10 Questions for Robert Carr
- By Emma Kemp
I found a small white tangerine.
It’s in my head, squeezed
Between what I perceive and what
I call things.
—From “Every Thought Is Citric” Summer 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The poem that comes to mind is G.R.I.D (gay-related immune deficiency). In the first years of the epidemic, this acronym was used to describe AIDS. I generated this poem in workshop with Ada Limón at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown about four years ago - which is about the same time I seriously committed to writing poetry. Addressing the AIDS epidemic became a central theme in my most recent book, The Unbuttoned Eye published by 3: A Taos Press. After a lifetime witnessing the AIDS pandemic in my personal and professional life, I felt compelled to unpack those experiences through poems as my initial project. To write these poems I had to do what I most resisted - start a dialogue with the virus that killed so many I loved. The poem is addressed to the virus and opens:
Come into me unsheathed / strand, little death hood / between boy and man. / Simmer in the warm lining / of my ass. Dance as I play / percussion on the empty / case of your clarinet...
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Discovering poets and poetry after fifty is an amazing gift. Everyone is new to me! Over the past few years I read poems at least a couple of hours a day. When I worked with Ada at the Fine Arts Work Center I followed up by diving into all of her books. Sometimes I discover a contemporary poet that’s mentioned in workshop, Nickole Brown for example. Sometimes I just shop on the Nook and throw myself into the collected poems of a writer for several months. I’ve done that with Plath, Sexton, Clifton, Bishop... it’s a long list. What strikes me is that all of the poets I’ve mentioned are women. I think it’s true - the voices of women have most influenced my writing.
What other professions have you worked in?
I come to poetry toward the end of a thirty-five-year career in public health, where I’ve focused on infectious disease response. Most of this career has been with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, where I serve as the Deputy Director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences. I graduated from Bates College in 1982 with a liberal arts degree in Philosophy and a minor concentration in English. I never would have imagined a career in public health but 1982 was the year the AIDS epidemic was emerging and I felt like that professional path chose me. With poetry I feel like, for the first time in my life, I am choosing my vocation.
What did you want to be when you were young?
A father. I always knew two things: I was attracted to men and I wanted to be a dad. Amazingly, I’ve been blessed with a thirty-year marriage to my husband and we have a twenty-six-year-old son who we raised with a lesbian couple. I say amazingly because I’m not a particularly easy husband... or father.
What inspired you to write this piece?
My first full length poetry collection, The Unbuttoned Eye, explores questions of sexual identity through the thirty-five-year history of the AIDS epidemic. I’m thrilled that my poem from that collection, Every Thought Is Citric, found a home with The Massachusetts Review. The poem is about the meaning of words - recognition, survival, and hope. The speaker in the poem discovers the true name of things: I thought my man was called a husband. / It turns out he’s the solid oak / legs of a farm table, everything / I eat is served upon him... I’m hopeful that as a poet, and as a man, I’m getting closer to understanding things as they are.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I think the place we encounter things for the first time has a powerful impact. For me, that’s my grandmother’s house where I lived until I was four. I find that images from that house show up unexpectedly in poems. The juice glass stenciled with a peacock, scalding water in a tub, the smell of cat piss in a yard. In my more recent poems I’m writing about that house in Annapolis, Maryland, and my memories there.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
No. I wish I did! Since surrendering to poetry, poems show up at any and all times of the day. They wake me in the middle of the night so I have to write them on my phone. They arrive on the commuter rail on the way to work. They interrupt social occasions so I have to run to a private location (usually a bathroom) to write them down.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
As a young man I was passionate about dance. Yes. I’d like to be a dancer in a twenty-something body!
What are you working on currently?
My focus right now is on promoting my new book, The Unbuttoned Eye. This experience is another amazing first for me! I’m learning what it means to create a relationship with a book after it’s published. Maybe this is true of other authors, but as I read from the book I’m finding there are themes and threads that I didn’t realize I’d written! Quite a journey!
I have two new manuscripts in their infancy: The first is titled Opioid. In this collection the speaker is a nonagenarian on opioid medication as he remembers his early childhood with a grandmother. The second collection is titled The Subtlety of Losing Everything. In this collection I’m exploring the process of aging and, in particular, intimacy with the men in my life - friends, my son, my husband, my father.
What are you reading right now?
For at least the past three years I’ve only read poetry. (That seems pretty crazy, but true!) I binge read poets, try on their voices, indulge a pleasant obsession. My current obsession is Sharon Olds.
Robert Carr is the author of Amaranth, a chapbook published in 2016 by Indolent Books, and is a 2017 Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. His first full-length poetry collection, The Unbuttoned Eye, will be published by 3: A Taos Press in 2019. He lives with his husband Stephen in Malden, MA, and serves as an associate poetry editor for Indolent Books. He is also Deputy Director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences in Massachusetts.