INTERVIEW WITH JAN CARROLL
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The poem unfolds as an elegy. We read it as a lament for a partner, though that’s not explicit. How do you feel uncertainty and indirectness play a role in this poem? Through its enjambment, the form creates a feeling of being overwhelmed, which echoes, perhaps, how the speaker feels. Can you talk about how you approached the form and how it conveys the emotion?
Jan Carroll: The two possible meanings of the repeated word “over” allow plenty of opportunities to keep readers on their toes, so to speak, asking: Which way are we looking at this word this time? This keeps the poem feeling a little off-balance. The enjambments too, sometimes with double-entendres, or just with the carrying-over effect, lend a driving nature to the poem. Grief can feel like not being able to get a grip, like everything you thought you knew is slipping through your fingers. And while loss is universal, we experience it in particulars. So, yes, this is intended as a lament for a lost love, but the array of instances of loss described hopefully allow access to anyone’s experience.
As far as uncertainty—“I thought I caught a glimpse of you”—part of that grief experience is that we hold out some faint hope of remedy, that the person will come back and it will all be ok, or even at times that they’re not really dead. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross named denial as one of the common manifestations of grief. Sometimes we can’t bear to face the larger, bluntly stated plain truth, that the relationship is over, that this person has died—it’s too painful—but we bite off these smaller particular experiences because they are easier to process, even if they come in a long, mad, overwhelming rush, like in this poem. But I didn’t first have those ideas planned out in my mind when sitting down to write this. I wrote from the emotional experiences I have had. As I wrote, the form felt right for what I was describing. It seemed, intuitively, the best way to convey that.
RR: You’ve mentioned being a facilitator of two “poetry writing support groups.” How does community play a role in your writing? Do you have any advice for writers searching for their own writing community?
JC: Writing poetry is a fairly rare activity, and it’s a different way of seeing things. A poet can feel alone, like an oddball. I know I have at times. I’m so thankful for the writing groups—and to others in the broader writing community who’ve shared encouragement and commiseration–that have given me a sense of belonging with regard to writing poetry, to being a poet. I believe in the empowerment of encouragement.
Writing community can also be a rich resource for learning—about writing itself, and about presenting your work and sending it out into the world. And, you get to know a lot of fascinating and talented individuals along the way.
For writing community—or any community—to thrive and flourish, there has to be an attitude of bringing everyone along, both the seasoned and experienced as well as those just starting out and everyone in between. I am fortunate to be part of a writing community like that, where many local writers contribute to nurturing and tending. It takes a lot of work and only develops over time. But I started with a handful of people I knew who were more-or-less interested in writing poetry, and we are now in our seventh or eighth year (I’ve lost track).
You may not have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for someone else to create writing community for you. You may have to just start where you are, find a few like-minded folks, and try new ideas as they come. Hopefully over time you will find other enclaves of writers doing the same thing, and you can make a connection with them. Once that happens often enough, it starts to snowball. Don’t give up!
RR: As a professional working in both healthcare and publishing, what advice do you have in balancing writing with another professional career? Do your non-writing occupations and hobbies ever influence your writing process and style?
JC: If writing and working another job, you will have to make choices. In order to work and write, you may have to give up other things in order to have time to write. You may have to socialize less or be less involved in other pursuits. To be a writer, you have to write, and that takes time. Only you can determine how much time to spend writing, but I know that regular, planned writing times have been fruitful for me. I have found that if I honor my regular writing times, there is less conflict or tension between me the writer and me the person working at my job.
I have also found that my non-writing work keeps me grounded in the wider world. It’s a good counterbalance to living largely in the imagination. In my healthcare work, people often tell me their stories—their joys and frustrations and sorrows and hopes. Though I don’t use these stories in my writing in whole, I often find bits and pieces of them finding their way into my poems. Once a boy in the waiting room was reading a magazine, and said to his dad, “Did you know houseflies buzz in the key of F?” I quickly jotted it down on a sticky note, and that phrase later inspired a poem. A poet benefits from listening, noticing, and empathizing, and my non-writing work gives me many opportunities to do that with a wide variety of people who often have different perspectives or insights. That can only make my poetry—and me—better, more relatable, more human.
My editing and proofreading work comes in handy when the time comes to revise what the rather unruly imagination has scribbled all over the page.
My gardening hobby, concerns for climate crisis, and habit of watching public television influenced my recent book, where each poem is exactly 300 words. I had been watching a program called 800 Words, where the main character writes a weekly column of that length. I thought, “I wonder if I could do that,” but decided 300 words was more within my reach. I sat down to write with absolutely no agenda and started writing about my garden and climate issues. Each poem in the book is one dense block of text, which seems to work well with talking about such difficult issues that can feel very constricting. Setting the word count limit also reflects that in climate crisis, we must face the limits of the ecosystem, that it cannot sustain the unlimited growth of human society.
RR: Are there any particular writers or poets you take inspiration from?
JC: I feel a lot of resonance with Dean Young’s work. When I read his work, I feel like he “gets” me, while at the same time it often challenges my presuppositions and offers a way of looking at something in a way I never had before. He’s inventive and doesn’t hesitate to follow his own creative vision. I very much like Matthea Harvey’s work for all the same reasons.
Jan Carroll’s work in Issue 7.1: