The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Carmen Giménez Smith about her poetry collection Goodbye, Flicker.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Carmen Giménez Smith. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So I have a quick story about how I chose this book, and then we can get to the questions. Carmen sent me this manuscript months ago, and it sat next to my desk for a long time until one night I had the house to myself. And I picked it up, sat at the dining room table, and looked at the title, but instead of “Goodbye, Flicker” I saw “Goodbye, Fucker,” because the title was all in caps and the LI looked like a U to my bad eyes.
And then I read the whole thing in one sitting.
And I decided about 3/4 of the way through that I wanted to do it for the book club, even if the title wasn’t “Goodbye, Fucker.” Because I get a bit of that attitude in the book anyway. Okay, a lot of that attitude.
Carmen: I thought it might get misread that way. I’m glad the misreading served the book!
Brian S: So does anyone else have a question before I jump in?
Gaby: I would actually like to talk about the first poem. And the impulse of storytelling. We spoke to Meghan O’Rourke here who also started her book with a kind of invitation to and refutation of the traditional notion of story/fairytale. I’m wondering if you can talk about this remarkable first poem and the challenges it sets out for us in this remarkable journey of a book?
Brian S: And the book returned to those themes again and again. It was fun picking out the various ways you worked them in.
Carmen: Because the book borrows so freely from fairy tales and because there are so many overlaps in the way fairy tales work, I wanted to evoke what I thought were the plot and character categories the book would most often engage from a wide range of tales. I also wanted the overlap to register maybe like sampling.
Gaby: I love that idea and that term.
Carmen: So I wrote the poem thinking “beginning, beginning, beginning” and “middle middle middle,” and wrote down all types of beginnings and middles (and ends) that resonate in tales for me, then layered them.
Brian S: So much work today seems to sample and mash together. It’s really good to see it done well. Is this the effect that DJs have had on poetry, you think?
Carmen: It’s definitely the effect deejays have had on me.
Gaby: I think it’s a really important way of thinking about poems that are being written right now.
Thelma: I love that the word ‘flicker’ can be read as either noun or verb. Can you tell us a little bit about the title and why you chose it?
Carmen: I’ve had time to recall what that title means because recently someone asked me. The book has had two other titles before: PIETY and THE SCREEN
Thelma: Wow, so different. I like this title.
Carmen: The screen referred to the portal the character enters her stories through, like a television screen. So Goodbye, Flicker refers to the flicker of a television or a screen going on or off.
Another kind of sampling: channel surfing, fairy tale surfing. Until she lands on one that fits her mood.
Gaby: And fairy tales themselves are often sampled text… a wonderful game of telephone through generations and regions
Brian S: Absolutely—sometimes there are so few elements from the original that you can barely tell what the original story was, like a five second loop of a song you know you know but can’t place because it’s out of context.
Thelma: Yes, like she did with the bit of Joni Mitchell.
Thelma: There’s also a bird called a flicker and since birds figure in the book, I wondered if that was a resonance.
Brian S: So are Owl Girl and Natasha and Sliver Poet the same person?
Thelma: Good Q, Brian—I wondered that too.
Carmen: They are, in many ways. I imagined them being different aspects of her fantasy life, but someone pointed out that there was an ego, superego, and id aspect to it. Owl Girl is the primary subjectivity. Natasha is the character she becomes in her escape. Sliver Poet is the meta-.
I didn’t know there was a bird named a flicker, though it makes sense.
Thelma: Great word, though, in any case.
Katrina: I’m really interested in the gendered nature of tales, and the POV.
Gaby: Oh me too! More on that, please!
Brian S: That’s where I was going too, Katrina! I taught Barbara Jane Reyes’s Diwata this year in my class and I thought about that when reading your book Carmen—the way you give voice to characters whose voices have traditionally been limited at least.
Carmen: The book alludes to the mother telling and reforming stories to tell the daughter, and this was true of my experience. My mom was a serious adapter. She would go for laughs, but she also tended to highlight the interesting gender issues raised by fairy tales. I think of fairy tales as fairly homosocial too, their lineage and their transmission, so they do seem to me, an interesting place to consider gender. I’m a bit of a gender-gazer, meaning, I’m constantly thinking about gender and how it’s constructed and stories are super-important.
Thelma: I felt as though I could see the narrator reshaping herself over and over again in response to the various tales or elements of them. I found that such a rich way to write a kid’s experience with them.
Brian S: I absolutely adored the poem “Goblin School,” by the way, especially the lines “We were d&d squared. / The ones with wild hair. / Poor penmanship. Jheri curl envy. / Asthma sniffler.” That was like junior high school me, except for the jheri curl thing.
Carmen: That was particularly important to me, giving voice to marginalized figures. I wanted the book to also address class marginalization because I think that’s a big trope in fairy tales.
Absolutely. Each tale allows her to test herself and define herself.
I tried to capture junior high. The most challenging gauntlet.
Brian S: You did for me, right down to the inhaler.
Thelma: Agh, junior high—where character is forged but psyches are damaged forever.
Brian S: You’ve had two books come out in quick succession. What’s the timeline on this one and The City She Was?
Carmen: I started writing this book in 2001 or 2002. I kept setting it aside because, although I knew what I wanted to do, I didn’t know how to do it. As the years went by and I got a little better at writing poems, I would occasionally dip back into it, but when I started writing The City She Was about three years ago, I developed this mindset, I guess I called it my Charles Dickens mindset, in which I would write and labor every day even on things I didn’t want to do or didn’t think I could do, and I had the wherewithal and the commitment to finish book of linked poems. The City She Was was a dress rehearsal of linked poems for the monster that this one would be. And I wrote tons of new poems for it, day after day.
Brian S: How hard is it finding time to write while you’re running Noemi Press?
Thelma: And editing a pretty hefty lit mag… ?
Brian S: And how hectic is the publishing side of things these days?
Carmen: I do have a hard time having a balanced life and writing, so I don’t have a balanced life. There are always times that I could be doing something else, but I choose to write. I don’t exercise as much as I could and my kids could be piano virtuosos or Noemi Press could be the next Copper Canyon, but the poetry takes over. With that said, I do most of my writing late at night. And because I only have this rare amount of time, I really focus and don’t let obstacles stop me. I work on multiple poems at once, so if I’m losing steam on one poem, I pick up another.
Noemi is going well. We’re bringing out amazing books, which is the real joy of being a publisher.
Brian S: How big is Noemi in terms of people working there?
Thelma: I have a beautiful Noemi chapbook by Joanna Howard. Folks, these are art books.
Carmen: Noemi is run with spit and wit, really. We have a Prose Editor, Mike Meginnis and a Poetry Editor, J. Michael Martinez, and a lot of help from other folks. But it’s a shoestring operation.
Thelma: I don’t know how to pronounce the name though.
Carmen: Thanks, Thelma! We’ve moved a bit away from the chapbooks because they’re labor-intensive. No-Em-EE.
Brian S: Is it an indie or are you affiliated with an institution? Sorry for all these business type questions, but I’m interested in my role as an editor.
Carmen: We’re indie although I’ve gotten a lot of support from graduate students in the program over the years.
Brian S: You were working on this and The City She Was simultaneously, you said. Did you have poems that started out as part of one project that wound up in the other?
Carmen: Definitely. “Theory Report” was cut from my first book, Odalisque in Pieces.
Katrina: Carmen, I love what you say about balance (and not) and working on everything simultaneously (sounds familiar). I’d love if you’d talk some about how the book arcs to the final poem, how there’s a kind of resolution or revelation about “tale”… and i’m curious about this literally and metaphorically and in terms of how the next work has emerged in the wake of this book’s discoveries… (but I don’t mean to interrupt).
Carmen: No, not at all. I’m not entirely satisfied with the end of the book, and I really struggled because I didn’t want to be end-y, but the arc of tales sort of requires that. But I did want to suggest that ending is a type of redemption because a new story can start.
Katrina: I love the surety of the voice and claims in the final poem.
Thelma: Me too, Katrina.
Carmen: Thank you. The other realization was that her escape wasn’t a real escape, but another trap. The city was a physical escape, one with more possibility. I didn’t think of how fraught city would be… I didn’t know this book would be picked up as quickly as it was, though.
Katrina: and, as though there could ever be “no more dying…” which made me wonder about the faith/fate that the written vs. lived worlds present.
Carmen: I think it also describes coming into writing. Owl Girl uses her ability to escape as way of being a force in the world as a writer of tales herself.
Thelma: Tongue-Cut Sparrow also seemed final-poemish, the last bit of it at least.
Carmen: That one did come very late in the writing of this book, and it’s a favorite, honestly. I felt like I needed to bring back some of the earlier manifestations of the “Goblin School” voice. I did a lot of work so that the voices were balanced in the sections. When I wrote “Sparrow” I wanted that voice that wanted to shiver oceans to claim her mantle, despite the lows of her story.
Thelma: Carmen, what’s next for you?
Carmen: LOL. Right now I’m working on a few projects. This is how I work, multiple escape hatches. The first is a nonfiction book on television. I’m insanely writing lyric essays for one-hundred different television shows. The next is a collection of essays about squander and failure. The third is a book of linked poems about my mother’s Alzheimer’s.
Thelma: Yikes, that’s some serious multitasking. Sorry about your mom…
Brian S: One-hundred different TV shows would drive me insane. But I feel the Alzheimer’s poems—my dad has it and it’s been the subject of a few of my own lately.
Thelma: And is Treme one of the shows? (It’s my favorite these days.)
Carmen: Thanks. I don’t see it as multitasking. It’s how I get things done. I can’t claim being blocked. Wow, Brian. How is it for you?
Yes, Treme is one of the shows. I love it. There is a lot of junk on the list, and I’ve got six still to do.
Brian S: Complicated by the fact that my parents basically disowned me when I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses sixteen years ago. The poems are coming slowly. I haven’t tried to publish any of them yet.
Any sci-fi on the list?
Carmen: Sci-fi is huge for me. Fringe is a favorite. BSG.
I’d love to see some poems, Brian.
Brian S: I have a love-hate relationship with BSG. Love the first 2.5 seasons, hate the rest.
Carmen: Reality television is also really big, especially true crime shows. There’s my weakness.
I ended up hating that it was about God somehow. Like Lost. Don’t get me started.
Thelma: Breaking Bad?
Carmen: Literally deus ex machina. Breaking Bad, absolutely. A lot of British television as well.
Brian S: Where did “Frog At the Moment of Impact” come from? I don’t mean the fairy tale—I mean what made you choose the frog’s POV there?
Carmen: Because the princess’s POV didn’t interest me as much as this frog who was only trying to be nice and who gets implicated in the patriarchal showdown of forced marriage.
Brian S: And winds up eating the wall for his trouble.
Carmen: I mean he was trying to get married, yes, but… he gets thrown against the wall, then this releases him from his troubles, the force of her rage. I love that she throws him though, but I couldn’t do much with it. I tend to like the edges of stories rather than the stories themselves.
Thelma: I loved Princess Madhouse… Especially how it ended.
Carmen: Thank you. That was about a real psychiatric hospital I went to in high school.
Brian S: Well with those sorts of stories, there’s so much room to play around at the edges. I mean, the stories themselves aren’t well-developed, so there’s all sorts of stuff to do with secondary and tertiary characters.
Carmen: Absolutely. And even the film adaptations that are so noisy still have gaps and minor characters that are rich and provocative.
Brian S: The extent to which I like the first Shrek movie is based on the secondary characters who get facetime. The Gingerbread Man, for instance.
Carmen: I don’t think I’m done with the tales, not by a long shot. They’ll be in all my books. Shrek is brilliant. I loved the critique in Shrek. Snarky tales.
Brian S: “The Renegade Fairy at Beauty’s Ball” was another favorite, especially the snark in the line “Sleeping Beauty’s narcosis was such a smart scenario.”
Katrina: With your love of tale, do you think you’ll write stories or a novel?
Carmen: I want to write fiction, Katrina, I do. I have a very raw little beginning of something, and it’s beginning to look like if it ever gets written, it’ll be through tales. But writing prose takes such huge chunks of time.
Katrina: So true, at least in my small experience!!
Kat: Carmen, did you write poems as a child? I hear it in your writer’s voice.
Carmen: I didn’t really write poems or know that I had any right to until high school. Here’s the other beauty of fairy tales: there’s no particular entitlement required to engage with them. I wrote stories, but mostly lived in my head as deeply as Owl Girl does.
Brian S: I was the same way—wrote poems in high school as part of an assignment, and then the next year a teacher introduced us to e. e. cummings by writing “in just Spring” on the chalkboard, and I was hooked.
Carmen: e. e. cummings was my gateway too!
Brian S: Thanks for chatting with us today Carmen, and for this terrific book.
Carmen: Thanks so much!
Thelma: Yes, thanks!
Brian S: Thanks to everyone for your great questions and for putting up with my attempts to talk about things other than the book.