The Ocean is Full of Questions: An Interview with Rob Carney
By Jackson Reed
Poetry is different than those other genres. Poems don’t come with a band and light show to help propel them.
I first read Rob Carney’s poetry for a course at Weber State University. An assignment to share the work of a poet we found interesting led me to the captivating title of Carney’s The Book of Sharks (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). After class, I bought the book, devoured it, and then immediately found “North and West of Winnemucca” in Sugar House Review, where I was impressed by the same honesty and sincerity I’d found in The Book of Sharks. In this poem Carney references his father’s death, writing, “There’s probably someone you’re missing too. All I can say is I’m sorry.” Here’s another such sentiment in The Book of Sharks: “We kill sharks by the millions and sing along from our hymnals. In the end, standing at the gates of heaven, what if we are asked one question: ‘How are My sharks?’”
Like Walt Whitman, Carney immerses himself in nature and emerges with poetry that conveys a deep respect for the environment. Unlike Whitman, Carney is always unpretentious. His sincere and natural representations of the varied forms of nature and of our interactions with it—from sharks to mastodons—remind me of Robert Frost’s work, though Carney’s loose lines break from formal convention, poetry blending to conversation.
His deep respect for the environment is captivating. He convinces us of the importance of everyday objects and experiences by connecting them to the mythos of nature, as when he writes that “some say sharks are the ocean’s anger at the sun / for keeping it caught on a line.” His writing seems effortless and uncomplicated yet, like the sea he writes about, there are many levels of depth.
Carney is a professor of English and literature at Utah Valley University. He is the author of seven books of poetry, including Facts and Figures(Hoot n Waddle, 2020) and the forthcoming Call and Response (Black Lawrence Press, 2021). His first collection of creative nonfiction and his own take on the haibun, Accidental Gardens, is forthcoming from Stormbird Press.
I made the jump, at age five, from fascination with dinosaurs (bones, extinct, not encounterable) to fascination with sharks because sharks were still alive, and scary-cool and awesome, especially the great white.
Jackson Reed:The Book of Sharks contains beautiful and unexpected images of the ocean and how the life within it has inspired mankind. For example:
Some say sharks are the ocean’s blueprints for tools, a set of designs for us to imitate.
The great white, for instance, taught us bear traps, and the thresher’s tail taught us scythes.
If the ocean inspires humanity, what specifically inspires you to write about the ocean?
Rob Carney: I loved the water from the time I was a kid: thinking about it, and especially looking at it. Lake Washington, visible from my grandma and grandpa’s house; Puget Sound visible from the rocky shoreline, or out the car window while driving, or, if I was really lucky, from the deck of a ferry; the Washington coast out around Longview; on TV if Jacques Cousteau had a special on; whatever. I mean, I wasn’t connected to it by having scuba lessons or anything, and I’m not sure I asked myself why; it just was. Lakes and rivers were cool too, but they felt less awesome and huge. Anyway, you write about what you’re drawn to, I guess, and I’m drawn to that. Or you write because questions are more interesting than flinging answers around at people, and the ocean feels more full of questions than just about anything.
Also, as big as the ocean is, and as old and deep and endless, it needs people to stop ruining it. I’m able to talk on the page to people. Like maybe if they felt more, then they’d wind up thinking more, and then they’d change. Not that I want to come across as grand about it, because I’m not. Grand is activists and people who really do the work. But the stories matter too, and they sometimes move readers and listeners a lot more than articles and data.
Jackson Reed: While reading your book, I was struck by the respect and humility with which you wrote about sharks. There are a lot of species out in the ocean, but what drew you to focus on sharks and not another marine animal?
Rob Carney: I’m going to disagree with your question just a little bit since I write about driftwood, whales, orcas, coral reefs, seagulls, otters, salmon, crabs, starfish, sea lions, manta rays, and other things in or above or near the ocean, too. But I take your point: sharks are first for me.
I made the jump, at age five, from fascination with dinosaurs (bones, extinct, not encounterable) to fascination with sharks because sharks were still alive, and scary-cool and awesome, especially the great white. I mean, just look at them: holy crap wow damn incredible. And when I started The Book of Sharks, it was because I also think of them as “elemental.”
That was the contest theme for Terrain.org in 2013, so I felt like it was time to get down to it and start writing. I had a section in my book Story Problems called “from The Book of the Elements,” and it wasn’t just four poems; it was seven, which meant that in addition to Earth, Air, Water, and Fire, I got to add Death, Emptiness, and Sex. Also, I thought, if I ever wanted to return to that idea, I had a ready-made reason built into the group title since “from The…” suggests there can be more than those initial seven. And here’s Terrain.org asking for a group of five to seven (seven!) poems around the theme “Elemental,” and it seemed like a sign. So I asked myself, “What else is an element?” and immediately thought, “Sharks,” and I wrote one poem. Then I asked myself, “What else is elemental?” but decided I didn’t care and kept on writing about sharks, and the book grew from there.
Jackson Reed: You have a new collection, Facts and Figures. You mention themes of the ocean throughout these new poems, but you also have poems ranging from raccoons to Galileo to birds. How is this project different than your previous collections?
Rob Carney: It’s arranged into groups of 13, plus two stand-alone poems, and the opening section, “13 Facts,” is a prose-poem collage. I’ve never done that before. I don’t know if anyone has, and if they did, they probably didn’t combine such a hybrid with other things too, like oddball praise songs, and new creation stories, and a duck running for elected office. That’s just a snippet of an answer, I know. But I guess I don’t want to give everything away ahead of time.
Jackson Reed: Where did the title for Facts and Figures come from?
Rob Carney: Literally from outer space. There was a long-form info-piece on NPR about a space expedition. It was full of numbers and data, and also one simile. And I was scribbling it all down the best I could while driving down to the university. Probably irresponsible, but I couldn’t help it. Later, that news piece came together in my mind with another, more personal story, and I started working on multiple sections and braiding them into a kind of unity, and that became the title poem.
Jackson Reed: What was the simile?
Rob Carney: That was cool, actually. At least I think so, because to me, even when I want to pay attention to engineers and physicists, I find it hard, even boring and un-centered when I’m sure it’s not. It’s like the difference between hearing a list of mechanical parts required to build a robot versus being tense about that one red light and HAL’s monotone dialogue in 2001. Anyway, in the middle of all the data, there’s a simile, and it’s great: They’re talking through the variables they had to prep for, and they say that the probe needed harpoons that it could shoot into the comet to help it anchor and land because it wouldn’t weigh enough in space—the gravity there would be almost nothing—and the simile was that this 200-pound spacecraft would weigh as little as an origami swan. Without that simile: no story. Facts yes, but people need more than that to care and understand.
So I play with the word “figures” in this book and how it can mean “numbers,” but it also means “figuring,” as in guessing, and “figuring,” as in figurative language. I play with the word “facts” too, sort of on a sliding scale, sometimes loosely and other times 100 percent straight.
You know that’s what’ll come of it if these bio-engineers actually succeed: mastodons will be treated like better pony rides and a way to sell tickets.
Jackson Reed: In your poem, “Fact 12,” you mention the low wolf population in the West. I notice the theme of protecting the environment throughout a lot of your work. What do you feel could be done to further preserve species that are being impacted by humanity’s use of the natural world?
Rob Carney: Extend human rights and legal protection—with public defenders in court—to rivers the way they do in New Zealand. Build greenbelt bridges over interstates and highways for safer animal crossing. Reintroduce wolves to the West, and forbid people from shooting them. Seriously—I won’t go into how right now, because that’s a lot of talking-talking-talking—but if there were wolves in Utah, then the extinction of the Pando, which is the largest living organism on Earth, wouldn’t be likely anymore. Why? Because the elk and deer would have to move their asses instead of standing around, day and night, eating all the new aspen shoots and saplings. Put a moratorium on “chaining” forests. No more allowing beverage companies to push their products at us in plastic bottles. Require all Americans, like an 11th Commandment or something, to stop and ask ourselves once a day, “Do I matter so much that monarch butterflies should disappear forever lest I, at any time, be caused to moderate myself?” That sounds pretty Jeremiah of me, more than I mean to. Really, as far as those Old Testament prophets go, I prefer Jonah and Micah. Jonah, in fact, seems almost modern to me, and was probably a pretty funny guy.
Robinson Jeffers says it a lot better anyway. In “Carmel Point” he writes, “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must unhumanize our views a little.” I probably should have quoted him first and left it at that.
Rob Carney: Well, aren’t they like the Totemic Food of What’s Ridiculous? I mean, they’re great, but also pretty silly, and churros just seemed in character for the poem’s fairground-wannabe-mastodon-rider. Like, “Sure, it’s okay to be riding on a mastodon, but it’d be even better if I had churro.” Because you know that’s what’ll come of it if these bio-engineers actually succeed: mastodons will be treated like better pony rides and a way to sell tickets. I guess that might sound cynical about people, but look around.
Jackson Reed: What do you want people to know about this new collection of poems?
Rob Carney: Maybe that Joe Wilkins loved it? I mean, Joe’s a helluva writer and no dummy, so if he loved it, then that’s a huge vouch, I think.
More seriously, I want them to know that there’s an arc to the poems, right through to the last one inspired by the 18th century lunatic poet Christopher Smart; specifically his aside of joy in honor of his cat Jeoffry. We could all use a few more asides of joy right now, and this book will deliver at least one for sure. If you’re a fan of new fables and re-jig-sawed fairy tales, you’re in luck. If you like funny, parts of it are funny. But if you prefer that poems be about serious business, then there’s plenty of serious going on, as well.
Jackson Reed: I really enjoy the unique style in your poems. What poets would you say have contributed to that style and that you like to read?
Rob Carney: I like “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman because it never fails to say something new again even though the words don’t change. I love Anne Sexton and think she’s under-read, maybe because people know Sylvia Plath more or something. But I prefer Sexton by a hundred miles and think her variety is great, and I love her voice, and her retelling of the Grimm’s fairytales, and her poems “Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman,”“The Ambition Bird,” and gobs more of them. Too many to list. “Too many,” as she says, “to eat.”
What else? The first book that happily blew my mind and seemed like a gateway into “all is open, all is wild, all is an okay way to write” was Selected Poems of Tomaz Salamun, with an introduction by Robert Hass (Ecco Press). Also, I’ve got a friend named Scott Poole whose poems are terrific (The Cheap Seats; Hiding from Salesmen; The Sliding Glass Door). Scott and I have a book of our work—both of us together—out from Unsolicited Press this past August. It’s called The Last Tiger Is Somewhere: poems about, or responding to, recent news, with an introduction by me and an afterword by him. Oh, and I forgot Richard Garcia. He’s fantastic, odd, smart, funny, sad; and if you want to see how to write surrealism, bingo. Or if you want to see how to write first-person past-tense poems that aren’t like everybody else’s, then he’s your guy. And the first poet I went to without being assigned his work by a teacher was Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers is neglected for no good reason. Check him out.
Really, as far as those Old Testament prophets go, I prefer Jonah and Micah. Jonah, in fact, seems almost modern to me, and was probably a pretty funny guy.
Jackson Reed: I hear a lot of discussion about what makes a poem “good” or “bad.” I realize that this is a highly subjective question, but: your thoughts?
Rob Carney: I guess a “good poem” is one that hooks you immediately and rewards your attention for the exact amount of time it’s asking for your attention. It takes you over. Over, as in its feelings and imagery and word choice now seem like your own feelings and images and word choice. And over, as in over some gap in your understanding, empathy, and imagination that you didn’t even know was there… over a bridge, or a hang-up, or a habit-self, and then it sets you down someplace new. The newness doesn’t last forever, of course, but it’s there again whenever you reread the poem.
That can be true of stories or plays or songs also, but the medium (means?) of poetry is different than those other genres. Poems don’t come with a band and light show to help propel them. And they’re shorter, so they have less time to make an impact than a story or a play. They’re concise. And they’re memorable. I don’t mean memorable in the way where you paraphrase and can describe them as glad-sad-happy-furious-etc. I mean you can actually memorize them—start to finish, word for word—and have them ready for when you or someone else needs them. Obviously songs can be memorized too, and actors memorize their lines, so poems aren’t something I’m trying to vault to the front of the line as the best and most special; I’m just saying that a good poem makes you want to know it by heart and share its heartbeat. What’s different is that even if you can’t play an instrument, you can say a poem aloud, and the music and impact (or delight, wisdom, praise, sorrow, or whatever) is already there.
Now “bad poems”: well, I think it’s true—probably empirically, like you could lab-test and prove this hypothesis—I think it’s true that when you’re reading a bad poem, there are going to be adjectives everywhere. Like it’s the rare noun that hasn’t got an adjective in front of it trying to be some kind of emotional booster seat. But adjectives are not—I promise—a substitute for imagery and precision. And I think in a bad poem its verbs are going to do little or nothing, which is a mistake since verbs are the doing words in our language. And I think instead of a rhythm that’s been worked on and made best the way a choreographer works with pulse/step/gesture, a bad poem just stumbles around. It’s inattentive. It misses the right word and doesn’t go back to find it. It just settles for anything that pops to mind and seems in service to the poet’s “important” personal confession or lived experience or idea they think we all need to hear and agree with. To the bad poem, what is a lot more urgent than how.
Beyond that, there’s a kind of poem I’m (mostly) tired of: The Talk-My-Way-Through-Abbreviated-Memoir-Free-Verse-Poem. In my own work, for instance, I don’t do much of that. Or I intentionally do other things that make my version of that kind of poem less like part of the herd. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for others to work in that niche so much. I’m just saying that I prefer to do something else.
Jackson Reed: So what’s next for Rob Carney?
Rob Carney: Well, besides the book I mentioned, The Last Tiger Is Somewhere, I have a collection of 42 flash essays titled Accidental Gardens. That would be out already except the publisher, Stormbird Press, was one of the victims of the bushfire disasters in Australia last year. They lost everything and have had to start over, and it’s awful, and it’s increasingly happening. I mean, I lived in Spokane in 1991 when they had what I imagined was the worst of all fires, with the resulting heat causing flame tornadoes. They’d spin up a tree trunk, burst at the top, then spin back down and on ahead to the next one. Times thousands. But now that’s normal. Now there’s California every year. Now there’s the entirety of Australia. So Stormbird Press is like so many others affected by climate change. But they’re like the mythical bird too because they’re back from the very real, very literal ashes, which is fantastic. It’s also, admittedly, some extra pressure because I hope people think that my book is worth it.
Those are two “next things.” But beyond that, I don’t know yet. A lot of times I have to wait and see.
Jackson Reed, an aspiring Aldous Huxley scholar, finished his B.A. in Literature in December 2020 after completing a semester study abroad program at Oxford’s Balliol College. He plans to begin his M.A. studies at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, where he has been employed as a Writing Center tutor, a literary magazine editor, and the student facilitator of Weber’s annual National Undergraduate Literature Conference.