A Mind at Work: Philadelphia Poet Pattie McCarthy

Pattie McCarthy

PATTIE MCCARTHY has authored three poetry collections published by Apogee Press: Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (2010), Verso (2004), and bk of h(rs) (2002), as well as L&O, forthcoming this year from Little Red Leaves Press. She received her MA in Creative Writing from Temple University, and has published in journals including Colorado Review, Dusie, EOAGH, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Kiosk, American Letters & Commentary, and ixnay magazine. McCarthy taught literature and creative writing at Queens College of the City University of New York, Loyola University Maryland, and Towson University. A 2011 Pew Fellow in the Arts, she currently teaches at Temple University and lives in South Philadelphia.

How do you see your own path toward writing?

I have always written. I mean, since I knew how to write, I have loved writing. I loved writing poems as a child. They were mostly about John Travolta, rainbows, and unicorns — sometimes all three of these subjects at once. I made mailboxes for every family member’s bedroom door, and would write poems and leave them in their mailboxes. An early childhood belief in a gift economy — before I became aware of how few people (perhaps) want a poem as a gift. My grandmother kept the poems I gave her and will occasionally give them back to me as part of the gift-wrapping on my Christmas present. They are terrifying and often illustrated.

For me it’s always the book — the book not only as an object, but also as a matter and a manner of working.

I think my work is evolving in two main ways: to accommodate the many unexpected interruptions and selvages of mothering three small children and to welcome a wider range of research matter while focusing more tightly on whichever subject is at hand.

The large canvas — the sequence, thinking in terms of collections versus single poems — intrigues you. What inspires you to immerse yourself in projects of this nature?

It’s true — I do prefer to think in terms of the long poem or long sequence. I do not work on several things at a time. When I’ve tried, one subsumed the other. Maybe it is because I have such a hard time with titles — this way, I only need one title for thirty or forty or more pages. That’s only a half-joke! The long poem has so many possibilities for hybrid-genre and hybrid-form play, allows room for research to expand and evolve — and allows for more of the process of research (the tangents of research as much as its goals) to become part of the poem itself.

Given the choice, I will usually pick a long poem to read as well. While I admire and love reading long poems that are multi-book poems (Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts, for example, or Kevin Varrone’s g-point almanac, for an example closer to home), I tend to think in terms of the book — the booklength poem as a unit of composition. For a smaller unit (for editing or organizing), I think in terms of the page (not the stanza or section). For me it’s always the book — the book not only as an object, but also as a matter and a manner of working.

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