Pattie McCarthy's Mind at Work in a New Interview

By Harriet Staff


Philadelphia poet and 2011 Pew Fellow Pattie McCarthy was recently interviewed by Karen Rigby for Cerise Press; and interestingly, they look at the book "not as object, but also as a matter and manner of working." They go on:

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.

Rigby and McCarthy also get all Medieval:

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.

McCarthy is also the mother of three small boys. This comes into play:

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.

Read the full interview here.

Originally Published: November 9th, 2011