Grappling with Pandemic: An Interview with Poet Robert Carr

I met Robert Carr at the Solidarity Salon, a performance series featuring music, poetry, and theater where we were both featuring. A tall man with an arresting presence, Bob read a number of poems about Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer whose work capturing gay male desire and the BDSM subculture has become an important part of gay history. Bob is the author of Amaranth (Indolent Books), and The Unbuttoned Eye, (3: A Taos Press). His poetry appears in the American Journal of Poetry, Massachusetts Review, Rattle, Shenandoah, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. Robert is a poetry editor with Indolent Books and recently retired from a career as Deputy Director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

Frances Donovan: Tell me about your book, The Unbuttoned Eye.

Robert Carr: I wrote the book following a 34-year career in infectious disease response. These poems became my way, in hindsight, of grappling with issues of identity and sexuality through the AIDS pandemic. The editor at 3: A Taos Press, Andrea Watson, was instrumental in pushing me with these poems. Since the release of the book, in 2019, COVID19 has changed the collection for me. Today, I experience these poems as reminders for how to survive the realities of global pandemic. I’m not saying the issues across HIV and COVID19 are the same. But I do find the dynamics, the human response to health crisis, sometimes mirror each other. 

Donovan: You have a whole cycle of poems in The Unbuttoned Eye about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. For readers who may not be familiar with his work, he was a groundbreaking photographer whose images of gay male desire during the AIDS epidemic form an important part of queer history. Some of his work was also deeply controversial. Can you explain your own relationship with Mapplethorpe and the impetus for these poems?

Carr: In the original manuscript, before the editing process, one poem that stood out for editor Andrea Watson was “Letter To Mapplethorpe,” published by Kettle Blue Review. Andrea noted the overlapping identities of Robert in the book — Robert the author, Robert Mapplethorpe (who died of AIDS in 1989), Robert the speaker in the poems, and photographs of Robert in the book, the author as a young man, by Max Mellenthin. Andrea pushed me to write additional epistolary poems in conversation with Mapplethorpe. These new poems were difficult to write, but turned out to be crucial to my understanding of the book. I found that the dialogue with Mapplethorpe tapped into my personal fears and flaws through the AIDS pandemic – my own dissociations, sexual manipulations, and objectifications – paralleling several themes in Mapplethorpe’s body of work. 

Donovan: What excites you most about your new book?

Carr: As a gay man who survived the early decades of AIDS, the first great pandemic of my lifetime, I needed to write the poems in The Unbuttoned Eye. I needed to understand the joys, and the costs, of survival. What excites me about the collection is that the poems remain true to my experience, and that I’m applying those lessons to the current public health crisis. My hope is that readers find the collection affirming, something that connects to their own path. 

Donovan: The AIDS epidemic profoundly impacted your life — you spent your career doing public health work around AIDS. How did poetry enter the picture?

Carr: Yes. I recently retired from a career overseeing infectious disease response in Massachusetts. Quite a contrast to where I started! I studied literature and philosophy at Bates College, where I graduated in 1982.  My intent as a young guy was to follow the path of an artist – actor, writer. My first paying job was as a member of the Children’s Theater of Maine! When the HIV pandemic hit, I felt an obligation to serve, which led me to public health. 30 years later, I rediscovered poetry as a way to make sense of my life.

Donovan: How did you find your way back to poetry?

Carr: I was aware of the amazing programming at the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) in Provincetown and seven years ago made the commitment to attend each summer.  I’ve had the great pleasure of working with poets like Mark Halliday, Alan Shapiro, Joan Houlihan, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and Ada Limon. It was Ada who connected me with Michael Broder at Indolent Books. Ada facilitated the connection with Michael, and that fall I received an email with the header “Your Future as A Poet.” Michael asked if I had a collection of poems that would be suitable for a chapbook, and that’s how my first book, Amaranth, was born. After our work together on the chapbook, Michael asked me to join the press as a Development Editor. 

Donovan: What a wonderful success story! Many poets work in obscurity for years before finding a press. And what wonderful teachers you’ve had at FAWC. Did you study in person or through their online school, 24 Pearl Street?

Carr: Prior to the COVID pandemic, my work at FAWC was in person. I’ve made some lasting friendships through that venue. In Ada’s workshop, I became friends with Cynthia Manick, who now co-curates the Woman Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon in NYC. Cynthia wrote one of the cover blurbs for The Unbuttoned Eye. More recently, I’ve enjoyed online work through 24 Pearl Street. In terms of access, I think online venues have been amazing and hope they continue!

Donovan: There’s a difference, of course, between the po-biz and the actual act of writing and revising poetry, of course. How do you juggle the various kinds of mindsets required for a publishing poet?

Cover image of Robert Carr's book THE UNBUTTONED EYECarr:  Wonderful question. On the writing side, I try to reserve morning hours for new poems and revision. It’s quiet time. I put on my Pandora stations (nothing with lyrics, LOL) and get to work. I get editorial feedback in workshops and one on one from colleagues. I’ve been a member of Tom Daley’s Advanced Writer’s Workshop for several years, and deeply admire the poets in that group. 

In terms of po-biz, I think being a bureaucrat for decades has helped! I take time in the evening to correspond, research, update submissions, organize draft manuscripts and prepare for readings. I maintain about 40 submissions at a time, using the Duotrope platform to keep track of things. For whatever reason, the idea of ‘rejection’ is not a big deal for me. I figure the poem will decide if it wants to be published. 

Donovan: Do you ever find that your creative well runs dry? How do you replenish it?

Carr: For me, the well doesn’t run dry but there are often periods where it feels like the water is contaminated! I find myself writing the same poem in different words, exploring themes that feel repetitive and stale. One approach I’ve taken to replenish, or break out of a cycle, is to write based on prompts. I get these prompts from my workshop study with Tom Daley, or through participation in a Free Write session where work is generated in real time. I’m lucky to be included in the Boston Free Write group hosted by Eric Hyett and Heather Nelson. 

Donovan: What are you reading right now?

Carr: In September I had the pleasure of reading with Stephen Kuusisto at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox. This was a Voices of Poetry event, hosted by Neil Silberblatt. Steve is a legally blind poet with an exceptional breadth of knowledge and I’m currently reading his first memoir, Planet of The Blind. I’m finding his observations of the world exceptional.  

Donovan: What do you wish someone had told you when you were first beginning your po-biz career?

Carr: Because I came back to poetry in my early 50s, I sometimes think of myself as the youngest old poet I know. What I mean is – everything about the craft and business of poetry is new to me! I’ve made mistakes, and find myself on a very steep learning curve. It’s been so important to embrace the idea that the poems are not me. I am not the poems. So, when a friend, or an editor, or a reviewer finds something awkward or flawed – I don’t translate that feedback into “I’m awkward, I’m flawed.” Given the nature of poetry, so deeply personal, I hope my colleagues appreciate how courageous they are.

Purchase a copy of Robert Carr’s book The Unbuttoned Eye

Purchase a copy of Robert Carr’s chapbook Amaranth

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