Anders Carlson-Wee is the author of The Low Passions (W.W. Norton, 2019). His work has appeared widely, including in BuzzFeed, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Poetry Daily, The Sun, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and the Napa Valley Writers' Conference, he is the winner of the 2017 Poetry International Prize. His work has been translated into Chinese. Anders holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and lives in Minneapolis. Follow Anders on Twitter: AndersWeePoet / www.anderscarlsonwee.com
His poem, "Jim Tucker Lets Me Sleep in His Treehouse," appeared in Issue Eighty-Five of The Rupture.
Here, he speaks with Angela Redmond-Theodore about layers of meaning, listening, and letting go.
Here is a memory that reads like a poem. Or is it a poem that reads like a memory? How did "Jim Tucker Lets Me Sleep in His Treehouse" come to life?
The genesis of this poem was Jim Tucker's voice in my head saying, "That there's four inches, that's three, that's three and a quarter, that's five, that's five, that's four, and I can go on like that." Those lines looped over and over in my head. The language is musical, and that hooked me, but I felt a compulsion to excavate the layers of meaning hidden in his words. There's this deep pride in the voice, boasting of his eye's accuracy for measurements—yet his true intention is the assertion that his son was even better at such measurements (as he says in the next lines). It's a personal pride that sets up for a much deeper paternal pride. The paternal pride then becomes tragic as Jim Tucker shares that his son is now dead, that he lost his son to the war. But it took drafting the poem to begin to see what was hidden in those lines.
Your use of enjambment takes the poem from line to line, from the top of the page to the bottom, beautifully suited to the monologue describing the construction of the treehouse. Can you talk about your diction and form choices?
I have dyslexia. As a child it took me a long time to learn how to read and write. I did what's called "mirror writing"—I wrote backwards, and if you held it up to a mirror, it looked correct. Dyslexia made me wary of written language, but more trusting of oral speech. Even when I was very young I had an ear for hearing and memorizing how people talk: phrasings, speech tics, and so on. My parents joke that when I was little, if I overheard adults quoting lines from a sitcom, I'd interrupt and say, "No, that's not actually what they said, they said this—" and then I'd quote the dialogue verbatim. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time listening, continuing to develop my ear for speech. Jim Tucker's diction is based on a couple sources, combined. But as a writer, you also have to alter certain elements of speech to make the speech feel real on the page. In other words, you have to make it artificial to make it natural. It's a strange, counterintuitive process. To quote the poet Jack Gilbert, writing about Degas: "Degas said he didn't paint / what he saw, but what / would enable them to see / the thing he had."
The poem ends with a few surprises: first, the introduction of the speaker's wife, and, secondly, the insertion of the speaker's name, and a joke—Bet you never heard that one before.In hindsight, the poem reads as if it could not have ended any other way, that it was headed in this single direction. Did you have the ending in mind early on? How did these lines take shape?
The ending is as much a surprise to me as it is to you—yet it also felt inevitable once I got there. I think the secret is letting go of intent. Instead, invest entirely in character and the music of language. If you've truly fallen into your character, with a kind of abandonment, they won't say anything they don't want to say. They'll say exactly what they mean to say, which often surprises the writer as much as the reader. While writing this poem, if I was in control of the voice, there's no way in a million years it would have ended on a joke.
Reading is such an important aspect of a writer's life. Do you make a practice of reading, or do you read in a more spontaneous, casual way? What are you reading for relaxation these days?
I read a lot, as a practice. I'm currently reading A Separation by Katie Kitamura; Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems by Dorianne Laux; Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin; and "The Cave Man Cometh," an article on Neanderthals in the current issue of Smithsonian. I just finished Kudos by Rachel Cusk. Looking forward to reading There There by Tommy Orange; The Book of Delights by Ross Gay; Vantage by Taneum Bambrick; and Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral. Awaiting new works from Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy.
What are you working on that you look forward to bringing to a reader's eyes?
I'll never tell. I'm working on a new book and it will take me a long time.