For twenty years now, I’ve read and been read by Carley Moore. We’ve shared manuscripts and publishing advice, co-run a reading series, planned and taught together as teachers, and most importantly, cheered each other on. That last part is easy. Moore’s work is outrageously engaging on so many levels. As a whole, it comprises an unfolding personal and political testament, a reflection of her deep communion with others’ writing, and an endlessly-reiterated conviction that speaking the hard truth is always worth the transformation such an act can bring. She’s also hilarious, sexy, and so quick in her leaps of thought and connection that I lose my breath keeping up.
Carley Moore is the author of the LAMBDA and Firecracker Award-nominated novel The Not Wives, the essay collection 16 Pills, the poetry chapbook Portal Poem, and the young adult novel The Stalker Chronicles. She teaches at NYU and lives with her kid and cat. Read her second novel, Panpocalypse, being released now in serial online format from the Feminist Press.
We emailed recently back and forth, her in Maine and me in New York, about writerly obsessions, depression and occasional spots of joy in a pandemic, and making space in art for “the firehose of life.”
The Rumpus: To me, the best writers are the ones interested in revisiting key coordinates from their personal histories many times, across different genres and projects, to discover what might be revealed anew in the process. I think, for example, of the multiple places in which you’ve written about being in the hospital as a girl. Sometimes you’ve approached that moment through the lens of memory, or of therapy, or—in Panpocalypse—of disability. Each new approach yields fresh details and insights, and adds layers to the versions you’ve told. How do you think about this? How do you know when it’s necessary to re-approach an event?
Carley Moore: Ah, this is such a good question. I’m so glad I get to do this with you, Matt. You and I have long talked about reading for a writer’s obsessions and preoccupations. We learned to teach students to close-read this way in graduate school with one of our teaching mentors/daddies, Pat Hoy, and it was via an essay progression (a series of prompts that lead to an essay) called “The Secret Is in the Text.” The belief we both gleaned from this is that over time, consciously or not, writers return to obsessions, preoccupations, themes, questions, images, and structures. As essayists ourselves who write about a variety of written and visual texts, this is the work we do.
Anyway, that’s context I love, but I’m dodging. I try very hard to just let myself have my preoccupations and obsessions and not censor them. I also think each genre tells a different side of a story that is sometimes about my life directly or else related in some distant way. In my debut poetry book, coming out next year with Tinderbox, I deal with some hospital stuff with a lot of gaps and silence and broken-apart text which feels right for that time because honestly, to be a patient in the 70s, when you are very young, is totally disconcerting and awful. I needed the rupture. But in prose and especially in autofiction like Panpocalypse, I feel I can bring in the powers of all the genres I work in—poetry, essay, fiction—to shine a light on disability and the medical industrial complex in this country.
Disability and hospital time, sick time, if you will, are so invisible to the abled world. I like to tell my secrets. Trauma is another reason I return to my childhood so much. I grew up pretty unhappy and in a lot of pain and in a difficult family and writing and revisiting is a way to deal with the trauma, for me at least. I sometimes worry I re-hurt myself when I write about those times, so being able to fictionalize gives me some space for joy and jokes and to use drama and characters to make something visible that my personal experience alone wouldn’t capture. In essays I feel very bound to the truth, to fact checking, to corroborating evidence.
Rumpus: It rings true that your fiction allows for joy and jokes, drama and character, and much else besides. Panpocalypse also includes writing prompts, a running meta-commentary on the book’s own mode of being written through dictation and typing, asides about books, reflections on parenthood, sex, and activism, and other channels. This ability of yours to be present in many ways, across numerous identities and registers, always strikes me in its complexity and generosity. Is it a conscious effort for you to incorporate so many parts of who you are into your narration?
Moore: It is very conscious. Many years ago, I started to notice that I had two different sets of clothes—one for teaching that felt very Anne Taylor Loft Outlet, very bland and administrative and safe—and one for the rest of my life. The rest-of-my-life clothes were colorful, fun, and had patterns that felt like me. I think around that same time I had started working with a new therapist and together we came up with the idea of “one Carley.” I wanted all my clothes and all my writing to be true to a unified self. I didn’t want to wear the administrative clothes to teach. I don’t have tenure and I reject the idea of professional clothing for women especially. I didn’t want to hide parts of myself to please certain audiences, and increasingly I’m not interested in genre distinctions. I write in three genres and I’d like them all to come together in any piece of writing lately. I also think contemporary America is very busy and toxic and most of us (especially if you are a caregiver of any kind) are managing so many streams of information and people, and voices, and books and articles, and I just want to reflect that twenty-first century experience like the firehose of life.
Rumpus: “One Carley” is such a powerful goal!
There’s deep longing, in Panpocalypse, for spaces of touch and connection. Orpheus, the narrator, rides around hoping that the queer spirit of the city must have resulted in a haven somewhere, if only she could discover it. This is a New Yorker’s abiding belief, that when the time comes, the city will unveil the needed doorway. We talk a lot about people who leave New York and then write essays explaining why—there are good jokes and memes about such abandoners—and the crux of those essays often seems to be, the city isn’t giving me what it gave me in my twenties, and what I need in my thirties or forties (or during a pandemic!) can only be found elsewhere. What makes you stay here? What does the city still offer, or always offer? How has the pandemic changed that, for Orpheus and/or for you?
Moore: I’m not in NYC right now which makes me feel weird and wrong, but my best friend who lives in Maine invited me and my kid and she is part of polycule and there are other kids and I couldn’t pass up the chance for touch (for both me and my kid). “I Came for the Touching,” is my new Maine slogan. But I’ll be back soon. NYC is my home, and I certainly won’t bore anyone with an essay about why I left because I never will. Now that I’m able to touch some people and be part of a steady group of friends, I can see now that I was very depressed the last four months during lockdown, like probably a depressive episode. I think a lot of mentally ill people (I identify as mentally ill) are really struggling and no one seems to care about the mental health aspects of all of this. So I wanted to capture the story of single, queer, disabled person (these intersections are already quite isolating) and explore how Orpheus copes and doesn’t cope. How she tries to find community in small connections and in brief, strange, dystopian moments.
But it’s really hard to be in NYC right now, and during the whole lockdown. New Yorkers are really social. We go out, we see our friends, we walk and take the subway—a lot of that is gone now and it hurts. Movies, museums, bookstores are kinda my main activities and those are all shuttered. Many wealthy people have left the city, which in some ways is nice lol. This week it’s one hundred degrees. I mean, New Yorkers are tough and we’ve done our share and watching the rest of the country and Trump fuck it up really hurts. And our apartments are small. So, yeah, that’s my rant.
Rumpus: It’s been so difficult navigating that depressive space. And yet at the same time, there is the beguiling idea that all this breakdown is the herald of a cosmic cleansing, and a deeply needed social shift. In her June 2020 essay, entitled “The Order of Time,” Renee Gladman considers the problem of writing in the midst of so many upheavals: “I don’t know how to write in such a way that when someone reads this, later, weeks or months after I’ve written it, I will have left enough space for the unknown to tear everything I’ve said apart but will have left me and you with some semblance of form and experience.” What has it been like for you to write a serial novel that unfolds in real time, into a future that feels so radically unknowable? Where is your writing in that future?
Moore: I still need to read that Gladman essay! Every piece of writing has to grapple with this in some way, I think, the how to exist in the time being chronicled and how to exist wherever the reader happens to be. I think we are creatures of memory, nostalgia, and history and also futuristic and perhaps inherently too hopeful. So, I think every book marks some time and some landscapes and the reader can decide if they want to enter those spaces. All this to say, I guess I don’t worry overmuch about the book-time in Panpocalypse. It’s in present tense and after reading Paul Lisicky’s amazing memoir Later, which is a present-tense memoir chronicling life in P-town during the first wave of the HIV epidemic, I saw how you can move back and forth in time even in the present tense, with little markers at the beginning of the sentence or scene. Like, “In the summer of 1989, I walk on the beach… it’s late July and the tourists are everywhere…” So present tense isn’t bound to the present I guess?
Also, I am a worrier, and have a lot of anxiety, so I have learned to try to stay very much in the present or remember that I can’t control the outcome of quite a bit. I don’t like this, but I can do what I can do today and maybe that’s a protest or taking care of my kid or writing for an hour. But my goals are small during lockdown. Survive. Make survival art.
Photograph of Carley Moore by Amy Touchette.