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An Interview with Carrie Chappell

EM J: Carrie, first of all, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down and have a cozy little virtual chat with me. I’m thrilled to be having a conversation about your brilliant series of poems in this issue, but before we dive in, I wanted to ask you: how have you been, and what have you been up to? It’s always cool to hear about people’s art projects, but I’m equally happy to hear you talk about binging reality TV shows, perfecting your ideal cup of coffee, writing space operas, or anything in-between.

CARRIE: Thank you, Em J, for inviting me to speak about my work and my latest activities. I’ve been telling myself I’ve been relatively productive, despite everything, but I’ve certainly not written a space opera! I have written a lot of emails, student notes, and poems, but I wonder if that doesn’t sound quite mundane in comparison. Yet, I’ve so needed and cherished these commonplace exchanges and events for the sense-making they’ve given to my realms of work and writing during these extraordinary times.

With the pandemic still in course, I feel much of my everyday is necessarily estranged from me. Throughout the last few months, simple how are you’s took on much more weight, for everyone I know, and I think a lot of what I’ve been up to recently has been the emotional management—with my students, my colleagues, my family, my friends, my partner, myself—of that. What’s been so beautiful to witness is the spirit of collaboration we’ve all taken up. By the end of the semester, I felt as if I was trying to take care of my students as much as they were trying to take care of me. I will never forget our last Zoom classes and how this time gave us a new opportunity to truly consecrate the digital bridges available to us.

Now, in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I sense this collective project, one that has touched France and other nations, underway and, while the centuries of loss in the Black community are horrifying and lacking justice, I am stimulated by the leadership of anti-racist organizations and glad to see the work of Black writers, world-wide, making it into the hands of more readers.

As for my free time, in April, which feels like ages ago, I wrote a poem a day with a writing group I’ve been a part of for a few years. I discovered a little project in documenting the strange circuits of confinement. I felt I was keeping a lot of circles—turning upon myself and my husband in our small apartment, to and fro-ing to the grocery store, looping, nightly, the locked park, with everyone else in my neighborhood—and these orbits did reinforce a center, the home. In writing these entries in the Quarantine Daybook, as I’ve been calling it, I felt I was becoming increasingly aware of how every home was a satellite, with its own frequency, and I was fascinated by the intricacies of a day, normally spent in a handful of exchanges with strangers, now shrunken and wound tight, in a sort of over-intimate. I knew very deeply that I was experiencing new pressures in the domestic, a world traditionally documented by women artists, and I was interested to write myself into that space, to see myself in the home, as a liberated woman, confined, like everyone else. I’m hoping, though I don’t quite know how yet, to see these pages into a little chapbook.

After that, yes, I took reprieve in Internet television! My husband I began our confinement period by watching Bruce Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale, inspired by Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece. That added an especially spooky mood to our lockdown. I think we followed that with a really surprising discovery: Nathaniel Halpern’s Tales from the Loop. This mini-series is wonderful, but I can’t say I know much about the art-book by Simon Stålenhag on which it is based. Someday, I’d like to try to find a copy, but the universe of these stories was entirely enthralling and the telling, dare I say, poetic. Of course, we needed some light-hearted entertainment, and of all the goofy things we watched, I really enjoyed Peter Wier’s 1990 romantic-comedy, Green Card, that stars Gérard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell. More recently, we finished watching Liz Tigelaar’s Little Fires Everywhere, a mini-series based on Celeste Ng’s novel of the same title, and I really enjoyed that. We also watched Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, based on Bryan Stevenson’s book also of the same title, which is so urgent and heartbreaking but also so gorgeous. Since Stevenson opened his Equal Justice Institute in my home state of Alabama, I was very sensitive to this story, to the insufferable racism of the systems he was facing as he tried to achieve justice for Black men on death row.

EM J: What a wonderfully diverse list of films. There’s definitely a couple here I’m not familiar with that I’ll have to check out. Now, your poems in Issue 10 are focused around Tallulah Bankhead. I have to admit, I didn’t know much about her before this, except for her rather “unrespectable” reputation (please put lots and lots of finger quotes around “unrespectable”), which you address in your poems. I was charmed and a bit surprised when I was scrolling through google images of her to find some pictures of her as an older woman where she’s smiling in a way that struck me as a fantastic mixture of mischievous and genuine. Can you talk a little bit about what your image of Tallulah was/is, and what that means to you, maybe what drew you to her?

CARRIE: Oh, Em J. Thank you for this question, one that might be challenging for me to navigate. And thank you, too, for giving Tallulah Bankhead some of her imagery for readers who might not know her well. I think you’re right; she is very real and very rogue! She’s an anomaly in so many ways, and I think I’m first attracted to her for this. She is her own, even if she did (like we all do) borrow manners and moves from others. I think she was highly successful at establishing a kind of brand, before branding was the buzzword it is now, and Tallulah Bankhead was a woman who, I believe, wished to subvert. And then, she kind of institutionalized that, for herself. For me, she is a whole school of thought, rhetoric, and play.

One image I have of Tallulah is the one that many have, as a person who really loved to provoke, to misbehave, and in my work, I do imagine “conspiring” with her, as I put it in “Tallulah You Are Not Mine,” a poem which appeared in Yemassee last November. However, I do think I am really more intrigued by the Tallulah behind the curtain, and she’s the one I think I’m writing with most. Of course, this Tallulah is a rumor, one I’ve delighted in and have strangely (if work is a proof) needed to invoke. In reading her autobiography, I didn’t sense a woman who easily divulged her heart; she’d already decorated and bombasted it. She claimed to be an open book, but there is a strategy of misdirection I feel from her. She has hardened or sealed off edges, even for as much as she “let loose” or appeared to be free-wheeling. For me, though, it’s the woman who is off-stage, off-camera, commiserating with her interior, concocting social ploys, arranging a surprise self-introduction like, “I’m a lesbian. What do you do?” for dinner parties that I want to converse with for hours. I want to know why she wants to make her dig there. It’s hard for me to pinpoint, and I’m not a psychologist, but I do believe her humor divulged deeper hungers for a life she wasn’t fully living due to the social conventions of her time.

Because we share an Alabama origin, I have felt, since a certain moment in my adulthood, that I could see through some of her construct. Which is entirely presumptuous, on my part! But I think I gained the courage to approach her (because a personality like hers would have terrified me as a girl) once I was beginning to see that I myself was in the process of constructing my own institution of verbal expressions, social mannerisms, and humor-draped social punches following my liberation from the evangelical, conservative communities of my home. I had to protect myself from Alabama and protect myself from those I met who had “ideas” about Alabama. In any case, as my Paris artist friend Malik Crumpler helped me consider, I almost address Tallulah in my poems like Danté does Virgil in his passage through Hell. Writing with Tallulah exorcises me, from the tortures of that place, so I might shed the want to meet any of the social expectations I was needled with as a young person.

EM J: I love how you call your connection to her a bit presumptuous. I think that’s an interesting, unavoidable part of the one-way bonds we form with the artists we come to treasure, where we start to think of them as someone who would know and understand us, if only we had lived in parallel to them. It also seems to me that you’re setting up a conversation about respectability and womanhood, about how history frames women like Tallulah, like the narrator, like the reader. Would you mind talking about how you engage with these things on an artistic/political level?

That I’m a poet today, that I profess a poet identity in more spaces than in just the art world, is in a large way for me a political act, against some of the machines of thought I was supposed to file into, that I still feel pressured by, cities and miles away from Alabama.

CARRIE: As a woman who grew up in the white supremacy of the U.S. Southeast, I have needed to undergo a lot of personal upheaval to realize that my artistic level is my political level. In my home-region, a white woman’s “grooming” did not include educating herself on politics and certainly not establishing her own; it was her job to inherit, mirror, and then, one day, proliferate and pass on the virtues with which she’d been “endowed.” I grew up in a family where I was taught that conversations about politics were impolite, indecent, so, when I began to convert my girlhood journal pages into poem-things, I didn’t realize that I was, in fact, seeking refuge or that I was yearning to engage in social discourse, even if just with myself. I thought my angst was just classic angst, but I can now look back and see that, while it was that, it was also the beginning of my politics, writing a page that was my own, not belonging to the precedent, social or faith-based, but born of my own utterance. It was non-conforming, lacking respect, and I kept it very secret. That I’m a poet today, that I profess a poet identity in more spaces than in just the art world, is in a large way for me a political act, against some of the machines of thought I was supposed to file into, that I still feel pressured by, cities and miles away from Alabama.

As far as how I publicly address the pressures placed on women to be “respectable,” I believe I’m still largely developing my approach through continued efforts in a self-education—reading, discussing, reflecting—and trying to find ways in which I can make an impact. In the last seven years, I have very actively chosen to buy, almost uniquely, women-authored texts and, I’ve tried to give some of my writing life to responding to them, in the way of book essays (as I call them). Mostly I’ve written on contemporary poetry collections that are dealing with women’s issues, be they sexual liberation, reproductive rights, or feminist environmental policy. In these readings, I am happy to see many women poets reforming the American lyric, subverting traditions, to claim a space for themselves. This is artistic-political engagement for me; it’s taking up space and celebrating life outside the rhetoric of the male gaze, outside of white supremacy. I hope that my own work will reflect what I’m discovering in my own dialect of reality, one that is being opened to me as I continue the reading, discussing, reflecting that allows me to deprogram my particular American inheritance.

If I relate any of this to Tallulah’s career and artistry, I can see how she, too, was living politics through her art. She fled the avaricious markets of the U.S. to begin her stage career in London with no promise of fame nor pay; in fact, in her autobiography, she talks about boarding the ship to cross the Atlantic knowing that the part she’d been promised abroad had been taken from her. But she continued out of sheer will, to realize herself, to shirk the criticisms of an America that was trying to limit her story.

Like poetry sometimes requires you to be, the stage did, too, demand Tallulah be a purist, to the medium, and I see her as someone really wed to it, even if she did splash about some in Hollywood. I’ve pulled out my copy of her autobiography and would love to weave in some of her words because she puts herself best.

Tallulah was coming up at a time when talkies and musical comedies were the sparkling water of entertainment, yet she says, “I was an outlaw, a dramatic actress.” She was not trying to be pleasing or palatable.

Though Somerset Maugham did not want her cast in the stage version of his Rain, Tallulah desperately sought the title character: “I wanted Sadie to be my first all-out hussy.” I admire that she saw some of her creative destiny in the embodiment of fallen women. She went on to play Sadie later.

She was driven and choosy, and, even if her name garnered attention, she was not often wealthy and “was always shuttling to and from the pawnshop.” Her politics took breath in so many of her choices, and, if she wasn’t playing them, she was speaking them in interviews or in this book. She called the G.O.P. “a political dodo” and stated that she was “of the tribe that would rather see a hundred guilty men go free than one innocent lynched.”

Because she was often comedic and party-driven, I think her social messages are chuckled off. Perhaps a small part of my personal artistic-political engagement is interested in the re-contextualization of women in history. So many stories have been hijacked, and Tallulah’s, though she was very much the designer of it, has often been appropriated by decadent, flippant socialites. They’ve reduced her to an air, a word, a cackle. And, while I met her first as the caricature, I think the complexity of her soul and sincerity of her efforts, those that included failure and success as thinker and artist, have been overlooked.

EM J: These words directly from Tallulah are a godsendthank you for mining those for us! Too often figures like Tallulah are edited into soundbites until they’re just want she didn’t want to be“pleasing or palatable,” as you put itso it’s great to bring the political, socially-driven parts of her out into the open. Here’s a question: your last poem in this group, “Tallulah Bankhead & I Star in a Weeklong One-Act at La Comédie Française,” follows such an interesting script structure. Besides being a nod to her career, you give the poem an Old Hollywood feel without falling into any sort of uncritical nostalgia. What went into the decision of writing it in the way you did?

CARIE: I appreciate hearing that you think I avoided nostalgia in the writing of this poem. Avoiding nostalgia, or being skeptical of nostalgia, has been a concern of mine, especially as I’ve become more literate in the oppressive systems of my home.

If I remember correctly, two main ideas went into the decision for this poem. Firstly, last summer my friend Kristin Sanders read a version of my manuscript, Rooned, in which all of the then-current Tallulah poems appeared. By the time she got to the end, she said something like, “It’s interesting that Tallulah doesn’t come with you to Paris,” and I remember thinking, Oh, that’s not right, because I’d done most of my research on Tallulah here, after trying to recover my relationship with her following a hard review of my Tallulah ideas by one of my graduate thesis committee members. For me, Tallulah had come with me to this city, and I began to realize how incomplete it would be for me and my book to leave “my” story with her in the States when in fact I felt as if I’d been conversing with her in my Belleville living room. For days, I walked around the city, thinking, but where should we go.

Secondly, this poem sprang from the revelation that Paris was not the place where two motivated American artists would come only to dally on riverbanks, burn up confederate memorabilia, or mope about in bars. Paris would be the theater of self-assertion. Tallulah and “I” needed to fulfill our promise, so I picked one of the most famous stages of this city and, borrowing from a daring that Tallulah’s presence imbues in me, plopped us there in our negligees.

[Tallulah] became the kind of Greek myth I could scratch my story against. She became sister and fable, and I loved the idea that, at the end of this manuscript’s story, my lyric “I” would take the stage with her.

This poem was one of the most entertaining for me to write, but I quite enjoyed the whole series. I highly recommend inventing scenes with your “if you could go to dinner with one person from history” person. Writing through the historical imagination, of her life and my life, married together through multiple cities, thrilled me and gave me permissions I didn’t realize I was denying myself. She became the kind of Greek myth I could scratch my story against. She became sister and fable, and I loved the idea that, at the end of this manuscript’s story, my lyric “I” would take the stage with her.

EM J: “Sister and fable” is such an apt way to describe both the relationship and the merging between home and “abroad,” whatever those two things mean for different people. Which transitions nicely to my next question, something a bit broader: you’re in Paris right now, which I’d imagine is such a cultural leap from growing up in the deep South of Birmingham, Alabama. How do you think this transition has affected both your writing and the translation work you do?

CARRIE: Em J, thank you for this question, too. I’ve wondered this myself, but I think I can only pretend to have an answer! It’s so hard to see yourself while you’re really in a phase of change or evolution. I think I might know more about how this transition has impacted my work in a few more years, when I’m able to look back at a near-decade of writing here.

I’ve lived in Paris for nearly six years now, so, while this is a significant amount of time in some regards, and certainly relative to my life path, I still feel a bit like I’m in the in-between—doing my cultural research, interpreting and re-adjusting my social role, navigating relationships with my homeland and my new land. Each year in this country has felt so full, as if it’s contained a decade of lessons. I’ve rarely had any “routine,” which is simultaneously exciting and exhausting. However, I’ve learned that not having a true quotidian is rather hard for my writing. Some aspects of my frenzy here give a new urgency to the free time I do have. The metro sometimes serves as mini-studio for note-taking and line-revising, for example.

Writing in such an urban environment has modified my route to the page and my walk through thoughts. I’ve had to learn to write with the over-stimulation of a dense, international city. Days here have a general clamor. In the States, I used to worry about running into people I knew at the grocery store; I longed for outings in anonymity. Now, the impersonal friction of strangers tires me. None of my life, neither in Birmingham nor later in New Orleans, prepared me for the sheer dynamism of Paname. Not even a book or headphones can protect you from the brush with so many lives.

For the first two or three years that I lived in Paris, I think my writing suffered, as did I. While a large part of me was invigorated to start my journey here—and quite sincerely with what would be a deepening relationship with the French language and culture—I certainly felt “my original self” was disturbed and tangled. I was in a strange seclusion, yet, when I left the U.S., I had been searching for this kind of alone time.

For many reasons, I felt like American culture was crowding me, with its violence, hyperbole, and bait-and-switch. I was looking for a quieter time with my ideas, so I could dare to imagine finding a relationship with my voice that wasn’t being tampered with, by the predatory culture of “making it” post-MFA. I guess I imagined that I could have a rather atypical, long-term writing retreat in Paris, even if it meant a beginning overwhelmed by trials in au pair-ing and being a language tutor for the children of the Paris bourgeois.

In a sense, my initial relationship to this country, as a kind of glorified domestic worker, defined my early sense of cultural worth, which was if anything a great and humbling paradox. And this is how I felt, through those years, here, like an enigma to self—because no part of my “career goals” included a picture of me on my knees trying to coax boys that were not my sons out of a bathtub Monday-Friday—and an enigma to the culture—because I was a 30 year old au pair (which is nearly un-heard of!) with a Masters degree and more emotional independence than many of my peers. This tension with self and with my immediate “home” in the culture was something that weighed heavily on me.

Though I haven’t written enough about it yet, even if there are some references to this experience at the end of my current manuscript, I would someday like to work on a documentary project where I could interview domestic workers in this country and talk about the strange class distinctions made among wealthy French families between the “expensive,” “imported” au pair and the immigrant nanny, who may or may not have papers. In many of these work-situations, I was one of two women who took care of the children, but I was always, by virtue of my nationality and my skill set (essentially just “native English speaker”), given different consideration than the full-time nannies, very often women who’d come to France from non-Western countries.

It certainly will sound like something cheesy from an indie movie about exchange students, perhaps I’m thinking specifically of L’Auberge espagnole, but I did feel like I estranged myself from my mother tongue, which meant my writing voice. Because I was so hell-bent on immersion and being present to my experience here, I interrupted the fluidity of my English-thinking head. What I guess I have noticed is that when I began to re-center myself again in my personage—after kind of splitting into pieces—is that I was committed to writing in a different way, in a more devoted way than before. Living in the U.S., I had probably taken my expression for granted; here, I’d had to fight to regain it. When I write now, I feel my lyric “I” has absorbed some chaos and is thus differently wed to the progression of ideas and sounds. In fact, she seems keener to world- and sense-making than she did in the U.S. before she suffered the privilege of the exile I was going to give her.

My most recent writing project has been to finish my first manuscript, which I’d have to say now, was almost completely written abroad. Though some ideas and even some versions of the poems included in it were conceived of in the completion of my graduate thesis, I do think writing away from the U.S. allowed me to Tallulah-up with some of my artistic and political ideas. In the future I hope to reinvest in a lyric essay project I’ve toyed with that I’m currently calling Body Laïque, which revolves around my fascination with the hypocrisies of the mission of a “secular state” in the French Republic and the project of “religious freedom” in the U.S. This collection, and the revelation that my body was no longer a captive of Protestantism, would have never occurred to me had I not taken my own voyage of sheer-will.

EM J: The combination of your estrangement from language and your privilege within that estrangement must be a tough intersection to navigate, but I look forward to reading the book that will come from all your “Tallulah-ing Up.” There’s something really exact yet freeing about translation work. There can be a lot of pressure to make sure you’re doing the original writing justice. Can you talk a little bit more about your work as a translator? What kind of writing do you tend to translate? What do you find compelling about the work?

My primary translation work, or should I defend it by saying my paying translation work, is very business-oriented or for one-off projects and not very literary, which I hope to change. With business clients or non-profits in France, I take a bit of a different approach than I would with poems or book translations. With them, I insist on a conversation about desired English audience because I find that some of these organizations are facing internal questions about how even their French communication is reaching a client-base or potential funders. In this way, press releases or mission statements, etc., are not always word-for-word translations but more creative and inventive exercises, wherein I can help them imagine new language that encapsulates what they hope to share with Anglophone audiences. It’s a kind of hybrid translation-content creation job.

Literarily, I must admit I’m still trying to establish myself. It’s no small task acquiring the rights to do translation work on books currently published in the Francophone world. I have one project, that’s rather secret until I can see if it will cement itself, that I’m very excited about. I hope to make progress on that this summer.

After that, I will try to remain committed to what I think is so important for all writing cultures right now, which is to lift up living writers. In this way, I would like to find a few current, and maybe not very well published Francophone poets, with whom I could establish long-term relationships. It’s very important to me to see more POC, LGBTQIA+, and women from Europe being translated. Their stories are still hugely under-represented. I love Rimbaud and Apollinaire as much as the next lunatic, but I’m still rather appalled at the lack of diversity in publishing in this country, on this continent.

EM J: I think that’s a wonderful goal, and I’m excited to read your translations in the future! Before I let you go, I wanna end on a slightly defiant note, which I think would make Tallulah proud. In “Loving Tallulah Bankhead,” you write about taboos, the “no-no’s,” that the narrator and Tallulah have in common. What are some other things that culture, upbringing, geography, tradition, etc., might consider a “no-no” that you’d like to embrace going forward?

CARRIE: I think it would make Tallulah proud! I think she’d absolutely be on the frontline, or maybe the front page, in contestation of how tightly some conservatives hold their bouquet of “no-no’s.”

Going forward, I’d like to embrace more local and global conversations about the essential reproductive and health care rights due LGBTQIA+ and women. Inspired by my friend Kristin Sanders’ feminist revision, The Science of Women Getting Rich, I’d like to embrace POC, LGBTQIA+, and women conversing about building wealth in their communities as a way to dismantle white supremacy. I want to embrace my queerness and my story, one that has taken me a long time to tell with the honesty I wanted for it. I want to embrace the stories of so many other writers who have been silenced. I want to embrace a more rigorous separation between church and state. I want to embrace protections for all peoples, not only the “precious” family. I want to embrace the U.S. Southeast as a place of civil liberties and equality. I want to embrace the United States as a global leader against systemic racism. These are perhaps more like collective affirmations, but I‘d like us to embrace them, in speech and in act, so we can see them into being.



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