Ariana Nevarez interviews Erin Carlyle, author of Magnolia Canopy Otherworld (Driftwood, 2020)
Ariana Nevarez: The cover image for Magnolia Canopy Otherworld, that is also used in the beginning of each section, is so alive and engaging; how did it come to be?
Erin Carlyle: The cover is by a wonderful artist named Neva Hosking and is the brilliant work of cover designer Sally Franckowiak and interior designer James McNulty. Driftwood Press really did a great job finding work that matched the tone and spirit of my poetry. When I look at this girl she pulls me into the work. It’s almost like the poems are looking out at the reader, or even the girl from the first poem of the book guiding you through the poems. I like that this image holds so many meanings.
AN: How did the three sections of this book come to be? Was it pretty clear which poems should be in which sections or did they bounce around for a while?
EC: The middle section was pretty clear after I had a group of poems to work with. I think of the sections as a journey to the underworld in a way. The first section sets the tone. It begins the journey. You have a girl in the first poem who is preoccupied by her own thoughts, and she thinks she sees the bodies of women on the side of the road. In a way you get further into the head of this girl as you read each poem until you’re fully immersed in the Otherworld. Along the way we also get to know her preoccupations and her family struggles. That’s how I have it in my head anyway. It was really hard to know the exact placement of each poem though. This was my first time putting together a full-length collection, and each section had a few different configurations. Luckily, I have a network of other poets who each gave input, so I wasn’t alone frantically trying to make each section perfect (shoutout to all of my mentors and poet friends!).
AN: Most of the poems are written in couplets, is this how most of your poems are written or is it something that felt right for this book? What is your relationship with the couplet?
EC: I love couplets. I think it’s because I can get my head around just two lines at a time. I’d like to have a grand answer, but I think it’s that simple. I spent a couple of years writing these poems, and some took other forms before they were ultimately put into couplets. With a couplet I can see what I’m trying to convey clearly. I can craft it piece by piece like a puzzle. As I move forward as a poet, I’m trying to branch out and work in other forms, but I do come back to the couplet even if it’s just starting there and changing it later. Plus, it’s just pretty to me.
AN: In general, if not explicitly stated or implied who is the “we” voice in your poems?
EC: For me this is a chorus of women and girls. It’s like that deep down connection you have with other women, a nod or a smile to one another. Maybe it’s slightly different in each poem where “We” is used like a collection of voices from the otherside. That’s the best way I can describe what I was thinking when I wrote some of the poems.
AN: How did you know Driftwood Press was the right place for Magnolia Canopy Otherworld to be published?
EC: I was a former contributor to their magazine, and I really love the work that they publish. The guys at Driftwood are interested in dynamic work. They want something a little different, so when they opened their first contest for full-length books, I entered right away. I’m so happy that I did because this experience has been great. They are very caring and careful editors.
AN: Often in these poems home is not a safe place to be, it’s where people are held captive, where they’re rejected, where people die, the site of infidelity and addiction. The pride-of-place last words of the book are a “mother calling: get home.” What do you hope readers understand about home after reading your book?
EC: That is a complicated question for me, and it’s something I have a complicated relationship to in my personal life. I grew up poor and in rural spaces where I could roam free, but where there was danger either from the adults in my life or the land where I lived both of which I loved dearly. Home was never completely a place of safety. Home wasn’t even a specific place. When I was 9 years old, my father had a heart attack while out on the road. He was a truck driver. Before that there was a bit of stability in a sense, but after that everything fell apart. We moved constantly because it would get too hard to pay the bills at one place or at another we’d just be evicted. He began an addiction to opioids (and later Xanax) because he was always in massive amounts of pain. He had so many operations over the years. I really do understand, but it destroyed us nonetheless. Many of the speakers in my book come from some of this lived experience. Home for them isn’t one place, it’s many places or it’s just an idea, something they want to know but can’t. The mother at the end of the book is the representation of a Southern momma. She’s yelling out for her kid to get home well after dark and well after she should have been.
You are tender when you say to me:
pull this bone out of my body.
If you throw me out
with the trash. I’ll leave,
get this bone appraised—
take it to pawn. My feet one
in front of the other. My head,
as it should be, downcast.
See the bone in my hand,
I will get nothing for it—
won’t be worth the walk,
so I stick the bone inside me. I lie
down on the asphalt road, and listen
to distant men—they yell
my name. I pull my skin apart,
recite a story: My father was once a tree.
Originally published in 2River View, 23.1 Fall 2018
AN: There seems to be an expressed disappointment with religion at times, particularly in “Post-Eve” but also in other places where religion is specifically rejected, as in “Obedience” when a woman says to the speaker of the poem “Don’t believe in god.” How do other themes of the book like death and living in a female body interact with this disappointment in religion?
EC: I grew up not believing in god. I had a little moment where I explored religion, but it never fit for me. My mom believed in god, but my dad didn’t, and we didn’t go to church every Sunday. I did go with my grandma, and I enjoyed spending that time with her, though I never listened to the sermons. Still, if you are a girl growing up in the American South, you get religion in some way or another. You know, “the husband is the head of the family, but the woman is the neck and the neck turns the head.” I was always like, “wait a minute. The head has the brain and the brain turns the neck.” It made me very upset. When I was 16, I went to church with a friend of mine only to find that it was an ambush. The preacher asked me to come into his office which weirded me out because I didn’t know him. It was storming outside, and he looked at me and told me that I needed to accept Jesus today because if a tornado hit the church and I died then I’d go straight to hell. I don’t even think I said anything back. I just nodded. As a woman and a human, I don’t just want to be the neck.
AN: I remember hearing that saying when I was younger too and I was also always disappointed with it. I didn’t know why, but I was never going to be satisfied with being the neck. Pine trees seem to be specifically linked to women throughout the book. Can you talk about this link a little bit and what place pine trees hold in your memory?
EC: When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the woods. Pine woods are common in the US, but especially down South in Alabama where I lived as a child. I really liked being alone, but it was also kind of scary because you never knew if someone else was there with you or at least it felt that way. Maybe that’s a part of being a woman, that creeping feeling that someone else is there watching you. Also, there’s a liminality in the woods as if you could slip into some other place at any moment. I’m just drawn to that imagery. To me a pine tree is powerful and beautiful, and there’s a secretness to it.
AN: How is this collection working with death? In the interview at the end of the book you say “Magnolia Canopy Otherworld is a place where the dead linger and float.” And that you “always thought there were probably women at the bottom of the Chattahoochee, or Nolan Lake in Kentucky, or any creek or river [you] visited.” Why only women? What was the source of this––to borrow a phrase from “True Crime”–– “dead / women obsession?”
EC: Here is one source: I watched and read way too much true crime as a kid. I loved watching Unsolved Mysteries with my mom, and for some reason my high school had several books about serial killers in the library. By now we all know that a lot of women have a personal relationship with true crime. Maybe it’s because we have “there but for the grace of whatever go I” in the back of our heads. That could be me.
Here is another source: When I was 12 I walked down to what we called “The Penny Store” to get some candy, and this guy pulled up next to me in a big Buick like car. He said something like, “Hey good lookin’ Want to get in?” Then he got out of his car and came after me. I took off and ran home fast. My dad was so upset. At the time, I thought my dad was mad at me for being alone, but now I know he was just scared.
Here is another source: A sort of friend of mine from high school went missing. Her body was found later destroyed by weather and animals. To this day, people don’t know what happened. She wasn’t super close to me, but we did share a drunken kiss once at a local concert. I don’t want to speculate here about what happened out of respect for her, but I know that a lot of girls who grew up with me and knew her still think about her all the time.
I think it’s all of that plus some things I don’t want to mention.
AN: At the end of “We Can’t Stop Burning a Witch” there’s a powerful moment when girls watching a witch burning hold hands and think “Are we also dead?… Is this all?” It’s a very relatable moment for being set in such a different time than our present day, could you speak to this moment and what it meant for you?
EC: Yeah, that is a weird moment in the book. I have always been interested in the Witch Trials, so the poem is kind of a nod to that moment in time. It’s kind of like a sudden pull back to the past to ground us in the present, and the book flips back and forth in time throughout the poems. I guess this is the farthest back though. It’s also inspired by that Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is” except I like the PJ Harvey version. “Is that all there is to a fire.” It’s about shared disappointment, and it’s kind of a bleak moment in the book. Sometimes I get insecure that the art I make is too dark. I really want to be a writer who has a sense of humor.
AN: What is your attraction to the symbolism of cannibalism throughout the collection? What do you want it to accomplish and communicate to the reader?
EC: There are a couple of poems that reference either eating the self or being eaten by another. The poem “Dressing Room” is about an eating disorder collapsing in on the person. The person becomes nothing more than an eater and everything has a count. The poem “My Cannibal” goes back to my love of true crime. It was inspired by Issei Sagawa who was a man obsessed with the idea of eating a woman for power. There’s more to the story, so I’d direct those inclined to google him, but I thought the idea of consuming a woman to make a man bigger wasn’t just for cannibals. I was in a very long relationship in my 20s, and when I got out of it, I was like 100 pounds and just completely blank. I had to build myself back up. I’ve seen women consumed in lots of ways. Though these are the most direct mentions of cannibalism in the book, I do see that the book references it in other ways. Families consume each other. People consume each other. We consume ourselves.
Out at the edge of the creek, a man tells me
he cannot be whole without the full body
of a woman. He wants to eat me up—a dog
and a bone. He wants me to invite him through
my silk, southern land to the hidden whole of me.
There is a danger in letting a man work me
until I’m done, and I don’t understand
what it means to believe his fever, but he tells
me what he wants to hear and I slip my skin down
into the green muck. Once he has it, I walk into
the water—unborn and unwombed. A woman given
to desire. A woman entered deep in the belly
of his deepest birthday wish. When I’m gone,
he will think he is bigger than he ever could be.
Originally published in Prairie Schooner, Volume 94 Spring 2020
AN: Jenny is introduced in “Sunken” toward the end of the book and is the only character whose name is explicitly mentioned more than just in passing, who the speaker and their mother clearly both know; who is Jenny?
EC: Jenny is kind of a generic girl’s name (sorry to all the Jenny’s. I’ve known some great Jenny’s and Jen’s!) In a way, Jenny is a gentle nod to James Wright’s “To the Muse.” I wanted to have a different perspective to his ghostly muse Jenny. I wondered what her side of the story may have been, and the poem made me think of a couple of girls I grew up with in Kentucky. In some way I was also inspired by Bruce Springsteen, and by his many Jenny’s. I was taking a male view of a “tortured” woman and trying to give multiple dimensions to it. It’s the girl under the water or in the back of our minds. This is kind of my version of a true crime story, but maybe it’s my worst fear come true. Maybe it’s like that guy did get me in his weird Buick. That’s probably the most esoteric way to explain things. She’s a lot of people, and she’s a lot themes of the book wrapped up in one long poem.
AN: One of the most shocking and haunting images, for me in the book, was in “The Slumber Party” when someone asks: “What man made their bodies / into tables––arms and legs bent backward, / a coffee cup on the sternum?” There are other instances throughout the book of men controlling, using and mistreating women’s bodies; there are also images of women sharing their bodies with other women, or trying to “master” their own bodies or “grow her body into a pine tree.” How can women who don’t feel in control of their bodies take back ownership over them? How does this collection of poems suggest women should see themselves?
EC: I don’t know the answer to the first question. I want to say something empowering, and I don’t want to seem like there is no hope. Maybe it’s about reclaiming your story in a way. Yes, things may have happened to me, but I get to be the controller of the narrative. I don’t think that’s easy for everyone though, and maybe some people never get that chance. I don’t think this collection is suggesting anything to other women. I see it as my way of communicating a particular worldview. I’m sharing myself with others in this book, even the secret parts and the things I’ve made up. I wouldn’t say this is confessional though because there’s a little dark magic mixed in with the true events, but a lot of the poems in this book come from a personal place.
The Slumber Party
I heard she went and died
into another girl, in a house
near a swamp where girls are caught
face down, muck deep, and motherless.
She told me there were other girls
sitting at a kitchen table with empty
plates in front of them,
and more girls in the bathroom
draped over the shower—wet. She asked:
What man made their bodies
into tables—arms and legs bent backward,
a coffee cup on the sternum? She didn’t know
she would be used up, but she told me
she tip-toed through the rooms
tracing her name on the walls just in case.
My girl lost herself—a blonde hair flood
on the floor, and she came back to me
years later wound tight, a coil, said: Why me?
Originally published in Pretty Owl Poetry, Issue 26 Summer 2020
Magnolia Canopy Otherworld is available from Driftwood Press. You can order it here: https://www.driftwoodpress.net/product-page/magnolia-canopy-otherworld
For more from Erin Carlyle visit her website: https://www.erincarlyle.com
Mentioned in this interview
Neva Hosking: https://nevahosking.bigcartel.com
Driftwood Press Literary Magazine: https://www.driftwoodpress.net
Driftwood Press: https://www.driftwoodpress.net/shop
Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPP6UgkmyM4&list=OLAK5uy_lj9a-colCY3IgZiYKGwfiXk-MTOXxGQbo
PJ Harvey’s version of Is That All There Is?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfCqDqgjI3I
James Wright’s To The Muse: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47744/to-the-muse-56d2286a8704b