Thursday, December 22, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Marilyn McCabe

Marilyn McCabe’s latest book of poems, Glass Factory, was published by The Word Works in Spring 2016. Her poem “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” was awarded A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize. Her book of poetry Perpetual Motion was published by The Word Works in 2012 as the winner of the Hilary Tham Capitol Collection contest. A grant from the New York State Council on the Arts resulted in videopoem "At Freeman's Farm," which was published on The Continental Review and Motion Poems. She blogs about writing and reading at

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first full length book of poems came about because I won a contest. Yes, a small, very very small contest...but still. It meant that someone who did not know me or my work was drawn to it enough to say "this stayed with me." I feel a bit pathetic to need that external validation, but there it is. I had my Sally Field "you like me" moment and could, at least momentarily, move forward.

My work feels different now because I am different, in all kinds of ways. I hope I'm writing different work -- more ambitious, more imaginative, more mature both emotionally and craft-ly. Current work is similar to the older work in its groundedness in the natural world, inclusion of subtle humor here and there, and my ongoing love affair with language. I just hope I'm reaching farther.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to fiction first, actually, but was lousy at plot. Tried essay but never really figured out what I was trying to do. Came to poetry last, not as a last resort, but as something else to try my hand at. My hand is still moving.

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?
I write quickly, edit along the way, and throw a shitload of poem attempts away.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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?
Any time I've tried to work in "project" format, I've written endless crap. I just miswrote "carp" but it amounts to the same thing. So I write a poem at a time, then periodically look up to see if I've got something that looks manuscripty. Fish by fish, as it were.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. I love practicing for readings. I love organizing my poems for a kind of arc in a reading. It's performance, and I'm a performer.

I recorded myself reading some poems and put them on my blogsite, because so many people have said they "get" my poems better when they hear me read them. Whatever that means.

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 always approaching the consideration of what it means to be a human living on this planet amid other infuriating humans, as well as flora and fauna, rock and sea. I'm always approaching the consideration of the question "what the hell?" in all its forms.

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?
Whistling in the dark.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have been lucky to have worked so far in my two books with only one, gentle editor, with whom I've enjoyed some good wrangles over commas and dashes.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Allow yourself to make crap. Or carp.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It's been terribly hard to move between genres, as I think each requires something different of me. I'm now doing multimedia work, which has its own set of appeals, challenges, pitfalls. I'm suspicious of image and sound as it works with text, but can't seem to not mess around with it.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Ugh, I hate that question because it throws me into paroxysms of guilt over my laziness. A typical day begins with some exercise and coffee. I might write in my journal, which is where all my poetry starts. Or I might stare out the window. After that, chaos. Actually I have one ritual act I've been doing every week for a few years -- each Monday I post on my blog a brief meditation on writing or reading. That has given me deep pleasure.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I am lucky enough to live not very far from MASSMoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. I go there a few times a year to get my mind blown. I also read widely in nonfiction -- science, essay, art history, biography. Reading poetry inspires me often too. Nothing makes me happier when mid-someone-else's-poem, I have to get up and write something in my journal because I was inspired by something that poet was up to.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Oh, home. Well, that's a project. I'm not sure what home means. It's an ongoing question in my mind. I grew up in rental apartments, never owned my own house, now live in a house my husband bought with his first wife. So home for me through my life has been more something I carry around with me rather than one place. I like the question though, but it's a bit too romantic for my reality. Aroma is the quickest route to memory, but memory...well, that's a funny place.

14 - 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?
As I mentioned, contemporary art, science. I also love modern dance, and can come away from a performance feeling expanded in my imagination.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Oh, I'm a reading whore. I love the one I'm with, unless I've gotten up and walked away.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to score a poem for choral presentation.

17 - 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?
I wanted to be a research scientist of some sort. Then I took Bio 101 in college. Things went downhill from there. I also wanted to be a detective. I think poetry actually makes use of that research/snoop impulse. I have done many things in addition to being a writer and continue to do so. Poetry don't pay the rent.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I've always been a reader, and have always loved words. So one day, seeking some way to maintain my sanity, I thought, well...see above my attachment to the phrase "what the hell."

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I'm reading Ocean Vuong's book Night Sky with Exit Wounds right now, and it's fabulous. See above re: loving the one I'm with.

I just rererewatched Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. I freaking love that movie.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm working on keeping panic and despair at bay, living in the present, and staying in a creative headspace for longer than two seconds at a time.

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