“Cindy Lauper was my hero…”
Carrie Meadows, Professor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and author of poetry book Speak, My Tongue, was able to to sit down with me and have a chat about writing and her life growing up as a child in the 80s, writing her first story book, as well as give some tips for people who are currently writing themselves.
For readability (as sometimes spoken word is different from what is easily read), some of the questions and answers have been shortened or slightly modified in their wording; however, I tried to keep the answers so they reflected the full extent of her true answer. For the FULL interview where Meadows answers questions such as Where do you typically write? and What led you to start teaching as well as a delving into more of her family life and a bonus activity – Bot or Not – you can check the video up top (highly recommended).
Carrie Meadows Bio:
Carrie Meadows teaches creative, professional, and academic writing at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Mid-American Review and other publications. She is the author of Speak, My Tongue, a poetry collection from Calypso Editions (2017) celebrating self-taught artists of the American South.
About Speak, My Tongue:
Speak, My Tongue is a wholly original and unforgettable debut that combines poems of family trauma with poems in the voices of visionary artists who see the world through the lens of the spiritual and spectral. In this book, the corporeal and the divine cohabitate with each other, intermingling with violence, poverty, race, and the landscape of the American South in all its history, glory, complexities, and shame. These poems are luminous, tight, wondrous songs that give voice to artists who were outsiders of all kinds—self-taught, on the margins of society, often perceived as crazy—and limn their prayers, confessions, declarations, stories, and exclamations with force and grace.
What was your childhood like? How do you think that has influenced your writing today?
My childhood was, I think, pretty typical of an 80s, southern kid.
My parents were divorced when I was really young, so I lived with my mom primarily. In the 70s and 80s they had this theory were you split the kids in families during a divorce, so my brother lived in a different house than I did. So, he lived with my dad, and I lived with my mom. And the only reason that matters is that it left some time for imagination, because I didn’t have my brother around the way that I think I would have if we had lived in the same household all the time.
Honestly, I wasn’t a reader. I really wasn’t a writer as a kid, [either]. I just wanted to be outside all the time, so I played a lot of sports. But, I didn’t find the world of books until I was in high school.
I go back, and I think the first little book I made – a complete story – in the 4th grade. It’s about whether a squirrel was run over in the road or not – it’s a really strange, morbid thing.
What were your dreams as a young child?
Because I was around all of these women who were always making things, making things was really important to me. [Also], I feel, like most kids around my age, I really wanted to be an astronaut.
One of my dreams was to go to space camp. I never went, but I thought it was one of the coolest things ever. And, when I was a kid, we were still sending shuttles to space fairly regularly. But, for me, the big moment in my childhood was watching the Challenger explosion in real time at school. There was so much focus on space when I was a kid, so I was really captivated by that. So, we had our whole grade in a classroom huddled around a TV, but we didn’t really understand what had happened. It was shocking, but it didn’t really dampen my excitement for space.
I know you mentioned something about a dead squirrel or something, but do you remember one of the first things you ever wrote?
That was probably it!
So, we were in this program, I was in maybe 4th grade, and we would read to either kindergarteners or first graders. And, I really loved it. So, the big thing we did at the end of this program is that we wrote and illustrated our own book to read to our partner.
Yeah. So, this book [I wrote was] in the shape of a squirrel. The whole premise was this little girl sees a spot in the road and is, like, terrified that it’s her favorite squirrel from her yard.
I remember my mom being a little nervous about what it meant. My mom still has it. It’s pretty funny.
Do you remember the first thing that you wrote that got accepted into publication? How did that feel?
The first thing that was accepted was a poem. I was in graduate school at Virginia Tech, where I got my M.F.A., and I had been in a masters program at the University of New Mexico where I studied fiction and had worked really hard at [it]. But, I had not had a lot of publishing success. I was a little frustrated by that. I was working towards writing these tighter and tighter pieces – moving more towards flash or micro fiction. So, by the time I got to Virginia Tech, I was working on these really tight pieces.
Around midway through my time there, I realized that my interest was really poetry. And so I went from New Mexico, writing these really long pieces, and they were so long that they weren’t really publishable because nobody wants a 40 page short-story. Then, I swung to this really tight stuff and landed at poetry.
I had been researching professional wrestling – which was another one of my loves as a child. I was a kid in the 80s, I mean Cindy Lauper was my hero. So, I learned when I was at Virginia Tech that there was a formal professional wrestler name Jimmie Valiant, also known as Boogie-Woogie Man, that ran a wrestling camp, like, 20 minutes from campus. And, so, I visited that a few times, and I really wanted to enroll. But, I didn’t because I had some rock-climbing injuries. I thought better of it. But, I loved it, and so I started looking back and writing more about wrestling beyond my childhood interest.
At the camp it’s interesting because they were teaching people to take on the various roles of professional wrestling, so my first poem [to get published] was, actually, a professional wrestling poem. And it’s interesting because it’s a prose poem, so it kind of shows that micro-fiction/flash-fiction kind of root. So, I was really excited about that.
So, did it feel like it was a long time coming?
It didn’t feel like a really long time coming. I didn’t focus on creative writing as an undergraduate, it was just something I took classes when I could on the side. I was an English major, but I was a literature focus. So, I spent 2 years at the University of New Mexico and felt like I wasn’t finding my ground – my space in fiction. And I was a little bit frustrated by that.
So, yeah, by the time I sort of made that shift from thinking of myself as a fiction writer to thinking of myself as a poet and having written this piece that kind of stands at the cross-section of those two things, I was really excited. Maybe more relieved than anything.
I mean, you go for a number of years without many readers to Yeah, we want to publish this, This is something we think is valuable. It’s hard to keep your energy up. So, I was grateful.
When you write today, what do you draw inspiration from?
So, I talked about fiction. One of the reasons I struggled to write fiction was that – the reason it was either really long or really short – was because I love research. I’m a total research nut. So, I almost get more invested on learning about a place or a character or something than actually doing the writing. But, I’m still really, really interested in research.
So, my book, Speak, My Tongue, is largely research based – focusing on self taught visionary artists of the south. I write about myself and experiences a fair amount, but I rarely put those out for publication. Those are usually, kind of, my starter places. So, for me it’s about finding connections between my experience, the way I see things, and places or other people’s lived experience. I find that way more interesting then just me.
So, the more personal stuff, for the most part, is a tie in to recognizing the people in my family to the people I had been researching.
As a teacher, have you ever felt the need to tell a student that writing isn’t the right path for them?
I’m not the kind of person who believes that a person needs to have this innate thing you bring to the table. It’s all about are you going to take the challenge to be better, are you going to read enough? Like, understand where your influences are coming from.
And the thing is, as a young student, I would write things thinking they were so precious and amazing and new, and the thing is, if I had read more, I would have realized that it was not new. Ya’ know? You got to take the time to learn.
Reading is so important. You just learn so much.
What are some words of advice you have for young writers?
I think it doesn’t apply to just young writers – I think it’s any writers.
Just, keep going and read. Just read stuff. That’s where I get excited again.
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE POEM BELOW
After The Funeralby Carrie Meadows
Mamma walks the hall, tinfoil in her mouth.
O don’t I know the taste of Papa-dead-
and-gone. I fix what others break, I push
parts back in place. But this—
Now I know why
the pecan stays buckled in its coat, why
one in twenty turns black as rot. Mercy’s
roasting, and Mamma’s kicking the oven
to 400 degrees saying, Wait and see
what becomes of this egg, this sugar.
Mamma’s pumpkin pie, a thumbprint
through its center. I fix what others break,
but Mamma’s pretending she can’t hear a thing
though her fork scrapes her plate. The sound is pain,
a kettle whistling its last breath of steam.
What does this poem mean to you?
So, that one is kind of a misfit, because it doesn’t fit in tightly with the project.
It’s written for my closest friend, and I wrote it just after her father died. And, her mom is this amazing cook. So, I guess if we were going to talk about folk art, I think cooking comes into play. So, beyond that, it really is a misfit.
After her father passed away, she and her mom were really struggling, and her mom’s response was cooking. And, I think that’s common. We find a way to work through our grief. So, this is just sort of about her mom working through the grief.
So, this narrator, do you think she feels a need to fill in that place where the father has been?
I don’t know if the speaker feels the need to fill in so much, but the speaker is inspired by my friend. She very much is the kind of person who wants to fix things for other people, and when things fall apart for her, it’s that same response – what can I do to fix other people? So, this is me kind of imagining that perspective of who she is in the need to repair and to help and be the rock to help everybody else.
I think things had settled a bit, but it was at the point where these two people are trying to figure out, like, where do you go from here? You know, there’s all of these preparations for a funeral and then there’s that quiet moment after where you have to deal with the fact that it happened.
I let Meadows choose from three songs from the Billboard Hot 100, blindly, and had her mark up the lyrics like she would a college, entry-level, creative assignment and then give it a grade.
Here were the results:
Meadows: What I would have said in this one, in the context of poetry, is we get good and specific, and we start really understanding the relationship. I would challenge Ed Sheeran to keep pushing. But, you know, musicians are working towards different goals. So, it’s a little unfair.
First let me give a HUGE HUGE HUGE THANK YOU to Carrie Meadows for allowing me and giving me her time for this interview. She is such an amazing person and writer – truly a gem. I strongly encourage you to listen to the full interview HERE (or go to the top of this post).
To buy a copy of her book, Speak, My Tongue, you can click here.
It was such a pleasure being able to talk to this amazing woman, and I hope someone out there was able to make the connection or draw inspiration from this. I sure did.
I really want to do more things like this (interviews, etc.), but please tell me what you guys think about it!
As always, thank you so much for reading.