In Climate, out now from Essay Press, the reader is let into and becomes an audience for the letters exchanged between poets Lisa Olstein and Julie Carr for a period between 2018 and 2019. These letters are urgent, and take place in urgent times. They are abundant with questions, with wonderings, wanderings, attempts at deepening understanding. They lay bare Olstein’s and Carr’s vulnerabilities, but it isn’t a show of how fearless or self-exposing either can be. It’s done in the service of connection, of cathexis, and what are we writing to and toward one another for if not for the sheer possibility of connection in this, the emergency of the present tense? I spoke with Olstein and Carr by email about the project of communication, valences of knowing and feeling, and friendship.
Vincent Scarpa: I have so much curiosity about this project—about how it came to be, about how you regard it, about its process of becoming the book it now is—so I want to ask about the origin of this conversation first, I suppose. How did you two come to decide that you wanted to be in conversation with one another, and then, further, that you wanted that conversation to eventually take the form of a published correspondence as Climate?
Lisa Olstein: The letters were a way of continuing something that we’d started and didn’t want to stop: a shape- and register-shifting conversation that engrossed us over the course of many long drives during a book tour in the fall of 2017 when we found ourselves skirting multiple climate-related disasters—wild fires in Northern California, Hurricane Harvey’s immediate aftermath in Houston, a “bomb cyclone” in New England—just as the #metoo wave was beginning to crest. We had a lot in common (and in difference), but weren’t yet good friends, so we didn’t already know each other’s histories and stories, or how the other one thought. When our trips were over we felt like our conversation had only just begun, so we decided to try shifting to letters. Initially it was very much a private undertaking; the point and purpose was to continue a dialogue, not to write a book—that decision and its sequelae (editing, etc.) came much later. In retrospect, I think this allowed for the specific energy and intimacy of the exchange: we really were writing to each other.
VS: Julie, you write, regarding terror, “Is it useful to look at it? Do you think we should? If so, can you help me do that?” Was that part of what drew you to be in correspondence with Lisa, this idea of looking at terror with someone you trust to help you do so?
Julie Carr: I’d say that Lisa’s ability, her desire, to look her fears straight in the face was one of the things that drew me and still draws me to her. All of us have to practice avoidance all the time just to get through the day, and at the same time, there are things we must face, since to ignore them is to perpetuate them. Lisa has a kind of resolve to not look away—from the climate disaster specifically, but not only—that I deeply admire. That said, at least for me, it’s nearly impossible to face terror in isolation. We need to hold each other in our fears and support each other in directing our actions, however fruitless they may sometimes seem. Facing terror means more than simply saying “I am terrified.” It also means analyzing why: sometimes interrogating the myopia of one’s fears, sometimes acknowledging that they are outsized, and at other times considering that one is not nearly scared enough. Lisa is interested in finding language for all that, and this has proved so important to me.
VS: In response to Julie’s question, Lisa, you write, “Maybe we’ll find an outcome related to but distinct from—or transformative of—action or usefulness.” I wonder if you could expand on this a bit, and maybe talk about if and how the project of this correspondence did yield something perhaps transformative.
LO: The question of how to move toward genuinely useful action couldn’t be more important or more fraught. What we were wondering about here, I think, was something internal, a way to move the conversations we might have with ourselves and each other beyond some all too familiar dead ends. So there were ways that our correspondence was personally transformative in allowing me to think through things differently within the context and spirit of our exchange, and also in giving me intimate access to Julie’s way of thinking—not just what but how, the contours and swift-moving currents of her intelligence and empathy. And by having this space in which to explore not only certain fears, but the swirling mix of sorrow/joy/fear/hope that makes up our daily lives, my acquaintance with them has shifted—no false resolutions, but a deeper awareness. More broadly, though, I think our exchange allowed us to participate in something larger having to do with connection and the ways in which language is a primary means of it.
VS: Much of what you two find yourselves in conversation about we might call various catastrophes of varying degrees, or, to use Lisa’s term, “felt weather.” You both express your own individual concerns with addressing these catastrophes in your letters, concerns about trying to navigate the conversation and the thinking in such a way as to be responsible and alert without perhaps overidentifying with the trauma of others or creeping into some unseemly pain-tourist mindset. I wonder if you both could talk about how you generated content for these letters with this in mind; how you followed your instincts about what to include, what to address. I ask this specifically because the book does such a great job of replicating the sense of panic, of fear, of helplessness, without ever kowtowing to the feeling that there’s nothing else to say, and I admire that insistence.
LO: Once we created the container, the content emerged inseparable from the unfolding of our days across the intersecting planes of our lives. We ricocheted off and were buffeted by it, by the big public catastrophes—like the latest mass shooting that has occurred between your asking this question and my answering it—as well as joys and sorrows large and small that were more local to us. At the same time, the content of the letters was shaped by their form: our being in a mode of addressing one another, of thinking through the separate/shared space of letters. But to your question about the hazards of addressing the catastrophes unfolding around us, yes, these conversations are so complex and rife with risks—of being too quick to speak reactively from our own blind spots or biases, of being too slow to speak or speaking too meekly—and considering these became part of the conversation, as well. One of the central commitments of our correspondence was to make a place where we not only could, but where we required ourselves to move into the difficult space of articulation—to follow through on the trajectories of logics, emotions, and circumstances, to think into their complexities. Intimacy and trust create a space not just of safety, but also of accountability. So this kind of unspooling was one of the primary urgencies of the exchange. At the same time, carving out this space invited me into a different vantage point, not quite a bird’s eye view, but a hovering place above the constantly churning field from which I could recognize certain patterns or currents, both in relationship to events and to our own—and society’s—responses to them.
VS: Somewhat related to the prior question, I want to ask about the concept of distraction, which Lisa wisely identifies as having many kinds, “motives for and consequences of.” In one letter, Julie writes, “I’m caught between my own striving energy and my own violence. By violence I mean everything I ignore in order to keep going, everyone I ignore.” Did writing these letters feel like refusing to be distracted, and if so, I wonder how that affected your daily lives over the time period in which you were corresponding with one another. Was there an imperative to be more alert for the purposes of having something to address, or was that alertness there from the get-go, and possibly the engine of the conversation? What does it mean to refuse narcotizing distraction in the face of catastrophe, and what does it look like—what does it yield—when one is unable or unwilling to?
JC: Yes, walking around through my days knowing that I was always, in a sense, composing the next letter to Lisa meant that I was especially alert to events, scenes, feelings, and thoughts that I believed she would respond to: complicated things, funny things, beautiful things, as well as frightening or sad things. I think we all do this anyway—we live our lives in silent conversation with certain people, and of course who those people are shifts through time. But knowing that you are soon going to write something sustained to one of these people puts a sharper focus on it. In a sense, I felt Lisa’s sensibility (or what I believed to be her sensibility) behind my eyes, helping to direct my lens. This feeling of being accompanied is deeply pleasurable, and it’s also a way of more-or-less fictionalizing one’s life. Things always could become “story” in the telling of them, which means that the “self” is split. Again, this is true for all of us, and especially writers always, but it’s different when you have a known audience who you care about. In one letter I discuss how Nelly Sachs writes to Paul Celan, addressing him “Dear poet and dear person Paul Celan.” In this, Sachs acknowledges that their correspondence is a writerly project. There is the person, and there is the poet, and these are not precisely unified. In writing to Lisa I was always writing to both, which means I was also writing as both—at once a person living an ordinary life, and a “poet” engaging in an act of making. I think just that heightens awareness of the world, which is the same thing as limiting distraction from the world.
As much as this project might seem to be about facing fears, addressing crises, it was even more about articulating and encouraging the way that a written (composed) intimacy generates a deeper sense of connection or belonging with the world as it appears to us through time. There’s a paradox here that I’ve always been interested in. While the writer-self is in some sense an invention, it’s through writing that I feel most fully connected to my life. I found that to be true in writing with Lisa in a new and astoundingly shared way.
VS: I want to talk, too, about the concept of vulnerability, as it was one of the ideas that kept circulating through my reading experience of your letters. Lisa writes, “How vulnerable do you feel? I mean literally. I feel deeply vulnerable, an embodied terror tied to my body’s weakness, I think, its history of illness, its experience of pain. I know how much I rely upon. I know how fast I would fail. My relative privilege, which spares me much, doesn’t spare me this, wouldn’t, past an easily lapped point. This valence of knowing or feeling, it’s not academic, it’s not philosophical.” Can both of you talk about the feeling of vulnerability in your respective writing processes? Do you bother with or find yourself at all consumed by ideas of self-exposure, or have you both transcended that? The letters feel to me extremely vulnerable, in that they are often disclosing fear, and what could be more private and almost confidential than what one fears? But then I see that word, “confidential,” and I see confide, that generous and expansive verb, and I think of what these letters are doing in a new way.
JC: Publishing this book does feel vulnerable, maybe more so than other books. It’s interesting, though, because that vulnerability, for me, is a function of the intimacy itself. Yes, I talk about things in this book that I haven’t talked about very much in previous books—an attempted rape when I was nineteen, helping to run a foodbank—these things that feel complicated to disclose, for very different reasons. But the real vulnerability for me lies in exposing what kind of friend I am (to Lisa, but maybe in extension, to others). Of course I want to seem like a good friend, but there are moments when I fear I fail at that. Maybe I’m unable to help in ways I want to, or maybe my own cowardice keeps me distant or even glib in the face of some of the issues we discuss. The nature of real friendship is that it is challenging, and I know I am not always able to meet the challenges. So it’s less the stories of my life that make me feel vulnerable, and more the way in which the book puts on view how it is that I respond. And I always want to be better: more available, smarter, kinder, more expansive in my thinking, more loving. But in this, the book is not fiction.
LO: There is something uniquely vulnerable-feeling to me, too, in sharing this work. There’s a nakedness here, a directness about my own experience that’s distinct from other things I’ve published. Some of that comes from the range of things we talk about, I think, invited and then marked by the openness of our friendship. The letters (and the friendship) create their own context too, and it’s an inclusive one. So often we segregate our lives, our selves, almost by default; we engage in different subjects or styles in different settings, and this keeps us fragmentary. Here, there were things we didn’t get to or chose not to get into, but overall, it’s not fragmentary, it’s more whole-cloth. Sometimes it’s simply the subject matter itself, our choice not to revise out painful or otherwise vulnerable material that found its way into what was initially (and still is) an intimate exchange: I write about my child—moments of joy or fear—about times I was in danger myself, about the death by suicide of a close friend and the shattering grief of that experience. Some of it is very raw. I think we both feel that the range of topics and registers that the letters contain is fundamental to them.
VS: Finally, I want to ask about friendship. Lisa writes, “Grieving together: is this what constitutes a friendship over time? Or maybe it’s the opposite and friendship is a form of resistance, through connection, to grief. Perhaps both things are part of what we’re doing here?” I wonder if either of you feel any closer to something like an answer to that question, and if you feel that your friendship has enabled you to access different planes of thought and feeling in this book.
JC: I think a lot about the dynamism between grief and joy. Shutting down access to grieving will also shut down access to joy, and then the reverse is also true. As Etel Adnan puts it, and we quote, “we cannot escape the sadness we feel.” But it’s not easy to face what grieves us; sometimes it feels impossible, and we can’t do it alone. If the goal is not to become numb, not to become uncaring, then we have to find others who can accompany us in grieving and not just in fun or pleasure. Maybe that becomes more true as we age and have more to grieve. But for me the two sides of this equation are inseparable. Having a good time, I mean a really good time, with someone means, for me, that there is a willingness to acknowledge all of it.
LO: I feel more sure that it’s both: a form of being with, celebrating and, too often, grieving together and a means of resistance—to isolation, numbness, not so much to grief as to its potential to pull you under. I’m sure this isn’t the case for everyone, but I’m so comforted—and galvanized—to be within a “we” when it’s a chosen, loving in-it-togetherness, and one way or another that “we” is invented by the interchangeable dynamics of an “I” and a “you,” which is what the epistolary realizes.
By Julie Carr and Lisa Olstein
Vincent Scarpa is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers whose work has appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, StoryQuarterly, Indiana Review, and other journals. He lives in New Jersey.