Carley Moore Interview, with Mari L’Esperance
As a poet, writer for young adults, full-time university professor, mother, and partner, you are juggling many plates, each of them significant. How do you balance it all and still make space and time for your writing?
Actually, I don’t think I do much balancing. I’m always suspicious of the word “balance” because most of the writers whom I know, who have full-time teaching jobs or who are parents or who just work any kind of other job, don’t experience their day-to-day existences as very balanced. I know that I often feel like I have too many things going on and that I’m running around too much or that I’m doing a bad job with many things simultaneously, but that may be because I’m naturally guilty or because of our culture’s pervasive parenting/working guilt – this free floating ether that hangs around and makes us feel like we’re not doing all the right things for our kids or our students in all the right ways. Having said all of that, I know that a couple of years ago, right around the time my daughter was born, I made a conscious choice to start putting writing at the center of my life and to try to make it a priority – to do it as much as I can even in small increments (an hour here and there). I am also grateful to have a partner, Matt Longabucco, who is a writer and a feminist and who is hugely respectful of my work and goes to great lengths with me to create an equitable structure for sharing childcare and carving out writing time. I’ve been greatly helped by writing groups, both formal and informal. I’ve written a lot and been given great feedback in a workshop run by the New York Writers’ Coalition, which is a truly unique organization, directed by the genius Aaron Zimmerman, that offers writing workshops for under-represented populations. A group of my friends and I started a very informal writing group called the Brooklyn Writers Collaborative. We are all teachers of writing, people who spend a lot of time and energy helping others write, so we get together every couple of months to write together and keep each other focused. Finally, I have an amazing best friend, the playwright and young adult novelist Madeleine George, who is very close with my daughter, takes care of her often, and gives Matt and me writing time, which is a major gift. She also helps us strategize about our writing goals and complain about our struggles.
Your first Young Adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2012. Tell us a bit about the book and how you came to write for young adults, as well as about the genre's unique rewards and challenges.
The Stalker Chronicles is a dark comedy about a boy-crazy girl, Cammie Bliss, whose habits of obsessive observation and stalking intensify when a new boy moves to her small town. Cammie struggles to stop stalking and become a better person, while at the same time watching her parents’ marriage fall apart and her very cool brother fall in love with one of the most popular girls in her school. Her very smart and overly religious best friend, Rosie, helps her.
I’ve been writing about teenage girls for some time now. My dissertation was about teenage girl writers in Seventeen magazine. I examined girl writing from 1963 to the present and was particularly interested in girls who wrote about politics – the Civil Rights movement, feminism, eating disorders and body issues, anything at all that seemed to “cause trouble” for the editors or call into question typical roles for teenage girls. I’ve also always been interested in all things teenage, or in the teen age as a liminal space – one that allows for border crossing and world straddling. My own childhood has been a rich source of inspiration for my poetry, so I suppose it makes sense that I would turn to the young adult genre. But what motivated me the most was my desire to create interesting, difficult girl characters for a mainstream market. I wanted to stop writing about teenage girls and write for them. I saw some of my friends trying it, and I thought I might, too. The novel as a genre seemed like a challenge to me – something I hadn’t really tried to do, and I have found certain elements of it hard, like plot, but I think I’m improving and I find it really, really fun. I like the momentum that writing a novel can create – I enjoy creating a whole world and seeing what happens in that world. Poems need worlds, too, but the work is smaller and more tightly wound. I like getting lost in the making of a novel.
These recent poems, which you've said are from a manuscript titled Old Lady, are distinctly narrative and quite personal – a departure (to me) from your earlier work – yet are also very much poems. Can you say a bit about your manuscript's central obsessions and how they're apparent in these five poems?
At the core of this manuscript is an examination of what I am right now calling “hags.” I write about mythical hags (the witch in Hansel and Gretel, Medea, and Clymenestra, to name a few), the older women in my family who have had broken, challenged lives, and the “hag” in me – that is, the woman I often am who is untoward, difficult, grotesque, and maybe a little out of bounds. My deceased uncle appears in some of these poems as a kind of male hag – a family figure that nobody knew what to do with and who caused everyone great pain because of his own struggles with mental illness and addiction. I suppose I am also trying to explore how childhood fears are wrapped up in family myth and rumor, and how the women in my family – particularly my grandmother, who left her native Cuba in 1946 – never quite got their stories straight. I find these overlapping, conflicting narratives interesting; I think most families are made up of them, but I wanted to write my way into several of these family stories and older women seemed at the center of them. I suppose these poems are also about grief and loss within families and the fears that they in turn create. “Cracks” and “Tears” are very much a species of catalogue poem – long lists in which I try to explore and exhaust a subject. I hope to articulate how varied fear and sadness can be – how for some of us these twinned emotions can open out onto other vistas.
Although you've lived in New York City for many years, you grew up in Jamestown, a small town in upstate New York that's also known as the birthplace of Lucille Ball. How did spending your formative years in a small community shape you as a poet and person? And how has living in New York City all these years fed your writing?
Did you know that this summer in Jamestown 915 people dressed up as Lucy Ricardo and set a new world’s record? Lucille Ball is probably our most famous native, but we also can claim the 10,000 Maniacs, a ground breaking indie band from the 1990s.
I am often very conflicted about my hometown. My entire family lives there. I am the only one to have left, and so I sometimes feel in exile. Jamestown was once a booming little furniture town on the Erie Canal. Now, like many upstate New York towns, it has lost a lot of industry and is struggling economically. My childhood was very quiet. My brother and I spent a lot of time going for walks in the woods and running around our neighborhood. My parents, who are now divorced, always seemed cosmopolitan to me. They liked weird music compared to other parents, our house was full of books, my mother started the first NOW chapter in the area, and my father played guitar in a local heavy metal band. I started writing poetry when I was fourteen and I didn’t know any other poets. I was the only poet in my high school, or at least the only person who thought that was a good thing to be, so I suppose I was looking for a creative community, and that’s why I eventually moved to New York to go to graduate school. Since then a lot of my friends from graduate school have left New York, so I’ve made new friends – lots of poets, some parents, and a ton of teachers. It’s taken me a while to realize that I’m here by choice and not by accident, and that I am very lucky to have found such a rich creative community. It’s only in the last couple of years that I have felt like a New Yorker. Maybe it takes fifteen years of city living to be able to claim that, but Jamestown is very dear to me, and I do miss seeing my family often. Perhaps I will always be between landscapes, one urban and one rural.
Recently you started a poetry reading series with your husband, the poet Matt Longabucco, called P. O. D., which takes place monthly at the Red Horse Café in Brooklyn. Why did you decide to start a series and how has the experience been for you so far?
Matt and I were looking to be of service to the writing community, and a reading series seemed like a fun and relatively easy way to contribute. We’d been running a little salon out of our apartment for a couple of years, but we wanted to do something more public. We have many writer friends whom we wanted to make a space for, but we were also hoping to connect with some of the writers we most admire, but haven’t really met. It’s also true that we don’t get to go out together very often because we have a small child, and running a series together seemed to guarantee that at least once a month we could meet up outside of the apartment, have some drinks, and hear some really good writing.
The series is mostly poetry, but we’ve had playwrights, fiction writers, and essayists. We say that we’d like people to read from genre bending or in-progress work, but we’re very open. So far the series has been a delight! We’ve had amazing writers like Dorothea Lasky, Matthew Rohrer, Ariana Reines, Dawn Lundy Martin, Eileen Myles, Erica Kaufman, Chris Hosea, Timothy Donnelly, Matthea Harvery, Tony Carelli, Wayne Koestenbaum, Ronaldo Wilson, Kristin Dombek, Rajiv Joseph, CA Conrad, David Buuck, and Tracy K. Smith. We’re working on our spring line-up right now. Matt and I enjoy putting writers in conversation, writing introductions for each writer, and then just sitting back and enjoying the work. You can check out the details of the series at our blog: www.podtheseries.blogspot.com/.
We’ve been fortunate to have the series at the Red Horse Café in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The owners, Carolina and Brent Whitson, are art lovers and very generous with their space. They pretty much let us take over once a month.
You keep your anger embedded in the wet stones of a deep well
until you meet an old woman in the woods near the base of a dead tree.
You don’t think very much of her because she’s tiny, toothless, and bald.
She wears a beret and doesn’t say much.
She makes you a foul smelling tea and somehow convinces you to cry.
You sit on an uncomfortable rock and sob while she catches your tears
in a jelly jar labeled—in a jagged scrawl—“Girl Tears.”
She says she’s got one for boys, too.
You don’t ask what she’s going to do with them.
It doesn’t seem to matter because you’re finally sitting down
and you feel better—you really, really, do.
You’re not at your stupid job and no one’s looking at you.
You don’t have to say anything.
For once, you can be the dumb mute thing that you believe yourself to be.
You keep going back.
There’s always tea and crying and some weird new lesson.
One day, you learn how to breathe so that your chest expands in a fiery swell
and you feel the air whoosh out of your mouth like a storm.
Another time, she teaches you an invisible stitch for a dress that is also a net.
“You have a steady hand, a fine stitch,” she says in praise and then
disappears the dress into the hollow of her tree.
You don’t ask questions.
You don’t even know her name.
There are rumors about her in town, but you choose not to believe them.
You convince yourself that it’s the woods you need, and not her.
You don’t admit to yourself that at night you wake up smelling her tangy odor.
You decide that her scent is yours now—it suits you.
But you are oddly changed.
You pause in front of mirrors.
You catch yourself staring, your nose in the air.
Stray cats rub up against you, howling something you can almost make out.
Women on the street walk around you now.
The minister hisses at you in the store, but you don’t care.
One night you find yourself pulling a cart of your belongings out to the tree.
She’s waiting for you.
She peels off your clothes and puts the dress/net over your head.
It glitters and presses down on you like a lover.
You drink the tea and sob.
You decide to live in the tree.
You’re not surprised.
You see now that this was what she wanted all along and that you wanted it, too.
“My Uncle In Reverse”
Two police officers found you on a bench in Golden Gate Park.
You’d been off and on homeless for the last twenty years.
You were bi-polar, an addict, an alcoholic.
Once you got a bit part in a movie.
My brother and I froze the frame over and over.
“Is that him?” “Yeah, that guy.”
You were a musician—you sang and played guitar.
A local band sometimes let you crash in their recording studio.
You called, but only when manic.
You told my dad that we were the Russian royal family—the Romanovs in hiding.
You said if I came to visit we’d hang out with Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
“Think about it, man,” you said. I did.
You traveled East once for Thanksgiving.
You made turkey sandwiches in the middle of the night and slept all day.
My brother and I spied on you from the staircase landing.
You got straight for three years and married a civil rights lawyer.
You had two sons and you got a bread route.
Later, when she divorced you, you lived out of the bread truck.
You left your boys behind.
You had to.
You joined the Marines.
You ran away to live in a trailer with some swingers outside of Vegas.
You came back determined, different.
You got beat up a lot.
You started it.
You broke all of your toys.
You were born in Arizona.
You weighed ten pounds.
You were the second son, seven years younger than the beloved first son.
You began as the Milky Way.
A fog in the German countryside.
Water, at the bottom of a glass.
A dent in the mattress.
Crevice and crawlspace.
“The crack is moving down the wall.”
My recurring childhood nightmare—
as I walk, the soles of my feet split the ground.
The earth cracks and hardens.
The sun hangs orange above my head
and I panic thinking about what’s underneath, what might come up.
In the children’s book, Bedtime for Frances, the defiant, girl badger
Frances obsesses over a tiny crack in her ceiling.
She can’t sleep and she’s sure that spiders are waiting to come out of it.
Step on a crack.
Break your mother’s back.
Hades breaks open the earth to get his bride.
His golden chariot halves the world and creates a seam, a kind of girl-trap.
Fear of cracks.
Fear of holes.
Fear of lack.
The poem emerges up from under.
The gods use trapdoors and portals.
Every family has a crack in it.
My uncle’s eventual crack-up.
Uncle as rift, tear, rip, and rent.
The middle boy who was supposed to be an anchor,
the weight between the promising older boy and the favorite younger girl.
They had a code against cracks.
A perpetual tamping down.
They stitched it into the shoulder bones of their children
so that they walked around with a hunch and a smile.
When you say “Uncle,” you admit defeat,
concede that you are beaten, broken, crack-able.
My daughter’s new habit of killing ants as they emerge from the cracks in the sidewalk.
Her matter-of-fact reportage, “Oh, I got rid of them.”
When I look out the airplane window, I see nothing but cracks.
The crack is a liminal space, hideout territory, hag hole.
I want to inhabit comfortably my own cracked shell.
We are nothing but cracks, the ground says,
Listen for what we have to say.
“Time to plant tears.”
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
—Roy Batty, Blade Runner
In a recent e-mail, my father admits that he cried often when I was a child. “You were so sick. I thought you were going to die and I knew it was my fault.” He cried in private—behind the curtains in the living room window as I stumbled around in the back yard, in the bathroom stall at the medical library, and at night while the rest of us slept.
My daughter’s new habit of watching herself cry in the mirror. I used to do that, too. I see the act as part confirmation, part spectacle, part egg-on, and part acknowledgment of the beauty of tears—their inherent realigning narcissism, their visible drama.
The crying face is cubist in the way it breaks apart to reorder itself. The crying face is a reddening, blackening moon, a plate that shifts, and a tumble down a hill. A wave breaks and there’s water, water everywhere. Snot. The eyes puff out and the cheeks grow slick.
My student cries in my office because for the last two weeks she can’t stop crying. All crying is in part about the act of crying itself.
The woman from class who caught me crying on the corner. Our polite agreement not to mention it.
The deep shame I felt because I cried so hard in my first yoga class. The teacher’s embarrassment and her refusal to acknowledge my tears. I still can’t quite explain what happened. My body was in mourning, over-extended, slack from a grueling pregnancy, ecstatic, broken.
My initial reaction to most physical challenges is tears.
The way a baby’s crying can just flat-out undo you.
The middle-aged man in a plaid shirt at the taco dive in Albuquerque, sobbing into his plate of enchiladas. He said to the nearby tables, “It’s just been a really hard year,” sniffed hard, nodded, and willed himself to stop.
The alchemy of tears, their potential for magic. Hags use tears for potions and spells. They catch them in jelly jars as they roll off of children’s cheeks. Cats lick them off.
Tears call forth anger from the Gods who prefer action and intrigue to human sadness.
Streets have gutters for gathering our tears.
Riverbeds are dry these days, so water them.
Overflow our banks.
She might have lied about living in a convent.
She might have lied about when exactly she met my grandfather—
a marine stationed in Cuba.
She was either thirteen or seventeen when they first met.
It’s true that he was sixteen years her senior.
They might have lied about their later accidental meeting in Queens.
She might have lied about Hemingway eating lunch at her supper club.
There might not have been a supper club.
Her mother did die of a heart attack at age thirty-six.
She might have lied about her stepmother.
She might have seen a neighbor dragged from his house in the middle of the night.
She knew he would not come back.
She might have lied about the police officer who ran out of an explosion, decapitated.
But it’s true that during one particular bad night in Havana in 1933,
there were nearly one hundred different bombings.
She might have been telling the truth.
Or maybe her sister lied.
She might have forgotten the difference.
Leaving an island is lie inducing and story building.
Maybe English is a lie and Spanish is the truth.
I might be lying.
It’s true that her brother and her father died of heart attacks on the same night,
one in New York and one in Miami.
It might be true that her brother was gay.
It’s true that she left Cuba in 1946 and never went back.
In poetry, the beat of the line keeps the lie alive and moving.
The heart is a steadily deteriorating liar.
Cuba has a sugar heart.
It melted in her mouth.
How many hearts does it take to make one sugar packet?
It’s true that she was a heartbreaker.
When hers eventually gave out, she gave it away.