Poets in Conversation: Carolyn Hembree
Could you comment on the origins and inspirations for the poems "Prayer" and "La Dictée?” How did these poems come to fruition?
After the initial draft came in one sitting, I turned the screws on "La Dictée" to make the language more precise but also to ruffle the patterns. Sylvia Plath discussed trying to free her poetry from a "glass cawl"; her image inspires me to vary the diction, loosen the syntax, and sustain motifs through revision. "Prayer" took longer to write. After admiring how Barbara Cully, Anne Marie Rooney, Gertrude Stein, and C.D. Wright use the fragment to score prose and long-lined work, I wrote "Prayer" as an exercise to challenge my stylistic habits. The subject matter came later, when the Mississippi River rose too high for comfort that spring.
Do you feel poetry has a role to play during (and/ or coming out of) this global crisis/pandemic? How did you experience writing (or not!) during this time?
I wonder if a creative renaissance will come years after this crisis and not necessarily “on topic” but shaped by our personal and collective experience of pandemic grief, as happened with the 1918 flu. For my part, I've been writing a long poem, which has kept me company. In her essay "After the Long Poem," Rachel Blau DuPlessis states, "Such work is a boon companion. ... We have a life, then we have the life of the poem." I'm currently reading George Oppen's OF BEING NUMEROUS, a lyric exploration of being among others in post-war America, which feels remarkably prescient as I return to my local communities.
How do you determine the form or shape for your poems?
I believe the poem already exists before I write my version of it — not as some ideal but as a free thing with pulse, rhythm, longing. I guess such a philosophy lets me off the hook with finding something to write. Of course, my facility — imagination and skill — limit my version of the poem as much as my unique vision enriches my version. While the structure of both poems that appear in BPJ came quickly, a 40-line poem I've been drafting off and on for years just found its form through long "storytelling lines" a friend recommended. Tearing open the lines relaxed structure as well as content, allowing me to recognize that the poem was overdetermined. I had too many ideas!
Is there a writer or a poem you’ve discovered recently that you’re really excited about?
Yes. I gravitate toward books, whole oeuvres sometimes, more than I gravitate toward individual poems. I am smitten with the debut collections of two New Orleans poets: Taylor Johnson's INHERITANCE (Alice James, 2020) and Tiana Nobile's CLEAVE (Hub City, 2021). A latecomer to Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker's work, I fell in love with her collection SCARDANELLI, translated by Jonathan Larson (The Song Cave, 2018). Her poetry and her interviews have provided much-needed mentorship for me. She describes writing as entering a picture, one she must "walk into until it becomes language." Her poetics inspire me to blur the boundaries between the poem proper and my intimate life.
Do you feel inspired by a particular musician or genre that you listen to while you write? Discuss!
I don't usually listen to music while writing until the final stages of putting a book together when a rhythm can carry me through the collection.