Getting to Know Carrie Bennett and Her New Book This Land Is a Painted Thing
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
My Freshman Composition teacher at Florida State University, poet Helen Wallace, ignited my deep interest in language. She assigned experimental prose assignments where we could radically revise essays into poems. I’d never experienced that kind of creative freedom and it felt electrifying; I was enthralled with the possibilities of words. I remember at the end of the semester, Helen gave me her old The Poet’s Market 1995. That book felt magical to my 19-year-old self, as though Helen was entrusting me with something sacred. I immediately changed my major and have been writing poems ever since. It was a strange alignment-of-luck that Helen was my composition teacher.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I have writing cycles, probably because I’m on an academic calendar. The summer is usually for writing new work. I need a lot of quiet freedom to write, long days by myself so that the residue of ideas and images can settle into my subconscious. I was recently at The Phillips Collection museum in D.C. and saw this by William Meritt Chase: “We are also learning at other times than when actually at work. Go out into the fields, and see and think.” I need a lot of field time in order to write poetry. And I’m not very malleable with space: I need my third-story office with my walls of framed strange creatures.
Once I start teaching, my critical brain takes over. I’ll print out a project and carry it around campus. When my students are writing or working in revision groups, I’ll pull my own work out and do the same. Being in different spaces is useful for me during revision to dislodge calcified thinking.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I typically start from ideas and images. I’ll start mulling over an idea, and then go out into the world and see what I’m confronted with. Several summers ago, when I started my Expedition Notes project, I wanted to create a manuscript through the lens of a female explorer. I had all these months free to be out in the world. I would go for a jog in the Alewife Reservation and look at the landscape, imagine different scenarios for my explorer. Or I would be in the Brooklyn Museum and see Ai Weiwei’s art and be struck by the devastation and destruction of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and start taking notes.
I am constantly trying to make solid my ideas. I am drawn to museums because of how physical art can be. I try to make language like that, like something to touch.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Gerturde Stein, especially Tender Buttons, has influenced me the most. How free and strange her writing is, how she creates her own definitions for the objects of the world. My two mentors from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Claudia Rankine and Cole Swensen, have strongly influenced my notions of poetic projects and fractured narratives. When I was compiling my first book, biography of water, I clearly remember Claudia cutting-and-taping poems together to show me how I could use order and sequence to establish pace and cohesion. I still use this technique when I’m starting to organize a manuscript; it’s so satisfying to handle work this way. And Cole’s minimalism and use of space (between words and page) helped me understand the physicality of language and its relationship with the page’s space. I also read a ton of fiction: Aimee Bender, Jenny Erpenbeck, Kate Bernheimer, and George Orwell have strongly influenced my notions of surrealism, imagery, storytelling, and dystopian landscapes.
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 is a project book? etc.
The Land Is a Painted Thing (The Word Works, 2016) is a dystopian world where humans become machines and everything is measured and manufactured as efficiently as possible. There are loudspeakers in every corner, and voices tell us what to do—how to embrace, when to smile, what words to forget. I wrote many of these poems the year I lived in Virginia and worked at Charles City High School. Every day I drove 30 minutes to the school through a countryside filled with fields and the James River; the landscape was beautiful and very different from Florida or Iowa. Images of the Virginian land infiltrated these early poems. When I moved to Somerville, MA I started collaborating with visual artist Kelvy Bird: she would create an image and I would write a poem in response. The work she was creating were these minimal grid-like images that reminded me of maps or aerial views of the land. Kelvy’s work solidified my concept of the land as a painted thing. But also, in the book the land becomes another thing to control, to be “painted on” like a canvas. Or, like the bodies in my book, the land is another thing to objectify and control. I’m interested in the juxtaposition of what is beautiful and what is tragic.
Read a sample poem from The Land is a Painted Thing here:
The machines continued to move across the fields. From the
loudspeakers came a different voice. Tomorrow will begin a new
system, the voice told us. You will decode the messages from the
falling snow. Each person will wear her history on her skin. Make
sure these parts of your skin remain exposed at all times.
Whatever was going to happen hadn’t been named yet.