getting to know robert carr and his new book, the unbuttoned eye
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I took ‘the scenic route’ toward writing poetry. My first passion for writing started in high school, and then as an undergraduate at Bates College. That was nearly 40 years ago! I graduated from Bates in 1982. The HIV epidemic was unfolding and, as a gay man, I felt compelled to respond to the health crisis. This moment in history led to an unexpected, decades long, career in public health. It has just been over the past six years that I’ve rededicated myself to writing poetry. Poems have become the venue to unpack my understanding of sex, death, the epidemic and the intersection of those experiences so central to who we are.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
Since returning to poetry, my passion for writing has been all encompassing. On a day to day basis the need to write shows up unexpectedly. Draft poems come very quickly, and are usually captured on the notepad function of my phone. (I’ve even found that, at times, my line breaks are initially dictated by the layout of words on my phone!)
After the draft, in any quiet place, I copy the poems to Word and start the process of editing. This can take a period of weeks to months. I’m very lucky to have two close friends to exchange drafts with (Henry Medina in LA and Frannie Lindsay in Boston) and have been an active participant in Boston area workshops led by Tom Daley. Like other poets I’ve worked with, I’m of the opinion that poems are never finished. Even with poems in the new book, I find myself playing with words in The Unbuttoned Eye.
In regard to where I write - I love to write outdoors. There’s something about the ambient sound of the outdoors that lets me focus.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Sometime I wake in the middle of the night and have to type lines of poetry or complete poems into my phone before I can get back to sleep. Sometimes I see something, hear something, smell something, and have to get it down immediately. Just this past weekend, while driving to the Cape, I saw the vanity plate of the car in front of me, PUL TOY, and had to write the poem, with that title, on the spot. (My husband Stephen was driving.)
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
One of the exciting things about seriously learning the craft of poetry later in life is that everyone is new! I find that I have obsessive crushes on poets where I discover their work and have to read every poem I can get my hands on. What I find fascinating about this process is that once I’ve spent a few weeks with a poet, my own poetry starts to take on elements of their style. I binge on Kay Ryan: Then I start seeing recombinant rhyme and short lines in my poems.
For the most part I read e-books. This is where I find my latest poetry crush. I’ve gone through this process with Plath, Clifton, Sexton, Bishop… What I noted in a previous interview on this topic is that I’m intensely drawn to the poetry of women.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? Etc.
My first full length collection, The Unbuttoned Eye, explores sexual experience and identity through the 35 years of the AIDS pandemic. As I described earlier, I come to poetry after a career in public health with a focus on infectious disease. Writing the book provided me with a chance to better understand the emotional impacts of living as a gay man while working to prevent AIDS in the community. Ultimately, to finish the book, I had to own some very private choices and find a way to put those realities in my poems. Through writing the book, I discovered how much energy I had invested in avoiding my experience of extremes through the epidemic – the horrors, and the joys.
The book includes a number of Roberts. Robert the author, Robert the speaker in the poems and a series of epistolary poems in dialogue with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died with HIV disease in 1989. The collection also includes a series of photographs from 1983, when I was modeling for the visual artist K. Max Mellenthin in Portland, Maine. The photographs capture another Robert, one that existed before the full impact of AIDS. I look at those images in the context of the poems and, though I know that’s my body from 35 years ago, the photographs seem like someone else.
I was very lucky to have the manuscript accepted by 3: A Taos Press, edited by Andrea Watson. Andrea and I engaged in a year-long process of editing the book. Critical questions emerged through this process and it was Andrea who pushed me to write additional poems in dialogue with Robert Mapplethorpe. These poems, and several others, emerged as we edited the manuscript. This process of editing also revealed the title of the book, The Unbuttoned Eye. To finish writing The Unbuttoned Eye, I had to be willing to look at the AIDS epidemic and my own sexuality without flinching.
Read an excerpt from The Unbuttoned Eye:
Every Thought Is Citric
I found a small white tangerine.
It’s in my head, squeezed
between what I perceive and what
I call things. The smooth peel breaks
to let light out. The stick, tricky Floridian
fruit. I crack a smile when it shows me
the corrected names of things.
I thought my man was called a husband.
It turns out he’s the solid oak
legs of a farm table, everything
I eat is served upon him. The thing
I called a dog – the seedless heartbeat
of our grownup son who moved away.
I’ve been walking more than usual lately,
wander through the city asking,
What are you, and What are you?
I’m the mouthpiece of the tangerine.
The center of small white flesh
is heartless. That’s why most people
break it into segments, eat
what they’ve missed a little at a time.
This piece originally appeared in The Massachusetts Review