Two Poems and a Conversation With J.R. Carpenter

I’ve Died and Gone to Devon

England is a small country, unless you’re driving across it. From the M3/A303 you’d think the whole country was countryside. The deeper into Devon you drive, the narrower and more winding the roads. If this is the wrong side of the road, I don’t care what’s right. If this is the driveway, I thought, half a mile in, then I can’t wait to see the house. The house stands on a promontory on a double-bend in the River Dart. Meanders don’t last forever, but this house might. It’s so quiet here at night. The slightest sound carries. Rain on magnolia leaves produces a dry, rustling sound. Flotsam on a tidal river is a strange mixture of oak leaves and seaweed. Don’t laugh at the Caution Slipway May Be Slippery sign. It may be true. They’re egrets, not regrets. This is an achingly beautiful place to come across a little death.

A Turn For the Cold

Wind whipped snow at the kitchen window for all of twenty minutes. Then stilled, starlit. We walked into it, night black as Black Angus.
We braved the pitch pasture, waved our flashlight shields, caught no eyes hollow glinting, stepped in no holes ankle-twisting, stubbed no toes on frozen earth or dung.
From hearthstone to flagstone we lugged logs, sheltered lighters, skirted smoke and circled flames.

Where to look – down at the near heat, or up at far fire?

SQ: These prose poems felt very performative to me, as if they were sliced out of the middle of a piece of theatre. I have never seen you perform, do you consider yourself a performance poet? Spoken word? Or, are these distinctions archaic? Does digital media poet cover all of the above?

JRC: I am a writer, that’s all. I tend to write aloud. I talk a lot. I read a lot. And walk. And take pictures. I like it when reading, writing, walking, talking and pictures happen all at once. I like it when a big cloud of live language gets stirred up, Pig-Pen style, and follows me around. I like writing that does its own performing — on the page, off the page, in the mind, in time, in space, in the mouth, in the ear, in the machine, on the screen. Performance writing best describes what I do. Theatre is one thing I do not do, but I love the image — from now on I will try to write every sentence as if it’s been sliced out of the middle of a piece of theatre.
Most of my sentences are sliced out of conversation. Both A Turn for the Cold and I’ve Died and Gone to Devon were snatched from ongoing conversations and written down almost immediately, temporally very close to the moments they describe. A Turn for the Cold is set in Wyoming. I did a residency there with the deeply funny fiction writer Karen Russell. We were walking through a pasture one cold dark night, she had come up with the expression “flashlight shields” and that sent the rest of the poem going. The day after I showed her A Turn for the Cold she came down the hall to tell me she was reading this guy who reminded her of my writing. She was reading Dante. Oh I love Karen Russell.

…we were on our way into a forest

that was not marked by any path at all

– Dante, Inferno CANTO XIII

Most of the sentences in I’ve Died and Gone to Devon started off as Tweets which were pulled into Facebook, which people then commented on, which led to more Tweets. I had just arrived in Devon. Every sentence was a first impression. Every sentence was written and published separately. As they accrued I started to consider them as a group. I complied these first impression sentences into an array. I wrote a program in Python which randomly selected between five and nine of the sentences and discarded the rest. The Python generated version(s) of I’ve Died and Gone to Devon are online here, along with two other story generators. These generators recently wrote a book for me called GENERATION[S], published by Vienna-based TRAUMAWIEN, which includes stories output by the programs, screenshots of the meta-narrative that went on in Facebook around many of the sentences, and the source code for each generator. It may be hard to imagine how anything performative-sounding could emerge from such an elaborate process, but it was only through the repeated performances of each sentence — its distillation at the Tweet level, its response to reader-response at the RSS publication level and its constant re-contextualization as a result of the random selection and elusion at the programmatic level — that this highly distilled prose poem version emerged.
SQ: You seem to work completely without borders in terms of genre–prose/poetry visual/textual media–do you feel that your work is finding new audiences that the merely text based poetics aren’t?
JRC: Differently-audienced, I believe, is the term. When I started using the internet to distributing non-linear narratives in the early-1990s the work was deemed elite because no one had access to the internet. When I started making web-based work, the new media art people said no one would ever look at it in a gallery and the literature people said no one would every read from a screen. The Electronic Literature community has done a phenomenal job of situating this work within the literary, providing venues, critical contexts and audiences for it. I know my work is taught. I see it on online syllabi. My web stats are very good, but who knows how much of that is random search engine result, robot and spider traffic. When I post an announcement about new work, I imagine my target audience being people sitting at desks pretending to do other things. Like work, for example. Or writing. Because they are already pretending, their minds are wide open. That’s my window. That’s where I slip in. I work with borders, just not within them. I work to confuse and confound them, which only seems fair as they confuse and confound me. I take a hermit crab approach, appropriating pre-existing technologies for my own purposes. The more proprietary, predatory, puerile a place the internet becomes, the more committed I am to using it in poetic and intransigeant ways.
SQ: Why prose poems? What is your history with the form?
JRC: The sentence doesn’t love a line break and the sentence is my favourite thing. After that, the paragraph. The prose poem is paragraph preoccupied with prosody. It’s perverse. It’s poetry, yet it’s prose. It’s dense, yet it’s spacious — a world inside a paragraph. Like a snow globe. Shake it any which way, it remains a world intact. Put a line break in the wrong place and out would leak liquid sky and fake glitter snow. I don’t collect snow globes or anything, but I think about them. They’re stylized representations of places designed to preserve moments in memory, in miniature, at a remove. I do collect postcards, which operate in a similar way. As does much of my web-based work. Most of my work moves through many different forms. The prose poem has always been a critical point within that continuum. The Cape started out as a prose poem, though I’m pretty sure it’s a short story now. Entre Ville probably could have been a prose poem, but I wanted it to be long and narrow like an alleyway, so it has line breaks. Les huit quartiers du sommeil is comprised entirely of prose poems, and so is in absentia.
SQ: What online source of poetry should every poet have bookmarked?
JRC: Twitter.
SQ: Why Montreal?
JRC: I grew up in rural Nova Scotia. I hear it’s a nice place to visit. I sure as hell hated living there. My mother’s mother lived in New York City. I spent every summer with her. Which sounds glamorous. But let me tell you. New York City in the summer in the 1970s with my family, well. Dante didn’t even have room for that circle of hell. Montreal was not rural Nova Scotia and it was not New York City. No one I was related to had ever lived there. And there, if no one knew what I was talking about at least there was a reason. In Montreal everyone already knew that language was an issue. This saved so much heartache.
I learned French by ear which is partly why I write by ear. I lived in multiple languages, in a constant state of confusion, conflation, transition, translation, transformation. And so I learned to write in multiple languages, in code languages, in visual and spatial languages, in hybrid languages full of playful derivations, partial understandings, hyphens and gaps. Now I’m learning to write about Montreal in the past tense. I have been living in England for a little over a year. Everyone speaks English here. I have no idea what they’re saying.


Image by: Aphra Kennedy-Fletcher


J. R. Carpenter makes zines, poetry, very short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction and non-linear hypermedia narratives. She recommends this residency in Banff.