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"Don't You See?": An Interview with Carrie Addington

Carrie Addington’s poems have appeared in Poet Lore, American Literary Review, Margie, Gargoyle, JMWW and are forthcoming in Waxwing. She is the recipient of the Virginia Downs Poetry Award, the American Literary Review Poetry Award, and a Pushcart nominee. She received a Master of Fine Arts, Poetry degree from George Mason University and currently resides in Northern Virginia where she works as a Business Consultant in the fashion/beauty industry and teaches creative writing at NVCC.

Her poem, "Ode to the Cortex," appeared in Issue Sixty-Nine of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviewer Allison Jarrett miscommunication, extended metaphor, and the ways in which language and meaning rub up against one another.

Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of your poem, “Ode to the Cortex”?

I don’t recall exactly when or how it came about, though I do remember this poem trying to become a Sapphic Ode at one point and failing miserably. I also remember someone telling me they think I hide behind my hair and that stuck with me. There’s an intersection of these two concepts that are so absurdly different, hair and the dissolution of a relationship, but really they’re no more absurd than the notion of two different people trying to communicate and mucking it all up because of the differences in their individual contexts.

This poem is interested in the ways in which we consistently “miss” in our communication efforts. It really began as an examination of conversational patterns and the ways in which language and meaning rub up against one another and the friction that exists. I’m fascinated by our ability as people to set the intention to communicate clearly, even at times arrive at a common understanding, and how greatly we can miss the opportunity for real connection. We can be conversing about two separate things and never bridge the meaning gap. Using extended metaphor allowed me to elevate this tension to the forefront of the poem.

“Cortex” operates through extended metaphor: the cortex of the hair seems to represent something fragile or transitory about the relationship between the speaker and the person being addressed. One aspect of the connective tissue of the metaphor is voiced subtly towards the poem’s close with “any bond / can be broken.” What was your process like in developing the metaphor? Which came first, your idea for the metaphor, or the desire to express that which the metaphor represents?

Using the language of my experience as a consultant in the beauty industry allowed for me to interrogate the subject matter at a distance, using something superficial to describe something absolutely wretched in its broken-down-ness. When we talk about hair, we often are trying to disguise whatever damage exists in the inner most layers, the cortex, and we are dressing up the external layers to look “beautiful.” I was interested in using the hair as representative of that internal layer where the fragility and integrity of  something is compromised and the ways in which we disguise it, even the ways in which we talk around its destruction.

I enjoy the friction and tension of these two things rubbing against each other, getting gritty in their opposition all at an attempt at arriving at a common understanding that is never truly realized. In this case, the ways in which a fragile, transitory moment in a relationship between the speaker and the “you” is broken down at the core, yet looks normal and functional on the outside. Additionally I’m interested in the ways in which we talk around things, even when our intention is to be pure, crisp, and direct. There’s a limitation that exists in our ability to communicate clearly, even effectively, and I wanted to interrogate that.

I’m not sure either the idea for the metaphor or that which it expresses came first, they happened quite simultaneously for this poem. I was wanting to explore this disconnect that occurs but hair and the integrity of the hair’s strength and health was front and center as I began writing. Ironically, it was a happy union of the two describing the inevitable breakdown of something else. The metaphor here is layered and continues to build much like the tension between the speaker and the “you,” so resolution is more abstract than the intention of the poem wants it to be. What I enjoy most in writing in extended metaphor, which happens in a lot of my work, is the ability to explain things clearly and complicate it, sometimes simultaneously.

This poem has the feeling of a dramatic monologue in which the speaker is struggling to make the “you” of the poem understand something. The poem ends with a repeated question: “Don’t you see / what I’m saying? Don’t you see?” How successful is the speaker? How much does the addressee understand at the end of the poem?

I don’t think the speaker is successful at all, and I was surprised by that as the poem came to life. I think this speaker is a master of having lengthy conversations to clear misunderstandings while only creating more confusion. The repetition at the close of the poem exhibits the speaker’s understanding of that fact. This speaker is tormented by the confusion that occurs and the questions at the end of the poem serve as a verbal shaking of the “you,” because the speaker has ended up exactly where she began with a conversation stalled, a disconnect, a permanent severing of a thing.

The speaker uses terminology and references to hair – a world familiar only to the speaker – to communicate with someone else and herein lies the breakdown. There is a consistent miscommunication happening in terms of what is said by the speaker and the correlations drawn by the “you.” I wanted to toe the line between mystery and implication, and I think this poem does that. Mystery is not poetry to me but implication does a great deal of good work. I wanted there to be a contextual shift with each unraveling of meaning, with each “as in” phrasing that occurred.

What are you currently reading?

The books that are constantly put in my bag to read in between appointments are Denise Duhamel’s Blowout and Matthew Siegel’s Blood Work. The books on my nightstand are Carl Phillip’s Art of Daring, Brian Russell’s The Year of What Now, and Jillian Weise’s The Book of Goodbyes. The books sharing the bed with me and hogging the covers are Terrance Hayes’ Hip Logic and Mark Strand’s Selected Poems. The Lives of Distinguished Shoe Makers and People StyleWatch are in my car for heavy traffic days.

What writing projects are you working on?

I’m in the throes of revision on a collection of poems that is exploring the understanding of the fashion and beauty industry.  As New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham states, “fashion serves as the armor to survive the reality of the everyday” and I’m interested in investigating our subscription to that mindset, our ritualistic behaviors in this arena. I’m also finishing my first manuscript that is dealing largely with mortality and illness, specifically, the afterlife of a “new” body, a “new” heart that despite all loss is tuned to a new frequency to love and exist differently.

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