Half Lives and Long Drives:
An Interview with Anne Carson and Robert Currie
In Conversation with Sara Elkamel and NYU Undergraduates
My copy of Anne Carson’s Plainwater is falling apart. It looks like a wall with slight water damage. I bought it at The Strand in 2016, and it has since traveled with me to at least four continents. Mostly, I have held onto the lyric essay at its center, “The Anthropology of Water,” which narrates an unnamed speaker’s pilgrimage to Compostela while together with a companion from whom she is, in many ways, distant. Time-stamped, anchored in towns along the trek, the prose moves us forward as the speaker’s mind leaps non-linearly. Carson’s writing was perhaps my first introduction to the mapless, lyric pilgrimage of the mind. “A pool of thoughts tilts this way and that in me,” she writes in Plainwater.
In Spring 2020, I managed to take the last class she taught at New York University’s Poetry MFA program, together with her partner and collaborator Robert Currie, before they retired. They call the class “EgoCircus,” and have taught versions of it over the years, at NYU and elsewhere. The pair have also worked together on various other cross-disciplinary projects, including the design of her book Nox (New Directions, 2010) and a series of experimental performances that incorporate Carson’s poetry with dance and film.
This spring, I started teaching an undergraduate class at NYU, assembled around ideas of the poetry and prose of pilgrimage and stasis. Naturally, I assigned excerpts from Plainwater, and to my delight, Anne Carson and Robert Currie accepted my invitation for a class visit. In the conversation below, a few of the students and I talk to Carson and Currie about the color red, finding a lyric voice, their collaborative creative process, and more.
Anne Carson: Sara [Elkamel] asked me to read from Plainwater, but I wrote it in the 80s and I haven’t looked at it since. So I decided that rather than study up on it, I would try to think what of it is still in my memory. And the only image really that I retained from writing that book is the one day where it describes the women who live in a wall. I don’t know if you remember that part. But there’s a town they go through, the two travelers, called Astorga, and in that town, it’s a traditional form of penance (or it was [in] medieval times) for a woman to wall herself up in the wall of a house and live in the hole, as a religious exercise in order to atone for sins, or undertake prayer, or who knows what. But she would live there and have no other life, no movement, and survive on whatever people gave her through the hole. I found that image so totally horrifying that as I say, it would never leave my mind. And it is a nightmare image, but it’s interesting in the context of pilgrimage.Pilgrimage is a kind of freedom that is also a sort of bondage, because when you undertake it, you’re bound to everything about the road.
It seems to me that people undertake pilgrimages because they’re stuck; they’re in some kind of situation in their life, or their mind, where they don’t want to be the person they are, and they don’t know how to change that unless they change everything. So they leave wherever they are, and go on a trek somewhere else. It’s an image of freedom; the idea of leaving your life and going on to the open road and ending up somewhere different. But oddly enough, it’s a kind of freedom that is also a sort of bondage, because when you undertake a pilgrimage, you’re bound to everything about the road—the geography, the weather, and all the traditions that are part of that pilgrimage from ancient times. So there is a freedom within which it is also binding and imprisoning. Anyhow, that’s why I thought this part was interesting to read. If you have the book, it’s the 14th of July. [Anne reads excerpt from “Kinds of Water: An Essay on the Road to Compostela,” Plainwater (Vintage, 2000).] And I will leave it there. It’s not a really upbeat passage, but I still think about it all the time.
Robert Currie: When you first read it, what was your impression?
Brede Baldwin: I just notice how much red there is everywhere. You’re talking about blushing, you’re talking about cheeks, and you’re talking about wolves seeing red. To me, that’s the most intimate color you could choose. So it just puts you in this mood for the entire passage. I’m wondering if there was any specific purpose behind this choice, or if you sort of just ran with it? Maybe I’m reading into nothing.
Anne Carson: No, it’s not nothing. I guess you might be able to see we have painted the room behind us entirely red. So red does spontaneously arise somehow. I don’t think I planned it that way. But one thing I have noticed—I don’t know if you’ve been to Spain, or if you’ve visited old dusty churches where there are religious paintings, but often they’re a bit faded. And what stays unfaded is usually the red. I guess it’s because of what they used to make the red in those times. But I remember the cheeks of people in religious paintings from the Middle Ages or early Renaissance being the thing that stands out. But I also just like red and put it in everywhere.
Robert Currie: The idea of pilgrimage is interesting to me because I was working on a piece a few years ago with another artist where we were fascinated with this nun, and we were trying to figure out how to film her. She was quite elderly, and she wanted to go on this particular pilgrimage, but Mother Superior wouldn’t let her. So she walked the interior of the monastery until she covered the distance of the pilgrimage. So she had her pilgrimage, but she did it on her own, within the walls of the monastery, which I thought was kind of amazing.I think most writers live half lives. You’re half in your life and half in your head, going on with what you’ve been writing.
Anne Carson: Well, that’s the thing about this kind of religious penance, if that’s what it is, that it’s a game you make up. The only thing you have to do is make up some rules and then keep the rules, no matter what. That’s what pilgrims do. And there’s all these different ways to do it. Like when I did it with my friend, we walked the whole way. So it was 380 miles or something, it took six weeks, and we walked every day till we got to the next town. But there are a lot of people nowadays who commit themselves to taking a bus to the outskirts of town, the limit of the town, and they walk into the town center to be part of the practice of walking a pilgrimage. So it sort of seems hypocritical or even fake, but it’s just the question of you making up rules for yourself and keeping them. It’s like monopoly.
Mike Baretz: What kind of rules do you make up for yourself as you write? Specifically, what is your process of finding your voice and deciding how to say things? Is your writing voice the same way you think, or speak?
Anne Carson: Well, I think every piece of work has its own voice, and you have to figure out what that is, sort of work into it. It’s not the same voice from piece to piece. So when I read this now, it seemed like someone else wrote it. But I find that each thought has a sound inside it. I mean, you can hear in your head how the thought should sound like. Sometimes there are rhythms and melodies even before there are words, and you have to find the words that fit into that rhythm or melody. But the voice comes with the thought, for me.
Mike Baretz: Is it at all like method acting, as in, are you thinking in that voice a lot? Or do you step away, and then come back to it?
Anne Carson: I don’t believe I’m much of a method actor. I don’t think I would make dinner while talking to myself as Geryon [Autobiography of Red’s protagonist], or argue with Currie in the voice of Isaiah, although, that might be effective, now that I think about it.
Robert Currie: But you do think of the idea in every setting. If you’re swimming, you’re thinking about the idea. If you’re cooking, you’re thinking about the idea. You might not be in the idea, but you’re thinking about it. And you’re kind of working through it.
Anne Carson: Yeah. I think most writers live half lives. You’re half in your life and half in your head, going on with what you’ve been writing; the sort of the divided page of every day.
Robert Currie: You know, people often ask what makes an artist, and I think it’s just the willingness to do the work without thinking in terms of the result. Anne gets up at eight in the morning and she writes, and then she goes swimming and then she writes, and then she comes back and writes and then she has dinner, she takes a walk, and she thinks and she writes. And Julian Schnabel makes a movie and when he’s done with the movie he goes to his studio and he paints.
Sara Elkamel: But when it comes to collaboration, there isn’t a clear workspace, medium or tool; there isn’t the notebook or the studio—the work often happens in-between places, especially when, as is the case for you two, you’re already living together. So what does the willingness to do the work look like?
Robert Currie: Well, there are a zillion different ways to collaborate. John Cage and Merce Cunningham worked separately and then combined what they made the evening of the performance. [Igor] Stravinsky and George Balanchine worked note by note through a score to the movement of a dance. And they were both extraordinary collaborations. But when Anne and I collaborate, it always starts with her text, it always starts in the same place; she gives me the text and I wander around with it, and deal with it. And I don’t think we talk that much about it, until we get to a certain point.
Anne Carson: Well, before there’s a text though, we do do a lot of driving around. Talking in the car is great, because you don’t have to look at the other person, you know, they’re over there. And you can have the radio on.
Robert Currie: Anne rides in the backseat by the way, with books and notebooks. I’m always in the front seat by myself.
Anne Carson: But still, it’s a difference because you’re physically moving. It’s a different space of thought than being stationery in a room. I think a lot of our ideas germinate in the car.
Robert Currie: We take walks too…
Anne Carson: Yeah, but cars are better than walks.
Robert Currie: I just remembered something. Anne and I were at a dinner party a zillion years ago, and it was one of those parties where someone wanted everybody to go around the table and say something about themselves, you know, one of those horrible situations. This question was who is the artist that most inspired you. And they got to us, and Anne said:
Anne Carson: Oh. I said Homer.
Robert Currie: And I said John Cage. And this leads to the next thing I wanted to say, which is: When you have somebody who’s interested in Homer, and somebody who’s interested in John Cage, how do you make that work together?
Anne Carson: How do we make it work?
Robert Currie: I don’t know, I’ve never figured it out.
Anne Carson: I was hoping it was a rhetorical question!
Robert Currie: [Laughs] But anyway, I don’t know if Anne agrees with me, you probably don’t, but I think the reason I’ve enjoyed doing [Egocircus] is because I think the loveliest thing we can do on any day is think with somebody else. I just like thinking with other people. [To Anne] But you probably want to crawl into your hole.
Anne Carson: I’m not going to argue. [They both laugh.]
Hannah Siegel: Anne, you spoke about the women living alone in the walls and how you were really drawn to that element. As you work on pieces like Plainwater, do you find yourself drawn to certain elements more than others? Are there certain aspects of the world you create that you find yourself wanting to describe more than others?
Anne Carson: I follow the thought, whatever that thought is, through whatever story occurs to me to attach to it, but the parts that attract me are the parts that are unknown, fundamentally. And so it’s just searching around in those dark subjects for whatever I can figure out to think about them.
Robert Currie: But if you had five books open on your desk while you’re working, and you’ve gotten to a good point in a piece, would you just go to any of those other books that had no relationship to your idea?
Anne Carson: Well, maybe. I mean, there’s all kinds of ways to change your thought or open your thought, but I don’t think that’s what Hannah was asking about.
Robert Currie: But I think the other part she was asking about is how delving more deeply into an idea works. I mean, if you’re fascinated by it, do you stop yourself at some point, or do you go to the end of the idea?
Anne Carson: Yeah, you have to go to the end of the idea. Or it will punish you.