Kore Press published Carolyn Hembree’s debut poetry collection, {Skinny} in 2012. In this interview, the author talks about reading in New Orleans, home to her poetic voices, and about how her own story intersects with her writing.


Lisa Levine: You call "A Real Movie Star" a nightmare recollected. Did reading at Lipstick and Lingerie - a store devoted to panties and brasseries - soothe or cause another shudder? I’m thinking of couplets like: "Let envy stop at your door, not in, for head and heart's a store/robbed by the many dreamy flights of her head tossed back"?

Carolyn Hembree: The event was hosted by Press Street — a local collective that publishes books, hosts readings and events, and maintains a gallery. Press Street’s co-founder, Anne Gisleson, thought of the space, Lipstick and Lingerie Boutique. The Boutique is in an area of New Orleans that was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. This is where a lot of people died: it got nine feet of water. In order to get there, folks had to view some areas that are still recovering. And remember. This female-owned business, in fact, is closing down now. The New Orleans politics of the space matter a lot to me. Also, as a feminist, I LOVED the idea immediately: most spaces where I have read (lecture halls, bookstores, bars, libraries) are owned and shaped and defined by men. Of course, one can immediately think, “Well, straight guys will love being up in there and fantasizing.” Not so. 75% or more of the audience members were women, and many men were kind of shrinking into the dressing rooms during my reading. Because we used such a non-traditional space, I felt more at ease than I ever have when reading. 

In her back-of-the book blurb, Jane Miller calls the collection "autobiographical." When I first saw that description (she was kind enough to send it my way for approval before it went to Kore), I felt like I had been run completely through. It horrified me: all of this artifice, voice, dialogue, figuration, architecture ... how could anyone possibly suspect me of being ME? I considered asking her to change it but decided that she was right and if brave enough to say it, I needn't interrupt. So, when I read "Meditation on Picasso's Guernica" at the launch -- my favorite poem from the collection, one that I never quite got right, the one that re-imagines a tableaux that includes Stephen, the guy who molested me from the time I was eight until I was ten -- I almost got choked up. But it was the opposite of horror -- I've paid enough in therapy and psych bills to buy a nice double-wide -- it was seeing all of these friends (women, queer folk, my husband) phone into that experience. And I could feel that some of them knew what I meant. And I was relieved that there was meaning.

LL: Where does having no literary counterpart - as you've said of {Skinny} meet the familial language of its title character? Do you have a literary 'family' - or lineage?

CH: How did you find that abysmal statement, Lisa? I thought it was dead and buried: Bowden was smart enough to cut it from the official statement. Before I wrote that, I read probably 50 of those anonymous book descriptions and thought I needed to sound important. So, it's bullshit. I have plenty of literary counterparts. Oh, I love the three poets on the back of the book: their work feeds and houses my writing obsessions and psyche, so that's family. As far as lineage, I love Emily Dickinson, the Metaphysical Poets, Blake, Plath, Berryman, CD Wright, Frank Stanford'sBattlefield, Etheridge Knight, Bidart's persona work, Claudia Rankine, Harryette Mullen'sMuse & Drudge. Then there's the King James Bible. I heard it or the Good News every Sunday growing up.

LL: I'm quoting your bio: cashier, house cleaner, cosmetics consultant, telecommunicator... Are any of your past personas at work in {Skinny}?

CH: I think of most of the poems as having multiple voices, but only a couple of them are actually in persona. Some of the time it sounds sort of like one of those party lines back in the day where families shared telephone lines with other families. For sure, my time trying to be an actor I had to "let into" these pieces. Frank Bidart said this great thing to [Billie] Halliday about personae in an interview: “I didn’t feel I was ‘making up’ the drama—they were there, and I felt that to write the poems I had to let them (both the voices and the issues their lives embody and the torments and dilemmas of) enter me. Of course, they were already inside me (though I still had to let them in).” All those jobs sure as hell taught me how to hustle. No doubt. And now I'm in the academic profession. Like I said, hustle.

LL: Does the fractured grammar (your words) of {Skinny} draw from any tangible landscapes around you, or from an internal geography of language?

CH: I lived in Bristol, Tennessee, until I was eight: that's way east with a twin city in Virginia. My dad's people come from Tennessee dating back to pre-Revolutionary times. Early on, I was bewitched by the strangely modulated, archaic speech of the surrounding "hill folk," with whom I went to school, dialects which pervade my poetry to this day. The tangible landscapes -- the geography of Alabama and Tennessee, as well as domestic settings -- are indistinguishable from my language and my memory. As for craft, I love anastrophe. I get a kick out of figures of speech -- how they force an argument and create a listener. Also, I like to see many adjectives I can stack, how heavy I can make a sentence...

LL: Film citations preface the book's 3 sections; were any visuals in your mind when you started - ten years ago! - or did they emerge after the diverse poetic forms came into shape?

CH: Yeah, I work on two projects at once: Skinny I was all inside from 2000-2003, then I started Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine & Other Ways to Escape a Plague, my second manuscript. I alternated between the two until 2010, then focused solely on finishing Rigging, which I completed in late 2011. I like working this way because when I'm in one book, the other can serve as a sort of getaway: it also allows time for things to steep, fester, dry up, scar over.

The epigraphs come from silent film intertitles. This idea came very late in the process of revising. It was important to me that the intertitles come from silent films with heroines. There's not really a parallel with Skinny but for her venture to the big city, perhaps, her coming of age drama. She's just more gut viscera than an actual character to me: I'm too inside. Still, the film epigraphs work with the nostalgia of the book. So much is about memory, family, history, i.e. the speaker imagining these lives that may have happened a lifetime before hers (such as young Mamie's experiences). The silent film motif seemed right for that. Also, the language of them is so interesting to me: unencumbered, earnest, absolute. For the last section, I invented my own intertitles except for some lines from Tennyson's Maud, which serve as the last intertitle.


Carolyn Hembree is the author of {Skinny}, available from Kore Press. Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, jubilat, and Witness, among other journals and anthologies. Her poetry has received three Pushcart Prize nominations, a PEN Writers Grant, a Southern Arts Federation Grant, and a Louisiana Division of the Arts Fellowship Award in Literature. She teaches at the University of New Orleans.

Lisa Levine, Editorial intern, just received her MFA from the University of Arizona, where she read and wrote forSonora Review. Her poetry, book and music reviews have appeared in Zocalo, the Downtown Tucsonan, and others, and her storytelling has been featured at Fray Day 8 and the Odyssey Series.