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Interview with Best of the Net Winner Carolee Bennett

Carolee Bennett lives in Upstate New York, where –after a local, annual poetry competition –she has fun saying she was the “almost” poet laureate of Smitty’s Tavern. She has an MFA in poetry and works full-time as a writer in social media marketing. 


Bridget Bradshaw: Did you write these three poems specifically to submit or did you select them from poems already written? If so, why these three?

Carolee Bennett: The three poems I shared with Contrary — and I was so delighted to be nominated for and then part of Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net Anthology — were written well ahead of the submission period. In fact, the poems in this particular group were three favorites of mine that had been particularly hard to place. That’s the nice way of saying they were rejected many times. 

I put them all together because even as they address serious topics — loss, sickness, injury, mortality — they also play with childish, whimsical ideas. They contain a degree of wonder, which can be hard to achieve when dealing with darkness. Years ago, another poet (I think it was Oliver de la Paz) said he treated batches of poems in a submission like a mini manuscript, and since then, I’ve taken that approach, as well. I tend to need some sort of logic for grouping them together.

Bridget: Family and motherhood are present in all three of these poems, what is it about these themes that make you want to write about them?

Carolee: It’s funny because I actually hate writing about family and motherhood. I avoided it when I first started writing. Part of it was that for a period in time well before Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” entered our common experience, “mommy poets” were nearly as disparaged as “confessional poets.” (For the record, I admire both.) Another part of it was that I had realized I was relatively good at “relationship poems,” i.e. love poems. So for a long time, I stuck with those.

At one point, I had the good fortune to work with Mark Irwin, and one of his explicit instructions for me was to write about my kids. It was the thing I absolutely did not want to do, and so I sustained my moratorium. But his advice stuck with me.

Eventually, I figured out  that what those relationship poems really portrayed were my attempts at intimacy, and sex and romance weren’t the only places I felt clumsy at connecting with others. In fact, I was at my most clumsy as a daughter and a mother. Now that I’ve been at this a while, I’m getting brave enough to explore those areas. Ironically, in doing so, I’ve come to see that I’m not as terrible at either of those things as I feared… I just have my own way of participating in family and parenting. I think some people give themselves permission to write poems about difficult subjects. In this case, writing the poems gave me permission to embrace my own approach to being a daughter, sister, mother, etc. The poems have helped me explore and celebrate who I am in many settings. The poems know more than we know. Listening to them is the best part of this gig.

Bridget: What literary influences do you draw from and see the most in your own writing?

Carolee: I mentioned confessional poets earlier, and when I first started writing poetry I went straight to Sexton and Plath. It made sense based on subject matter at the time. (I wasn’t happy in my marriage; I was panicked by caring for three babies.) What I found was more than commiseration about those struggles: I discovered poems with clear voice, incredible boldness, vivid images and a kind of physicality I didn’t know poetry could create. After that, I sought out poets and poems who could accomplish those same things. And I tried to achieve those things, too.

For a couple of years much later on, I worked with Angie Estes. She knows how to sew concepts together so brilliantly it’s as though she understands how the world works and presents it to us. See? she asks. And we *do* see things for the first time through her poems. My natural style is to build a poem on a collage of sounds and images. As I do this, I tend toward leaping, which can create too much chaos in a poem. Angie’s approach to pasting things together is so gentle and seamless. She’s masterful. I am still trying to learn from her.

Mainly, however, I would say that the biggest influences on my work are those close friends with whom I’ve rolled up my sleeves and gone to work with for years. My poetry (and heart) sister Jill Crammond has been my writing partner from the beginning. She is extremely imaginative, and writing with her helps me step up my game. My good friend Sarah Freligh is such a great influence not only through her poems but also in modeling hard work. And of course, the dozens of poets I blogged with (and launched online poetry projects with) in the early 2000’s — many of them have been publishing very prolifically, and they continue to inspire me.

Bridget: Other than literature, what is the biggest thing that has shaped how you write?

Carolee: Two things really: intensity (obsession) and poem-a-day challenges. My intensity can be a liability in some scenarios, but in art/poetry, it’s an asset. It’s fuel, and it’s material. And it probably also explains why poem-a-day challenges (like the Tupelo Press monthly poetry marathon) are so fruitful for me. I get more “good” poems out of these kinds of sporadic pushes than I get out of any other practice.

Bridget: Is there any one thing, a book, a poem, or even a moment that made you want to be a writer?

Carolee: My grandfather was a truck driver, and I was mesmerized by the stories he told about his adventures on the road. I can’t remember the specifics, but they always seemed to end with some kind of surprise or punchline (not a joke, per se; I grew up in Maine surrounded by very dry humor), but something that rewarded you for having gone along for the ride. Those endings taught the listener a thing or two about the kind of people the characters had been all along. In other words, they revealed something. Now, I’m not happy with my poems unless the ending grabs you and says, “This is why I asked for your attention.”

Bridget: Are you working on anything now?

Carolee: I think I’ve decided to put together a couple of chapbooks, but I’m currently in that place where the research is so tempting — sex! cephalopods! — that it keeps distracting me from the writing. At the moment, I just have fragments and notes, but I’m starting to buckle down and turn them into something.

Bridget: What are you currently reading or what is something you would recommend?

Carolee: I’m reading Tommy Pico at the moment, specifically IRL. I was introduced to his work through Rachel Zucker’s podcast Commonplace. I’m intrigued by how the long poem is sustained, including how it uses contemporary language and images, how it paces the ordinary with the illuminating and how it moderates momentum. All the while, it feels like train-of-thought: alive and intimate. It’s delightful, exhilarating and intriguing.