McCaela Prentice’s poetry has previously been featured in Ghost City Press, Lammergeier Magazine, and Hobart. Her first chapbook, Junk Drawer Heart, appeared recently with Invisible Hand Press. She is currently living and writing in New York with her betta fish Skeletor.
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook, Junk Drawer Heart, was published October of 2020 with Invisible Hand Press. It’s still very recent, but the response so far has been amazing. People from so many parts of my life have read the chapbook and reached out over these past couple of weeks. The first run sold out within a week. I didn’t realize how many people cared about my writing. The publication of this chapbook really forced me to revisit these poems (many of which are several years old) in a way I hadn't yet, and to consider my growth as both a writer and a person.
This is my first book, but the poems in many ways feel like they are from a past life. I knew the book was done when I didn’t recognize the speaker of the poems to be my current self. I have since written another collection that is less concerned with the past and more so with my anxieties of the future and aging. I’m excited to get that one into the world, but I am also wondering if maybe it is too soon.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I always loved to write- when I was younger I would write all kinds of things: stories, comic books, and songs. I have always loved a good story, and I have always been trying to find ways to tell them. For a lot of my life I thought the only way I could do that was through fiction. I wanted to write a novel! But I was just never happy with anything I wrote, and it felt like work instead of something I was actually enjoying. I got 60 pages into a novel and I wanted to burn it.
I didn’t really start writing poetry until college. I always loved to read it, but always fell short when I went to recreate it. I wanted what I wrote to have the same gravity, and it just didn’t. I was trying to write it in someone else’s voice. I like poetry because it doesn’t have to be linear, and my brain just doesn’t work that way. In poetry I can jump around. I can be in different times and in different places within just a line. But that all makes sense to me. I’m always in two places at once anyhow- out here in the world, and in some other time or place in my head probably. My poem “Junk Drawer Heart” which is the namesake of the chapbook is the first poem I felt really happy with, and it felt like what I had been trying to do all along.
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?
It definitely depends! Some poems I hash out in one sitting with very few edits, and others seem to take me forever. I feel like the first line or image comes quickly. Whether anything immediately follows it is really hit or miss. I’m always jotting things down in the notes app on my phone. A lot of my ideas come to me in transit, or on long walks and commutes. Some poems already seem to know what they want to be, and the rest I have to spend a lot more time with.
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?
A poem for me usually begins as a fragment- it begins as one line or image I can’t get out of my head. Sometimes that doesn’t become a poem for weeks or even months, but it’s what I end up building the rest of the poem around. Once I figure out what that fragment needs to become the rest comes quickly. In my poem “East End” the first line “I don’t drunk call you so I must not love” was on my mind all summer. I was like why am I with someone if they’re not the person I want to drunk call on my way home from the bar? That whole time in my life I was questioning what kind of person I wanted to be with, and what kind of person that made me. I guess a poem begins where I am stuck.
It’s funny because I feel like I end up writing the same poem over and over again until I’ve moved on whatever it is I was working/writing through. I’m definitely an author of short pieces that I eventually realize belong together as a larger project. There comes a point where I recognize that a handful of my pieces are moving in the same direction, and then I just have to continue on that path.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings aren’t a huge part of my creative process, but I do find them helpful. I hope to do more of them in the future. What I find most helpful about them is that you can gauge the response your work invokes on an audience, and it’s a good place to bring a draft or a piece you feel is really out there. I don’t know that it helps my writing process, but it definitely gives me a sense of if the poem has accomplished what I want it to.
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 think my work is how I try to answer the questions I have been asking of myself- or more often lately to identify what the question even is. I ask myself why I am hung up on particular moments of my life, and on specific details in those moments. A lot of my more recent poems are thematically concerned with greek myths, and why these stories still resonate. Why are we still telling and adapting them endlessly? I think that like poems they are a way to dissect the past and the self. I ask myself why I still think of one summer, of the myth of Persephone and Hades- why I keep listening to Frank Ocean’s Blond on loop. If things stay with us, it’s probably for a reason.
I think the current questions for me are these: What does it mean to survive something? What is it to love or be loved, and is it enough?
I’m basically just trying to make the past answer for itself, but I’ve been having to do most of the legwork.
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?
Writers are who we go to for the answers- that much I’m sure of. We see ourselves and our own struggles in stories, and so I think writers inevitably become people we expect truths from. I’m not sure what I feel the role of writer should be, or if it is fitting to say that writers must fulfill one. I do think writers have the unique ability to take an experience or a feeling and make it universal, and that our work does have the potential to make a meaningful impact. With that in mind, I want to keep looking for those truths and dissecting those questions unanswerable. We have to question things in order to move forward as a society, and so maybe in that way writers are beacons.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have found that feedback on my working titles, my organization, and my poetry itself to be really important. I feel for me it is essential to have another set of eyes on my work in some capacity. Publishing Junk Drawer Heart is the first time I’ve had the chance to work with an editor, and it’s been such a good experience overall. My editor James was really insightful, and his perspective was incredibly helpful when it came to the organization of the chapbook. Two of the poems “Put the Night On” and “The Girl at the Gas Station has Blood in Her Mouth” were initially at the end of the collection, but he suggested moving them to the first half. I can’t imagine it any other way now- it really pulled the book together to have the poems fall in the order they now appear.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
This is a tough one! I don’t even know if it was advice so much as it was just an observation, but either way I’ve been dwelling on it. I wrote a poem a while back about the movie Alien and how from that all of my fears of pregnancy are probably rooted. I was discussing after class what exactly this poem wanted to be, and as a result what those anxieties were. I have always adamantly said I don’t want to have kids because I don’t want to give up any of my own freedoms or accidentally do it with the wrong person if that makes sense. Like I don’t want to have kids with someone who doesn’t love the hell out of me, and I’m a little pessimistic on that front. So it does all stem from fear, but the alternative of not having kids also terrifies me. Both decisions seem so permanent, and I’m 24 right now so nothing feels like it could be possibly permanent. It’s hard to comprehend anything I do so severely altering my life.
The advice I was given was basically that I shouldn’t worry too much because I would overthink it either way.
And that’s true. It made me realize that I really am just the kind of person that will always wonder what if? That’s what so much of my poetry is asking. What if my future looks like this, what if I never get over my past, what if I made the wrong choice? It was that I’ll be asking myself these questions no matter what I choose to do, but it doesn’t mean I can’t ever be happy. Whatever it ends up being, the future is inevitable. I’m going to need to come to terms with the fact that I am always going to question things, even the good, so long as I’m a writer. I think that’s also one of my strengths as a writer, and it’s something I’ve been more self aware of now throughout my writing process.
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?
I’m messy. I don’t have a great writing routine in the sense that I’m pretty sporadic. I don’t get the chance to sit down and write consistently, and I don’t really make myself if I’m not feeling inspired. There are some weeks I don’t write at all, and others where I can’t keep myself from hopping on a google doc. It definitely comes in waves for me. I’ve learned to just take advantage of inspiration (however fleeting) when it presents itself.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing gets stalled, I try to replicate the feeling that inspired me to begin with. I try to revisit that thing to the best of my ability (we can’t time travel quite yet). I heard it put once that poets are in the business of catching ghosts, and I think that’s scary accurate. I’ll fall back into old habits, listen to music from the time I’m writing about- it’s a bit of an autopsy.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home is Maine for me, so the smell of pine trees definitely reminds me of that. It’s one of my favorite smells.
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?
I’m definitely influenced by other writers and by music. I’m really drawn to poets that can incorporate music into their work and use it as a framing device, or as something that echoes through it. Some of the first that come to mind are Hanif Abduraqib and Matt Mitchell. I listen to music a lot, and I absolutely need it as background noise when I’m sitting down to write. Lately it’s been a lot of Half Moon Run, Clairo, Bon Iver, and of course Frank Ocean.
Nobody is doing it like Frank Ocean. He writes about love as an absence and he does it so beautifully. I’m always trying to emulate that in my own work. I appreciate anything oddly specific to the effect of being haunting.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many writers are important to me, and I owe so much of my inspiration to other writers. I always ate up poetry, but Hanif Abdurraqib’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is the first time I read something and thought to myself “how do I do THAT”. He’s able to do so much with a moment.
One that has been on my mind heavy lately is Jamie Hood’s “each night i dream of rising waters &”. That poem gutted me.
I’ve also always been really intrigued by horror stories. I read a lot of Poe and Stephen King growing up. It’s probably why I write so much about what scares me. I think there’s a lot to be learned about ourselves from the things that keep us up at night. I also think the scariest things in the world aren’t that far fetched. That whole genre is where you can really explore taboos and what it means to be human. I really just like any story or media that scares me into thinking about what matters to me, and that dares me to live in the present for once.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I haven’t written reviews, but I think that would be kind of a cool thing to do. I’d love to spend some time with a chapbook and write about that experience/ the things I took away from the work as a whole. I learn so much about the kind of writer I want to be when I read the work of others I admire, and so maybe that is something I can explore in the future.
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?
In addition to writing, I also work in healthcare. I actually studied biology/public health in college. I think if I wasn’t writing I would still be working in the healthcare field. I hope in all of the other alternate timelines I’m still a writer in some capacity, but if it all goes to hell I would be down to be a cryptozoologist.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m not entirely sure. I’ve always spent a lot of time in my own head- I was always a ‘spacey’ kid and now a distracted adult. I’ve always been daydreaming and thinking up stories. I didn’t want to lose track of them or any of my ideas before I got distracted by the next, so I guess I started putting them in writing.
As I’ve grown older writing has really been a way for me to process things, to talk myself out of things, and still is in many ways a necessary distraction. I feel like I’m writing because I need to. I’m not sure what else in my life could for me what writing has.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I found it by a dumpster on my way home from a date. That book is gorgeous. It’s very dionysian. The last great film I saw would have to be The Neon Demon. I rewatched it recently and it just burns right into you. I’m a sucker for horror movies, and I especially appreciate the ones I can’t stop thinking about.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on editing a second chapbook manuscript called Ursa Major in the Mason Jar, and I’ve started writing poems that I think might become part of a third. My second chapbook in the works really focuses on my fascination with greek myths, and each poem in it deliberately has a nod to that. It’s a lot more concerned with mortality and all of the things that time takes than my first book, although it does feel in many ways like continuation of themes I explored in Junk Drawer Heart.