Paula Carter’s essays have appeared in Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Rumpus, Southern Humanities Review, and Salon.com. She holds an MFA from Indiana University. Her essay “City Swarm” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “City Swarm”?
The day that I saw the swarm was so magical and amazing. I had never seen anything like it. And then when the woman showed up wanting to know if her bees where in my backyard, I found the whole situation so wonderfully strange that I knew I would want to write about it. As the event unfolded, I understood the piece would be hopeful, about resilience. But it wasn’t until I started doing research about swarms that I really understood what I was writing about. That is often how my work unfolds. I have a starting point, a triggering event, and then research helps me understand what I’m really interested in.
Your speaker seems to have an interest in both the explainable and the miraculous—seeking at once to understand and then later, as they “search the sky for another miracle” to be awestruck beyond comprehension again. How do you feel religion and science interact in this piece? Are different mindsets needed to see both at work in the swarm of bees?
I grew up in a home that was filled with both science and religion: my father a chemist, my mother a devout Christian. Therefore, I tend not to see the two as necessarily separate. There is so much awe certainly in nature, but also in science. I’m constantly amazed at what science can tell us and how our world works; it’s miraculous. I guess the important thing is to allow for that awe and that is what the speaker is balancing—wanting to understand more, but not be so analytical that the awe disappears. I see the figure of Mary in the piece as the continual reminder of that.
The tone of this piece is able to conjure both an amazed and calm mood. Your speaker is clearly fascinated by the bees, but still largely passive. What is the role of this passionate and observational non-interference? Is it necessary that the speaker do nothing but watch in order to acquire true understanding of the swarm?
I see the swam as the actor; it is what is making things happen. It does not need interference. It does not need the speaker’s help. There is nothing the speaker can do but be amazed and then report back. I think the speaker’s passivity is countering a kind of hubris in the city and in humanity. The loafer and the beekeeper and the humans that build skyscrapers cannot do more or better than these bees. The passionate observation of the speaker is out of respect and reverence for that.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
My writing has changed a lot. It has gotten smaller and smaller, like something being reduced on the stove. It was once big and bubbly, now it’s condensed and thick. At least I hope it is. That’s what I’m shooting for.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Finding ways to get out of my head, like swimming and walking. It is then that I can feel things in a way that I will eventually want to convey them once I’m back in my head, which is so, so much of the time.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
It wasn’t really advice, but the hardest thing for me to overcome was genre distinctions. Feeling like I had to be writing fiction or poetry or essays and have an idea of how my work fit into those categories and that it followed certain conventions of the categories. When I let go of worrying about what it was, I think my work improved.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I have a book coming out in the fall, No Relation. It’s my first book, so I’m pretty excited. It is a collection of flash memoir that tells my story of being a stepmother and then having my relationship with the children’s father end and finally trying to navigate a role that we have no language for in our culture. And sometimes it’s even funny!