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.

Table Alphabetical of Hard Words

Table Alphabetical of Hard Words
BY Pattie McCarthy
(Apogee Press, 2010)


BY Pattie McCarthy
(Apogee Press, 2004)

Book of Hours

bk of (h)rs
BY Pattie McCarthy
(Apogee Press, 2002)

This way of working is striking, and for some readers, perhaps even antithetical or radical (especially in light of the contemporary rush toward a completed product)…

It doesn’t seem radical to me. It seems like most poets I know are working on long poems or projects. There may be people who don’t like or don’t use the word “project,” but I can’t see how poetry — individual poems or single long poems and everything in between — can not be a long-term task. I prefer to avoid rushing toward a completed project mainly because I am such a slow writer anyway. If the project is huge, and I know it will take me a year or two to write it, then a month of not writing or a stalled section or research that goes nowhere — these don’t seem like great tragedies in the larger scheme of a big project. The long haul is easier for me. The roomier a poem is, the better. How much can we fit in there? And for how long can we work on it? The more and the longer the better. Perhaps the long poem avoids anxiety about completion about the next project. Also, for me, research demands the long poem. It takes a long time for the project to become a product. Maybe that’s a good thing.

All three of your books reveal an affinity toward the prose poem. What attracts you to this form?

Oddly, margins draw me to the prose poem. While the margins or the white space are larger if one uses shorter lines and left justification, I just love the sharp and crisp margins around the prose poem. A self-sufficient square. The wall of text. I like the pleasure of fitting hundreds of words on one page. I like the cake-and-eat-it-too-ness of the prose poem — my prose poems do have line breaks (even though it would be easier to let the margins break the lines automatically, I can’t stop myself from “fixing” those breaks with intentional ones — and I have been trying to not do this, but it’s hard to be laissez-faire about it).

There’s the shape of the text and the space for marginalia. For me this is the ideal… What’s better than a big wall of text with room to write more?

I started writing prose poems with regularity in bk of (h)rs, and that had a lot to do with the ekphrastic nature of that book — the shape of the text in medieval manuscripts, in books of hours. There’s the shape of the text and the space for marginalia. For me this is the ideal. In “Seeing Reading: Susan Howe’s Moving Margins,” Cole Swensen writes about margins as an “assertion of potential” and “an invitation to the reader to respond to the book.” What’s better than a big wall of text with room to write more?

The visual aspect of poetry seems important to you; are there other visual arts that have influenced you?

Not really. I wish I had an interesting answer to this. I am just a sucker for medieval art, literature, architecture, and so on. For my current project, I tried (am trying still) so hard to have a wide range (in time, style) of art for the ekphrastic sections, but I have ended up mostly writing after medieval images. It must be as much an emotional connection as it is an intellectual or artistic one, otherwise I would be able to explain it

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.

You’ve mentioned the “interruptions and selvages of mothering.” Has your process of composing work changed significantly? Or your views on what poetry can change or accomplish?

Well, yes. The process of writing has changed in every possible way. As I mentioned, I write very slowly. There is a luxury to writing slowly. I no longer have that luxury — so I have tried to teach myself to work faster, with more urgency. But Woolf was right! (“That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”) I am interested in etymology and history, in how language changes through use, disuse, acquisition, fragmentation, amelioration and pejoration. To speak specifically and personally about it, after tbe birth of my daughter seven months ago, I have had almost no time in solitude. (Of course this means I’ve started researching the history of privacy.) While on maternity leave, I had my two older sons home with me as well. For approximately five months, I spent no time alone at all. I was never alone in our house. I was never alone at a coffeeshop. I don’t think I was ever alone in the car. It was a total lack of solitude and silence. This is a practical matter, not a philosophical one. But I am getting very interested in the juncture of practicality and philosophy. When I started to worry a little, it occurred to me that no one would suffer for lack of a poem by me for a year — and it will come back. There is no need to panic. And it did come back.

I’m reminded of that famous essay by Adrienne Rich — the one about writing “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” In it she writes about her work becoming more fragmented while raising her small children. I have found the opposite. I find myself more interested in narrative now that I have children and spend so much time telling stories and hearing them make up their own (of course, their stories are marvelously nonlinear and wandering). Having children has attuned me more intensely to how we use narrative in daily life and in writing. It has also broadened my interest in language. I am interested in etymology and history, in how language changes through use, disuse, acquisition, fragmentation, amelioration and pejoration. I’m equally interested in the great vowel shift of the fifteenth century and the “apex of babble” (Roman Jakobson) that precedes language in young toddlers. My views on what poetry can accomplish remain pretty much the same — I think mainly it can show us a mind at work. And that that is thrilling to see.

What are you working on now?

Next I hope to write more of my current project — in progress since June 2010. It is a booklength poem series titled Marybones, a hybrid-genre exploration of various historical, cultural, and fictional Marys, including the Virgin Mary, Mary Queen of Scots, Marys in the Salem Witch Trials, Typhoid Mary, and many lesser-known Marys, including those on the Mayflower and Titanic, those found in studies of American Colonial-era wet nurses, and elsewhere. The series is research-based and ekphrastic, investigating the representation of these various Marys in art, literature, history, folklore, children’s games, and elsewhere. Why Mary? Or, more accurately, why Marys?

Images of Mary formed a first consciousness of the representation and form given to women in art, and… gave me a shape of motherhood in art — the first representation of motherhood in art and the only one I would see for many years.

The first impulse to write this poem series came many years ago, while I was writing bk of (h)rs, which was structurally based on medieval books of hours. To look further back, I attended a Catholic girls’ school from the age of three until I graduated from high school at seventeen. Images of Mary are thus a kind of vernacular, visual language for me. Images of Mary formed a first consciousness of the representation and form given to women in art, and, more specifically, gave me a shape of motherhood in art — the first representation of motherhood in art and the only one I would see for many years. I’m really interested in the ubiquity of the name/word “Mary,” ubiquitous nearly to the point of simultaneously being a name and a mark of anonymity. The name becomes a palimpsest — each Mary writing over, revising, enlarging, and partly effacing the Mary who preceded her.

After Marybones I hope to work on a project called Nu&s — a long series of prose, prose poetry, and lyric interruptions, all of it research-based and focused on codes and cryptography, secret languages, untranslatable or lost languages, and the lives of people relevant to such languages — people as varied as Christopher Marlowe, the Rosenbergs, and the Voynich Study Groups (a collection of cryptanalysts and other intelligence workers in the 1940s and 1960s, who tried to crack the mysterious and unreadable Voynich manuscript), for example. I was working on Marybones and Nulls at the same time originally, but had to put Nulls aside because I cannot successfully work on two long projects at once (as I said before) and didn’t want them to merge.

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