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Wednesday, 07 March 2012 13:33

WCU’s Catherine Carter releases second book of poems

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There is a refinement to Catherine Carter’s poetry, a sense that each poem is finished, polished and complete, worked exactly the right amount and not a jot too much. There’s also in Carter’s poems an edge, a whiff of wild abandon lurking just beneath the placid surface.

This accomplished poet once published a romance novel under a pseudonym. And Carter remains fascinated by this often-maligned genre: She hopes one day to write another romance novel.

“It really was fun, and I would like to do it again,” Carter said. “I might have to try other genres first, though — it’s the generic conventions that make genre fiction most fascinating, the what-can-I-change and still have it be genre? Is it still romance if the big good-looking dominant guy is a villain? Still mystery if the detective’s kind of a goof who doesn’t solve the puzzle by intellect? Still a western if the hero talks about his feelings without being tied to a stake first, or isn’t white, or doesn’t like horses? The only way to find out is to write the book, unless someone else has already done it for you.”

These paradoxical crafted-with-care, you-better-watch-out qualities permeate Carter’s just released book of poems, The Swamp Monster at Home, just as they did her previously published book, The Memory of Gills. That book won the 2007 Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry.

Carter lives in Jackson County and teaches in Western Carolina University’s English department. She directs the English Education program. Carter is married to Brian Gastle, the English department’s head and a specialist in both medieval literature and professional writing.

Louisiana State University Press published The Swamp Monster at Home. The 68-page book was released Feb. 13.

Dive into Carter’s poems, and you know instantly that here is a person who takes form seriously, even — or most especially — when writing free verse. Carter writes knowing, respecting and honoring the rules of her craft, and she knows exactly when she should consider breaking them. The poems she writes are influenced by traditional poetic form.

That respect for craft shines through the selection of poems in The Swamp Monster at Home.

Carter sounded amused and bemused when talking about students who buck learning form because they fear doing so will “cramp” their style.

“Imagine a carpenter saying that learning to use a plane is going to ‘cramp’ his style,” Carter said, shaking her head in disbelief.

Carter’s poems generally begin as a solitary line that she hears in her mind’s ear.

“If I hear iambic pentameter, I know this is going to be a more formal poem. If it is loose, that tells me something else about the poem,” Carter said.

At age 44, Carter’s poetry is more reflective and perhaps more inwardly open and vulnerable than those pieces she’s published previously. And sense of place is strongly evident, whether Carter is writing about her tidewater home of Greensboro, Md., or about living here in Western North Carolina.

“The sense of place has been a preoccupation from the beginning, but it is a story I can’t seem to stop telling,” Carter said.

Take some of the imagery in the poem “Hydro Plant Accommodates Rafting Industry:”

 

“All the long drive upstream,

the rocks were knobby-dry,

the stream lay sullen, low and slow,

in broken symmetry.

Its mortal bones exposed.

Its quivering, glinting flesh

was gone to feed the power grid,

its slender nervous fish

cringing in too-warm pools ...

“The temporary flood

was short as autumn love,

with months of dust on either side

no torrent could remove,

but lit the day as love will.

Briefly the stream put on

its spangled flesh to resurrect

the shrunken skeleton.”

 

Carter grew up in a family that cared about literature. Her father was a biologist and her mother an English teacher. Both are now retired.

“My parents really rock, they are world-class parents,” said Carter.

Asking a writer who has influenced their work isn’t a very fair question, though it’s not unexpected in an interview. The truth is, of course, that everything a writer has ever read influences their subsequent work. That acknowledged, Carter in particular selected the work of Thomas Lux as shaping her later development as a poet. Lux is an internationally recognized writer who teaches at Georgia Tech.

“He has a dark and funny sensibility that really speaks to me,” said Carter, adding that one of her most productive and fulfilling periods as a writer occurred during a workshop/retreat led by Lux.

Carter also spoke with admiration about fellow Jackson County poets and writers Ron Rash and Kay Byer. She credits Byer for persuading LSU Press to seriously consider her first book of poems.

“That they even looked at it was because of Kay, and I owe that to her,” Carter said.


Carter to read at City Lights

Catherine Carter will read from The Swamp Monster at Home at 7 p.m. Friday, March 9, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.

 

A sampling

That Time Again

While I wake in the black

Early morning, the morning

star is Saturn, burning

yellow and steady in the window’s

icewater square like a warning

flare. You lumber toward the shower

and returning day, while in the winter

night Saturn and I

stare at each other, wary,

cold as two diamonds.

You have left your shirt

on the quilt, its warmth

turning thin in the chill.

After a while I lean

out stealthy and quick and catch

it under the cover by its collar,

hide it against my side

where Saturn won’t see.

 

November Evening, Splitting Firewood

A neighbor drones his leaves away

with a leafblower, another combs

his with a rasping rake, while in my leaves

I stand ankle-deep, braced to the slow

swing of the axe. The damp heavy logs

are splotched bright with fungal jelly

like orange marmalade, like flesh if flesh

were the color of goldfish. Witches’ butter:

in old stories it means a hex.

Maybe I’ll scoop it off the log.

Spread it on my neighbors’ toast,

act for the lost leaves.

Maybe there’ll be a golden quiver, an alien

taste, and then leaves

sifting over their quiet bodies,

slowly covering them under. But I

am the only witch here now,

writing dark thoughts

on the dry paper that whispers

under my soles, changing cold weight

and wood into heat, into light the color

of witches’ butter.

 

Promise Land

They’ve never seen it spelled,

I guess, only heard it said

in church: so when they write it down,

the Promised Land, heaven, becomes this other

thing, the Promise Land. Their heaven

is the land of promises, where

eternal checks are always in the mail

and every morning finds us in the gym.

Where those jeans, you swear, make me look small.

Where of course Monsanto doesn’t plot

to own each seed of every spear of corn.

Where your senators really read your mail. Where

we’ll see the beloved dead again, and never wish

we hadn’t. And it’s the land where you and I

can each admire and like and love the other

forever, forever, I promise, forever.

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