SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Anne Carson's book of poems come in a clear plastic box where they float, which is also the title of this collection - small chapbooks that hold poems, jottings, lists, reflections and excerpts of thoughts that can be shuffled, rearranged, set aside or read over and over as a reader chooses.
Anne Carson is a Canadian poet, essayist, translator and MacArthur Fellow. Her books include "Antigonick," "Nox" and "The Beauty Of The Husband: A Fictional Essay In 29 Tangos." That won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She's also a devoted, roving teacher of the classics and literature. She joins us now from Valencia, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.
ANNE CARSON: Thank you for asking me.
SIMON: Why this form?
CARSON: Well, mainly because these various pieces of writing were originally performance pieces. So they were done on a stage with - often with other people helping and my collaborator Currie designing the whole thing.
So we wanted the book to retain that separateness of the pieces because it isn't a collection in the sense of an organic whole intended to be read in a certain order with a certain trajectory of thought or feeling. It is genuinely a collection. And then the floating is because they float.
SIMON: Let me read the beginning of "The Designated Mourner By Wally Shawn," which is by you.
SIMON: (Reading) Go to the Wally Shawn play. It is hopeless. I mean, production - impeccable. Philosophy - hopeless. Yet it gives me hope. Figure this out. Next day - listening to Sam Cooke. What comes to me in a dawned cafe is, no need to fear death. There will be a tunnel and light.
Do poets find something to hope for in things that are hopeless?
CARSON: Sort of. Well, I don't know. I guess they do. I guess they do because if your way of life is writing, then everything that happens becomes a sentence. And so it's - it moves down into that other level of problem-solving, which is grammar and syntax. And that can always come out somewhere - I mean, somewhere you didn't know it would come out - which is perhaps hopeful.
SIMON: What's the old phrase? That to a carpenter the world looks like a nail?
CARSON: (Laughter) Yes. Exactly. A task - and a task has a beginning and an end and then a thing made. Poetry - poiesis means a thing made. And making is always a slightly hopeful thing because once you've made something, it'll - the world will be different.
SIMON: I gather you've been kind of an itinerant teacher of the classics and literature in recent years.
CARSON: Yes. I've gone here and there. I teach classics about half the time. And the other half of the time, Currie and I teach some sort of other thing that we call ego circus.
SIMON: What really connected between you and ancient Greece?
CARSON: I never know how to answer that question. The Greek language seems different than other languages. I'm not the only person to think this. Usually, I come up with some kind of dopey metaphor for why it's different. But it seems, somehow, more original, more like being in the morning of language.
And that's partly because the words are new. Those people are inventing ways of thinking about stuff - but also because we have thousands of years of building the words into other things, using their words to build out our words. And so, by now, it's all kind of a dusty superstructure. But they were down in the roots of it.
SIMON: Well, you reminded me of something I read in one of your chapbooks here. This is from the one called "Contempt." (Reading) Homer made his living as a bard. Historians think we get glimpses of what his hard life might've been like from certain characters in the "Odyssey" who literally sing for their supper. Then you go on to say, (reading) Homer must have felt this pressure to come up with an epic poem that would sound totally new to an audience that had loved his previous best-seller.
CARSON: Same problem in an earlier form. But I don't think the language was quite worn out yet by then. I was more worn out with the "Odyssey" than it was with the "Iliad." I mean, just comparing those two - you can see how it's changing, how the language of the "Iliad" is somehow monstrously new - and that language of the "Odyssey" is more comfortable, even for us.
And that process has continued. Comfortable means gradually more and more flattened down, more and more blunt - less and less sharp and biting into you.
SIMON: And you write in a way to kind of sharpen our language and liven it a bit?
CARSON: Well, that would be the hope. Yeah, with every sentence, there is that attempt to make something new happen inside, moving from this word to that word.
SIMON: You write every day?
CARSON: Yeah, I do. I love it.
SIMON: What do you love about it?
CARSON: Just making the letters. I never really got over the fun of making letters. Do you remember when they taught cursive in schools? I think they don't anymore. But I still enjoy it - just the physical act and all the - the whole business of making a thing out of language.
SIMON: Anne Carson - her book of poems, essays and insights - "Float." I'm so glad you could be with us.
CARSON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.