A Conversation with Jared Carter

by Lenny Emmanuel

Lenny Emmanuel: There’s been a lot of dis­cus­sion recently about free verse and tra­di­tional verse, and the dif­fer­ence between them. Some peo­ple get very argu­men­ta­tive about this. Do you have an opinion?

Jared Carter: No, I’ve tried to steer clear of that par­tic­u­lar con­tro­versy. When Keith Jar­rett impro­vises jazz on one CD and does Bach fugues on the next, I’m impressed. When Wyn­ton Marsalis per­forms some seventeenth-century trum­pet con­certo with the Lon­don Sym­phony, and then flies back the next day to play Morton-style jazz at the Lin­coln Cen­ter, I’m knocked out. Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrik­son Zaharias, Jesse Owens — no mat­ter what the event or the game, they were the great ath­letes of their day, and that’s why we remem­ber them.

Emmanuel: It’s a false dichotomy, then? This war of the schools?

Carter: It’s just not a very use­ful way of look­ing at poetry, espe­cially if you’re a work­ing writer. I try to write in as many styles and forms as pos­si­ble, using every poetic resource avail­able. The schools don’t con­cern me. I’m inter­ested in bring­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of poems together, and find­ing out what they have in com­mon. You can get car­ried away with all this ide­o­log­i­cal war­fare, this bick­er­ing about which poem or which poet goes in which pigeonhole.

Emmanuel: Your remark about bring­ing poems together is inter­est­ing. In what sense? Phys­i­cally? Intel­lec­tu­ally? Thematically?

Carter: Well, in a book, of course, or dur­ing a read­ing. Putting them in a sequence, enabling them to talk to one another, to pro­vide con­text, to rein­force each other’s tone, or mean­ing, or theme. Allow­ing them to rub shoul­ders. To breathe.

Emmanuel: What do you think is the best way to do this?

Carter: I don’t think there is any best way. You keep exper­i­ment­ing with con­text, with set­ting, with sequence, the same way you keep exper­i­ment­ing with form and con­tent, tech­nique and expression.

Emmanuel: As with tra­di­tional form? Rhyme? Pararhyme? Con­so­nant vari­a­tions? Spatials?

Carter: Yeah, sure, all that stuff. But even the ter­mi­nol­ogy can get over­bear­ing at times. The impor­tant thing to remem­ber is that you’ve got read­ers out there. Or at least you’d like to think you have some read­ers out there. If not, what’s the point?

Emmanuel: On the sub­ject of attract­ing read­ers, there’s also been a lot of talk about nar­ra­tive poetry. Could you com­ment on this? You’ve pub­lished some long nar­ra­tive poems. One I par­tic­u­larly like is “Cov­ered Bridge,” which appeared recently in Tri­Quar­terly. And in both of your books there’s an ongo­ing nar­ra­tive — this busi­ness about the con­struc­tion of a reservoir.

Carter: First of all, I don’t con­sider nar­ra­tive a genre, though some peo­ple seem to think it is. I see it as an essen­tial ele­ment of poetry. It’s not a ques­tion of spic­ing up your work by adding a bit of nar­ra­tive, like a pinch of salt or a dash of pep­per. It’s a mat­ter of under­stand­ing that nar­ra­tive is always present in good poetry.

Emmanuel: Even in a lyric poem?

Carter: Espe­cially in a lyric poem. What is nar­ra­tive but another word for con­ti­nu­ity — back­bone — that binds the whole thing together so that the reader can get from A to Z with­out get­ting lost or con­fused? Or worse — insulted? With­out a nar­ra­tive thread, it’s too easy for the poet to veer off into nar­cis­sism, self-pity, self-indulgence. But in a lot of instances mak­ing claims for nar­ra­tive poetry is like talk­ing about the Jew­ish rabbi. The adjec­tive is redundant.

Emmanuel: Yes, you’re prob­a­bly cor­rect, but surely some of your poems are more nar­ra­tive than others.

Carter: Some are more lyri­cal, too. And a good thing. I’d hate for all of them to be alike. But let’s get back to that reser­voir you men­tioned. The poems deal­ing with the reser­voir are pri­mar­ily nar­ra­tive. In style and tech­nique, they’re very dif­fer­ent, yet they’re all part of an extended story — a rec­og­niz­able color of thread run­ning through the tapes­tries of both books.

Emmanuel: What are the titles of these poems?

Carter: There are two in the first book — “The Under­taker” and “Mon­u­ment City” — and four in the sec­ond — “The Pur­pose of Poetry,” “Mis­sissinewa Reser­voir at Win­ter Pool,” “Isinglass,” and “Foundling.”

Emmanuel: Many read­ers have been deeply impressed by “The Pur­pose of Poetry.” It’s prob­a­bly not an exag­ger­a­tion to say that when some peo­ple get to the end, they’re over­whelmed. They’re shaken by the last two lines.

Carter: Well, it’s an unex­pected end­ing — or a harsh end­ing, or even a trick end­ing, depend­ing on how you look at it. But I think a poem like “Foundling” is as gen­tle and hope­ful as “Pur­pose” is unset­tling and stark.

Emmanuel: Any­one who reads these two books under­stands that you have cre­ated an imag­i­nary place — Mis­sissinewa County — that is located some­where in the Mid­west. Crit­ics have com­pared your world to other well-known lit­er­ary land­scapes — Faulkner’s, for exam­ple, or Hardy’s. But the poems about the reser­voir tell a par­tic­u­lar story. What led you to begin writ­ing about that sequence of events?

Carter: That will take us back a long way — back to a job I had dur­ing my col­lege days, almost forty years ago. I had dropped out of school in April of my junior year and had hitch­hiked back to my home town. I spent the sum­mer work­ing at the can fac­tory. That fall a friend got me a job on a daily news­pa­per in a small town in north­ern Indi­ana. It was called the Herald-Press, and it was in Hunt­ing­ton, the county seat of Hunt­ing­ton County, maybe twenty-five miles south­west of Fort Wayne. There were about fif­teen thou­sand peo­ple in the town, and maybe twice that many in the entire county. It’s a clas­sic small town in Indi­ana — a branch of the Wabash River runs through it, right along­side the news­pa­per building.

Emmanuel: Had you majored in jour­nal­ism in college?

Carter: No, not at all. I had edited the school news­pa­per when I was in high school, and I had spent five weeks at a high-school jour­nal­ism insti­tute at North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity dur­ing the sum­mer of 1955. That was my only for­mal train­ing, but it was enough.

Emmanuel: So you started at a news­pa­per, as did Twain, Hem­ing­way, and so on? As a cub reporter?

Carter: Right. Except they had a spe­cial phrase at this par­tic­u­lar news­pa­per. They called it being “low man on the totem pole.”

Emmanuel: That doesn’t sound very reward­ing. What exactly did it mean, though?

Carter: Well, on the typ­i­cal totem pole there are all these grotesque masks and ani­mal faces run­ning from top to bot­tom. I was the new man, so my face was at the bot­tom. That’s the way it is on any news­pa­per. The new per­son always has to work his or her way up.

Emmanuel: That’s what I thought. You got all the unwanted assign­ments, right?

Carter: No, not really, and as a mat­ter of fact the other reporters helped me and taught me a great deal — about writ­ing, about life. To tell the truth it was one of the best jobs I ever had. Legally, I wasn’t even old enough to buy a drink, and there I was, hang­ing out with reporters, cops, press oper­a­tors, type­set­ters, pho­tog­ra­phers, store-front preach­ers, cour­t­house pols, rail­road­ers, saloon­keep­ers, and all sorts of petty crooks and col­or­ful char­ac­ters and con-men. It was an edu­ca­tion straight out of H.L. Mencken. Or Sher­wood Anderson.

Emmanuel: Have you writ­ten about those days? I mean about your news­pa­per experiences?

Carter: I thought about it, but some­one had already beaten me to it. Back in the 1940s and 50s there was an Amer­i­can humorist named H. Allen Smith. He was one of a long line of Mid­west­ern humorists that included peo­ple like Will Cuppy and Irwin Cobb, Kin Hub­bard and George Ade, and writ­ers back in the last cen­tury like Arte­mus Ward, Bill Nye, Petro­leum V. Nasby, and of course Mark Twain.

Will Rogers was an off­shoot of that school, as was Jean Shep­herd in the 1950s. It’s the peren­nial humor of the small town and the old home place — a dash of cracker bar­rel, a dab of Farmer’s Almanac, and a lot of self-mockery about sick cows and bad roads and play­ing check­ers around the stove at the gen­eral store. In each new gen­er­a­tion some­body like Gar­ri­son Keil­lor comes along and spins out the same kind of gen­tle, home­spun humor, and we can’t get enough of it.

Any­way, H. Allen Smith was part of that tra­di­tion. And after I showed up in Hunt­ing­ton I learned that he had got­ten his start work­ing for the Hunt­ing­ton Herald-Press dur­ing the Depres­sion. He had coined the phrase “low man on the totem pole,” and later made it the title of his first book. Which was a best-seller, by the way. It estab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion as a humorist.

Emmanuel: Were you influ­enced by H. Allen Smith?

Carter: Not par­tic­u­larly. But it was nice know­ing that some­body had already sat in my chair there in the news­room, and had gone on to become a pub­lished writer.

Emmanuel: What about your co-workers at the time? What were they like?

Carter: Well, you have to real­ize there were only six full-time peo­ple in the news-room — five reporters and a pho­tog­ra­pher — four guys and two gals. One older woman wrote soci­ety, and the other had the cour­t­house beat. She was a tough old bird named Marie Heiney, and she didn’t like me at first. When I was gone from the news-room she would reach over and stub out her cig­a­rette in my cof­fee cup. But we became friends after a while. I real­ized she was really a pussy­cat — in fact she played viola with the Fort Wayne Sym­phony. I learned a lot from her about local politics.

The chief sports­writer was a young man named Bob Ham­mel, who had grown up in the town. He was a cou­ple of years older, and already he was get­ting atten­tion around the state as an unusu­ally per­cep­tive sports­writer. He moved up quickly and even­tu­ally landed with the ven­er­a­ble Herald-Telephone in Bloom­ing­ton, where he cov­ered Indi­ana University’s bas­ket­ball games for many years, and became a nationally-known com­men­ta­tor on the Bob Knight era.

Emmanuel: Was Ham­mel your boss?

Carter: More like an older brother. Bob was the chief sports­writer, and the man­ag­ing edi­tor also cov­ered cer­tain games. And I was the assis­tant sports­writer. There were a lot of bas­ket­ball teams in that county. This was Indi­ana, after all, back in the good old days of Milan High School and Cris­pus Attucks and Muncie Cen­tral. Dur­ing bas­ket­ball sea­son I drove out to three or four games a week, and I was always tak­ing calls from stringers who phoned in box scores for games I couldn’t attend.

Emmanuel: Was it fun?

Carter: If you liked bas­ket­ball, it was par­adise. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Hoosier. I had a won­der­ful time.

Emmanuel: Was this the begin­ning of your writ­ing career?

Carter: In those days I wasn’t think­ing about a career. I was just try­ing to make a liv­ing and have a good time. I had no idea what the future would bring — except I knew that sooner or later I’d prob­a­bly get drafted.

Emmanuel: Were you inter­ested in writ­ing — I mean, the kind of writ­ing you do now? Of course, you were work­ing as a jour­nal­ist, but did you think of that lead­ing to a writ­ing career?

Carter: From an early age I had this ambi­tion to become a writer. The prob­lem is, when you’re young, you don’t know much about it, and you really don’t know how to begin. So you try a lit­tle of every­thing. Work­ing for a news­pa­per was a log­i­cal place to start.

Emmanuel: It’s a fine tradition.

Carter: Yes, of course — and I had read Hem­ing­way, Twain, Bierce, Crane, Willa Cather — all those folks. I knew that as soon as Sher­wood Ander­son made a name for him­self with his sto­ries, the first thing he did was buy a news­pa­per, so he could be a small-town edi­tor, and have some fun. I knew it was a great Amer­i­can tra­di­tion — that a lot of the old codgers had started out by get­ting some ink on their fin­gers, all the way back to Bryant and Poe and Whitman.

Emmanuel: And did it live up to your expectations?

Carter: Absolutely. There’s noth­ing like it, chas­ing around after car wrecks and house fires and stick-ups and any­thing else that comes along. Punch­ing out sto­ries on an old Under­wood, hav­ing to meet dead­lines, learn­ing to write under pres­sure. Going around to read the police blot­ter every morn­ing, drink­ing cof­fee with the fire chief. I still think it’s the best train­ing a young writer can have.

Emmanuel: Is this when you started writ­ing about the reser­voir — the poems we men­tioned ear­lier — for your two books?

Carter: No, no, that was years later, decades later. I wasn’t writ­ing poetry in those days. I was fool­ing around try­ing to write short sto­ries. My friends at col­lege — actu­ally I met sev­eral of them dur­ing that sum­mer at North­west­ern — we all thought we were going to be nov­el­ists. Those were the peo­ple we admired most — Hem­ing­way and Faulkner, Fitzger­ald and Dos Pas­sos, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, Kather­ine Anne Porter, Car­son McCullers, and Flan­nery O’Connor. And Salinger. Those were our heroes.

Emmanuel: No poets?

Carter: Well, we read poetry in those days, we knew about it, we got excited about this or that poet — Dylan Thomas, Emily Dick­in­son, Thomas Wyatt — and we wrote a poem now and then, but it was just for fun. Or prac­tice. And we mem­o­rized poems that we liked, so we could lean out of the win­dow and shout them out to the stars while we roared along those coun­try roads at night. But I had never met any­one who wrote poetry seri­ously, or who had a rep­u­ta­tion as a poet. It was just some­thing we learned to do, in high school, while we were try­ing to find out what writ­ing was all about.

Emmanuel: How do the reser­voirs fig­ure in this story?

Carter: They were impor­tant for the last big story I cov­ered while I was work­ing in Hunt­ing­ton. I had to work my way up to it, as part of being low man. I had to write my share of obit­u­ar­ies, and cover the YMCA fund-raisers and the Easter sun­rise ser­vices, and that sort of thing. But one assign­ment they gave me right away — the one beat I dearly loved — was being the farm editor.

Emmanuel: Because you were raised on a farm?

Carter: No, I liked it pre­cisely because I wasn’t a farm boy. I was a lad from a small town. A few of my rel­a­tives were farm­ers, but my father was a gen­eral con­trac­tor. I grew up work­ing sum­mers on con­struc­tion sites, not milk­ing cows. I really didn’t know much about farm­ing, so I jumped at the chance to write about it.

Emmanuel: What did that involve?

Carter: One after­noon a week I would meet with the County Agri­cul­tural Agent, an older gen­tle­man named Wal­ter U. Rusk, who had been help­ing and advis­ing farm­ers in that county for twenty-five years. He’d give me a sheaf of press releases and canned filler put out by the Pur­due Exten­sion Ser­vice, and then we’d drive out to cover a story some­where. Maybe we’d stop and talk with a bunch of Amish folk who had come to help a farmer whose barn had been destroyed by light­ning. Maybe the John Deere Com­pany was hold­ing a bar­be­cue in order to show off their new line of cul­ti­va­tors. Maybe some home-canning expert from Pur­due was giv­ing a demon­stra­tion in some farmwife’s kitchen.

You’ve got to remem­ber that in those days a reporter on a small-town daily was expected to shoot the pho­tos for his own sto­ries. When I first went to work they handed me this old Speed Graphic and showed me how to use it. It was a huge cam­era that exposed a three-by-four-inch neg­a­tive, and car­ry­ing it was like lug­ging around a Brown­ing Auto­matic Rifle. But it took amaz­ing pho­tographs. I went every­where with my coat pock­ets crammed with flash­bulbs and film mag­a­zines, and I pointed this mon­ster at every­thing that moved, and of course peo­ple always like that — the idea of get­ting their pic­ture in the paper. It opened a lot of doors.

So Wal­ter and I would be out there every week, in the boon­docks, stand­ing on the front porch, or out in the barn­yard, talk­ing to the farm­ers and their wives and their kids, look­ing at flocks of sheep, 4-H heifers, prize-winning pigs, pet turkeys, new vari­eties of sun­flow­ers, and I would take pic­tures of every­thing, and all the dogs would bark and prance, and every­body was over­joyed that we had come to visit them and pay atten­tion to what they were doing.

Emmanuel: You were obvi­ously curi­ous about things. Was this part of your appren­tice­ship as a writer?

Carter: Absolutely. One of the things jour­nal­ism teaches you is to pay atten­tion. That’s your job — to spell the names right and get the dates straight, to tell what hap­pened and fil­ter out all the non­sense. There was an awful lot to see, back in those days, and out on those coun­try roads. His­tory, local color, folk­lore, old-timers who liked to loaf and swap sto­ries. And I had the good for­tune to be intro­duced by Wal­ter, who knew prac­ti­cally every road, every farm­house, every rural per­son in that county.

Emmanuel: Was this the back­ground for Mis­sissinewa County? Is Hunt­ing­ton County the model?

Carter: Mis­sissinewa County is a com­pos­ite, an imag­i­nary place with ele­ments from many dif­fer­ent towns and locales I’ve known, all the way from north­ern Michi­gan to south­west­ern Ohio and points between. With chunks of Illi­nois and Mis­souri and Kansas thrown in for good mea­sure. But Hunt­ing­ton County was a model, cer­tainly — and so was Madi­son County, where I grew up, and Henry County and Tip­ton County, where my peo­ple came from.

Emmanuel: So, this was where the reser­voirs were built? In Hunt­ing­ton County and adjoin­ing counties?

Carter: Yes, but it took a while. One day the edi­tor of the news­pa­per, Judge Houghton, called me in, and he was sit­ting there with the man­ag­ing edi­tor, and the two of them explained that the fed­eral and state and local gov­ern­ments had all got­ten together and decided to build these three big reser­voirs to con­trol the flood­ing down­stream on the Wabash River. There wasn’t any pub­lic ref­er­en­dum on the mat­ter. No vote had been taken. It had been decided by the big­wigs. The Army Corps of Engi­neers had con­ducted the sur­veys, and they would super­vise the work. It was a big project, one that would take a good ten years to com­plete. And it was going to be my story, my beat, since I was the farm edi­tor. I was thrilled, of course, but I was only twenty years old, and I really didn’t under­stand what was going on.

Emmanuel: What do you mean?

Carter: There were to be three reser­voirs alto­gether — one in Hunt­ing­ton County, one halfway in that county and half in the next, and one in Miami County. They pro­posed to dam three dif­fer­ent rivers that fed into the Wabash River — the Mis­sissinewa, the Sala­m­onie, and a branch of the Wabash.

Emmanuel: The Mis­sissinewa is a real river? Not a made-up one?

Carter: Yes, it’s an actual river, and a pretty one, too. Any­way, this big project, when com­pleted, would inun­date thou­sands of acres of farm­land along the banks of these three rivers. There were huge earth­works to be built, and all sorts of spill­ways and giant sluice gates to be con­structed. Entire vil­lages would be relo­cated, ceme­ter­ies moved, roads re-routed, bridges and land­marks sub­merged, and so on. It was a major under­tak­ing, and most of all it meant that over a thou­sand peo­ple — coun­try peo­ple, whose ances­tors had orig­i­nally set­tled and cleared that land — these peo­ple were going to be bought out by the gov­ern­ment, and moved off their land.

Emmanuel: This must have caused a bit of commotion?

Carter: That’s putting it mildly. I spent a cou­ple of months cov­er­ing this story, before I went back to school, and I was in the front lines. At least one evening a week Wal­ter Rusk would show up at the news­pa­per office along with a full-bird colonel from the Corps of Engi­neers, and the three of us would drive out to some lit­tle cross-roads town that was going to be utterly oblit­er­ated by this reser­voir project.

We would show up at some brick school­house or one-room church, and every­body in town would be there wait­ing for us, with their pitch­forks and their coils of rope. The colonel would get up on the stage with his fold-down maps and his pointer, and he would con­duct his dog-and-pony show about the facts and fig­ures, and then Wal­ter would stand up and explain what a good thing it was going to be for all the folks down in Evans­ville, a good two hun­dred miles away — and there were sev­eral times when I thought we weren’t going to get out of those places alive. That was about the clos­est I ever came to get­ting lynched. Or at least being tarred and feathered.

Emmanuel: They saw you as part of the sys­tem that was oppress­ing them.

Carter: Hell yes, the news­pa­per was the voice of the estab­lish­ment in that county, and they knew it. We hadn’t gone out there to dis­cuss any­thing with them. We had come to deliver the bad news. And they were mad as hell about being treated this way, on top of the ter­ri­ble thing that was hap­pen­ing to them. I man­aged to write some human-interest sto­ries about their anguish and their sor­row, but it didn’t make any dif­fer­ence. Noth­ing did. The reser­voirs rolled through those lovely val­leys and lit­tle towns like a juggernaut.

Emmanuel: How about the orig­i­nal inhab­i­tants? The Native Amer­i­cans? Hadn’t they been pushed off this land by the ances­tors of the peo­ple with whom you were dealing?

Carter: There had been a lot of dif­fer­ent Native Amer­i­cans liv­ing along those rivers dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two thou­sand years. The last tribe to set­tle there in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers was the Miami, and some of them were still around. Sev­eral of them had inter­mar­ried with early French traders. I met some of the younger peo­ple of that tribe and talked with them. This was almost forty years ago, and the Miami weren’t too mil­i­tant back then. Because most of them lived in town, they weren’t get­ting shoved off the land this time around, like the old farm­ers of Eng­lish and Ger­man descent who lived along the rivers. But sev­eral of their ances­tral bur­ial grounds were being uprooted and relo­cated, and they weren’t too happy about that.

Emmanuel: Did you see the flood­ing take place?

Carter: No, by the time actual con­struc­tion began I had gone back to col­lege, and then been drafted, and it was twenty years before I got back to Hunt­ing­ton County for a good look around. But I heard about what hap­pened, and I came to see the build­ing of those reser­voirs in a dif­fer­ent light.

Emmanuel: You began to have sec­ond thoughts?

Carter: It was not the overt right­ness or wrong­ness that con­cerned me — whether or not those dams really con­trolled the flood­ing, or made life eas­ier for the peo­ple down­stream. There are strong argu­ments that such projects dam­age the envi­ron­ment and cause more harm than good. Those issues were raised, cer­tainly, dur­ing those school­house meetings. But in a free soci­ety there are hard choices to make some­times, and there’s no way you can be absolutely sure of their out­comes. Pub­lic pol­icy involves tak­ing risks.

I was far more upset by the way the reser­voirs were sim­ply rammed down the throats of the peo­ple who lived there. It had noth­ing to do with democ­racy or fair play. And it cer­tainly wasn’t humane. I began to see that a project car­ried out in this way could cast an enor­mous shadow — that it could be so vast and per­va­sive that we might not notice what it was really doing to us, or to our own humanity.

Emmanuel: Were you dis­il­lu­sioned? And did that atti­tude even­tu­ally work its way into your reser­voir poems?

Carter: I wasn’t dis­il­lu­sioned. I was dis­gusted. It was the begin­ning of my wak­ing up to the con­se­quences of the var­i­ous large-scale polit­i­cal cru­sades and big-time social-engineering projects of the last fifty years — every­thing from the New Deal to the Sav­ings and Loan bailout, from the Viet­nam War to the Inter­state High­way Sys­tem, from McCarthy­ism to the shoot-out at Waco.

Some of these things seemed to be good, some bad. But I began to see that the larger the scale, the greater the like­li­hood that some­body was get­ting squeezed. There was invari­ably pain and grief in store for some­body on the bot­tom, whether they were coal-miners in West Vir­ginia, farm work­ers in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia, grad-student instruc­tors at Har­vard, or wel­fare moth­ers in Chicago. And this was sel­dom talked about, and usu­ally drowned out by all the ballyhoo.

Emmanuel: How many reser­voir poems are there?

Carter: There are the six I’ve men­tioned, and two more that have been pub­lished but not col­lected. One of them, “Mus­sel Shell with Three Blanks Sawed Out,” describes the val­ley of the Mis­sissinewa as I remem­bered it, a kind of Eden I had known since child­hood. My mother’s fam­ily had been camp­ing along those banks since the 1920s, and as a small boy I had been taken up there on many an idyl­lic sum­mer after­noon. There is a sec­ond long poem – 248 lines – called “Lost Bridge,” that gives the most detailed account of the reser­voir that gets built in Mis­sissinewa County. Of course, this is an imag­i­nary reser­voir, in an imag­i­nary place. The par­al­lels aren’t exact. But if you read that poem you begin to get a sense of what went on.

Emmanuel: What did go on in all of these dif­fer­ent poems?

Carter: Some­thing big, some­thing huge and imper­sonal, some vast force of gov­ern­ment and bureau­cracy, came into these people’s lives and changed them for­ever. It was like an earth­quake, or a famine. They reacted in dif­fer­ent ways. One old farmer blew his brains out. A retired school­teacher asked a friend to take some pho­tographs of her house. A few middle-aged labor­ers hired on to help move some of the graves, and they found some strange arti­facts at the bot­tom of those shafts. In dif­fer­ent ways they all did what they could, so they would go on remem­ber­ing and not forget.

Emmanuel: Is that “The Pur­pose of Poetry”? Not to forget?

Carter: Well, it helps. I’m a firm believer in some­thing pointed out a few years ago by Utah Phillips, the old Wob­bly folksinger – that “the most dan­ger­ous force in Amer­ica today is a long memory.”

Emmanuel: What should be remem­bered? The injus­tice of progress? Of big gov­ern­ment? Big busi­ness? It does seem that the big­ger some­thing gets, the more it loses the human dimen­sion. Is this what inter­ests you as a writer?

Carter: Wil­fred Owen said that “all a poet can do today is warn.” But that would be a good start: to set truth and indi­vid­ual wit­ness against the bureau­cratic indif­fer­ence and mate­r­ial waste of all large-scale oper­a­tions, from cor­po­ra­tions to uni­ver­si­ties, from big gov­ern­ments to big pub­lish­ing houses.

Emmanuel: Can poetry make a dif­fer­ence in this respect?

Carter: Let me read you a quote I hap­pened to bring along this after­noon. It’s from Philip Larkin:

I write poems to pre­serve things … both for myself and oth­ers, though I feel that my prime respon­si­bil­ity is to the expe­ri­ence itself, which I am try­ing to keep from obliv­ion for its own sake. Why I should do this I have no idea, but I think the impulse to pre­serve lies at the bot­tom of all art. Gen­er­ally my poems are related, there­fore, to my own per­sonal life, but by no means always.

Emmanuel: In your quest to pre­serve things, in the way Larkin describes, do you ever go back to the actual reser­voirs, the ones up there in the real Hunt­ing­ton County?

Carter: I drive up there every year or so, when I get the chance, usu­ally in the fall. I get out and tramp around by myself, and look out at all that water. I know my way around those sites. I could take you on a tour some­time. It’s a bleak, des­o­late world, a haunted land­scape. A lot of scars remain, even now. I’ve been going up there for the last fif­teen years. I talk with those folks in those lit­tle relo­cated towns, and those cross­roads stores, and I hear a lot of tales.

Emmanuel: And that sort of mate­r­ial goes into your poems?

Carter: You never know. I have a few reser­voir poems in man­u­script that don’t seem fin­ished. They’re ele­ments of the saga, like the part of the ice­berg below the water­line. I cer­tainly hope I’ll pub­lish more poems on the sub­ject. But – to change the metaphor – maybe that vein is played out.

Emmanuel: Are there any other mes­sages in these reser­voir poems?

Carter: Not any more than what we’ve talked about already – the impor­tance of hav­ing a long mem­ory, of not for­get­ting. But all good poetry helps you do that.

Emmanuel: All poetry?

Carter: No, just all good poetry – from Homer to Hardy, Sap­pho to Rilke. I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve read a cou­ple of those poems all across the coun­try. I’ve read “The Pur­pose of Poetry” in a lot of places, and also “Mis­sissinewa Reser­voir at Win­ter Pool.” And it doesn’t mat­ter what part of the coun­try I’m in, if I stand up and read those two poems, then after the read­ing, some stranger will always come up and want to shake my hand. This per­son will have tears in his eyes, or her eyes. He’ll say, “They did that to my grand­fa­ther. They took his farm, and he had to move into town, and they cov­ered every­thing up, every­thing he ever cared about, and it like to broke his heart.”

If they’re not talk­ing about a reser­voir, then it’s about the time the Inter­state came through their neigh­bor­hood, or the shop­ping mall, or the down­town devel­op­ment. It was the big razzle-dazzle tax-supported project to make room for the new sports sta­dium, the one that cleared out entire neigh­bor­hoods of red-brick build­ings left over from the last century.

Civic boost­ers par­tic­u­larly like to tear down those lovely three-story apart­ment build­ings with lime­stone cop­ing and art-nouveau flour­ishes around the win­dows, and a key­stone over the main entrance, that tells the year when it was built, and a fan­light in the lobby, and tile floors with hand­set mosaic pat­terns. A lot of peo­ple have sto­ries about that sort of wan­ton destruc­tion, that kind of loss. Some­times those reser­voir poems strike a chord.

Emmanuel: Is that why you write? Is that what you’re try­ing to do?

Carter: To try to touch peo­ple, yes. To try to move them in their hearts. But not nec­es­sar­ily to get them riled up. Leave that to the politi­cians and the dem­a­gogues. Poetry works in its own mys­te­ri­ous way. “Poetry makes noth­ing hap­pen,” the man said. But if it’s done well, it can make you think about what hap­pened, or what might hap­pen, down the line, if you don’t watch your step.

Emmanuel: We’re almost out of tape. Maybe we’ll have other such meet­ings later, but now the inevitable ques­tion. Do you have any advice for aspir­ing writers?

Carter: Other than read — read a lot, keep read­ing, never stop read­ing, and read the best books you can find, in dif­fer­ent lan­guages and from dif­fer­ent cul­tures — other than that, I have no advice. The art of poetry is far too idio­syn­cratic for gen­er­al­iza­tion. The best poets are always excep­tions to the rule. As Harold Bloom says, great poetry is inher­ently strange.

Emmanuel: Your six­ti­eth birth­day is com­ing up in a few years. Can you sum­ma­rize what you think you’ve learned? About yourself?

Carter: What I’ve learned is summed up in another clip­ping I brought along, in case you asked that sort of ques­tion. This is from an inter­view in the New York Times, a month ago, with a cel­e­brated Irish actor named Donal McCann, who isn’t well known out­side his own coun­try. McCann’s about my age. The inter­viewer asked why he had stayed in Ire­land, and never sought the lime­light or tried to push his way onto the stages of Lon­don and New York. This is what he said:

I don’t belong any­where where celebrity equals merit or money means tal­ent or wealth proves achieve­ment.… The accom­plish­ment is more impor­tant than the recep­tion. Endeavor is what mat­ters. Using your tal­ent is what mat­ters. And since what finally mat­ters is being with God, shouldn’t you try to live your life in the light of the ultimate?

Emmanuel: That’s quite a state­ment. I’m glad you brought it along. Now for a final ques­tion. You’ve writ­ten some good books, and had an inter­est­ing life, and seen a lot of the world in the process. Any regrets?

Carter: Well, that changes, of course, from day to day. We’re all human, and we all expe­ri­ence regret now and then, but we get over it. I’ve had a pleas­ant time this after­noon, being back in this charm­ing restau­rant. In past years I’ve enjoyed many good meals here, with a vari­ety of dear friends, and as you and I have talked, I’ve been reminded of those days. And that has made me happy.

So at the moment I sup­pose my only regret is that to Donal McCann’s first sen­tence he didn’t add the phrase “or where priv­i­lege denotes class, or arro­gance is taken for superiority.”

 


The pre­ced­ing inter­view was con­ducted in Feb­ru­ary of 1997 in a back room at Papa Joe’s, a pop­u­lar Ital­ian restau­rant on the far west side of Indi­anapo­lis. Both Lenny Emmanuel and Jared Carter lived in Indi­ana at the time, although Emmanuel was shortly to remove to New Orleans. The inter­view was first pub­lished in 1998 in the New Lau­rel Review, a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine based in New Orleans and edited by Lee Meitzen Grue. The inter­view text is repro­duced here, with a few minor cor­rec­tions, by per­mis­sion of the inter­viewer. Bios of both Lenny Emman­ual and Jared Carter are pro­vided in the Notes.

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About Lenny Emmanuel

Lenny Emmanuel’s first col­lec­tion of poems, The Ice­cream Lady, was pub­lished in 1997 by Ram­parts, Inc. His poems, essays, and inter­views have appeared in Par­nas­sus, Free Lunch, Yawp, Out­posts Poetry Quar­terly, Agenda, and Anti­och Review. He has served as an edi­tor with The New Lau­rel Review in New Orleans, and lives not far away in Pass Chris­t­ian, Mis­sis­sippi. He main­tains a web site at http://lennyemmanuel.com.