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.
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.
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.