From an unpublished email interview conducted in 2000
Catherine Bush: Two of the most notable things about your work are your hybrid use of form and your radical roping together of the ancient and contemporary. I read in an article that you became a classicist out of an early fascination with Oscar Wilde, who studied classics. Was he your route into the classical realm? In other words, why classics? And, what is it about Oscar?
Anne Carson: I admired Oscar Wilde for his clothes not his classics. Classics discovered itself to me (about age 15) one day in a shopping mall in Stoney Creek, Ontario, when I happened on a bilingual edition of Sappho and decided to learn ancient Greek.
CB: At what point did you begin writing? You also draw, and you’ve said you came to writing, in some sense, from drawing.
AC: Can’t remember a beginning of writing or of drawing. I always made pictures, and often put writing on them.
CB: The first book that you published, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), was a study of Eros in the work of ancient Greek writers. Did you come to poetry from critical writing, to poetry from prose, or were you exploring these different forms concurrently? Were you looking for ways to wed an academic interest in ancient Greece with creative pursuits?
AC: These distinctions are obscure to me, in practice. People worry a lot about them, why? The boundaries between “forms” (poetic, prosaic) are invented by us. The separation of “academic” from “creative” enterprise is demonstrably false and futile. Why pretend to respect categories like these?
CB: There’s a way in which that book provides a kind of template (if not an exclusive one) for the work that follows. You describe historically how the idea of Eros made Greek writers aware of edges and boundaries. “The self forms at the edge of desire.” Is this as true for us today? Is it true for you?
AC: Our subjects call us. Eros The Bittersweet was a book based on my PhD dissertation (Ode Et Amo Ergo Sum: Toronto 1981) and I notice that PhD students frequently choose a doctoral subject that isolates a main issue of their being. Kant’s first dissertation, for example, was On Fire.
CB: Eros also triangulates: there’s the lover, the beloved and what comes between. In “The Glass Essay,” and elsewhere, aging parents — mother, father – are, in some sense, what triangulates, or at least they impinge upon the lover.
AC: Yes I think the love affair with the parents is everybody’s first big human problem.
CB: What was/were the landscapes you grew up in?
AC: Ontario landscapes of rock, lake, snow, skating rinks, lilacs.
CB: Volcanoes haunt the landscapes that you create. (Two of your books feature volcanoes on the cover.) The biography at the back of Short Talks (1992) describes you as a painter of volcanoes. In Autobiography of Red (1998), Herakles has travelled the world visiting them, and Geryon flies over one recording its sounds. Geryon also identifies with what’s inside. Volcanoes are places where what’s inside becomes outside. Is this part of their attraction? In other words, what is it about volcanoes?
AC: Volcanoes are easy to paint. You almost can’t go wrong. I began painting them because I broke my kneecap one winter and had to stay inside for awhile, found only 2 colours of paint in my art drawer, red and yellow, along with some ink: instant volcano.
CB: Have you travelled the world to visit them?
AC: Never seen one.
CB: Journeys recur in your work. What is revealed during a journey that wouldn’t be otherwise?
AC: I hate travel. And yet it produces change. Which is the beginning of thought. And I need thought.
CB: Autobiography of Red reworks a mythological story of the red three-headed monster, Geryon, who is killed, his red cattle stolen by Herakles. How do you describe what you’re up to here: is your work an act of radical translation or is the myth used as a jumping-off point?
AC: Autobiography of Red began as a fairly straightforward translation of the fragments of Stesichoros, then developed excrescences: that is, I found a lot of thought left over in me after I had done the translation so I kept on writing. Red has always been my favourite colour.
CB: What kind of dialogue do you engage in with the historical and literary figures that weave through your writing? What is it, for instance, about the two Emilys, Bronte and Dickinson?
AC: I need to understand solitude. They seem to have done so.
CB: Do you approach language differently when writing poetry and prose?
AC: No, I approach thought differently.
CB: You’ve used the interview format in your own work, often ironically, sometimes as an exercise in what cannot be revealed. Do interviews make you queasy?
AC: Interviews are useless.
the only question worth asking of a story … is, "Is it dead or alive?”
- Mavis Gallant
Catherine’s contributions to UBC’s optional-residency MFA audio downloads can be heard here (2009-2006). Scroll down to 2006 for her instructor talk: "Why Fiction Matters: Some Thoughts on Realism, Authenticity and Conviction"
"to create life which does not eat, procreate or drink but which can live in people who are alive."
- Henry Green on writing