with Jared Carter
JARED CARTER INTERVIEWED
BY JOUGH DEMPSEY
Jared Carter is a poet and essayist who has
three books of
poetry, seven chapbooks,
official website, JaredCarter.com,
where readers may find more
about the man and his work.
This interview was conducted
via e-mail in Fall 2004.
There are millions upon millions of poems
the ancient Greeks to the latest poetry workshop graduate. Why should
anyone read your poems?
Mine are better. If they weren't, and if
I didn't think
so, I wouldn't be writing them. I'd be doing something else, like
selling used cars.
What makes your poems better?
Their pursuit of excellence. They're not
cut to fit this year's
fashions. They don't settle for being correct or trendy, or for
re-hashing what are already assumed to be universally accepted truths
So are you saying that poets like
Stevens, Auden, Frost,
Shakespeare, or Yeats (for example) wrote to the fashions of the time,
were trendy, and re-hashed clichés? What are you doing that they
I didn't say anything about
clichés. I said "universally
accepted truths" — such as those of religion, or the British empire, or
Marxism, or Irish nationalism, or American expansionism, or whatever.
And yeah, sure, they all did it, to varying degrees. Yeats is probably
the biggest offender among those named, although the rest of them had
their less-than-honorable moments. It's an inescapable tendency. And
they all rose above that tendency, too, in their best work. I'm not
accusing them, or condemning them, or insisting that my work is better
than theirs. I'm simply saying that in my work I struggle against
it — the temptation to preach to the choir — the way every other
How can one escape rhetorical tropes, or
accepted truths"? Through abstraction? Wouldn't you be substituting one
meme for another?
You're right, and it's definitely memetic
among the writers
themselves, in that so many of them were trying to be considered
profound. We could draw up a list of those who were more exasperating
than Yeats in this respect — Tolstoy, Kipling, Pound, Heidegger,
Céline, Sartre, Neruda. Nearly everyone agrees that when
they took it upon themselves to mix art and politics, they tended to
become shrill and self-defeating.
I think poetry is always impure, always
suffused with a certain amount
of content and controversy, but there's some sort of corollary to
Gödel's theorem at work here, which says that the more argument
you pump into a work of art, the sillier it becomes. That's why
Flaubert and James remain refreshing, even today. The meme of
grandiosity bit them, but it didn't take. They were self-inoculated.
Grandiosity is an attempt to feed the
ego, though; to feel
important. Do you not also write as a way to be important, to be loved
and be validated as a person?
Not consciously. Although, based on what
I've said already,
such charges can be leveled at almost any successful writer. I take a
different position. It's quite human to seek personal affirmation, to
welcome approval, to be pleased by acceptance. But we're not talking
about being human; we're talking about making art. They're not
necessarily the same.
There's an old saying that "a writer
wants to be loved not for what he
is, but for what he writes." Part of his or her dilemma is that people
tend to overlook what he writes, and judge him or even condemn him on
the basis of his behavior. Consider how nasty the kibitzers have been
about Ted Hughes, or Philip Larkin. Or how vicious they were, more than
a century ago, about Byron. They focus on matters having nothing to do
with the quality of the poems. I think writing "as a way to be
important," to use your phrase, is something the serious writer strives
Your three books of poetry have all been
submission to various publishing awards or contests. Are these
unsolicited calls for manuscripts the most viable option available to
poets who want to publish a full-length volume of poetry?
The process of submitting your manuscript
of poems to a
publisher and hoping it will be accepted and published really hasn't
changed very much during the last three or four hundred years.
Certainly there have been poets who have self-published their books
during that time, and some very illustrious ones. But in the main, at
least since the eighteenth century, you submit a manuscript to a
publisher and hope for the best.
During the last fifteen or twenty years,
a number of publishers have
dressed up this basic process by announcing that they're holding
contests for poetry manuscripts. They hire judges, publish winners and
award prizes of a thousand dollars or so. This probably encourages a
greater number of submissions, but somebody still has to decide which
manuscript to publish, so basically nothing has changed.
Do contests help to level the playing
I'm all in favor of such contests; the
more opportunities to
publish, the better. The main innovation has been to require an entry
fee of around twenty dollars, and this seems reasonable, too, although
lately a few small-press publishers have said they're trying to get
away from such fees, and also from the prize-giving business.
Does the increase in contests and poetry
markets make it
easier or more difficult to have new work accepted?
Having a poem accepted for publication in
a magazine has never
seemed easy to me. I'm still sending out poems that I wrote ten and
fifteen years ago. If one of them gets accepted somewhere, it's because
I persevered, and kept sending it out until it finally landed on the
desk of someone who thought it had merit.
Has the addition of new outlets for
poetry on the Internet
affected your submission process?
On the web there seems to have been an
explosion in the number
of opportunities to submit new poems — and also to reprint previously
published ones. The speed and scope of the web — the alacrity of
editorial response, the worldwide audience reached — is qualitatively
different from traditional print venues.
How seriously do you take web-based
publications, though? With
a print journal there's the cost and difficulty of putting out a
tangible product which creates a barrier-to-entry for amateur
publishers, whereas publishing on the web is cheap and easy.
When was the last time you hitched up
your horse and drove the
buggy into downtown Philly? Or out to Harrisburg for the day?
How many times have you trusted your life
to an automobile
that a ten year old boy built himself, though?
On the web you really don't know who's
holding the reins (to use your
metaphor), or who's behind the wheel (to use mine). Compared to a print
journal, it's cheap and easy to put up a web site. Do you take web
journals seriously (or as seriously) as traditional print journals?
Literature on the web has much to offer.
But in many instances
existing sites have not yet availed themselves of the best intellectual
traditions that the print world has worked for so long to develop
journalistic integrity, identification of sources, scholarly
attribution, principles of fair use, respect for copyright, and many
other professional conventions and statutory agreements that help to
make contemporary discourse possible and accountable. To the degree
that web journals put these traditions into practice, they too will
become as important and respected as the earlier print magazines such
as The Atlantic Monthly, at
one end of the spectrum, and George
Hitchcock's Kayak, at the
Emerson, Lowell, Howells, and their
successors didn't publish The
Atlantic anonymously. They had the courage of their convictions.
listed their real names on the masthead. Putting up homemade web sites
that lack contact information for whoever runs the sites, using fake
names, attacking or ridiculing others without taking responsibility for
your actions — all that sort of thing is chat-room silliness, a form of
cowardice and a symptom of what one friend of mine calls "the dark
side" of the web. It has no place in serious discourse or in art.
I suppose the real question is why do you
publish in poetry
journals at all?
First, it's a process of validation, of
casting your bread upon
the waters. It's a risk-taking you can't achieve by sitting alone in
your room. And second, to accept the challenge of getting work
published invariably refines and strengthens that work, in unexpected
ways. The dross is skimmed off, the ore remains in the crucible. This
seems to me the only conceivable goal — to try to write as well as you
When it comes to publishing poems, I see
no inherent difference between
print journals and web journals. Each is susceptible to abuse and
corruption; each can foster excellence and operate with impartiality.
It is not hard to tell which are honest and legitimate and which are
deceptive and inauthentic. True, we're currently in a period of
transition from one mode to the other, but this will pass. In time,
even the respected print journals will recede farther into the mists
and then disappear altogether. And the bogus web sites will dry up and
blow away, too. In their day, for every Kenyon Review or The Nation,
there were a thousand small magazines that came and went. This weeding
process is at work on the web, too.
There are so many web sites to read on
the Internet that
readers have been growing increasingly selective and impatient. If one
site doesn't provide the information needed, people are quick to return
to a search engine and look for another site.
Recently you've sidled up to the table
with your own web site,
JaredCarter.com, which you approached more like an art project rather
than an online résumé or brochure. Has working on your
own web site helped to make you a better poet?
It made me more aware of the technical
requirements of the
people like yourself who work behind the scenes to keep the web
functioning and looking good. A lot of would-be authors have no idea
what goes on in a conventional publishing house, or what steps must be
taken to turn a manuscript into a book. A year ago, I had no idea what
went on in the source-code world, that part of the web that the average
person seldom sees.
Now, after helping to build that site,
I'm slightly better informed. If
I'm thinking of submitting a poem to a particular online magazine, I
can halfway anticipate how it will look through different browsers,
what the maximum line width should be, how fast it will download,
whether the site is running a Mac or PC, whether the editors want links
provided in the bio, and so on.
Does familiarity with the technology
increase your chances of
having work accepted?
I think this kind of knowledge always
helps you to write with
more confidence. To borrow a couple of your terms, it has enabled me to
be more selective, and at the same time has taught me to be more
patient, when assessing different sites, and imagining how my work
might fit in.
Obviously validation is always helpful,
but does publication
still increase your confidence, or matter as much now as it did when
you were first starting to publish?
It's always important. But the emphasis
changes. When you're
young and just starting out, publishing can give you credibility as a
person. When you're older, you're more interested in validating a
style, a body of work that you've already put together. Both approaches
are probably a little off the mark. It is always the particular poem
that matters, not the person. It is the poem that the good editor
accepts or declines, not the reputation.
Do you feel pressure to keep reinventing
yourself, to come up
with something new, or do you feel that you've been writing the same
poem throughout your life and are only refining the process?
There's no pressure. I keep searching for
new and different
kinds of material, the way a wave moves through water, encountering
everything from plankton to whales. The wave has probably been there
from the beginning.
How does that search proceed? Do you try
to think of something
you've never written about before? A new subject? A form that you
haven't yet explored?
Faulkner said sometimes he could write an
entire novel based on
a single word that had caught his attention. I'm no different. Words,
sounds, textures, odors, the antics of the cat playing with a piece of
string. A poem can arise out of anything at all, rather like subatomic
particles that can suddenly materialize out of the vacuum flux.
Are there any subjects that you've been
unable to transform
into a poem?
I've never had much luck with poems
memories; something that Proust did so well. Certain events in my
childhood, while not inherently remarkable, still seem quite vivid to
me. They come back at odd moments. I have especially poignant
recollections of my grandmother's house during World War Two and
shortly thereafter. These are memories that remain mysterious and
evocative, even now. But putting them into a poem wouldn't necessarily
make them that way for anyone else.
Are there any subjects that are taboo to
I don't think so. But here we need to be
careful and resist the
notion that a poem comes into being after the poet selects a particular
subject. Certainly, there are times when one writes thesis poems. Yeats
called them "poems of statement." Tom McGrath makes that useful
distinction between tactical poetry and strategic poetry. But most good
lyric poems don't come about because someone has selected a subject, or
a thesis, or a theme. They just sort of happen. After years of practice
and application, of course. Anything can trigger a poem, but ideas
don't seem to play much of a part in that process.
Do you, like W. C. Williams, think
writing poetry has made you
a better person?
No, I don't. I'm the same person I've
always been. I don't
believe in personal progress, or historical progress, either. Most
things naturally grow, prosper, flower, decay, and pass from view. But
they seldom get better in a single cycle or incarnation. I don't think
making art, appreciating it, or studying it is redemptive or improves
one in any way. Of course some poets assume their version of events is
politically superior, or socially uplifting, or whatever. I don't
believe a word of it.
I do think poetry can at times comment
on ethical or social issues, and
sometimes literature can illuminate certain problems, in ways different
from — say — political discourse, philosophy, or religion. Ways that
strike us with greater immediacy. But art can't provide answers; that's
not its business. The only way I can conceive of becoming "better"
would be to show increased kindness and consideration for other people
and other living creatures. It's certainly something to strive for. But
we can improve in that way only as individuals, and in our hearts, if
such betterment matters to us at all.
The critic F. R. Leavis claimed that
"the business of literature is to
raise moral questions, not to answer them." That's a hell of a claim,
and it can be disputed. But he didn't say that reading literature makes
us better. Rather, that a familiarity with great literature, from Homer
and Sophocles to Tolstoy and Henry James, might provide some insight,
or guidance, as we face the sort of ethical quandaries we inevitably
encounter during our lifetimes. Oedipus' dilemma — not understanding
he really was — will sooner or later be your own problem. So will
Lear's — failing to grasp the power of love. It helps to be familiar
such precedents, so you don't get completely knocked off your feet when
it's your turn to act like a jerk.
So if not to better yourself or mankind,
what purpose does
poetry serve for you, as both a reader and creator? Entertainment? Yet
another diversion to keep you from thinking about death?
Purpose? Who said anything about purpose?
Does the Mona Lisa
have a purpose, or a utilitarian function? Does Hamlet? The Goldberg
Variations? Chartres cathedral? Rather than purpose, and rather
entertainment — and there's a value in entertainment, I'm not knocking
it — I would say that these different works of art, and poetry too, can
provide pleasure. But it's not sensual pleasure we're talking about.
It's existential. Works of art help to remind us who we are, and where
we are. We're humans, living together on the planet earth, in harmony
with animals and plants, and bound for the stars. As individuals, each
of us will die, certainly, but poetry has much to say about that, too.
And what it says is not discouraging; least of all does it counsel us
not to think about our own demise. Rather, to accept it as part of our
But I'm being too harsh. Let me put it a
different way. I think you're
asking what poetry can contribute to our awareness, and to our daily
lives. Rather than purpose, it's more like, does it have a value? Or,
does it "make nothing happen," as one poet has said? I would reply that
it has value, and can contribute a great deal. Poetry involves vision,
and the play of the imagination; it springs from those sources. There
is not enough of either one in most of what we do or say or experience.
We can become more familiar with the unbounded imagination from the
examples poetry gives us, without assuming that this is what we "get"
or extract from it, or that this is its "purpose." Poetry has no more
purpose than a peony or a rose. But neither of these is insignificant,
and both have an existential presence similar to our own, if we take
the time to stop and really see them.
It's a cliché, but I am fond of
the story about the old football
coach, who told his players, at the beginning of the year, "It doesn't
matter what kind of record we have when the season is over. It doesn't
matter how many games we've won or lost. What matters is what each of
you becomes for having played the game." I look at the making of poems
in that way.
Yet you don't think that writing poetry
makes you a better
person, the way that coach thought football made his players better
Touché. But I'll defend my
metaphor, without going too
deeply into the zen of football. The coach, and the players, already
believe that they are men. That's not the issue. Football, like many
other athletic contests, is, at heart, far more of an identity quest.
It's not about what you are, or what you might become, but who you are
now, at this moment, whatever the odds against you, or the difficulties
you encounter. Ultimately, by participating, you test yourself. Sure,
there are the months and years of practice, before you ever take the
field. Just as there are decades of reading and study before you write
that first promising poem. You polish and practice the basic skills.
But football itself — actually being in
game — is an existential
experience, one that can lead to self-knowledge. By that point the
players are not concerned with getting better morally or physically, or
behaving in some swaggering, macho way. They're concerned with being
able to look back, when it's all over, and say "On this occasion, I did
my best. I fought for my team. I came through the fire."
Once the ball is kicked off, you have
the opportunity of "playing up to
your potential," and, by doing so, finding out who you are — what
made of, whether you can really hack it. "Sweet are the uses of
adversity." You're also discovering what it means to be part of a team,
which is no small thing — to be responsible for a specialized
and yet to be ready to act in the face of unpredictable developments.
Many have observed, not always with approval, that football is in this
sense a kind of warfare. Or at least a metaphor for combat, maybe even
a preparation for it. And in this they are not entirely wrong.
Achilles doesn't assume that he is
getting better by participating in
the Trojan War, and neither do we. Obviously he already believes he is
the best. And so do all the rest of them — one is the best archer,
another is the best swordsman or rock-thrower. On the plains of Troy,
each of them tests such propositions, and pays dearly for being proved
wrong. They have been brought there by their shared notions of honor
and tradition — what it means to be an Achaean. In combat they
their individual destinies. A football player does the same thing, in a
less-than-lethal way. And so, I'm suggesting, does a maker of poems.
But writing does not resemble a violent,
adversarial game. As others
have pointed out, it's more like golf. It's politely competitive, but
it's not confrontational. You can't disadvantage your partner by
disturbing his swing or changing the lay of his ball. Instead, you're
always playing against yourself. Individual performance is everything.
With each swing, each putt, you're constantly called upon to play your
best. I think that's what it's like to try to compose a new poem. And
it's an exhilarating experience. It's what the years of practice and
preparation have led up to: this moment.
The last poem you wrote doesn't matter,
nor the last literary prize,
nor the last raspberry from some sourpuss of a detractor who thinks
your stuff is crap. None of that matters. Rather, it's like being the
halfback who, standing just in front of the end zone, looks up and sees
the opening kickoff coming down to him, end over end. If he had time to
think about it, he would say to himself, "This is it." But of course he
doesn't. It is all happening now. In the next couple of seconds, eleven
people bent on pounding him into the ground will be on top of him. The
other end zone is ninety yards away, which at that moment looks like
ninety light years. And here comes the ball. It's a moment of truth.
There's nowhere to hide. The existential examination has begun.
In moments like that, and similar peak
encounters, all the essentialist
claims and assumptions fade away. When you've arrived at that
moment — whether you're fielding a kickoff, writing a poem, or squaring
off against Hector — you're about to discover who you really are, and
what you're made of.
We do not speak of developing courage,
or getting better at it. We
assume it is there all along, inside each of us. The task is to find
it, and to act according to its dictates. That's why young men play
football. And that's why I write poems.
What do you hope readers will value in
That certain poems they notice in my
books, or encounter on my
web site, seem to beckon to them, and encourage them to start off on
journeys of their own.