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Bear Review's Nikki Ummel interviews:

Carolyn Hembree

In January, LSU Press published Carolyn Hembree's third poetry collection, For Today, as part of the Barataria Poetry series, edited by Ava Leavell Haymon. Carolyn is also the author of Skinny and Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, winner of the Trio Award and the Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. She received an ATLAS grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents and has also received grants and fellowships from the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the Southern Arts Federation to support her poetry. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans and serves as the poetry editor of Bayou Magazine.


Bear Review had the privilege of publishing an excerpt from For Today, as well as hosting Carolyn for an AWP offsite in Kansas City. A few weeks back, poetry editor, Nikki Ummel, interviewed Carolyn about her latest collection, and, more broadly, her life as a poet, editor, and educator.


NU: Your new collection, For Today, is as much about the balance of life and death as it is about grief and recovery. As you wrote the poems for this book, was that a conscious choice, the molding of the arc, or did you realize it over time or even from an early reader? 


CH: Thank you for this thoughtful question about the creative process, a subject I love to discuss. I realized the shape of the book "over time" to the tune of ten years. Since I tend to "world build," as they say, or write project books, I wander, research, read, and use random procedures to avoid getting stuck in ideas. Throughout my writing life, I've tried to get better at jumping ship; I can't help but have ideas, but I try to get better at abandoning course when needed even if that means, as it did with this collection, dumping 100 pages midway through. While I owe my readers a debt of gratitude for their help with revision, I don't like anyone in my business early on. I crave extended periods of privacy. During my last year with the manuscript, I ordered the poems, cut about a thousand words, revised larger motifs, tinkered with the field composition, and considered the arc of the whole manuscript as well as the long poem. The long poem took about four or five years to write, and my readers saw two drafts eighteen months apart. I received indispensable advice. Rodney Jones told me, "Stay provisional." Laura Mullen told me that taking more time could only better the work. Ready for the poem to be "good," I felt hurt—excruciatingly frozen—by their advice. Usually, that's a sign from my body that the readers are right. Of course, they were. 


NU: In your long poem, “For Today,” you reference women who are close to the speaker. Do you mind addressing the varying levels of intimacy amongst women in this collection?


CH: Yes, relationships between women, a yearning for that closeness, has been an important and elusive theme in a lot of my poetry. In this collection on motherhood and grief, I attempted to relay such yearning in the opening sonnet crown with the speaker grieving the father's death and the mother's addiction and mental illness, as she welcomes her daughter into the world. In the first two sections, I tried to capture the claustrophobic drama of the speaker's relationship with her mother through dark humor. Working in fixed forms like the villanelle sometimes helps me get closer to that darkness, humor, rage. Growing up, the women in my family and I—we laughed at the worst shit (violent early deaths, miscarriages, sexual assault, shock therapy—enough, enough) because you had to go on (or not, I suppose, though we did). In the final poem, the speaker has found a community of women in the Gulf South whom she can appreciate and love. Also, the long poem functions as an unintended pre-elegy for my friend Valda Smith, the speaker’s best friend and mentor “V” in the book, who died of the cancer discussed in the long poem after the manuscript was submitted to LSU Press. In this poem, which takes place over the course of a single day, the speaker keeps trying to reach V until the afternoon when she calls to say that her cancer has spread. In her note to Death Tractates, a collection of elegies for her mentor, Brenda Hillman writes that "the poems in this little book presented themselves as 'an interruption' to the other work" she was writing. Similarly, I learned Valda's diagnosis when the For Today manuscript was nearing completion, yet I felt compelled to allow that grief and love into the work. Another mentor mentioned in the long poem, the older neighbor who is a retired carnival gown seamstress—only in Mardi Gras country, right?—has tried (and failed) to teach the speaker a little French, the speaker’s mother's second language, and has shared her experience of World War II. 


NU: Also in “For Today,” you mention the “outer woman,” the long legs, ample belly, hair, moles, nipples, defining the body “of unknown origin.” How does the speaker’s time in front of the mirror, reflecting on her body, speak to overarching themes within your work?


CH: Most directly, the speaker's depiction of her body is a response to the late father's 1965 letter in which he jocularly calls a self-portrait he took with cigar and beer in hand a "view of the 'inner man.'" Ironically or not, the photo of him is missing. To snap back at the bro-ey vibe of the young father, I chose to respond with the speaker's "view of the 'outer woman,'" a vulnerable description of the middle-aged female body. During the years that I wrote the long poem, I attempted to pitch my empathy beyond my life to the people who passed me on the street, to the riverbed and the riverboat and the oil rig diver, to the cypress knees that tripped me up and the stamen of the hibiscus that brought me joy. Here, I attempted to suck that empathy back inside to detail, somewhat painfully, the aging female body. 


NU: How do you respond to readers who assume this book is about your personal life?


CH: What an apt question—one I don't think I've been asked but that is relevant for many poets! On the one hand, the happenings of the book obviously intersect with my public and private life: speaker's home in the Gulf South (a version of New Orleans), her occupation as a professor, her experience of her father dying when she was pregnant, and so on. However, the book is not autobiographical nor even confessional though parts, of course, are. How I respond depends on the asker and the question. At a recent reading, I met a poet whose work I admire, and he expressed his concern for the "sunken edge of my porch," which I mention in the long poem, "For Today." I was taken off guard, but as this was factual and harmless information, I assured him that my porch had been repaired. This was a touching experience because he had read the book so closely. Readers from outside of our region have expressed disbelief at the evidence that supports the book’s ecopoetics, such as our frequent storms and flooding, which as you know, I don't exaggerate. When someone asks directly about my real-life child, I obfuscate. Usually, my repeated mention of the "speaker" or "persona" does just fine. Ultimately, I'm delighted that readers feel invested enough in my poetry to care or try to identify with me.  


NU: You have the unique experience of both publishing your own work and working as an editor for Bayou Magazine. For you, what is the relationship between being an editor and a poet? Does one impact the other? 


CH: As a poet who revises extensively and sometimes slowly, I know that I am only as good a poet as I am an editor of my own work. My first teacher was my late father: I dictated a book to him when I was three years old. When I was of an age to pen my own work, he taught me by modeling the art of meticulous revision. I can still hear his voice on the other end of the phone line (referring to his red pen markup): “Well, it's cut and bleeding, Carolyn.” Then we would hash out whatever I was revising—word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence—a practice that I follow even now (sometimes on auto pilot). And I try to bring that level of rigor to our team review of Bayou submissions. Every poem submitted to Bayou receives three reads. Poems that my associate poetry editors, readers, or I support are then reviewed again at the "editorial table" by the associate poetry editors and me.      


NU: Same question but in regards to teaching. Can you separate those identities, or are they parts of the same? 


CH: Given the fact of my birth to foreign language professors and my early exposure to poetry through my dad's amateur translations of Celan and Rilke, my becoming a teacher and poet seems almost inevitable now. When I was little, I remember being fascinated by the campus lecture halls, the chalkboards, and my dad's messy office. I remember being in awe of the long-haired male students who would occasionally stop by our house around dinnertime. Later, I loved being a student at my alma maters, the recently defunct Birmingham-Southern College and the University of Arizona. Because of my privilege as the child of educated parents and as a white middle-class person, I’ve always felt at home in these spaces. During my twenty-three years teaching undergraduate and graduate students at the University of New Orleans, I have learned to more deeply interrogate my assumptions about higher education, poetry, class, race, and gender. In this book, my profession is part of the speaker’s identity. So, yes, I suppose the two (teaching and writing) have merged at this point. Yikes! I wouldn’t have said that ten years ago. 

NU: What did you learn from the publication of your first and second books that you tried to improve on during this most recent book?


CH: Well, I revised all of the books to death to the best of my ability, but I think that my enjoyment of revision has grown; I like it better than the generative period now. In every book, I tried to create a world that I would want to inhabit as a reader. As I write books more than poems, I conduct a lot of research to feed that world-building. Deep down I may believe that we keep writing the same poem over and over, but I try my damnedest to write better or differently with each book. When I was in graduate school at the University of Arizona, my teacher Jane Miller told me that the second book was the real worry for a poet. At the time, I couldn't imagine realizing the dream of having a first book and didn’t give a damn about the third. Now that I have a few more gray hairs, I get it. A poet has their whole life to feed that first book, and rightly, readers express a lot of excitement about a debut. But there are enough "one-hit wonders" in the fiction and poetry fields to inspire some concern. That may be a matter of subject matter drying up, life getting in the way, and/or finding a publisher. Except for the very few who secure a home press with their first book, poets usually have to find another press for subsequent collections, and such was the case for me. The only right press for my third book, LSU had to pick up For Today. Of course, the editors and publisher needed to agree that this was true! For submission to a university press, one has to prepare a full description, a vita, a letter, and a sample, all of which I spent enormous time writing. Basically, I prepared a legal defense for why my book would enhance their list. What else has been different? I have paid much more attention to promoting the book this go round. That's partially natural because I've become more invested in being a local poet who supports and is supported by my community. With my first and second books, I felt gross about self promotion. As I've gotten older and more reflective, I've realized that there are ways to get the book out there without sucking up all of the oxygen. I want my book to be read, which requires that I work to get the word out as poets do not have the luxury of big publicity. I also want my friends' and neighbors' books to be read. Shit, I just want poetry to be read and heard. While publicizing the book, I have offered teaching and community resources that I hope will be helpful. What matters most is that we make time to do the work. Easy to say but books be damned compared to the actual process. D.A. Powell once told me, “Good work will out,” an assurance that has sustained me over the years.

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Carolyn Hembree's third poetry collection, For Today, was published by LSU Press as part of the Barataria Poetry series, edited by Ava Leavell Haymon. Carolyn is also the author of Skinny and Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, winner of the Trio Award and the Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. She received an ATLAS grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents and has also received grants and fellowships from PEN, the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the Southern Arts Federation to support her poetry. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans and serves as the poetry editor of Bayou Magazine.

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