troubles the line between observation, objective detail, and the intuition of inference. Her forthcoming book, Operating Theater, moves poems to the stage, creating a poem-cum-play in five acts.
Kristina Marie Darling: I’ve always admired your work as a poet, particularly the ways your book projects engage archival material. Your most recent collection, Forty-One Jane Doe’s, draws from source material that ranges from the scientific to the sublime. As the book unfolds, treatises on mathematics, astronomical diagrams, and scientific discoveries inform the poems as much as the speakers’ emotional topographies. I’m fascinated by this tension between subjectivity and clinical language: rhetoric that strives for objectivity. Your work places seemingly impersonal discourses in conversation with emotion, affect, and sentiment. It’s often the archival material you’re working with that gives rise to this tension between registers, and between different types of language. With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about your process working with archival material. What role do non-poetic texts play in your creative process? What does this archival material, this presence of other voices and types of language, make possible within your work?
Carrie Olivia Adams: I am one who has a whole list of things she would like to be other than a poet—detective, spy, physicist, astronomer, zoologist, forensic pathologist, diplomat. I have a whole list of things I wish I had studied: fewer books on books and more books on the making of the world around me. I am completely drawn to things I know very little about. Math feels almost exotic. And yet, equations, in their logic and language, are syntax, which is the most familiar. I love to diagram sentences. I’m also someone with a day job. I am not an academic or a professor, but working in university publishing allows me the chance to brush against ideas, to glean new knowledge in tiny pebbles that I stick in my pockets. Many years ago, when I was at the University of Chicago Press, my cubicle was near the offices of journals of astrophysics, and so when it was quiet I would read what I could, pocketing phrases and ideas.
And so began some of the earliest poems that attempted to incorporate disciplines that were not my own. I wanted very much to get out of my head, out of my very solipsistic skin. And I have often, for reasons both good and very bad, not frequently read a lot of contemporary poetry. Instead, I’ve sunk myself into the very opposite of what I do—indulging in thick, intricate novels and attempting to understand visual perspective through the diction of film angles. I have wanted to write poems that could have dialogues with ideas or modes of expression other than just other poems.
And I want to write poems to someone other than myself. I want poems to be a form of empathy. I don’t want my poems to recount my memories to myself in a dark room. I want them to be something other than me. Though they begin here, I want them to go out and inhabit other bodies and feel other lives. I want the reader to find them to be a companion. And like the best of friends, they listen. Incorporating archival material and found text allows me the best chance to listen—to not speak over, but to get inside and understand. This is perhaps part of the play between the subjective and the objective that you noticde in some of the poems, an intricacy that allows them to both report and question. I hope it’s a place where even things that sound like fact, still have a feeling.
One thing in particular, among many, that I think our work shares in common is an interest in the structures of how information is shared—how both an apprehension and a natural mistrust of the structures used to convey it. I’m thinking specifically of the deconstructive elements of Correspondence, which offer footnotes, appendices, an index, and a glossary as a substitute for a narrative. It opens, in fact, immediately with a subplot,without us ever knowing the plot. These trappings of formal structure like indexes and notes and glossaries are usually used with a voice of authority. But when used alone, that notion is completely undercut. I’m curious about what continues to draw you to these formal forms of organization and the ellipsis of text they imply.
Kristina Marie Darling: I’ve always been intrigued (and troubled) by the hierarchies that we tend to impose upon language. And I’ve always admired the way your work blurs not only textual boundaries, but also the barriers we create between artistic disciplines. I really enjoyed the companion DVD. of original films that accompanies Forty-One Jane Doe’s, and would love to hear more about how you envision the relationship between poetic language and the language of cinema. What does film make possible within your artistic practice?
Carrie Olivia Adams: I originally began to experiment with film during a time when I felt completely overwhelmed by language. I’ve never been an incredibly visual person; in fact, I often feel very spatially impaired. I’m tactile. I hardly ever drive a car because trying to move a body of matter outside myself through physical space is a challenge—how long am I, how wide am I, what space can I take up. In contrast, I love riding my bike because at any moment, I can always put my feet on the ground. Which is all to say that I cannot visualize anything or hold a picture in my mind. I think that I can only recall what specific places in my life look like when I am not in them, because of associations and stories I have made or told about the place. My visual memory is a narrative memory. For many years, I even dreamed mostly in words. Sometimes sentences would fall on me like thin sheets of cotton bunting (the dreams had a texture, if not an image). Last night, I was chasing around a name in my dream; I kept trying to solve it like a puzzle. In my sleep, I wasn’t inhabiting any particular place, but a word kept scratching at me like an intuitive question.
I turned to the camera as a substitute for my weak mind. Here was something that could be an extension of my eye and frame and hold a picture in a way my imagination never could. I started making films about a decade ago, before people were really talking about poem-films. An element was missing from my work, so I went on a quest for vision. Film aided me as a writer to return to and revisit a scene that I otherwise might have lost. New details, new angles, new shadows became apparent to me. My camera conjured what I could not alone.
At the same time, it created another layer of collaboration between me and the reader/viewer. I could offer a companion to the text—not a straightforward retelling or a parallel experience, but a dialogue with the poem. And through this my hope was that the poems would further open out and invite in the audience. I wanted to not only share a world, but to create something more it could envelop.
I think we both have an interest in the architecture of a project. Neither of us creates truly stand-alone poems that are single objects on a page, but we think more along the lines of the sequence and the series, the book as concept and as structure. I’d love to know how that interest in form developed for you, and how you approach and plan a given project. To what extent is the structure an organic outgrowth of the writing process or a formal, strategic foundation already set in place before most of the text has come together?
Kristina Marie Darling: That’s a great question. I think that the sequence, or the book-length poem, opens up a wide range of possibilities for the type of readerly engagement that you describe. When the reader is asked to forge connections between different elements of a book-length project (different literary forms perhaps, or even images and work in other mediums), the text becomes a collaboration between the poet and her audience, allowing them to participate in the process of creating meaning from the work.
For me, the book-length project represents not only a collaboration between the poet and a potential reader, but also, a dialogue between parts of the self or different parts of consciousness. What’s especially intriguing about poem-as-project is that it allows the writer to create juxtapositions (between different forms, voices, and mediums) that are often not possible within the space of a shorter, stand-alone piece. Each of these different modes of representing experience allows for a different way of thinking, a new way of perceiving and processing the world around me. The book-length project allows these various ways of thinking, and vastly different ways of being in the world, to illuminate and complicate one another.
Because the book-length project is a collaborative process, one that affords an opportunity for spontaneity and experimentation, I try not to plan the book beforehand. There are certainly poets who build their books around a given concept. But for me, this forecloses possibilities for dialogue to unfold, and to carry me places I wouldn’t expect it to. I try to allow myself to discover the structure of the project as I create it, to allow order and coherence to emerge from within the work itself.
I think that my investment in the poem-as-book-length-sequence is part of the reason I’m so drawn to your work. I appreciate the fact that your work juxtaposes artistic mediums, and also wildly different archival texts, allowing the extended sequence to become a space for dialogue. And the reader is invited into that conversation as well. The poet becomes, in many ways, a curator of voices and literary forms, the poem a conversation that crosses boundaries between forms, mediums, and individual pieces.
With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about how your role as an editor and curator informs your creative work. Black Ocean presents a unified catalogue of individual collections, but each voice, each text, adds something new to the existing conversation. To what extent is the process of editing a literary press, and building a concise, unified catalogue, similar to constructing a book-length project? How has your practice as an editor opened up new possibilities for your creative work?
Carrie Olivia Adams: That’s such an interesting question. I’ve never thought of Black Ocean’s list as being similar as a way of shaping a larger project, but I think you’ve hit upon something. It’s true that we have a very unified voice or aesthetic across the book list—all of the authors have distinct approaches, and yet there is something very recognizable that makes a book a “Black Ocean book.” And I’m really pleased we’ve been able to achieve that, especially given that the editorial process is extremely collaborative and democratic. Black Ocean publisher Janaka Stucky and I have always worked really closely together to choose books that thrive in the middle space where our fascinations and curiosities overlap. There are definitely poets that I would love to publish, whose work I greatly admire, that will probably never be a part of the Black Ocean catalog because their work falls too far on my side of the aesthetic spectrum. And the same, I’m sure, is true for Janaka. Together, we hope to find and publish poetry collections that excite us both and tap into our individual hopes for what poems can do. And it means that I often publish poets who are engaged in projects completely unlike my own, but that intrigue me because of their difference. The middle ground between us has become a very fertile place that has allowed us to cultivate the Black Ocean aesthetic while challenging our own.
Most of the books that we publish are very closely edited by me in dialogue with the author and Janaka. But I usually wade into the thick of it first, concerned as much with the minutiae as the overall structure. My hope is to get as close to the poems as possible—to understand what their underlying mode of narration, structure, communication, tone, form, etc. is and how to make that clear and consistent across the work. In many ways, the poems should subtly, intuitively guide the reader in how to read them. Each collection has an accent, a dialect, a syntax that is its own; and, my goal is to make this breadcrumb trail available to the reader.
This editorial sensibility is impossible to suppress when working on my poems—which is as helpful as it is detrimental at times. I am the worst at silencing myself. Which is why I often don’t write at all when I am in the midst of editing a work or reading our open submissions. I have to compartmentalize the lives if I am ever going to keep working on my poems, and the only way I’ve found to do that is with the distance of time. There are seasons of the year for writing and there are seasons for sitting quiet.
With Black Ocean, I just finished editing Feng Sun Chen’s second book, which is currently still in search of a final title. When I think of a work that’s a perfect example of something that’s so far away from my own, and that I find incredibly fascinating and invigorating as an author, it’s Feng’s. Her work is messy and visceral and loud and unashamed—as much as my own has the neat-as-a-pin precision of an old maid. But this is what makes her so interesting to edit—to let go and be absorbed into a little bit of chaos. Personally, I am working very slowly on a long project called Daughter of a Tree Farm, which began as an erasure of a memoir of Sofiya Tolstoy. Just like many of my previous sequences, the work blurs the lines between the borrowed text and my own words. It’s been on pause for a few months while I’ve been reading for Black Ocean, and I think that I cannot turn back to it entirely until I read the newly published The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, which translates (for the first time into English) Sofiya’s story that she wrote in response to the The Kreutzer Sonata. In it, she reverses the perspective and tells the story from the wife’s point of view. Exploring her mind and voice a little further seems like a necessary tool to the sympathy of the erasure.