Pattie McCarthy is the author of six books and over a dozen chapbooks. Her newest book, Quiet Book (Apogee), explores intersectionality as a state of being. In this interview, McCarthy speaks on poetry and motherhood, the public and the private self, the realities of her writing practice, and on the feminist politics at play in teaching, thinking, and composing. Quiet Book is due out in January.
Christy Davids: With such concision and frustrating—yet non-judgmental—honesty, you say “no subject offers / a greater opportunity for terrible / writing than motherhood.” Here is the embodied experience you were biologically built for, don’t write about it. Here is that which is life altering / body altering, don’t write about it. Here is the life of other lives and you, don’t write about it – and, in fact, be prepared to bear the consequences of being labeled a woman who writes about motherhood because there will be consequences. I wonder if this is a direct address to the readers, to the field; I wonder if it is a personal reminder and if that reminder comes with sadness or fury or triumph. Quiet Book (Apogee, January 2016) explores so beautifully the domestic: domestic labor, domestic lives fixed in paint, the day to day domesticities that are always occurring with so many other things so as never to be singular or definitive that I can’t help but wonder if this is a refusal—is it?
Pattie McCarthy: Yes. That particular line, “no subject offers / a greater opportunity for terrible / writing than motherhood,” is from a New York Times book review of Anne Enright’s Making Babies, and that sentence was only half joking in the context of the review. So, on the one hand the reviewer was saying ‘This is the greatest subject for bad writing,’ but then the review goes on to talk about how Making Babies deals with just that. But—yes—your question addresses so very many anxieties of the poems in Quiet Book and a lot of what I’ve written since my first child was born. Everyone asked me, ‘Are you writing about the baby,’ and of course I was because—for me anyway—it was so all consuming that all I thought about was the baby, and all I would read about was how to keep the baby alive [laughs]—you know, all of these parenting books. But at the same time—yes, it’s exactly what you said—that then you’re a ‘mommy poet’ or that the work is not serious, and even that saying that no one admits to that some famous poet said: ‘It’s a shame about women poets because they have babies and then they never write anything interesting again.’
After my first son was born I wrote “spaltklang,” which is in Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (Apogee 2010), and the first time that I read “spaltklang” I said that—I said, “Well, now that I’ve had a baby, I’ll never write anything interesting again” and I read that series. When I was writing those poems I was saying to people when they were asking—because that’s the question people ask you, ‘Oh are you writing’—and I would say ‘Yes, but I am only writing these baby poems’ and that they’re somehow not serious. The series in Quiet Book “x y z &&” is the same kind of sonnets [as “spaltklang”]. I wrote them because it was hard to find time to write and also hard to find the space in my brain, so I would write these sonnets where the first and last line would be quotation and then I would write the middle. Usually the quotations would come from something I was teaching—because I was also teaching and had very young babies—and that was just the way I found to make it work—to make any kind of writing work. I absolutely was even a little bit embarrassed of those poems.
CD: Well, when you say that you’re writing these ‘baby poems,’ what would people say to you?
PM: Hold on [phone rings and she answers]. So, that’s classic—that was the nurse from my kids’ elementary school informing me that there was some kind of collision on the playground and my son has a busted lip.
CD: I don’t think the timing of that could have been more perfect
PM: No. No matter what you say, they call the mom’s phone number first. So—with Quiet Book and thinking about the domestic—the poems in “genre scenes,” I mean I didn’t know very much at all about seventieth century Dutch painting, but I was a little bit in love with the idea of writing about those paintings while I was writing these poems about being pregnant and giving birth and having a newborn. Genre paintings—you know in the ranking of the French Academy of Fine Arts—it’s the middling genre, right. It’s: history paintings, and portraiture, and then genre paintings and the domestic—and they are small and not serious. So there was something perhaps perversely attractive to me about these paintings of people plucking ducks and deboning fish and nursing babies, and doing all this work inside the house. While I was writing these poems, I kept thinking about how we are sort of instructed not to take that seriously—‘mommy poems.’
CD: Right, well I kept thinking about two things: one was at the end of what is probably one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time, “When We Dead Awaken” by Adrienne Rich, which has those beautiful poems at the end. She talks a little bit about having her first child and just writing in total fragments wherever she could, and how it was really scattered and what that experience was like for her.
PM: That’s about “Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law,” right?
CD: Yeah! And the second thing I thought about was this woman Deborah Copaken Kogan was a really well known photojournalist in the 1990’s. She wrote this book called Shutterbabe (Villard Books 2001), which I read and loved—and it’s a lot about, you know, being in this field that is super masculine and trying to figure it out. Then she starting writing more nonfiction that was more personal and about her role as lady in society that was less attached to something less “anomalous” than photojournalism—so she wrote a book called Hell is Other Parents (Hyperion 2009) about marriage and family. By that time she had kids—and the publisher wanted to give every book she put out a pink cover. She felt so pigeon-holed by this idea that ‘Well, now you write mom stuff, so we’re going to market it as mom stuff’—and that’s just so ridiculous.
PM: I was teaching Mina Loy’s “Parturition,” and a student in the class said that they weren’t into the poem because it was gory, which I think is funny because the pain of childbirth is really in the poem—but not the physicality. Like, there’s no blood or shit in the Loy. And I was like, “The gore of it?” I kept trying to pull it out of this student, and the student said, “Well, a poem like ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ is really gory, but it’s universal because it’s about war.” And I thought, well I don’t know if that makes sense because not everybody goes to war; this is actually not a universal experience, but everybody is born.
PM: But the way in which they approached Loy was really about seriousness, which is how people are taught to read and what they are taught to consider is ‘worthy’ of Literature and Literary Studies. I think about that a lot, and that only other women who have given birth or women who are mothers and raising small children would be interested in reading poems about giving birth or babies—that they would be the only people who could possibly be interested in reading about it.
CD: Right, and in some ways this is sort of an extension of how some people can’t / won’t / refuse to engage with Confessional poetry in any way, shape, or form.
CD: That it’s just an ‘icky’ label because it’s a ‘girl thing.’
PM: Yeah, that’s true. Despite Lowell, right?
CD: I mean, despite a lot of things.
PM: Yeah, I think that’s true, and I think that also brings up an interesting assumed connection between any writing about parenting and Confessionalism—as though the two have to be the same. I wouldn’t particularly think of myself as Confessional with a capital ‘C,’ but there is that assumed connection as well.
CD: Or that the experience woman to woman is the same—mother to mother, whatever, that those experiences are all completely transferable or the same, which is (again) ridiculous. All of this connects to my next question, which is that throughout Quiet Book there is a tension of twoness, a stress on simultaneity. You say, “each of us carries / around a set of shibboleths with totemic / reverence meanwhile we trample blithely on spells / & hexes we have never heard of” suggesting that our chosen practices come with an active rejection of others—that to abide by one thing is to condemn another. Then you say, “summer is both a noun & action”—the summer you write of is present and future, its “sky is divided into two windows,” its potatoes “au gratin & mashed next summer potatoes / two ways.” The three birth narratives in the book are mired in concurrent happenings—labor and coffee / labor and snow / labor and teaching. So I wonder if you could talk to that kind of simultaneity, how that works for you and how that works in this book.
PM: Well, I guess that it is supposed to work in a couple of different ways. One: there is a part of your brain—at least when you’re parenting very small children—that is always working on the questions ‘Where are they and what are they doing,’ and that eventually you learn how to have that part of your brain running in the back all the time while you’re doing something else. Part of that, too, is just necessity, right? I remember I had my second son and I went back to work—I was actually teaching a graduate workshop—when he was four weeks old, but I would arrange myself on the bed with all my stuff for workshop, nurse him to sleep and just kind of put him down next to me, and then pick up the books or the student poems I was working on so I could do it all at the same time—trying to figure out a way to physically do them all at the same time, but also mentally do them at the same time. Part of that just comes out of necessity if you want to do anything else—if you work, or even anything for pleasure that doesn’t involve the children, or write poems—how to do it at the same time. So that’s part of it, that need to figure out how to think about these different roles simultaneously. And going back to what we were talking about before the actual interview started, I was writing Quiet Book at the same time as I was writing another book, Nulls (Horse Less Press 2014), and trying to make those two books as different as possible—and very often working on them at the same time, in the same day, and needing to switch off from working on one book [Nulls] that sounded very different and used a lot of difficult material and to switch off to write in a different sound quality about totally different things. Working on them in the same day— and I’m not gifted with the ability to write two different projects at the same time, but I was just trying to work on both. So I think that is part of the—
CD: There’s that twoness to it.
PM: This desire to be able to think about two totally different projects at the same time.
CD: It’s interesting, too, because it’s something I kept coming back to while reading the book because simultaneity is a tension; it’s not like a Lean In ‘We can have it all!’—it’s a tension throughout the book that’s trying to be in the moment but also trying to plan ahead. I wouldn’t say that it’s stressful, but it’s this notable taut string throughout the piece.
PM: Right. There is a problem in Quiet Book that comes out of what I originally wanted Quiet Book to be about, which is privacy—I was originally going to write this whole book about privacy—and that I failed at writing a book about privacy proves that I have no privacy. But that was the original idea, and it evolved and became more about the domestic and the interior—that maybe that is a representation of privacy that may or may not exist, but this need to discover ways to work that do not involve privacy. Almost all of Quiet Book was written not in solitude; I probably wrote all of Quiet Book in rooms with other people, so my version of privacy while writing this book was going to the coffee shop, where of course there’s this comfortable anonymity to it—
CD: That’s not child hands being jammed in your pants—
PM: Exactly! But most of it was probably written in the same room with my children, so any quiet or any illusion of privacy in the book are just that, pure illusion. I think that part of that twoness or doubleness or simultaneity is also finding a space in your own head when there is no actual physical space where you are by yourself, and have this mythical quiet space where people are supposed to write—
CD: Right—the retreat—yeah
PM: The great irony of all of that, now, is that I never even attempt to work by myself; I’m always doing everything now around other people.
CD: Well, I saw that the other day—you were watching a soccer game on the computer while trying to—maybe—unsuccessfully compose a poem.
PM: That’s true! Yeah—so I don’t even try—there were people over my shoulder watching that soccer game on my laptop—
CD: So there were layers of claustrophobia we didn’t even know about!
PM: Absolutely! That you just sort of shape out some quiet space that only really exists in your mind to get the work done.
CD: Right! In the final section of the book, “genre scenes” you steadfastly pursue “the tension between domestic & public / around & around & around” through a series of thematically (and somewhat historically) related images of women and apples, and women and children, and women by windows preparing food / feeding children. Can you speak to your relationship to Ekphrasis? How your presentation of these “genre scenes” function narratively? Historically? Politically? We’ve kind of gotten to some of this in terms of domesticity, but I feel like with any kind of project that’s using artwork as a touchstone in some capacity, the work opens up to all these big conversations, too.
PM: I love Ekphrastic writing. I love reading it, and I really love doing it. In part, that might be because it both gets me out of my own head and it is a place to begin for me, very often, when I don’t have a lot of time to find a place to begin. The difference now in my writing practice is that I have an hour right now between classes—‘Let’s get something done.’ As opposed to ten or fifteen years ago I would have an entire day and read and think about it, and smoke a lot of cigarettes, and walk around, and get a line out of it. Well, I’m never going to find that kind of time, so I have had to completely change how I write in every practical sense anyway. And Ekphrastic poems really work for that, and also that they just get me out of my own head—
CD: Which is huge, right?
PM: It is, it’s really big. And I love looking at art—I can’t make it, I can’t make it at all, but—
CD: I know—I love that part when you write, “it occurs / to me that I’ve never seen anyone paint in person & so / my images of what [it] must be like are romantic & static & never boring”
PM: I’ve never see someone painting, that’s true; I’ve seen, you know, film of Pollock or whatever, but I have never seen anyone paint in person and in that, specifically, I was writing about my friend—the painter Kate Kern Mundie—
CD: Who’s painting is on the cover of your book, right?
PM: Yeah—and there, specifically, I was thinking about how she makes self-portraits every New Years. And I was thinking about and looking at all of these self-portraits of her, but I’ve never actually seen someone make a painting, and I realize I romanticize that process in a way that I would find hilarious if someone romanticized the writing process—or at least my own writing process. I mean, I think that there are people who have really romantic writing practices. I hold this belief, this fantasy of that still. So I imagine that it’s never boring to paint, but of course it must be, right? It must be just as boring as writing is sometimes.
CD: Or arduous, or taxing, or whatever it might be—
PM: Right. So, I can look at these paintings and at that time I was looking at self-portraits and it never crossed my mind that that process could be boring, but it must be—at least sometimes.
CD: And it seems that is worth thinking about for a couple of reasons, one is that you could look at Quiet Book as a kind of self-portrait.
PM: I guess so!
CD: You could—because it is so deeply personal and transparently personal, too.
CD: And I just call them the “Birth Narratives,” but I love those poems because they manage this really interesting line of what it’s like to be a pregnant woman in public where your body is then a public entity, and then still dealing with these day to day things of like, ‘Well, I’m still hungry—I might be laboring, but I’m going to eat some pizza.’ So there is that whole element of self-portraiture throughout Quiet Book. And then there are the two self-portrait poems in “genre scenes” and they feel like a rupture in that section, right, in which all the other paintings are so exactly what you expect them to be like and their titles tell you, already, what they are going to look like.
PM: “A Woman Peeling Apples, with Small Child?”
CD: Right! And the “Woman Plucking a Duck” one is good, and “Woman Nursing an Infant with a Small Child Feeding a Dog”—and you look at the image after reading the title and you affirm, ‘yeah, mmhmm’
PM: ‘Yes, that’s a woman feeding a child and a dog! Yes!’
CD: But because the paintings you reference are of a specific genre, because they are of specific scenes, we have all of these inherited ideas of what that looks like and a total expectation built in. That when we get to the self-portraits it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ and it kind of pulls you out only to put your back into Quiet Book.
PM: Well, to go back to the “Birth Narratives,” those three poems, I wrote them based entirely on the facts of labor and birth that end up in the story you tell everyone later. So when someone says, ‘How was it? Tell me about having the baby—’ that those are the facts and the sensations and often the funny parts that make it into the story that you then tell people at parties. And I don’t know why those are the particular elements of the stories that make it through, but they are the ones that become your set piece. That’s why it’s structured with “line one,” “line two,” “line three,” enumerating all the parts of the birth story that make it into the public version or the kind of mythology of how you gave birth to this baby. Because you tell the same story over and over and over again, and there are expectations of the genre. You have to lighten it up—there has to be something funny in every birth story that you’re telling.
CD: Otherwise it’s just too much.
PM: Right, or something particularly gross. So in those poems, I wanted to try to shape the expectations into poems. They are the public birth stories that you create through many iterations to everybody you talk to—you tell the same story over and over and over again.
CD: And it’s also the guts of the poem—the form. Having the “line one” / “line two,” which are the guts of the sonnet—
PM: Like, “When is this poem going to be over?!” Well, you know because I’m telling you we are on line fourteen!
CD: There’s a predictable arc to the poems just as there is a predictable arc to the birth story.
PM: Yes! Exactly!
CD: That’s really great. Now, to come back out and think about the form you use—because when you read margerykempething (Furniture Press 2015) at the Charmed Instruments reading series, I was just drooling. It’s beautiful and it’s metered and the language choices are really interesting—and Andrew Dieck actually turned to me and said, “She’s doing so much stuff, there’s like syllabic counting happening,” and yeah, totally, it’s all there! So my last question is about that. Your poetry is deeply invested in sound, meter, and measure—and coupled with these conventions, you have a very specific poetics when it comes to space and the page. I wonder if you can you talk to this confluence of measure and sound and space a bit.
PM: So the sonnets Quiet Book are not really measured, although when I first wrote them they may have been. And, as I said, I wrote these sonnet sequences at the end of each of my three pregnancies and in the year and a half, usually, after my children were born. The form was really useful to me in that it was something I could make beforehand, but I wasn’t really worrying about measure in those poems much. In margerykempething, and in the other series I am writing for that particular book, I am actually counting measure—although they are not iambic pentameter, but I have been counting syllables, and I can’t believe that I would do that—thinking back to my undergraduate experience and that I would be assigned to write villanelles and Petrarchan sonnets and that it was agony. So I’m surprised that I’m doing it, but I do go back and disrupt that form after I have drafted the poems. In margerykempething I wanted to write a crown of sonnets. In a regular crown of sonnets it’s the last line of the sonnet that becomes the first line of the next one, and in a heroic crown of sonnets you then write a fifteenth sonnet that’s all the repeated lines, and I thought that seemed like an interesting thing to try and to see what would happen. So I changed it—it’s not the first and last lines—I changed the form to suit my own needs, and I wanted most of the repetition to happen in the middle of the sonnets instead of at the beginning and at the end. But I did write two heroic crowns of sonnets and then took them apart, and essentially used the measure and the form as a way of drafting them just as an experiment.
CD: I think there is something empowering about a form that you can plug stuff into, and distort, and manipulate. And it’s interesting, because while I was reading Quiet Book I was also re-reading Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic (New Star 1997)—and it was interesting to have these two things, which are wildly different projects, in my brain at the same time, and to notice how they are engaging meter in a way and then kind of messing it up. And this carries over to my inquiry about your use of space, I wonder about how the poems are read aloud—which, we will find out shortly—and how you treat space and how that has developed over your career as writer.
PM: I started using space on the page more with Quiet Book as punctuation, and also to allow for more wiggle room on the page than I have typically allowed myself—at least before Marybones (Apogee 2012), where I was much more interested in walls of text and as many words on the page as possible and no white space whenever I could do it—just filling the space with a lot of words and a lot of sound. So now, to try to leave some more space and room for the reader on the page both to do something different, but also because I wanted to start using space as punctuation, which is not something I had done for at least the first one hundred years of my writing.
I mean, the first twenty years. I both like and don’t like that the poems look like sonnets. There is something satisfying about it—that I like what a row of sonnets look like.
CD: Well, they are so pretty.
PM: Right, they are like this little string of boxes and they can be self-sufficient when you need them to be, but they can also be these little connected boxes. On the one hand, I loved that they looked so uniform and that there was this continuity from page to page of what they looked like, but at the same time they sounded really different to me and using space was a way to make them look different in the way that sounded different to me.
CD: So it’s interesting where that does and doesn’t translate to readers. And there is so much recourso throughout this book, which I love—like the “unutterable” and “girl can be a verb”—all of the different elements that repeat and repeat that become refrains that aren’t quite refrains because often they are some of the most fragmented—like the sonnets in a sequence, that they an stand on their own. Those little refrains can stand on their own as complete thoughts and they shift with every iteration they are put into. I kept thinking—and I don’t even know of this is something you connect to at all—but I kept thinking about two poets as I read this book, one was Gillian Conoley and the way that she uses space on the page and then I also thought a lot about Craig Dworkin because there is an interest here in slippery language and the closeness of language and then of course the way you are looking back and tracing language back—linguistically and historically.
PM: I am trying to think of who I was reading when I was writing this book. I learned a lot about space and the page from people like Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Cole Swensen. And as far as the sonnet goes, I teach Ted Berrigan’s sonnets almost every semester, so that’s my sonnet touchstone—the recursivity, the repetition of fragments.
CD: Space as punctuation makes a lot of sense and it makes sense in these poems of yours. So, when you read it, or you give a reading, are you obeying those spaces just as punctuation or are you giving them long pauses when you’re actually reading the spaces aloud?
PM: I wish that I was giving them long pauses. I love when I am listing to someone read and they allow for really long silences—even really awkward silences. I think that’s magnificent; I love it. I cannot do it. I think it’s my own anxiety and self doubt that propels me through things really fast. It’s possible I am trying to make them look that way on the page even though I will not be able to perform them in that way.
Christy Davids is a poet who often listens to the Beach Boys and thinks about great big trees. She recently completed her MFA at Temple University where she also teaches. Christy is an assistant editor at The Conversant, curates the Philadelphia-based reading series Charmed Instruments, and collects recordings at poetry//SOUNDS. Her chapbook Alphabet, Ontology was a finalist In Ahsahta’s 2015 chapbook contest; she has been published in VOLT, Open House, and A Few Lines magazine among others.
Pattie McCarthy is the author of five books from Apogee Press: Quiet Book (forthcoming January 2016), Marybones, Table Alphabetical of Hard Words, Verso, and bk of (h)rs, as well as Nulls (horse less press). She is also the author of over a dozen chapbooks, including margerykempething and x y z &&. She was a 2011 Pew Fellow in the Arts. In August 2013, McCarthy was an artist resident at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia. She teaches at Temple University.