Carrie Etter Interview

Carrie Etter Interview

Carrie Etter

The Plaza Prizes: An Interview with Judge and Poet, Carrie Etter

Helen Pletts, Second Prize winner in the Prose Poetry Competition 2022-23,The Plaza Prizes, in conversation with Carrie Etter, who is the Prose Poetry Competition Judge for 2023-24.

Carrie is an American poet, originally from Normal, Illinois, who has lived in England since 2001. She has published four poetry collections: The Tethers (Seren, 2009), winner of the London New Poetry Prize, Divining for Starters (Shearsman, 2011), Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014), shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and The Weather in Normal (Seren, 2018), a Poetry Book Society recommendation. Her fifth collection, Grief’s Alphabet, is forthcoming from Seren Books in April.

Her poems have appeared in Boston Review, the Iowa Review, The New Republic, The New Statesman, The Guardian, The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, Poetry Review, The Rialto, Shenandoah (US), Westerly (AUS) and The Times Literary Supplement. She also edited the anthology Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman, 2010), a TLS Book of the Year, and Linda Lamus’s posthumous collection, A Crater the Size of Calcutta (Mulfran, 2015). She has received grants from the Society of Authors and Arts Council England and also publishes short stories, essays and reviews. After eighteen years teaching at Bath Spa University, in 2022 she joined the creative writing faculty at the University of Bristol.

1. Why poetry? Tell us about that first spark to getting you hooked? Early influences?

I began writing poetry outside of school at the age of 11, but only really began reading poetry widely four years later, when I accidentally found the literary magazine collection at the university library. I was there to do research for the debate team, ended up on the wrong floor, and voila! The first poetry collections I remember buying were Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language and Linda Gregg’s Too Bright to See, and as Gwendolyn Brooks was Illinois Poet Laureate while I was in high school, I encountered her work then as well.

Why poetry? Its distillation, its intensity, its play of language and technique. It’s where I go to understand myself and the world.

2. How does an American poet, with four collections to date, come to be in the UK?

I was finishing my PhD in Victorian fiction for the University of California, Irvine, and I came to the British Library to research for and write my thesis. I thought I’d just be here for a year or two, but on finishing my PhD in 2003, I was hired to teach part-time at the University of Hertfordshire, and the following year Bath Spa University offered me a permanent post.

3. Your fifth collection,Grief’s Alphabet, due from Seren Books in April 2024, is about your relationship with your mum and her unexpected loss. Can you give us a highlight, focussing on a few key lines?

Grief’s Alphabet is essentially a memoir in poetry, relating in the first section our relationship, showing what we experienced as a family, to her unexpected death and the immediate aftermath in the second section, to the long work of mourning in the last section. Here’s one key line: ‘Lifelong I daughter.’

4. You’re a member of the creative writing faculty at Bristol University, your home from home, how do you find life as an expat? Whose poetry are you reading and/or teaching currently?

Life as an expat is strange in that I feel neither English nor American, but here people always regard me as American and in the US people seem to regard me as ‘other’ somehow because I live abroad. This week I was teaching the work of another expat, Mary Jean Chan, and I’m reading Joyelle McSweeney’s incredible Toxicon and Arachne.

I also routinely teach an online prose poetry course, Reading to Write Prose Poetry, where each week for five weeks we look at prose poems by a particular poet and try a writing exercise arising in some way from the work. Teaching online allows me to reach a wider base–in my last class there were participants based in Greece, Australia, and the US.

5. Have you any future writing projects in mind that you hope to achieve?

Quite a few! I’m currently editing Claire Crowther’s Sense and Nonsense: Essays and Interviews for Shearsman Books and working on a short story collection. There are more I have in mind, but I’ll stop there.

6. What will you be looking for as the Prose Poetry Competition Judge? What do you love about Prose Poetry?

Whereas lineated poems require some kind of trajectory or progression, prose poems inhabit a single idea, feeling, or mood, and I love that prose poetry can provide another vehicle for poetry, just as other forms do. I’ll be looking for prose poetry that shows awareness of the kind of cohesion a successful prose poem requires and fresh imagery.

7. Can we hear about your favourite things, I know you love cats?

My loves beyond writing, teaching, and reading include cats and cooking–the evidence is on Instagram.

8. Who is the author of your current bedside book?

I don’t keep books on my bedside, but I’m currently listening to The Seven Moons of Mali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, which won the Booker Prize last year. It’s outrageously inventive, brutal, and funny.