Anne Carson

The unbearable lightness of Anne Carson

She has been called the most exciting English-language poet
in Canada today, but she rarely talks to the media.
 In this rare interview, she tells SARAH HAMPSON why.

Thursday, September 14, 2000


EDEN MILLS, ONT. — Once, when she was a child, and utterly enthralled with the lush beauty of an illustrated book she had been given, she tried to eat its pages. Picture her, sitting on a child’s bed, a small reading light on, framed by night, a book held in her hands as though it were luminous. Maybe she took a nibble. Maybe she tried more than once. She had to be restrained. The book was called The Lives of the Saints. She was 5.

That much we know.

Anne Carson and Sarah Hampson
Poet and classics scholar Anne Carson doesn’t like to talk about herself. She is so reclusive she won’t permit a photograph for this interview. The biographical note in her sixth and latest book, a collection of poetry and essays, Men in the Off Hours, reads simply, “Anne Carson lives in Canada.” From other material, it’s known that she teaches classics at McGill University; that she won the 1996 Lannan Award, the 1997 Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998, among others, and that earlier this year, she received the McArthur Foundation “Genius” Award worth $500,000 (U.S.). Michael Ondaatje says she is “the most exciting poet writing in English today.” Susan Sontag puts her in a “less-than-fingers-on-one-hand group of writers.” Her widely acclaimedAutobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse had the international press falling over itself with praise for this brilliant Canadian, a sparkling diamond discovered in the bush.

Her work is wholly original, an intellectually brilliant mix of the classic and the modern. In Men in the Off Hours,for instance, she has Virginia Woolf and Thucydides discussing war on the set of television program called The Peloponnesian War, and in another piece, imagines Catharine Deneuve as a classics professor.

But few know Carson. She rarely gives interviews.

It was only at the end of our 1½-hour talk that I realized I was completely wrong about why.

I thought it had something to do with poetic sensibility — that she thinks her richly stocked inner life would be diminished by the meagre concerns of the outside world. More likely, she harboured intellectual disdain for the masses, I thought.

Which you would have thought too had you been sitting in a meadow, as I was, listening to her speak last Sunday at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival in rural Southern Ontario. During a lecture about how women write about God, as exemplified by seventh-century BC Greek poet Sappho, medieval heretic Marguerite Porete and 20th-century philosopher Simone Weil, she offers the biographical tidbit about her childhood desire to “eat the pages” with only the slightest flicker of a wry smile. She stands on a wooden platform, made of worn planks and encircled by thin, long, denuded tree limbs with sharp ends, pointing defiantly at the threatening skies. It looks like a giant crown, and Carson, upon it, like a quiet, fearsome queen.

She is a thin, small woman who allows herself thin, small expression in her face and body language. She occasionally wafts a fly from her face or rubs her nose or licks a fingertip before she turns a page of her prepared lecture. But otherwise, she remains still, austere. She speaks softly, seldom looking up at the crowd. When she does lift her head from her notes, she seems to focus on the trees in the distance. She has distributed a hand-out. This is serious. Grad-school serious. Her tone is flat. She seems bored by her talk, as though she derived all her pleasure in the thinking and writing it involved and that now, the process of letting us in on her mind tires her, irritates her even. There are moments of wit, delivered laconically.

“What a mind,” breathes a Woodstockian boomer, spread out on the wild grass beside me.

“I’m off to interview her,” I say, getting up as the crowd applauds.

“Oooh,” sighs the woman more out of sympathy than envy. “Good luck.”

We meet in the hamlet’s community centre. Carson sits; her hands folded neatly in her lap. Her fingernails are painted different iridescent colours; her toenails are glittery blue. She tells me she likes the way they look in the water. She swims daily at the YMCA in Montreal. Up close, she is pretty, ethereal. Her skin is clear and white with deep lines around her blue-green eyes, between her brows and around her mouth that appear suddenly, when she disturbs the serene composure of her face with a grimace or pensive silence before an answer to a question. I begin formally.

She has never won a major Canadian literary award. Why doesn’t she enjoy as enthusiastic a following in her own country as she does in the United States.?

“It’s typical of Canadians,” she scoffs. “You have to win awards outside this country before they’ll recognize you.”

Does it bother her? “Not at all. I like to live behind the back of following.”

Anne CarsonBut she’s not the dour professor she was on the stage. Somehow, she’s transmogrified from dominating intellectual to wily girl, a giggling 50-year-old girl. Perhaps she is amused by the submission an interview demands. She sits quietly, surrounded by that weirdly calm intensity that poets possess, waiting for questions, then giving answers with a laugh as though surprised she has responded to the provocation. Asking her questions feels like a medical exam, like I’m prodding her being, as a doctor might a patient’s stomach, looking for a reaction in order to make a diagnosis.

She offers biographical data sparsely. In staccato. And with discomfort. Born in Toronto. Father: a banker. Irish Catholic. Mother’s side from Pennslyvania. Nineteenth-century Ontario educator Egerton Ryerson is an ancestor. As a teenager, she had a thing about Oscar Wilde. He had studied classics. So she wanted to, too. She wanted to be a gay man, actually. The family moved often: Timmins, Hamilton, Stoney Creek, Port Hope. They’re all dead now. Michael, her brother, suddenly this March. That must be difficult.

“Yeah.” Giggle. “I’m a random particle.” Is she married? No. Has she ever been? “I think I was, a long time ago. I don’t remember. I suppress it.”

She relaxes over a discussion about her work. She writes all the time, she says, on the bus, at the university, at home, in her apartment on one floor of a house where she lives alone, with no pets except a plant named Hrotsvipa (after a Latin poet) and Ivy. Well, not alone, exactly.

“When I go home and open the door, there’s like fifty hundred Greeks in there.” Her mind is “a small screen,” she explains, “and when I go into myself to see what I can say about something that’s happened, the stuff I meet is Samuel Beckett beside Aristophanes.” In three different rooms, she has three desks with different projects on each. She writes in long-hand, and moves from one project to the other, when the mood strikes her, cross-pollinating one with information from the other.

“I write not for the purpose of writing. It’s worship, I think. One’s function as a human being is to praise things, which means that you have to think into them enough that you see what the good is. And that thinking requires expression for some reason. The Greeks always talk about poetry and reality as being reciprocal so that things of excellence in reality simply call a work of art into existence and the two of them exist in perfect symbiosis.”

She is enigmatic; her responses are often puzzling abstractions. Surely, she is fragmented, I insist, with all her projects, her academic work. With the money from the McArthur Foundation, she plans to produce an opera trilogy called Decreation based on the work of the three writers she discussed in her Eden Mills lecture.

“The secret of immortality,” she explains after a pregnant pause, “is simply to regard all time as infinite. Whatever time you’re in, think of it as going on forever. The time you’re in suddenly becomes huge and you do a huge thing very fast.”

She often looks away, into the empty auditorium of the community centre, at nothing, lost in thought. Questions are lassoes, which wrestle her back to the present. Did she always know she wanted to write? “No,” she shakes her head shyly. “I used to draw for expression.” And the difference is?

“The immediacy. Getting the stupid intellect out of the way.” But her intellect is so formidable.

“All the more reason to get it out of the way,” she laughs. “As soon as you draw a line on a paper, your whole self is manifest, rather than in writing, it’s all about getting in front of your real self, and trying to make it better than it is, or smarter than it is.”

She knew she wanted to be a scholar. “I wanted to read Greek every day and being an academic allows that.” But she stopped and started as a student at the University of Toronto several times. It wasn’t until she was at Princeton, where she taught for six years in the eighties, that she realized she didn’t fit the conventional academic mould. When she was writing her first book, an academic exercise, Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay, “my brain was just going to break into pieces because I was struggling so hard to make sentences simply be true and have some kind of content.” Autobiography of Red, about a red, winged protagonist, Geryon, a figure of ancient origin set in an aggressively modern context, was the result of that frustration.

It seems unbelievable that she was not aware of herself as a poet. Her first non-academic book, Short Talks, was mostly drawings with text as “ancillary labels.” Then, when she realized her artwork wasn’t “going to fly” she decided to give poetry a go and see where it would lead. I remind her of Ondaatje’s “most exciting poet writing today” comment. “Yeah, well, I think he was kidding,” she says. But is this faux modesty? For some, humility is ego in disguise. Why should I bother myself with its promotion, the egoist thinks. It’s already so obvious.

She tells me she is now working on one-off books that can’t be published. “They’re drawings, writing, photographs glued in, stapled.” She doesn’t want more acclaim? Actually, there’s more gratification this way, she says. She can give the books to individuals, and witness a response. Readers of her published books are faceless, for the most part. “And I like the subversion of the whole marketing rigmarole,” she smiles, adding that she experiments with new forms out of boredom.

Perhaps a question about the role of the poet will tease out a hidden pride. “There’s a serious function for poets — to be an example of someone awake in reality,” Carson offers. She looks away, back again. “And I think it’s very very dangerous to really get worried about that. You can easily over-conceive yourself.”

Well, there it is. The reason for her reticence. Suddenly, I realize that it’s similar to something she quoted from Simone Weil during her lecture: “If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear.” Carson wants to be transparent, like her writing. And paradoxically, the desire to be transparent is both what drives her to offer information about herself and to withhold it.

Because once biographical data lands on a page, fixed like a postage stamp, it remains a static description that’s bound to be repeated again and again. When the reality is that Carson is fluid, or wants to be anyway, moving from one subject to the next, “mining by smell” as she calls it. She wants to be a medium, and not pretend to be more important than the truths she recognizes and tries to push into words.

After all, the Greeks were the ones who named the problem called hubris.

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