The Poetry Project

Whispering Poetics

Carolina Ebeid interviewed by Mayra A. Rodríguez Castro.

The guest must always bring an offering. I arrived at Carolina’s home empty-handed. She welcomed me.

Mayra A. Rodríguez Castro: The first time we met, you mentioned the word autochthonous, it lingered with me. You described the autochthonous as rising from the earth, as being without mother or father. I thought, there is no destitution if you hold no property in the first place, no freudian drama, no mastery. Can one speak of the autochthonous in relationship to poetic form? Is this organic solitude a site for freedom?

Carolina Ebeid: Yes, our mutual love, Lucie Brock-Broido, called me “autochthonous” once in a workshop, it was a workshop she held in her Cambridge home, and in a moment of small talk where I might have been mentioning that I’d be visiting my parents in New Jersey, she said she didn’t think of me as an ordinary creature with a mother. That may sound a bit harsh; however, she was playfully talking about a certain kind of mystique I carried in my twenties that my own shyness made cloud around me. She didn’t want the clouds to dissipate. In her mind, some poets sprung up from the earth like a biblical Adam.

Of course I came out of my mother’s body, and she came out of her mother’s body, and so on with blood and snot and amniotic fluid. My parents immigrated to this country, my mother from the Caribbean, my father from the Middle East. I think about ancestral lines quite a bit, I think about my own ancestral elsewheres. More and more at poetry readings someone asks the room to remember the soil upon which the event takes place as having a tribal history. What is autochthonous will have a particular import inside the discourses about indigeneity.

I’m bemused by your question about “freedom.” I’m following you, I’m pretty sure. Rather than worry where I belong (to what literary lineage) this word autochthonous does allow me to consider the poem as springing from the soil of the page already fertile with the books, movies, artifacts, histories that have shaped my imagination.

MRC: In your poem “Something Brighter than Pity” a drowned dog is found on a shore. The animal is rhythmically imprinted by wind and sea-water. More subtle forms of inscription are evoked in your poems. I am curious about your interest in whispers, away from the rule of utterance versus silence.

CE: I’ve fallen for the idea of a whispering poetics, whose principle mode is the hushed voice, the one that makes the reader lean in to listen. A poetry of intimacy, one that invites both the reader and writer to meet within the zone of the poem to make meaning together. Perhaps all poetry can be described this way, a triangulation of poem/poet/reader, each one active. Ovid’s figures of Thisbe & Pyramus help me understand the poetry of whispers. They are a proto Romeo & Juliet, their families want to keep them apart, though they live right next to one another, and their houses share a common wall, a wall with a hardly noticeable cleft, but “lovers will discover every thing” writes Ovid. They meet nightly where the fracture is just wide enough for their whispers to pass back and forth. I’d like to write a poem with a cleft where you have to put your ear to the page to receive it. A whisper is barely audible unless you are up close. (I fear I’m becoming too ableist in describing this metaphor.)

The barely audible has a natural relationship with the barely legible. I like your word “inscribe.” To write is to inscribe, to make a mark on a surface, to leave a trace. The line in my poem calls the dog a “pale glyph of dog.” Not only does the wind and water inscribe its body, but the dog’s corpse becomes a faint hieroglyphic character on the shore. I’ve been influenced by Cecilia Vicuña and Selah Saterstrom to be more aware of the spaces around me, the natural world that speaks out, as well as the glass and concrete city, which will sometimes open like a mysterious text.

The following also seems akin to whispering. “A word is a vibratory presence” writes Fanny Howe. A single word pulses, alters, moves from mouth to ear to mouth through time. I recently found a tape while visiting my parents in Chicago that contains a recording of my baptism. I’ve only listened to five minutes, a private moment where my parents are dressing me. I can hear my mother’s younger voice saying my name, all my names, the given name, and the kissy ones. Those syllables reach me here through the bygone technology of the audio cassette, but also through some weird channel of telepathy. All the way from 1977.

MRC: Close to the dog. Cixous claims to write as if she were painting, suggesting that her texts might be read as pictorial compositions on canvas. In your upcoming manuscript, Hide, you engage with surfaces such as vellum and animal skin. The word “hide” already poses questions of surface and concealment. Have you formulated procedural relationships towards these materials; do you cut, incise, trace as you write?

CE: I’ve been thinking about surfaces, yes, which is a way to think about writing. There is much to consider: public bathroom walls, the margins of books, epitaphs, Keats’ epitaph says “here lies one whose name was writ in water,” water is a surface by which we read wind strength, think of the grooves in a vinyl record, skin is a surface, vellum made out of the fetuses of cows was a surface for writing. Marking a surface for to keep a record is one of the oldest technologies. I visit Emily Dickinson’s virtual archives where one can see the lined paper of her fascicles, where it creased, where her pencil crossed out a phrase. Her skirt is a surface onto which she sewed a packet (another technology) to port about a pencil and paper.

I think of Ana Mendieta’s siluetas as writing, using her whole body she imprints the surface of the soil with her shape. Her work is one of the animating forces of my manuscript Hide. With my partner Jeffery Pethybridge, I made a seaweed silueta on the beach in Clearwater, Florida after the 2018 AWP. I make small siluetas whenever they present themselves to me, and this does seem to carry a ritual benediction for writing.

Some evenings we will make our common room a creative space for making with our hands. We put all the screens away, my husband, son and I, and bring out all the art supplies and vinyl records. I try to draw on paper, make collages with glue, scissors, needle and thread. We keep a typewriter on the dining table loaded with paper, onto which we type our random thoughts and lines at any time until the page needs to be replaced. Sometimes before writing, Jeff and I will use Oblique Strategies cards, which are prompts written by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. I’m happiest when I draw the cards that say “gardening not architecture” or “repetition is a form of change” or “use an unacceptable colour.”

Every day I have to contend with the surface of a screen. My phone hides in my pocket if it isn’t in my hand. It’s my main notebook, and my poems develop out of those notes. I think of handwriting as one of the most intimate of gestures, evidence of the hand that wrote it, evidence of the emotions animating the hand. But I rarely see my friends’ handwriting. I receive text messages from them; vulnerable, funny, angry, exhausted, exhilarated messages. Those varied voices come through in a uniform digital script, at any hour of the day, and such transmissions establish their own intimacy.

MRC: We began with the autochthonous. I wanted to close our conversation with your poem, “A Theory of the Final Girl.” The last girl standing. You have mentioned this piece is a distillation of a poem that is now a couple years in the making –– where is it today?

CE: I have to admit I don’t know what I had in mind for “The Final Girl.” She ended up in a series of short poems called “Veronicas of a Matador,” which orbits around the experience of mothering a child with autism, who was then just starting to talk. It’s important to me to throw nothing away; I repurpose lines quite often, so I try to store them in a file, or give them away to friends.

I’ll leave you with a the following valediction, which I sort of dreamed, not in words but in pictures. I wrote it in my notepad when I woke up, and I think I’m meant to tell someone. Your next poem will be tough, it will stand before you like a grand harp you won’t know how to play, it’ll have an exquisite frame, and since it’s harder to reach the lower notes, you’ll need to stretch out your arms, you’ll need to embrace this thing, only slightly smaller than yourself. And, yes, I want to read your future poem.

#260 — Feb/March/April 2020