Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Carolyn Smart

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Carolyn Smart

In the pantheon of famous couples, there are few pairings more exciting than Bonnie and Clyde, the notorious bank robbing duo whose legend has endured for more than 80 years. The pair has appeared in countless movies and books, but nowhere have their voices been explored with more nuance than in Carolyn Smart's Careen (Brick Books).

Carolyn established her talent for uniquely inhabiting historical voices in her acclaimed collection Hooked, and Careen expands on that same practice. Brimming with thwarted desire, love and violence, Careen vibrates with a visceral energy that will have readers devouring its pages.

Today we speak to Carolyn about how she became interested in Bonnie and Clyde, how she established different voices for all the members of the Barrow Gang and her upcoming project about a pivotal year.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Careen.

Carolyn Smart:

Careen is a collection of poems in various forms that tell the story of the Barrow Gang from the point of view of 12 different people and a car. The book has been described by my editor, Stan Dragland, as one long poem, and that’s certainly valid, in that it tells one story in different voices. To me it’s a chorus of voices speaking in southern tongues.


What drew you to Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker for this project?


For more than a decade I’ve been drawn to write what appear to be unrevealed truths surrounding historical and ostracized figures. I read a review of a biography called “Go Down Together — The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde” by the American crime writer Jeff Guinn, and the fact that both Bonnie and Clyde were physically handicapped and mostly lived in their car was not what I had been led to believe from popular culture. I was keen to find out more, to explore the lives of these kids who became folk heroes, picked up by the tabloids and lionized, then just as quickly discarded and finally destroyed.


Tell us a little about what your research process was like.


Having devoured the Guinn biography I went on to read the two first-person accounts of the gang: one that appeared in Playboy in an interview with the teenager W.D. Jones who rode with the gang for eight months; the other a posthumously-published memoir by Blanche Barrow, who was married to Clyde’s beloved brother Buck, and outlived them all. It was the voices of these two people that gave life and breath to the book. After that I looked at the bounty available online, including film footage of Clyde Barrow’s funeral that shows his youngest brother LC collapsing in grief onto his heartbroken mother.


You're working with so many different voices here, and you've managed to make them all feel distinct. What was your approach to inhabiting all these characters?


I learned a great deal about characterization from writing the persona poems in Hooked — Seven Poems (Bricks Books, 2009), but this book involves many more voices in brief, detailed-filled poems. Visually the poems look different for each voice and character. I spent a lot of time looking at their photographs when I wrote from each individual point of view. I kept their personal histories in mind, the fact that some were illiterate and some educated, some deeply religious and others faithless, some capable killers and some terrified observers, but all were driven, complex human beings. I read the work-in-progress aloud as much as possible, and worked with Texan dialect and slang from the 30s.


There's a powerful yearning and vitality in both Bonnie and Clyde's voices. How would you describe each of them as characters? Was this idea of desire something you wanted to explore in the poems?


Desire is central to this collection. Not just the passion they felt for one another — it was love at first sight — that never faded, but desire for a better life, for the things they saw in films and in magazines. Beyond that was the desire for respect. The Barrow family lived beneath a wagon and were fed baloney sandwiches by the Red Cross for more than a year. Eventually Clyde insisted on wearing clean white clothes whenever he could, and driving in the fastest car on the road. It made him look successful. Yet even at the height of their fame, when crowds would stand and cheer as they drove through the dusty Texan towns, Clyde knew he was considered low-class scum by the likes of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. Bonnie Parker spent her time in the back seat of the car typing poems on a Remington when she wasn’t cleaning and loading guns. She yearned for fame: as an actress; then as a famous writer; and finally just a famous person; and she became one, as an outlaw.


You use many different poetic forms in the book and also include news clippings. "Carried in the Car", a list poem, is a particularly interesting piece. Can you tell us a little bit about that particular poem and how it came to be?


The posse and the police made a list of what was found in the car Bonnie and Clyde died in, and it’s an historical document. I took a ride one hot summer day in a 1934 flattop Ford, just like theirs, and it’s beautiful and fast, and I imagined it with a saxophone, a typewriter, clothing, wigs, maps, drinks, pets, not to mention an arsenal of weaponry. Clyde would hop in barefoot, strap a shotgun to his leg, and drive a thousand miles or more at times, stopping only for gas or to change a flat tire. He was a superb driver, and only made one big mistake — it cost Bonnie her ability to walk and he often carried her in his arms for the last six months of their lives. What a sad and wild ride they were on, those two.


What are you working on now?


I have been writing poems that spring from my memories of the year 1963, when I was 11. It was a pivotal year for me, one I have never written of before. Thinking back on it now, it was the year I knew I was going to be a writer, and I’ve never wanted anything else.

Carolyn Smart is the author of Swimmers in Oblivion, Power Sources, Stoning the Moon, The Way to Come Home and Hooked: seven poems. Her memoir At the End of the Day was published by Penumbra Press in 2001, and an excerpt won first prize in the 1993 CBC Literary Contest. She has taught poetry at the Banff Centre and participated online for Writers in Electronic Residence. She is the founder of the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, poetry editor for the MacLennan Series of McGill-Queen’s University Press, and since 1989 has been Professor of Creative Writing at Queen’s University. Hooked: seven poems has become a performance piece, featured at the Edinburgh and Seattle Fringe Festivals in 2013 and at Theatre Passe Muraille in 2015. She lives in the country north of Kingston, Ontario where she and her husband have raised three boys.

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