Carolina Ebeid is the author of You Ask Me To Talk About The Interior, selected by Poets & Writers as one of the ten best debut collections of 2016. She has won awards and fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry, CantoMundo, The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Academy of American Poets. She was awarded an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry for 2015. She holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers and is a PhD candidate in the University of Denver's creative writing program, where she serves as Associate Editor of the Denver Quarterly.
In September, she visited Phoenix to participate in the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Piper Writer’s Studio and was interviewed by HFR Associate Editor Maritza Estrada and photographed by Piper Center Education Programs Manager Felicia Zamora.
Maritza Estrada: First, I just want to start off and say congrats on your book, You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior,for existing out in public for two years. That’s such a cool accomplishment. And congrats on your latest poem, “Annotations for a Memorial,” published in PoetryMagazine. When books have been published and have existed out in public for a few years, I think it’s important to pause and reflect because with publishing and the poetry world, etc., it feels like everything is going forward so fast.
When I was reading your poems, I often paused because it felt like there were a lot of layers involved with them. In some ways, I’d become a surgeon dissecting these poems, which was good because some books feel like they just pass over our heads, but with your language it almost felt like a gentle command. For example, in the poem, “Waiting Room,” I noticed there is an interesting exploration of the crisis the speaker’s father experiences in the waiting room. The themes of inherited languages, diseases, and what the uncertain future holds for the body really struck me, especially with the section where it says:
You may hold an idea of the body
as a junky steel contraption that can
be fixed. A figment of propellers here & at the center
an heirloom engine, oiled & intricate.
Even that, the word play or the word choice, and the gentle command, made me pause. There was an urgency in that and a pace involved. What was your process composing the order of the book, as it was done quite intricately and precisely?
Carolina Ebeid: Some of the poems in that book are very, very old. I composed maybe two versions of the poems in my early twenties. It was strange putting [You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior] together, as opposed to this book that I’m writing right now in which the poems will have been written in a five-year span. I can see better, in this book, what might need to go first. I can see an arc better. With [You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior] I had a harder time seeing an arc, but I just trusted that poetry itself and the right reader will make connections where I don’t necessarily see them. The right reader will see these repeating images, which I knew were there. In some ways also, the “Punctum”poems—those prose poems which come out of an essay that I had to write for my MFA thesis—those, I pulled apart and I put them throughout the book so that I could see a kind of structure, some kind of line interrupted but running through.
Estrada: This makes me think of place because when you wrote these poems, you were “in it” in your early twenties. Years after when you reflect on your experience it’s so much easier to see “Oh ok, maybe it wasn’t as clear then, but I knew.” One of my professors recently, in class, said, with place, sometimes when you write about home it’s so much easier to do it when you are not in your home anymore.
Ebeid: And I would say that most of the poems were written during the MFA. So, there was certainly the momentum to make thesis deadlines. You are just expected to produce. I thrived in that environment.
Estrada: You got your MFA at the Michener Center for Writers. How was your experience with the MFA program?
Ebeid: I loved it. That’s not to say that the program itself is going to be a great fit for everyone. When I went, Dean Young was the only permanent poetry faculty there. He was great for my imagination. He really taught me how to read and evaluate work that is in progress. He gave me a confidence in the critical apparatus that I didn’t have before the MFA. As students we relied on visiting faculty. I got to work with Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who was wonderful. She came twice, and she was important to my experience.
Estrada: I’d love to go back to the overarching theme of [You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior]. For me, as a reader, it was evident from the first read and then again on the second read. I saw myself underlining words and noticing, “Ok, these words are repeating, this is the canon of the book,” like the horses, the larynx, and the boy. There are so many words that you repeat.
And in the section breaks in the “Veronicas of a Matador,” it is cool to see them as glimpses into, in one section, for instance, medical terminology, in another, a window opening to the son or family, and so my next question is: There appears to be a distance in the second section of the book compared to the first section—the language becomes sort of a ghost-like dance. Particularly, in the poem, “Veronicas of a Matador,” in the section what are years?, you refer to a boy as theboy, almost as if the speaker cannot find the right words to connect with the boy. I think there are two previous poems that talk about the word, “echolalia”, which sounds more like a concert lute but means the compulsive repetition of meaningless phrases. I kept going back to those same poems that spoke to each other. My question is: Why theboy, not aboy?
Ebeid: That’s a great question. And I guess I have the same question. Why theboy and not aboy? I suppose that I made a conscious decision not to say “my son,” and there are various reasons. One might be a kind of social pressure to demure writing about motherhood (a pressure that I was not very conscious of, I must say). But I also chose that wording because of my own aesthetic preference for “the boy” as opposed to “my son.” “My son” becomes too local and singular. I need some kind of cognitive distance to write about family. At the same time, theboy does locate it in a time or space more precisely than aboy. I couldn’t name the boy Patrick though that ishis name, and I couldn’t say “my son,” because I didn’t want it to be as confessional as that. But I’m not sure that I answered your question, because you said so many interesting things about ghostly distance.
Estrada: Throughout the book it’s sort of like you take one step forward, one step back using the language and the many voices and subjects that are being explored. As a reader I’m like, “Ok, I’ll go with it. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’ll go with it.” With each section break it’s like, “Ok, I’ll open this window and then this one,” and I don’t know what to expect.
Ebeid: I like the idea that stanza, at its root, is Italian for “room.” It is such a good metaphor for part of a poem to be like a room. I think a window serves as a good metaphor, like a room does—in each stanza you’re encountering a new room, and this room has a different feeling from thatroom, right? When you’re in one stanza, it could feel bigger, another might feel slightly colder, the shades are down so it’s darker. And I think that happens in a poem, that there can be that kind of contrast from room to room, and that’s what the reader does, walks through the poem.
Estrada: Yeah—everythingislike a poem. What’s also interesting is how you described the setting of this interview, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing: we’re here but there is no one here…. There are these empty seats…. We have this ghost-like audience.
Ebeid: It is, right!? They are facing us. Yeah, maybe there are people in here.
Estrada: In “Punctum/The Transom” you say: “There is a quality about the rectangular shape of a stanza that is suggestive of a window pane, a sheet of glass through which we can see into another place.” Now, I’m in an altogether other room, this one filled with daylight. I like how it’s bringing us full circle to that stanza again, with the windows, and rooms.
Ebeid: The rectangular shape is so important to so much of our lives. And so much of art, I would say. So much representational art has a frame. Paintings and photographs are rectangular. And then books of course—they’re the most important rectangle in my psyche. Books have really always been rectangular. It is lovely to encounter something that isn’t, that’s a circle or an oval. So it has to be something that we contend with—the television, our phones. We are constantly looking through and at the things happening at the center of these corners.
Estrada: It’s interesting to wonder what might be on the other side. We are always looking at something like a screen, but what’s behind that screen? Maybe this poem is in between that, kind of pushing and going back and forth.
Ebeid: I would say so. And I think that that’s, first of all, really wise. I always think that the poem—as well as the reader receiving it—is smarter than the poet who has written it. That’s the magic of poetry, that it communicates in ways that I as the writer never could anticipate fully.
The punctum, the actual piercing of something, the kind of tear or wound it makes on the skin, let’s say, is not symmetrical in that way. It’s not a circle, or a rectangle, or something with angles. But with the wound, there is an interior and exterior, there is a going in and out.
Estrada: With regard to the MFA experience, I want to go back there a little bit, just because it sounds like it’s a frequent question: Is it worth it or not worth it? Should I apply or not apply?
Ebeid: Yes, apply! An ideal MFA program will be an environment that surround you with books and vibrant ideas, and you will work alongside people who are themselves writing and reading in a concentrated time. There is a palpable energy to entering a space where people are creating; it’s like feeling the bass from large speakers moving through your body. The best MFA environments teach you to fail, and try, and try, and write again. To keep writing and reading.
Estrada: Are you currently a Ph.D. candidate in University of Denver, the creative writing program? What’s happening now in the Ph.D. program?
Ebeid: I’ve finished all my classes. I passed my comprehensive exams. And now, I’m going to be defending my dissertation sometime this Spring. My manuscript isn’t finished, but I will finish it very soon. And I have to finish the essay that I’m writing. We do write a creative dissertation, a creative piece depending on your genre, and then accompany the creative portion with a critical essay that can serve as a foreword or afterword—something to contextualize the work. I’m writing about the poetics of whispering. There is a film called El espíritu de la colmena. It’s from Spain, made in the 70s, and there is a lot of whispering in it. I’m looking at Chilean poets—Cecilia Vicuña—making a little constellation of whispering.
Estrada: Raúl Zurita?
Ebeid: I love Raúl Zurita. He actually came to DU and I was charged with picking him up from the airport. I don’t drive, but my husband does so we picked him up. It was magical.
Estrada: I recently watched a video of him online reading poems, and I was just like, it’s so soothing… each word that escapes his mouth.
Ebeid: And he is so important to Chilean literature. Really, to literature from all over Central and South America. He sells out—stadiums of people come out to see him. It’s remarkable.
Estrada: What you’re doing with the whispering is awesome. That is such a cool dissertation.
Ebeid: I finally understand a way to talk about my work and talk about the work I love. There are so many discourses about silence in poetry. There is white space as being silent, and that has never appealed to me. Now I have this idea of whispering, which is so different from silence even though they share similarities.
Estrada: Me too. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for that. I hear that you are currently working on a project titled Hide. Is that what your manuscript is?
Estrada: Ok, cool. And you said it’s nearly done?
Ebeid: It’s so hard to say. There seem to be many stages of doneness. So many curtains to walk through. Do you want me to talk about that?
Estrada: Yeah, with Hide, when I first read that I was like, I know that I need to google the many definitions of hide, because we’ve been talking about canon and lexicons, etc. I’m sure you’ve done this too. There are many definitions of the verb. 1a: to put out of sight: secrete; 1b: to conceal for shelter or protection: shield. 2: to keep secret. 3: to screen from or as if from view: obscure. 4: to turn (the eyes or face) away in shame or anger. The noun: 1. the skin of an animal whether raw or prepared for use—used especially of large heavy skins, and then 2. the life or physical well-being of a person (Merriam-Webster). So, I was just wondering if you could unpack what hide might mean.
Ebeid: It’s great, isn’t it? Clearly, we are cut from the same cloth, you and I. I live in the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary. Do you have access to that? You must have access to that. And I just need to take a second to talk about how wonderful the OED is online. There is the book version of it which is hard to get into, but online, it’s wonderful because not only do you get all the variations of a word like that, but you get the first time that words appear in writing, in English. I like to see the lineages of words, as they trace them, the histories imprinted in each word. Does it come from the Old English? Germanic? Does it come from French? Is it Spanish? Latin?
For me, the two primary definitions of hide are what I find attractive and what helps me write. To hide, to conceal, and all that that means, to keep secret. There is the playful hide; hide and seek. But there are also the very violent and dangerous connotations to hide, that which must be kept safe. One might need to hide from a shooter! One may need to conceal part of their identity because of some inherent threat. There is also the hide of an animal, which also seems fraught with danger and violence.
I’m also really attracted to the idea of early manuscript writing happening on vellum. Vellum is made from the skins of animals and treated so that one can have a very thin and almost translucent surface upon which to write. Usually, the most prized vellum was taken from calves really early, just in utero. Somebody would literally reach in and pull out, in utero, this unborn calf. And that was really good, because it didn’t have a lot of hair, and it was kind of translucent in and of itself.
Vellum often had the quality of the palimpsest. Do you know what the palimpsest is? This is something that you are going to hear in the next few years in your MFA, because writers/scholars use it as a metaphor very often. So, imagine a piece of vellum, very prized, expensive, unlike paper which is ubiquitous. Such surfaces often had to be reused, so the writing would have to be scraped away. But that scratching away doesn’t really get rid of everything. The new writing would still show through some of the previous writing like a ghost of it. That’s the idea of the palimpsest, which is really provocative when you think of how we are writing against ancestors, or how, in our writing, we can see what came before. I see a kind of whispering there.
Estrada: Thank you so much, Carolina.
Maritza N. Estrada is an MFA candidate in poetry at Arizona State University, an associate editor at Hayden's Ferry Review, and holds a BFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is the recipient of the 2019 Virginia G. Piper Creative Research Fellowship, winner of the Mabelle A. Lyon Poetry Award, and alumna in Winter Tangerine's workshop at Poets House. Her work can be found in Río Grande Review, The Flat Waters Stirs: An Anthology of Emerging Nebraska Poets, Misbehaving Nebraskans Anthology, and 13th Floor Magazine. Estrada was born in Washington, raised in Nebraska, and is marking residencia in Arizona.