Jenn Terrell Photography
Caroline Earleywine

There are two completely blank pages after the first poem in Caroline Earleywine’s debut full-length collection, but even without that prescribed pause, you might need a few seconds before forging ahead. Like the front porch Earleywine describes in the poem, blood-stained from the dead birds deposited there by the family cats during her childhood in Batesville, “How She Loved Us” acts as both welcome mat and forewarning for “I Now Pronounce You,” diving darkly into the sounds and silence that accompanied her parents’ separation. Divided into chapters with names that mimic the structure of a wedding — “Prelude,” “Something Borrowed,” “Something Blue,” “Something New,” “Recessional” — the collection continues to pick at that scab, occasionally drawing blood as it peeks at the messier and sometimes sublime forms love can take when it’s coupled with duty, resentment, queerness, grief and the public education system. We talked to Earleywine, who works as a curriculum writer for UA Little Rock MidSOUTH, about the book, which came out in May on Write Bloody Publishing. 

You spent 10 years teaching high school English in Arkansas’s public schools, and I take it from the poem “Things That Could Be (Said About Both Divorce and Leaving Teaching)” that you no longer teach. Is your poem “Interview With a Teacher in a Pandemic” a good clue as to why you left the classroom? 

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There are many reasons why I left teaching, which can mostly be summed up by saying it took too much from me. The pandemic and hateful legislation played a big part, but teachers are expected to perform a level of martyrdom that, for me, became unsustainable. I had nothing left at the end of each day. I couldn’t support students the way I wanted to and find a balance in my own life at the same time, at least not without feeling a lot of guilt. 

I loved what you had to say about teaching in your poems about the classroom — “On Being a Closeted Teacher” and “Are You Gay?” I have to admit when I read the line “It’s reading the news of a teacher being fired after showing her class a picture of her wife,” I couldn’t help but think of Tippi McCullough, who was fired in 2013 from Mount St. Mary Academy not for anything she shared in the classroom, but simply because school officials found out that she had married a woman. How did you decide what to disclose and what not to in the classroom? 

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I actually have a line that directly references Tippi in [the poem called “GSA”]: “The day a student asked me in the middle of class if I was gay I said yes, even though a teacher at a nearby school was fired for being a bride with another bride …”) Before I came out as a teacher, I spoke with Tippi and she gave me some advice and support. As a teacher, it felt very important to me to normalize the fact that I had a wife. … And honestly, it became so much easier once I was married. Because that’s a world that everybody understands. Like, you talk about your spouse as a teacher. 

And I think the thing I always wrestled with is how much the standards that teachers are held to is so different. Being a teacher is always being on a stage, so there were definitely times I was going through things and I had to paste a smile on my face and pretend I wasn’t. I’m confident every teacher has done that at some point and can relate. Looking back now, I wonder if there was more room for being a bit more honest with my students on those tough days, for showing that I was human, too. 

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MARRIAGE, MOTHERHOOD, MARTYRDOM: Poet Caroline Earleywine’s latest plumbs the intricacies of family dysfunction, womanhood and life as a queer educator.

Like so many in the book, the poem that opens the book is sort of a punch in the gut, ending (spoiler alert) with your mom carrying the burden of her broken marriage like “a bloody silence in her mouth.” How do you think about rhythm when you write a poem? Like when to drop particular little breadcrumbs? When to drop the bomb and walk away? 

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One of my favorite analogies about poems is that they are a window into a house. A viewer from the outside can’t see the whole interior of the house from that window, but there are snippets and pieces. I think about my job being to make each poem a good view that is still able to intrigue and suggest, and not to bog it down with too many details that give too much away or distract from the larger impression I’m trying to give. So I guess my answer would be, I walk away when I feel like I’ve achieved that balance. I enjoy poetry because I like working in the compact space of a poem, though the challenge is: Every word and punctuation mark and space on the page has to serve a purpose. 

I love that you use the poem title “How She Loved Us” and then repeat the title later on in a different way. Like many parts in the book, the poem asks us to examine what we mean when we say womanhood, or when we say motherhood. Or when we think the two are synonymous. Or when we think the two are synonymous with sacrifice and silence! What, if anything, do you think is something you’ve learned in childhood about being a woman, and then had to unlearn?

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I think what took me a minute to unlearn is the path that I saw available to women — going to college, immediately getting a stable job, marrying a man and then having children. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing these things, but when they are done as a reflex because you are “supposed” to, it means you don’t really get a chance to explore who you truly are and what it is you actually want. I feel like discovering I was queer led to me unpeeling all of these layers and paths one by one. It made me question the career I’d chosen and my wish to have children, to really interrogate if that’s what I wanted. Same with religion. Growing up where I did, it was a given that Christianity was the only way to be a good person. That’s not specific to womanhood, but I do think that something I internalized was that as a woman, it was important to be “good” in a very specific way. I also feel like I’ve had to unlearn excusing or ignoring men’s bad behavior. 

I think our culture conditions women to be uncomfortable and to perform martyrdom. You’re expected to go above and beyond. You’re expected to sacrifice your well-being for the sake of your students. I think why I stayed in teaching so long when it got bad for me was because I still had this lingering feeling that it was my duty to handle it. 

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I also internalized that women shouldn’t take up too much space, both physically and emotionally. Not ruffling any feathers — and politeness — is expected. I feel like this one is deeply embedded, and I’m constantly working to unlearn it. 

Jenn Terrell Photography
Caroline Earleywine

One of the best compliments I can give to this book is that it made me feel like I know you, even though I don’t. You hint at this in “Golden Shovel in Which I Question the Integrity of Writing About My Family.” Can you talk about how you think about privacy when you’re writing on such a personal level? 

I think for me, I’ve felt much more pain and discomfort from truths that I haven’t disclosed than for truths that I have. I feel best when everything is on the table, when I don’t feel like I have to hide anything. That felt particularly important in writing this book. It’s possible there may come a time when I want to keep more private and for myself in the future. 

Of course, inevitably my truths intersect with my loved ones. I do keep things private if they involve someone I love and it is something they are not comfortable with me disclosing. I think being a person who is a documentor and witness of my life along with those close to me puts people in my life in an interesting and sometimes vulnerable position, and I always want to be sensitive to that. I have many discussions with loved ones about what they are comfortable with me disclosing and what they would prefer I didn’t, and I always want to keep that as my highest priority. 

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I think it all comes down to [the question]: Is there a significant purpose to sharing this particular truth? If there is, and everyone is on the same page about it, I find everyone is a lot more comfortable with it being shared. 

Hear Caroline Earleywine read work from “I Now Pronounce You” at Bookish in Fort Smith’s Bakery District at 6 p.m. Friday, June 7; or at Paper Hearts Bookstore in Little Rock’s Pettaway District at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 14.  

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