Catherine Carter

MOTW-front-coverMarks of the Witch (Jacar Press, 2014)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

Hard to say. When I was younger, not many chapbooks came my way, so I’ve only started reading them recently. So it’d be hard to say many of them influenced my writing much, because I did come to them so late; but I’ve really enjoyed some of Thomas Lux’s (it’s hard to beat a title like Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy), and Kay Byer’s Wake.

What’s your chapbook about?

Time and mortality. And despair, and hope, and being bitten by crickets and toads. You know—the usual.

If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

This is the first chapbook that’s been published. I thought I had one years ago, but it turned out to be my second full-length collection, The Swamp Monster at Home. I’ve tried various combinations, but none of them have worked out until this one.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

It’s often hard to remember how old things are, though none of these are very old; but, fortunately, I can check the file dates on the drafts (thank you, digital technology.) And the oldest poem wasn’t any of the likely suspects—it’s “The Things You Know”, and I remember that one very well. It dates back to Christmas 2009 and the start of 2010. There was an MLA conference up in Philadelphia that year, so my spouse and I went and stayed with my parents on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and then came back there a bit before New Year’s, and before the long trek back to Appalachia. It was cold and snowy, and of the various ways to get there, we took one I hadn’t seen in a long time, one of the ways I used to go back and forth to UD when I was in grad school there—down Route 13 to Smyrna, and across a very rural stretch of Delaware and Maryland to Templeville and Marydel. And the sign on the Templeville Road was gone, and everything looked different in the snow, and a lot of those back roads look somewhat alike anyway, and it had been forever since I’d come that way…but I knew it when I saw it, even so. And that was both comforting and poignant—all these things I know, or used to, about this place where I grew up, which are no use at all most of the time.

And then, while I was having that very interior and maybe self-indulgent moment, things got weird. We found an injured cat on the side of the road, so we took it back to my parents’ place and tried to get it warm, but the next morning it died, for no clear reason, in convulsions…and I started thinking about rabies, which is a terrifying thought (I probably learned about Old Yeller too young.) And after a lot of holiday-season hassle trying to get the body autopsied for rabies (it was negative), and then getting bitten by a dog when I was volunteering with the local Humane Society, I wound up getting my first set of rabies vaccinations, because being afraid all the time was so wearing.

So that poem, for me, is about all the great knowledge we all have that we can’t use; but in my private world, it also calls up that time—the snow and the short winter evening, the dead cat on the car’s floorboards, the world-class support my parents gave when I brought them a half-dead cat (which also reminded me of the past). For me, it’s the center poem in this chapbook figuratively as well as literally.

How did you decide on arrangement and title of your chapbook? 

The arrangement wasn’t so hard—there were enough new-ish poems loosely grouped around time and memory and change and so forth to just about make up twenty pages. I tried to both begin and end with questions—from what time it is (to which the answer is always a matter of perspective) to how our time is spent, and whether this use of it—this book—is a good use. I didn’t consciously put “The Things You Know” at midpoint, but it worked out that way. And with some exceptions, the earlier poems are a bit older, and the later ones a bit newer.

The title’s kind of a funny thing, though. This wasn’t my title; that title was The Caves of Afternoon, from the first poem, because of the time theme, and because I liked the way it sounded. An alternative title was The Chiming of August, from “Forty Years Back.” But neither the editor at Jacar, Richard Krawiec, nor the contest judge, Joseph Millar, liked either of those; both preferred Marks of the Witch, which is from one of the other poems in the chapbook. And it’s not like I know much about marketing or what people will pick up, and here were these nice people willing to publish the chapbook, and all they were asking for was a different title, and in some ways it is kind of a witchy little book anyway…so I figured, why not, let it go. And it did help the designer, Daniel Krawiec, create a cover that I like very much.

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?

I’ve submitted several proto-chapbooks to a whole lot of chapbook contests over the years; there are fewer open reading periods for chapbooks, but I’ve done some of those as well. Marks of the Witch won the 2014 Jacar Press chapbook contest, the result of which was publication. It had been a finalist the prior year, I think, but hadn’t made it then.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Richard and Daniel and Jacar were really lovely about this, even though we have very different aesthetics. With many presses, you know, a cover design will come along with a request for feedback; the author gives some feedback, possibly including some suggestions, possibly in all capital letters; and the press comes back with “Glad you like it!” And that’s all the collaboration there is, i.e. almost none. But Jacar did solicit input…and listened to it. Daniel was tireless in producing new mockups each time either Richard or I asked for something different, and there were quite a lot of them because what we wanted was so different. If I liked a cover, Richard didn’t, and vice versa. I was dubious about a photo for a cover, until I saw Chera Hammons’ image (which looks something like my home office); I didn’t want any italics; and there was at least one other possibility that I liked very much. But we were all happy with the final design.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

Not nearly as much as I should have. I’ve contacted some bookstores, set up a couple of readings, done the social media thing, agreed to any gigs Richard suggested, but I haven’t solicited any reviews (though that’s tougher to do for chapbooks.) It’s only just out, though, so maybe there’s still time.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

It’s just out (as in this month), so I haven’t had a lot of questions about it yet. I did have one acquaintance say that she expected it to be about the occult, and my answer to that was “not so much”—but that’s not really a question.

What are you working on now?

Mostly, during the academic year, I work at my day (and evening, and weekend) job. I teach in the English Education program at Western Carolina University, and have recently stepped down after ten years directing it. It takes a lot of time; I’m always looking for ways to work smarter and more efficiently, and get more writing done. But a third full-length collection is somewhere between halfway and three-quarters along.

What is your writing practice or process?

As I can, when I can, as often as I can…and never enough. I had a friend tell me that muddling along this way “still counts”, and I really hope she’s right.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?

After the first few revisions for big stuff—clarity of the literal level, taking out or adding big pieces, that kind of thing—the rest of the revision is usually for word choice (that is, mostly connotation) and for sound. There’s a lot of time on revising for sound, looking hard at the rhythms, both of individual lines and across the poem, and at the line breaks. In editing, it’s often about paring down for greater compression, and changing words to edit for sound. For instance, if I have what I think of as a hinge word, a word that’s key to the sense of the poem, I look for ways to incorporate half-rhymes on and against that word, to give it more weight or emphasis. I look for half-rhymes between other words, to make the poem as a whole more musical.

Let me add, though, that a LOT of drafts never get beyond the first couple of revisions. After a few days or a few weeks, there’s usually a “feel” for whether or not a poem feels strong enough to keep working on—or “alive” enough to keep working on. This is a very fraught metaphor, especially coming from someone who’s written about miscarriage, so I apologize in advance if it distresses anyone…but some poems feel like live births, like there’s all kinds of likelihood in them and they could easily go on well beyond whatever I was first thinking. And some feel more like stillbirths–they had potential, but for one reason or another they couldn’t live into it. And those drafts don’t get published or submitted. They don’t get deleted, either, but they’re not likely to ever see the light of day. So I wonder sometimes about the workshop dictum of revise, revise, revise, if you just revise enough it’ll just HAVE to get good—even though I’m a big fan of revision, I don’t think that’s always good advice. Some poems aren’t going to get good. And I think that’s fine; we don’t have infinite time. At some point, if a thing’s not good, or not lively, it’s better to go on to something else. Maybe we don’t give young poets enough advice about NOT revising, about letting go of what’s not working.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Chapbooks happen for a lot of reasons—maybe because at a given time, we have relatively few poems that feel ready for the world, or because around-twenty poems group pretty naturally around a common theme, or because we want to have something fresh out there in between collections, or because chapbooks are less expensive to produce…on and on. So I might say, what makes you think this is a chapbook, rather than (or in addition to) being part of a longer collection? If an author has a good answer to that question, then it’s probably a good idea to work on getting it out there as a chapbook. If not, then maybe it’s not the right time for that chapbook right now.

What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

I don’t think it creates a world—world-building is maybe for speculative fiction. But the world it describes and inhabits is the same world most of us live in, the world of linear time, the world of the mortal, in which mortality and loss and grief feel like failures…whether they are or not. Maybe what’s not human—amoebae, lichens, rocks, stars—doesn’t inhabit that world in the same way that human people or dogs or elephants seem to, but of course it’s just about impossible to know (lichens aren’t big on self-reporting.) This is a more human-based collection than The Memory of Gills (which, as its title suggests, is about remembering or imagining a less human-centered existence) or The Swamp Monster at Home.

What would you do differently next time in the writing, editing, publishing, or promotion process?

Not to be a complete cop-out…but for the most part, I just don’t know the answer to that one yet. This chapbook’s too new. In a few years, there’ll no doubt be lines or stanzas that’ll look less mature than they do now; there may be aspects about the publishing or promoting that I’ll wish had gone differently; but for now, it’s pretty much a case of wishing I’d asked for more generous margins. It wasn’t something noticeable in the PDF version, but in the print version, those pages look tight all around. But it might or might not have made any difference; wider margins mean more pages, more pages cost money, few presses make much money, and poetry rarely makes anybody any money…so the press might’ve had to stick to these margins even if I’d asked for different ones. And that’s a pretty minor regret.

How do you use computers/digital technologies in all stages of your writing process?

I compose and edit and keep submission records on the keyboard these days, in my word processing program. Online submissions, too, are much more “a thing” than they were when I started out; it used to be a serious matter to keep plenty of stamps on hand, and to have clean copies printed out, and now it’s really not an issue at all. And social media’s certainly a great resource for promotion and notification, though I find it hard to inflict active self-promotion on my Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

None of these poems were written “for” the chapbook; for me, nearly everything’s a one-off until the book starts coming together. Then it often turns out that they weren’t such stand-alones after all—that the same preoccupations keep emerging (go figure) and that they can be grouped thematically, or in terms of a process of thought. So no one poem meant that the chapbook was complete; but I did add in a couple of poems that I hadn’t originally planned to (including “Witch Hairs”, from which the title is drawn) because the chap was so short. My books tend toward the short anyway; the chapbook manuscript at its tightest was about eighteen pages; but the minimum for Jacar’s contest was twenty pages, so I had to reconsider it a bit to make that minimum.

Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook? Does your chapbook follow a clear arc?

I hope this chapbook follows some arc—at its broadest, Marks begins and ends with time, and the darkest poems come sooner rather than later. A poem called “Volta” does in fact mark a shift in tone, from pretty-damn-dark to more-hopeful. But, as you can see above, I didn’t begin with the intention of writing a chapbook, or this chapbook; this arc, or these patterns, came out of the poems themselves as the book began coming together. Assembling the book meant imposing a lot of structure on these poems, but it’s a structure drawn from the poems’ preoccupations.

Does your family read your chapbook? Or are they waiting for you to write a novel?

Some of my family did read the chapbook, and I’m very grateful. My husband has read most of what I’ve published; so have my parents (including a sank-like-a-stone novel), and have done much to promote the books as well—up to and including scheduling readings at local venues. I had doubts about this one, though, because it was so dark, so I asked my parents to read it first—no surprises.

Do you have experience with winning over new readers to poetry with either your own or others’ poems? If so, what’s that been like? Do you think a new poetry reader would have a different reaction to the chapbook format than an established reader?

I’m a teacher, so that’s something I do, or try to do, a lot. I can offer long diatribes about some of the ways poetry is often taught—hardest stuff first, literary devices taught as the be-all and end-all, not enough focus on sentence structure as opposed to lines (some young readers think the lines are sentences), not enough focus on the literal level, not enough effort to select engaging poems…on and on. Many teachers, of course, were taught poetry in these ways themselves, so they feel uneasy around it, an uneasiness they can’t help but pass along to their students. But poetry doesn’t have to be difficult to be good; accessible, engaging, short free verse directed to students’ own interests can still be good poems, and can still be used to illuminate some of the many ways in which poetry can be good. Using poems that meet those criteria, and walking through them SLOWLY, with attention to connotation, can work wonders.

I don’t know if chapbook format would change the way a new reader relates to poetry. Maybe a chapbook doesn’t look so intimidating, just because it’s short? A most popular class, not too surprisingly, is anything with “Short Stories” in the title. I mean, everybody knows stories, and how scary can they be, if they’re short? Maybe we should start calling classes things like “Short Story Poems”, and see whether enrollment spikes. But probably you’d have to find a new poetry reader and ask him or her; it’s been a very long time since I could bring that kind of fresh sensibility to the experience.


Born on the eastern shore of Maryland and raised there by wolves and vultures, Catherine Carter now lives with her husband near Western Carolina University, where she teaches in English. Her latest full-length collection (LSU, 2012) is The Swamp Monster at Home; her first, The Memory of Gills (LSU, 2006) received the 2007 Roanoke-Chowan Award from the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. Her chapbook Marks of the Witch won Jacar Press’s 2014 chapbook contest. Her work has also appeared in Best American Poetry 2009, Orion, Poetry, Cortland Review, North Carolina Literary Review, and Ploughshares, among others.



Day of the Dead 

And you’re forty-six, and your parents are seventy-
five, still strong, still clear. You can walk;
you have all your fingers, gripping
the rake. Rain has filled the well. The woods
are bright with the sweet-betsy bushes
and the tawny hickories offering back
the light they drank all year,
and the leaves are flying like spirits
as you rake the blessed road.
Like the crazy old woman
you’re slowly becoming, you say aloud
to the road, I can never forget this,
by which, of course, you mean you’ll never remember.


4 thoughts on “Catherine Carter

  1. Pingback: Looking Back at 2015 | Speaking of Marvels

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