The Art of Confession

Poet Julie Carr on the stigma & the power of confessional writing

The experience I had reading Julie Carr’s Objects from a Borrowed Confession was one that I’ve had only a handful of times, in a life that often feels constituted more of reading experiences than of any other kind. It’s the feeling I had when I first read Bluets by Maggie Nelson, a book I’ve purchased and foisted upon innumerable friends and lovers. It’s the feeling I had when I discovered the work of Jenny Boully, a writer whose work I return to over and over again, so known do I feel by that which she captures, miraculously, in language. And now there is Carr’s Objects from a Borrowed Confession, a book that instantly demanded real estate alongside Nelson, Boully, and my beloved Joy Williams on my “In Case of Fire” shelf.

Carr is, by trade, a poet, though the question that feels the least interesting about the ten pieces compiled in this book is how to designate or categorize them. Carr is a pyromaniac when it comes to form and genre, torching those limiting structures and allowing instead for the content and concerns of any given piece to necessitate the manner in which it will appear on the page. Broadly speaking, the primary interest taken up by each of the pieces in Objects from a Borrowed Confession could be said to be — well, confession. In her Author’s Statement, Carr writes, “I wanted to understand what the act of confession has to do with intimacy, empathy and subjectivity.” And it’s true that this search for understanding is manifest in pieces like “What do we want to know and how far are we willing to go to get it?” — the epistolary novella that begins the collection — and in the book’s remarkable center-piece, “The War Reporter: On Confession,” which enlists two seemingly disparate sources — the letters of Martha Gellhorn and T.J. Clark’s mesmerizing The Sight of Death — to further advance and complicate the matter and meaning of the so-called confessional. But it’s Carr’s radical willingness, her nonpareil intellect, and her insatiate curiosity that authorizes — that forces — the pieces in Objects to brim over the banks of their purported subject matter and survey, with stunning precision, something new, so that an essay on the relationship between sleep, poetry, and narrative time can also accommodate a deeply moving through line which recollects Carr’s mother, dying of Alzheimer’s disease, while also probing our blinding, collective impassivity in the face of gun violence. The utmost pleasure, then, of reading Objects from a Borrowed Confession is watching as Carr, with stunning lucidity, goes about the business of disentangling the tangled and knotting the untied.

It was productively difficult and not a little intimidating, preparing questions in advance of speaking with Julie Carr by phone. Luckily, she is more kind and thoughtful than I could’ve imagined, and met me and my prolixity with total generosity. Some elaboration and trimming was done afterward by email.

Vincent Scarpa: I wondered if you could begin by talking a bit about the origin of your interest in the confessional as a mode. You talk in your author’s note about the disjunct you experienced when hearing ‘confessional’ as a kind of pejorative lodged against Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich, these poets who were important to you as a young writer.

Julie Carr: Well, first let me thank you for engaging the book. To attempt an answer I’ll say that I think it was a little bit of an East Coast/West Coast situation. I’m from the East Coast, I grew up in Boston. As a kid, I read a lot of poetry; mostly Emily Dickinson at first. When I decided I was going to be a poet — I was around 10 the first time I decided that — I read whatever was around, and what was around were the Boston confessional writers. So the first poets I loved as a teenager were, you know, Merwin, Roethke — of course Plath. Later on, in my twenties, Adrienne Rich was the most important poet to me. And Denise Levertov. I did my MFA at NYU, and the people teaching then — Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell — were the post-confessional writers. But at that point I’d already begun to be interested in more experimental writing, as well as slam and performance poetry that was going on in the city.

When I left NYU and eventually went to Berkeley, I had the East Coast in my blood. The sense of the feminism of confessional writing was very strong. That was what I understood feminist writing to be: truth-telling, political. I certainly knew about language poetry before I got to Berkeley, but the scene was so influenced by it at that time. This would’ve been the early 2000s. And there was this disdain for the confessional that came from some — not all, but some — of the language poets. I didn’t understand what the venom around it was about. It was in the air in ways that were very unpleasant. If you went to a reading and someone read something that was even remotely confessional or personal, there’d be this group sneer that would happen. I don’t know what that scene is like now, but in those years it was kind of tough.

So I was trying to understand all of this and then I had what I call my “Alice Notley moment,” which was this key moment for me in understanding what I was going to do in my own work. I absolutely adored Alice Notley — I still do — and I really loved her book Mysteries of Small Houses. It deals really directly with motherhood, and at that point I had two little kids. And what was great about it was that she didn’t seem to have any kind of filter in that book. Political rage, personal narrative, overheard language, the mythic, the learned — she allowed for all of them to coexist. That was immensely exciting to me. She came to give a reading, and during the Q&A I asked about her use of real life — by which I meant her life as a mother — in the poems. She’s known to be very acerbic, you know, and so she answered, “Well, there’s no such thing as real life,” and dismissed the question. I felt completely confused, I felt hurt, I felt like I was being told that my question was naive. It was a sort of post-modern answer, but I think it was also an answer informed by where she was — in Berkeley, with these specific kinds of poets around her. But ultimately her answer did make sense to me. I came to believe that she was rejecting the idea that one would make a distinction between a readerly life, an intellectual life, an imaginative life, and a so-called lived life. Her answer also signaled to me that there was a way in which that generation of feminists were not going to get trapped in any gendered division that would demand that they write about their personal lives. They weren’t going to allow that to happen; it would be anti-intellectual, and ultimately anti-feminist, if they were to allow that. What that meant for me was that I knew I wanted to make work that refused those distinctions, that I would embrace the lived life as a feminist, while also trying to do the work of being an engaged reader—an “intellectual,” if you will.

So, confession, then, is always lurking in the work no matter what I’m doing. It started to have different names. People would say, You’re a Domestic Poet. Or, even worse, a Mommy Poet. But all of those terms really meant the same thing, which is that you are allowing yourself as a woman to write from this gendered position that diminishes you. And I think a lot of the women in my generation were going to confront that, directly or indirectly.

Poet Julie Carr

VS: That leads us into “What do we want to know and how far are we willing to go to get it?,” the novella that opens the book. It’s an epistolary fiction — letters written from the point of view of one woman to her ex-lover’s ex-lover. The speaker never receives a response from this woman, but I wondered if that meant, necessarily, that she had not experienced at least a variety of communion. Is one of the requirements of a meaningful conversation that one be met with a response? Must one even be heard, necessarily? Or is it enough to have stated what one wishes to have stated? For as one goes through the letters, one does pick up on the speaker’s somewhat obsessive, somewhat unglued nature, but one also witnesses her arriving at the gates — sometimes with a key, sometimes not — of thoughts and feelings that she otherwise may not have found had she not composed this series of letters.

JC: That’s definitely the question that that project was asking. She starts out in this place of trying to heal a kind of pain that’s come from her obsessive relationship to a person she doesn’t actually know. And then, through the process of writing the letters, it seems as if she does manage to heal and to resolve that obsession. My intention in placing it first in the book was to think about the act of confession as its own act of healing; its own work that’s not so much about what the response might be. If you think about Catholic confession — well, I’m not a Catholic and I’ve never done, or given, or taken confession — but it seems to me, from the movies anyway, that the priest doesn’t really say much, and when he does it’s just to give you a blessing and a little task that seems beside the point. And with traditional psychotherapy, very similarly, the therapist would say very little.

And when one confesses in a work of literature, there’s also the possibility that you’re never going to hear any kind of response or engagement. I guess I’m saying that yes, I do believe that in the kind of confession I was looking at in that piece, the answer is not what’s important. What’s important is the saying; the asserting of one’s own complex psychology or emotional life.

“When one confesses in a work of literature, there’s also the possibility that you’re never going to hear any kind of response or engagement.”

VS: So it might actually be a condition of possibility that she does not receive a response, insofar as she’s never disabused of that which, via the act of writing, comes to constitute her system of beliefs about the relationality at work in this strange dynamic.

JC: Exactly. If she were to get a response, it would deflate the energy that she’s generated around this relationship — if you can call it a relationship. And also it would short-circuit the process that she’s moving through; a process she’s only somewhat aware of. She doesn’t really know why she’s doing it. She comes up with various reasons, but they’re not quite the reason. My hope is that the reader will think of reasons that might be different from those that the speaker claims as her own.

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VS: Well, for better or worse, I had no trouble understanding the place from which she was coming. The one thing that she arrives at in her own self-scrutiny that feels really honest is when she says, “If one’s lover chooses another, one is inclined also to long for that other body in order to understand whatever it is one seems to lack.” And I thought, you know, decontextualized, ‘addressing the lack’ feels like the raison d’être for so much of writing, at least in my own practice. I wonder if it feels that way for you, too.

JC: Oh, absolutely. I can’t imagine not having a sense of lack, and I can’t imagine wanting to write for any other reason. It feels fundamental to any working creative process that you’re trying to fulfill a sense of, you know, “Without this, I would be nothing.” And specifically with writing, you’re just trying to make voices in your head that make some kind of meaning or beauty out of things that otherwise feel either pretty mundane or deeply painful.

“I can’t imagine not having a sense of lack, and I can’t imagine wanting to write for any other reason.”

VS: I was thinking, too, that ‘addressing the lack’ can also be a really political act; an act of civic responsibility in some way. I come from a fiction background, and one of the things you notice as you read a lot of contemporary fiction — certainly not all, but a good deal of it — is this seemingly willful disinterest in addressing anything like a sociopolitical climate. Whereas poetry, it seems to me, feels like a very primed medium for doing that. And poets have taken it upon themselves, too. I was thinking, for example, of 100 Notes on Violence [Carr’s 2010 book], which is addressing the lack of any real, meaningful discourse — or rage — on the mind-boggling gun violence we have in this country.

JC: That’s absolutely true, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot with this book I’ve been writing over the last few years called Real Life: an Installation (to reference my memory of Notley again). I’ve been thinking about how we’re constantly inundated with discourse around various crises, but so much of it is data-driven or information-driven — or scandal-driven, in recent months. It doesn’t often access any kind of affective space that’s meaningful or that’s generative. And that seems like what art should be doing: making a space. Do you know that Audre Lorde essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury?”

VS: I do. I love it.

JC: So that’s basically what that essay’s about, right? This idea of thinking and feeling as a particularly privileged space. She’s speaking of poetry as the space where affect gets to live, and without that you can’t really have any meaningful response or action.

VS: So this feels like a good time to jump ahead a bit to the center-piece of the book, “The War Reporter: On Confession.” You’re using the letters of Martha Gellhorn and the art writing of T.J. Clark as these prisms through which to question, as you have it, “Confessing, does one ask to be forgiven, or instead, to be recognized, even, one could say, made?” I was mind-blown by this essay, and it activated so much of what I’ve been trying to work through both on and off the page vis-à-vis the nature of autobiographical writing and the impulse to exteriorize the interior. What I admire most, though, is the way in which the essay advertises that asking further questions, reconfiguring and complicating the primary question, playing with affirmation and negation — these are the methods by which the writer gets closer; not to the answer, per se, but to what it is that prompts one to ask the question. As it pertains to this particular essay, I’d love to hear you talk about what you felt you came into the piece already believing, what you were in search of as you wrote, if the process of writing occasioned any marked shifts in your understanding of the impulse to confess and the meaning of a confession — anything here that strikes you.

JC: Well, one thing to say is that I started writing that because I was obsessed with Martha Gellhorn and also with that T.J. Clark book. They seemed to have nothing to do with each other, but I was reading and rereading them both at the same time and never not thinking about them. The two were together in my mind to start with, and I didn’t know why. So one question was, What do these two works have to do with each other, and why do they both compel me so much? Which wasn’t a hard question to answer on some level: they’re both confessional works. But the next question that came about was, What are they confessing? There was a kind of assertion in both of their works of a project that was distinct from what seemed to be the real project. The assertion is that they’re doing a kind of service for the reader that is an ethical, political service, and they see themselves as called to do that. They go about it diligently and carefully and with a lot of ethical pride. And in both cases that service is something like, I have this special skill of being able to see things that you, the reader, can’t see, and I owe it to you to show you what I see. And yet, what seems to be going on is actually something very different. In The Sight of Death, it all comes back, finally, to Clark’s own anguish at his mother’s death when he was a child. And the anguish is sort of about the fact that she’s dead and isn’t there to acknowledge him, but it seemed to me that it was also the anguish of the survivor. That he continues to live and to celebrate life by being so intently awake to his senses; so completely immersed in being alive while she is dead. And it occurred to me that this was also the case for Martha Gellhorn. It isn’t just that she’s reporting back from the war to say, you know, we have to value human life. It’s that she’s constantly asserting her own aliveness, and it feels as if there’s a wonderful and terrible guilt around that aliveness. So that she’s both in love with being alive, and almost suicidal at times. That was what it really came down to for me. And why it was important to me, which I say in the essay, is because while I was writing this my mother was dying, and one of the things that hits you when your parent dies is that you’re not going to be miserable forever. You’re going to keep living.

[ed. — Read excerpts from Carr’s chapbook, The Silence that Fills the Future.]

VS: That’s beautiful. It makes me think, too, that a place where the so-called personal and the so-called political merge is at this point of guilt where one must acknowledge that the world is evil and we still love to live in it.

JC: It’s exactly that, yes.

VS: One of the other questions that essay raises is how are we to confront and assimilate the fact that quite often, “the very thing most needing to be told remains outside of language.” I was magnetized by this idea, as one of the areas my own nonfiction continues to circle around is the inadequacy of language; the seeming impossibility of meaningful, slaking expression taking place without the sacrifice of a lived experience’s specificity or sanctity. It’s no secret that I worship her and her work, but even after having read The Argonauts a dozen times, I can’t quite get on board with Maggie Nelson’s proclamation that “words are good enough.” As much as I love Barthes, I’ve always thought that what he proposes in Mourning Diary — “The very fact that language affords me the world ‘intolerable’ immediately achieves a certain tolerance” — was wishful, wistful bullshit. And though I stand in reverence before her work, I can’t say I feel a kinship with Sarah Manguso when she says, in 300 Arguments, “Nothing is more boring to me than the re-re-restatement that language isn’t sufficiently nuanced to describe the world.” (On the contrary, most days I find myself shocked that we’re not all entirely preoccupied by language’s vacancy.) So I’d love to hear your thoughts about this relationship between language (in)adequacy and confession, namely the idea the essay posits that it’s perhaps the work of confession to “see into something that can’t be seen, to name something that has no name.”

JC: I mean, it is a very common thing to say, especially for a poet. If you read a lot of poetics essays throughout the ages, many of them come back to this idea that what poetry is is the act of pointing toward something that lives outside of language. So I can understand why Sarah Manguso would say it’s boring! And she’s also very wry and ironic; that book can feel like one big eye-roll, which I appreciate. But I can be more earnest than that and say of course it’s true that language is always approximate. I think the thing that’s interesting about that for me is that when we’re using language to point to something that language can’t do, there’s this kind of awareness that I have of that space, of that gap. And, ironically, that gap itself is the thing that makes me love the language. When I’m reading a poem I love, it’s never that the poem says it so perfectly; it’s that it doesn’t, but it manages to point to what it doesn’t say, to something that can’t be said. And that feeling of approximation is, to me, incredibly moving.

“When I’m reading a poem I love, it’s never that the poem says it so perfectly; it’s that it doesn’t, but it manages to point to what it doesn’t say, to something that can’t be said.”

What I love the most in art is effort, or you could say desire, if you want. So it’s not always about the achievement so much as it is about the feeling of wanting to do something. I used to be a dancer, and I started to notice that the dancers I was most moved by were older dancers, dancers in their forties or older. Not because they couldn’t jump as high or something like that, but because they embodied this sense of work. Their bodies showed the work of dancing; the effort of trying to access something.

That’s what I mean when I say that language is reaching toward something that it can’t achieve, or that confession is confessing to something that can’t be seen. Language is desire because of how it tries to reach beyond itself. I stand by that even though at this point it’s kind of an old fashioned thing to say, maybe even a cliché. In a lot of writing, the thing that language desires but can’t have gets named as, you know, God, or something. But it doesn’t have to have a name; it’s more interesting to me to think of it as something that can’t be named.

VS: That makes a lot of sense to me, and I love what you’re saying about effort and reaching. I think what I’ve been trying to convince myself of in my work, one of the questions I’ve been asking, is when it comes to that which seems to be on the other side of language, can the reaching toward or the gesturing toward constitute its own species of expression?

JC: I think that’s exactly it. That’s exactly what we’re doing. There’s a famous quote by Martha Graham, which I carried around with me when I was a teenager: something like, “There’s no such thing as success, only sweet failure.” That’s been a guiding principle for me.

VS: Finally, I wanted to turn to the relationship between confession and memory; a relationship we see in a few different incarnations and from a few different vantage points throughout the book. In “What do we want to know and how far are we willing to go to get it?,” the speaker wonders, “Is retyping the words of someone you have lost or are afraid of losing, or of someone you wanted but never had, a way to resist this loss, this never-having?” And in “By Beauty and by Fear: On Narrative Time,” you propose the possibility that poetry — if not all writing — might be “a refusal of directed velocity.” Both of these passages — and many more throughout — seem to express the longing to preserve the present tense as well as the fear that attempts to do so will prove unavailing. And yet, the book is such an attempt anyway, isn’t it?

JC: Last night I lead this workshop in a women’s prison, and for a writing prompt I said something like, “Write about a person you feel very close to; the ways in which you are close to them, but also the ways in which you aren’t or can’t be close to them.” The person could be someone on the inside or someone on the outside. For the women who chose to write about someone on the inside, it was manageable. But if they were writing about someone on the outside, it was immediately a problem, because all sense of closeness was in memory. They didn’t have any intimacy to write about that wasn’t only in memory.

Anne Carson has this line — in “The Glass Essay” — about a video of the past day running beneath the present day at all times. As in, if it’s May 25th, you have all the other May 25ths running underneath you; this sense of the past as always being in the present. In that poem she’s mourning the loss of this person and doesn’t want to have that video running. She’s trying to forget at the same time as she’s constantly remembering. I guess what I’m getting at is that memory is, at times, something that you have to court. Because you don’t have the person anymore, you have to remember them, but it’s also intensely painful to remember them. And so you’re pressed up against the constant presence of memory as something you both want and want to reject. One of the women in the prison told me she refused to write about anyone on the outside because to remember was too painful. I wasn’t prepared for that. I should have been.

VS: That makes me think of my favorite line in 100 Notes on Violence: “memories tutor one another.” I’d never heard it phrased that way, but the second I read it I thought, Exactly. And memories are essentially what you don’t want to remember, right? By which I mean, that you have to remember something — it signifies loss. I kept thinking of that in those moments throughout the book where you’re addressing your mother’s Alzheimer’s disease.

JC: Right. I feel like I have this mother, but really what I have is a fiction I’ve made of her that I can revise at any time. And I think that’s what the book is interested in (to return to your earlier question): the idea of both confession and memory as being artificial on a certain level. When you’re telling your truth, your story, you’re also always inventing it, and memory has that same quality. You’re always in your memories, and you believe them as the narrative of your life that’s true, but you’re actually always inventing them, too. You’re editing, selecting, highlighting, using different filters — all those things. It’s so malleable and flexible, and yet it’s the biggest lie we have, right? So, to write the memory is often to rewrite it, just as to make the confession is, to some degree, to invent it.

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