A Conversation with Carrie Fountain
BY RACHEL RICHARDSON
Carrie Fountain is a poet, novelist, children’s book author, and screenwriter. She is the author of three poetry collections, The Life, Instant Winner, and Burn Lake, winner of the National Poetry Series Award, and the novel I’m Not Missing. Her forthcoming children’s book, The Poem Forest, tells the story of American poet W.S. Merwin and the palm forest he grew from scratch on the island of Maui. Her poems have appeared in Tin House, Poetry, and The New Yorker, among many others. In 2019, Fountain was named Poet Laureate of Texas. She lives in Austin.
Rachel Richardson: The subject of your new book is daily life, which, as your epigraph suggests, is the thing that interrupts the artist’s ability to be in the great work. But those little mundane details are also maybe the only subject we have. So I am wondering if you will humor me for a tiny creative thinking prompt, and tell me three images from your current life—from this morning.
Carrie Fountain: Yes. My daughter wanted a smoothie for breakfast, so there’s that gross glass left over that you have to then fill with water or else it’s impossible to clean. And we have a new robot vacuum cleaner that has a bit of a mind of its own. So that’s why I stood up a moment ago—because I had to turn it off, because I thought I’d sent it back to its homeland, but it was still working. It’s a workaholic. What else? Oh, my son has this outfit that he loves so much. It was actually a girls’ tee shirt that he saw at Old Navy when we were looking for bras for my daughter who is in no need of a bra. But kind of in need of a bra? Will be soon? And it’s tie dye and has the Airheads on it. And then he got these distressed jean shorts. He’s eight. It’s only now that he has any interest in choosing his own clothes. It’s just been something that I do, and he had no opinions about it until now. He wore this outfit to bed last night so that he could wear it to school this morning. He was just so stoked about it. It’s really fun to see him and his style in that way, because I never would have imagined. I think that gender is a defining difference between my generation and my children’s generation. It’s baked in for them, you know, sort of in the way that feminism was baked into me, but for my mother, it was something that she worked through. And gender, I think, is being thought of so comprehensively and smartly. I so wish that my childhood could have included those nuanced and big views of gender because for my children it is not something they need to learn. They know that gender is a fluid thing, and it wouldn’t occur to my son to worry about wearing a girls’ shirt. I think that that is something that is really remarkable about their generation.
RR: I agree with you about gender expression—they feel so inspired to figure it out in the fullness of themselves. There aren’t two choices, there are endless choices. My kids are just reaching that same sense of wanting to control their expression that way, too.
CF: So, anyway, those were three things that I was thinking about this morning. That’s so fun. I love to do that.
RR: I think I read that that was a practice that you had.
CF: Well, it’s a practice that comes to me from Naomi Shihab Nye. She was my first teacher in graduate school. Naomi has become my most significant mentor and a very close friend. I was teaching a workshop with Naomi for teenagers and I heard her encourage a daily writing practice where you remember three things from your day, or from the last 24 hours, that you would forget in the next 24 hours if you didn’t write them down. The longer I have been writing, and have been in a life of writing, the more writing has become a way of noticing the world more clearly. When we connect with a poem, or a story or a movie or anything, it’s like we see our humanity, we notice ourselves in art. I feel like people are always saying to me, You write poems about the everyday or the domestic. My brain just goes, What is writing that isn’t about everyday life? I mean, that’s what Chekhov wrote about. That’s what Tolstoy wrote about.
RR: I don’t know an answer to that either—how would you get to a largeness of insight without going through daily experience? It’s asking you not to use the materials that are your most accessible way of seeing and experiencing.
CF: That question feels very gendered to me. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a man get that question. It’s like, Well, your poems really dwell in the everyday or the domestic—but what male poets aren’t doing that? I mean, look at Galway Kinnell, Wendell Berry. I puzzle about it. I don’t think about it until I have a book come out, and then those questions come out, and I get all fired up about it. And then I just stop thinking about it because I can’t carry that around. I’m not an essayist. I wish I was an essayist, and then I would write an essay about it. But I haven’t gotten there yet.
RR: Speaking of male poets, I know you have just written a children’s book about W. S. Merwin. Can you talk a little bit about the connection you feel to Merwin, and what you’ve learned from him?
CF: You know, I go back again to Naomi Shihab Nye, who was not my introduction to Merwin but my experience of his poetry has coincided with my experience of Naomi’s very close relationship with him. So in some ways, it feels very intimate in a way that is actually kind of false because I didn’t have a relationship with Mr. Merwin like that. I met him a couple of times. But there’s something about Merwin’s poetry, past the point of his middle age especially, that feels very much like a gesture to presence and experiencing the world. Merwin didn’t move to Maui until he was 50 years old—I think people will perceive him as having moved there very young. I mean, he lived a long time, so he did spend a long time there—he died at 93. But there he establishes his practice of planting trees, and I find it very moving. It seems like a perfect story for children, because it is about small, seemingly insignificant gestures that, if done daily, can really have a significant effect on the world. I also just feel like when I read Merwin’s essays and interviews, things that he says about his writing practice, and the way poems come to him, there’s something that is so human about the way he talks about writing and approaching that feels… He doesn’t know he’s W. S. Merwin, you know? He sits down to write and gropes in the dark, just as we all do. I never know after I finish a poem, he said, if I’ll even write another poem, and I don’t know where they come from, but I listen, and I take notes. And that feels to me like a very admirable and attractive way of living in the world. And he also was always changing and growing into his work. I really admire that as well.
RR: That feels very much like the way I think of your work. Your attention to the present feels like a practice in The Life. I noticed even that the word “now” appears in opening sentences of your poems many times, like you’re setting us down in the writing chair with you.
CF: I didn’t recognize that; now I have to go back and look. But that makes sense to me. My ideal routine is to wake up at 5am. I don’t know what it is about that time. But to me, it’s the poetry hour, it is the time that I find most insight in reading poetry and most receptive to deeply feeling poems. I can’t read it at night, I can’t read in bed—I’ve always had a very hard time sleeping. So the New York Times crossword puzzle is what I do when I’m lying in bed at night, and my stack of books is in my reading chair. I wake up and I start in the morning. I will usually have a couple of books of poetry that I’m working my way through, often something that’s just come out. And then I will be working my way through a bigger work that spans a writing career. I’m reading Lucille Clifton, the big one [her Collected Poems], right now. I read Rilke that way. Morning time is a great time for reading to me. Right now I’m reading two novels. Sometimes I’ll read some other kind of book, even something that is not at all related to art, like I was reading a book about screentime and screens with kids—we’re trying to really get our hands around that.
So anyway, I start with reading, and then I’ll move into writing. In the last year I have moved from writing a daily poem on my computer, which I keep, and then archive, so I have 2003 to 2020 in my computer. I decided I would take the leap—it felt like quitting smoking, it felt like something very fundamentally changed: I started writing in a journal my daily poem. I wish that I had done it earlier, because it’s so much more pleasurable, and I love not having to enter into that computer space where the internet is. Everything is there, and I don’t want everything there in the morning. So write a poem, and then maybe write a little bit more, diary-type writing. And then later, I write other stuff besides poetry. Right before you called, I was working on a different project, a narrative project that I can much more easily slip in and out of. I can buckle down and work on it, where writing poetry doesn’t feel like that. It’s like a clearing of the mind rather than having to solve this or that problem. During the day, I have a much easier time working on other stuff. I’m doing a lot of different writing now; I have a writing partner that I’m working on something with, which is very cool and exciting to me. Over the course of my career so far, poetry writing time has been like making a reduction—like in cooking, reducing down to a shorter but much richer time. Do you write in the morning?
RR: I’m an aspirant morning person. I believe in the benefits of the early morning—it makes sense to me that it should be the first thing in your day, but it takes me a while to wake up. My wattage is at its best in the early afternoons, which is a terrible time to work. Well, if you have kids, it is terrible. Afternoons are usually the time when I am taking kids to activities or having to manage meltdowns and snacks and things. I have not had a totally regular writing time or routine in the last several years. I feel like it’s actually changed the structure of my writing, as well as a lot of things about the process. My writing is all in a notebook at first too. That feels important to the process, having it with me and doing it in a waiting room, or at the kitchen counter, whenever I can grab a moment. What is available to me, in terms of image, is very different than it was 10 years ago before kids were a part of my story.
CF: That makes me think of what Lucille Clifton said about making poems—sitting at the kitchen table with a baby on her lap and kids all around, not sequestered in contemplation. Being right at the very center of her real life. That’s magic.
RR: I have so much admiration for that, but when I can I still want to retreat to my quiet room! On the subject of children in poems: one thing that’s happening in The Life that feels distinct from Instant Winner is that there’s an increasing selfhood in the children, as there obviously would be, as they get older and have personalities and opinions. And it feels to me like they act like a sort of grounding voice for the speaker, who would otherwise be in her head. They’re this way out of the flights of the mind. They are that force that pulls you back. One of my favorite poems is “Will You,” where the speaker is railing against glitter and eventually against there being three Henrys in one class, and the daughter snaps her out of it by saying there are three Henrys because there are. That seems like one of these moments of wisdom that kids provide. So I’m wondering if you want to talk about kids entering your poems and how you feel about their presence.
CF: That’s a great reading—the idea that the children’s voices in those poems do this. There’s a lot of spoken dialogue, and it also brings the poems back to the present moment. My first book, Burn Lake, was about adolescence, and especially small town adolescence, and some of the limited views of life that can be presented to adolescents in small towns like mine. The poems are set in New Mexico, but they’re also set in adolescence. And I think that was what I was really interested in, at that time. I had no sense that eventually I’d have children—that was something that came to my consciousness much later in life. Adolescence is so ripe for drama, and change, and transformation, and realization and revelation. And in some ways, parenthood is the same—it’s a great setting for poetry because it is full of revelation. The experience of being not just a human but a body—a body that made children inside it and now here they are, they’re saying things and they’re becoming the people that they are and you’re watching that and you’re watching them not only form their selfhood, but also develop their philosophical and spiritual lives. They can be very weird, and they can seem really smart at one moment and really misguided at another moment.
People ask, Did that really happen to you? about poems about childhood or adolescence. And people assume that the children in my poems are the exact rendering of the children that I live with. And that is not true. Their personalities are there. But, even in that poem, sitting and making valentines is this perfect, weird experience—if you didn’t have children, you wouldn’t be doing it. So the children, the childhood, in that poem, offers this really gorgeous metaphorical activity that you can sort of base the poem in. Like, this is the day we celebrate love. And this is how we do it.
It’s hard to say what is the boundary, or what is the line. When I launched my book, I did a virtual launch event with Naomi, who my kids know very well. And they watched—they were in here, I was out in our studio, and they watched part of the reading. And Naomi asked me to read a poem that my kids had never heard before, called “My Own American Poem.” And it says something like, “I signed up my kids for camps but they want to just stay home and be idle and twisted, like we were, and make guns out of Legos, like we did.” And really, that is more to refer to a different experience of childhood than to say this is actually what my children do. When I came in after the reading, my husband said “We had to turn off the reading because Olive was really upset that you said that they made guns out of Legos.” She said they’ve never made guns out of Legos. Now that they’re growing and becoming people I don’t feel as much like I can just reach in and say something, because they will read it. It made me tremendously sad and I felt regretful in that moment. It wasn’t like I was saying something that was private, it was something that wasn’t true that I made up for the poem. That was what really bothered her. And going forward I must respect that and work from there. They do have and deserve privacy, and narrative accuracy.
But I’m interested to see what will be the setting of my future work. One of the beautiful things about being a poet is that you have this ability to document the stages of life.
RR: I did a survey of motherhood writing in the mid-2010s, because I was trying to write it myself, and thinking: How do I approach this? What are the expectations and limitations, and ways that it’s been judged? And who’s writing it? I needed models. That’s how I came upon Instant Winner, and then I went back and read Burn Lake.
I do see that progression of placing the self in these settings, in which there are different forces that make you approach and question your selfhood in different ways. The way I think about motherhood poems now is that it’s not writing about children, it’s writing about the self, and children enter the poem. I hope it’s not reductive to say children in poems are employed for metaphorical purpose, but I think you use what you experience with them, those bits of the life, the true life, and then shape it to create an image to observe yourself. Children make us question who we are and make us define our borders, and change us. But ultimately the subject is not them, narratively.
CF: I remember hearing an interview, probably like in the early 2000s with Sharon Olds, and she talked about the question of children in poems and she said, firmly, Those aren’t my children. Readers would tell her, I love your kids, I feel so close to your kids. And she said she was really upset by this and would say, Those are not my children. Those are metaphors. And then a couple of years later I was at my parents’ house in New Mexico, and she happened to be the guest on Prairie Home Companion. And she said, You know, I used to get really upset. And I said, Those aren’t my kids. But you know what? They were my kids. It was kind of earth shattering to me. I was like, wait, I’ve based my whole philosophy of writing on what you said earlier!
RR: Is there a way in which it can be both? I don’t feel particularly inventive—I am definitely using the material that comes from my real life. But ultimately I’m not trying to describe them, it doesn’t actually matter whether it happened, whether there were three Henrys or two Henrys and a Harry. It’s that from here I get my source material.
CF: Not speaking about my own work, but about Sharon Olds, and Lucille Clifton, those on whose shoulders we stand—these women writing about their bodies and children and the experience of motherhood at that time. It’s very hard, I think, especially for male critics and male readers to understand that that’s a lens through which they’re writing these amazing poems about the experience of being a human being. Sharon Olds was excoriated for writing about her “body parts.” I hope that we are in a place where that’s changing. But I see it and I hear it all the time. I don’t know what it is about motherhood poetry especially but it’s very hard for people to see that this is a lens through which things are happening.
RR: Let me ask this: I think of Instant Winner as a book about becoming a parent. And one of the things you did in there, which I found really funny and also profound, was present the idea of the double life, the real life that might be out there in that alternate world in which you didn’t have kids. I’m wondering how this book, The Life, answers that. It’s so deeply entrenched in the life in which children are present. Is there a conflict between them?
CF: I think that in the time between when I wrote Instant Winner and when I published this book, I became, as a thinker, much more interested in the true occupation of the artist, which is to render experience and to sit in experience, and pull meaning from and make meaning from. I just don’t have a lot of interest now in thinking about doing other things inside my poems. My graduate school experience felt very competitive and very male. I don’t even know if I was aware of feeling that when I was there. I think I was really preoccupied with competing with these male writers and making sure that I was seen by them, that my poems were experienced as worthy, and intellectual as well. And over the years my interest in thinking as a critic about work or writing critically about work has diminished. I just really like to experience poetry, and then I like to remember my experience of it and go back and find new experiences. I’m not at all anymore preoccupied with that question of worthiness. And in some ways, that’s wonderful. That’s the progression that I would want for anyone—that you would become less self-conscious, and more confident in the way you approach your work. And especially women writers. I don’t think about it very often, but I do feel very happy to have moved in my life towards something that feels much more genuine. A path that feels like it has a lot of integrity to it. The main purpose is to become more present, and more able to observe and make meaning of experiences, and to be able to know: this is a worthy experience, that smoothie glass is as worthy an image as, you know, something else. I don’t spend a lot of time doing that kind of gymnastics in my mind anymore.
RR: “The Jungle” is another of my favorite poems in the collection. It enacts all these linguistic twists as it moves, and I keep trying to trace it and can’t figure out how you’re doing what you’re doing. But it seems so deft as it works through the contortions of the mind dealing with moral complexity and complicity in danger. Can you talk about the process of writing it?
CF: Yeah, that is an interesting poem to me. It came to me in a way that I didn’t understand. And I was just trying to follow it on its path. It very much enacts my morning writing experience. The moment where the speaker says, “Oh, my God, it is based on a true story” was actually what happened when I was working on the poem. I Googled, and that realization is something that obviously shifts the momentum in the poem—you can’t go back, now you know. I remember finishing the poem and showing it to my husband and being like, I don’t know what this is, will you read it?, and him being like, This is something new. What are you doing in this poem? I think he actually started crying. I wish I could say, I was working within a certain meter or something like that, but it very much came to me. It felt like an actual gift that was given to me. There’s an image near the end of the poem, of my following my son to the threshold of the men’s room. When you’re the mother of a boy, there comes a point where your son is just too big to go into the women’s bathroom with you, it makes people uncomfortable. And then you have to send him into this place you have no control over. You don’t even have any control over whether or not he’s washing his hands! And so it’s this feeling of waiting and watching every face that comes out of the room. Where’s my son, you know? What if…? That metaphor, the edge of the men’s room, where you have to let your son go and experience manhood behind this closed door that you cannot control—that came to me and I was like, Oh, damn. Yes.
Those are the kind of moments where writing practice pays off. A lot of times, it really is fruitless—the time passes, and I have not done anything. Sometimes I’ve even squandered my time looking at the news or something like that. But making that time for writing is what allows for moments like this to come. It’s about attention. It’s like that video of the people playing basketball, where a gorilla runs by, and no one notices it, right? You see it a second time, and you realize a gorilla ran through it, and I didn’t notice it. That’s my life right there.
RR: Maybe that’s a good description of the motherhood poem too. One of the things that I think the experience of parenthood teaches us is that you don’t know where your metaphors are going to be—you don’t know what the thing is that you need to be looking at. And often, it’s what appears on the surface to have no potential. I just have to archive all the things that are happening; I write down even the most mundane things that are happening in my day. I look back at them later, and somehow, taken into new context, they glow. They become a thing that can make meaning.
CF: This is the only thing that I have to teach that I feel is of value: the idea that you should write down the seemingly meaningless things, you know, write about your over-achieving robot vacuum cleaner. Just write it down. And it’s very, very hard, especially for beginning writers who don’t have as much experience reading poetry. They just don’t get the value of that practice. It’s very hard to convince them. Like, you want me to write poems about the sponge, and the sink, and the coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup, but I want to write about Death. I want to write about God, and Love. Image does that. Metaphor does that. There’s that great Marie Howe poem in her last book, Magdalene. The last poem in that book says I will be gone, I’ll be “grit thrown into the garden/or into the sticky bodies of several worms.” At one point, she says, it will all be gone—this, that, “the woman in the blue suit by the door examining her split ends.” I haven’t read that poem in over a year, and I can still remember that image because it’s just the most human, specific thing. She’s a master at that. I wish I could transmit that more readily to young writers.
RR: Do you have any other writing technique or device that you like to use?
CF: When I sit down to do my own writing, I have above my computer, and I will always have above my computer, the writing advice that William Stafford gave, which is: lower your standards. That is everything. Lower your standards and begin. I see that every morning. And I sit and think, I’m not going to write anything. My brain is like, No, no, and then it’s like, Okay, let me just do it. Let me make it be over, you know, and then I go into writing that’s so low stakes that it doesn’t matter. And that’s where those things come from! That’s where taking your son to the edge of the threshold of the men’s room door—that’s where those things come to be. I’m always convincing students to do that, and the more laughter that comes after I say lower your standards, the more difficult I know it will be for them. But it really is basically all that helps me get started.