Sweet Briar last reported on 2010 graduate Carina Finn when she was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. Now her first book of poetry, “My Life Is a Movie,” has sold out of its first run and gone into additional printings since its release in June.
“That’s not just remarkable for a small outfit like Birds of Lace,” says poet John Casteen, Finn’s teacher and mentor at Sweet Briar. “It’s unheard of for first books of poetry. … In the poetry world, this is a home run.”
Impressive, yes, but not unexpected, he says of his former student. He oversaw Finn’s honors thesis, which included “I Heart Marlon Brando,” the poem cycle that eventually earned her the Pushcart nomination.
“She’s a spectacular writer with a raw, gritty, ferocious talent, and it comes as no surprise to me or others who know her work that she has found such profound and early success,” Casteen says.
But Finn doesn’t find the terms success and failure “relevant,” she says. “It’s surprising to me, every time, when someone says they’ve read it and liked it, or even just that they’ve read it. I’m thrilled to have it exist, especially because the pages of the book are pink — I’m still a Sweet Briar girl.”
Finn guesses the appeal of “My Life Is a Movie” is a function of who is reading it and its “intentional kinship” to reality TV. Many events in the book are taken from her life.
She believes reality TV is such a cultural phenomenon because it’s decadent and escapist, but has elements of truth. People turn to it because they need it, she surmises, expressing her own pessimistic view of a disastrous economy, decaying cities, and a fear of love because “nothing is certain except artifice, consumerism — entertainment.”
“When I imagine my audience, they’re young, queer, probably in academia or just out of it and floundering in some city, somewhere, clutching a copy of ‘Les Fleurs du mal.’ I wanted to make a reality TV specifically for them.”
Finn is particular about whom she aims to please with her poetry, and it’s reflected in the non-traditional approach she has taken to publishing her works. She hasn’t much use for a poetry establishment she views as both ageist and sexist. One needn’t suffer through youth to have something to say and, furthermore, she believes it’s important for young people to “hear the legitimized voices of their peers.”
Finn knows her creative depths says reviewer Kari Larsen of Anobium, describing “My Life is a Movie” as a slim chapbook “with the kind of shimmering density that dances and transcends that giant, strapping books can never achieve. … ”
“Even when she is frightened,” Larsen writes, “look at what is wrought.”
“ ‘ … I am standing on the wrong subway platform watching the sunshine like murderlight or morning-sex light in french films and this foreign man walks up to me and tells me I am beautiful and asks permission to ride the train with me like it is okay to be so earnestly romantic in the afternoon or I am a girl getting into a taxi alone and asking to be taken to the site of a disaster.’ ”
When it comes to publishing, Finn says she wants to work with people whose work she likes and respects. “I’d never want something in a magazine, however ‘prestigious,’ if I don’t respect the writing or the way they operate, and I only submit manuscripts to presses I actively read,” she says.
Though she has placed herself among contemporary poetry’s avant-garde, the establishment is watching. An interview with thethepoetry.com, in which she argues the objection to melodrama in poetics is a gender issue, was excerpted on a Poetry Foundation blog.
Hers is not the quickest route to a tenure-track teaching position, something she thinks she’ll want one day. And in some respects the establishment has been good to Finn. She went from Sweet Briar to the University of Notre Dame, where she completed a Master of Fine Arts in May. She immediately returned to New York City after spending last summer there on a Nicholas Sparks Fellowship and working for a big publishing house.
She snubbed subsequent 9-to-5 opportunities to immerse herself in the city’s bountiful poetry scene, freelance, bartend, and make art through poetry and playwriting, music and film. She’s deeply involved in The Poetry Society of New York, runs the inter-disciplinary performance series known as the Bratty Poets and occasionally blogs at ladyblogblah.
It’s all research for that “steady-ish” teaching gig down the road.
“I’ve had more amazing teachers than any one person could hope for, and I’m going to pass on all the knowledge and energy that has been given to me,” she says. “I feel like it’s really important, though, for students to get a perspective from way outside of academia, to have teachers who can show them many ways of making the same thing.”