Sunday Poem – Carrie Etter

It has been so long since I have written this blog in the daylight – the last couple of weeks have been speed typing at half an hour before midnight.

This week has been as busy as usual – on Monday I booked my flights for my trip to Ireland in May – I am reading at O’Bheal in Cork on the 26th May – before the reading I’ll also be running a workshop.  I managed to have a chat this week with the lovely Ita Dempsey who I stayed with in Fermoy when I went over last year for the festival and Ita has asked me to run a workshop for her poetry group the weekend before the O’Bheal reading.  So I’ll be heading over to Fermoy before the reading which will be good fun – so the reading at O’Bheal has now morphed into a bit of a jolly to Ireland which I am not complaining about in the slightest!  I’ll be in and around Cork and Fermoy from the 23rd May to 27th.

My friend Jill came to stay this week as well – Jill always kindly puts me up in London when ever I have readings down there so it was nice to have her come and visit.  She seemed to spend most of the visit with my dogs or the cat lying all over her on the sofa!  Jill’s visit also coincided with lots of poetry happenings this week in Cumbria – on Wednesday it was the Open Mic at Zefferelllis  – Zaffar Kunial was the Guest Poet – it was my first chance to hear Zaff read his poetry in a longer set so I’d been looking forward to this for a while.  Zaff didn’t disappoint – he is a great reader of his work and his poems definitely stay with you after you’ve heard them.

On Thursday we walked the dogs down to the beach huts – one of my favourite dog walks – it is about a mile or so to get to the beach but the views are stunning and there are lots of beach huts – all different shapes, sizes and colours and I like to fantasize that one day I will have one as my writing hut! Apparently they hardly ever come up for sale though…

I also got my house valued as we have nearly finished the decorating now – just a carpet to put down and the back yard to tidy up.  Rather depressingly, but predictably, my house is worth the same as I paid for it eight years ago – I suppose it could be worse.  My lonely garret is starting to look a little impossible to reach – but we shall see!

On Friday I was the guest poet at an event in  Preston at The New Continental.  The event was organised by three local poets, Martin Domleo, Terry Quinn and Ron Scowcroft.  It was the first event of it’s kind and there was a good audience.  In the first set I read mainly from the pamphlet and I managed to sell six wolves.

In the second set I decided to read mainly from the new sequence I’ve been working on which I’ve mentioned on here before – it is about domestic violence and the impetus behind this sequence was a year long relationship that I had with someone ten years ago when I was 21.

Consequently, it was quite a nerve-wracking thing to stand up and say.  I felt it was important to give this introduction, that the poems come from personal experience (although they are not confessional, or autobiography, I don’t think) because I didn’t want people to think I was appropriating another person’s experience.  The introduction was the hardest thing to do – and then I just read the poems, one after the another, without the usual introductions (or scaffolding as I think of it) around each poem.  For me, although I was absolutely terrified reading them – it was also a liberating experience and I’m really glad I did it.

The reason I’m writing this today is that this week, I’ve been reading Carrie Etter’s new book ‘Imagined Sons’ and have been blown away by it – as soon as I finished I wrote to Carrie and asked her if I could have one of the poems from the book for the blog.  Carrie’s book is a series of poems which reflect on the experience of a birth mother who gave up her son when she was seventeen.  The poems in ‘Imagined Sons’ circle around and around this subject – looking at it from different angles and view points – I don’t think they are just a reflection, they are trying to make sense of something that is so painful that maybe it can’t be made sense of, something that happened in the past that has echoes which can be heard and probably will be heard throughout a whole life.

Now, experiencing domestic violence and giving up a child are obviously completely different subjects and experiences – but I suppose the idea of having an experience that haunts you, that you can’t make sense of, was the thing that made me instantly connect with the poems in Imagined Sons – and the technique of handling this material by standing back and looking from different view points and angles is something I’ve tried to do in my sequence too.

Carrie’s book is punctuated by ‘A Birthmother’s Catechism’ which is a question that is asked over and over again, and which receives different answers each time.  The question in the first catechism is ‘How did you let him go?’ which is in itself a heartbreaking question.  There are ten Catechisms and each one asks a different question over and over again.  In between the Catechisms are the Imagined Sons.

The son is imagined as a baker, a pilot, a delivery man, a business man, as a teenage goth.  The thing I loved about these poems was their bravery – in Imagined Sons 17: The Courthouse – the son arrives ‘in a cheap suit and handcuffs’.  The poems don’t shy away from imagining negative reincarnations of the son.  In ‘Imagined Sons 16: Narcissus’ the poem imagines the son as Narcissus and finishes ‘I know I’m here to drown us both’ and many of the poems are concerned with the damage that could be caused if the two were to meet.

Perhaps the most striking thing in the book though is how the mother and the son brush past each other in different reincarnations, in different places, over and over again in the poems – often not quite meeting at all.

The poems in the book, apart from the Catechisms are all prose poems – and are brilliant examples of the form.  A good prose poem ( I think) should feel inevitable – as if there is no other form that poem could wear and the Imagined Sons certainly live up to this.  I will stop gushing now – but it is a really beautiful book and if you are only going to buy one poetry book this month I would make it this one!

Carrie Etter is an American expatriate who is a poet, fiction writer and critic with two previously published collections: ‘The Tethers’ (Seren, 2009) and ‘Divining for Starters’ (Shearsman, 2011).  She is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University.  Sixteen of the ‘Imagined Sons’ poems  first appeared in a pamphlet published by Oystercatcher in 2009 called ‘The Sons’ which was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice.

Carrie has her own website at where you can find out more about her.  If you would like to buy a copy of the book you can find it at

Imagined Sons is published by Seren and you can buy a copy from Seren at

I asked Carrie if I could post ‘Imagined Sons 36: The Bus’.  This poem was originally published in Long Poem Magazine.  In this poem, the son is both driver and passenger on the bus – I interpreted this to mean the Son is both the thing that shapes the mother’s life – the driver who decides in what direction her life (or the bus) is going to go, but also the passenger, the person who is not in control, whose life has been shaped by another person’s decision.  It is beautiful writing.  I hope you enjoy it.

You also get a bonus because you can read one of my favourite ‘Imagined Sons’ poems online at ‘The Iowa Review’ here, which imagines the son as an olive:

Imagined Sons 36: The Bus – Carrie Etter

When I get on the bus to go to work, the driver winks at me.
Winks! I take my ticket and choose a seat; there’s only one other
passenger, and he rides in the very back.  The wink has jostled me
into curiosity, and when it occurs to me that yes, the driver’s
features seem vaguely familiar, I realise that the other passenger is
coming closer.  I look over my shoulder and see him, dark-haired
with downcast eyes, advance a row.  When I look into the driver’s
rearview mirror, I am surprised to see reflected two casts of the
same face, not twins but somehow the same person twice over,
driven and driver, my son and my son, as the bus takes a turn
away from its route, past a field greener than any I have ever seen.

2 comments on “Sunday Poem – Carrie Etter

  1. I’m going to buy this and keep it with Jackie Kay’s ‘Adoption Papers’. I think they should be compulsory reading for everyone like me who has ever adopted a child…Or children. I don’t mean that like it sounds…’preachy’ It’s the access to imagined lives that we all need. I think the conceit of all those possible lives is heartbreaking and stunning. I don’t want to drive past that greener field than I have ever seen. I want to walk in it. I can’t figure out where I want the stresses to go in the last two lines…..ambiguous and ambivalent and conflicted. It makes me cry.

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