Interview with Poet Carla Drysdale, Author of Little Venus and Inheritance

Carla Drysdale’s work explores difficult subjects such as childhood abuse and sexual exploitation with tight, lyrical nuance. Little Venus, Drysdale’s first book of poetry, came out in 2009 from Canadian publisher Tightrope Books. As often happens when poets create a persona, Drysdale’s Little Venus tells truths and makes assertions far bolder than another speaker might be able to.

Poet Carla Drysdale, author of Little Venus and Inheritance
Poet Carla Drysdale, author of Little Venus and Inheritance

Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Paris Press, Cleaver Magazine, and PRISM. Her poem, “New Year’s Eve” was set to music by American Pulitzer-prize winning composer David Del Tredici. Her many accolades include writing residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and La Porte Peinte in Noyers-Sur-Serein, France, as well as PRISM International’s Earle Birney poetry prize for her poem “Inheritance.” Finishing Line Press released her chapbook of the same name in early 2016.

A statuesque woman with a mass of curly auburn hair, she took some time out from her busy schedule as a communications consultant and mother of two to speak with me about her poetry.

What first brought you to poetry?

Poetry first came to me, I suspect, in my pre-verbal state, in lullabies sung by my mother, grandmother, and babysitters, as well as radio jingles and birdsong. My maternal grandmother was fond of reciting everything from Shakespeare to her own variation on Fuzzy-Wuzzy –- I learned from her how to play with language as a toddler. The King James version of the Holy Bible was tremendously important to me as a pre-teen and younger teen. The first time poetry actually stabbed me
was in high school, when I heard “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. Although I didn’t understand the metrical and existential complexities of the poem at the time, I fell utterly and helplessly in love. I experienced something personal; I’d been seen and I saw. I was under poetry’s spell though it lay buried in my unconscious, like an unsaid incantation, for more than a decade.

Drysdale reads at Church des Artistes in Kingston, NY
Drysdale reads at Church des Artistes in Kingston, NY. The painting behind her is by her dear friend Julie Hedrick.

Little Venus deals with some difficult subjects, including childhood neglect, sexual abuse, and mental illness. Yet you rarely use the words associated with these topics. What was it like for you to write the poems?

Most of the poems in Little Venus evolved from my experiences of things felt in the body and reverberating in emotions. Finding language for these kinds of shaming and taboo experiences required raising the bodily memory to an intellectual level without killing it and trying to keep the emotional energy alive. As I wrote the book in my tiny room in Chelsea, Manhattan during the two years of my MFA I kept thinking about “No ideas but in things” from William Carlos Williams. I wanted to get the thing down on paper rather than the idea of the thing. As far as what it was actually like to write these poems, it depends on the memories from which they evolved and took shape. At times it was wrenching, but ultimately joyful, to know that I had made art from my life, even when the subject matter was hard or shaming. I do think shame is a kind of friend disguised as enemy when it comes calling with poems. Shame is often silent, but if we let it through the door it can tell us part of the story and raw truth of our lives.

Was this your first manuscript?

Yes, I wrote Little Venus as my MFA thesis at Sarah Lawrence College from 1997 to 1999. I had quite a few other poems composed while studying one on one with poet Molly Peacock in the three years before entering the MFA program, but none of those poems actually made it into Little Venus.

Poetry can’t replace therapy. Yet poetry allows us to both hear and say things which are essentially unsayable, by (paradoxically) using words.

How long did it take you to find a publisher for Little Venus?

Well, it took about 10 years. I didn’t submit to more than a few contests though, so perhaps it would have been faster had I worked harder at finding a publisher. I added new poems throughout this time but the essence of the book stayed the same. Also having two babies — in 2002 and 2004 — meant my concentration went into parenting rather than poetry for a number of years. At one point I was afraid and even resentful that I would never get back to serious writing, a pretty common fear for most new mothers who write. And that tension and worry turned out to be good fodder for writing.

Little Venus is an especially beautiful book as well as a manuscript. How involved were you with the book design process?

I was involved in the cover but not the actual design of the book. The original cover was very dark and derivative of a Picasso-esque charcoal drawing of a woman’s face with big black tears. It felt wrong to me–the poems are already quite intense without needing to make the point with the cover! So I spoke to my editor about it, who convinced the publisher to try something else. I believe the designer’s brother supplied the photo and I think it’s beautiful. I love it. It’s perfect.

Inheritance is about how we negotiate what has been handed down to us emotionally and psychologically, and about how we decide to pass on that inheritance.

Tell me about Inheritance, your newest chapbook. How does it differ from Little Venus?
Inheritance charts my journey into motherhood and marriage and in so doing, probes what’s beneath more current everyday experiences as a parent, rather than reaching back into my own childhood. However, by describing my sons and isolating moments in our relationship, the poems do circle back to my own origins.

The poems explore how the tincture of memory can change the present moment and even our own inheritance. By “inheritance” I mean the feelings, beliefs and hopes which we carry inside us, given to us by our parents. Our inheritance is actually in flux and changes, depending on how we perceive the past, present and future, so we have some control over it. It’s a tremendous opportunity to recreate. It’s also our responsibility.

Inheritance is about how we negotiate what has been handed down to us emotionally and psychologically, and about how we decide to pass on that inheritance. What do we “owe” our parents, ourselves, and our children in these unseen transactions of feeling and attitude?

Being a parent challenges the core of your humanity. Is there an easy and even audible answer to your son’s question about whether you still love your parents? I’ve tried to answer this in the chapbook’s final poem, “Rafael’s Question.” Should you say the pat thing society expects you to say? Or does the complexity of changes over decades require silence “because it’s hard to explain?” And silence doesn’t have to mean an absence of love.

In terms of craft, both Inheritance and Little Venus maintain a rigorous compression of feeling and diction throughout. I continue to be drawn to the lyric for its possibilities in short musical compositions. I also find forms like the sonnet and villanelle help enormously in containing difficult experiences and emotions.

Digging beneath trauma, one discovers joy. Isn’t joy the realization that we are going to die?

What do you think is the role of poetry in healing from trauma and abuse? And how does a poet continue to work once those issues have been put to bed?

Poetry can’t replace therapy. Yet poetry allows us to both hear and say things which are essentially unsayable, by (paradoxically) using words. So in a sense, practicing the incantatory and ancient language art of poetry can take us to the deeper pre-verbal places of the psyche. At that level of the self, if a poem makes us feel understood, heard and even vindicated in our experiences, well then I think we make a powerful and yes, a healing and spiritual connection with meaning.

A good poem helps us accept our own pain and arise into hope. A good poem contains and can even enact the paradoxical nature of living and dying. So even for people who feel they have never experienced “trauma” or “abuse,” poetry can provide or pave the way to a satisfying and deeper sense of their own humanity. Life will throw you punches. And I think we all need healing.

As far as how a poet continues to work once painful issues have been put to bed, I question whether they are ever truly put to bed or just go to sleep for awhile. Writing continues to require my own silence, deep listening and openness through meditation. A wry and bemused curiosity about the world keeps me writing and reading poetry.

I was also thinking that perhaps abuse and trauma infuse everything, sort of like nurturing does. And that that’s okay. Isn’t being born itself a “traumatic” experience? Digging beneath trauma, one discovers joy. Isn’t joy the realization that we are going to die? Through close listening and observation over time, I’ve come to accept and even rely on the paradox that things are alive and dying at the same time. There’s comfort in this.

I have a day job as a communications consultant and this involves a lot of writing too so I am always juggling commercial writing with poetry.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

Yes, I am a feminist. As a 16 year-old who lived on my own after my family split up, circumstances made me a feminist. I worked a series of odd jobs, from waitressing to gas station attendant, to pay the rent while finishing high school and applying for colleges. My parents lived in different cities. Despite coming from a working class background and being on my own at such a young age, I stood up for myself, survived and went to college, where I learned about feminism from books. My full awakening happened at age 18 when I read the “radical” feminist Andrea Dworkin while doing research on a story during my first year of journalism school. I felt angry and energized and my “practical” training as a feminist gelled with my “academic” studies.

All my life, I’ve experienced sexism and patriarchal domination everywhere — from newsrooms to bedrooms. In my final undergrad year, during a job interview with the London Free Press in Ontario, I was asked if I was on the pill. That was the mid-’80s.

Today, I live in France where I raise my teenage sons and work as a consultant for the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva. Because they are boys, they don’t experience the sexism and challenges I did while growing up. Their gender in fact places them on the “other side.” So now, my privilege lies in passing my “inheritance” of feminism on to them and hoping they spend it freely and everywhere.

What does your writing practice look like today?
About 20 years ago, I discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which taught me to do the “morning pages” — free-writing three pages in longhand first thing every morning. Even today, new poems emerge from the many notebooks of morning pages I’ve filled and continue to fill. I have also experimented with these pages, for example, describing one image each day.

Over the past few months, I’ve written out my dreams each morning, which connect directly to the well for poems — the unconscious. The format goes like this — narration of the dream, recording the feeling the dream evokes and then choosing one object or person from the dream to dialogue with. The format seems to be yielding material for a new full-length or chapbook tentatively called The Dream Dialogues.

I have a day job as a communications consultant and this involves a lot of writing too so I am always juggling commercial writing with poetry.

Aside from poetry, I have begun writing a novel set in the early 1900s in northern Wales. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because of the crushing self-doubt that comes up on a regular schedule. More than a year into it, I’m still amazed I have actually written 63,000 words of the first draft. It’s a long-haul project and I could not have come this far without the daily writing practice of The Grind, which Ross White created years ago.

How can people find you or follow your work?
I have finally given in to writer friends who said I needed to have a website so you can go to You can find me on Facebook. My Twitter handle is @cdrysdale and I’m also on Instagram, LinkedIn, and GoodReads.

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