Willa Carroll talks about embodied poetry
and writing Nerve Chorus
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
I began writing at a very young age, drawn to the sonic qualities of words, and increasingly came to regard the body as both the source and instrument of language. I spent much of my youth, as well as my first decade in NYC, performing in experimental dance and theater, while also writing poems. These forms, for me, are linked. As Robert Pinsky asserts: “The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and mouth. In this sense, poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing.”
An injury ended my dance career and the loss of that identity was like a death, a painful shedding of a familiar self. Yet my experience became a resonant source for my first book. The title of my first collection, Nerve Chorus, refers to motor cells firing together in concert. The phrase came to me while reading an anatomy textbook. The title became a call to action, a directive to make poems visceral and haptic at the level of language, and kinetic on the page.
As the manuscript evolved, I grew more concerned with the relationship of the body to notions of power and agency. The book spotlights body, self, family, and society while interrogating brutal inequalities. The poems take on gender, class, race, war, gun violence, and capitalistic greed. Some of the poems deal with sexual violation and the reclaiming of power in the aftermath. Others document and grapple with my father’s fatal asbestos exposure before the known risks became public knowledge. The physical labor of my father’s work as a carpenter, which cost him his life, came to inform the book as much as my experience as a performer.
Nerve Chorus opens with an imperative: “Zero my origins....Zero the refrain....” How is the concept of zero, nothingness, and undoing central to the book, especially as it concerns the body?
In the book, many of the poems rely on repetition to create emotional intensity and kinetic momentum. This chorusing impulse is countered by the concept of zero, undoing, or negation, enacted as an equal and opposite force. Verbs of erasure, often deployed in imperative strokes, function as a subtractive strategy. Embedded in these poems is the wish to remove suffering and injustice, as in the lines: “Cut the asbestos from my father’s work clothes, / minus this dust from his lungs.”
I think of “Chorus of Omissions” and “Chorus of Excisions,” as catalogues of willed disappearances. These poems, and others, such as “I Didn’t Have the Nerve to Say No,” which is borrowed from a Blondie song, have political weight for me. The power to deny, remove, draw boundaries, or simply say no, is perpetually denied to women and marginalized communities.
The word “zero” recurs throughout out the book, bringing the associations of nothingness, or conversely, completeness. The third section has an elegy titled “River of Zero,” and the book’s final poem is built around the elegiac phrase “we betroth to zero,” which connects back to the opening imperative of “Zero my origins.” These poems attempt to reach beyond binaries of living and dying, being and non-being.
My parents met at one of the first Zen Buddhist Centers in North America and I grew up with Buddhist teachings on impermanence, emptiness, and interdependence. As a child I heard my father talking of the “wheel of birth, death, and rebirth.” I continue to investigate the influences of these views on my embodied writing practice.
CHORUS OF OMISSIONS
Zero my origins of industrial winter,
my mug-shot of smoke.
Zero our factories, Kodak gone bankrupt.
Omit gloved hands in glinting chemical vats,
minus equations & patents.
Erase your pixelated face, mouth of wet vowels.
Cut the asbestos from my father’s work clothes,
minus this dust from his lungs.
Erase chalk outlines, K-9s, riots, & memory lines in my
rust-belt revival city,
Erase tracks of the Underground Railroad at 25 Main
where Frederick Douglass inked
The North Star.
Cut cuffs from a radical in black taffeta,
our Susan B. Anthony arrest at the ballot.
Cut skin / state / cotton / lace.
Cut the water after the bread
& sugar skulls for the dead.
Zero the serial killer who lived at Hotel Cadillac,
moved near our old school,
delivered girls to the river.
Cut throat / slip tongue / wring neck / skin teeth.
Cut new glass for the voids
in my father’s jacked Ford.
Omit us, protest kids in the concrete forest, chanting:
No Blood for Oil!
Cut our school sentry named Flash,
a scar across his throat,
rasping his commands at the door
with walkie-talkie in one hand,
my brother in the other.
Cut class under the overpass.
Cut my cracker-jack-ass.
Erase purchase of dime-bag at the Drive-Thru.
Omit the jingle, I’d rather be in Rochester, It’s got it!
Refrain my ex, of the high IQ, from doing junk at breakfast,
overloading his blood,
going cold at noon.
Omit twilight inside a blue glass jar,
minus a confetti of stars,
zero the moon Xeroxed on a pond,
undulant ghost on dark water.
Cut film to shreds, zero the Kodachrome,
insert megapixels & code like bright seeds.
Omit this pilgrimage back to my old room,
minus shrines of memorabilia,
minus all pre-digital selves.
Refrain from recollecting your lips, our collisions in bed,
tiny gongs in my nerves,
tidal waves of apples.
Zero the refrain, minus the song.
Just as important as the concept of nothingness and deletion, the concept of legacies and inheritances weaves throughout the book. For example, the last line of the poem “Mesothelioma” changes the disease from something suffered solely by the father to something gifted, in a way, to the speaker. (“I costumed myself in his work clothes.”) In the poem “Green Room” the speaker is forging connections with her parents before she is even born (“I’m in the green room, painting it black.”) How is it possible that these two seemingly opposite realities of connection and the undoing of connection exist aside one another in the book?
The relationship between connection and loss is a fulcrum for the book. Mesothelioma is a brutal and aggressive cancer, resulting from asbestos exposure, and watching my father succumb to it was devastating The experience brought the ephemerality of being alive into focus, and this was its own strange gift. The troubling legacy of the line you quoted relates to the risk for family members of those who have been exposed to asbestos. Crushed or airborne asbestos fibers can be carried on hair and clothes and can pose a danger in the home.
The lines you quoted from “Green Room” connect to my fascination with origins and interdependence. What of us exists in our parents before we’re born? What of the iron in our blood that’s sourced from dead stars? In a related poem, I make reference to a Zen koan that asks, “Show me your face before the birth of your parents.” Koans spur the mind beyond the dualistic, conceptual, and discursive. And poetry moves us beyond limited ways of perceiving and thinking, opening liminal zones of possibility.
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
In order to narrow down the choices, I’m selecting books released in 2017 and 2018:
Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith
The Carrying, Ada Limón
Incendiary Art, Patricia Smith,
All They Will Call You, Tim Z. Hernandez
Luminous Debris, Timothy Liu
River Mouth, Heather Dobbins
Holdfast, Christian Anton Gerard
Troubler, Elijah Burrell
Aftermath, Thomas March
Orintheology, Kevin McLellan
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
Trust yourself as much as possible; the page is a refuge. Hold nothing back in your writing; being uncomfortable is often a sign of fertile territory and writing with bravery. Be voracious in your reading and learn from imitating what interests you. Follow any curiosity about other forms of art and other fields for source material. Remain aware that writing from the body often brings up shame, especially if you’re alchemizing trauma, pain, or illness. Tune into the intelligence of the body and honor it as a collaborative partner. Read your work aloud after each draft and pay attention to sound, rhythm, and breath. When you perform your work, feel your feet on the ground, the air vibrating in your thorax, as the poem moves in your body, and your body in the poem.
Willa Carroll is the author of Nerve Chorus (The Word Works, September 2018). A finalist for The Georgia Poetry Prize, she was the winner of Narrative Magazine's Third Annual Poetry Contest and Tupelo Quarterly's TQ7 Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, LARB Quarterly Journal, The Rumpus, Tin House, and elsewhere. Carroll holds an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars. A former experimental dancer and actor, she has collaborated with numerous performers and artists, including text-based projects with her filmmaker husband. Video readings were featured in Narrative Outloud. She lives in New York City. Find her on the web at www.willacarroll.com.