The Flapper Press Poetry Café Welcomes the Poet of Inbetweenness, Barbara Carlson
Updated: Mar 19
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets of all ages from across the globe. This week, we are happy to feature the work of Barbara Carlson.
Barbara Siegel Carlson’s chapbook Between the Hours was published by Finishing Line Press in 2022. She has three collections of poetry: What Drifted Here (Cherry Grove Collections 2023), Once in Every Language (Kelsay 2017), and Fire Road (Dream Horse Press 2013). Carlson is co-translator (with Ana Jelnikar) of Look Back, Look Ahead, Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel (2010). Her poetry and translations have appeared in American Journal of Poetry, Cortland Review, Mid-American Review, Salamander, and elsewhere. Carlson is Poetry in Translation Editor of Solstice and lives in Carver, Massachusetts.
Please meet Barbara Carlson!
Annie Newcomer: Welcome, Barbara. When I invited you to the Flapper Press Poetry Café and asked you to label yourself as a poet,you chose the tag "Poet of Inbetweenness." I immediately googled "inbetweenness" because, honestly, I didn't even know this was a word. It is, and I am fascinated. Might you share why you feel this is a good description of you and your work?
Barbara Carlson: We are not one thing or another, never in just one place. Literally we come from "between" our parents, between places. We live in between worlds, in between deaths, existing in the junctures, the transitions. We are always inhabiting and in between states of being—a contingency that is fluid and ever shifting. In sleep, we are between dreams, inhabiting that unknowable space. This fascinates me. In between is always in flux, timeless, translucent with other worlds. In reflecting on an image that carries emotional weight or meaning, I find myself exploring this energy exchange, where such forces collide as they correspond at the same time to something universal, spiritual.
AN: When I ready myself to read your poetry, I always try to enter with my A game because while your poems are brief on paper, they engage the mind deeply. If you could choose a poet whose work yours most mirrors, which poet might this be and why?
BC: In a recent review of Between the Hours, my poetry was compared to that of Jean Valentine, which was a huge honor. I’m not sure about a poet whose work mine most mirrors, but the poets I return to over and over for inspiration and sustenance are Valentine, Jean Follain, and W. S. Merwin. I have long felt a kinship to these three. Valentine speaks through a kind of elliptically intimate voice. It’s like she is whispering directly into my heart. Follain I return to for the way he captures scenes of the past in miniature that are both personal and historical, which then bring out a sense of eternity in a moment. The poems are deceptively clear but mysterious. Merwin actually introduced me to Follain through his book of translations by Follain called Transparence of the World, which I go back to over and over. I first read Merwin as a college freshman and have since felt drawn to his blend of the surreal and plain-spoken that is simultaneously grounded and ethereal. For a long time I felt him as a kind of spiritual guide.
AN: Last week, I was in the zoom audience for your reading with Moonstone Arts Center and you shared that the poems in your most recent poetry chapbook, Between the Hours, flowed organically and very quickly toward you and you simply gathered them up for your collection. Did I understand you correctly? And how can this be? I think of creating a poetry book as a lot of hard, technical work over years, so please explain.
BC: I can’t really explain how these poems came into being so quickly. I started writing them in the beginning of the pandemic, when we were in quarantine and our sense of routine was disrupted. I no longer had to leave my house to go teach, so I had more time, and I felt I had become suspended in time. In fact, this rupture was a space that seemed to open a great reserve of psychic energy, as though a spring had been unleashed. My dreams were more vivid than ever. I remember waking up a few times stunned, as though I had come from another world and so became more aware of living somewhere between worlds. I don’t remember writing some of the poems. I was reading, or should I say re-reading W. S. Merwin’s book Present Company, where he directly addresses a person, place, thing, or feeling and, in doing so, accesses different dimensions of being. I placed the poems in mostly chronological order, with a few others interspersed that came later.
AN: At the Moonstone Arts reading you shared a prompt that you sometimes use where you randomly open a book and allow your finger to land on a word. Then you do this again and again, finding more words. Might you share this prompt in its entirety and how you use these "found" words to get you writing, and why you think this strategy works for you and might for our readers?
BC: Several years ago, I heard about indigenous peoples’ medicine walks—that by taking a walk one can find answers to inner questions in signs along the route. We have to learn to read them, though. There are signs along every path we take; for example, in an odd piece of wood or the way the weeds blow along a route, and what we set our eyes upon without thinking is often symbolic of whatever it is we need to learn from. It’s a kind of letting your intuition take the reins, a chance to forget our self—our daily concerns, ego, and let the world guide us. And it will if we are open to it. Open any book to land on a word that resonates. Turn the page and do it again and again. I tend to open books by those whose works inspire and stimulate me. But not always. Then when you have a few words, let the words take and lead you through the poem, almost like you are following a route to somewhere you’ve never been.
AN: Barbara, my next several questions involve the topic of translation. I have read many times that "the very existence of world literature stands upon translation." What I observed in class when I met you at River Pretty (a wonderful weekend workshop opportunity in Tecumseh, Missouri) is that your face would light up whenever you shared about translating as an integral aspect of your poetry work, including the country you chose to connect with, the love of their language and how you became involved in translating.
Please describe why translating other poets' work brings you joy and why it is important. How can one translate a poem from another language that they may not be fluent in? Is this even possible? Should every poet try translating at least one poem? What are the best ways to approach the process of translating?
BC: Translation is a kind of extraordinarily close reading. You are literally getting inside, or as close as possible, to the spirit that animates the language of the poem. The language is its heart-blood. It certainly helps to know another language, but you don’t have to be fluent in it. Maybe you feel drawn to the voice of a poet that someone else has translated but you want to get closer or see what else is there. Merwin followed Ezra Pound’s advice to him that translating would teach him his own language. It’s like being led up a mountain trail blindfolded and wearing someone else’s shoes. You have to pay close attention to every aspect of the route through the language; not only the meaning of the words but their associations, images, sounds, tones, and rhythms, as well as the grammatical structures, which can never correspond directly to the original. Each language contains words that have no direct translation into another language. So it’s approximation, ambiguity, and intuition. It’s what Gwendolyn Brooks called (though she was referring to poetry-writing) “a delicious agony,” getting inside another frame of reference and being guided through another’s perception of an experience based not only on their words but on their culture, time, attitude, personality, and aesthetic.
Translating helps expand the way you use language, as you try out a different orientation. The Slovene poet Srečko Kosovel (1904–1926) , whose work I co-translated with my dear friend and collaborator Ana Jelnikar, stretched my scope of what a poem is and can be. It’s a love of the process of feeling your way through and between languages to find the gift of another’s insight and then finding correspondences and equivalences in the target language that capture a similar tone and spirit. Each translator interprets in a different way, based on their orientations, style, attitudes, aesthetics, time, culture, and place. Ana and I approach differently as well, since she understands the original and I don’t. I have studied the language a bit, done some historical research, visited Kosovel’s home, and read some about him. But I’m no expert. I do feel inexplicably connected to him and think it’s important to feel drawn to the poet you are translating, even if you don’t know the language. You can usually find someone to provide a literal translation. Google Translate is there, and while the word-for-word transcription is not accurate, it can give a sketch of the poem. You can always read a number of translations of a poet you like and then write off of those. There is always room for another’s vision. Translation enriches everyone. I am currently working with the Slovene poet Miriam Drev, who has helped me to see my own work differently and brought me to a greater understanding of her culture and reality. Translation opens channels between cultures and languages, deepening connections on every level.
AN: Barbara, please ask yourself a question that I didn't ask and you wish I had and then answer.
BC: “If there is one piece of advice that has helped you as writer of poetry, what is it?”
A while back I read in an interview by Jean Valentine that after her initial drafting of a poem, and perhaps after subsequent revisions, she takes out everything that isn’t alive, and what remains is the poem. So that advice I keep tucked in my mind.
AN: I truly appreciate your visiting with us in the Poetry Café, Barbara. Now I will ask you to share some of your poetry with their back stories for our readers. Please stay in touch and keep us updated on your future work.
BC: Thank you, Annie! It has been an honor and a privilege to be able to correspond with you.
5 poems from Between the Hours:
I used to dream of fires in our house and had an extremely vivid one when my children were young of standing on my neighbor’s porch dressed only in my nightgown as I watched our house burn down. When I was two, we had a house fire and had to move. As a child, I spent hours making and playing with paper dolls. I would make one of myself, wanting to have big deep eyes that really looked like mine, but I often ended up tearing holes in the paper.
Our house caught fire
when I was a child—
later I drew myself as a paper doll
penciling the eyes so
fervently I fell through
a burning floor where beams dissolved
into the unfathomable bed
of dreams that couldn’t be stilled—
what flows through the world
like a single flame
lighting our eyes
when we open them.
When I look at water on bright afternoons, I’m struck by the myriads of sparks and mystified by how everything has been recorded in this cosmic light, all of the history of everyone who ever lived, along with their thoughts and feelings. Heraclitus is one of, if not the, most mysterious of the early Greek philosophers. Only a fragment of his work remains.
This afternoon the pond appears radiant
with infinite sparks.
Heraclitus believed the soul was fire.
And so, it burns
but is never consumed, its power
a secret that doesn’t
stop flowing. Heraclitus’s book
is lost in the light.
One of the themes running through the chapbook is time—the paradox and mystery of it, and how its passage and infinitude is painted with our dreams, whether in sleep or during waking hours. Every morning I wake up amazed at how time ceases to exist when we dream. We are linked to another dimension when we sleep.
In sleep they seem to shrink if not vanish altogether into half-visions and swiftly moving scenes of a story entire in each fragment. A voice, road, part of a room or door half open. If it’s a neighborhood, it’s both strange and familiar with an ocean at the back door. If it’s a house we grew up in, there are rooms we never saw in a wing we never entered. If there’s a child grown up, the child is young again, half-wild, lost or drowning. The enemy might be a friend, the stranger your lover. Anyone can enter, any animal can come after you. Anything can come inside, only there is no inside, only darkness where you have been.
There is a letting go of mind that happens to me when I write—a surrender. I’m being guided by a higher power. Sometimes I do this exercise of opening a book, putting my finger on a word as though it is a sign to find where I need to go and what I need to hear to understand something. Each word becomes a path to the message I am being guided toward. I need only be open to it and follow where it leads.
Open a Book to Any Page
and read the first word you see
It’s loom today
The next beneath
and the third enigma