Both American Rhapsody and your earlier book, Traveling with the Dead, feel very autobiographical. Can you talk a little about the autobiographical nature of your work?
I suppose it would be true to say my work is autobiographical. At the same time, since I did not know my parents, I must draw upon memories, which are totally unreliable, especially since I have so few. Many of the poems arise from the objects I inherited — a photo of them in Sloppy Joe’s Cuba, their Chickering piano, liquor decanters. I make my mother and father up from these shards. Additionally, I spin stories based on what I heard about them from others. And I romanticize.
Is this autobiography?
That’s a very interesting question. You were four when your parents died. Do you remember them at all?
I have what psychologists call screen memories. A memory of a woman screaming, a memory of a body being carried away . . .
But I don’t know if these are real memories, or if I made them up.
I have a great interest in the literature and psychology of loss and separation. The work of John Bowlby and Winnicott, for example. And my poetry reflects that. But I try not to confine myself to poetry of mourning and elegy.
I liked having similar subject matter in both books. I don’t know if that is something to apologize for. I think if my parents had died when I was four years old, I might write more than a few poems about them.
I sometimes think about the role obsessions play in a writer’s life. Sharon Olds, for example. Her obsession has stood her muse in good stead. And Louise Gluck who returns frequently to her parents, her childhood, marriage. Perhaps most poets do this, but in some it stands out. I once, in jest, when I gave a reading told the audience that I have spent my life writing the same poem. When I think about it, perhaps this is true.
It was so interesting to read American Rhapsody after having read Traveling with the Dead, in part because the books are so different. American Rhapsody is so, well, rhapsodic. It has such stage presence.
American Rhapsody was more of challenge to write. I wanted to reach into history, and also into the present. I wanted to talk about the American dream, including the illegal stuff my father was doing– as was Joseph Kennedy, for example. And also bring illegality up to date with events like Enron. The American dream has been to rise to the top by acquiring money, given that we had no entrenched aristocracy, titles, etc. And so for this book I wrote poems to this aspect of American history. I really learned a lot about how you complete a book.
Did you do a lot of research for the book?
I always do research especially in reference to historical events and dates such as the Volstead Act, President Harding’s administration, the Enron Scandal. When it comes to my parents’ lives, I rely on the few memories I have of them, what my aunts and uncles told me about them, and what I invent. I have always been interested in history and so many of the people I write about, Josephine Baker, for example, are figures I have read about. As I said previously, my poetry is a combination of fact and imagination.
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Stay tuned for Part 2 of Nin Andrews’ interview with Carole Stone