HomeInterviewsDirt Roads, Pine Trees & Family Trauma: An Interview with Poet Erin Carlyle

Dirt Roads, Pine Trees & Family Trauma: An Interview with Poet Erin Carlyle

As we collect submissions for National Poetry Month, we wanted to shine a light on one Southern-based poet with a unique ability for storytelling. Poet and cat enthusiast (according to her website) Erin Carlyle recently published her first full-length poetry collection with Driftwood Press.

Currently living in California, Carlyle grew up in both Alabama and Kentucky and got her MFA in Poetry from Bowling Green State University. Featuring a beautiful illustration of flora and fauna on the cover, her book is titled Magnolia Canopy Otherworld and explores the place she grew up.

“These poems are full of dangerous baptisms, teeth and hooks, gothic flora and their attendant ghosts,” says Traci Brimhall, author of Our Lady of the Ruins, in a blurb. Whether you’re a budding or established poet, it’s hard not to be inspired by Carlyle’s poems. We talked to her in advance of National Poetry Month about she’s been influenced by Southern literature and true crime, her sense of place and the importance of reading poetry.

Erin Z. Bass: Your intro quote from Dorothy Allison is very telling. Are you a fan of hers? And why did you choose this phrase from Bastard Out of Carolina to open the book? 

Erin Carlyle: I’m a big fan of the book Bastard Out of Carolina. The way Allison describes Bone’s family hit home for me. I’ve never read anything like it before. The way that Allison describes the almost nomadic way that Bone’s family moved around is exactly what I experienced as a child. That lack of stability has impacted my entire life and my first book. That quote speaks to some of the themes of my book. Particularly the way that families traumatize each other and how childhood trauma informs the rest of one’s life. 

EZB: In a blurb of praise, your style is described as “lush and lovely with a dark undertow.” Is juxtaposition in your poems intentional or is it just the resulting combination of poverty with nature? 

EC: I spent a lot of time in the woods as a child, so in this first collection a lot of my poems were inspired by the scenery of my childhood. I remember feeling so free, but there was also a feeling of fear. You never knew who or what you would find in the woods. I remember one time I found several ripped up and rain-warped Playboy and Penthouse magazines strewn around. It was the first time I had ever seen a naked woman who wasn’t my mother or grandmother. The juxtaposition of the tall pine trees and the naked women posing for a male gaze has stuck with me, though I didn’t know what I was really feeling at the time. It took a long time for me to be able to articulate my experience, which is why I chose to write about it in “The Animal” series of poems. The “Animal” is a way of expressing that juxtaposition between poverty and nature. The “Animal” is a way of describing just how it feels to have so little control.

EZB: This book is filled with ghosts and drowned girls? Why were you drawn to those types of images? 

EC: I was a morbid child and I’ve always had a connection with true crime. My mom and I loved to watch “20/20” and “Unsolved Mysteries.” I know a lot of people have already talked about the connection that some women have to true crime. It’s a dark fascination, but it’s also because women are more likely to be victims of domestic abuse and homicide. I am sure that this is part of my attraction to these kinds of images, but some of the girls I write about are based on friends and other girls and women I’ve known. 

EZB: Some of your poems read like mini-stories and could be pulled from the headlines. Where do you find inspiration? 

EC: A lot of this book is based on my childhood, my family and places I grew up around, but I am always looking for inspiration. For instance “Rabbit Diptych” is inspired by stories I saw on the news about Louis CK and other Hollywood men. 

EZB: You grew up in both Alabama and Kentucky. Would you say that place informs your poetry more than anything else? 

EC: For this book, absolutely. I was drawn to write about the places where I grew up. My family moved around so much, but there were some things that stayed the same: the trees, the soil, the bodies of water, the trailers and shotgun houses. I’m living in Northern California right now, which is a beautiful place, but my husband and I are moving to Atlanta, so I’m excited to be moving back to the South. 

EZB: We are currently accepting poems for National Poetry Month in April. What advice would you give to Southern poets who are just starting out and trying to find their voice? 

EC: That’s a good question. I like being called a Southern poet. Southern poetry is very much what this first collection centers around, but I wonder if that’ll be my goal going forward. I’d say write what you feel like you have to and don’t worry about being a certain kind of poet. For me, there were certain images I couldn’t escape, and that put me in the Southern poet category. Currently, I’m exploring metaphysical themes. I’m an atheist, but I also lost my dad, so it’s hard for me to compute. It’s weird when someone suddenly doesn’t exist. Though I’ve made this shift, the woods are still there, so maybe I’ll always be a Southern poet no matter what my subjects might be. 

EZB: Why do you think celebrating National Poetry Month and reading poetry, in general, are important, even for readers who may prefer fiction or nonfiction? 

EC: I can see why some people find poetry difficult. Some poems are hard to decipher because there is so much condensed into each line and each word, but that’s also the fun and beauty of poetry. It can be almost like a puzzle. I find it rewarding. The more I read, the better I am at understanding certain poems, and contemporary poetry has opened [me up to] to so many different voices and experiences and expressions. National Poetry Month is a wonderful way to keep people excited about poetry

EZB: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Magnolia Canopy Otherworld?

EC: This book is a long time in the making. It was a labor of love, and I’m so happy that Driftwood Press chose it for publication. If you’re interested in dirt roads, pine trees, family trauma and a girl coming of age, this is the book for you.

Poetry submissions for Deep South are open through Feb. 14. Find out how to submit here.

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