Julie Carr in Conversation with Karolina Zapal
Karolina Zapal: Hi Julie, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. You danced in New York for ten years, learning from people such as Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, and Nancy Stark Smith. During that time, along with Sondra Loring, you founded the annual Improvisational Festival and became deeply invested in the art of chance. Speaking about 100 Notes on Violence, you say, “The book about violence must be a book of quotations,” which reads as a haunting statement, immediately confronting violence as we all know it. In what aspects was writing this book an improvisation of research and memory, resulting in a compilation of chilling accounts of violence told in the form of quotations?
Julie Carr: Improvisation has been a key concept or practice in my writing since the beginning. It’s important to me not to always know what I’m doing, not to plan too much ahead, to follow impulses and curiosities, and to try not to judge myself in that process. One of the things I loved the most about improvisation was watching someone become deeply invested in an exploration. To me, it didn’t really matter what the person was doing; what mattered was their commitment. I feel similarly about writing—when someone is absolute in their commitment, I’m likely to follow them almost anywhere.
KZ: “To follow them almost anywhere” seems like an enormous undertaking for a reader, let alone a writer. There must be paths where a writer chooses to deepen her step and cases where she chooses to retract it. For example, 100 Notes on Violence is very much a documentary poetics endeavor, one which you say isn’t “a book about other people’s violence. Rather, it is an investigation into the violent experiences and tendencies that we all harbor.” This investigation is led by private, philosophical Emily Dickinson and sumptuous, civic Walt Whitman, and journeys through phobia lists, weapons store catalogs, online searches, and news clips. Could you provide a more comprehensive vision of where the research for this book began and how it spiraled into the collection seen in print? Because violence is everywhere, so are representations of it. But were there specific pieces of evidence that didn’t make the cut?
JC: There comes a time in making a book (or a poem, or a page) when one has to limit the exploratory range. With 100 Notes on Violence, I didn’t set out to write about violence, I set out to make a long project with 100 sections. The topic revealed itself, at which time I had to direct the writing more consciously, cutting things that seemed too far afield.
One way I chose to limit my searching was to focus on domestic or intimate violence. I was interested in how seemingly ordinary individuals engage in violence, some of which is verbal, much of which is physical, and only a small portion of which is lethal. I was interested in how violence bleeds into everyday life. I decided not to take on war or violence in other countries—these topics felt too far outside of my own sphere to meaningfully approach. I also stopped short of topics that were too hard for me to take in: child porn, for example.
KZ: One topic the book doesn’t avoid is the manifestation of violence in the body: “The boy’s face glows like the atom bomb in pop-culture, happy-screen on his lap / When I say violence I mean his foot. Or face,” is just one example. Close attention is given to the embodiment of cruelty, of struggle, and the unharmonious movements of their ramifications, yet a detachment can be sensed, from the narrator’s body and the bodies of tormented strangers. Has your career in dance influenced how you dealt with the concept of body in this text? And was the detachment deliberate when writing this book, possibly strengthening your capacity to confront violence in a public forum?
JC: As for the body, I suppose having been a dancer makes me hyper aware of spontaneous choreography, of gesture. I’m wondering what you mean by “detachment”? Writing always carries some detachment, of course, and the numbering of a sequence is an artificial frame around observations and experiences, so a certain coolness is generated by the numbers themselves. Even titles would have this effect. Poetry’s formal attributes—the line, the stanza, the structuring of language into particular rhythms and sounds—all of this will pull the writer/reader away from the thing being described in some sense. At the same time, sound/rhythm/shape might create intensities of their own. So, I’d love to hear more about what you mean by detachment, and maybe then I can answer you better.
KZ: What I mean by detachment can be introduced most simply by observing the form in which this book is written: short, numbered snippets, which are powerful, yet uninvolved. Take, for example, “16.” It begins, “Annie was a Buddhist and wouldn’t kill a bug / so the bugs killed all the plants when my mother went away,” and immediately progresses to, “Brenda in the red house / got cancer in her breast.” While these lines knock the reader with an unforgiving violent intensity, they fail to detail and personalize each of these women; the violence strikes them, leaving a mark, yet the reader doesn’t fully sense their pastfuture/permanent bodies. Although the style of these lines may be true to poetry, or more closely, to violence, it does suggest detachment, as if the writer couldn’t, for one reason or another, explore these lives in a more intricate manner.
JC: Partly I think you are referring to the compressions of poetry. The impulse to follow someone’s story more fully is, I think, a narrative impulse. Of course there are narrative poems, and I’ve written some, but 100 Notes wasn’t one of those. Why not? I guess I was simply more interested in the list or “note” as a way to indicate how violence moves through a life, how we encounter it at every turn, casually. To dwell on one or another narrative would be, I think, to suggest that these stories are unusual, worthy of longer meditation, exceptional. To pass through them quickly—and to list so many—is to indicate that they are in no way exceptional—they are part of the fabric of an ordinary life. That, for me, was the point of the book. I think you are right to suggest that there is a distancing feel to this method. Even a coldness. But for me, there is a truth there. I began to see violence in every person—even very sweet people—in every room. It’s always there ready to erupt, or someone’s just getting over it, or they were its victim. Maybe it happened in the room minutes before you entered, or you’re walking through a crime scene and you just can’t tell, or in a second someone is going to piss you off and you’re going to feel that energy in your arms, whether or not you do or say anything. I wanted to recognize that ubiquity, to face it in order, in the end, to have compassion for our fears and our impulses and our crimes. I wanted to find a way to express this very American quality, which I had wanted to deny or run from.
KZ: You say, “American quality which I had wanted to deny or run from,” which posits fear of researching and writing about these instances of violence. Yet, I think fear could be the American quality: fear of being capable of committing violence, fear of being the victim of violence, fear even of being a passerby, unaware of the silent atrocity gripping the next room. Would you say fear dominated this text, spell-binding it with a nervous shiver? And if so, how much of this fear was your own, perhaps haunted by your own encounters with violence?
JC: I started the book under the spell of fear, and it was my intention to face the things that scared me. They don’t scare me any less now, but I’m better able to see them, so there was something healing or perhaps fortifying in the project. The fears were my own, but as you suggest, they are also everybody’s. I’ve thought a lot about that since—thought about why we seem to court fear. When a senator in a gun control debate told me that he assumes everyone he meets is armed, I realized that he had chosen to live in fear.
But I want to acknowledge here that violence, though ubiquitous, does not reach all lives equally. That lesson has been brought home sharply by the many police killings of young black men, and some women, made so public in recent years. Violence’s unequal distribution across social groups, the fact that some are much more vulnerable than others, is not something we as a nation have been able to affectively address. My own encounters with violence are relatively minor, in that no one I know has been shot, no one I am close to has been killed by the state or by another citizen (though I think it goes without saying that many people I know have been raped). The point here is that violence occurs on subtle levels perhaps before it occurs in the most overt ways. This is why I included a list of White Supremacist organizations by name and included a racist comment made by someone in my family. It’s why I included violence I perpetrated as a child and dreams of violence as they swam through my sleep. I wanted to focus my lens widely so that I could begin to see that violence isn’t someone else’s problem, but my own, or our own.
George Yancy, in an interview with The New York Times, says, “A critique of violence must include an understanding that one doesn’t escape the many ways in which one perpetuates violence—violence against those who we may never see face to face, violence against those who are closest to us, violence against the earth, and perhaps even violence against one’s own sense of self-integrity.”
KZ: Choosing to live in fear resonates in the stunned human response to the rise in school shootings. At one point in the book, you say you cannot type “school shootings” into the search engine, which precedes the following: “Later I hear that whatever you write into the little search box will somewhere be recorded as data in order to better sell you.” Do you believe what the web offers the surfer and vice versa promotes violence, especially in young adults, who often view the web as their only source of solace?
And, as a follow-up: I recently read an interview of Richard Kraft by Ann Lauterbach, in regards to his comic opera, Here Comes Kitty. In it, Lauterbach comments on Kraft’s “charming use of temporal signs—‘dawn,’ ‘wind ceased,’ ‘shortly after’…” and how these “and other kinds of locators give us a sense of how arbitrary, or fictive, narratives are.” This comment immediately prevented me from reading on, as I rushed to 100 Notes on Violence and through instinctive memory, began noting all of the temporal markers that seemed unrealistic, if not irrelevant/irregular, in the narrative of a violent act. The example I’m going to give resides in “22”: “as if a dream from years ago.” I wonder whether these temporal markers are consciously content-driven or whether they comment on the nonsensical complexity that moves with a violent timeline: beginning with the moment the violence occurred and stretching to the moment it committed to a painful dream or memory.
JC: I don’t think I can comment intelligently about the role of the Internet in contemporary violence. Clearly it has a lot to do with training people to adhere to certain hard beliefs—whether that’s in the case of international terrorist organizations or our own NRA-driven brand of local terrorism. But I think the questions that surround the young and the Internet are way beyond my expertise.
What you say about Lauterbach’s reading of Kraft interests me a great deal. I love time markers as a way to create a sense of narrative without the necessary tools of fiction. I see this also in Lisa Robertson’s work—how marking dates, seasons, or time of day seems to generate a feeling of movement, and with it comes both anticipation and loss. I wasn’t consciously trying to derail one’s sense of time or progression in 100 Notes, but I do think it’s important for me that the reader feel that these events are ongoing, they happen all the time in and around our lives, though mostly we try not to notice. In a more general sense, I think poetry has the unique ability to fly around in time the way that our minds do. It is not beholden to any particular sequential ordering of events in language, and that freedom allows us to more accurately represent what time feels like: multi-layered, uneven, appearing in fits, starts or bursts, sometimes grinding to an almost halt—etc.
Memory fascinated me—that we remember seemingly unimportant things and forget very important ones—that certain memories repeat in the mind over and over for no apparent reason—that some things that happened long ago feel like they are still happening while others are forgotten for years until suddenly recalled. It’s amazing to me that we create our sense of selves and the “story of our lives” out of something so arbitrary and unreliable as memory.
KZ: To reach a gentle conclusion to an interview racked with violence and fear, would you like to talk about your work at Counterpath Press and/or your future creative prospects?
JC: Counterpath Press has a new home on Tamarac and 14th, in the E. Montclair neighborhood of Denver. We’ve been having events since January: readings, parties, and art shows. I’m most excited about the community garden I’m starting there, working with people from the immediate neighborhood and beyond. We’ll be growing food to share and to give away. It’s in progress. I’m waiting for the snow to stop so I can get moving on it. I’m also excited to see where we go in the fall when we’ll be fully up and running. I know we’ll be hosting a series of talks alongside the film screenings, readings, and installations. I think we’ll be having a series of workshops in writing and art for young people. It’s expanding and I’m curious.
Beyond that, I have some books underway, or soon to come out, and a collaborative website I’m building with one of my students which will feature imagined art installations written by myself and realized one way or another by a bunch of other people. I’m also working on teaching—trying to reimagine my pedagogy, moving beyond creative writing and even English so that I can continue to teach the things I’m trying to learn as an artist and as a person. I’m trying, unsuccessfully so far, to revise my position in the classroom. I think of this as a future creative project.
KZ: Thanks so much for this conversation. It’s been a pleasure.