Holding Frozen: An Interview with Robert Carr | Jon Riccio

38 mins read

Jon Riccio: I’m grateful to join you in conversation once more, Bob. The Unbuttoned Eye crystalizes themes from Amaranth (2016, Indolent Books), which we discussed during your Sonora interview three years prior; you’ve lyricized the queer corporeal. Moments such as “We pleasure shiver, / all that’s male. / The nature of flesh is crease.” (“The Nature of Roberts”) and “Over a bowl of keys, / I am the stag film / flickering on the wall.” (“Distraction”) fete homoeroticism with imagistic wealth. These passages revitalize the body’s poetic possibilities, no anatomical component overlooked, window light “threading prince gold lashes through eyelids.” (“Reaching for a Book”). I see your poems as a summation of gay men’s relationships to the AIDS landscape at its outset, battles intertwined with bedside vigils. Do you view the collection as history or heroism?

Robert Carr: Well, that gets right to it! Thanks so much for this opportunity, Jon. In writing The Unbuttoned Eye, I was compelled to document the triumph of the erotic over illness and death. I come to poetry later in life, after a thirty-five-year career addressing infectious disease in the field of public health. As a queer public health professional, I have always pushed to celebrate the heroism of embracing the erotic in the face of (at one time universally life-threatening) sexually transmitted infection.

While drafting these poems, I was determined to affirm the landscape of the queer erotic. Yes, battles intertwined with bedside vigils—but those battles were, and continue to be, filled with sexual joy. I believe this is one of the most heroic elements of our history as queer men. Through the AIDS pandemic, across generations of men, so many have rejected fear and continued to affirm sex as a positive force in our lives. 

While drafting these poems, I was determined to affirm the landscape of the queer erotic. Yes, battles intertwined with bedside vigils—but those battles were, and continue to be, filled with sexual joy. I believe this is one of the most heroic elements of our history as queer men. Through the AIDS pandemic, across generations of men, so many have rejected fear and continued to affirm sex as a positive force in our lives. 

JR: I read The Unbuttoned Eye in tandem with Sandra Simonds’ Orlando in which she revisits diary entries, referencing a teenage Sandra against the backdrop of the word fantasy. Similarly, you establish a Robert motif, first in a trio of correspondences with deceased photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. You tell him, “Stop / asking, Robert, why, when the air is still, finally breathable, and the deadeye of the world / is counting blessings, I am writing endings.” (“Letter to Mapplethorpe”). Epistolary aside, “Robert dimples / at my self-conscious reflex, muscled body / a frieze.” (“Life Study Models”), while “Whatever’s in my gut is counted / in folds, mucous membrane, edgeless decades / of dead that finally found their Robert.” (“Goose-Down Terrors”). Part of me wants these to be the author at various points in his life, though I’m probably mistaken. How may the reader best understand your Roberts?

RC: The evolution of Roberts in this collection was a revealing and terrifying process. As I sequenced existing poems and new poems emerged, I experienced a blurring of identities in the manuscript. It was as if by writing these poems I was catching up with several versions of myself, putting into words what I had put off saying for thirty years. Overlapping Roberts mixed with men who I knew and had sex with over the past forty years. When I started to organize the manuscript there was one “Letter to Mapplethorpe,” which ultimately became the first titled poem in the book. As Andrea Watson, my editor at 3: A Taos Press, read the work she was insistent that I write additional Mapplethorpe letters. This ambiguous Robert Mapplethorpe became witness and nemesis in my writing process. As I read more about Mapplethorpe and his life, I started getting clear that what I didn’t like about him were things I didn’t like about myself. His narcissism, his ability to manipulate, his erotic obsessions challenged me to confront these tendencies in myself.

On a daily basis, I exchange and edit poems with Los Angeles based poet José Medina. José supported and pushed this process of intertwined identity. He also insisted on more Mapplethorpe in the book. José is ruthless (which I appreciate) and writing those fucking letters was not a pretty process. That said—Andrea and José were right. They knew that the heart of The Unbuttoned Eye would be revealed through this blurred Robert motif. These Roberts became the lens through which to look at myself more clearly.

JR: The second section opens with “Letter from Mapplethorpe.” An omniscient Robert informs us, “You swallowed, took for granted toxic.” Later, he commands “Robert,” to “stop moping with the dead. Sleep well. I would love nothing more than to wake to / ragged snore.” the exchange juxtaposing edict with wish. At an impasse, Mapplethorpe washes “myself of you – / whalebone of survival.” The carcass cling of that admonition bears “witness to the pyre that no longer burns.” What kind of tonal heat does Mapplethorpe-as-watcher convey?

RC:  Mapplethorpe-as-watcher became the vehicle for expressing self-hatred and the guilt of a survivor. This is why I had to be pushed to write new epistolary poems. Each one left me feeling empty and sobbing at my computer. Before working on these poems to and from Robert Mapplethorpe, I studied his most confrontational self-portraits, particularly those where the effects of AIDS on Mapplethorpe’s body were clear. In one of the most famous of these portraits, the artist is holding a cane capped by a silver skull and, in black and white, his green gaze confronts the viewer. This image is used in the first “Letter to Mapplethorpe”—“Laughing eyes blank, holding frozen the silver- / knobbed skull of your stick, an eel white arm leans into your cane. We leer, grip loosening / into the composition.”

The choice of “We leer . . .” is deliberate. The Robert (Mapplethorpe) bleeding into the Robert (speaker) bleeding into the author.  Let me translate the narrative in the lines you’ve chosen from “Letter from Mapplethorpe”—“So, author Robert Carr. How the fuck did you take the same risks I did and survive? Look at you with your pitiful guilt—alive, uninfected, complaining about a snoring husband who loves you. I’m done with you. Grow the fuck up.”

JR: Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home contains the panel verbiage “When I try to project what Dad’s life might have been like if he hadn’t died in 1980, I don’t get very far. If he’d lived into those early years of AIDS, I tell myself, I might very well have lost him anyway, and in a more painful, protracted fashion.” Your poem “Bathhouse Without Ceilings” reads closer to 1980 than 2019—

             Red-lit hall, open doors,
            tiny rooms without ceilings,
            pipes flat-pulse black.
            Belly down, men arch
            toward webs of LED stars.
            Silent language written on cheap
            sheets in tooth mark.

That LED gives the past a futuristic spark. One time-specific adolescent recollection from the poem is

                                         a zip
            of long ago, the slip of sleeping
            -bag down. A good-looking kid
            in a tent at camp, flashlight
            held under his chin.
            Jawline shadow, the lure
            of forelock, the way he kissed.

What projections factor into The Unbuttoned Eye?

RC: Jon, what you’re identifying (and on some levels, what I’m realizing for the first time) is that The Unbuttoned Eye is fundamentally a projection of self. Wow, that’s hard to say. I’ve hesitated to name these poems as a response to trauma, but in responding to this question I have to go there. We’ve discussed projection through blurred identity, what you refer to as “your Roberts.”

What you’ve hit on in the example of my poem “Bathhouse Without Ceilings” is projection through time. Present day LED stars shine overhead as the speaker in the poem observes bitten sheets from a sex scene thirty years ago. Confronted by sexual desire in the context of death, the speaker projects into an innocent past—a beautiful boy in a tent at a summer camp. In this poem the speaker, surrounded by unpalatable ghosts, projects an innocent spirit onto the horror.

JR: “Font” is a portrait of devotion in the form of physical guidance—

                                   I take you to my room, the Motel 6 in Portland.
            You whisper how he’s lost the strength to walk, so for weeks

            you’ve carried him like a child learning a waltz. You tell me how,
            lifted from the bed, he places lesioned soles on top of your feet,

The narrator returns this gesture—

                                                      After apologetic sex, I tell you,
            Get up. Towering, I tell you, Put your feet on mine. Arms
            wrapping shoulders, cheek against chest, I walk us
            to the motel window, listen to your jag of breath,

            whimper of weeping for a man I’ll never meet.

His connectivity is mirror and respite alike. How do these qualities speak to the loss and release that inhabit your collection?

RC: My poem “Font” is one of closest to being autobiographical. I’m glad you’ve focused on it. Many poems in The Unbuttoned Eye are placed in time at the beginning of the HIV epidemic, around 1983 when I was living in Portland, Maine. The phenomenon of gay men believing that “gay cancer” was only happening in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco was a very real thing and very few believed that G.R.I.D (gay-related immune deficiency) would reach cities like Portland. For whatever reason, the moment I saw the first reports of what would become AIDS, I knew at the deepest level that the course of my life had been fundamentally changed. I made a resolution, as a twenty-three-year-old queer man, to fight and survive.

I met the young man in “Font” at a bar called The Underground. (I don’t remember his name, and we won’t call him Robert!) As the poem describes, he was shockingly beautiful and all the more so for his sadness. I approached him at the bar and learned that he had spent several days with his partner at Maine Medical Center, and that his partner was dying of AIDS. They lived in Skowhegan, a town almost two hours north of Portland. AIDS was in Skowhegan. I appreciate your characterization of the narrative in this poem as “a portrait of devotion in the form of physical guidance.” True, there was an element of that. But there is a darker side to the narrative.

By seducing this man, by taking him to the Motel 6, by reenacting his experience of carrying a dying lover, I was confronting death. I was daring death to be carried on my feet. On the flipside of sexual desire and compassion—a powerfully manipulative act that I am not proud of. Yet—I’m convinced this kind of arrogance, this blurring of lines through the epidemic, resulted in my survival.    

JR: “Magnolias” and “Remaining Turns,” though written in numbered stanzas (tercets and quintains), end with haikulike commentary—

             A walk through fallen flowers
            leaves foot-sign rot. Treads of boot
            stamp – a lifeless burst of feather.


“in obscuring showers, a chamber door, / a leaded window above the tub.”

Likewise, portions of “Alchemical Waters” radiate a near-tanka register—

             Deep                     pant creased mage,
            port-a-potty fucker,
            surgeon of hunger,
            flushing bright
                          blue chemical waters.

            Dare                     defy a simple protein –
            come uninfected
            through insistence on paternity,
                          to a field
            where women glean seed.

the white space as breath-catch between tryst and transformation via fatherhood. Is form something you think about during your compositional process?

RC:  Jon, as you know, I come to poetry after a thirty-five-year career in public health and have had no academic training in English composition. Most days I don’t know my adverbs from my elbow. That said, for almost six years poetry has been a daily part of my life. Full disclosure! I am not running off to Google to refresh my understanding of tanka register!

I write and revise two to three hours a day. I read. I read. I read the work of established and emerging poets. I also have access through workshop to some exceptionally well-trained poets. For example, my Wednesday workshop, led by Tom Daley, includes participants like Judson Evans who is a professor of liberal arts at Berklee. His haiku have appeared in Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology and anthologies of international haibun. I listen to these voices.

Jon, when I see a phrase like your “white space as breath-catch” I instinctively understand what you’re describing but could not articulate my choices in academic terms if my life depended on it! All of my poems go through multiple iterations. I struggle with form, line-breaks, stanzas, then deconstruct the poem to a prose paragraph and start over. After several iterations of this process, the poem seems to find itself.    

JR: Using binaries developed in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, I argue that the sexual aspects of gayness depicted in Joe Brainard’s groundbreaking I Remember are governed by the need for anonymity in a volume driven by disclosure. Central to I Remember is its reliance on the binary between private and public, unnamed and named. It’s not coyness that shapes Brainard’s remembrances, rather societal consequences that dictated how tightly the blinds of his day were drawn. Brainard gives testimony to gay life before the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, and the AIDS epidemic. Your poem “Treasure Trail” harkens to Brainard with its representation of anonymity and the skewing of sexual memory—

 “Where were we? My name was Robert. What was your name? Is it the same name as now?
What is it now? If you like, I’ll pretend to recall tufted buttons, wine welting, a room with a fire,
a dimmed light.”

What claims does The Unbuttoned Eye make about the tether between obfuscation and disease? 

RC: There are already a few thematic words in this interview: blur, trauma, projection, manipulation. These concepts connect to your question regarding the tether between obfuscation and disease. The Unbuttoned Eye claims that, through any historic tragedy, obfuscation can become a tool for survival. As we see with Brainard, dissociation is protective. My next statement will harken back to my comments about guilt and survival—I struggle with the idea whether addressing oppression, or epidemic, or war, it is not the best of us who survive. Dissociation, manipulation, obfuscation—these become the essential tools of survival. I find this assertion very sad.

JR: Cover included, there are nine black-and-white photographs of your early 20s self excerpted with filmic light. How do these pictures augment the lyric jeweling throughout?

RC: Yes! Thank you! On the other side of all this depressing shit about survival, there are a number of miracles and some real magic that arrived through writing The Unbuttoned Eye. Until I started working on cover images, with my editor Andrea Watson, I didn’t know these photographs existed. In 1983, while living in Portland Maine I was making ends meet by modeling for local artists. One of those artists was K. Max Mellenthin, who photographed the images in the book for a photography exhibit entitled Blue Prints. I had one hard copy photograph from this series and suggested the photograph as a cover image. It became clear pretty quickly that the age and condition of the photo made that impossible.

I had not seen or spoken to Max since 1983. I assumed he died in those early years of HIV and was hesitant to create another loss by confirming that suspicion.

I had not seen or spoken to Max since 1983. I assumed he died in those early years of HIV and was hesitant to create another loss by confirming that suspicion. My friend Ken Jones Jr. decided to do an Internet search, and there he was! K. Max Mellenthin. When I contacted Max and asked if by any chance he had the image (that became the cover image for my book) he responded, “Yes, and I have the negatives from the entire 1983 shoot!” I found this overwhelming and magical.

In the final weeks of editing my poems, a series of nude images that I did not know existed arrived in my email. Another long-lost Robert appeared out of nowhere as we went to print. Andrea Watson immediately embraced the idea of including the images in the book. Let me note here that Andrea’s instincts while creating this book were consistently brilliant.    

JR: Amaranth found a publication home with Brooklyn’s Indolent Books. The Unbuttoned Eye came westerly to 3: A Taos Press, of Denver. Helmed by Andrea L. Watson, the press commits “to fostering and honoring the work of writers of all cultures,” Madelyn Garner and Khadijah Queen among its editorial roster. Could you describe the transition from Indolent, where you are now an associate poetry editor (full circle, my friend!) to your current literary champion? Do you have any Indolent/3: A Taos Press catalog recommendations now that we’re in the summer reading months?

RC: In 2015, I participated in a workshop led by Ada Limόn at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. After an incredible week of generative work, Ada pulled me aside to tell me her dear friend Michael H. Broder was starting a poetry press in Brooklyn, Indolent Books. “You two have to connect.” Ada emailed Michael and two weeks later I had my first publication of a poem in the Indolent Books HIV Here and Now series. That September, I had an email follow-up from Michael. The subject line read: Your Future as A Poet. “Yes!” I screamed. “A future, as a goddamned poet!” In this email, Michael invited me to submit a chapbook manuscript. This became Amaranth in 2016. Shortly after publication of the chapbook, Michael invited me to join the Indolent Books team as an associate poetry editor.

Since 2016, I’ve manned the Indolent Books table with Michael at AWP. (This is actually where

I met Andrea Watson and Madelyn Garner from 3: A Taos Press.) The conversation that started pissing me off went like this: “Hi. I’m Robert Carr, an editor working with Michael Broder at Indolent. This is my chapbook Amaranth.” “Oh, so you self-published.” Correct or not, I started feeling like I had something to prove. Over the next two years, Andrea Watson checked in periodically to see if I had a new book. Michael was fully aware that Andrea and I were in touch and when we ultimately talked about my new book and 3: A Taos Press, he fully supported “spreading my wings.” Since then, Michael and Andrea have become great friends. There was even a dinner where Michael graciously handed his poetry editor and 2016 author off to his new press! Michael and Andrea have been exceptional champions. I’m very lucky.

Summer reading! Yes! From Michael Broder’s catalog at Indolent Books I strongly recommend Logan February’s Painted Blue With Salt Water. Logan is a young Nigerian poet with exceptional talent. I had the privilege of editing this manuscript with Michael. I’m also thrilled to suggest Dante Michaud’s Circus, which was just named winner of the 2019 Eliot Prize. This 432-line poem is a stunning exploration of African-American identity. At 3: A Taos Press, there are some extraordinary collections, but I would start with Madelyn Garner’s Hum of Our Blood. In the book is a deeply moving narrative where Madelyn recounts the illness and death of her son Brad, who died of HIV-related disease in 1996. I also recommend Lauren Camp’s Turquoise Door: Finding Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico. Just because the book is beautiful and Lauren is one of the most talented poets out there right now.

JR: I close with sections of poems that predate The Unbuttoned Eye by seven and twenty-five years. In “Caballero” (Slow Lightning, 2012) Eduardo Corral writes

            Crupper. Martingale. Terret. My breath
                                    tightens around him,
                                                            like a harness. Once a year
                   he eats a spoonful of dirt
                         from his father’s grave.

Richard McCann’s “After You Died” (Ghost Letters, 1994) begins

             I had a body again. And I could recall
            how it had been, back then,

            to want things. Easy to recall that now—
            this sun-dazed room; lilacs, in white bowls.
            But for a long time I was grateful
            only for what your dying was taking from me:
            the world, dismantling itself;

Gay men writing at medically different times, Corral renders death as something followed by ritual; McCann expresses gratitude for the unmaking. Your second “Letter to Mapplethorpe” states, “I have always been that voice preventing / and spreading disease.” The Unbuttoned Eye’s chorus of decedents is a sizeable one. How has your writing made eulogy symphonic?

RC:  To be placed in the company of voices like Corral and McCann requires a deep breath. Thank you. My intent with these poems is to interweave the themes of body impermanence and moments in history from the early HIV epidemic. If successful, yes, eulogy becomes symphonic.  My hope is that by softening lines of identity between the living and the dead, The Unbuttoned Eye provides a vehicle for healing. Yes, the book grieves for lives and bodies lost, but it also grieves for those left behind, including my several Roberts. I’ve come to believe that most of us have “been that voice, preventing / and spreading disease.” This is the nature of making human choices and mistakes. My wish for myself and for the reader is that by obscuring lines of separation—through time, through perception, through identity, between life and death, we all find some forgiveness, some relief.

Jon Riccio is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Recent publications include decomP, E·ratio, Gravel, and SUSAN. A 2018 Lambda Poetry Fellow, he received his MFA from the University of Arizona. 

Robert Carr is the author of  The Unbuttoned Eye (2019), a full-length collection from 3: A Taos Press, and Amaranth, a chapbook published by Indolent Books. Among other publications his poetry appears in the Bellevue Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Tar River Poetry, Rattle, and Sonora Review. Forthcoming publications include The Massachusetts Review and Shenandoah. Robert is poetry editor with Indolent Books and an editor for the anthology Bodies and Scars, available through the Ghana Writes Literary Group in West Africa.