Julia McCarthy is originally from Toronto, ON. She spent a decade living in the U.S., most notably in Alaska and Georgia. She also lived in Norway and spent significant time in South Africa before returning to Canada and settling in rural Nova Scotia where she worked as a potter to support her poetry habit.
She is the author of two previous poetry collections: Stormthrower, and Return from Erebus (Brick Books, London, ON 2010) the latter of which received the Canadian Authors Association Poetry Award. All the Names Between (Brick Books, 2017) is her third collection.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The poems in my first book opened me or perhaps they expressed an opening I hadn’t recognized until I was writing them. A first book is validating. My second book was a wider and deeper opening; it felt very different. It’s too soon for me to compare my third book to previous ones...in some ways I circle and spiral the same concerns aware that where I stand determines the view, and try to push language a little more out from centre...much the way a potter throws a pot: centring, opening, pulling up and out, shaping the emptiness, the silence.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think poetry came to me first; stories and essays don’t seem to come calling ‘write me, write me’. Perhaps I don’t experience the world as prose. Prose and poetry are still different languages to me though they can and do overlap. Poetry is our mother tongue. I resonate with Paul Celan’s notion of a poem as a homeland. Prose doesn’t seem to be the way I’m in the world, or the language in which the world speaks to me.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
The word ‘project’ is interesting....to put forth or throw forth, to plan, devise, something prominent. A poem, like a pot, is a throwing forth into the world. I consider the poem a vessel though a non-vitrified, permeable one, a shape or container for the uncontainable; not a still life but a meeting place; I try to be there. It’s often a very long meeting, months; sometimes the meeting is shorter, weeks or a few days. Sometimes nothing/no one else shows up. Every meeting is different. I use notes a lot of the time, it’s rare for a final version to resemble the first draft, I revise obsessively. I’m a slow writer.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Often it’s an image....what interests me about this is the preverbal quality of an image...the undersense(s) of it. And that an image is just there, in its entirety, its inexhaustibility; it has no beginning, middle or end, no narrative as such. An image is a metaphor without a referent. It leaves its scent. I follow my nose.
Other times it’s a line, a rhythm...a twitch of embodiment, a feather in the blood that I follow.
I’m a patient person, I wait for the book to reveal itself to me rather than impose myself on it.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are hard for me...I’m terrified of public speaking. I find it impossible to talk ‘about’ poems before reading them. And I’m surprised how often people will say afterward that they understood a poem better for having ‘heard’ it. This makes a weird sort of sense only if when people are reading poetry they aren’t able to hear it at the same time. We all know poetry’s origin is the oral/aural...so it might be that a public reading is a resuscitation of sorts, a raising again...which has more to do with the breath...
Of course, every time any one of us reads a poem privately is also this...I think I called it a séance in one of the poems in my new collection. I can’t say giving readings is part of my process. I fear that culturally, our aural sense is atrophying...while our oral one is flourishing.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m not sure what ‘theoretical’ means in this context..... I often feel my way through certain ideas in poetry, ‘idea’ in the Greek sense of a shape or perceptible form and the means by which we see. A kind of insighting. I am interested in and concerned with the line, the breath, and its music; the image uprooted from imagination, that animal mundi; metaphor.....the braiding of the visible and invisible through a poem. Language itself (how it simultaneously reveals and conceals, its ambiguity) and its relationship to experience, to how we see; being and nonbeing are preoccupations, which of course, imply time which brings us back to rhythm. Duality fascinates me. Every word contains a philosophy, even ‘and’ and ‘the.’ As a meeting place, I’m not sure the poem is interested in our answers or questions...just in us showing up, listening, labouring to bring it into being and witnessing the zinc-flash of its emergence.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’m sure I don’t know...nor would I presume to say what ‘the’ writer ought to see as their role.
Surely that’s as different as temperament, personality, character, or even mood? I’m very introverted so for me, reading and writing poetry is always a return to the real, whatever that is; a way of listening to what is often drowned out by the noise. For me it begins and ends with listening. More and more in this impoverished, increasingly disassociative culture, making metaphors and poems seems a guerilla act, a disobedience in the Disneyland of consumerism, the reductions of materialism and the cult of self (which seems to have culminated in ‘personal branding’) that so much of the collective culture seems to express.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Sometimes it’s a joy, sometimes difficult, sometimes joyfully difficult and always essential.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My favourite advice was indirect: “ “ ~Marcel Marceau
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Routines change as life changes. I prefer to work soon after waking up...that seems to eliminate a lot of the struggle for me as I’m more relaxed and fluid then, less compartmentalized. But I’ve worked whenever I could according to my circumstances. I’m not a morning person, well, not even a ‘day’ person really due to worsening photosensitivity so these days my ‘day’ doesn’t begin till afternoon and consists mostly of night, summer is an agony. Every ‘day’ starts with dog walking. I live in the backwoods of Nova Scotia so I never know what we’ll encounter: deer alive or dead, bald eagles, redtail hawks, owls, blue heron, porcupines, raccoons, groundhogs, weasels, rats, beaver, lynx, etc...we once stumbled on 9 dead star-nosed moles. I hadn’t known they lived here.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
To the same things I turn to when writing isn’t stalled: to reading, walking, listening, looking, and to making other things with my hands, to just being.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above. I try to not rule out anything. I’m reminded of Joseph Fasano’s comment: ‘Fragmentation and ellipticism may be aesthetic strategies, but resistance isn’t. All I want is to be opened.’ I also find working with my hands informative....I worked as a potter for over 15 years to support my poetry...and have learned a great deal about poetry from the alchemy of pottery, especially Raku firings. Any rhythmic, hands-on work is informative...I think it was Carl Jung who once said something to the effect of ‘your hands can solve a problem that your mind finds insoluble’ and I’ve found this to be true. My own work always feels like a small part of a conversation, a response to or recognition of the presences of land, the crowd of forms of life, poems, and other art forms...these things speak to us. It would be rude to not acknowledge them.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So very many, impossible to list them all...my interests are varied so I read works in different fields, philosophy/phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), psychology (Jung and James Hillman, Viktor Frankl); I read a lot about astronomy and cosmology, essays on poetics, one of my favourites remains ‘The Bow and the Lyre’ by Octavio Paz, such a learned and thoughtful collection of essays. Naturalist writings...Loren Eiseley in particular...and all manner of poems...Emily Dickinson, W.S Merwin and his translations, Charles Wright, Don Domanski, Tim Lilburn, Bly and his translations, John Haines, Wallace Stevens, Gwen MacEwen, so many more, French, Spanish, Russian, German poets...some classical Chinese poets, it’s a hopelessly wonderful never-ending list...lately I’ve been reading Joseph Fasano’s poems with admiration.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Answer this question.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
It seems writers and poets always have other occupations...I’ve made a living as a potter, which complemented my poetry practice, I’ve also worked as an editor, book seller etc. If poetry had never come into my life, I can’t imagine my life without it. Perhaps I’d have been a visual artist or wildlife writer or biologist, though having nearly flunked grade 13 biology, this might be a stretch, but we’re already in alternate worlds when speculating on the unlived life...so in a multiverse who knows? I may be doing these things and just not know it.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve no idea...I didn’t come from a literary household, I don’t recall being read to...the world seems so alive, and touching, the shiver of a connective tissue. I wanted to measure up, engage and respond. This might be just another way of saying writing poetry for me is simply a call and response. In this way, perhaps it is a religious activity in the broadest sense...etymologically the word ’religion’ means simply to ‘re-bind’, a ‘re-binding,’ so perhaps a re-binding of that connection, that silent conversation...more and more I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon of recognition....how it may and may not be a form of memory, so perhaps I started writing as a way to exercise this recognition of things...
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Hard to choose....Furor and Mystery (and other writings) by Rene Char. My favourite film for the last few years: The Fountain.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m always exhausted by finishing a book. So to step back into silence for a while seems a necessary part of the process. I’m a compulsive maker so am making wall mats out of recycled silk and wool, the language of colour and texture for a while...
Beautiful interview; has given me much to think about. I especially love the connections Julia makes between poetry, pottery, philosophy and the strange path of just being alive at all (e.g. nine dead star-nosed moles. What an image...). Every time I read (and re-read) her work I always discover something new to carry with me, and the most recent book is no exception. Thank you for sharing such insightful responses. Very enjoyable!
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