Carrie Olivia Adams
in conversation with Kristina Marie Darling
Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago, where she is a book publicist for the University of Chicago Press, the poetry editor for Black Ocean, and a biscuit maker and whiskey drinker. She is the author of Forty-One Jane Doe’s (book and companion DVD, Ahsahta 2013) and Intervening Absence (Ahsahta 2009) as well as the chapbooks “Overture in the Key of F” (above/ground press 2013) and “A Useless Window” (Black Ocean 2006). I recently had a chance to speak with Carrie about hybrid art forms, her work as an editor, and her new book, Operating Theater, which was just released by Noctuary Press.
KMD: If you could tell your reader one thing—and only one thing—before he or she opens Operating Theater, what would you want them to know? And why?
COA: Do not be afraid. So many readers come to poetry with fear, apprehension. Will it be too difficult? What if I don’t understand it? But it is not a riddle. It is not a coded language understood by a population of two. It is not a mystery to be solved. It is an experience. Just surrender to it. Does it make you feel? Something? Anything? I hope so.
KMD: I truly admired the way Operating Theater weaves together text and image. Your carefully chosen visual material lends the project a sense of immediacy, awakening the reader from a limiting definition of poetry that they have long taken as a given, one that encompasses only text. What does visual material make possible for you within a poem or book-length project? What sparked your interest in merging text and image, and where has this initial inspiration taken you?
COA: I discovered the box of medical slides, from which the images in the book were taken, in an antique store; and my initial morbid fascination with them spun itself into the entire project and lead me to the Victorian surgery manuals that became tied to the text. Looking at the slides, I couldn’t get over how they were at once incredibly personal (these were strangers’ bodies!) and yet how impersonal they were (would you recognize your own lungs or brain in an x-ray?). It was impossible to conceive of the book without wanting some of these images to be part of the experience; I wanted the reader to have that same sense of voyeuristic anonymity, and I didn’t believe that the text alone could truly create that uncanny feeling. This intersection between the personal and impersonal became more immediate as I dug deeper into the surgery manuals, which bring the operating theater literally into the domestic space (in the pre-hospital age), instructing how to turn a dining table into an operating table and so on. I felt like it was essential to make the body as present as possible in the course of contemplating the egress of skin and other, so I am incredibly grateful that we were able to include images as part of the finished book.
KMD: Your previous book, Forty-One Jane Doe's, is also visual in nature, as the collection includes a companion D.V.D. of original films. How did Operating Theater emerge from this earlier project? What is the most crucial difference between the two texts, and what thread binds them?
COA: It’s true that Operating Theater came right on the heels of Jane Doe’s, and originally when I found the slides I thought I might make another film. I actually did, expanding upon the images in the book, but I felt like the film experiment was failing me or I was failing it. I had originally turned to film as a way to fill the gaps in my visual imagination and my inabilities to actually hold images in my mind’s eye, and the poems of the Jane Doe’s, even when not directly represented in the companion films, are still often engaging with the language of cinema or the science of light and capture. But with Operating Theater, I quickly realized I wanted it to feel older, more historical, old-fashioned. The slides themselves were black and white, and I wanted to work with the language of medicine in an age when it was still being written for non-specialists, still drawing on metaphor and a lyrical taxonomy to convey ideas. And so, in structure, film gave way to theater. There are five acts. There is a sense of an active dialogue between characters. Both books have stories to tell, but Operating Theater’s narrative is continual from beginning to end.
KMD: Tell me about your press. How does your work as an editor inform and intersect with your creative practice? What is only possible for you as a poet, and not as a gatekeeper or curator?
COA: I’ve been so honored to be the poetry editor for Black Ocean since its founding, which is nearing a decade. We are publishing six books a year, and working closely on each one has certainly seeped into my creative thinking, even if I can’t pinpoint an exact moment or line of influence. As an editor, it certainly informs how I approach my own work—it probably inhibits me at the start, since I’m prone to self-criticism and abandoning ideas as my fear of failure sets in. But once I become convinced of a project (I don’t feel like I write poems, but larger works or projects composed of poems.), my editorial brain is a useful companion, obsessed with compression. I love the exposure, that being an editor affords me, to so many different styles and voices, but there is nothing like having something that is your own, that one line that makes you catch your breath when giving a reading because you realize it’s been floating around your mind and then oh—I wrote that!
KMD: What are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?
COA: I’ve just finished a sequence of poems based upon an erasure of the autobiography of Sophia Tolstoy called “Daughter of a Tree Farm.” And at the moment, I’m kicking around some ideas from a mid-century Girl Scouts of America handbook. It’s amazing how rich some of the instructions are for building a fire or rescuing someone who has fallen into an icy pond. The working title is “Merit Badges.”
KMD: What are you reading? What texts inspire you, whether poetic or decidedly unpoetic?
COA: It’s the end of August, which means that I’ve just finished my annual volume of Proust. Every August, I read one volume of Proust, which I’ve been doing so long that this year, I finished the Recherche for the second time. I will never grow tired of Proust. And August is the month before my birthday, so I love the idea of every year growing a little older with Marcel as he too ages in the volumes. Well, maybe love is not the right word. The last volume is so depressing, since everyone has aged so much, and the narrator is obsessed with how all of the characters are getting older (and many have died). So, it may not be the best thing to read before one’s birthday, but I’ve been known to take pleasure in melancholy.
I am also still obsessively and steadily working ever so slowly to become fluent in Japanese (I’m still very far off), but every day I review vocabulary and work on grammar. And I think that spending so much of my time contemplating a completely strange syntax and the subtleties of language built on circumlocution, probably has a more direct influence on my writing at the moment than anything. My mind is constantly being forced to make acrobatic contortions in ways of thinking and speaking that cannot help but change the way I approach a line—at least I’m hoping that’s what happens.