Pattie McCarthy is the author of six books of poems, including the very recent nulls (horse less press) and the forthcoming Quiet Book (Apogee Press, spring 2015). She teaches at Temple University.
A small selections poems from “wifthing” appears in the first issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Your poetry seems to favour the longer project, from chapbook-length to book-length works. What are the poems in the work-in-progress “wifthing” working with and towards, and how far do you think you are through?
A: I will try not to start this interview with a frustrating answer, but I find it frustrating & difficult to talk about works-in-progress. It’s a big failure on my part. It’s not superstition, or anything like that—it’s just my difficulty seeing the whole from inside something new. "wifthing" is working with the history of the wife. & it’s working through some historical texts that are relevant to the history of the wife—right now I am writing a sonnet sequence while reading The Book of Margery Kempe. The last time I read it, I was an undergraduate & I was certain that Margery Kempe’s mystical insistence on celibacy was simply an excuse for her desire not to have any more children (she had fourteen). But now that I am old (& a mother too), I read her Book quite differently. It’s so fun to revisit the important texts from one’s youth.
"wifthing" came from seeing the word in the OED. I can't recall what I was looking up—but I ended up at the definition of 'wifthing' & knew I wanted to write about it. I just wrote WIFTHING on an otherwise blank page in my notebook. This is how I started to write Marybones, too. I loved the word 'marybones' in Chaucer & made a note : write something called 'marybones' soon.
How far do I think I am through? The poem is a mess, & I am trying not to worry too much about that at the moment. I'd guess I have about one-quarter of it, at most.
Q: Is this a normal part of your process, working from a scattering of notes, research and pieces that eventually begin to cohere into a manuscript?
A: No, not at all. My projects are usually planned out in detail (maybe planned to a fault). The process might not be methodical, but the overall plan is clear. Not this time, though.
Q: Why is this project different? What about it makes it feels more, as you say, “a mess”?
A: In part the messiness is planned (ha! which makes it a foreseen mess). My two most recent books (nulls & Quiet Book) were both planned out in great detail ahead of time—in nulls, I sketched out the shape of the book during research, & in Quiet Book, the structure of the book was balanced very deliberately beforehand. Both of these books had surprises in them for me, of course, but the basic plan stood. I wrote those books simultaneously as well, which is unusual for me. They are twin sisters in many ways. So when I started “wifthing” I was ready for something different. The other part of the messiness is unplanned & not particularly generative—& that is simply that I don’t have much time.
I’m a worrier—but I’m trying not to worry about where the project is going. Marybones was originally supposed to be a ten-page section of Table Alphabetical of Hard Words, but I didn’t stop writing at ten pages. Marybones had no plan, no preordained structure, & it was a blast to write. I keep reminding myself that having no plan can work too.
When I started having children I was anxious over whether to write about them, about becoming a mommy-poet, etc. I soon realized that it was natural for them to be in the work—after all, I spend most of my time talking with them, reading to them, listening to them, playing with them. It would have been very difficult to keep them out of the work. I am attempting to think about this ‘messiness’ in the same way—every once in a while, the way one works changes, often to enormous effect. “wifthing,” if it is going to get written at all, is going to be written differently.
Q: You seem to have already answered my next question: you mentioned once that you started three different projects each with one hand, with an infant in the other. I’ve always admired the way you’ve always included your children in the conversation of your writing, and like that you are working to include the ‘messiness’ of domestic patter as well. Do you think this might change as your children age, and begin to gain awareness of how they are being depicted?
A. I think about this question all the time—how will the children feel about it? I don't think they will care much about a theoretical explanation : the child in the work isn’t “you” exactly, lovebug! That’s a literary construction.
I have a chapbook called ‘x y z &&’ coming out in the fall (Ahsahta Press)—it’s a sonnet sequence I wrote after my third child was born (I wrote a sonnet sequence after each child was born). One of the epigraphs is from Anselm Berrigan’s poem “Looking through a slant of light” : “Sending his mother to the typewriter / To type a poem that would embarrass him / Years later.” That's my preemptive action on this front.
There are things related to the children that I do not write about because they are invasions of privacy, sure. It was harder when they were infants/toddlers because it doesn’t seem as though they have privacy when they are so little – it doesn’t feel like I have privacy during that phase either.
Allison Cobb wrote a review of nulls in which she noted : “This work generates its own codes to shelter the world of the child, thrust under the gaze of medical authority. It is the parent who submits the child to this gaze—and to the gaze of the reader—but with a sense of profound ambiguity.” When I read Allison’s review I was so grateful— because this ambiguity (& ambivalence) is at the center of that book (for me, anyway). Nulls mostly came out of my process of learning about autism— it is most definitely not about the experience of being autistic, because I don't know what that is like— it's about learning a new language, a new history, a new culture. I thought there was a sliver of space in which I could write that book, & I hope I successfully maintained that position throughout. Do I think there are ethical & empathetic ways to include the words & experiences & worlds of our children in our work? Yes. Do I always succeed in being ethical & empathetic about it? No. I know I do not. But I hope I treat them as worthy collaborators always.
Obviously, I think they are brilliant & funny & clever—it would be impossible to resist them getting in the text.
Q: Your books are thick with medieval research, references, images and information. What originally prompted your interest in medieval subjects, and the possibilities of engaging with such in poetry?
A. I’ve been in love with the medieval for most of my life. This definitely has something to do with attending Catholic school—the art! The syntax of Catholicism, too, led me to studying the medieval. I think that most people are irrationally attracted to certain historical periods. The way medieval literature & art employ narrative—fragmented or episodic narrative, specifically—also the sense of simultaneity, layers of time in the work—it makes sense to me. On a more personal note, the lives of the saints were like fairytales for me. I mean, when I was a little Catholic schoolgirl we learned about all the girl-saints, about Mary—& those stories stuck to me. My school taught us a great deal about medieval women mystics, about Joan of Arc, about anchoresses in their cells, & it was very ‘cult of the virgin’ when it came to Mary (at least as far as I remember). Even as a child I think I understood that those stories all had to do with power, with women’s bodies, with literacy. I think the nuns taught us about the mystics to counteract “woman is a temple built over a sewer” & “woman is defective & misbegotten” & the rest of the church fathers (which I also remember well, clearly). When I walk into The Cloisters or the Musée de Cluny or the medieval galleries at any art museum, I want to sit down & think & be quiet. I feel that way in medieval churches as well—it’s what left of religion for me.
Q: I’m curious about your development into utilizing the book as your unit of composition (as opposed to the poem). How did this evolve? Who are your models?
A. I think the last time I wrote single, short poems (or ‘loosies,’ as I call them in my head) was in graduate school. bk of (h)rs was my first longpoem project, & since I was working from the form of medieval books of hours I had the overall structure of the book from very early on. It was such a pleasurable experience that I have (mostly) written book-length poems or series since. The booklength project is more accomodating of research—& when I wrote lots of prose poems, I was very happy with how many words could potentially fit in these long, wall-of-text poems. Probably the first ‘model’ for me, when I was a graduate student, was Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts—or really just Rachel, in general, as a poet with an intense work ethic. Long poems were in the air at Temple University then (seems like they still are now, in fact). I was reading Susan Howe for the first time—& her work is profoundly important to me, always—also Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Cole Swensen’s Noon & Oh, Anne Waldman’s Iovis—& then I worked backwards in time—Loy, Williams, H.D., Stein, etc.—because even though I was familiar with shorter work by these poets, I had not read many (if any) long poems before that time. The work I was reading raised important questions about the whole & the part, the role of the fragment, hybridity, research poetics, etc. The book is a manner of working, not just an object or product. The booklength poem is also time, a long time—you get to know a longpoem very well, whether you are reading or writing it.
Q: Given this engagement with the long and book-length poem, what is your relationship to the poetic fragment? Do your lyric fragments accumulate, or do they come together as a more sustained idea of book-length structure?
Once upon a time, I spent hours doing research, chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, working. Even then the poems were pretty fragmented on the sentence level. Writing now requires that I allow for interruptions— even when I am not actually writing in the presence of my children (which happens a lot), part of my brain is always occupied by them. So I learned a new way of writing. I imagine everyone must learn new work habits at different stages of their writing careers— this just happens to be mine. The hope is that the interruptions, the fragmentation, the abrupt on & off of it will be generative. I certainly have a greater appreciation for urgency in writing practice. Going back to your question about writing the children into poems, at first I wanted to resist this because (in part) I was thinking : who wants to read another mommy-poet? But honestly, I ask that question about a lot of my work— reading over pages of notes about the iconography of hair in medieval art, I wonder who else could possibly be interested in a poem made from this? I just finished reading Sasha Steensen's House of Deer, & in "Personal Poem Including Opium's History" she writes : "Or, instead, remember something Claudie once said: / Risk sentimentality or who will care about your damn poem?" Notions of risk shift. Back to fragments— if a poem shows us a mind at work, if a poem includes its process, then we must start at the fragment. To 'include' is to contain as part of the whole. The beauty of the fragment is that it is the whole & a part.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
Some of the poets mentioned above—Susan Howe, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, etc. Lorine Niedecker has become more important to me in recent years—in part from teaching her work, & from reading it as a whole, as a long project written over the course of an entire writing life. I am fortunate to live in Philadelphia, & so I turn to my fellow Philly poets to reenergize my own work—Jenn McCreary & I have a collaboration coming out this year from the Little Red Leave Textile Series, which I am super excited about. Kevin Varrone & I talk about writing all the time, & I am astonished by his work every time I read it. I just finished Frank Sherlock's new book & got a real charge from it. Also Ryan Eckes has a new one coming out this summer, which I've read in manuscript, that is so good I almost missed my train stop twice because I couldn't stop reading it. The community of poets in Philadelphia is an embarrassment of riches.
I am currently away on vacation & brought the following books : Julie Carr's RAG, Sasha Steensen's House of Deer, W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (I read it every summer), Susan Howe's The Europe of Trusts (which I also read about once a year), & Caroline Bergvall's Drift (which I haven't started yet—I think I'll wait until we reach the sea to begin). For wifthing I am reading several histories of domesticity, of goodwives, & of childhood in the middle ages.
Thank you so much for this, rob!