I was born and raised in New York City, in Manhattan, and attended Dartmouth (BA), Columbia (MFA in writing) and Middlebury (MA in French). I moved with my family—wife Peggy Beaulac and children Emily and James—to Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine in 1989. I worked for College of the Atlantic as director of public relations and the Ethel Blum Gallery for eight years before assuming my position as director of communications and marketing at the Maine Community Foundation in 2001. Along the way I have published two collections of poems and more than 20 art books.
In what ways does your environment influence your work ? My poems are almost always triggered by my surroundings, and that has been the case since my earliest days as a writer. I was strongly influenced by Flax Pond, a wonderful body of water on my parents’ property in Water Mill on the South Fork of Long Island, New York. I wrote about pickerel and snapping turtles while my mother painted the fighting swans. Nowadays, I find my inspiration for a poem coming from a variety of places, from the dry cleaners to a piece of classical music on Maine Public Radio. In each case I am prompted to write by a feeling or a connection or a vision (such as the umbilical nature of the roots of lily pads in Echo Lake).
Living in Maine has an enormous impact on my art writing. There is no end to wonderful artists of all aesthetic persuasions to write about. The landscape still reigns supreme, but there are terrific abstract painters and sculptors, as well as a robust craft community (I write about jewelry for Ornament magazine and have covered many Maine artists).
What is the best part about being a poet, a writer? I really love it when something I’ve written strikes a chord with someone. I guess there’s some ego there, but it seems to make it all worthwhile when an artist responds to an article or review or the audience at a reading laughs at a bit of humor (such as my poems “The Poetry Ken” and “Glacial Erotic”)
What is the worst? Writing has taken time away from family and friends and being more active in the community and spending time in nature. I accept that there’s a sacrifice, but at times I know I should be saying no to projects and going snowshoeing instead.
What motivates you to write? The great motivator for me is the desire to convey something: to highlight the work of a particular artist in a review or book or share a vision or feeling in a poem. I do make money from my art writing and a little bit from poetry, but the financial benefits are not what drive me. The art spurs me to words; the sound of spring peepers moves me to verse.
Early in your career, before you had any real success, what fed your determination to keep trying? Well, very early on I had visions of being the next Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner—to write a great short story or novel that would be admired by all. When I won the Academy of American Poets Prize at Dartmouth, I shifted to a dream of writing and publishing some memorable poems. Key to my success early on was the encouragement of mentors and friends, people like Alexander Laing, Charlotte Gafford, Syd Lea, Joseph Donahue, David Graham and John Yau. Since moving to Maine, I have had the great fortune to have been helped along by Marion Stocking, Kate Barnes, Constance Hunting, and Wes McNair. They and others have helped to build that determination that is required to be a better writer.
What would you tell the younger you, just starting to write? “Hey, Carl, push it harder, don’t be so easily satisfied with what you’ve written. When you think the poem is all set, read it aloud again and question its integrity and ask if you’ve pushed it far enough. When you think you’ve perfectly described somebody’s sculpture, look at the work again and consider it from another angle.” Of course, I offer the same advice to the present me.
Do you typically work on one piece at a time or have several going at once? In writing about art and artists, I often have several projects going at the same time. For example, right now I’m working on a piece about the 400th anniversary of Monhegan Island; an article about a new space at the Colby College Museum of Art; a profile of painter Ed Nadeau; and a review of a jewelry show in NYC. With poetry, I’ll have a bunch of pieces in progress and move from one to another, seeking solutions.
Are there rituals you follow in your creative practice, certain things that you do that help you to be in the best frame of mind for writing? I have always worked best first thing in the morning. I find my thinking is fresh then and I’m able to resolve questions about a text or poem with greater flexibility and freedom than later in the day. I will do reading and research at night.
How does the internet affect your work? Ultimately, the internet is a distraction, although I appreciate the ability to look something up quickly that in the not-so-distant past might have taken me days to find. I also love receiving videos and photos of my granddaughter, Maria.
What are your vices? Facebook has become something of a vice. And we were recently set up with Netflix.
What kind of pets do you have? We had a Springer Spaniel for many years, named Buster (subject of two of my poems) and a cat named Cedar Sox (also the subject of a poem). Right now we are in long-term sitting mode for Welker, my daughter Emily and her husband Charles’s cat, who came to Maine from Charlottesville last summer and has not gone back (considering the winter we’ve had so far, she’d probably prefer to be in Virginia). She is great company and brings to mind the Apollinaire poem, “The Cat”:
In my house I want:
A reasonable woman,
A cat passing among the books,
And friends in every season,
Whom I cannot live without.
What is the last wild animal you saw? I treasure my sightings of wild animals. Among my most recent encounters was on the island of Grenada in the West Indies. As we moved into a rental house in Sauteurs, my son-in-law called out that there was an enormous insect in the bedroom. I went to see and found what I later identified as a katydid. It was indeed large: an awe-inspiring assemblage of stick parts with a large leaf-like body. I carefully cradled it in a napkin and released it outdoors.
Tell me about the inspiration behind one of your poems: Three summers ago I was invited to spend a week on Great Spruce Island as part of an artist/writer retreat at the former home of the painter Fairfield Porter. Porter’s niece Anina Porter Fuller, host of the annual Art Week, met me at the dock. As we walked up toward what they call the “Big House,” I saw a small green snake in the path. Anxious to start writing and earn my keep, so to speak, I latched onto the image of that creature and started my first and, I think, my most successful poem of the residency.
SMALL GREEN GRASS SNAKE
Great Spruce Head Island, Maine
Slithers through the grass, although
slithers doesn’t do its movements justice—
maybe glide or ripple or shape-shift,
so delicate, thin, moving up the path
ahead of our footsteps.
God or someone saw the shape in the grass
and called it green grass snake, an easy
ID compared to, say, Bactrian camel
or nudibranch or ocelot, all part
of Paradise, which makes me think
of the poor snakes of St. Croix
enjoying reign of a virgin island
looking up one day to find a mongoose
in their path, which proceeded to rip them
skin from skin, brought in
to clean up Eden, a Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
nightmare for the serpent crew,
an injustice played out by man
playing god. The ghosts of snakes
rattle the dry corn shakes while here
a slim slider of light-green hue that
wouldn’t know a mongoose from a mole hill
heads off to the left in search of edibles
in the northern kingdom of Great Spruce
where no one holds dominion over nothing.
The final poem, which was part of a portfolio edited by Dawn Potter for the online journal LOCUSPOINT, includes references to St. Croix, which I visited in 2011 to write a story about a floating classroom, the schooner Roseway and where I saw my first mongoose.
“Last Writes” was inspired by something poet Charles Simic, one of my teachers at Columbia, said in an interview. I loved the image of him revising his poems in his grave and took that as the prompt to write the poem. I like plays on words, hence the title.
Last Writes by Carl Little
“I tinker with most of my poems even after publication. I expect to be revising in my coffin as it is being lowered into the ground”
At the wake for the ex- U.S. poet laureate
at the Hotel Fin du Monde someone swore
he heard a scratching sound in the casket
and later, as we wedged the box into
a rocky corner of a New Hampshire bone orchard,
one of the pall bearers, a pallid poet with
acute hearing caught the sibilant sound
of the words being crossed out —-“kissing”
substituted for “praying”, perhaps, or
“lover” for “beloved” — the gentle rub
of eraser, the whisper of a breath
to remove residue from the paper
and the click of the miner’s lamp
Simic insisted wearing on his head
in lieu of the standard issue laurel wreath.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Note from Irene: I have long admired Carl’s writing, his books about artists, art reviews and his poetry. I am honored that he wrote the introductory essay for my new book, Closer to Wildness. His graceful essay truly elucidates the essence of my paintings.
a small selection of some of the many books by Carl Little
New York Times Poetry Pairing featuring Carl Little can be found here
Carl’s books available from Pomegranate
Carl’s Amazon page
CARL AND I WILL BE DOING AN APPEARANCE TOGETHER IN MAINE IN JUNE- details will be on my website soon irenehardwickeolivieri.com
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