Jessie Carty is the author of eight poetry collections, including the full length collection Practicing Disaster (Aldrich Press, 2014) and the the chapbook An Amateur Marriage (Finishing Line, 2012), which was a finalist for the 2011 Robert Watson Prize. Her work has placed third in the St. Louis Poetry Center’s 2008 contest and has been nominated for the Best of the Net Award, and she has been a finalist in a number of poetry and chapbook contests. Her latest collection of poetry, Shopping After the Apocalypse, is now available from dancing girl press and was nominated for an Elgin Award.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started as a writer? What keeps you writing?
I always think of myself first as a reader. I feel very strongly that you can’t be a writer without being a reader. I have very clear memories of wanting to read before I could actually do it. As an avid reader, I found myself, from a very early age, wanting to play with words.
I’m actually in a little bit of a lull as a writer right now, but whenever that happens I return to reading. And not just poems. I read across genres. You just never know what you’ll read that will spark you to write even if it is just for yourself. Never discount the power of just writing for yourself! I also find, when I’m not feeling “the muse,” that it helps to mix things up. I’ll try out a different way of composing: using a pencil instead of a keyboard or a different size notebook.
So what keeps me going? I think at the heart of us all is the storyteller. The troubadour. The record keeper. Because, as I wrote as a teenager, I write to free myself from myself. Or maybe now I’d say, with a little less angst, I write to be and know who I am.
This was an unusual project for me in many respects. I had not been writing that much when the title came to me just out of the blue. (I love how the mind works!) I don’t normally write from titles. In fact, I usually don’t title a poem till well after it is done. Heck, when I read poems I don’t always read the title before I read the poem in case it “gives something away.” Instead of immediately writing I just started musing about this idea of what it would be like to shop after the apocalypse. It occurred to me that the first place I’d probably shop would be at my home so that’s where I started. Then I made “myself” into a character and wondering what I would do next? Where would I go? And thus the poems became a journey from location to location with the idea of “shopping” to keep me writing until I got to a final destination.
The collection unfolds as a single story. Did you have a specific story you wanted to tell when you began writing? Or did the story evolve as you went along?
And see, I didn’t read the next question as I was answering the first! I did not have a specific story when I started the project. I didn’t even realize I was going to be telling a story, or that it would be a project, until the first poem felt like it should have companion pieces with it although I do tend to write from a narrative place. I didn’t have a final destination in mind (or end game) as I wrote but I did literally decide to play with location by using Google maps. Seriously. I looked up my home and thought about where I would go next and actually plotted out a journey. Not all of the poems along the journey ended up in the final collection.
As the title suggests, the character in Shopping After the Apocalypse travels through abandoned places. The absence of people is never explained and and the sense looming death and devastation usually expected in apocalypse stories gives way to a more contemplative exploration of the empty world. How much did existing apocalypse narratives influence you as you wrote these poems? In what ways did the concept of apocalypse provide an avenue to explore themes of memory and solitude?
Once I realized I was writing a series I did start to think about other works that deal with apocalyptic themes. I was a little worried about having this idea of traveling as I had read and watched “The Road” about a year before starting the project. There are, of course, many other apocalyptic works out there and I have to admit I’ve read and watched quite a few. Atwood’s work comes to mind as does the proliferation of Zombie works of late. I found myself responding, not negatively, but slightly in opposition to the apocalyptic narratives out there if that makes sense. I didn’t want to say what actually “happened” to put the speaker in this situation. I wanted to leave that open. That was a conscious decision. I also found myself wanting, as you mention, to explore solitude instead of the focus you often seen with apocalyptic narrative on human interaction. Maybe it is the introvert in me wanting to have a world where that was front and center.
I have a tendency to write about my past, or at least use things from my past as a vehicle towards storytelling. While I was working on this project I was feeling a little down about most things I had been writing. Anything I tried to write seemed to be too focused on themes I didn’t want to continue writing about. We writers do have our obsessions and memory is definitely one of mine. I think taking a common theme of the apocalypse and finding a voice for myself in that gave me a chance to look at memory and solitude in a new way. I found myself OK with touching on themes I’ve written about before once I found a new metaphor through which to convey them.
Shopping After the Apocalypse is your eighth collection of poetry. Has the way you put together a collection changed over the years? What advice can you offer young poets looking to put together their first collection?
Every collection I have put together over the years has been a completely different experience. I’d probably say the biggest difference now is that I don’t try to force a collection into being. That would also be my main advice to poets putting together their first collection: patience. Yes, it is cool to have a chapbook or book to put together, but don’t forget to just enjoy the writing part.
From the technical side of putting together collections I tend to keep all of my poems in a single document with a little table of contents so I can keep track of what I have, where they have been published, and where they are submitted. Once that list gets towards 24 poems I’ll probably re-read the poems to see if they have a theme going through which might mean I have a chapbook. If my document is closer to the 50 poem mark I will evaluate if I might have a full length collection which might not necessarily be themed. That’s just hallmarks that I use.
What’s your preferred writing space?
Ya know, I’ve never really been one of those people who need a specific writing space. In fact, I usually need to mix it up from time to time or I’ll get bored. I go through phases where I want to do everything on the computer and others where I want to focus on hand. In another sense of space, however, I need personal space. If too many people I know are around me I can’t concentrate. I feel like I’m being watched or something. But around strangers? Good to go.
What is the favorite thing you’ve written or published so far? Why?
That’s a really tough one and I, honestly, think it varies from day to day. I might go back to read something I’ve written that really speaks to me on one given day and then the next I’m less thrilled with it. The first thing that came to mind, though, was my chapbook “The Wait of Atom” because I liked how I inhabited these two different characters in the collection. I’ve actually thought that project would be neat to turn into a short play.
What are you currently reading?
You know me well enough now to know I’m always reading a bunch of things at the same time (lol) although I’ve toned that down a bit as I don’t have as much time to read now that I’m working full-time again. Right now my stack includes: Fiction – The Girl on the Train, Non-fiction – Color: A Natural History of the Palette, and Poetry (ironically?) – Field Guide to the Apocalypse. And in between those I’m studying for my Paralegal Certification exam in April.
Name one poet no one knows but should.
The first name that came to mind was Val Dering Rojas. I love the way her mind works — the leaps she makes between images. Such fun to read.
Do you feel community is important as a writer? If so, how do you stay connected?
I have a hard time, as an introverted person, deciding how much community I want as a writer. I enjoy (most of the time) connecting with writers on Facebook and Twitter but I find myself having a harder time with the face to face contacts. I don’t go to as many readings or events as I used to. I think I’m finding a better balance between connecting with other writers and connecting with myself.
What can the world expect from you in the future?
As a writer in a lull it is a little hard to say. Working on this interview has helped me to go back and work on some revisions so maybe I have another chapbook or book in me? At least one? I would love to have a new project to work on. That makes the going easier — when you have at least a little bit of a path in front of you.