A Mind at Work: Philadelphia Poet Pattie McCarthy

Much of your work reveals a keen interest in medieval history and etymology, as well as an appreciation for the concrete detail and the “wondrous strange.” Do you think there may be something to that idea that poets may often be writing one poem and its variations…?

Yes! I am sure that I am writing one poem and its variations — I believe most poets are. And why not? To use the examples you cited, there’s a lot to medieval history and etymology — more than I could ever think about in detail in a writing lifetime, so I might as well keep thinking it over and over. The way one will approach the same area (say, medieval history) or even the same small detail (one painting or one word) will change over time and in new contexts. I love this idea.

How did you encounter a passion for medieval books of hours?

There are three main things that have always interested me about books of hours. 1) They were the first books that were widely owned privately. So they were domestic objects. Women were a particularly large part of the audience for whom books of hours were made (most of the images in books of hours seem to be of women as well, though I have never sought out an accounting). 2) They were objects for private devotion. I love this early gesture of reading and thinking as part of one’s privacy. 3) I like how books of hours manifest time — in the daily sense (the offices: matins, lauds, marking the times of day), the yearly sense (the calendars at the start of most books of hours), and the endless sense (this would have been the religious sense, that the timeliness of the books is forever). It was also interesting to me how many books of hours were made to be used in a particular place (for Paris use, for example), which put the time of that book in a specific geography. Oh, and lastly, many books of hours have excellent marginalia. Obviously I still find them pretty interesting. Of course, they are also beautiful.

There is density to your language, and a mystery to it that gathers clarity and rewards even more when read aloud. Is the music and breath of a poem instinctive? A conscious effort?

Thank you. This is a very nice thing to say to someone! The sound of a poem is a conscious effort — and I hope it is not too obviously conscious or forced. As an example, in the poem “wonder : a velocity of signs” it was more conscious than usual. At one point I took the poem out of its prose poem form, lining it out phrase by phrase, and tried to create balanced passages as well as really rushed or asymmetrical passages. I didn’t count lines or phrases — but I tried to take more notice in how much space was between like phrases or how long one accumulation/passage of related phrases would go on.

Having lived in Philadelphia for many years, have you noted a distinctive character to the poetry written there? Does the city continue to shape your work?

Plan of Philadelphia, 1867
BY Stephen Augustus Mitchell
PHOTO: Geographicus Fine Antique Maps

Philadelphia is an excellent poetry city. There are so many amazing poets here — a very incomplete list would go something like this: Jenn McCreary, Chris McCreary, Sarah Dowling, Frank Sherlock, CA Conrad, Jena Osman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ryan Eckes, the New Philadelphia Poets (does that make me an Old Philadelphia Poet? perhaps, but that’s okay) — everyone and everything that happens in and around the Creative Writing program at Temple and the Kelly Writers House at Penn, and so on. I’m not sure if there’s “a distinctive character” to the poetry written here — not in the way that people talk about the New York School, no, though I think people tend to talk about the New York School as monolithic when it isn’t. There’s something sort of scrappy about Philadelphia poets and poetry — not in the sense of being disorganized or incomplete, but rather in the sense of being determined or pugnacious, scrappy in a dead-sexy way.

There’s a lot of love. The city itself definitely shapes my work. I absolutely love living here. It’s such a walkable city. It is genuinely fascinating in an historical way — and isn’t terribly twee about its history. It’s a great time to be a poet in Philadelphia — I don’t want to sound excessively cheerleader-like about it, but I’ve lived here (this time) for seven years and feel truly like part of an extended family of Philly poets. Friends and friendship are the main way the city shapes my work.

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