By Barbara Ungar and Nancy White
After thirty years of writing poetry without publishing a book, Richard Carr, age forty-six, won a poetry version of the Triple Crown: three book prizes within a year—The 2007 Vassar Miller Prize from University of North Texas Press, the 2008 Gival Press Poetry Award, and The Word Works 2008 Washington Prize—with a fourth book also accepted Backwaters Press. How did he do that? Since then, he has gone on to publish more books, and looks not to stop anytime soon; check out his stunning ONE SLEEVE from Evening Street Press (2011).
As friends comparing notes in 2008 after our first stints as contest judges, we were amazed to find we had, in two separate “blind” contests, chosen the same writer. We asked Carr to discuss with us his decades of writing and the changes that finally propelled him to a new voice, a new focus—and to his astonishing publishing spree. In retrospect, his life looks like X-treme Poetry Boot Camp, a recipe for producing intensity. It’s also a series of choices and “saves” that aspiring writers could benefit from studying.
Like most poets, he began early, in solitude, as a teenager. He wrote in his room in a big Victorian house on the edge of town—Blue Earth, Minnesota, out on the prairie. “It had windows looking west across a pasture and into the woods, but no heat. I remember sitting on the end of the bed, looking into the dresser mirror, writing poems—about trees, I think.”
Reflection characterizes his writing for the next twenty-five years, when, he says, “between periods of failing in and out of school, I looked into mirrors and wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems, whole books of poems, some long, some very short, and they were free verse poems, or rhyming, or spatial, or anything and everything, and some were miniscule and some were grand, and all were written looking into the mirror.”
Always a bit of a renegade, as a math major, Carr cut class to read Milton in his dorm room—aloud, the complete works, in three languages— and as an MFA student he feels he studied philosophy more than poetry. The son of career professionals, he describes his own work history as “patchy, alternating between computers and dishwashing, teaching and bartending.” Although he grew up in a house full of books (reading everything from Dante to Tolkien, Japanese poetry to science fiction, Greek tragedies to Blake and Bly), in his 20’s and 30’s he cultivated a motorcycle-riding, bartender Zen persona. And kept reading. Everything.
In 1993 he landed a book deal—“a collection about trees and pastures and looking into mirrors”—but to his dismay and even embarrassment (hadn’t he, as anyone would, told all his friends and family the thrilling news?) that fell through when the press went out of business.
Next at Bowling Green he took the MFA path, but didn’t cotton to it. “I was not ready to take advice, and since I didn’t connect very well with my teachers, I came away with no professional contacts. I take the blame, however. I frequently went to class drunk. One time, while offering an intoxicated critique of someone’s poem, I tipped over backwards in my chair—got up, kept talking. Sometimes I make a humorous anecdote about that; other times I am simply horrified.”
But there were mentors over the years—Jonathan Sisson and Bill Coggin— and Carr remembers their talks with gratitude, also noting “the big impact that a few well placed bits of practical advice can have, not to mention the vote of confidence.”
In and out of school and his many jobs, he always wrote poems. And then the watershed, a midlife crisis at thirty-nine: “The usual, I guess: broke up with my longtime girlfriend, lost my job, my home, my family (on her side), half my friends, a Steinway piano, a very large motorcycle, my precious, precious power tools, and pretty much everything else.”
Perhaps now we come to the culprit, addiction. Overall, decides Carr, “Probably the real hindrance to having earlier success, in writing or other career efforts, has been addiction—drugs and alcohol—and depression, combined with social incompetence and pathological shyness.”
In the wake of his losses, “without work, and especially without relationships,” Carr couldn’t find his footing. “That was the worst feeling, that existential barrenness. I was completely empty, directionless, derelict and, for a depressingly long time, heartbroken. Living in a motel room on the highway at the edge of town, I drank and smoked heavily—lifting a lifelong habit to smoldering, volcanic heights—until my money ran out.”
Salvation beckoned when two friends stepped in, offering work and a place to stay. Carr got a grip. “I quit drinking and smoking—at the same time, cold turkey.” He moved back to Minnesota, began teaching as an adjunct in the Minneapolis area, and most importantly, he chose poetry. “I cut myself off from almost all social activity, and made space around myself, big space, living alone, walking daily, writing daily.”
He calls it “the big turning point in my life—my Twin Towers crisis—which required me to decide who I am and what I want. I chose poetry. Finally. Poetry has been the one constant in my life, and I have finally committed myself to it. I have no other intention, no other worldly objective, but to write poetry. Other interests and activities will come and go, as they always have, but I mean to build and dwell in only one house now, only the house of poetry.” Indeed, when Ungar met him in Minneapolis to continue this interview, she was reminded of the focus, isolation, and intensity of Emily Dickinson.
In the next four years following his recovery, he wrote five books of poetry. And the poetry erupting from this new life was, truly, new for him. Instead of being driven by the depression which has haunted him and “which drove me inward,” he began “really for the first time looking outward consistently, carefully, and sympathetically.”
“I quit looking into mirrors—and started writing about other people, and then as other people, starting with the son of a famous (fictitious) mixologist in MISTER MARTINI, followed by HONEY, written from a young woman’s perspective, and culminating in the full-on persona poems in ACE. I can only speculate, really, but I think these three manuscripts rose in the contest ranks because they are coherent, complete collections that tell a story.”
Denise Duhamel, who’s never met Carr but agreed to write a blurb after reading the manuscript for ACE, confirms that narrative cohesion helps create the book’s appeal. She also sees his work as part of an invigorating trend of “genre-blurring and poets taking on larger projects.” Beyond narrative, elegance of form charges the book, she says, and she “was really drawn to the grittiness of the characters.”
The adoption of a “truncated sonnet” form (a free verse structure of two quatrains, with optional final couplet) caught Ungar’s eye, too; Carr calls them microsonnets, each serving as a chapter in the development of HONEY.
Carr’s ability to weave a tale hooked the panel awarding The Washington Prize. “It’s that rare thing in poetry,” said one judge, Steve Rogers, “a page turner.” As a fellow judge, I (Nancy White) agree. All the finalist manuscripts contained poems that compelled utterly, but only one manuscript, as a whole, had that grip on the reader all the way through.
Is the secret, then, the triumph of “Negative Capability” and narrative over the author’s ego? Carr elaborates: “I wouldn’t write anything at all if it didn’t help me understand myself and my predicament in the universe. My ego is still there; I remain reflective. And yet by walking in someone else’s shoes, I am suppressed, to a degree, and the resulting poetry is less self-conscious, self-pitying, self-regarding—all of which mar my earlier work.”
In the end, “maybe waiting is not such a bad thing.” After all, he says, it’s not the early influences, or which MFA program is chosen, or the presence or lack of mentors: “Poets still make themselves, as they always have, through reading and practicing.”
And how does publication feel, now it’s finally come? “I didn’t know it until I got it, but I needed that validation, someone outside of family, friends and colleagues to say, ‘Your writing is good; it’s important; it should and will be published.’”
First the word from Backwaters Press; they wanted STREET PORTRAITS. “A certain amount of hooting and hollering” naturally ensued. Within days of Carr’s signing a contract with Backwaters, The University of North Texas Press called. When he heard that Naomi Shihab Nye had selected MISTER MARTINI for their Vassar Miller Prize, it seemed “a poetry deity had reached down from the heavens and touched my forehead with her finger. I felt the jolt of it, a rush of happiness as though I had received a blessing that could never be taken away or turned to ill use or diminished in any way.”
MISTER MARTINI came out in April, 2008, and in May the phone rang again. Gival Press calling, to say Barbara Ungar had chosen his book HONEY. This time, says Carr, he was speechless. “Ask the editor and publisher Robert Giron—I barely managed ten words.”
He likens the experience to a time he got lost hiking in the Swiss Alps. “I lost track of how far I had gone, what route I had taken. I halted, but a powerful urge to go forward—my curiosity to see the top, the true summit—pulled me upward as though there were a rope around my neck constricting while I hesitated. Suddenly I felt afraid and alone, and for a long time I couldn’t decide which way to go. Likewise with HONEY. I was bewildered.”
Two months passed. In August, Karren Alenier phoned Richard from the judging table in D.C. “On the other end, it wasn’t just the editor or publisher—it was the whole editorial staff! I could hear everyone in the background. They cheered! They applauded! It was like a surprise party and I was the guest of honor. That was really gratifying.”
Carr clearly feels a sea change in his relationship to the world, one he’s still adjusting to. “All my publishers have been hugely generous and enthusiastic regarding my work, and for me, that’s a big part of getting published. Holding the physical book in my hands is a delight, but the esteem of editors and publishers is beyond bounds. I didn’t understand that at first. It becomes their book too, and your hopes are their hopes, and they love the poems truly, much as you do, and no one else is going to have this kind of relationship with your book. It’s intimate, like family.”
Considering that in his poems Carr prowls the dark alleys of family-forged, family-twisting pasts, that’s a satisfying resolution to his story. Of course he moved right on to writing books five, six, and beyond; of course he plans to keep writing. But in spite of his fabulous rash of acceptances, he sees no silver bullet, cautioning fellow contest-entrants “not to copy a certain style or form or procedure.” He himself had to “let go of youthful themes and forms,” but each writer develops uniquely. His only certain advice we have heard before: “to persevere, to focus on the thing you love, to hang on, be strong, abide.”
Carr’s story may reinforce the fantasy that “getting discovered” lurks just around the corner. But it also highlights that, as Duhamel says, “all writers are wounded in some way, or maybe more attuned to loss.” It’s what we make of the loss and the waiting that matters. Just the right smelting of self and other, of story and form, of study, perspective, practice, history, discipline, reading, perseverance, and passion—and sure, it could happen to anyone.
We still suspect it helps to be talented, too.