Angela M Carter on the Need to Write and Validating Oneself Through Words

Photo credit: Cara Walton

Can you introduce us to Angela M. Carter, and your work so far?

I’m not a careful human—that’s the best way I can describe my way of life, and I’m proud of it. Years back I was possessed by an overwhelming need to be accepted. Upon the publication of my debut poetry memoir, Memory Chose a Woman’s Body, I began stepping onto stages and telling my life story publicly.

I’ve been a poet longer than I actually knew what one was. I grew in an small farming town in Virginia, always daydreaming about the world beyond it. I became submerged in poetry, punk and grunge rock early on; it was how I coped with the feeling I constantly carried within me, but that I didn’t have a name for.

I nearly cancelled the publication of my book, which introduced my experiences with childhood abuse, ongoing depression, and the results of those occurrences. I didn’t sugarcoat any aspect of the book. I know the voice that tells us to look away, not to listen, and to shift in our seats when hearing about sensitive topics, is stigma; I’m on a vendetta against this reaction.

I grew tired of the worry, shame and the belief that I was less than I should be–all because I was born with an illness, and endured situations that no human should have to. By speaking openly about these topics, I’ve endangered job opportunities, relationships, have opened myself up to ridicule, etc. However, I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’m proud to be an advocate, and the responses prove that my voice is being heard.

If you were to ask those that knew me while I was growing up, they’d tell you that I’ve never chosen the easy path, nor have I been one to follow. At 18 years of age, I hopped on a plane to England, with no real plan in place. I married a Brit, published the story that I was once petrified of the world knowing, and created a life in which I am everything I thought I’d never be. I returned to the US, years later, a completely different person. I moved to an area in which I knew no one, and could’ve easily decided to play the part of a “normal” person; instead, I made a decision to no longer hide.

Having a mental illness doesn’t make me a weak person; it makes me the strongest person I know somedays. I’m still in the making, but I am determined to make my dent in the world. I’m a storyteller, but not because I feel I’m the only one with the story; I tell it because I know I’m not.

Why do you write, and what brought you to poetry as a medium?

I’ve always been obsessed with written word. There’s so much that we say through it that we cannot in any other way. I don’t know of many things more beautiful than remembering the first love letter I ever wrote, looking back at the honesty of journal entries or reading, and reading what once was a shameful story inside of a published book.

My writing began because my life couldn’t. As a child, you cannot carry yourself out of situations; you rely on others to make those decisions on your behalf. When that didn’t happen for me, I chose to write about it. There’s a beautiful line in, I Go Back to May 1937, by Sharon Olds: Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

The basis of that line is why I must write. I cannot control my past, nor can I make depression leave me permanently; however, in knowing that, I have the power, and right, to tell the story. It may seem like a minuscule thing, but think of how many are afraid to tell about their “it”. The “its” are why we have poetry.

Poetry lines would just pop into my head, from an extremely young age, and I felt I had a purpose once I’d finally write it down. I didn’t know what poets where, but I can look back and know I was one. I wouldn’t be alive if it were not for poetry.

Your book is a relaying of your experiences as a woman, and a survivor, has this proved to be cathartic?

The book validated me. There have been times, throughout my life, that I could look at any good and convince myself that I didn’t deserve it. Memory Chose a Woman’s Body is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever created because it represents a conversation with my former self.

Many survivors of abuse, and current depression sufferers, have contacted me with questions that I am not able to answer. It’s been difficult to not have an answer—or any at all. It was not long ago that I was in the hospital being treated for severe depression; so I’m not sure that there are answers no matter how aware you are of an illness and/or situation. I’m proud of myself for publishing the book, and to those that reach out about their many truths. If I’m honest in my book, I must be honest in present life—I’m just a human-being with a story—like everyone else. My story isn’t finished, but I had to tell my beginning in order to feel brave enough to seek the ending.

The book, and my talks, are never about the answers—they are about beginning a conversation. They are about forcing people to open their eyes to the world around them, and that by facing it together, there are many circumstances that these horrible stories can become brighter futures.

AMC cover

Why do you think it’s important to talk about being a survivor?

We barely talk about being a victim, but I feel that we are sometimes quick to talk about survivors. Survivors give us hope. Victims remind us of how human we are. I’ve had to examine the meaning of “survivor”. There are many victims unable to become survivors because of stigma. We aren’t survivors just because we are still living.

We each have so much power in other’s lives that we are unaware of; it’s such a large responsibility and I’ve tried to acknowledge and do the best I can with it. Don’t dismiss the worth of a few words, an email or a card to someone battling an illness or trauma.

The importance of speaking about these topics is so that, one day, when the world hears an abuse or mental illness story, instead of turning away, the world would treat their wounds like any other injury. My life would be different, as an adult, if I’d been heard as a child. Becoming a survivor takes support—that many never receive.

We are what we don’t say, yet people envision that we are who we appear to be. I don’t fall for a minute of it, and I have chosen to place a spotlight on that in between stage called healing.

Where has your writing taken you that you didn’t think you’d ever go?

I never imagined I’d make it as far as I have! In the very beginning of the publication process, I figured I’d have a book launch and would be lucky to obtain the interest of a few book groups. It was clear, after a matter of a couple of months, that my writing was reaching much further than I ever imagined it would. After being nominated for the Pushcart Prize, I felt I’d achieved the most recognition that I ever would; however, on top of readings all over the state, I went on to be the featured spoken word act at Busboys & Poets in Arlington, VA, featured in commercials for a local non-profit, had a multitude of positive book reviews published with reputable sites, taught courses, and read as a part of At the Inkwell’s poetry night at the KGB Club in Manhattan. In October, I’ll serve as a panelist at a very well known state-wide conference. I am extremely proud to say that the list goes on and on. I’ve worked incredibly hard for these accomplishments, and have many more are on the near horizon.

The 8-year-old me is smiling. Never did she think her scribblings of poetry would become this. I don’t dismiss my inner child; she’s the strongest person I’ve ever known. This is my way of repaying her, so to speak.

As well as writing, you’re a performer and public speaker, how do you think this extra dimension helps you connect with your audience?

As my main goal for my current book is to speak about sensitive topics, I found new ways to reach audiences: slam poetry, spoken word, art shows, motivational speaking, teaching writing courses, etc. In other words, I’m willing to do almost anything in order to get these messages out there. At one point, I collaborated with a local musician and a dancer and performed spoken word while a guitar was being played, and a dancer was performing on the same stage. Amazing energy. I love what I do.

Although I’m not the most confident person, at all, I become whatever I need to in order to reach others. My talks began with groups of ten or so, and have grown into up to hundreds at a time. And why? Because I don’t give up. I’m human and flawed, and I feel that is why I’m asked to do the talks that I do. I say what they’ve never heard an “everyday” person say out-loud before—that they aren’t alone in what they are going through. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. I never heard those words until they came out of my own mouth.

Photo credit: Cara Walton
Photo credit: Cara Walton

You lived in Britain for a time, has this influenced your writing and approach to your art?

As a child, I can recall pouring iced tea into a coffee cup, and pretending to drink hot tea like the English. I would daydream about the accent, which is far from my country twang.

At age 18, a miracle occurred and I received a summer scholarship to study at the University of Bath. What was supposed to be a few weeks, expanded into a second trip lasting approximately five years. My ballsiest move, in my entire life, must’ve been getting on the plane to England the second time. I had very little money, no job, no real connections and no real plan. When I returned to the UK after my scholarship ended, I stepped out of Heathrow Airport and never looked back. In my time abroad I married, started a family, and began the creation of my most confessional poetry.

Bath,England (one of the places I lived) will forever be a place of metamorphosis for me. It still seems unreal. When I think about it now, I’m proud to be the type of person that would do something that risky. I had to become completely lost, internally and geographically, in order to write what healed me. I was so lost that I had no choice but to find something, anything. I don’t want to imagine how my life would be today had I not lived in the UK.

I may return to live there one day, but as for now, it will forever be my second home. Home is a place of growth; I don’t know of any place that I felt safer, and that allowed as much growth, as Bath, England. It where I met my husband, and where I met my true self for the first time.

What are your personal hopes and ambitions for the next five years?

I recently visited Ireland and Britain in order to research settings for the novel I’m currently writing. I’m pouring my soul into this. Over all, my largest hope is to find a literary agent/publisher that is as excited about the novel as I am. I have huge hopes for this, and am writing full-time in order to make my overall dream come true.

I’ll continue to perform slam poetry and spoken word, as well as do readings, and talks on these sensitive topics.

As for personal goals, I (un-simply) want to stay alive and feel alive. I’ve two young daughters that think I’m the strongest person they’ve ever known, and I have no intention of letting them down. I’ve taught them that strength isn’t what the world says it is. It’s all about calling your own name when you feel the world won’t; and to be the absolute strongest means to do so on behalf of those that aren’t able to do it for themselves. I believe that’s the answer to most of the world’s problems. I believe poetry gives that to the world, and I like to believe that I have some part in that.
Twitter: @amcarterpoetry

Interviewed by: Dominic Stevenson