The following interview will appear in issue 15 of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose.
Carrie Oeding’s first collection of poetry, Our List of Solutions (42 Miles Press, 2011), enters the conversation on poetic schools and forms with a distinctly new voice that draws upon the way art and literature have constructed their selves throughout the years. It wrestles with the notion of human authenticity, the relationship of self to other, and how to make meaning in a world full of a multiplicity of meanings, which are simultaneously socially constructed and individualistic. At its crux, the book questions what it means to be human and how to reconcile our ontology as dialogical beings with the consciousness that we also want to want for ourselves, that meaning ultimately resides within an individual’s recognition of the complex relationship of what makes a self, a self that cannot exist without its interaction with others. While the speakers of these poems can appear lonely, this book celebrates loneliness as a connection to the all of human experience. Unlike Anton Chekov’s banker in “The Bet” who despises “freedom and life and health, and all that in your books is called the good things of the world” and who further declares “I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage,” this collection of poems embraces the flaws and foibles of humanity as that which allow us, if we are mindful, to love who we are. This interview took place over the course of a month through email.
Jennifer Reid: Poets and poetry are often placed into different schools of thought or categories: language poets, narrative, lyric, spoken word, etc. The poems in Our List of Solutions do not neatly fit into any one category. How might you classify them among the various terms poets and critics throw around these days?
Carrie Oeding: I know that these poems are voice-driven, but they are neither talky, ultra-talk poems nor discursive poems. I know that these poems are trying to work something out on the page. I know that the book wrestles with ideas of authenticity, and implicitly raises such questions as How can I perform authentically among performers? while that question seems impossible to answer. How can you perform authentically when everything is artifice? This question is what I struggle with when I write – how can I write a poem that surprises and delights me? I learned to be greedy from early on – pull from wherever poetry surprises me.
I’m circling around your question as I want to get something right here, with what I mean. I agree, Our List of Solutions does not fit neatly into a school of poetry. But it’s reacting to a number of things that frustrates me about poetry. I love so many poets and poems, but there is a lot I detest about the art, too. I wish I were a sculptor, but I would likely feel the same way, wouldn’t I? Poetry to me is gestural, an experience, communicative. Which is what sculpture is to me, too and why I love it. You approach, question, exchange with the work. When I feel like I’m reading something that is unnecessary or kidding itself or so done, done, done, I feel like it’s exemplary of the underbelly of social interactions and how we’ll fool each other. I don’t exclude myself from this scrutiny. And it drives me nuts, and it makes me write, at least that was what drove some of this first book. I want to explore other perspectives now. What I like about what I’m saying above is that it’s kind of bullshit, except when it’s not. Art has so many reasons for existence, just like human interaction.
JR: I love what you say about poetry being gestural, a communicative experience. We all have stories to tell, and the telling is a human interaction, you know? We don’t just tell stories for ourselves to hear them, even if we are trying to figure something out for ourselves. What narrative does this collection of poems tell?
CO: There is an arc to the book, which implies there is a narrative, but the progression in the book is of perspective, not of event. In the beginning of the book a lot of the speakers push at what kind of authentic reaction or experience you can have when the self seems limited, constructed. The book shifts, and its speakers, while still just as restless and biting in some ways, begin to find new perspectives about the self and meaning-making that they wish to be surprised by in the first half of the book.
JR: You hit on something here with which I continually wrestle. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of sociology and philosophy, each of which are an attempt to understand the nature of humanity. An act poetry itself, it seems to me, also does this. As humans are social beings, as evidenced in language being a human characteristic, one could make the claim that humans by nature are dialogical and dialectical beings, we stretch ourselves outward toward the other, and through other, we come to know ourselves. How do these poems speak to this characteristic of humanity?
CO: This book is all about the other. A number of the speakers in the book are afraid they are nothing without the other. This is particularly frustrating to these speakers because they feel the other is limiting at times, which is really a frustration with the self. They look to the other for a means of making sense of the self, for ways to live. The speakers sometimes wrestle with the social constrictions of meanings available to them. And these options feel imposed on them at times, for instance in “The Women Wear Black.” But these poems find a reason to be, which fights past this, found in the performance. This is the authenticity, what you do with these artifices.
JR: That’s a really interesting paradox, and so true of humans. In a way we do perform the roles that we come to be socialized into. Stepping outside of these roles can cause alienation, but realizing this, becoming conscious, causes alienation as well. The poem “Joy” seems to me to capture this sense of alienation. Can you talk a little about what that poem wrestles with and what it tries to reconcile?
CO: I actually mean performance here as a positive, not as getting by or playing the part, but that the only authenticity these speakers have is to take artifice, social construction, and roles and do something new with them. Perform. This can potentially create new ways of making sense and meaning.
So you have this conflict here, which you point out, of limited choices: playing a role or standing outside, alienated, which is the position my speakers fear. But in a poem like “Joy” while the speaker does feel alienated for wanting something “more” than what’s available to her, she has a bigger concern, which is how to find it. To me, the speaker’s need to speak is not to express feelings of alienation. It is to work out her problem with how our options for experience and making sense of this experience feel limited and to work out what to do about it.
JR: The title of this collection implies that the speakers of these poems see solutions to their conflicts, tensions, apprehensions, problems, etc. From where does the title come?
CO: I think the title for some might be too quickly seen as ironic. Meaning, the collective, the community, thinks it knows how to be, how to define, and the individual speakers in the poems react to these ideas, as they are nothing like solutions, which is the irony. But I think there is something else going on. Making lists indicates someone will know how to achieve the solution – this is the problem that the book sets up. There’s that gap between what to do and how to do it. I want to point out that it’s not irony, because I am not just setting up this tension to notice, these speakers are trying to do something about it. There is a “reach” from the speakers in the poems to do something about.
JR: What solutions are offered?
CO: That’s an interesting question for me to consider. A lot of this is for readers to come to. But I would point you back up to question #3 after you read the book.
JR: And this sort of circles back to the idea of humans being inherently connected to others. We test our hypotheses against the collective human consciousness. I know that’s such a pretentious poetical term thrown around often in discussion of poetry, but I think there’s something to it nonetheless. Each of us embodies an entire pool of consciousnesses: our ancestors, our parents, the culture of people in which we grow up, the people and experiences we meet that counter our previous consciousness. In some ways it’s impossible to find an authentic self in this mix. I think the poem “Apology to Meditation” wrestles with this. On the one hand the speaker is critical of her friend who wants to stay in the moment while the speaker sees all moments simultaneously interacting to create meaning, but at the same time the speaker desires a singularity of meaning, which can never be the case. Which other poem in the book do you feel offers a solution of sorts to this dilemma?
CO: I think the book’s speakers are less concerned with the reality of authenticity and the self and more concerned with how to live with this self and with others. The speakers essentially ask How shall I live? and are uninterested in asking, Who am I? or worse, How will attempts at understanding always fail? Personally, what will get me out of bed and engaged in life and art and ideas and relationships is asking this first question.
For me, “Apology to Meditation” is also obsessed with the idea of not giving up the obsessive thinking: “Dear Meditation, I’m sorry, I know I am getting you all wrong, but now you know how a person can feel and why they wouldn’t want to let that go.” I’m not sure if I see the speaker in “Apology” as desiring singularity of meaning. Maybe so. Maybe if she could really nail it on the head and get it “right,” which IS impossible, a kind of impossibility that the speaker in a poem like “Another Farewell Song“ loves because it calls for loquaciousness. Not mindless chattering, but to really invest in language to name her experience.
JR: Within these poems, I see the speaker/narrator (as opposed to the characters who also speak) being very in control of the movement of the poem. Would you agree with this or do you think this control unravels at junctures, which may also tell us something about humanity.
CO: Absolutely! Which is funny to me, because if someone said they were reading a book of poems whose speakers or language were very controlled, I wouldn’t jump to read it. Control works differently here. The speakers in Our List of Solutions aren’t controlled as in chiseled out, as in each word is like passing a kidney stone.
These poems have a very particular perception of self, other, or meaning-making, and it’s hard to hang on to, to get at exactly right. No, I don’t mean this, I mean THIS, the speakers want to say. Not this usual way of interpreting or responding but this way, slightly askew, slant. And it’s very important to me to nail exactly what this problem is, this tension that the speakers are working out on the page. The last thing on earth they’d want would be to be misinterpreted, when the reason they’re mostly speaking is because they are frustrated with how others interpret and how there’s a lack of surprising interpretations and ways to live in their world.
I think control is unspooling all around the speakers while they talk, the potential for it to. They are trying to work something out through language and performance to stave off coming undone. They are tenacious and stubborn, not fragile.
JR: I totally agree, which is why I was taken aback by one of the blurbs on the back of the book that refers to the women in this book as fragile. It’s true that there is a loneliness in these poems, but that’s sort of the human condition, and, in a sense, that makes all humans fragile, but the women in these poems do not accept fragility per se. They seem to find strength in their relation to other and, therefore, within their selves. We are so bound to others as humans – they are in essence what allow us to construct the self, and by definition the self is supposed to be singular. Poetry really fleshes out this dynamic. The act of writing a poem is such a singular act, but at the same time it draws on everything outside and inside of a self. I think all poets must wrestle with this, so what poets do you feel most inform this collection and your work?
CO: There are poets who I guess guided the work, in the sense that when I found them, they opened up poetry for me, or gave me permission to play, or who just excited me. Mary Ruefle, Kenneth Koch, Stevie Smith, Gertrude Stein, Larry Levis, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Fredrick Seidel, or Russell Edson. Dean Young’s First Course in Turbulence, Claire Bateman’s Clumsy, Mattea Harvey’s Pity the Bathtub, Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris – single collections often played a bigger role. But a lot of specific or singular works influence this book – the voices in the fiction of Barry Hannah, Grace Paley, Lydia Davis, Miranda July, and Amy Hempel, just to name a few of the biggies. Jazz, by Toni Morrison. That book IS voice.
There are other factors informing the work just as significantly. Visual artists, music, my perspective on interpersonal exchanges, one particular day in a certain city, five years in a liberal Appalachian college town, eightteen years in a sparse Midwestern farm, five summers in North Carolina, you see.
JR: How much revision and reshuffling did this collection go through before you felt it was finally done?
CO: That’s hard to delineate, as when I write I always revise. So, on the individual poem level, I rarely write a “complete” poem and then work on revising it. I’ll just keep it in motion and evolution until it’s done (which was anywhere from two days to a year for poems in this book), and then it’s done done.
I always had the intuition that what I was writing during my years at Ohio University (my Ph.D. program) were falling together, but someone, I don’t remember who, said to me in my MFA program not to force a project on too soon. Of course, my intuition, like all intuition, was informed and I was making a collection intentionally at this time. But I didn’t stop to really assess until about three-fourths of the way through. I didn’t need to, because I knew something was evolving and I’d stop and examine it when the time came. There’s nothing romantic or mystical about it, and I don’t think I’ll write all books this way, but it was really exciting to write a book this way. I hope it will help any future collections, it they happen, by remembering this following of the perspective and the language, rather than gripping foremost to a project. I don’t think this is always a bad thing, but man, you see a lot of books of poems for which it is.
JR: What advice do you have for poets trying to get their first book published?
CO: Well, I guess if they are at the point where the book is done and they’re going to publish it, then good luck and make a thorough list of all of the contests and open reading periods. Don’t hold out for 3-4 prizes that you think are the best. This isn’t the determining factor if people are going to read your book or not, not in the poetry world. But if you’re at the stage where you ask, “Is this book I’m working on publishable,” any advice would really depend on where the work is at. Publishing every poem in a literary journal isn’t a determining factor in if the book is publishable. There are so many variables – there really is no real narrative for how things should happen. I don’t know. Look at your manuscript. Is there something new going on? I hope so.
Oeding, Carrie. Our List of Solutions. South Bend, IN: 42 Miles P, 2011.
Jennifer Reid is a Ph.D. student in Educational Policy and Leadership at Marquette University where she also works as Student Affairs Communications Director and teaches courses in English. She earned her MFA in poetry from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University, where she also studied English and technology with an emphasis on publishing. Her writing has been published in Town Creek, Knock, Willow Springs, The Strange Fruit, Marble, Redactions, and other venues. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She currently lives in Milwaukee, WI with her partner Dan and basset hound Higgins.
Carrie Oeding was born and raised in Minnesota. She has lived and taught in Washington, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Greensboro Review, Best New Poets 2005, DIAGRAM, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She was awarded the Claude Kantner Award in her final year at Ohio University, where she received her PhD in Creative Writing/American Literature. She teaches at Marshall University and lives in Huntington, WV, with her husband, poet Kent Shaw. Oeding is currently working on a collection of essays and a second collection of poems.