Carly Birman

  • Carly Birman, Academic TransferCarlyBirman_web

    Academic Transfer student Carly Birman has been an active proponent of Illuminations. Not only has she published poetry in the book, but she’s served on the Editorial Team and helped with the selection of works. She speaks with us about her enthusiasm for writing in both her current and her future lives.

    Illuminations: Your two poems published in Vol. 16, “A Burned Child Sleeps” and “Chapstick,” have darker tones to them. How do you see your poetry as a mode for expression?

    Carly: For me, writing poetry is very different from writing prose because when I write a poem, I come up with an image first and then later build context around it. For example, my poem “Chapstick” was literally based upon me finding a tube of Chapstick in an old purse and then remembering where I’d been when I bought it. I love it when something as banal and commonplace as a tube of Chapstick can seem to comprise an entire spectrum of feelings—seem to contain an entire universe.

    As for “A Burned Child Sleeps,” the poem was inspired by an odd image that appeared to me out of the blue. I imagined a child who’d suffered severe burn injuries sleeping restlessly while his emotionally exhausted mother looks on, waiting to tend to him when he wakes. It was then that I built a larger context around this image that was so sharp in my mind. I wondered what dynamics might be at play in this mother-son relationship. I thought of the conflict that might exist in this woman. When I started writing, without much of a plan or direction of where the poem would go, I ended up developing an entire dramatic conflict in my mind. For me, it’s like a war between the woman’s maternal affection toward her son and her hatred for his condition. This war inside her translates to resentment toward her son. I hope some of that came through in the poem.

    I: It certainly did, Carly – the complexity of emotion in that poem is tangible. You mentioned that you write poetry and prose differently. Do you enjoy writing fiction or creative nonfiction as much as you enjoy writing poetry?

    C: Yes! I love creative fiction and have written many short stories. It is definitely easier for me to express myself through prose rather than poetry. I also feel more self-conscious about my poetry because it seems to come from a much stranger place. My poems begin solely as images, and so it’s difficult sometimes to translate them into words that accurately capture what I’m seeing in my mind. It can feel like attempting to transcribe an alien language, and I can’t always say I’ve been successful in my transcriptions.

    I: Do you enjoy any other artistic pursuits?

    C: Not really. Writing is always my go-to medium for creative expression. I do draw occasionally but I’m not very good at it.

    I: You say in your biography that you read “compulsively” and that your favorite writers are Joyce Carol Oates and Sherman Alexie. Why do you admire these particular writers, and what lessons do they teach you for your own writing?

    C: Well, both are masters of narrative structure and characterization, but I suppose I love them both for different reasons. As far as Joyce Carol Oates, I love the richness of her characterizations and how effectively she can trace the motivations of each individual character.  She does this so well that she can make the thoughts, feelings, and insecurities of even the most loathsome or annoying character important to the reader. I’m also amazed at her ability to infuse even ordinary domestic moments with intrigue and menace. No matter what she writes, the tension never lets up. From her example, I try to include only that which is necessary to keep the narrative moving forward while also writing complex characters. It is not an easy balance! I can't say I succeed at that.

    As far as Alexie, I think he really explores a lot of universal themes in his writing. He explores strained familial relationships, upward mobility, the debt owed to the past as you try to weave a new future. But he explores such universal themes in ways that are wholly specific and unique to the individual worlds he creates in each story. His being a Native American greatly informs his writing in that, while his stories are often not explicitly about racism, his characters often have to deal with the constraints of racism—both institutional and interpersonal. His characters must reconcile their own personal strivings with the centuries-long commodification of Native American cultural identity. Alexie manages to do all this with warmth and humor, even when he’s writing about incredibly bitter subjects. For me, I struggle to write about bitter subjects with the sort of cleverness and humor, however acerbic, that keeps readers engaged rather than simply depressed. It is something I am trying to improve on in my writing.

    I: I hear you! You also say in your bio that you’re not yet sure what to do with your life, but you’re pretty sure it will “involve a lot of writing.” Have your plans solidified since you wrote that?

    C: I am still unsure how creative writing will factor into my future career but I do know that I will always write for fun. I'm studying sociology as a pre-law student, and I've considered becoming a legal researcher, which of course would involve a lot of writing, but not exactly the creative sort. I do absolutely hope to publish a novel someday.

    I: Terrific! You certainly have some editorial experience, as you served on the Illuminations Editorial Team and helped evaluate submissions. What did you learn from this experience?

    C: I learned that I really need to step up my game as a writer! Honestly, I was impressed with how different writers bring unique styles and perspectives to their creations.

    I: Yes, indeed! Why do you think a publication like Illuminations matters to a college like SCC?

    C: Illuminations is a great opportunity for students to express their creative side and have their best work channeled to a larger audience. Even students who don't major in arts or writing can still have that chance to explore and celebrate that aspect of their personality. Having works selected for publication may also convince some students who don't necessarily consider themselves creative types to push themselves more in that area.

    I: Agreed! And finally, the silly question of the day:  are you ticklish?

    C: Not very much. Honest. It's weird, but I'm usually only ticklish if I'm already laughing about something else. But it’s fun to tickle other people to assert dominance!

    A Burned Child Sleeps
    By Carly Birman

    His skin is an uneven gloss—
    a goopy layer of paint carelessly applied,
    stretched tight over his lumpy skull.
    Breath hisses from his ruined nose,
    a harsh whistle to batter Mother’s nerves.
    She hovers over him, a worn phantom,
    her heart a punctured tire leaking affection and revulsion.
    The boy’s mouth is fused into a puckered smile
    like some garish cartoon villain.
    His eyelids stir,
    and something hateful passes through Mother’s wispy frame.
    She cannot prepare for the horror of his waking.