By: Jon Riccio
Robert Carr is the author of Amaranth, a chapbook published in the spring of 2016 by Indolent Books. His poems appear in a variety of publications including The Good Men Project, Pretty Owl Poetry, The Pickled Body, White Stag Journal, Bewildering Stories Magazine, Front Porch Review, Canary Literary Magazine, 4ink7, Dark Matter Journal of Speculative Writing and numerous other publications. He has led public health infectious disease efforts in Massachusetts for over 30 years and lives with his husband Stephen in Malden (MA). He continues to learn from their son Noah and the community of poets in the Boston area. His published work can also be found at robertcarr.org.
Jon Riccio: Congratulations on Amaranth’s publication. I’m not the most botanically inclined, though I did learn the amaranth is an “imaginary, undying flower,” and chemists have assigned its namesake to an “azo dye used chiefly to color pharmaceuticals, food, and garments.” Do these definitions serve more as lenses or launching points for your collection?
Robert Carr: The launching point for the book was the Keats epigraph, “The spirit culls unfaded amaranth, when wild it strays through the old garden ground of boyish days.” I knew this first collection would dig the ground of my childhood though today, age 56. The shadow field of sexual fantasy and reality, the deaths of men through the AIDS epidemic, the death of my mother, sexual excess and physical survival.
I love the idea of amaranth as “a dye used chiefly to color pharmaceuticals!” I guess I should know this but haven’t heard it before! (Maybe this interview will yield yet another amaranth poem!) That’s a good transition to “lens.” Once I connected this collection to the Keats epigraph, the amaranth started showing up everywhere. Amaranth as an “ancient grain” at dinner with friends. Amaranth as a photograph of bottled amaranth powder sent via phone by a friend in New Orleans – an image featured in the Grindr sex poem “Apothecary.” Amaranth in a random article that discussed the erotic qualities of flowers. I observed all this stuff happening and said to myself, “OK, it’s a sign, go with it.”
JR: Amaranth is divided into three sections – Prince’s Feather, Goosefoot, and Wormseed, each consisting of nine poems. I appreciate the equilateral approach, which nudges me into the aforementioned chemistry category. What differentiates organic revisions from their cerebral counterparts?
RC: Let’s look at the etymology of “organic” and “cerebral.” Organic, Middle English, “pertaining to an organ of the body.” Cerebral, Latin, “brain, akin to cranium, horn.” Well, damn! I like these definitions. Organic drafts of the poems in Amaranth often felt like they came from the emotional body – sometimes a line that woke me out of sleep, sometimes a physical idea like the peeling and eating of skin in “Gristle.” Almost all of these poems went through workshop revision, facilitated by my friend Tom Daley. Tom, and the poets in those groups, provided an honest cerebral lens that often transformed the content and structure of these poems.
Prince’s feather, goosefoot, and wormseed are all varieties of amaranth. I hadn’t thought about my “equilateral approach” but your observation strikes a chord. This collection explores sex and mortality in the way I’ve explored those realities in my life. Go there. Go there in fantasy and reality. Practice dying every day. Find grounding through sex. But approach these landscapes totally in control – structured, balanced, compartmentalized. This is in part the training of the early HIV epidemic – if you don’t approach sex and death with precision they will both kill you.
JR: Your poem “Two” is ripe with greasy headboards, telltale pockets, and blue jeaned knees, arriving at a “peephole empty” in its middle stanza. How does one balance intimacy with writing from a voyeur’s point of view?
RC: The balance of intimacy and voyeurism. I think for a lot of us, but sexual minorities in particular, the voyeur’s point of view is discovered very young. Sometimes, the stance of the observer is more dissociation than voyeurism. When I look at a poem like “Clay” in Amaranth, I find the genesis of the voyeur. “In the outer oval/ where the curtains hang still and heavy/ on their rod, the boy imagines Charlotte/ in her web and goes to sit beside her.” The boy in “Clay” is an observer of his own body, from a distance, as a babysitter molests him. He’s an observer of his own abuse and that intimate distance allows him to survive.
In Amaranth there are several poems where the speaker is a kind of participant observer through that “peephole empty” view. The view of sexual intensity, the view of HIV and life threatening disease, the view of aging, the view of loss.
JR: Poems like “Two” and “Porch in a Storm” celebrate the jettisoning of inhibition. Can you think of an example where the armoring of inhibition creates the same effect?
RC: You’ve hit on a backdrop for many of these poems. The armoring, and at the same moment the jettisoning, of inhibition. The sex in “Two” never happened. The sex in “Porch in a Storm” never happened. That said, I’ve experienced the sexual dynamics in these poems plenty of times. In both poems explosive sex is countered by conscious control – and that’s where you’ve seen through to my own experience of sexuality. In “Two” the speaker and his fuck-buddy look back at the hotel room as they leave. They “glance back toward two beds – one tightly tucked, /the other a pot of sheets boiled over.” I think what I’m trying to do in Amaranth is reconcile these two bed images.
JR: In “Magnolias” we have the lines “Almost to a bird, they fell to earth/ and died of fear.” In what ways does Amaranth explore uncertainty, which is to say the cautionary tether on which our lives could be lived?
RC: The extraordinary artist Louise Bourgeois said about her work, “These works do not illustrate… They are an exorcism.” The poems in Amaranth are the first phase of an exorcism of the uncertainty you’re describing. In part, I come to writing poetry later in life because a lot of the content of these poems confused me and left me questioning. I needed years of space before experiences transformed into words.
I hope the interview can tolerate one cliché: “Hanging on by a thread.” My hope with Amaranth is that the reader will recognize some small personal truth through the speakers in these poems. We are all tethered to something uncertain – a belief that what we love will stay, a belief that there is something that protects us, a belief that memory is accurate. “Magnolias” ends with the phrase “– a lifeless burst of feather.” If Amaranth holds the cautionary tether you describe, I think I’d say find the beauty in that burst of feather.
JR: The beginning of “Gristle” is about as visceral as it gets –
The soldier secretly eats
the skin from his peeling
feet. A meager taste,
the texture—used wax paper—
seems rich, like lamb
What was the genesis of this poem, and which is more palatable: desperation or compulsion?
RC: Palatable. Yes. Readers have been drawn to this poem and I’m glad that you singled it out. Here’s how it happened: I do a lot of my writing at our camp in Maine. I was out on the boat and noticed that the sole of my left foot was peeling from swimming, sun, or something. It will sound like a leap, but my association was “trench foot.” My ‘day job’ for the past 30 years has involved administration of infectious disease programming for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and around that same time we had a homeless vet, an injectable drug user, that one of our programs was trying to get into care. His story was on my mind. In one of those “organic” moments we were talking about earlier, the first line of the poem showed up. I turned the boat around, got back to my phone, wrote it down and went from there.
Desperation or compulsion. In “Gristle,” desperate is the condition of the soldier. The compulsive act, eating the skin from his foot, triggers memory. In that way I guess the compulsion is more palatable. Compulsive behavior as coping mechanism through despair.
JR: Some readers may be unfamiliar with the poem-title acronym “G.R.I.D.” (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, which dates from 1982, replaced by AIDS the same year, if my Wikipedia sources are correct). Thirty-four years allows for some perspective, though “the small voice saying/ the sarcoma on his arm/ is a birthmark I’ve forgotten” is the epitome of where time and loss meet. How does distance manifest itself in your writing?
RC: So first, your Wikipedia search grounds me in time. I graduated from Bates College in 1982, literally coming into my sexual adulthood the year that G.R.I.D started appearing in major cities across the U.S. This poem is biographical and is about a young man named Danny Welsh. When I met Danny he quickly decided that I would be the love of his life. I’m pretty sure that he knew he was sick and I sensed a desperation in his desire (there’s that word desperation again) that frightened me. I ran. Months later I saw Danny on a Green Line train in Boston. He caught me staring at a Kaposi’s lesion and quipped, “That’s just a birthmark.” He died a few weeks later.
I tell that story to illustrate the essential nature of emotional distance in many men my age. In Amaranth: The boy in “Clay” distances himself from his body. In “Sleeping Apart” the speaker “knew a nightly/ absence would be missed.” In many of the poems a distance, an absence, a separation of some kind is an underpinning of the work.
This brings me back to Danny in “G.R.I.D.” He was a runway model, one of the most physically beautiful men I ever met. His sexual energy was all about being devoured and I wanted nothing more than to devour. Yet, something bigger than Danny’s illness held me back. There’s something else there – an instinct that, if I embraced him, I would also be consumed somehow. There are remnants of that protective distance that I’ve held onto since the early days of G.R.I.D. I’m still trying to break through and I think Amaranth has been a vehicle for that.
JR: “Milk Bath” bookends with the couplets: “When you died last night/ the relief escaped location,” and “Once again, a slippery knuckle refuses/ your band as I lower myself into a burn.” What constitutes the geography of respite?
RC: I think of respite as temporary relief from any kind of distress. It can be located anywhere – in the release of body tension through a bottle of wine, in the quieting of the mind through meditation. Respite can be found stepping out of a conversation, a room, or a country. “Milk Bath” tells the story of death after divorce. The speaker knows they feel relief when they hear their ex is dead but not clear about the nature of that relief. Is s/he relieved that the relationship is really “over?” Relieved that s/he wasn’t there as a caretaker for someone s/he no longer loved? Relieved that s/he no longer has to feel guilty? Like the gender of the speaker in the poem, I’ve left the answer ambiguous.
JR: One of Amaranth’s longer poems, “Anniversary” achieves its greatest moment in the final three lines – “Beside the childproof caps/ I breathe relieved the absent/ bleach of your empty sock.” Again, your use of the word empty creates, for me, a grounding factor that devastates yet avoids the sentimental pitfalls that might otherwise depower the work. What does hollow mean to you? Is it capable of superseding emptiness?
RC: Interesting (and a little spooky) that you ask about the word “hollow.” My friend and mentor, Ada Limón, has told me “Look for your ‘word’ in poems.” What she’s saying is, find the word that’s showing up in many of your poems, effectively or not. While writing Amaranth one of those words was “dust.” In the final work, dust became powder in “Cremation,” soot in “Apothecary” and only one “dusty edge” was left in “Removing the Poet’s Desk.” Your question made me think of that because the word in my early-draft second collection Liquid Rubber is “hollow.”
For me, the distinction between empty and hollow is the difference between negative and positive space. Emptiness contains nothing and I find that terrifying. Hollow is simply having a space or a cavity inside. The empty sock in “Anniversary” holds nothingness, leading the speaker toward death if he ingests his dead husband’s hidden pills. The extent to which I find myself “hollow” has preserved the space or cavity for storing poems. Hollow has superseded empty.
JR: You are one of five authors on the inaugural publication run of Brooklyn-based writer Michael Broder’s Indolent Books, a queer owned, queer staffed indie press that debuted in 2015. Do you see yourself as a queer literary ambassador who happens to be Deputy Director, Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, or the other way around?
RC: I’ve had a 30 year career in public health that started in the HIV epidemic. That identity chose me when the men around me were dying and I felt compelled to step in. I really believe that if I’d chosen poetry 30 years ago I would have died early in the epidemic. The public health work has been important but I’ve never found identity there. (Here I go again, distancing myself!) That career was a response to a 30 year moment in time.
Now I’m compelled to write and I’ve been writing poetry for about two years. Not long. Michael Broder, who is gay and HIV positive, has provided the “bureaucrat/poet bridge” for my first collection and I’m deeply grateful. From the Indolent mission: “Indolent was founded as a home for poets of a certain age who have done the creative work but for whatever reason (family, career, self-effacement, etc.) have not published a first collection.
“Queer literary ambassador” – wow, that’s a tall order. One of the most humbling parts of writing Amaranth has been making connections with exceptional poets, including Michael Broder and his husband Jason Schneiderman. They are certainly closer to ambassador appointments than I am! Interestingly, I’m finding in my writing that my most satisfying work breaks out of specified sexuality and gender. I can go with “queer poet,” but eventually I’d love my work to be considered “human.” “Human Poet” – now that would be an extraordinary title to claim with confidence!
Jon Riccio (U of A MFA 2015) is an incoming PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Recent work appears in apt, Booth, Cleaver, The HIV Here and Now Project, After the Pause, and Hawai’i Review, among others. The poetry editor for Fairy Tale Review and contributing interviewer at The Volta Blog, he is a past staff member of Sonora Review.