Cecilie’s favourite poetry collection “Imagined Sons" inspired the title of our Autumn Winter '16 issue: "Imagined Songs". Written by Carrie Etter, who's powerful words and theme explored throught the collection, made such an impact - that to bring Carrie into this issue seemed like the perfect thing. Luckily for us all, she accepted, and all our readers will have the pleasure of taking in three new poems included in our new issue, exclusively written for Boys by Girls.
To delve further into the woman behind these poems, Cathy Dreyer speaks to Carrie in the below interview. To read all three poems, issue 11 is available to buy in shops and via our website.
By the end of the first reading I saw the poet Carrie Etter give, every face in the audience at Oxford’s Old Fire Station theatre was wet, and the traditional English pantomime of ignoring the elephantine emotional event in the room was well underway, beginning with furtive dabs to the eyes, moving through throat-clearing and ending in a finale of softly blown noses. The applause was so hand-hurtingly heartfelt and protracted that Etter felt driven to excuse herself, saying, ‘It’s my best work’.
This touching apology would be no surprise to anyone who knows the prize-winning poet well. Having survived a teenage pregnancy and given up her son for adoption, Etter then moved from Normal, Illinois to California where she funded four university degrees, including a PhD, with part-time jobs (no bank of mum and dad here). She moved to England in 2001 thinking she would be resident only for a couple of years, to finish work on her PhD in Victorian fiction. Fifteen years on, she’s still in England, having risen to become Reader in creative writing at Bath Spa University, a noted critic, sought-after judge (recently for the prestigious Forward Poetry Prizes) and multiple-prize-winning poet. Despite this extraordinary success, in person Etter is friendly, charming and self-deprecating. As a teacher, she’s tremendously supportive and generous, as I know from personal experience.
No one was surprised either when Etter’s ‘best work’ made it into print shortly after the reading I enjoyed in Oxford. Her stunning collection, Imagined Sons, was out with Seren in 2014. The collection examines a birthmother’s consciousness in the wake of her loss. While adoption has not touched my life, the work seemed, and still seems, to touch, trigger even, all the hurt I’ve ever felt, like a switch has been flipped, or a tap turned on, simply through the act of reading. There are some poems in the collection I still can’t read aloud to friends or family without choking.
Etter’s first efforts to write about the experience of giving up a baby for adoption were in a straightforwardly confessional style, but over the years she found such an approach insufficient and turned to the figurative prose poetry which forms the main body of Imagined Sons. When a magazine editor asked to see more poems in the ‘series’ of birthmother poems, then a mere half-dozen pieces written over ten years, she devoted the next six weeks to writing to completing an initial group of 30 ‘imagined sons’.
In emails, Etter kindly filled in some blanks about her process of writing the collection and its readers’ responses.
Above: one of three poems written by Carrie Etter exclusively for Boys by Girls Issue 11 - “Beauty of the Son" .
How do you see the genesis of Imagined Sons now? Did you need to write the poems?
I think so. I think I wrote them to prepare myself for whoever he was, to teach myself to understand unconditional love for one's child. When it became a series, it also evolved into a creative project: to try to realise what it would be to write about a confessional topic in a non-confessional way and to make the whole as effectively original as possible.
Which did you write first?
The first was ‘Fairy Tale’, written in 1995 in close to its current form. For a long time it was called ‘First Son’: it was only when I was putting together the manuscript of Imagined Sons did I see the poem's fairy-tale qualities. I wrote about half a dozen of the prose poems between 1995 and 2006, then the writing really kicked off in early 2006.
Can you remember writing it?
No, I don't remember writing the first one, but I have general memories of writing the others: drafting three in the Bunch of Grapes pub in Bradford on Avon, where I was living in '06, and coming home with tears streaming. It was emotionally difficult work.
Do you think, then, that the poet Robert Frost was right when he said ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’?
I don't know. I hoped my readers would be able to inhabit my poems, but I never expected to render identical emotions within them.
So is it fair to say that you wrote the narratives to prepare yourself for who your son might be but hoped readers would inhabit them?
I suppose the initial impulse was to prepare myself for who my son had become, but the revision process always considered the poem in itself, its quality apart from any personal attachment. I think that distance is very important to write well.
Did you worry about the son you'd parted from as an infant reading Imagined Sons?
I don't know how my son would respond to reading these works – whether he'd be flattered, overwhelmed, upset, anything. While that lack of knowledge is worrying, I had to write the book regardless.
What have been the most gratifying reader responses? What have been the most difficult?
The most gratifying reader response appreciates Imagined Sons foremost as a work of poetry, with theme and approach relevant only insofar as they serve the form. The most difficult responses have reduced the work to autobiography, devoid of form or technique.
Does your experience of writing the collection have any general lessons for people trying to write their lived experience?
I think it can be helpful not to write direct personal narrative, that more can be understood about the lived experience by writing about it from more figurative or oblique perspectives. I thought that by using imagined narratives rather than literal ones, one could extrapolate these situations to other experiences of loss. I've had a lot of people tell me they relate to the poems in their experience of the death of a loved one and thinking they see that person in the world.
Why did you decide the narrative prose poetry form was appropriate for this work? (I understand that you realised the fairy tale-ness post hoc but you went with it.)
Not all the Imagined Sons prose poems take narrative form, but many do, as the idea behind the prose poems is an encounter between me and my grown son. Still, the narrative isn't at the forefront – it’s there to deliver or explore an idea about the birthmother-birthson relationship.
Carrie's poems sits beautiful next to images by Sophie Mayanne.
How important is form to IS? How do you think it helps you communicate with readers?
I think form is crucial to the manuscript. Seeing prose on the page leads a reader to approach it differently than lines, for one, and the prose poem's way of conveying an idea suited the work in part because I think it resists closure; as these are all 'imagined', hypothetical encounters, closure simply isn't possible.
What led you to the catechism form?
A happy chance! At a conference someone was listing forms poetry could take, this was one of them, and it struck me instantly that this was what I'd been looking for to complete Imagined Sons: I began composing the first catechisms for the manuscript during the panel itself.
Have you found it consoling to have written the collection?
No, writing the book was never consoling. It was demanding, gratifying, and sundering, but not consoling.
For ordinary readers and scholars alike, the collection repays reading. It honours Etter’s lived experience and must be seen as a magnificently positive response to her pain. But it reaches well beyond a simple confession into art, through the technical skill which it wears so lightly. As such, it articulates a quality of loss which many readers can recognise and find themselves less lonely in their griefs, even if its writer cannot.
Words by Cathy Dreyer.