Carolyn Moore taught at Humboldt State University (Arcata, CA) until able to eke out a living as a freelance writer and researcher, working from the last vestige of the family farm in Tigard, Oregon. Her four chapbooks won their respective competitions, as has her book-length poetry collection, What Euclid’s Third Axiom Neglects To Mention about Circles, published in 2013 as winner of the White Pine Poetry Press Prize.
In this interview with editor Dariel Suarez, Carolyn talks about the role of titles in her work, about cohesiveness, and about the sound and rhythm of poems.
DS: You have published a number of poetry chapbooks in the course of your writing career. Could you tell us a bit about the process of putting these books together? How do you know when a group of poems should become a chapbook?
CM: In 2005 I began looking over the body of my work and noticing poems related in some significant way. Once I had a critical mass clustered around a theme, mood, or form, I narrowed to what I hoped were the strongest poems and then worked on finding movement from one to another to give the collection an ordering principle. The most difficult task is divorcing poems from their history. Just because several poems arrived close together and thus seem linked to you doesn’t mean they belong together for the reader. It’s helpful to have another poet who is free of your poems’ histories help you select and even order them. Now, once I notice a gaggle of related poems, I often write fresh work to complement their theme or whatever else binds them together. This can mean writing poems that don’t stand alone but do serve to knit together the envisioned chapbook/book.
DS: How cohesive do you believe a poet’s work should be overall? How much should poems speak to each other?
CM: Cohesiveness is highly over-rated! I prefer to read poets who exhibit a broad range of topic, form, and stance. If you’ve ever gone to a poetry reading and started to feel restless, it is likely due to the sameness of poem after poem. Poems must, of course, speak to one another in a collection (or in sections of a large collection), but even then be sure to gift the reader with variety and an occasional surprise. By that I mean a “palate cleanser” like the cracker at a wine tasting that erases a lingering taste and prepares you for a fresh one. I tend to do this with form or voice yet stick to the collection’s chief concern.
DS: Who are some of the poets whose work you find influential or inspirational?
CM: I could list dozens and dozens of dead poets, of course. But if forced to pick only five, I would start with Shakespeare (his dramatic verse—I’m more a fan of that than of his sonnets), Andrew Marvell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson (especially her poems that are less frequently anthologized), and Elizabeth Bishop. Their density of language combined with sonic effects—ah! The living poet who most intrigues me is C.D. Wright. I admire how she beats down genre and re-forges it in surprising form and voice. Such a range!
DS: The titles of your poems feel intriguing and different. How do you come up with them? What part do they play when considering the poems as a whole?
CM: Twenty years ago what I then considered one of my best poems kept meeting rejection. A fellow poet told me it took him several readings of the poem to get his bearings. So the next time I sent it out (the thirtieth time or so), I expanded its title of “Career Day” to “Career Day at Union High: the Bryologist Speaks of Working with Mosses.” That time it was named a finalist in a contest and found a home in print. This expanded-title experience repeated itself a few more times, teaching me that while I had become deft at not loading the opening of poems with exposition (as we tend to do in early drafts) yet I needed the title to shoulder the burden of giving readers their bearings so that they didn’t have to re-read the poem for speaker, setting, occasion, etc. My longer titles led to more acceptances of those poems that needed their titles to double as stage directions.
DS: What topics are you most interested in exploring in your writing? How do you see yourself and your work within the larger poetry world?
CM: As an undergraduate, I majored in math but took dozens of lit and art history courses to alleviate the boredom. I retain a strong interest in scientific (including mathematical) innovation and theory, though I chiefly mine such research for metaphors for the human condition. I’ve also retained an interest in how art, folklore, music, etc., speak to us. I’ve extensively studied poetics and what I abbreviate as “sonics” and feel that every poem must ride the waves of its own sound and rhythm urgencies. While I chiefly write in loose blank verse, I put my poem-drafts through the calisthenics of syllabic and even strong stress rhythms to help shake out excess words and syllables. Though most poems return to my own brand of loose blank verse, sometimes a poem will discover a new rhythm to ride. I still write in free verse as well, but I demand that f.v. make up for the loss of noticeable rhythm by employing strong sonic elements, such as what John Frederick Nims called “bond density” among consonants and appropriate patterns of vowel frequency. Those two aspects are more subtle (and thus, to my mind, more effective) than good ol’ assonance, consonance, alliteration, etc., though I call on those more obvious sonic effects as well. While I chiefly work in a traditional meter, I believe such rhythms should evolve to reflect their age. Thus while I have very strict rules for my flavor of loose blank verse, I am perversely pleased when an old-school formalist refuses to recognize my blank verse as such. Though not directly a “topic,” the persona poem permits us all to escape from the self-absorbed modern lyric voice dominating most published poetry. To be diplomatic, I’ll say that so many lyric poems lined up one after another like dominoes—well, let’s just say that’s the proverbial “too much of a good thing.” My role within the larger poetry world? Well, since the lyric poem continues to be the standard, then in somewhat avoiding it I’m a misfit and have no regrets in doing so.
DS: How much of a socio-political role should writers play in today’s society? Should art and politics have any kind of relationship?
CM: I think even the simplest acts tend to be political acts. “Paper or plastic?” at the cashier’s counter demands a political act (and green-bagging it is the best choice). Most of my poems are subversively political when not overtly so. I’m told I too often tell is so “slant” (as Emily D. advises) that many of my political points are missed. So be it. My poems that Middle Gray is publishing in this issue are closer to the “rant” end of the political continuum for me. I love a good rant but am not as deft at handling them as many other poets, so 90% of my rants are cathartic but never leave the house. One reason I write so many persona poems is to allow the Other to speak. I even give voice to contemptible Others (“The Toadstool Blames His Victim” is one of my poems about abuse). Crawling into the skin of any Other can broaden understanding of the human family. A trained maskmaker (“persona” means “mask” in Latin, of course), I used to present my persona poems in collaboration with actors, mimes, dancers, or other poets moving to the poems while wearing masks of my making. The accompanying picture of me features a latex-slip mask in my Crone series.
DS: What advice do you have for young poets looking to develop as writers?
CM: Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write.
DS: Where can readers find more of your writing? Do you have any new material coming out soon or that has been published recently?
CM: Though most of my work appears in print journals, I love online journals as well and can be Googled for a score of online poems either first published on the web or reprinted there. (I am NOT the Carolyn Moore who specializes in Christmas poems, however.) I’ve faced four surgeries in a year and a half, two this January, so I’ve slowed down since the November release of my book, What Euclid’s Third Axiom Neglects To Mention about Circles, winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. Thus I’m running out of pending publications, and can only look forward to poems coming forth online in Slippery Elm and Cider Press Review as well as in a few print journals. Currently, I am organizing existing poems into two misfit (non-lyrical) collections: one of persona poems and one of ekphrastic poems.
DS: What are your plans for the upcoming years in regards to your writing?
CM: To continue stretching and growing as a poet. Especially to continue refining my sonic and rhythmic skills.