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Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88

Interviewed by Will Aitken

Anne Carson and I first met in 1988 at a writers workshop in Canada,

and have been reading each others work ever since. The interview that
follows is a mix of our usual conversation and discussion about topics that
preoccupy Carsons workmysticism, antiquity, obsession, desire.
Carson was born on June 21, 1950, in Toronto, the second and final child
of Margaret and Robert Carson. Her mother was a housewife; her father
worked for the Toronto Dominion Bank. During her childhood, the family
moved about from bank to bank in small Ontario towns like Stoney Creek,
Port Hope, Timmins.
In the 1970s Carson studied classics at the University of Toronto and
then ancient Greek with the renowned classical scholar Kenneth Dover at the
University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1981, she returned to the
University of Toronto to write a Ph.D. dissertation on Sappho, which later
became Eros the Bittersweet a brief, dense treatise on lacks centrality to
desire. Today, Carson lives in Ann Arbor, where she teaches classics and
comparative literature at the University of Michigan.
Although she has always been reluctant to call herself a poet, Carson has
been writing some heretic form of poetry almost all her life. Her work is
insistent and groundbreaking, a blend of genres and styles that for years
failed to attract notice. In the late eighties, a few literary magazines in the
United States began to publish her work. Canadian venues were considerably
less welcoming, and it was not until Carson was forty-two that a small
Canadian publisher, Brick Books, published her first book of poems, Short

By the mid-nineties, Carson was no longer trying to find publishers;

rather, publishers were clamoring to find her. In short order, three collections
of poems and essays appeared Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995);
Glass, Irony and God (1995); Men in the Off Hours (2000)as well as a
verse novel, Autobiography of Red (1998), which seamlessly blends Greek
myth, homosexuality, and small-town Ontario life. Two ostensibly academic
books followed: Economy of the Unlostand and her translation of Sapphos
poetry, If Not,Winter, both in 2002.
Awards and accolades came tumbling in: a Guggenheim Fellowship
(1995); a Lannan Award (1996); the Pushcart Prize (1997); a MacArthur
Fellowship (2000); and the Griffin Prize for Poetry (2001). In 2002 Carson
became the first woman to receive Englands T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for
The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos.
For the past several years, Carson has been working on a spoken-word
opera about three women mysticsAphrodite, the fourteenth-century French
heretic Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil. Next year, Random House will
publish Decreationthe eponymously titled operaalongside new poems
and essays.
We started the following interview just after Christmas in 2002.
Exhausted by the joyous demands of the season, Carson stretched out on an
orange velveteen sofa and we talkedfortified by cups of oolong teafor
several hours.

I want to start with the poem that I always think is called I Want to be
Unbearable, but thats not the right title.
Right, its called Stanzas, Sexes, Seduction.

There was a line that stopped me right in the middle of that poem: My
personal poetry is a failure. It made me wonder two things: What do you
call your personal poetry? And do you really feel its a failure or is that a
function of the persona of the poem?
There are different gradations of personhood in different poems. Some of
them seem far away from me and some up close, and the up-close ones
generally dont say what I want them to say. And thats true of the persona in
the poem whos lamenting this as a fact of a certain stage of life. But its also
true of me as me.
When you look back on The Glass Essay do you consider it a personal
poem? Do you see it as a failure?
I see it as a messing around on upper levels with things that I wanted to
make sense of at a deeper level. I do think I have an ability to record sensual
and emotional facts and factoids, to construct a convincing surface of what
life feels like, both physical life and emotional life. But when I wrote things
like The Glass Essay I also wanted to do something that I call
understanding what life feels like, and I dont believe I did. I also dont know
what it would be to do that, but if I read Virginia Woolf or George Eliot
describing emotional facts of people, it seems theres a fragrance of
understanding you come away withthis smell in your head of having gone
through something that you understood with people in the story. When I think
about my writing, I dont feel that.
Do you think you dont feel it because even though youve written about

it, its still part of your ongoing personal experience?

Well thats possible. But how can one ever judge those things?
Or that your personal poetry, to you personally, is a failure, but it might
be a success for everybody else who picks it up?
I think so because this capturing of the surface of emotional fact is useful
for other people in that it jolts them into thinking, into doing their own act of
understanding. But I still dont think I finished the thinking.
The other line, the one I persist in using as the title of the poem despite
your efforts, I want to be unbearable, is one of the most startling lines
youve ever written. I thought it was exact and expressive of you as a writer.
I remember that sentence driving at me in the dark like a glacier. I felt
like a ship going toward the South Pole and then all of a sudden a glacier
comes zooming out of the dark, and I just took it down. I appreciate that its
accurate of what I both have and choose to have as my effect on people. I
dont know exactly why thats the case.
You once said you meant unbearable in a metaphysical sense.

Well, yes, it couldnt be physical, could it? Unless I went around

hammering people.
There are those days.
With sharp objects. Its true, thats why I go to boxing class, to learn
those skills, but thats just, of course, shadow boxing, as they say.
You dont actually get to hit anyone?
You dont hit anyone, no.
But you often think about hitting someone?
In boxing class, yes. Thats why I go. Its always a surprise who turns up,
in the mind, to be hit. Its not usually the people you expect.
Does your teacher encourage you to shout out names of people who are
the target?
No, but that would be a good idea.

My teacher did that. Except I was in a class of mainly women, and they
were shouting out George, and Fred, and Tom, and so I suddenly got
into the spirit and yelled out, Pierre! And there was this pause. And then all
the rest of the class yelled, Pierre! and we all slugged Pierre for a while.
Thats good, though being unbearable hardly ever leads to that kind of
group merriment. Its a more solitary activity. But I dont actually know what
it is to be unbearable. I do think that something of the effect I have on people
is to put everything on an edge where theyre both infatuated with a kind of
charmingness happening in the person or in the writing, and also flatly
terrified by a revelation or acceptance of revelation thats almost happening,
never quite totally happening.
A kind of glare.
Yes, a glare from behind the set where Im standing. So if Im a little
actor on stage, theres this terrible glare coming from behind me. And they
feel that. And I dont have to feel it, but Im aware of it going past me
towards them, and I see dismay on their faces mixed with this other thing. I
think thats why sometimes I am spooky to people. Because this glare is
mixed with an infantile charm that disarms, so they have to deal with both.
But what is that glare?
I dont know. Its just absolute dread. Its bumping up against the fact

that you die alone. You think about that from time to time all through life, and
it continues to make no sense against all the little efforts you make in your
life to be happy and have friends and pass the time.
Does everybody carry that glare around with them, or is it just more
evident behind you?
I think everybody can have access to it, only they mask it for themselves
in different ways. I have fewer ways to mask it for some reason.
Most people are not aware that youre a visual artist as well as a verbal
artist. You make booksa single book that you make for one person or
another. I remember when we were going through the Ontario countryside,
and everything was white, and at one point you pointed off in the distance
and said, I used to live there, I think it was Port Hope? I looked out and
thought, Nobody used to live there. There was just nothing there. Then you
handed me this white book that youd made for your brother Michael.
When I go on the train from here to Toronto I always dread that passing
of Port Hope because it was a place we lived for six, seven years and my
parents for about fifteen years and my brother intermittently, so the book,
because its about him, is connected to that place in some ways. But its a
place where everyones life fell apart. Thats too strong. It was a place where
we all, my brother and I, met the end of our adolescence. So thats a serious
But you wrote the book as a way of mourning your brother?

Yes, I wrote the book because when my brother died I hadnt seen him
for twenty-two years, and he was a mystery to me, and he died suddenly in
another country, and I had a need to gather up the shards of his story and
make it into something containable. So its a lament in the sense of an
attempt to contain a person after theyre no longer reachable.
And it was based on a classical lament.
Its based on a poem of Catallus, the Roman poet, first century BC,
whose brother died in Troy when Catallus was living in Italy. Catallus
traveled to Troy, in Asia Minor, and buried him and wrote a poem about him,
which has the refrain in it, ave etque vale (goodbye and farewell). In my book
I printed out the text of the poem, and then took it apart. T.S. Eliot once said,
Poetry is punctuation. I just read that in an article. It was followed by a
quote from Jacques Laan: The reason we go to poetry is not for wisdom,
but for the dismantling of wisdom, which I though was totally cool. So in
this book, I dismantled the Catallus poem, one word per page, and I put the
Latin word and its lexical definition on the left-hand side, and then on the
right-hand side a fragment of memory of my brothers life that related to the
left-hand side of the page. Where the lexical entry didnt relate, I changed it.
So I smuggled in stuff to the left-hand side that is somewhat inauthentic. But
it makes the left and the right cohere, so that the whole thing tells the story of
the translation of the poem, and also dismantles my memory of my brothers
And you also used photographs?

Yes, I used some photos of our family life, bits of text from his letters,
actual pieces of the letters, some of my mothers answers to his letters, paint,
plastic, staples and other decorative items on the right-hand side. I also tried
to give the book, on the left hand side, a patina of agebecause its supposed
to be an old Roman poemby soaking the pages in tea, which added a
mysterious sepia overtone.
I was wondering about your preference for things that are old and
battered, flawed and tattered.
In surfaces, perfection is less interesting. For instance, a page with a
poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea
stains. Because the tea stains add a bit of history. Its a historical attitude.
After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage and I admire that,
the combination of layers of time that you have when looking at a papyrus
that was produced in the third century BC and then copied and then wrapped
around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in a
museum and pieced together by nine different gentlemen and put back in the
museum and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those
layers add up to more and more life. You can approximate that in your own
life. Stains on clothing.
In Michaels book, you also used only the backgrounds of family photos.
In most cases thats true. I found that the front of most of our family
photos look completely banal, but the backgrounds were dreadful, terrifying,
and full of content. So I cut out the backgrounds, especially the parts where
shadows from the people in the front fell into the background in mysterious
ways. The backgrounds are full of truth.

Did it help you to understand your brother?
No. I dont think it had any effect whatsoever on my understanding.
Another failure of the personal, I guess. I finally decided that understanding
isnt what grief is about. Or laments. Theyre just about making something
beautiful out of the ugly chaos youre left with when someone dies. You want
to make that good. And for me, making it good means making it into an
object thats exciting and beautiful to look at.
I think its interesting that you said object. I remember the first poem you
gave me to read, Total Collection, about Noah collecting the animals for
the ark. I got about four lines into it and I realized it kept getting thicker and
deeper and harsher. It didnt feel like a poem, it felt like falling into a
painting, or as if someone had handed me a jewel.
Yes, that you travel inside of. I think thats what poems are supposed to
do, and I think its what the ancients mean by imitation. When they talk about
poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on
the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an
event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I dont think thats right;
I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page,
and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his
mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a
movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so
by the time you get to the end youre different than you were at the beginning
and you feel that difference.

So its an act.
Its an action. Its a practice.
Its an action for both the writer and the reader.
Yes, it is, exactly, and they share it artificially. The writer does it a long
time ago, but you still feel when youre in it that youre moving with
somebody elses mind through an action.
Can you remember when you first felt compelled to commit that action?
I dont know when I thought of it as that, as mimesis, but I remember in
grade two when we had to draw pictures of a barnyard one day, and the
teacher said we could put a story on it if we wanted to, to explain our
barnyard. That was quite a breakthrough moment. Putting the story as well as
the picture together. And when I did my first book of poems, Short Talks,
when I first produced that as a manuscript to try to publish it, it was
drawings. A set of drawings that had at first just titles, and then I expanded
the titles a bit and then gradually realized nobody was interested in the
drawings and I just took the titles off and then they were pellets of a lecture.
So the trout poem originally had trout in it? Like drawn trout?

The trout poem has a picture of a fisherman. I have the manuscript at

home, with all the drawings. No one ever liked my drawings. I dont think I
was that good. Maybe I could have been good as a drawer if I had done it as
much as I did writing, but its more scary to draw. Its more revealing. You
cant disguise yourself in drawing.
I always assumed that because writing was your main thing, you did
drawing as a kind of relaxation.
No, I dont.
The writings a relaxation.
It is. Its play by comparison. Drawing is quite, quite naked. Horrifyingly
naked. But Ive always felt that if I could have forced myself to draw every
day Id be a better person. That it would pull me into an honesty and
diligence about honesty that I otherwise slack off from. I also get very happy
when Im drawing, even when working on Michaels book, which was a
completely melancholy subject matter. I felt so happy, just fulfilled.
And you never feel that when youre writing?
No, rarely. Maybe for a second, or a moment here or there, but not in any
sustained way. It doesnt gather up my being the way making an object does.
Which goes back to your previous point, that even when the thing Im doing

is just writing I try to make it into an object. Try to make it something to look
at or experience as well as read, so I worry about the topography and spacing,
and just the presentation of it.
When I went back to reread Autobiography of Red, I realized that its a
story from all these different angles and interviews, and as the reader you
have to keep shifting perspective. So its like architecture more than a
conventional novel.
Thats a good analogy. I think that book is like architecture because the
poem, the original ancient poem which does exist, is in the center. But theres
nothing I could do with that, no adequate representation of it I could give, so
I made up all these angles for itthe novel itself and the interview and the
translation in the preface. So there are ways of moving into and out of a room
from other rooms in the building, but really what I want to show is glimpses
of that main room in the center.
So that there is a rotunda and you take us down all the halls leading to it.
The archaic lyric rotunda.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your life as a gay man.
Its been a somewhat checkered career as a gay man. I was never totally
successful. I think it started in high school, when in grade ten or eleven I

developed a fascination with Oscar Wilde. Some of my friends shared this

fascination so we used to dress like Oscar Wilde and memorize his aphorisms
and construct conversations in the lunchroom, as if we were Oscar Wilde and
his friends.
But I dont know how it developed. I cant exactly remember why I
fixated on Oscar Wilde, but I did feel that it gave me an education in aesthetic
sensibility, and also a kind of irony towards oneself that was useful in later
life, an ongoing carapace of irony that I think lots of gay men develop in
order to get through their social and personal lives, and which I found useful
for myself, too.
There are two places in your books where the persona is a gay man or a
gay boy. Theres Autobiography of Red where Geryon falls in love with
Heracles and the little mnage trois in Peru and all that, but also The
Anthropology of Water in Plainwater.
Oh, you think thats a man?
You identify yourself as a man at one point.
Thats the other thing about being a gay man. Model yourself on Oscar
Wilde and you just lie all the time.
I remember I thought I was reading about you, and your kind of
resentment/adoration of the older man who took you on a pilgrimage to
Compostela, and then at some point in the essay you suddenly say something

that indicates youre a young man.

I see. Yes, that may be true. I havent read that for a while. Im sure it is
true. I guess Ive never felt entirely female, but then probably lots of people
dont. But I think that at different times in my life I located myself in
different places on the gender spectrum, and for many years, throughout my
thirties which is when I did that pilgrimage, I didnt have any connection to
the female gender. I wouldnt say I exactly felt like a man, but when youre
talking about yourself you only have these two options. Theres no word for
the floating gender in which we would all like to rest. The neuter comes up
in the unbearable poem, the neuter gender, but that doesnt really capture it
because you dont feel neuter, you feel just wrong. Wrong vis--vis the
gender youre supposed to be in, wrong vis--vis the other one, and so what
are you?
Historically we use man for people of any gender because men win. So
its useful to do that when cornered.
You didnt have much interest in feminism when you first came to
Montreal. But then you joined a group of women who got together and read.
What shifted?
Did I do that? That was brave of me.
At first you were skeptical, even hostile, because the other women were
quite feminist. But then something happened and next I knew, you were
writing about women in dirt.

Oh, yes. Yes, true, there was some kind of a sequence there. Well, lets
see, how does that seem to me now? I think that for a long time, I was just a
solipsist. Its not really that I was not a feminist, or didnt understand
feminismI didnt understand masculinism eitherbut that I just didnt
understand being human. And its a problem of extended adolescence: You
dont know how to be yourself as a part of a category, so you just have to be
yourself as a completely strange individual and fight off any attempt others
make to define you. I think most people go through that by the time theyre
seventeen, but for me it extended to about forty. Until recently, I didnt have
friends I could relax around and be just as weird as I wanted to be. Now I do
people who didnt leave the relationship as a result of me being weird. And
my experience with men is that if they dont like you, they leave.
Is that what you meant when you said you think of yourself as evil?
That may be another, more melodramatic way to describe this. Evil
and good are terms I use from time to time, when Im trying to shock
myself into some better thinking. But its less about evil or good than about
accepting your limitations. When I began to look at my limitations and accept
them, I was able to move into being a person of gender, or thinking about it
historically. After that came those essays like The Gender of Sound and
Dirt and Desire, which are essentially anthropological investigations of
female gender and its limits.
In Autobiography of Red, theres the sense that Geryon is evil, a monster.
This is his own sense of self, it doesnt come from anybody else. The same
seems true of your conception of yourself. I wonder where that comes from.
Part of the answer is obviously explored in Dirt and Desire. Theres this
idea of women as being-CARSON

Polluted, uncontainable, they flow all over everything, they have holes,
you always have to keep them in or theyll just flood.
Leak all over.
Thats the historical answer, but is there a personal answer, as well?
I dont know. I was drawn to the Geryon story because of his
monstrosity, although its something of a clich to say that we all think were
monsters. But it does have to do with gender, though I dont know what it is
about growing up female that makes one think: monster.
Well, its certainly part of growing up gay.
Yes. Perhaps thats why I use the Geryon story rather than a story about a
female monster. I could have written a novel about Medusa, but theres
something more narratableis that a word?and romantic and graspable
about the monstrosity of the gay man, now, for us, in this moment of culture.
Maybe the monstrosity of being female is just too huge an issue. Its been
going on for so long.

I remember, and it wasnt that long ago, when you couldnt get arrested
as a writer. You couldnt get people to take your writing seriously. You used
to say, Im going to be famous fifteen minutes after Im dead. But thats all
shifted in the last five years, and I wonder what kind of difference thats
made to you, again both personally and professionally, or if you think it has?
Doesnt make a lot of difference. Its nice to be met at airports, Ill say
that. It has not made much difference inside the writing, either, except that I
feel somewhat freer to do anything I want, and thats both bad and good.
Good in the sense that its an exploratory space, bad in the sense that Im not
sure anybody really thinks about judging me the same way as before. There
isnt a blank space in which the judgment happens, theres a ready-made
space, a judgment already there that you either live up to or dont. Its already
altered by the time you enter.
I remember sending your work to various literary shows and editors. The
responses I got when anybody bothered to respond was just complete
bewilderment. But this isnt poetry, this is clearly prose. This is in
paragraphs, I can tell the difference between prose and poetry. And they
would just be completely dismissive.
Yes, and since then theres been what people call a paradigm shift, which
means now you cant do anything wrong, but which really means people are
offering equally blind judgments of the work. I dont know why that happens.
I guess people are just afraid to think. They like to have a category thats
ready so they can say: Okay, now we know this is good, we can enjoy it.
Did winning the MacArthur have a similar kind of effect? I know it
didnt lead to a more lavish lifestyle.

How do you mean? I think I bought some socks. I bought socks and I
bought a new pillowcase. Also, they let me in the bank at any hour now. Even
after the door is bared they rush up and usher me to the back room. I find that
charming. Otherwise not much difference. Ive been able to pay people,
though. That was good. I did some collaborative work last year and I was
able to pay people to work with me, which I found satisfying.
You have an interesting theory about money.
Its not that interesting. Its just the inverse of the usual theory, which is
that all money, indeed all numbers in life, should get to be bigger. But it
doesnt make sense that they should get biggerwhy bigger?so if you just
switch it around and think all numbers should get smaller, it makes life better.
Your dad was a banker.
He was, yes. Dad didnt take this view, I have to say. He didnt
understand my attitude to money very much.
What was his attitude to money?
Complicated. I dont think that I grasped it. I only know that whenever
we had conversations about economic affairs, we would end up sitting at the

table, either at home or in a restaurant, surrounded by napkins covered with

calculations, which he would continue to write as we moved out the door,
adding calculations to the napkins. It was a situation of total dismay for us
He didnt start out as a banker, though?
He wanted to be an engineer, but his father died when he was in high
school, and since he was the eldest son, he had to go to work to support the
family. He did that right out of high school and then joined the airforce in the
war. When he got back and got married, he had to continue working in the
bank to support his family. So he was trapped in the bank his whole life; I
dont think it ever made him happy.
He was an itinerant banker?
All bankers are itinerant in the Canadian system because its their policy
to move managers every three years. To give them experience with different
communities and kinds of banking. Its hard on the family, good for the bank.
So you were in a new school every three years?
Pretty much, yes. Which I do believe added to my survival skills. I
remember thinking one day as we were driving out the driveway and I was
waving goodbye to my best friends, who were lined up beside my house,

whom I would never see again, I remember thinking, Well the next time I go
somewhere Im just not gonna make friends; theres really no future in it.
And there was a sense of closing in, closing gates.
And did you not make any new friends in the next town?
I did, but it gets a little more gingerly as time goes on. At least half of
your mind is always thinking, Ill be leaving; this wont last. Its a good
Buddhist attitude. It prepares you for life as a Buddhist. If I were a Buddhist,
this would be a great help. As it is, Im just sad.
You would be well on the road to enlightenment if you were a Buddhist.
Instead, Ive avoided enlightenment resolutely.
Id like to talk a little bit about your discovery of ancient Greece. You
first started studying Greek in high school?
Yes. Grade thirteen.
Was it immediately apparent that it was changing your life?

Yes, immediately. Mrs. Cowan started to teach me Greekshe was our

Latin teacher in high school, in Port Hopebut she also knew Greek, so she
offered to teach me because she found out I was interested in it, so we did it
on our lunch hour.
There wasnt a Greek class?
No. No one was interested except me. We read Sappho together, and it
was simply revolutionary. I dont know every language in the worldmaybe
if I knew Sanskrit and Chinese I would think differentlybut theres
something about Greek that seems to go deeper into words than any modern
language. So that when youre reading it, youre down in the roots of where
words work, whereas in English were at the top of the tree, in the branches,
bouncing around. It was stunning to me, a revelation. And it continues to be
stunning, continues to be like a harbor always welcoming. Strange, but
That must be really nice, to have that place to go to.
It is. Im sure its part of what mental health I have. A large part. Its a
home. Its a home in my mind. And then to be able to make my living at it is
a great benevolence of the universe.
A lot of people say the ancient Greeks are really our contemporaries.
Spiritually, I mean.

I dont feel much direct relevance of ancient things to modern things. It

was the temper of the times, especially in the seventies and eighties when I
was getting my degree and teaching, to claim that the project of being a
classicist was to find relevance to antiquity and invent courses that convinced
students that you could learn everything you needed to know about modern
life from studying the ancient Greeks. Well, this is bizarre, to say the least.
Whats entrancing about the Greeks is that you get little glimpses, little
latches of similarity, embedded in unbelievable otherness, in this huge
landscape of strange convictions about the world and reactions to life that
make no sense at all.
So theres this dense otherness that you just want to find out about.
Whether its relevant is besides the point.
One thing I do understand about the Greeks is that they, too, understood
this and valued it. That is what the god Dionysus is as a principlethe
principle of being up against something so other that it bounces you out of
yourself to a place where, nonetheless, you are still in yourself; theres a
connection to yourself as another. Its what they call "ecstasy." The Greeks
invented this concept, but they also embody it for us, which may just be just
our utilitarian approach to them. But who can say. We are always going to be
looking at the Greeks and figuring out who they are in relation to what we
are. We cant get out and be in a third place and judge both of us.
From a nice objective place?
There is no objective place, just like there is no third gender; youve got
to be in one place or the other.

Can we discuss the fragment from Sappho that you first wrote about in
Eros the Bittersweet, and then in your opera, Decreation?
Fragment 31?
Fragment 31. Which in Eros the Bittersweet you use as an illustration of
Eross lack. Sappho is at table with a man and a young woman, and shes
envying the man because hes infatuated with the young woman, and so is
Sappho. Its this very fleshly triangle. And then when you come back to it in
Decreation its an almost completely new reading of the poem in spiritual
Oh, thats perplexing. Lets see. The difference between the two readings
derives simply from ignoring or taking account of the final verse of the poem
in the manuscript that we have, and when I first talked about Fragment 31 in
Eros the Bittersweet I ignored it, and then when I took up the poem again in
Decreation. I considered it. Its a completely puzzling half-verse having to do
with daring and poverty, and when I took up the reading of this poem the
second time, I decided to try to make sense of it, and the only way I could do
so was in spiritual terms. The poem up until that point is secular, and is a
finished thought about an erotic triangle, but then after describing the erotic
triangle in this seventeenth verse, it goes to a new place. I chose to
understand that new place as a place facing God. But I dont know where
spiritual reality goes for Sappho. The poem doesnt go on after that half of a
verse. But I was trying, in Decreation, to interpret it as a space of poverty in
the mystical sense of the annihilation of the self.
Fragment 31

He seems to me equal to gods that man

whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughingoh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and deador almost
I seem to me.
But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty*
Which, in the poem, is a kind of ecstasy that arises from selfannihilation?
Yes. In the poem Sappho doesnt use the word ecstasy, but she talks
about herself as standing outside herself and observing her own condition. It
sounds as if shes achieving the state of standing outside ones own soul that
constitutes ecstasy, but which also constitutes what many mystics strive to
achieve in canceling their selfhood so that they can be empty vessels for God.
I dont think Sappho has that idea as suchits an anachronism to ascribe it
to herbut I do think there is a deep spiritual substance to Sapphos

descriptions of gods and our relation to gods that ought to be taken account of
in reading her poetry. But I dont exactly know how. Anyway, in Decreation I
tried to put the situation in Sapphos poem up against a medieval and a
modern mystical situation, to see if they would illuminate each other.
And they seem to, within the context of the opera. Whats connecting
them is that trope of jealousy. In Sappho its not a trope, its an actual
situation of jealousy. In Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil theres some
attempt to use jealousy as a metaphor for the displacement of self that the
mystic struggles to achieve. So I think I put the three together to see what
illumination would arise and some did, but I still cant feed it back into the
Sappho poem to finally understand what Sappho is saying. It still eludes me.
But I do think theres the radiance of an idea in Sapphos poem that isnt
graspable but is much less simple than the first way I read it in Eros the
I can see the ecstasy and poverty in Sappho, Porete, and Weil. I can also
see that idea of babbling into the void, because its the only way you can talk
to God, or hope to reach him. Standing there and just spewing it out.
No, I wouldnt say spewing or babbling. In Sapphos poem, her
addresses to gods are orderly, perfect poetic products, but the wayand this
is the magic of fragmentsthe way that poem breaks off leads into a thought
that cant ever be apprehended. There is the space where a thought would be,
but which you cant get hold of. I love that space. Its the reason I like to deal
with fragments. Because no matter what the thought would be if it were fully
worked out, it wouldnt be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the
space gives you. Nothing fully worked out could be so arresting, spooky.
You talk about Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil as writers
whose work is an act of expression of the self, self-advertising, but also note

that theyre all trying to flee self. This is a conundrum that comes up in
Economy of the Unlost. At one point you say, Theres too much self in my
writing. Is the range of the work that you dopoetry, essays, opera,
academic work, teachingis that a way of trying to punch windows in the
walls of the self?
No. I would say its more like a way to avoid having a self by moving
from one definition of it to another. To avoid being captured in one persona
by doing a lot of different things.
In The Economy of the Unlost you suggest that academic work is, at its
best selfless. But then you retreat from that position and admit that your best
academic work tends to come from the closed aesthetic room of the self.
I was taught that objective reportage of academic questions is the ideal
form for scholarship to take, but in pursuing scholarship myself I never found
that possible. I never found it possible to think without thinking about myself
thinking. And Im not sure if thats a casualty of being me or a casualty of
being human, so I decided to assume the latter and just go ahead with the
project of thinking of me as if it were a legitimate human enterprise and
would be enlightening to other humans. So my scholarship, such as it is, is
intensely subjective. But because I am aware of this as a problem, I make an
attempt to continually bridge the gap between that subjective self and the
reader. So although its a private vision, it also brings the reader into its
vision from time to time.
Is Catholicism a way out of self for you?

No, quite the reverse. I dont think Im ever so resigned to myself as

when Im in church trying to understand why Im in church. Sitting there
thinking about my mother and all the times we sat together in church. The
only good memory I have of it is leaning up against her fake fur coat during
Mass. I remember the smell of that coat, how comforting that was on a cold
winter day. But, no, its not a way out of self at all, its a way back into some
self that Im not sure is a good version, but which seems to be embedded or
Do you think of yourself as being particularly devout?
No. I think of myself as being particularly baffled on the one hand, by the
whole question of God and the relation of humans to God, but also, possibly
because of lots of empty spaces in my life, open to exploring what that might
mean. I have open spaces where I put that question and just see what
happens. Going to church is one such space, though I dont go with any
expectation of fulfillment or illumination. I just go because I have gone, and
my mother went and her mother went and theres something there that
happens to all of us. A kind of thinking takes place there that doesnt take
place anywhere else. No matter how unattractive the serviceand nowadays
the mass is rather unattractive in its modern translationno matter how
brainless the sermon, there is a space in which nothing else is happening so
that thinking about God or about the question of God can happen. So I go
there and let it happen. Nothing changes, I dont become wise about this, I
dont become ethically better or more interesting. Im just the same person,
Im that person with this space open and I do think that for me, in this life,
thats as far as Im going to get with spirituality.
So theres not really a doctrinaire side to it.

I wouldnt say the doctrinaire side of Catholicism, for example, makes

much sense to me in its details or its history. So, no, I dont look to Catholic
thinking as a guide to my life, how to live my life, but I do think its some
aspect of being human to engage the question of gods and that engagement
requires space and time. Its a historical accident that I was brought up
Catholic by my mother and that she was by her mother. So this tradition that
carries us is just an accidental vessel. I could have been a Muslim and been
equally confused, Im sure.
Do you think of yourself as having a relationship with God?
No. But thats not bad. I think in the last few years since Ive been
working on this opera and reading a lot of mystics, especially Simone Weil,
Ive come to understand that the best one can hope for as a human is to have
a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were
available, but God isnt. So, sad fact, but get used to it, because nothing else
is going to happen.
Hes not available because he chooses to remove himself or hes not
available because he doesnt exist?
Neither. Hes not available because hes not a being of a kind that would
fit into our availability. Not knowable as the mystics would say. And
knowing is what a worshipper wants to get from God, the sense of being in
an exchange of knowledge, knowing and being known. Its what anybody
wants from any relationship of love and the relationship with God is
supposed to be one of love. But I dont think any kind of knowing is ever
going to materialize between humans and gods.

Is it stymied because of the nature of the beast?
Yes, because of the difference of the two orders. If God were knowable,
why would we believe in him?
That would be too simple?
It would seem already ours; it would seem already appropriated.
So hes like the ancient Greeks, the unknowable other, whose presence
is fascinating and in some way illuminating, but not really understandable.
Yes. Not an available instrument of anything we need or do. Which isnt
the same as saying not existing. Yet with Simone Weil, one gets the sense
that she came to the end of this conviction, the conviction that theres nothing
here to get hold of, and yet nonetheless decided to keep holding. She says
somewhere, God does not exist, therefore I believe in him. The mode of
contradiction for her is the mode of placing oneself in that emptiness where
God might intervene, if God cared to, but as it happens in the history of the
world, God doesnt. So it stays empty.
In the essay on Decreation you talk about that attempt to have a
dialogue at the edge of the abyss, the babbling into the void The I /

Thou where nothing is coming back from Thou but you just keep battling
because somewhere in between those two is the only place it can happen.
Babbling into the void is interesting in so far as it creates works of art.
Marguerite Porete is somebody who spent a long time creating a work about
her own attempt to love God, a work which keeps insisting that this very
work is a lie.
Its not that different from Wilde, is it?
No, Oscar Wilde certainly had his mystic aspects. Little more lighthearted in his earlier years.
I was going to say, they didnt burn him in the end but . . .
They did away with him. They managed to make him extinguish himself.
Marguerite Porete has her light-hearted moments, too. But what interests me
in her book, and in the mystic project in general, is the attempt she makes to
create a space of God that dismantles itself. She wont let you enter a space
and be satisfied with something there as a description of God or a definition
of how to achieve God, she keeps giving you a program of how to annihilate
yourself in God, but she also keeps taking it away. So in the end the work
produces a vortex in which you, the reader, enter and spin around, and have
the sense of spinning around in something, but the something is never given
or defined. I think thats a remarkable thing for a work of art to do.

Thats probably the best thing, that kind of vertigo.

It is the best thing and, in a weird way, selfless, although it takes a very
committed, almost narcissistic self to produce it. She was that and so was
Simone Weil.
Poretes book is called The Mirror of Simple Souls Annihilated And
Those Who Only Live In Longing and Desire of Love.
Yes, the mirror of simple souls, and what the mirror shows you is her.
She is intent on that reflection. But its also a selfishness that, as she says,
annihilates itself in producing the work.
Is that what you were up to when you wrote The Truth About God? in
Glass, Irony and God?
No, I dont think so. The Truth about God was playful. Like trying on
costumes, religious attitudes. Theres an attempt to think in it, theres some
thinking, but nowhere is it mystical. I remember you read it and told me to go
away, read John Donne, and try again. It was bracing advice. John Donne
was a serious, mystical thinker, although he kept pulling himself back from
the edge of mysticism into common sense or something. Very solid,
common-sensical imagination. Dry, too. But no, The Truth About God was
not a mystical effort, it was an intellectual narrative of, as one of my friends
once put it, my flailing at holiness.

You seem to work with this principle of linkage of things that nobody
else in the world would really link or think of linking.
The things you think of to link are not in your own control. Its just who
you are, bumping into the world. But how you link them is what shows the
nature of your mind. Individuality resides in the way links are made.
For Economy of the Unlost, what first prompted you to tape Simonides,
who was the first poet to get paid and an epitaph writerwhat did you see
that linked him to Paul Celan, whos however many centuries later?
You know, I could list things I saw but thats not why I put them together,
that would be an afterthought. I put them together by accident. And thats
fine, Im happy to do things by accident. But whats interesting to me is once
the accident has happened, once I happen to have Simonides and Paul Celan
on my desk together, what do I then do with the link? What I do with it
depends on all the thoughts Ive had in my life up to that point and who I am
at that point. It could be Simonides and celery, it doesnt matter; it just
matters in so far as Im going to make a work of art out of it. It seems totally
arbitrary on the one hand and on the other, totally careful about who I am as a
So its less an intellectual process than like trailing a scent so that you
familiarize yourself with one work and then the other until these initially
inchoate connections start to appear?
Yes, exactly. I have a sense of following, like a hound dog with my nose

to the ground, but looking not just for a track of scent, but a track of shapes. I
think of ideas as having shapes and when I sense that two different texts or
writers have the same shapes in them, I know I can bring them together.
Can you remember what the shapes were that unite Simonides and
No, because theyre not shapes that exist outside of the similarity
between those two things.
Has coming from Canada formed you in some way as a writer? Or are
there specific Canadian writers who have been enormous and important in
forming who you are?
No, I dont think so. I dont know if Id be any different if Id been born
somewhere else. When I go to America I feel different but not in a
paraphraseable way, and when I come back here I feel a sense of relief,
perhaps just because its nice not to be conspicuous. And one can certainly be
inconspicuous here. I do feel that I miss the rocks and the air, and the smell
that the world has here. But I dont feel formed by it.
Are there contemporary American writers that you read who feed you in
a certain way, or contemporary Canadian writers who have an important
effect on the way you write? Does the anxiety of influence make you

It makes me anxious to the extent that if I read somebody and I think,

Wow, Id really like to do that, I stop reading them because I dont want to
be an imitator. And I have a monkey side; I could easily just imitate, which
becomes parodic. Parodic because I really dont want to become that person
and the only relationship you can have to someone you want to imitate and
not become is parody. But I do like, for example, Mavis Gallant, and I try not
to read Mavis Gallant when Im also writing something because I just seep
into her. So while I dont have a sense of trying to craft a voice, I do have a
sense of trying to avoid blending in with anyone elses.
I end up putting you and Alice Munro together. In each of you theres an
attachment to the physical world and the details of lifealmost like you are
reveling in themwhether theyre bad, good, painful, or whatever else. Does
that seem right to you?
I recognize that. Reveling is good. A good word for it. But she and I are
very different. What we have in common is perhaps an attitude that however
bad life is, the important thing is to make something interesting out of it. And
that has a lot to do with the physical world, with looking at stuff, snow and
light and the smell of your screen door and whatever constitutes your
phenomenal existence from moment to moment. How consolingthat this
stuff goes on and that you can keep thinking about it and making that into
something on a page.
And it goes on for everyone.
It goes on for everyone, you can always communicate that. And for me,
even when I read George Eliot, I read her for the descriptions of weather.
Perhaps thats the wrong way to read George Eliot, but how comforting, the

way she describes light moving over trees and lying on a bench and
somebodys foot there.
But you quote Eliot saying that attempts at description are stupid. Did
she really say that?
She did say that. But she keeps on trying to do it. She does limit it
though. I think she has a much greater capacity for description than she
allows herself. The weather is just a dab at the beginning of each chapter
usually. Then she goes onto metaphysical dialogues where people discuss the
meaning of life. But the weather is always there at the beginning, and it is
undeniable. She just gets it. She describes clouds moving over the sun at
eleven oclock in the morning on a path in an oak forest and its just exactly
how that it be. I admire that more than any other aspect of writing.
Shes good at evening, too. At teatime. Its like she describes the weather
in the morning when the chapter starts and teatime when it ends. She gets
dusk very well.
Yes, and thats the reason why I find Chinese and Japanese poetry
satisfying. Because it seems to have the same aim. In fact, its their whole
mechanism of insight into reality, to capture something of the phenomenal
moment and then to let that exude a meaning larger than the moment. I think
thats some kind of final achievement in writing. Which in my practice gets
all messed up with also trying to describe my mother or my socks or my love
life, but I think if I were a better person, I could get all that out of there and
just describe the weather, the snow or the moment of light and it would be a
better work of art.

Write all the way around it?
I think you did it in an email you sent me on the anniversary of your
mothers death and you said, I miss her like an old sock.
One sock, you always need the other sock. Knowing when to stop, thats
the lesson of that email, knowing when to stop is what makes a good piece of
When you talk about your dad, I dont ever get that clear a picture of
him. When you write about your mom, shes palpable, shes in the room.
Why is that?
I dont know. I think that has more to say about her than me. I certainly
did love her and have a connection, but we didnt really get it right all the
years we knew each other. It wasnt what I would call a successful
interaction. In psycho-therapeutical terms. But shes certainly real to me in a
way that nobody else in my life has been. And maybe thats all that love is,
actually . . .

She seems like she was on your side, too.
Yes. I think thats true. And I think it was hard for her to be on my side
but that she thought it through and decided to be. But it wasnt natural.
Unnatural and something she arrived at intellectually.
And emotionally. She had to make that choice. I was who I was and she
would never understand it, but she was going to support it. Its unconditional.
I guess thats what that word means.
The last time I heard you read from Beauty of the Husband, you sounded
as though you went completely out of yourself.
Thats good. That might be the work where Ive come closest to finding a
voice thats not me but is me. Oddly, since its such private material. But
maybe thats what it takes. Maybe you have to go so far into the center that
you pop out the other side. Pop out the back to a neutral position. But I know
when I was writing it, I was always writing it with the question, Can I read
this in public? Because by now I realize that when I write things I will have
to read them. And so it was always being written with that circuit in it. Not

just me talking to me in my head. That level of reflection was always present.

In a way that hadnt been previously?
Never happened before. Although in previous works I could get from a
sentence here, a sentence there, I could never get the whole mechanism of the
voice on that level, coherently.
I know youve been working on and off on the sublime. It combines
Antonioni and Monica Vitti?
Some parts of it did. But I think Ive given up on the sublime. Some time
ago I decided to try to understand it. For some reason, I felt that Monica Vitti
embodied the sublime, especially in Red Desert. So I studied Red Desert for
a while and wrote some stuff about it and worked my way into the theory of
sublime. Various peoples versions of the theory of sublimeEdmund Burke,
Kant, Antonioni himself. But its too big a topic for me so I wrote around in it
for a while and then stepped out to see if there was any kind of thread there
that I could develop and get a hold of, but its defeated me.
I think particularly of that poem when Antonioni goes to the mad house.
Yes, a true story. He went to film in a mad house. It was his first attempt
to make a movie. He had the inmates perform for him.

Did he tell the inmates what to do?
He didnt get that far. He went into the room and the inmates were
brought it. He set them up in some formation and turned on the lights that
were necessary for filming, and the inmates went nuts. Because of the lights,
or so the doctors at scene conjectured.
Your conjecture, at least by way you tell it in the poem, is that the
inmates start rolling around on the floor, acting in crazy ways, but theyre
doing it as a ruse, because they discover that they can kiss each other under
the guise of being mad.
Its a complicated ruse. I think they have a general group ruse in any
situation that suggests danger or novelty. They hit the floor and start rolling,
just in case there might be death-defying events about to happen. So theyre
rolling around on the floor and then some of them who happen to have
affections for one another also use it as an occasion for kissing. Thats kind of
incidental. Not the main motive of the rolling. In the conventional
descriptions of the sublime, like Kants, theres usually a trigger from the
phenomenal world, a thunderstorm or a cliff or a vast starry nightvertigo of
the infinitefrom which the self recoils in horror or dread, and then recovers
itself. Theres an ambivalent motion in that reaction to the sublime. Dread
followed by a recovery of the feeling of mastery, a soaring sensation of
look at this incredible dread, and how I rise above it with my amazing
human mind!
Is theres anything else youd like to add?

Id like to add a piece of wisdom from Gertrude Stein: act so there is no
use in a center. Thats what I try to teach my students.

*The mysterious half-verse to which Carson refers above.