Bethany Carlson

Carlson DiademDiadem Me (MIEL, 2014)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? 

I adore the Wick Chapbook series through Kent State University Press. The titles alone are gorgeous, drool-worthy micropoems. Right now I have Catherine Pierce’s Animals of Habit and Lisa Ampleman’s I’ve Been Collecting This to Tell You on my desk. I am a big fan of less-is-more; if aesthetics are over-accentuated in a chapbook, like if the graphics are trying too hard to be dazzly, they can overwhelm the poems and detract from the text. I like a balance that complements.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

I love work that shakes up my relationship to text and destabilizes my own interpretive lens. Kierkegaard says the process of becoming a self involves reflecting through the medium of imagination how future possibilities present themselves to us in the present. I swoon over poems that loop me in to those possibilities. I also like poems that leave residue. I am enamored with surfaces, ghostly and otherworldly, and shifting shapes that surface in the aftermath of poems or point in directions beyond the words on the page. The poems I love most startle me and leave impressions—sensations I feel but cannot quite name.

What’s your chapbook about?

Diadem Me—it’s about that gemcut, multivalent quality of language. I think there’s a multifaceted tension between whimsical playfulness and sacredness. The title poem is about exploring the numinous/ luminous texture of these facets.

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?

One of the oldest pieces is “A year goes to hell,” and I wrote it in memory of Annie Le, who was a Yale Ph.D student who was tragically murdered in 2009. I remember hearing about it in the news and being horrified that something like that could happen at Yale, which I regarded as a dream school (ironically, I’m there now as an M.Div candidate).

How did you decide on arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual poems in the chapbook?

The chapbook is divided into three sections: stature, posture, and gesture based on how the poems are functioning as observable reactions or responses. The subtlest, most delicate gestures are the ones that stay with me. My impulse veers pretty heavily toward lyricism. I trust my image-making instinct more than my sense-making one; ultimately, that is the guiding aesthetic of Diadem Me. Individually, the poems are titled based on what I was thinking when I was writing them. I had an obsession with French after taking a class on medieval literature, which was interpreted through the lens of modern psychoanalysis, so there is a little Lacan in there. The penultimate poem “Taillights on the fringe of the gown each ghost in this house is wearing have all set to blinking,” was written in collaboration with Stephanie Horvath while we were both MFA candidates at Indiana University. I wrote that poem using a line from one of her poems as my title.

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

Contests and open reading periods… I sent it to a lot of different types of presses, but ultimately MIEL is the perfect fit. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

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

Éireann Lorsung, the editor at MIEL, has a great artistic sensibility and created some sketches. She was kind enough to let me have some input about the cover—I was mostly worried it would be too precious or girly or feminine, but she did a fantastic job striking the right balance. The crudeness of the handdrawn letters balances out the images of flowers.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

I did a couple of readings in New York, actually the same weekend in March! One with Word Up Books and my friend Monica Ong, who is releasing her book, Silent Anatomies; and another at Kundiman & Verlaine.

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

How does lyricism via poetry allow us to live more vividly? I think it helps you to drench yourself in the substance of an experience rather than getting lost in the semantics of narrative. Ultimately, lyricism is more vivid because it’s not responsible for explaining something in the same way narrative is.

What are you working on now?

A collaborative chapbook, VOTIVE, with one of my artsy friends at Yale Divinity School. I actually dreamed that I should name my second book VOTIVE, and it feels right to start it now. The word comes from late 16th c. Latin votum/ votivus and means to express a desire. I like the intentionality behind it. I also see flickering flame.

What is your writing practice or process? 

Moleskine journals—I love writing on graph paper and write differently by hand than I do when I’m composing with a word processor or in Google doc. I like being messy and drinking lots of tea and I also keep notes in a pseudo-photo diary on my phone. I swim about three times a week, and sometimes lines will come to me in the pool, and I’ll just hang on to them until I get home and write them down. I’ve also found that I can memorize poems when I am running or swimming, so I don’t listen to music anymore when I’m working out.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Write by hand as much as you can. Cross things out. Doodle in the margins. Own your writing as much as possible in each phase of your work.

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

What does your mom think of your poems?

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

Dizzy, haunting, whimsical, watery—inhabited by people who are susceptible to the allure of the imaginative. In “In the senile desert, the wolves eat scarves while the wolfs eat scarfs,” the speaker confesses “I too am a wolf and eat a scarf.” She goes on to describe that the context is not important but the taste is what matters. In “Vis-à-vis,” the speaker collects glossy pink babies from the sorghum factory each week. In “The sky’s apprentice,” the speaker talks about the Sky, “bunched from years of use and no/ longer bothered/ by the ceremony of caprice, all that gold drapery—.” I try to create dramatic situations that are texture rich.

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

Twitter! I love the breakneck speed of social media but it can also inhibit me by being a huge distraction. As an M.Div candidate, I read a lot of theology, which is so fraught with metaphor and allusions that I can’t help letting those seep through my work.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook? (either an individual or a particular group of people)?

The obvious answer is everyone but especially people who are dear to me like my parents, twin sister, and brother. I ardently want people who are going into ministry or studying theology to read contemporary poetry. I also want millennials to appreciate poetry instead of feeling intimidated by it. I don’t want to write for just an esoteric slice of literati.


Bethany Carlson is an M.Div candidate at Yale University and holds an MFA from Indiana University. She is interested in how lyricism enhances sacred liturgy, invites eschatological imagination, and transcends a Christological understanding of narrative time. Bethany is a Kundiman Fellow and a member of The Lilly Graduate Fellows Program in Humanities & the Arts.


Bethany Carlson’s personal site: Chapbook site via MIEL Press:


Playacting The earth was yolk and the girl was hash of yolk, and I asked them to spin some more. For myself, I asked to be template of sky to feel the sun’s seismic sweep and roll, panels of wind rushing over me. Every afternoon I drove to the bay in a different colored leotard and folded myself into the sea which was always hungry for me or the near shape of me. The water was fraught with the faces of wandering saints. This created a sense of longing, mostly. I grew geraniums in glass beakers and memorized the orbits of stars. I bought local, I lived in a vista. The desire for scissors kept me up at night. On the porch I prayed for rain. I wanted to be shear of something; I found myself beset in willows. Often I felt ragged. Once I spent an entire summer channeling the cosmos into the prism-tick of a heartbeat. I fused it to my own heart’s beat and recorded the spaces in between. I asked to be named, and I felt my real heart seize—the precision of a waterfall, a double-rainbow etched in mud. My transgressions were many: I ruined the evergreens’ decoration; I lacked temperance. One by one I watched the clouds slink off. Slowly the shadows outgrew the easel of the sky.


One thought on “Bethany Carlson

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

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