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The Athletics of Poetry

Stephanie Yorke

An Interview with Sharon McCartney


Sharon McCartney is the author of For and Against (2010, Goose Lane Editions), The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2007, Nightwood Editions), Karenin Sings the Blues (2003, Goose Lane Editions), and Under the Abdominal Wall (1999, Anvil Press). The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Karenin Sings the Blues feature characters and objects from the Little House on the Prairie book series and from Anna Karenina, and they include monologues by objects, characters, and body parts from the novels. Her other poetry draws on subject matter ranging from one-night stands to divorce, Caesarean sections to body-building. With her unflinching eye and masterful yet never flamboyant command of language, McCartney consistently distinguishes herself from her literary contemporaries.

First of all, let’s clear something up: you’ve lived part of your life in America and part in Canada. Would you identify yourself with the Canadian or American poetry scene?

I remain American at heart, but I don’t think that I really identify myself with either poetry scene. I like to keep up, as much as possible, with what is going on in both Canada and the States. And the UK et cetera. There are so many different scenes on both sides of the border and the water! I don’t feel like I’m part of the Toronto poetry scene or the West Coast poets or Halifax, St John’s or whatever. So it’s hard to say that I feel aligned with either Canada or the US.

Poets who have influenced me and the ones that I go back to are mostly American: Robert Frost, Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, T. S. Eliot, Denis Johnson, Charlie Smith, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams. I’m having a fantastic time with Eliot’s Four Quartets right now. And he was more British than American in the end, wasn’t he?

What’s the longest you’ve ever worked on a single poem? What was the fastest poem you’ve ever finished?

Hmmm. There were poems in my first book that dated in earlier drafts to high school. That book was published in 1999 and I graduated from high school in 1977. But I wasn’t working on those poems all that time! I tend to work poems over quite a bit, so they might be in various drafts for three or four years. But I can’t think of a single one that took longer than all of the others. And then sometimes after they’re published, you still want to make changes.

Fastest? I don’t know. There’s never been one that’s been fast. No one-draft wonders. For me, fast would be several weeks to a draft that I could walk away from.

You’ve worked as a legal editor, and you’ve got a ‘hobby’ (or maybe, given how long you’ve stuck with it, a passion) for body-building and cross-training. Which has more in common with your writing life: your athletics or your professional experience?

Oh, definitely athletics. Legal editing is utterly analytical. Some of the cases were compelling and even entertaining, but no poetry ever arose out of a legal decision for me. It’s just what I do for money. Now I’m working as a parliamentary editor producing Hansard, which is the journal of the debates in the legislature. There will be no poetry coming out of that either, believe me.

Athletics is another story. In the gym, you’re constantly pushing yourself, wrestling with yourself. That’s what you have to do in poetry too. So the two have a lot in common! For me, poetry is pushing myself to go deeper into the important questions: who am I? Why am I here? What do I love? What does it mean to love? Where am I going? In the gym, I’m pushing myself to go deeper into my body, to ask myself what I can do and how far I can challenge myself. They feed each other.

Okay. This is an interview for the UK-based Oxonian Review, which means that our readership is probably more familiar with Anna Karenina than the Little House books–but that seems like it might be the reverse of what you’d encounter in North America (please correct me if I’m wrong). Did you find you had different reactions to the two collections? I imagine some readers might be prejudiced against the Anna Karenina poems because they reference so-called high literature or the Laura Ingalls poems because they reference children’s literature. Have you had different reactions to the two collections? (I think both are excellent, in case my question leaves that in doubt. I own both, and I’m a cheap-skate!)

There were very different reactions to the two books. People who liked Anna Karenina seemed to enjoy the poems. There was a positive review in a journal devoted to Russian literature—that made me happy!

I got one very negative reaction to a poem in the Little House series. There’s a poem in the voice of Pa’s penis. A woman commented on poetryreviews.ca, which had posted a review of the book, that I shouldn’t have written such an “awful” poem about Pa. She said it hurt her feelings. I’m sorry to have hurt her feelings but in a way, it was great to get a strong reaction to something that I had written. The Little House books are so beloved in the States, I knew that some people would be offended. I kind of liked that.

Have you ever had a pursuit or sport or hobby or other art form that fizzled out? What was the least gratifying activity you ever tried?

My mother loved music and painting and was very good at both. I enjoy listening to music very much but I was always too physically tentative at the piano or other instruments to really let it flow through me. I call that a very real lack of talent. Same thing with visual art. My sister was quite good with drawing and sculpture, but for me there was just no connection between my eyes and my hands. I couldn’t get what I saw onto paper in a way that made me happy. My attempts at visual art were just awkward and bad. I’ve also attempted fiction, now and then; never successfully.

One thing I really like about your poems is the breadth and variety of the subject matter. Is that intentional? Do you choose your subjects or do they choose you?

The subject matter is always myself, but the vehicles, for example Anna Karenina and the Little House books, are different and I choose those vehicles. When I wrote the Anna Karenina poems, I was in treatment for breast cancer. I was really worried about leaving three young boys motherless. I knew at heart that they would resent being abandoned by me, even if they knew it wasn’t something that I chose. I understand all difficult emotions through poetry so I wanted to write about that, but I couldn’t face it straight on. So I thought about Anna Karenina’s son, who is quite young when she kills herself. And I thought about how he might think about her and feel about her as an adult. That became the first poem in that series. Every one of those poems is really about my experience with breast cancer, but Anna Karenina provided a way of addressing that fear and despair without having to lie down underneath it and just give up.

After that book was published, I just wanted to repeat the experience of writing those poems because it was, really, believe it or not, so much fun. I truly enjoyed taking on other voices. I chose the Little House books, partly for mercenary reasons. I was hoping that there would be an audience beyond the poetry world for a book of poems using voices from those books. But I also just loved the books and using those characters as vehicles allowed me to inhabit the books for an extended period. I wrote much of that book at Banff in the Writing Studio. It was really fun to pack up my Little House books and live with them and in them at Banff for five weeks.

Some people–well, a lot of people–only read prose. Some people–albeit fewer–only read poetry. Do you think that’s all right? As a poet, do you think we can do without the novels? I mean, c’mon. Those things are LONG.

I think that you should read what keeps you compelled whether it’s fiction, poetry, or non-fiction. It’s all language after all. Here’s what I’m reading right now:

Marie Louise von Franz, Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology

Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life?

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

These books make me feel rich! Read what makes you feel abundance. Read what you can’t wait to get back to reading.

What is the worst obstacle you’ve ever faced in writing? Has there been a dry spell or a silent period in your writing life?

I had a five-year dry spell, from 1989 to 1994. I thought that I was done with poetry forever. In those years, I had three kids and got a law degree, so I was not just sitting around scratching myself, but it wasn’t just being busy. I was really tired of poetry and felt that it was doing nothing for me materially, spiritually or otherwise. I realise now that what I was tired of was my own approach to poetry. What brought me back to poetry was a complete about-face in what I considered subject matter. Before I had kids, I pooh-poohed so-called “female” poetry. You know, poems about kids and childbirth. Then I went through that experience three times. And the first poems that I wrote after that five year period were ALL about childbirth. There are a bunch of them in my first book. I haven’t had an extended dry spell since then.

What’s the worst–say, funny-bad–experience you’ve ever had giving a public poetry reading? If you could ask audiences not to do one thing at readings, what would it be?

I got heckled once. It was during a reading at the James Bay Inn, a pub in Victoria that used to have a really good reading series. There was a guy sitting at the bar who yelled out, “Ah get over it!” during my reading. I loved it. I got heckled! A badge of honour.

If someone asked you to recommend three underappreciated poetry books, what would they be? Who should be read more?

Charlie Smith, Before and After, Norton, USA, 1995. He’s a wonderful poet, brainy and full of love.

John Wall Barger, Pain-Proof Men, Palimpsest, Canada, 2009. One of my favourite books by a Canadian.

Robert Mezey, Evening Wind, Wesleyan, USA, 1988. He’s an irascible American, who is vastly and undeservedly overlooked. Evening Wind includes his series of Couplets and a laugh-out-loud selection of punnish poems. Very good.

I just noticed that these are all men. Yikes! The current political climate in the Canadian poetry world makes me fear that. Yet these are the books that come to mind. Forgive me, please.

Stephanie Yorke [1] is the author of the poetry collection Both Boys Climb Trees they Can’t Climb Down. She is reading for a D.Phil. in English Literature at Wolfson College, Oxford.