Poet Jan Carroll’s Latest Collection is a Self-Portrait of Sorts

inventiveness, spontaneity fill her verses

Charlie Schaefer |

Poet Jan Carroll and her new volume of poetry, Self-Portrait on Scraps of Paper. (Author photo by Ariel Schell Photography)
Poet Jan Carroll and her new volume of poetry, Self-Portrait in Scraps of Paper. (Author photo by Ariel Schell Photography)

Jan Carroll, local poet, is familiar to those who read Volume One’s local Lit Page. She has published a collection of her poems, Self-Portrait in Scraps of Paper, a longer, more comprehensive group of her work than in her prior three books of poetry. Some poems in the collection are deeply personal, vulnerable. More typical of Self-Portrait is an inventive, spontaneous element to her work written – metaphorically if not literally – on scraps of paper.

Jan has a blog on writing poetry and more generally, the creative process. One entry is called “Riding the Ricochet.” In it, she uses ricochet as a description of how writing poetry works for her. The bounce, the surprising change of direction, indeed, the dazzling turns that her imagination takes, are evident in many of these poems. We, as readers, can find ourselves disoriented by where in the world she is taking us. This is a portion of “Dreams of the Wild.”

Lactose-intolerant attitudinal daredevil wannabe you must
try not to see microscopic scum on every handle, the rum
only a couple of fingers left stale, the ho-hum here
ingratiating you to the surface level without ever getting
your feet that wet, longing to be an acrobat on the high-wire
or trapeze without a safety net. Diogenes said
“You can’t get there from here,” or was that
your dad? My dad said, “Don’t follow the herd!”
and that always occurs to me when sorting choices
of duds from live-wires, honeybees from wasps.
Be careful what you wish for and what you avoid.
Light a sparkler, hold it before you, incant this:
Come to me now, my soluble yet flaring solution, risk
those first few words like a leap across a chasm even though
the disc in your back is bulging if not slipped,
walking painful. Dance with me anyway, you
underdeveloped, underappreciated part of me.

Try to draw straight lines within this work. You won’t be able to. Ideas bounce like Ricochet Rabbit, a character in her blog she adopts as a model. Taking the unexpected turn, putting words in Diogenes’ mouth that I’m sure were never there but perhaps should have been. Or maybe your dad’s.
Jan has provided some hints as to her poetry-writing methods. In her list of acknowledgements, she notes prominently the poet Dean Young, who she says has had a significant impact on her art. She recently wrote an appreciation of him upon learning of his death.

…through his book The Art of Recklessness, which is about writing and reading and loving poetry, a book that is about writing poetry as a way of life, as a way of seeing life, a book that for me is almost like a devotional, as I continue to read a few pages from it almost every morning, starting over when I reach the end, a book through which I felt given the liberty to play when I wrote, to experiment wildly, to let the irrational have a voice, and then come back with the mindset of an editor. He both helped me take myself more seriously as a writer and not take myself so seriously as a writer. He made me laugh out loud. He made me feel like I’m not the only weirdo out there. He made it seem like somehow he got me. He has been a huge influence on my poetry, for better or worse.

Read again the quoted passage from “Dreams of the Wild” and you will see the play, the wildly experimental, the irrational and yet it works, at least for those who have some weirdo going for them, who don’t mind not knowing where the ricochet is coming from.

Elsewhere in her blog, she describes her writing process, alluded to in her writing  about Young. First, she lets the flubber loose in a room with strange angles and curves. Let it flow, let it bounce. She then goes back with her editing scissors and removes what doesn’t work – the repetitive or the uninspired foolish. The rest she crafts into something that is poetry with Jan Carroll characteristics, perhaps amplifying what she has detected as a theme. She recently described her art as unsupervised play. She’s right. There is a definite lack of supervision in Self-Portrait.  No rules rule!

Some of the poems in Self-Portrait don’t have the high intensity whiz of all-out ricochet. Although Jan’s creative imagination is always in evidence, she can have something to tell us that is more straight line. She published a poem here in Volume One nearly six years ago, in July 2017, which I read then and which has stayed with me ever since. She has included it in  Self-Portrait. I will reproduce it (appearing here as an encore).

Love on the Precipice Ode

You know the killdeer
will feign a broken wing,
that when you near and lean in
with the first-aid kit of “I am here”
tacked on your sleeve it will seem
to suddenly heal and hurry away
distracting you from approaching
its nest of possibilities hatching
off in the wavering grass.

You know it won’t be that much
of a stretch for you to learn
the bird sign language for “damaged too,”
and do the dance you later find out
you already knew
that could be taken
as territory breach or the suggestive display
of mating ritual, this-is-crazy
wrestling with this-is-great.

You know the spill of this here
will be one part the Nile flooding
desert into farmland, crops green and young
springing up to feed a nation, and one part your car
swerving off a bridge in the storm, you breaking
the window to get out, swimming
for shore, almost drowning.
So delicious. So precarious. This is how
it always starts.

The agonized inept of infatuation/love, whatever you call it, the turmoil is here. The extremes of ambivalence created by this disruption have never been more effectively captured, at least for me. It takes me back decades to a time when I felt smashing windows to get out of sinking cars combined with the Nile giving life to parched fields. And the feigned wing damage which might not be so feigned. The utter failure to pull off the dance of this is crazy/this is great with anything like composure. I love this poem. Jan maybe tells us too much but I say, “Tell me more.”

Self-Portrait in Scraps of Paper gives us the full Jan, the whole of what she is as a poet. Read it. Depending on your tolerance for the whirligig, you will find it fun. Fun but something more than fun, too. You will spend time in the company of an inventive mind where anything goes. Digest it, enter into the place it comes from, and you might become a little bit of a weirdo. too.

A book launch and reading from Jan Carroll’s new volume will be 6-8pm Tuesday, April 11, at Artisan Forge Studios, 1106 Mondovi Road, Eau Claire. Her book is also available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.