This interview was recorded on March 20, 2019, at a reading in the Writing Center of the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. We would like to acknowledge the school, faculty members, English department, and Anders Carlson-Wee for their time and support.
Sarah Lao: What does your writing process look like? Where do you get inspiration?
Anders Carlson-Wee: I’m kind of a workhorse of a writer, meaning I’ll stubbornly sit down to write day after day even if I’m not feeling terribly inspired or like I’m not getting a good idea going. And I’m very comfortable, I think more than some people, drafting stuff that just isn’t good, at least in the beginning. So, if I’m on a good writing roll, I’ll just draft a fresh piece everyday. Most of those are terrible, and I throw them away, but once every couple weeks, something starts sticking, and I’m thinking “this piece might have some legs, and I might be able to grow it into something.” I’ll work on this piece for a while, and the process goes on. I’d say it takes me around a year and a half to finish a poem, and I go through a lot of different stages. I’ll show the piece to people who I trust as readers, I’ll go back to it and revise again and again, and I’ll just keep fine tuning it. Eventually, I’ll memorize it and start working on it in my head; I’ll walk around and keep doing the edits. It’s a long process, but in terms of inspiration, it’s hard to know where it all comes from. It’s really a bit of a mysterious process, but for me, I think a lot of it’s about noticing what gets me emotional and noticing what sort of things obsess my mind. Whether they’re stories or topics, I just find ways to write about it, and I’d say the majority of my attempts fail. But, I keep trying to find an angle in that will somehow bring it to life. And most of the pieces don’t work. And then finally some of them do, and I keep editing those. So, The Low Passions is a book of fifty-three poems. It took me more than ten years to write, and I probably drafted two thousand poems to get to the fifty-three.
SL: How did you get involved in poetry?
ACW: I’m dyslexic and when I was little, I didn’t really trust visuals. It took me a while to learn to read and to write, and I did what was called mirror writing which is where you write backwards, and then if you hold it up to a mirror, it looks correct. So it took me a while to learn those basic skills, and I depended a lot on the oral sounds and oral aspects of language. I would memorize long segments of dialogue, and then I was also being inundated with sermons because I was growing up in two churches with my parents. So I was around that a lot and didn’t really notice how much I was taking to it, but I think I really did have a kind of natural knack for memorizing language. But yeah I liked stories and everything but it didn’t really click as a life pursuit until I got to college. I was 21 when I started college, and I ended up in a class with a woman named Mary Cornish. She was such a good teacher, and she really brought poetry to life for me. A few weeks into that class, I was totally hooked, and I was ready to reshape my whole life to make poetry the center of it.
SL: Do you call yourself a poet?
ACW: No, I don’t really like saying I’m a poet when I’m meeting people. I think it’s mainly just the extra baggage of “poet” as a word instead of just saying “writer,” and that’s generally what I say if people ask me what I do. “Poet” seems a little loaded, and somehow it feels pretentious in a way to people—at least where I’m from. It’s a very practical culture in Minnesota. And I think my parents struggle with that as pastors, too. It makes you kind of outside of “normal” human daily life.
SL: Can you tell us a little bit about your newest book, The Low Passions?
ACW: Yeah, this collection is sort of a sequence of adventure stories. On the one hand, there’s a lot about traveling by freight train and bicycle and hitchhiking all around the country. And those adventure stories are counterpointed by these meditations on family that’s happening from the distance of being on the road.
SL: So, what does the phrase “the Low Passions” mean, and why did you pick it as the title for your collection?
ACW: The Low Passions is an obscure term from Christianity. It means all things of the earth, all things tangible, all things of this physical world, and it’s usually used in a derogatory sense to mean the things that seduce us, the things that make us feel greed or lust. It’s a derogatory term as opposed to the high passions, which would be everything spiritual and of heaven. I’m a very tactile person, very physical, and very oriented toward my body. And I think part of the project of the book for me was a desire to craft something that was lifting up those “low passions” theoretically, and the book kind of turned the term on its head and gave it a little more spiritual heft toward something more positive. Being someone who’s deeply invested in the earth and everything tangible—the tactile and the human body—I really wanted that to be considered sacred. So for me, “the Low Passions” was a term I grabbed onto because it was used in a derogatory sense, and fuck that. I wanted to find a way to honor that. Though I’m not religious personally, since I haven’t quite found a form of faith that works for me, I do think the Christian story is incredible, and one of the things that I really value is the idea that God comes down and becomes physical in the form of Jesus. And in that story, that’s the way to know God: through the physical, through the body, through the earth. To me, that’s a powerful story.
SL: How do you put your books together? Is there a specific process you go through?
ACW: Right. So there’s so many permutations for how you might construct poems into a book. It’s overwhelming. I did have a very long stage where I spread it all out on the floor, and I stood on tables to get an eagle’s eye view just to see everything and try to trick myself into defamiliarizing it for myself. But honestly, my editor at Norton played a big role in shaping the final order. There was a good handful of poems that did a total swap from the front to the back and vice versa, and I think that really helped make the book pop in its final form. I wouldn’t have ever seen that, so that was a moment where having an editor was a great blessing to me.
SL: With how much The Low Passions captures these often forgotten, yet haunting glimpses of destitution and decay in America, and in light of last year’s controversy with “How-To,” how do you think it’s possible to respectively give a voice to those unheard without eliciting offense? Where does the line between artistic freedom and offensive speech start?
ACW: Yeah. I think art is an ongoing sequence of attempts. Artists are always kind of trying things, and all art is a leap into the unknown because art’s not something that needs to be duplicated. Like if you’re building houses, it’s fine to just build the same house twice, more or less, right? Let’s just build the house again. But with writing and with art, you’re not trying to build the same thing that artists of the past have built. You’re trying to find something new and create art into a new space. And so I think art is an ongoing series of attempts. If the attempts don’t work or don’t help the culture in some way, they fall into obscurity. People don’t need to interact with them, and that’s fine. But, if other forms of art seem to help a culture in some way, then they’ll stick around and become part of the zeitgeist and people’s imaginations. And that’s great. I think that’s healthy and good for art. People try things. Some of them work, and some of them don’t.
SL: Do you have any favorite words? Some words that you just enjoy sonically?
ACW: For me, I tend to favor the Anglo-Saxon aspects of the English language: the kind of monosyllabic words like “lake” and “rock” and “crust” that are very consonant heavy. Those types of words are very physical as far as forcing you to slow down because the more consonants you say, the more your mouth needs to come to complete rests before starting the next word. One thing that is really beautiful about the English language is that it combines those kinds of Anglo-Saxon words with a ton of influence from other romantic languages. You can have sentences that have these strong, percussive kind of consonant-heavy sounds that can be almost gravelly and very intense, and then you can suddenly have a word like “beautiful” which has a lot of flow and spreads out across a few syllables. And so in English, you can combine those two types to make some really cool sentences.
SL: So, what’s next? What are you working on currently?
ACW: Well, right now while I’m on tour, I’m just doing all the readings, but I am working on another book. I would not dare give anything away about it yet, but I’m excited to get back to it.
ANDERS CARLSON-WEE is the author of The Low Passions (W.W. Norton, 2019). His work has appeared in BuzzFeed, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry Daily, The Sun, and many other places. His debut chapbook, Dynamite, won the Frost Place Chapbook Prize. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, he is the winner of the 2017 Poetry International Prize. His work has been translated into Chinese. Anders holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and lives in Minneapolis.
SARAH LAO is a sophomore at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. She currently edits for Evolutions Magazine, reads for Polyphony Lit, and serves as the Social Media Manager for Inklette Magazine. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Sooth Swarm Journal, Liminality and the Inflectionist Review, among others. When she is not writing, she enjoys eating scones, playing piano, and spending time with her dog.