Thursday, April 27, 2017

Meet Abigail Carroll

Before I start today's post, I'm looking for Jen Hdez who won a copy of Here We Go from Janet and Sylvia. Jen, please contact me so I can get the book to you. JoAnn Early Macken hosts the roundup today at Teaching Authors. And now on to my friend Abby!

Photo by Women's Water Alliance

Dear Francis,

The shower head is broken.

I've been bucketing water from the faucet,
            ladling it over my shoulders
and hair,

letting it run down my back.

This is how so many 
            have done it before
and somewhere in the world even now--

a slow, monk-like cupping
             and pouring. 

There is something about the breaking

and re-breaking of water
            over the arc of the body--

with each down flow,

            a baptism.


© Abigail Carroll, 2017, Eerdmans.

I am very pleased to introduce you today to Abigail Carroll. I have to admit that Abby is a virtual friend I discovered about this time last year when I shared one of her poems called "Spring Forward."

Abby's new book,  A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim, is a collection of forty personal letters to Francis. The book is described as "part devotion, part historical biography, part contemporary engagement, and part inspiration—reveal her curiosity and wonder about Francis. She also uses Francis as a sounding board for larger questions about the world—and, through her own experience, explores how brokenness makes experiencing redemption possible."

Abby's poetry has appeared in Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide (Paraclete Press, 2016) as well as in a variety of magazines and journals, including The Anglican Theological Review, The Christian Century, Crab Orchard Review, Midwest Quarterly, River Oak Review, Sojourners, Spiritus, and Terrain.

Her prose has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, and Boston Globe, and her first book, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, was a finalist for the Zocalo Public Square Book Prize. 

Abby lives in the Burlington area of Vermont, where she serves as pastor of arts and spiritual formation at Church at the Well. She enjoys discovering new swimming holes and photographing nature.

You can find Abby on Twitter @ACarrollPoet or explore her website here.

Dori: You first became interested in St. Francis as a girl of ten during a trip with your family to Assisi. Was poetry a part of your life at this age? Was there a specific poetic voice that appealed to you?

Abby: I wrote my first poem at a young age—probably around the age of 6 or 7—and I remember my grandfather submitting it to the local newspaper, which published it probably for its cuteness factor rather than any literary value. I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millet at age 9 and thought her poem “Afternoon on a Hill” was exquisite: I wanted to step into it and “be the gladdest thing under the sun,” to “touch a hundred flowers and not pick one.” My sixth-grade English teacher required us to memorize a poem each month—a fairly old-fashioned assignment these days, but one for which I am immensely grateful—and several of those poems have remained with me over the years like longtime companions. 

The voice of the poems in A Gathering of Larks reflects the influence of Canadian poet Susan McCaslin, whose chapbook of letters to William Blake planted the idea to write a series of letters to someone in history. As I was thinking about who, I remembered my deep sense of intrigue as a ten-year-old in Assisi, walking the streets Francesco Bernardone walked, visiting his tomb, and seeing the sites associated with his life. Writing these letters was like revisiting Assisi—a return to my childhood sense of wonder.

Dori: You describe Francis as a troubadour, a poet, and a hopeless romantic. Do you have a favorite from Francis’ songs?

Abby: “The Canticle of the Sun” stands out. Francis’s sense of affinity with the earth was not just remarkable, but truly radical and unique for his time. He not only held deep respect for creation, but saw himself as part of its song—a larger song of praise articulated continuously by the elements and creatures. A troubadour was a traveling composer of songs, mostly songs of courtly love. “Canticle of the Sun” is a praise song to the Creator, but also a love song to creation.

Dori: Tell us about your perspective of letters as a literary form. Are you a letter writer in everyday life?

Abby: As a literary form, I believe letters travel the intersection of poetry and narrative. A correspondence (even just one side of a correspondence) tells a story, but it does so with many holes. The story emerges not just from the content of the letters, but from the spaces between the content. A letter is an intimate form of communication: a first-person address usually to a single reader and not meant for a wider audience. So when letters become literature (or literature takes the form of letters), the letter invites the reader into a person or character’s spiritual landscape quite compellingly.

Sadly, I am not much of a letter writer. I think I would have been a dedicated letter writer had I lived in an earlier era, but electronic communication has managed to undermine my inclinations to pen correspondence by hand. Writing these letters to Saint Francis gave me a glimpse of what it might have been like to live in a letter-writing era. Letters are a particularly satisfying genre to write in. They are like a conversation in slow motion with a bit of contemplation added to the mix.

Dori: I am intrigued by your salutations and closings. These seem to function much as titles and themes for the poems. Did you think of them this way as you were writing or was it something you came back to in revisions?

Abby: I embarked on each letter by writing a salutation as a way to remind myself that I was writing letters first and poetry second. Francis’s personality had many facets, so addressing him in different ways (Dear Francesco, Dear Lover of Lady Poverty, Dear Advocate for Wonder) helped me to hone in on the theme or aspect of his life I wanted to engage in a given letter. Writing the salutations and valedictions was one of the most fun and gratifying aspects of the penning these letters. Salutations helped me set the tone and direction of a letter right from the start, and valedictions offered an opportunity to confirm that tone or, by contrast, introduce an unexpected twist at the end, lightening up a serious poem or adding gravity to a whimsical poem. The valedictions also became a way of exploring my own identity in light of my relationship with Francis. 

Dear Lover of Light,

There lived a priest
so in love with light
it drove him mad.
Paint was his thing.
When he could no longer
preach, he hopped a train
south, took up a brush,
turned zinc and lead
and chrome
into gaudy, wild-
petaled ambassadors 
of the dawn. He slapped
stars as big a brooches
on the sky, danced
crows across bowing fields
of wheat, exalted a bowl
of onions, a bridge, a pipe,
a chair, a bed. Postmen
and prostitutes
were his friends--
so too were irises,
almond trees,
clouds. Francis,
if you think of painting 
as a kind of song, he too
canticled the sun.

A Vincent enthusiast

© Abigail Carroll, 2017, Eerdmans.

Dori: You said, “A poet is always asking her poem what it can do without.” This is a lovely way of describing the process of writing poetry. Does the culling happen instinctively for you or in revision or both. Can you tell us more?

Abby: Revision starts off quite organically for me. As I write a line, I work and rework it until it feels strong enough to become the springboard for the rest of the poem. And then I find myself working and reworking the second line until it feels strong enough to support the following line. I’ve noticed that lines give birth to lines, so a line is often only as strong as the one it issues from. 
I revise as I write, but I also revise again after stepping away from for a time. The more distance I’ve gained, the more freedom I feel to play with the poem’s arrangement. I’ll often ask myself whether the poem should start with a different line, perhaps the second line or the last line. In terms of culling, I find that the rougher my draft, the more extraneous words it contains. To a point, the more words I remove, the stronger the poem becomes. 

Dori: One writer I know says that dialog calls us into being. Did you have a sense of discovering things about yourself as you conversed with Francis?

Abby: Absolutely! Writing these letters brought Francis into being for me in a way I could not have predicted. I related to him, not just learned about him. And when I finished the letters, I felt a certain sadness, as though a dear friend had moved away. Penning the letters started out as a literary project but became a spiritual exercise. And, as in any spiritual exercise, I ended up learning a great deal about myself. 

Francis became a mirror in which I saw my life and experiences in new ways. His irrepressible delight in nature invited me to cultivate my own delight in the tiny natural treasures of my backyard, where I spent most of the summer I wrote book, with my broken foot up in a cast. His audacity to follow his convictions in unconventional ways, giving up his wealth and status to care for lepers and rebuild dilapidated churches, planted a seed of desire in me to devote myself to the callings and convictions of my heart rather than to the agenda that the world has for me. One of those callings was to the write the letters that form this book.

Dori: Do you have a favorite letter from the book for us to close the interview?

Abby: One of my favorite letters is the second, a reflection on planting my garden. I always plant seeds too close, unable to imagine that each will actually become the full-sized plant pictured on the package. Planting, here, becomes a metaphor for faith, but the poem is also about the mysterious purposes of a life, which I liken to a seed that must die before it can bear fruit, and which will never actually see the full picture of the life it produces. In a similar way, Francis never saw the full picture of his influence, which continues to bear fruit across the globe today. Likewise, we are only afforded a small glimpse of the fruit born from the love, faithfulness, and good works in our lives.  

Dear Brother Francis,

Time to plant, time to press my nails
in dirt, 
             resurrect the earth with chives,

Swiss chard, basil, beans. The shed

is dark, winter still stuck in its shingles
and boards,
            trowels, gloves, watering cans,

pots. Francis, I am learning to have faith

in seeds. Every year, I drop the grains
too close,
            thinking only a few will stem

and leaf. I do not trust the package notes,

I do not space punctilious rows or calculate
their depths. 
            It seems to me no life can rise

from dust--and yet it does: year after year

this plot turns a weedy, flowering jungle
of green. 
            What if the whole of a life (yours,

say, or mine) is simply this--a tiny germ

of wheat sleeping in a bed of soil?
The crop
            this shell will one day yield it will

never actually see. All it can do is dream.

A Green Thumb

© Abigail Carroll, 2017, Eerdmans.

Dori:  And here is one of my favorites from Francis.


  1. I really love the ending of the Dear Francis poem and the images are wonderful "bucketing water"- love that!

    1. It is a beautiful image. I really enjoyed seeing the many ways she addressed Francis.

    2. Delighted by your response, Linda!

  2. That is wonderful, both invoking the garden and Vincent. What a great idea to write letter to a historical person in verse. I love it! Terrific post, Dori. I'd like to read the whole book one day.

    1. It's well worth reading in its entirety, Brenda. And it makes me want to try the format.

    2. Writing to someone you admire in history is a challenge and joy.

  3. When I was in elementary school, I chose Francis, for St. Francis of Assisi, as my "confirmation name". I was told I couldn't pick a man's name, but I made such a fuss that they had to give in! St. Francis was always one of my favourite saints growing up, for his humility, and of course because he preached to the animals!

    1. I love that you "made such a fuss." Hooray for Francis.

    2. Francis was an extraordinary person. Good choice for a confirmation name, I must say. I love the story of your insistence, Jane!

  4. Thank you, Dori, for sharing your friend and her new book. What a sumptuous post. I loved the poems and Abby's answers to your questions illuminated them even more, the growing up background and the process of how the salutations and valedictions worked, too. The Canticle is beautiful to hear and with the images, too. Thanks very much.

    1. Thanks, Linda. It was lots of fun putting this together. I've enjoyed the book so much.

    2. Coming up with the salutations and valedictions was one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing these poems.

  5. Thank you for introducing Abby and sharing poems from her new book. I will be looking for it! I will enjoy the poems even more from learning about her process and reflections from your thoughtful interview.

    1. Yes, it does make a difference reading when we know a bit about the story behind the work. I know you'll enjoy the book.

  6. I love the concept of poems as letters/letters as poems. The language is lovely and memorable. (I also plant seeds too close!) Thank you!

    1. Me, too, JoAnn. And it's so hard to pull those little sprouts up. I always think, what if I choose the wrong ones to pull and the ones I leave don't decide to grow!

    2. Thanks for letting me know I'm not the only one with planting issues, JoAnn!

  7. Wonderful interview. The poem about Vincent Van Gogh resonated with me. I'm going to share this post and Abby's work with a pastor friend of mine.

    1. That's wonderful, Laura. Abby will appreciate that connection.

    2. I would be most honored, Laura!

  8. I am a fan of Saint Francis, Van Gogh, and seed poems, so you know I enjoyed this post! :-)

    1. Ha! I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Tabatha.

    2. So glad for what we share in common!

  9. Oh, this is so beautiful. Headed to Amazon to put this book on my wish list.

    1. So honored, Ruth. I hope you enjoy the full suite of letters when the book arrives!

  10. Outstanding interview. I am also running to Amazon to put this on my wish list. I've been so frustrated with religion lately that I have thought about sorting it out in writing. This may be a good starting get back to the passion for God's creation. What a wonderful post. I have had tears reading it. Winter stuck in the shingles and boards, indeed.

    1. I understand your frustration, Linda. St. Francis is indeed a good place to start. His joy, his love for God's creation, his commitment to peace is a wonderful foundation for interacting with the God of creation. Enjoy the book.

    2. I'm honored by your response to my poems, Mitchell. I think writing is a particularly wonderful way to "sort out" one's thoughts and even one's faith. There are so many ways to do this: journaling comes to mind, letter writing as a spiritual exercise, and of course poetry. I sometimes write my prayers as poems when I don't have the courage to pray them.

  11. Echo all the sentiments above... a "sumptuous post" indeed! Thank you for this. I leave weighted with good thoughts.

    1. Weighted with good thoughts, indeed. So glad you enjoyed it.

    2. So glad for your delight.

  12. I have to say "ditto" on all the above comments! Thank you, Dori. I must return to this wonderful buffet.