A Conversation with Julie Carr and Lisa Olstein
BY OLIVIA MUENZ
Julie Carr is the author of several books of poetry and prose, including Real Life: An Installation (Omindawn 2018), Objects from a Borrowed Confession (Ahsahta 2017), and Someone Shot my Book (University of Michigan Press 2018). Earlier books include 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta 2010), RAG (Omnidawn, 2014), and Think Tank (Solid Objects 2015). With Jeffrey Robinson she is the co-editor of Active Romanticism (University of Alabama Press 2015). Her co-translation of Leslie Kaplan’s Excess—The Factory was published by Commune Editions in 2018. Mud, Blood, and Ghosts: Populism, Eugenics, and Spiritualism in the American West is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in 2023. Carr was a 2011-12 NEA fellow and is a Professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder in English and Creative Writing. She has collaborated with dance artists K.J. Holmes and Gesel Mason. With Tim Roberts she is the co-founder of Counterpath Press, Counterpath Gallery, and Counterpath Community Garden in Denver.
Lisa Olstein is the author of five books of poetry published by Copper Canyon Press—Radio Crackling Radio Gone (2006), Lost Alphabet (2009), Little Stranger (2013), Late Empire (2017), and Dream Apartment (forthcoming 2023)—and two books of prose—Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press 2020), a book-length lyric essay, and Climate (Essay Press 2022), an exchange of epistolary essays with the poet Julie Carr. Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Lannan Writing Residency, Pushcart Prize, Hayden Carruth Award, Sustainable Arts Fellowship, and Writers League of Texas Book Award, she is a member of the poetry faculty at the University of Texas at Austin where she teaches in the New Writers Project and Michener Center for Writers MFA programs.
Olivia Muenz: As I write this, I feel more like a participator than an interviewer. I feel like I’m joining an ongoing conversation as I did while reading Climate. There are a few reasons for this, I think. Your letters often don’t give background information. Partners, children, friends are listed by their names or initials alone without introduction. The inciting incident for this exchange happened off-paper, predating the start of the book. These choices suggest an intimacy between the two of you that allows me to feel somewhat voyeuristic, acknowledging my own distance from the two of you, and yet I still felt participatory, like I am always on the receiving end of your letters addressed only to me. In one letter, Lisa writes: “A friend told me recently about an idea she’s trying to articulate concerning the difference between how a piece of writing might invite or be directed toward an addressee, an audience, or a listener—how important but overlooked the idea of a listener [is], which I feel sure is part of what we’re doing here.” How did writing this book feel different to you in terms of audience than it normally does writing a book on your own?
Lisa Olstein: I love that it feels as if you’re joining the conversation. That was one of our secret hopes, I think, when we decided to make a book out of the exchange—that a reader might feel like they could slip into the current with us, which is wonderfully paradoxical, because in the case of these letters, the question of audience is so clearly delineated: we’re writing to each other. But the intimacy this specificity allows for is familiar, something common to connection, so maybe in their particularity the letters are able to crack the door to something shared and shareable.
Also, because there’s no question about who is being addressed, there’s a certain clarity and sustain of tone and affect that’s different from other work I’ve done. Here, the audience wasn’t unknown or a lyric abstraction; as I wrote I knew exactly who I was speaking to, so there’s no anxiety or uncertainty in the text/reader relationship. Almost counterintuitively, this seems to allow for a certain ease of entry. Plus, so much of what we write about are things we all experience differently but in common in terms of so-called current events, and otherwise, in terms of the rhythms of home and work, birth and death, sadness and joy.
OM: Can you tell me more about how the idea for this book came to be? Why turn the private (in this case, a two-person letter exchange) into public? What is it about the epistolary form that feels like essay writing, a performance?
Julie Carr: In one of my letters, I write about a letter that Nelly Sachs wrote to Paul Celan. She addresses him, “Dear poet and dear person Paul Celan,” as if there are two of him. Even in this most intimate and authentic form of writing, there is, as you say, a performance; a literary self is generated. There is the person, and there is the poet, and while they occupy the same body, they are not coequal. This might be what makes writing long letters (or even short ones) so pleasurable. There is a certain “I” that I become when writing to Lisa that is distinct from the “I” I am in writing this, right now, or the “I” I am when writing to another friend. This sense of self-construction in the midst of even deeply personal conversations cracks the door, as Lisa said above, to a third reader, “the reader.”
That said, there was a large perspectival shift that had to happen as we transformed the letters into a book manuscript. Some things didn’t make it in, other things had to be reshaped. Even as we tried to maintain the feeling of spontaneity and the free movement of our thoughts that letters allow, we also felt the pressure of that third reader, that abstract reader, as we worked.
OM: I thought a lot about movement while reading Climate. The impetus for the book came from a road trip the two of you took together. The book begins with Julie writing Lisa from a plane, and later, Lisa also writes while in flight. Funnily enough, I read Climate on a plane myself. Taking movement even further, predating the internet, letter writing was originally something very physical, involving the letter’s motion from one place to another. What role do you think movement played in writing this book? Is there any relationship to the transitory, particularly around the many crises named?
LO: Movement and ideas of current, flow, and of course weather feel central to the book in its engagement with the ever-unspooling rhythms of daily life, especially in a time characterized by ricocheting from one crisis to the next. The letters track the movement of our lives in literal and figurative, physical, and emotional ways through geographies and events, across internal and external trajectories. And in doing so, they inevitably track place: places we or the news cycle move through, but also the way things—weather systems, events—occur in places and the way we ourselves are places. These were ideas that we talked about as microclimates or hyper-local weather.
Time—how history, memory, and future projection are layered into any present moment—was another form of movement we couldn’t help but trace. As Julie has noted, the letter is a slow form, intentionally written, sent, received, and replied to. So while these letters didn’t participate in the old-time physical travel of being passed from hand to hand, the process of writing and receiving them felt embodied and embedded in flows of movement and time.
OM: Climate considers a very expansive view of ecocriticism, from ecofeminism to crip ecologies. How much of that was intentional and how much just sort of appeared and evolved through exchange?
JC: I want to return to the idea of the “hyperlocal” that Lisa mentions above, and to the idea of the body as a place. (I am writing right now from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. 86 degrees, 63% humidity: very bad for my bodily climate, and very good for that of the lone star tick.) One difference between Lisa and I, which we discovered even before we began writing, lies in how vulnerable we each feel in relation to climate change. While we both carry certain privileges—economic privileges, racial privileges—we do not experience the weather in the same way. This is because we have very different bodily histories and present-time realities, as is true of all people. The fact of embodiment means that “the weather” is particular to each person even as it is also irrevocably tied to large social inequalities, such as those having to do with race, gender, class, and, of course, location.
So, yes, we immediately talked about all these things: disability, illness, race, gender, and class in relation to the weather, and thought about how our own experiences and perceptions must be understood inside of those contexts. But we also thought about how each person’s bodily/psychic weather interacts with the weather system in which they live. In this sense, each creature carries, or is, its own microclimate.
OM: Beyond the physical, I’m thinking, too, about the movement of time. In one letter, Lisa writes about the ongoingness not of individual life, but of systems of meaning, of ecosystems, which are now in jeopardy in the face of the climate crisis. In an earlier letter, she writes about how “language demarcates temporality, and, [when] exchanged, invents it.” In a different letter, after Lisa loses a friend to suicide, Julie writes, “I want this, our collaboration, which is not about defining terms but about searching, together, maybe wandering, through our microclimates, those we share and those we don’t, but want to or could, to make for you a space of possibility and hope, even happiness, in the midst of your grief. At the same time, I don’t want to interrupt you.” In both macrodisasters like the climate crisis and microdisasters like the suicide of a loved one, time is disrupted or distorted. How do you think your companionship offers resistance to disaster? Can we reclaim our experience of time and future possibility through art, or writing more specifically, especially art that is shared?
LO: I’d never claim that connection or love has the power to protect us from disaster, but I do think they help us survive it, and help us to make sense of our experience, and continue to make meaning and uncover new possibilities. And I think lack of connection and love can be its own kind of disaster. To me, art is (and always has been) both an expression and source of companionship and witness and a form of potentially transformative research into not only what is but also what could be. Language, as we see all too painfully all around us, can be put to so many kinds of uses, many of them destructive. But I do believe passionately in its ability to connect and shape us. I’d also say that our exchange invented its own temporality related to and alongside the usual timelines of my life, but separate, distinct: a temporal zone that had its own unfolding and elasticity, one that allowed for the time signatures necessary for deep concentration and reflection as well as quick movement across a wide range of registers. And this was a kind of resistance or reclamation.
JC: I feel that too. In terms of how art/writing shifts my sense of time, I’d add this: engaging with another person’s writing or art making, whether that’s as a viewer/reader or as a collaborator, can grant me a sense of the spatial dimension of time. Instead of only experiencing time as a conveyor belt going all one way, relentlessly and without variation, I can briefly discover a sense of time’s pockets as they deepen or expand. A deadening and monotonous forward motion is in this way made dimensional. So while I’d say it’s true that disasters can feel like they break time (the pandemic has definitely done that), I find a different sense of temporal expansion and/or contraction when I fall into someone’s created world.
LO: The letters also helped me realize something central to my understanding of the time-travel nature of art and writing. Incomplete as it is, art/writing is one of our primary timelines; it documents humanity, and this sense of stepping into and participating in this river that flows before, through, and beyond me is, actually, my relationship to writing. I’m pulled to and so glad to just step into the river. In writing to Julie, I realized that one of the destabilizing terrors of climate catastrophe is how it threatens the idea and the reality of the forward flow of that human river.
OM: I was really interested in how many other authors—Lisa Robertson, Bashō, Etel Adnan, Aditi Machado—you embedded into your own exchange. How do you think the interconnectedness and ongoingness of writing relates to the larger ecological concerns you’re exploring in Climate?
JC: That’s a great question. I love thinking about intertextuality as a kind of ecology. And of course it is! And just as each book creates its own readers, it emerges from the reading life of its authors. The references to those authors are just indications of the relationality of writing, which always goes far beyond whatever texts are referenced on the page to include a really infinite ecology of exchange.
OM: I was overwhelmed reading the onslaught of crises, both private and public, that arose over the course of your letter exchange. Beyond the sheer number of crises you discussed, I couldn’t believe how many of them I had forgotten. And, of course, that’s partly because of the privilege of not experiencing many of them first hand. But more so, I think it’s a different kind of forgetting, one that happens not due to insignificance but because the brain can only handle so many crises at once. I’m especially amazed at the timing of this book, an artifact of one of the last years before the pandemic. Now, we’ve had January 6th, COVID-19, the death of George Floyd, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Uvalde mass shooting. What’s it like for you to look back at Climate?
JC: Well, it is strange in a way. I feel a lot of sadness about the sadness I cannot hold on to. Even though I do remember the events we reference, I also cannot feel them as I felt them then. I think this thinning of affect is one of the most pernicious aspects of our time, and it’s also a function of growing older that worries me a lot. I want to fight to hold on to my ability to grieve and to rage. And sometimes that can only be found by focusing singularly on a particular life or loss. So that matters. We can’t take it all in, but we can find ways to remember why we care. Literature helps with that. So does friendship. We give each other permission to feel. And sometimes we challenge each other to. Lisa has done that for me, for which I am hugely grateful.
OM: The first line of the book comes from Julie: “I am flanked by women who are reading.” The book ends with a final letter, also from Julie: “The other day, I was reading something a friend wrote about breath: how we breathe in common. He rejects the notion of the self, the notion of the human, is seeking something more radically in common to define us. Breath. Earth. Soil.” These bookends feel very cyclical, suggestive of ongoing exchange and interdependence, both broadly in our ecologies but also very literally in the epistolary form of this book. How did you decide to disrupt this exchange and find an ending?
LO: The exchange ended in keeping with how it began—organically, guided by intuition rather than concept or theory. At a certain point I felt a release from the magnetic pull of writing the letters and this signaled a shift. “Closure is a fiction,” as Lyn Heijinian writes. It felt more like the energy had fulfilled its arc, the thing we’d been searching into and shaping was manifest, made. That released me not from wanting to continue to think and feel things through with Julie—which I still very much do—but from the exploration-based endeavor of these particular letters.
JC: Yes, “Closure is a fiction,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative form, how something can “end” without concluding. To return to what we were talking about above—writing/reading as an ecological system—we have within that system discrete-seeming objects, that is, books, essays, poems, just as in a forest there are discrete-seeming trees. Knowing and sensing the interrelatedness of these objects doesn’t mean they have no discernable shape. The book found an ending with its last image—“sentences as they move in a landscape”—in a sense because the book had begun the same way, with me reading while flying across the land. Like Lisa says, this was not planned, but felt intuitively right. I think the dynamic between form and motion (or between individual lives and ecosystems) is fascinating, both on an aesthetic scale and on an ethical one. As much as we’re all part of the exchange of energies that is our shared systems—our planet, our projects—we’re also individuals with ethical decisions confronting us, decisions that hinge upon our recognition of mutual space/time. We necessarily hold both of these realities at once.