Monday, August 10, 2009

Carrie Jerrell

Carrie Jerrell's debut collection, After the Revival, received the 2008 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Waywiser Press. A graduate of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and Texas Tech University, she is an assistant professor at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, and also serves as the poetry editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. During her summers, she can be found in Tennessee, working as the Coordinator for the Sewanee Young Writers' Conference and on the staff of the Sewanee Writers' Conference.


Called me Hot Stuff. Called me Ragtop,
Lugnut, your Deere-in-the-Driveway Duchess.

Called forth Bad Company from the pickup’s stereo
and, lo, I appeared with a buck knife

and a hundred-proof smile, my battered hunter’s manual
tucked in the waistband of my cutoffs.

What were we at first but two necks of the same guitar,
high on the blister of our power riff? Each night

was a stadium tour, each day an album cover
fit for collecting. How precious,

how practiced we looked those weekends at the lake,
posing in our matching hipwaders and stabbing

at the world’s swamp-stink with the gig of our love.
But forever is a black fish hiding in cattails, a fat plop

always sounding out of range. Soon, the lake iced over.
The far-off smoke of forest fires stole your attention.

While I dreamt pyrotechnics for our stage duets,
you and your matchbox slid out the window.

No note. No final mix tape. No rose left thorny
on the nightstand. I searched for you in parking lots

until a passing trucker said he’d caught your show
in Denver, that you wore a silk shirt and played everything

acoustic, and the news rocked me like a last track ballad.
Oh Big Daddy, Daddy with the Long Legs,

father of a stillborn promise and my liveliest rage,
for weeks I choked on your name, stuck so deep

in my craw it took a crowbar and two months
of keg stands in Assumption, Illinois to dislodge it.

Now, I drink sweet tea in a Southern state. Now,
I am patient. Here, small likenesses of you croak to me

from their lilypadded thrones. I’d like to mistake
their bellows for green apologies, but I know better.

At night, I hunt them with a three prong. I fry them
in batter and grease. We both know what they taste like.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote the poem in late June of 2008. I’d been in a pretty gross writing funk since March, and it was making me cranky. One evening when I was visiting my family in southern Indiana, I went to an old-style country buffet with my folks. The buffet had frog legs, of which I heartily partook, and that brought on a conversation with my dad about frog gigging—the best times to hunt, headlamps vs. flashlights, two or three prongs, etc. So I started carrying around that subject in my head.

A few weeks later, a friend of mine and I were discussing pet names we’d been given by (or had given to) significant others, and we each listed the best and worst from our personal experiences. After our phone call, when I sat down to write for awhile, the first few stanzas worked themselves out pretty quickly, and I liked them a lot. Down the dark tunnel, I could see a possible ending for the poem, too, and I was hungry to figure out how to get there. Playing with language was exciting again, and I think that feeling—that return of energy after being so miserable at the desk for months—was just the lift I needed.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

It took about a week, which is fast for me. I tend not to rewrite poems entirely or write multiple drafts. Instead, I usually obsess over lines or phrases, so I’ll work at one for hours, sometimes days, until I like it, then move on to the next. Sometimes I have to go back to earlier lines and tweak them as the poem develops, but I rarely overhaul a poem once I’ve written it. Overall, it’s a slow and often maddening way to write, but it works for me.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I absolutely believe in inspiration. Of course, I have to put in the time and effort, but if there’s no magic in the air, then all I’m doing is pushing words around, and that’s just boring. Inspiration can be found in anything (Amish buffets, anyone?), and it shows up at various times when I write. Some days, I have to write awhile before something happens that’s greater than me and the words on the page; other times, like in the case of “Big Daddy,” the inspiration comes early on. Either way, I’ll take it.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Yes and no. I write mostly in traditional forms, and the last project that I finished before “Big Daddy” was a sequence of sonnets on the subject of weddings. Though the sonnets were challenging and a great deal of fun, I really wanted to move away from forms, so I resisted the temptation to utilize a set form for the poem. I liked using a two-line stanza because I felt the reader might need a little more breathing room in a piece filled with so many jumps from quirky image to image, and I didn’t want this poem to feel dense.

Probably the aspect of the poem I worked hardest at was the syntax; I wanted the structures of the sentences to be as enjoyable and unpredictable as the images in them. As with all my poems, much of it was composed by sounding out those sentences. I spend a lot of time pacing the room, talking out the lines until I find the combination of rhythm, sound, and image that I want.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

About ten months or so. I sent it to Subtropics in the fall, and it appeared in their Spring/Summer 2009 issue.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I have no rules about this. I’ve sent poems out a couple days after finishing, and I’ve also got a few that sat around for months before I did anything with them. Generally, if I like it, then I send it out soon after. If I’m hesitant, it usually means there’s an aspect of the poem that makes me uncomfortable. But, when it comes to submitting to literary journals, I try to stay as detached as possible from the whole process. If I became too invested in what the mailbox held for me each morning, I’d spend roughly 360 days of the year disappointed, and I sure as heck don’t need that.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

Many of my poems spring from personal experiences, but few of them are factual accounts from beginning to end. The poems—the questions they explore and the manners in which they use language to go about that exploration—come first, always. I’ve certainly been angry and disappointed like the speaker of “Big Daddy,” but the poem, which is so figurative to begin with, isn’t necessarily the play-by-play of any particular relationship I’ve had. I am happy to say that I have never looked for anyone in a parking lot of eighteen-wheelers.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yeah. There’s a pretty clear beginning, middle, and end, with complications in the plot along the way. And the speaker seems to be, or at least wants to be, a heroine, and she would like very much for the reader to view her ex as her antagonist.

Was this always a funny poem?

Yes. I think, at least right now, I write heartbreak best when I can be funny, too. Humor often keeps my poems from becoming too angry or sentimental. I think the sheer glee that I felt at the time of this poem’s composition simply worked itself onto the page, too.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I’d been reading lots of people, probably too many at once, because I was stuck, so it’s hard to say exactly who might have made the strongest impression. I’m sure Richard Hugo was in the mix, because I am always reading Hugo. His poetry does for me as a writer what my pink blankie did for me as a child: calms me down and makes me believe that everything is going to be okay. I’d been reading Mark Jarman’s Epistles, too, and loving the sentences in those poems. I’d also recently reread Plath and Sherman Alexie, as well as Pam Houston’s short story collection, Cowboys are My Weakness. Often, the music I’m listening to while I’m writing is just as influential, if not more so, than the poets I’m reading. I know the soundtrack to “Big Daddy” included a good deal of Loretta Lynn, Aerosmith, and the Black Keys.

Do you listen to music while you write?

I do, sometimes obsessively. I come from a very musically-inclined family, and we had music on all the time. A good deal of it was religious, too, so I think early on my siblings and I associated music with higher powers. I can't listen to anything new to me while I'm writing or else I pay more attention to the tunes than the poems, but usually I have one or two albums on repeat while I'm working. Occasionally, it's just one song on repeat, which always tests the patience of anyone within earshot. I was very fortunate the past two years to have a housemate who loved country music as much as I do, otherwise I probably would've had to pay the rent by myself while writing my first book.

I can't always explain why a particular album or artist fits the writing of a particular poem. Sometimes it's the lyrics. Other times, it's the music. But it doesn't take me long to know when something isn't - how to put it? - supportive enough. As with the poets I read, I have favorite albums and artists that I go to when I'm stuck. They, too, can usually provide a pretty good kickstart.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I don’t really have a particular audience in mind while I’m writing, though sometimes I think about audience when I finish a poem. Then I wonder if the poem is clear enough, or too clear, but I try not to get hung up on those questions. In the end, it’s my name on the poem, so if I’m satisfied with it, then that’s enough for me. I realize that may sound snotty, but it’s more a matter of survival. If I start to cater to the preferences of my imaginary readers, I’d never finish a poem.

I don’t think I have an ideal reader. I’d like to think there’s at least a little something in my poetry for just about anyone to enjoy, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking. If I have an ideal reader, I bet he/she listens to a lot of Tom Petty.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

No one saw “Big Daddy” at any point, but I did include it in a reading just a couple weeks after finishing it, so in some ways I gauged its success by the listeners’ responses. And no, I don’t show my work to anyone else—at least not right now. In part, this is just a reaction to having been in workshops for years. I’m content these days to work on my own; the poets I read and admire provide plenty of scolding.

What is American about this poem?

Bad Company, John Deere, and frog gigging.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?


[Click here to listen to Jerrell reading “Big Daddy.”]


  1. Carrie, this is a terrific poem... "high on the blister of our power riff"... can't get enough of that. It's interesting to hear that you write line by line (it's the way I have to do it), which I'm sure comes from writing often in fixed forms, but that it carries over to writing in non-fixed forms too. I'd be curious to know if you ever have completely dismantled a poem and rearranged it into an entirely different shape.

    Thanks for this, Brian, and for posting the audio too.

  2. I like your blog. Could you check out my blog and add me to your index of poets please.

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