Anne Carson's house in the Berkeley hills, hard by the university campus, a mint-green fence defends the high, pale greenery of a raw Bay Area spring. The plants hide the glass front door from the street, so Carson can work at her front window unseen. On her diminutive, sunlit writing desk is Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Sources of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful. Sinuous '50s jazz fills the kitchen. It's a neat, bright space for a scholar and poet, but Carson is quick to explain that it's not really hers: after spending the fall at the University of Michigan writing an opera, Carson is staying here for one semester in Berkeley: in the fall she returns to McGill University in Montreal, where she teaches ancient Greek.
Like her borrowed household, Carson--tall and intent, with glasses that look slightly askew--can seem both deliberately solitary, and brightly connected to everything she's come across. She lives alone; she married once, but has been divorced since 1980. Welcoming and unpretentious, she is happy to explain her multifarious projects: "I do lots of things at once of different kinds," she avers, "and they tend to spill into one another." Among her latest projects is her first book of short poems in five years, Men in the Off Hours (Knopf): its serious and eclectic pages include "epitaphs," love poems, verse-essays, commemorative prose, "shooting scripts" for purported TV dramas and poems addressed to paintings. In addition, Princeton University Press has just published Carson's Economy of the Unlost), a book-length essay on the ancient Greek poet Simonides and the modern German-language poet Paul Celan.
Carson's literary accomplishments have been as various as her residences. Her first book, Eros the Bittersweet--a startling, lucid argument about love, lust and jealousy in Greek poetry--emerged from her doctoral dissertation. (Princeton published Eros in 1986 as an academic book; in 1998, Dalkey Archive reissued it as a handsome trade paperback.) Readers of poetry discovered Carson in 1995 with two genre-defying books of essays and poems, Plainwater (Vintage) and Glass, Irony and God (New Directions); Ben Greenman in the Los Angeles New Times called Glass "perceptive, beautiful, sexy, neurotic, lyrical, and hilarious." Carson's 1998 novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red (Vintage), became a National Book Critics Circle Awards finalist; Time called its "success d'estime... both timely and timeless." Carson now has an audience in Great Britain, where she's published by Jonathan Cape; translators are also bringing Carson's work into Danish, Dutch, German and Italian.
Born in 1950, Carson grew up in "various towns in Ontario." She devoted herself to classics long before she cared about writing poems: "I started to learn Greek when I was in high school, the last year of high school, by accident, because my teacher knew Greek and she offered to teach me on the lunch hour, so we did it in an informal way, and then I did it at university, and that was the main thing of my life." Carson chose the University of Toronto for her undergraduate and graduate studies; she taught from 1980 to 1987 at Princeton. She continues to write about ancient poets with unorthodox vigor; of the Greek epic (most of it lost) on which she based Autobiography of Red, Carson writes that "the fragments of the Geryoneis... read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem, then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat."
Carson's entry into literary publishing came through renowned New York essayist and editor Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the journal Grand Street. "I lived in New York at the 92d St Y one year, [in] '86-'87, and somebody told me, I think it was Robert Fagles or Bernard Knox, who are both scholars, one of them told me that I should call [Sonnenberg] since he lives in New York and meet him, since he was a man of letters and I was a person of letters, and so I did that and then I went and visited him, which is a very marking experience, and we've been friends ever since, and he was the first person, as I've said, who published me." Carson adds that Sonnenberg's response to her writing was crucial. "It's very important to have someone you trust tell you your writing is good," she says, "especially if you trust them first, if you know who they are and have an image of that and then come into it. I knew of Grand Street before. It was amazing then. And he did it all himself, it was just a product of his mind and his cash... entirely his own. So that was changeful."
What Sonnenberg accepted was a long work called Kinds of Water, a series of prose pieces (like Japanese haibun) which followed the route of the Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Carson calls it "something in between a story and an essay." Sonnenberg's acceptance "made me validate that way of writing, because up until that time I think I thought I had to make things be either an academic thesis or else fiction, and I couldn't write fiction. So it was good to discover that form."
By then Carson had also begun the prose-poem sequence Short Talks, which appeared as a chapbook in 1992 from Brick, a Canadian magazine and press associated with Michael Ondaatje. Other Canadian poets tout networks of writers up north; for Carson, though, "There was no scene. Just me and my notebook!"
Carson has been largely content with her U.S. trade publishers: "It's been all Knopf since '95. Plainwater and the New Directions book [Glass, Irony and God] came out at the same time. And since then it's all Knopf, Vintage is Knopf, it's all one big happy family." One chronic family quarrel concerns book covers: at her insistence, none of her books show her readers what she looks like. She even hates "the blurb thing. I just loathe it. They want to cover the whole back of the book with junk from other people's bad language about what I wrote, and it just drives me crazy, and I struggled for a long time to persuade them to not put any on the front--they like to put it on the front, too--but at least I got it to the back, and with the next one I want to have a blank book. This is my aim. Nothing. No biography, no author's photos, no quotes from wh ver, just the book." Carson says it's important that she not notice readers' reactions: "I think I cancel them as soon as they come in to me. I don't read reviews and I don't know what to do with opinions, so I just lose them. They take up space, they become a process of manufacturing a persona, which I want to avoid.
"I never had much education in English poetry as such," Carson maintains. She returns to the Greeks to describe kinds of poems she has written--short and long poetry, lyric and narrative. In Greek literature "a lyric aims to capture a moment of change from one time to another, from one situation to another, so it's not that you describe any moment in the day and make it intense, you choose the moment in the day when everything changed because of some little thing or thought or mood. Homer can tell you the whole history of the fall of Troy, he has 24,000 words to do it, and there's no necessary choice of frame, of the critical moment, as there is for a lyric poet." Narrative poems like Homer's--or like her own Red--can move the reader through time, from event to event. Carson contrasts these events to the freeze-frame effects of short poems--"lyric [poetry] attempts to enter so deeply into history at a particular point that time stops."
Carson's mother died in 1997, and the last few pages of Men commemorate her. Is Men in the Off Hours all about death and grief? Carson says she didn't plan it that way: "I didn't sit down and say okay, now I have to write a book with a lot of epitaphs and organize it around death. But as I was putting together different parts, it seemed to me that there was a possibility of shaping this book in a way I hadn't done with the others." Simonides has it (in Carson's translation) that "We are all debts owed death." Carson says she took her epitaph form from his: "that's what he mainly wrote--he's fifth century B.C.--so he more or less solidified the form. And the form that he used, which was conventional for ancient poets, is that couplet, usually it's two lines or four lines, long and short, long and short. So I was trying to imitate that in the little ones I did."
The poems in another of Carson's series, "TV Men," pretend to be teleplays and notes for documentaries about such unlikely celebrities as the French playwright Antonin Artaud. Carson describes the genesis of "TV Men": "In 1993 or '94 PBS asked me to do a program they were formulating called the Nobel Legacy, about the Nobel science prizes, and what they wanted was three programs about science, chemistry, physics, biology, with a kind of sarcastic overlay by some representative humanist. We did three programs, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life."
That bad? "The process is just dehumanizing. We did a show in Paris, for example. I had to walk into traffic on the Place de la Concorde, at 8 a.m., into rush-hour traffic, while talking my speech for the scene--they wanted a scene of the stress of modern life! But the thing with TV is that nothing happens right the first time, and you have to do it over and over and over. We did that 26 times, into traffic, saying the same things, and the worst part of it is not the death-defying scenario itself but having to repeat your own language. Nothing deadens language like repetition. So you write a sentence and you really like it and you have it in your mind and then you say it once, twice, three times. By the seventh time it's just the worst sentence in the world and then you hate it and you have to go on to number 26."
D s Carson hate movies too? "I love movies. [Italian actress] Monica Vitti is one of my personal her s." She's also a recent discovery: Carson had "absolutely no knowledge of film till last fall. Because I've never owned a TV, and I went to movies only sporadically. But last fall I lived in Michigan in an apartment that was rented for me and it had a TV in it and a VCR so I started to watch movies, three a week."
What was Carson doing in Michigan? "The course I taught was about mystical literature of women, but the background of the course was a libretto for an opera I was writing, which I brought with me just because I had it in my backpack, and then I was talking about it with people there in Michigan at the institute and they said, Why don't we try to do this? So I did it with my students as an art installation." The seven-room installation-opera, The Mirror of Simple Souls, may be seen and heard on the Web at www.ummu.umich.edu/projects/souls; those with slow connections should set aside a few hours for loading.
Even as she explores newer media, Carson remains committed to classical scholarship. A few years ago McGill eliminated its graduate programs in Greek and Latin, folding its undergraduate classics program into the department of history. "That was kind of a shock for all of us.... They moved people, some to administration, some to retirement, all the part-time people they let go. It was really ugly and stupid because it's part of at least the prestige of a good university to offer classics as a real degree."
Opera, TV, painting, collage, all kinds of prose and verse, personal essays, classical scholarship: Are there genres Carson hasn't worked in? "I don't know what I want to work in, it just falls from the sky. I've never done any architecture!" She is at work on a multimedia project about "longing": one goal is an artist's book, including poetry, aphorisms, drawing, collage, glitter and found photographs. Her visual preoccupations are nothing new: "I didn't write very much at all until I guess my 20s because I drew. I just drew pictures, and sometimes wrote on them when I was young but mostly I was interested in drawing. I never did think of myself as a writer!" Even now, with six books, "I don't know that I do yet. I know that I have to make things. And it's a convenient form we have in our culture, the book, in which you can make stuff, but it's becoming less and less satisfying. And I've never felt that it exhausts any idea I've had."