Sharon McCartney is the author of Villa Negativa (2021, Biblioasis), Metanoia (2016, Biblioasis), Hard Ass (2013, Palimpsest), 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). She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
In practical terms, my first book did not change my life in the least. At that point, I had three children under the age of 10 and three part-time jobs. At the University of Victoria, I had a .75 appointment as a co-op coordinator and a .5 appointment as an instructor in the law faculty, so I was the equivalent of 1.25 people. As well, I was a member of a federal administrative tribunal, which sat for approximately six days each month. It was a busy time. Brian Kaufman and Anvil Press hosted a launch for the book in Vancouver in the first week of January 2000. I stayed overnight at the Sylvia and saw a few people. That was fun, and then I went home to Victoria and got back to work.
In creative terms, that book changed everything for me. I grew up in a very patriarchal, misogynistic world. I believed what I had been told about the value of women’s work and voices, which was that they were nothing compared to the work and voices of men. White men, of course. When my third son was born, in my third c-section in four years, I hemorrhaged on the operating room table. I thought that I was going to die. But I didn’t, and when I recovered, I found myself writing poems about childbirth. The urgency of speaking about that experience, of understanding it, overwhelmed my early indoctrination. Publishing those poems in Under the Abdominal Wall with Anvil Press (thank you Brian) meant so much to me. It was me saying I’m here, and I matter and what happened to me matters. That formed the basis of all my subsequent work.
My recent work is completely different from my earlier books. I am no longer capable of writing those one-page set pieces that I used to write. I don’t know why. They just seem so artificial. So contrived. All I want now is to say what I want to say. I don’t care whether or not it seems like poetry. I called my most recent book a memoir in verse. It’s ironic, of course. The writing bears no resemblance to verse. A recent reviewer missed that joke. Perhaps it was too subtle. But it makes me laugh.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I recall writing poetry as far back as elementary school. I was a lonely child who loved to read so writing came naturally, but it was always short pieces – poetry, rather than prose. I’m not a very patient person (at all). Prose requires patience. I just want to get the thing done and move on. I want the pay off more quickly than is possible with prose.
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 always have a manuscript on the go. I add bits and pieces to it gradually. Sometimes a lot at once and sometimes nothing for months. Revision is a constant, ongoing process. Finding more interesting words. Moving lines around. That’s the fun part.
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?
All I need is one line to get going. For my current manuscript, it was something that a boy said years ago in Iowa City, when I walked past him at a 7-11. He looked at me and said, “Hey trouble.” I was secretly pleased to be flirted with, but I kept going. I think I was kind of a prude. That line stuck with me though – how we are attracted to trouble. To trials and tribulations.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are so much fun – sometimes too much fun. The last poem in my book Hard Ass is titled “On Getting Drunk and Passing Out at My Own Book Launch.” I laugh, but, of course, it’s not funny.
I really do enjoy readings though. The poetry world in Canada is such a small community that readings are more like gatherings of friends than performances. If I get a laugh or two out of the crowd, I’m happy. And then we all hang out together and talk about everything except poetry. Or, at least, we used to in the pre-COVID world. I hope that we can get back to that somehow, some day.
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?
The question I am always trying to answer with my work is simply this: who and what am I?
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?
The arts are how we connect. Money and the world of commerce pulls us apart. Art shows us what we share. I have no opinion as to what the role of the writer should be. My writing is only political in the sense that I am trying to convey what it means for me to be human and flawed and to be in this world and keep going no matter what.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have had excellent editors over the years, and I am enormously grateful for good editorial advice. What a luxury it is to have someone pay close attention to your work – someone whose purpose in reading your work is only to make it better. I love to be challenged by an editor, and I am able to say no when I need to. That’s such an important part of the editorial process.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In his 2004 TS Eliot lecture, Don Paterson says that the greatest risk that a writer can take is clarity. Saying what you mean and being willing to be understood. That is what directs all of my writing.
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 a morning writer. I get up usually around 5 a.m., when the world is quiet. I drink blessed glorious coffee. Sometimes I write, sometimes I just play Solitaire on my phone. All good.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Getting stuck is a failure of nerve. Nerve rejuvenators include Louise Glück, Charlie Smith, Sharon Olds, Franz Wright, Paterson, Four Quartets, Ai, Peter Everwine, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Jen Currin, Larry Levis, “The Glass Essay.” Kathryn Mockler’s Onion Man. Robert Frost’s “Directive.” Even prose works – Barry Hannah’s “Testimony of Pilot” from Airships has the best last line ever. Never fails.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Mostly car exhaust. My early years were spent in a typical suburban tract home. There was an attached garage, and the family car was an enormous Chevrolet Kingswood Estate station wagon. When my mother pulled the car into the garage, the sweet odor of exhaust permeated the house. In my bedroom, that aroma told me that my mother was home. If she had been at the grocery store, there was likely a treat for me – Oreos or Hershey’s kisses or something like that. I have only good associations with the smell of car exhaust.
There’s also the smell of salt air and palm trees that hits you at a certain point when the aircraft descends into Lindbergh Field in the San Diego harbour. That’s the smell of home for me as well.
And Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder. That’s the scent of my long-gone beloved mother. They don’t make it any more, but I can still smell it.
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?
As a dog owner, I do a lot of walking. I don’t listen to music while I walk or look at my phone. I pay attention to the dog and the natural world and lines come to me. That happens whether we’re on city streets or in the woods. In Fredericton, the dog and I walked often along the Wolastoq river. Fredericton has a wonderful system of trails that are usually almost entirely people-free. I learned that the river is different every day, even in the winter when it’s frozen. The river didn’t necessarily make its way into my poetry, but those walks helped me to think and allowed lines to come to me. Now that I live in Victoria, the dog is very old and can’t walk as far or as fast. We do make it fairly regularly to the off-leash dog park on Dallas Road though. There, I let the dog take his time sniffing weeds and grass and other dog’s butts, and I enjoy the view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympics across the strait and the sun on my face. And lines often come to me.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writers who are important to me for my work are those who stake out their own territory, who write like no one else. Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” was revelatory, the first time I read it, and changed the way I wrote. She just says what she wants to say and she doesn’t give a shit about us. That’s permission to do the same, if you need permission, which I did. Knausgaard is another one. That complete focus on the self – that is what carries you out of the self. And Franz Wright for his simplicity, his directness, how he is able to transmute pain into beauty.
There are a few books that are very important to me outside of my work. One is Anthony de Mello’s The Way to Love. He says, “Imagine that they are all dead. Imagine that everyone you love is dead.” His point is that you’re still the same person and you still love those people. Death doesn’t kill love. That’s why grasping and control and possession and jealousy have nothing to do with love. Love is not corporeality; it’s freedom. I learned from Anthony de Mello that when I’m feeling something like jealousy or abandonment, what I’m feeling has nothing to do with love. When you love a person, you want what is best for that person, how they would define it. Not how you would define it.
The other book is Erwin Schrödinger’s My View of the World. What a marvellous book! He says we’re all one, and I believe him. He says that we are all one consciousness. He points out that you can never add one consciousness to another. You can’t pile up consciousnesses or split one or subtract one from another. That’s because there is always and ever only one. Goddamn.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would love to work with a Jungian psychoanalyst. As long as it takes. I would like to get past my limitations as a person. Despite my age and experience, I still get tripped up by anger, anxiety, fear of authority figures, resentment, envy and all kinds of negativity. The black dog dogs me. What would life be like without those heart-constricting episodes? I would love to work with someone who could help me to understand who and what I am and how to be consistently generous with all people and all things. Unfortunately, this kind of therapy is a luxury item. It costs a lot of money that I don’t have.
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?
If I’m being realistic, I think that I should have been a librarian – perhaps a law librarian because I do really enjoy legal research. As well, I’m a helper, rather than a leader. I enjoy finding information for people, solving puzzles, anything that involves that kind of analysis and resolution.
If I’m being utterly unrealistic and entirely romantic, I think that I should have been a jockey. I’m too tall though and weigh too much. As athletes, jockeys have to be both light and strong. I grew up near the Del Mar racetrack in California and used to watch the races regularly. My first crush was a jockey. I know that it’s a cruel sport and the horses suffer greatly, but their beauty and power is so alluring. I will never forget watching Secretariat win the Belmont in 1973. My sister Stephanie and I watched it live on TV. He was all alone at the finish line, airborne – as if he was another creature entirely from the rest of the pack doddering along over 30 lengths behind him. I get chills thinking about it. I rode a lot and had a horse of my own, a steady old trail horse, for a brief period when I was teenager. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to balance astride a galloping horse – to know that joy and power and freedom.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Because I was praised for doing it. I was a decent writer early on mostly because I read so much. My parents were good people but both were very emotionally remote and quite busy. I had a privileged childhood in terms of material resources, but I didn’t get a lot of attention or praise. The focus in my childhood home was, naturally, on my oldest sister who was very ill for many years and died when I was 20. Teachers praised me for my writing. That felt like love. It’s as simple as that. When my high school English teacher, a lifelong friend, died in January 2020, I felt that I had lost my real father.
But I read so much when I was young because I loved what good writing does – I loved the connection that I felt with the author of any book that moved me and I loved learning about other people’s lives, other worlds. So while praise helped me down that road, my curiosity and the connection is what kept me going and keeps me going now. I’m very much alone and always will be, but I’m never lonely. I have my manuscript or other people’s books to go to and that is like having one long conversation with the world. It’s company and solace and exploration and growth.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was the last truly great book I read. This was a few years ago. It grabbed me and changed me the way Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance grabbed me. I felt like a different person at the end, like I had been through something both grand and horrifying with people whom I loved.
I think that the last truly great file I watched was the Danish TV series, The Bridge. It’s spooky and dark and beautiful. Saga is a weird, haunting heroine for the ages. I loved her. I’m also really enjoying Mare of Easttown. Very dark as well. And Kate Winslet’s anti-unattainable beauty standards campaign is much to be admired.
19 - What are you currently working on?
My current manuscript is titled “Hey Trouble.” A few excerpts have been published (Thanks Fiddlehead and the Karen Schindler-edited G U E S T!), but it will be another long piece, a book-length poem, if it is ever published in book form.