A Conversation with Rose McLarney
On March 2, 2017, Rose McLarney visited ASU for a poetry reading and craft talk as part of the spring semester Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series. I spoke with Rose before her craft talk, which focused on writing about the same subject in different ways. We discussed the challenges of representing other animals in poems, writing poetry in our charged political climate, and editing literary journals.
Kathryn Kirkpatrick: So, Rose, when I went to get your books from the library, they were housed in the special collections of Appalachian Studies – the Appalachian Studies Collection.
Rose McLarney: That is very pleasing to hear.
KK: Tell me about why that’s pleasing and what it means to be an Appalachian poet, for you.
RM: Well, I like the idea that there is something in the poetry that speaks to literary readers. That’s my first goal. But then if there’s something of relevance and appeal to people with other aesthetics and interests as well, it makes me glad to have reach and to feel useful in that way. In terms of what makes me proud to be an Appalachian poet in general, it’s is an area with a fine literary tradition, fine history of the arts and crafts. To be called Appalachian helps me maintain my connection to the area that I love so much, even though I arguably don’t live in it anymore. There are some arguments that, biologically, where I’m living currently, in Alabama, has some Appalachian qualities though the landscape is very different to me as a place to inhabit. So to trace back to the mountains through poetry, perhaps in nuanced and complicated ways, is meaningful.
KK: I think they certainly do. How do you see your connections with other Appalachian writers? Do you feel like there are resonances?
RM: When I was beginning to write I very much did not want to write things about my rural background. That’s largely the youthful tendency to react against something — we all need something to react against, right? But probably I had read some sort of reductive, folksy takes on Appalachia too. Now I think I’ve moved past that. I don’t like to spend my time talking about what other writers shouldn’t do, or what writing isn’t good. I do have my preferences, but I’d rather talk about what I admire than pick at other people’s work.
KK: I think of Robert Morgan, as a poet, and I see some resonances there.
RM: So, I think my biggest influences have not been Appalachian writers. My biggest influences in terms of subject matter and inspiration have been Appalachian places. I have taken imagery from Appalachia, and certain styles of phrasing. In my first book, I was using a lot of the language that I heard other people speak, maybe more than my own voice. So, in that sense, the work is very Appalachian, but then, in terms of the style and the craft of the poems, I have tended to look to writers of other places.
KK: We were just talking about Paula Meehan, and she considers one of her mentors and influences Gary Snyder. For her, being called an Irish poet, or an Irish working-class poet, can seem to cut off the ways she’s connected to the current of world poetry. There is something about those kinds of categories that make them sound insular, or more insular than they are.
RM: Yes, I can connect that comment to my experience when my second book came out. The first section in that book is very Appalachian. It’s informed by folklore, but the middle section is set in Latin America, and the last section I completed while I was living in Oregon. So it’s not necessarily about the West Coast, but it is not as deeply Appalachian. It was interesting when I saw reviews of the second book. In many ways, they could’ve been reviews of the first book. I wondered, “Hmm, did anyone notice that whole part of the book that was in another country?” I don’t want to complain about reviewers who have been largely, and luckily, kind to me, but it was notable — I guess I got a sense of how some people may feel pigeon-holed by regional descriptions. In the end, though, for me, it’s kind of a boon, because I find that the most support that I get for my work comes (for instance, being invited to do readings) from people who are drawn to the regional aspect of my work. Regional poems, within their region, can get a larger audience, or reach their students better because we do have a place in common. So in some senses I’m very happy to be a regional poet.
As my career goes on, if it means that people are somehow disappointed in me if they pick up a book and I’m writing about where I live at that time which isn’t Appalachia, then that will be problematic. But I think that writers can learn things from being regionally-minded: very close attention to the details of a place, the details of anything — how to be an observer. Someone with the close focus of a local who has loved a place intimately should be able to take that way of looking wherever and they want to. You mentioned Robert Morgan, he’s managed to write for a lifetime drawing off the material of where he’s from. I don’t see myself necessarily going in that direction, yet I can’t help but to keep on writing some poems that are about home. One of my favorite quotes is from Louise Glück who said, “We look at the world once in childhood, the rest is memory.” Some people find that quote sad; I don’t believe I do. I do love my home, and I do think that will always come up in my writing and it will always be my first allegiance. But I imagine, moving forward, that each book will be different, and I hope that doesn’t disappoint people or make them think I’ve abandoned them if I try to keep being innovative. No matter what I write, my memories will be no less with that first place I truly saw.
KK: Yes, it gets us into these conversations about blood and place of birth and then cultural influence, right? Because some of us have lived here for twenty years or more, but we weren’t born and raised here. And so I wonder if that has something to do with ways of looking. If you’re a transplant, as I am, to Appalachia, that way of looking is going to be different.
RM: It’s not going to be that I’m going to write exclusively about cornbread for the rest of my life no matter where I live or something like that. (Though it is the one thing I’m most likely to bake, and, come to think of it, I did just write a poem about cornbread for a Southern Foodways Alliance anthology.) It’s that there is a deep influence of landscape on how a person is formed. There’s something about how if you live in worn down mountains, or places that have been historically, geographically isolated, even if they’re not so much anymore, there’s a difference of attitude that will probably show up in writing. A not too-assuming way of asserting ideas in a poem–maybe that’s the influence of the mountains, or a sort of quietness, a leaving things out, which you might hear in regional styles of conversation. Aspects of poetic style might also be connected to living in a place that has a history of doing without. There are ways of going from those big notions of cultural characteristics to attach them to smaller moves that might be made in writing.
KK: So, the title of your first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, appears in the last stanza of “Our Stories,” and I thought about the leveled mountains of mountaintop removal. That poem brings up the aestheticization of place and landscape by others, which can to lead to commodification and consumption of that place. And the poem also seems to link that whole extractive process, just gently, maybe subtly, to the experience of being a woman. Is that a connection that you feel like you make in your poems?
RM: I would like to say, to backtrack a little bit, that the other element that I thought of with that title was the plates. Broken plates also have a bit of an undertone of domestic anger if not violence, so that would connect to feminine experience. That first book is certainly dealing with the condition of being female and maybe attitudes and distances from men, in more conventional relationship poems. As I kept working I got, well, frankly, tired of relationship poems–for a while. So in the second book, I think that I began to touch on subjects such as the woman unto herself, or conceivably better off if she could have been. The woman unto herself, or conceivably better off if she could have been. There are two poems about mountain lions that are referencing sexual violence. Those were poems that I was uncomfortable writing because I’d absorbed this notion that the more my poems sounded like a severe voice that could belong to a white man who was older than me the better they’d be received, or something like that. I felt very much like nobody was going to like these feminist poems. But then as I’ve kept writing this third book manuscript, which I think is finished now, I’m even more done with those notions that I ought to leave anything feminist out just because it’s feminist. If there’s any “ought to” about writing as a woman, I ought to write about the female experience without apology as much as possible. I don’t want to write propaganda, and I don’t want to necessarily lose any subtlety of the craftsmanship of the poem. But I do want to be able to talk about what I think without wondering if it’s what people want—want, in a consumerist way—to read.
KK: That brings me to our present moment when nobody could fool themselves into thinking that we are in any kind of postfeminist stage. So how do you think about writing as a woman right now?
RM: Well, I’m still trying to figure that one out. Post-election, I have had my students doing writing exercises in class, and been surprised and pleased to see that some young women, whose political leanings I would not have necessarily known or guessed, took that opportunity — the assignments I gave them were not overtly political — to deal with political issues. For instance, there was a young woman who crafted poems that used quotations from our now current president, which were deeply misogynistic. And she wrote poems that were able to respond. That’s not a writing prompt I would have ever given; we were just doing exercises with dialogue. The fact that she was able to use her little time in my class doing a writing response to also help her deal with how scared she is about what her future is going to be, makes me think of the redemptive possibilities of writing.
I sort of edged around your question there, talking about being a teacher, what I saw someone else (brave student) do, because I’m still figuring out what I am going to do. But I strongly believe that there is a value to writing poetry because it is an exercise in listening to other people who may become your subjects. It’s an exercise in empathy, trying to imagine your way into the perspectives of other voices. When I read other people’s poetry, I have to imagine their perspective, and that feeds my writing. Trying to craft something to make it speak to another, that’s sort of empathy too. To aspire to artistic refinement is an exercise in dignity. These are qualities that are absent in our current leadership. Some days I will wonder, Why is this what I am doing with my life? Wouldn’t it be better to just go out and join the picket line, and sometimes you go out and do that as well. There are times I wish that I did have an vocation that more directly affected change in the world. But I go back and think okay, this writing and teaching is what I’m reasonably good at, so as long as I can keep creating things on the page that help people be reminded of the value of communication and listening, then I am doing something.
KK: I’m thinking about the Irish public political poems, something like “Easter 1916,” and wondering — part of writing political poetry, or poetry in a particularly politically charged time, is writing poetry of witness. How do we think of a poem that has politics? Do you think we have a tradition of the public poem in the same way that Ireland does?
RM: We, Americans?
KK: We, Americans, yes.
RM: No …. I don’t think so. I mean there are certainly notable exceptions, but I don’t think we have as much of a tradition of it. I am interested to see how that will change, perhaps. So many journals are running series that are special responses to what’s going on right now. I wrote three poems for Terrain’s “Letter to America” series, which is terrifying to me, because that’s such a big title to work under — “Letter to America” — how presumptuous. But then, all of a sudden, I decided, “well, I’ll give it a try!” And there will be other poets who are doing that as well, and better. What I will be thinking about as I write probably more political work in the future is how to make that work endure, because there’s certainly some work that is very topical and timely and comes out in the moment and is very valuable in the moment but maybe not beyond. For the long run, I wish to be able to write political poetry that reacts to the moment but also endures in its artistry and is still worthwhile when people have forgotten the particular headline that triggered it – hopefully, we get to forget some of these right?
KK: “Easter 1916” sets a high bar, because it manages to do both.
RM: I wish I had it with me. There was a really fitting Gwendolyn Brooks poem—was it “Speech to the Young Speech to the Progress-Toward “?–in the opening of the most recent edition of Ecotone. It was an example of a poem that was written at a specific time and is a response to its place, but then it managed wonderfully to fit the occasion later as well.
KK: There was a volume out in the last few years by John Felstiner called Can Poetry Save the Earth? I guess one of my fears is that in being involved in all the turmoil of the political and social scenes that the big issue of being on this earth as human beings is going to be lost. And I know that it’s all in the mix, but can poetry save the world? Can poetry save the earth? I mean, are those separate things, or are those the same?
RM: I don’t think it can save the world or the earth, but the slight difference in phrasing does have interesting implications. I do think that if poetry gets us to regard and notice, then that has to be a part of increasing our ecological awareness and awareness of our impact and the value of the small lives around us, or not so small lives, that we might typically be walled off from or driving by very quickly or not considering. So, yes, I do think those same sorts of values I was talking about in terms of creating empathy with other humans certainly apply to creating an awareness of other life forms. It upsets me when I people say something along the lines of, “Now is not the time to be writing nature poems, for God’s sake, look at what’s happening,” because I do see the behaviors as very much the same — the sort of behaviors that would ignore the humanity of another human are the same behaviors that would ignore the value of another life form. The same sort of selfishness of certain capitalist ideas or leadership ideas seem related to me to the selfishness of the human-centered view of natural resources. To me, they are to be the same behaviors, so I hope that people will not create false divides between environmental concerns and social concerns, divides between environmental poetry and poetry about social justice.
KK: Yes, yes. And this lack of a divide really comes through in your poems. What you were saying reminded me of “Facing North” and this wonderful line, “I said I would never use animals as the figures of my sorrows again.” There’s a turn after the narrator says that, but I mean the poems that I’ve seen where you’re dealing with animals, it feels to me like you’re working to move beyond simply using the animal as a simile and as a metaphor.
RM: And I’m actually still trying to do that. You will probably laugh when you hear my reading, if you do. I’m going to read the first poem from my third book, and I’m still grappling with the same thing. It’s one of those fights that you don’t win. But I think just being cognizant of the fact that we are always projecting ourselves on other things — we can’t help it, I’ve tried to write poems in which animals are not symbols. I’ve tried to write persona poems in which I give the page to someone else. There’s been plenty of complaining about the role of the “I” in poems and how we need to kill the “I,” and while I sort of want to agree with that, I find that it’s impossible because how are you going to write without it, and how are you going to see without it? It’s always there. So yes, I’m still trying to be generous in my poems, but I don’t think I will ever succeed in not co-opting whatever image fascinates me and turning it into a metaphor — that’s just what poets do, or this poet does. The best I can do is to be honest about letting people into the process of what I’m thinking about as a poet. That’s another one of those small virtues of being a poet, that you can sometimes, instead of asserting this big wisdom in a polished form as if you have this omniscience that others do not, is to let people see the struggle and the questioning that goes into writing your poems, so that it can be kind of a conversation that they get to be involved in.
KK: Well, I think in that poem, “Facing North,” that you do move us beyond using the animal only as metaphor. There’s the palpable presence of that goat, of that individual goat. I’m thinking now of The Lives of Animals, where Coetzee has his narrator, Elizabeth Costello, talk about preferring the Ted Hughes poem, “The Jaguar,” to the Rilke poem, “The Panther.” Costello prefers “The Jaguar” because she says he’s honestly trying to record a human response to another creature, and it isn’t about turning another animal into a metaphor, it’s about being honest about what that relationship feels like from the inside of the poet, which does feel like the most that we can do. In your poem, I felt like I knew that individual goat’s life, and so the metaphoric extensions you make in the poem didn’t seem like any kind of violation of the goat, because it seemed like her life, or his life, was very present too.
RM: Thank you. One of the important things about being a poet is noticing the world around you. But I have at times in my life caught myself, and I don’t like this, but when something is happening, thinking even as it’s just happened, “how am I going to use that?” And there are a few things, which have been rich in imagery and dramatic in my life, that I have told myself, “you’re not going to use that. That doesn’t get to be in a poem, even if it would be a fine poem.” So there’s the little ethics of what you exploit or not that I consider.
KK: I see you addressing the issue again in the poem “Redemption” where you actually say that you want to talk about whether or not this bear is going to be a symbol. For me, “Facing North” and “Redemption” were both engaged in that same kind of questioning about “how do I represent this animal?”
RM: I haven’t looked at “Redemption” for a while. That poem is one of those that I struggled with. Some poems, you write them and revise them, and I revise everything — a lot. But some of them don’t make me feel like I’ve possibly wasted months of my life. Others bring that thought to mind. That poem “Redemption” was one of those I had an ongoing fight with, forever. Because I knew that there were these certain things that I’d read and seen about bears and that they meant something to me, but I didn’t want another downer poem. I wanted to get redemption out of this bear and in the end, out of this particular set of images that was haunting me, but I couldn’t. And so that was sort of heartbreaking on a number of levels. As the person trying to craft this thing and realizing her limits, but then, thinking about those instances that you observe and there is simply no redemption in them. Certainly not for the bear.
KK: Yes, well, that makes me wonder how we write poems that aren’t downers in an era of mass extinction.
RM: I often find myself saying to my students that it’s too easy — it’s much easier to get the dramatic wallop with a poem by making it a darkness. And if we read and write too much of darkness then that will just be desensitizing in its own way and too easy. But yes, what do we do to keep writing? Again, that’s something I’m negotiating. I have a poem that’ll be in the third book where I took a list of words that, you may have read about this, that were removed from a children’s dictionary. They were words for natural things, words like “lark” and “lobster,” so not obscure things. I guess because it was presumed that children wouldn’t have much need for them, going forward. And so I put them in a poem, as an assignment to myself. Now, does that solve the problem of children’s literacy or access to the outdoors? No, but I suppose it’s just trying to hold on to a few things, whether we are preserving them in parks or on pages. Even if we do ultimately lose them, and we are going to lose species in our lifetimes, why not do them the tribute of at least recording what there was that was wonderful about them, so that maybe somebody will take away from this that they don’t want to lose the next generation?
KK: Do you think about that as a movement in your poems? Because especially in your first book, which I’ve been able to immerse myself in more, often the poems end on a redemptive image, quite a beautiful image. I’m never going to forget the distant view of someone carrying a pane of glass from a distance, and it looks like he’s dancing, right? Because you can’t see the glass from the distance. Do you think about ending poems that way? It feels like a lot of the poems, at least in that volume, end with a bit of hope.
RM: At times, I am writing those endings as much for myself as for other people, though I do think about my readers, not in terms of people that I want to pander to, but in terms of why they should bother to spend time with me. If we think about human history and people who have ways of life different than our own, a lot of life is tough. And there are a lot of lives that people lead that make me wonder, how do they even find a reason to want to survive? It’s more difficult to justify saying that from my own life as a privileged American, but to be honest, sometimes when I’m driving through a strip development, listening to national news, I ask of my own life too, “what is the point of continuing through all this?” And so I try to find the redemptive moments to keep one afloat. If I am describing a bad thing, if I can find what’s shiny or pretty in the guts–it’s the little thing that I can hold on to either to get to the next thing, or to explain to myself why I might fight to preserve the presumption there’s a next thing. Because most all animals and humans want to survive and we can’t always say why. If you’ve ever had a sick animal, a pet, or a farm animal, you sometimes wish there was a point where they would stop fighting to survive, but that’s the way bodies work. And so then the mind finds a way to accompany that, by looking for the next beautiful thing. Anyone who has an aging relative can look at her or him and see this impression that life gets better is not true, right? Or, to take an easier example, with a career, you’re always telling yourself “it’s going to get better, it’s going to get better,” but many things don’t have that trajectory, and life certainly doesn’t have that trajectory overall. So there are ways in which writing poetry is a way of fooling myself or pulling myself along. And hopefully a couple of readers too.
KK: Yes, and maybe if we could manage to see those redemptive moments in the present it might diffuse some of the compulsion to have this linear narrative of progress, where we try to defy mortality. Our whole culture is built around that.
RM: And the pausing just to notice any small moment. I am, more and more as I get older and follow a different trajectory as an academic than I would have imagined, a speedy person. Getting myself to just look is increasingly a challenge, so the acts of writing and reading are good ways to be still. They are tiny ways to resist being overly consumerist and not valuing what you have, to hush the need for the next new thing, the next new thing.
KK: And to be so production-oriented, right? There’s a poem of yours where I was going to ask exactly that – you have a phrase called “an epilogue of magic and slowness.” I’m thinking that almost has to be chosen now — it’s very hard to come by.
RM: I honestly don’t know that I have it, but I had an old neighbor growing up who had this way of hunkering — he would sit and hunker, the way, I don’t even know how to sit like that, but the old timer way of no chair. He would do that by the edge of the field all day, And I can’t conceive — if I sit down now, I’m going to be making a list of if not things to do, if not emails and errands, things I should write down in my journal of poetry. I even turn poetry into a task list. So what I was trying to get at with that phrase was not something that I myself necessarily possess, but something I observed in people of a certain time and place.
KK: Well, this is so interesting. I feel like we could go on for a very long time, but I just wanted to ask how you work with combining poetry writing with editing a journal. What are the special opportunities, but also challenges? A) with being an editor and B) with being a woman as an editor?
RM: I’ll throw in there that in addition to editing the Southern Humanities Review, I’m working on editing an anthology which isn’t all official yet, so I won’t say too much about it, but I’m thinking about that process too. As an editor, I am trying to bring some of the kindness that is often absent from the literary world to the process as much as I can without losing high standards, because those are very important to me. I’m not the sort of poetry teacher (and therefore I’m not the sort of poetry editor) who wants to tell everybody that everything they write is great — that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. So, how are you rigorous on one level and maintain, on another level, a human touch? (To use a worrisomely anthropocentric phrase.) I’m not sure of the answer to that but it’s something I’m working on, having ups and downs. For instance, if I’m rejecting submissions to the journal, I will say to myself that any poem that I gave really serious consideration, that I held on to for weeks and came back to, I’ll try to write one line in my rejection letter and tell the poet what I did appreciate in the poem. And then I’ll do that, and it’ll end up taking two whole days, and I’ll have to think, “oh and while I was being nice to these people, I forgot to speak to my husband, or call my mother.” So that was actually not the right way to be directing my attempts to be kind, and I don’t know the answers. I’m trying to strike the balance between having high standards and not being ruthless and then trying to actually remember that “I am the editor. I do get to have taste. I do get to make decisions.”
KK: Do you think about gender when you’re reading work or accepting work?
RM: That’s another one of those issues that make me unsure of the right approach, because I want to choose the work that I think is the best work and not go in with an agenda. So usually what I try to do is read submissions and make selections without taking gender, or if people have self-identified in their cover letter in some way, into account, but then if I look back at the initial list of potential acceptances and see that I’ve selected a dozen men and two women, then I have to sit down and muddle through that. An earlier me would’ve just said, “Well, they weren’t the best. That’s just how it is.” But now I’ve had enough experiences and seen enough figures on the publishing of women and heard enough personal anecdotes about discrimination to know that it’s not that simple. And so I negotiate with myself: “Maybe you’ve got less of a representation of women on the list because it’s harder for women to get into programs, to get that first publication that spurs them to the second, it’s harder for them to ramp up their courage to get rejected again, because they don’t make certain assumptions about themselves.” Then I do take corrective measures. It’s harder in some ways with issues such as people’s ethnicity because you can’t as easily tell and every strategy I could think of to check gets funny-feeling. I’m not going to Google people’s pictures and categorize them based on how they look, because that’s wrong, but to the degree that people accept names that identify a gender, it’s not that hard to do an examination of your own editorial work and make adjustments.
KK: Yes, yes. Well there’s so much more that I could ask, but is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you feel like is on the tip of your tongue and you’d like to comment on?
RM: Let’s see. I’ve been thinking, as I’ve been writing my own third book, about the role of the self in the poem. A lot of the first book is construed as being autobiographical. (Parts of it are, but I certainly finessed details.) I’m moving more and more away from the personal telling as I’m writing. Partially, it’s because I’m not as interested in my own life. I’m an academic living in a place that I don’t know very well. It’s not that fascinating, day-to-day. But part of it is a bit feminist — I would like to be able to write about ideas, too. I think there are a lot of very idea-driven male poets and people accept that, but often if a female poet writes a heady poem . . . . I’ve read reviews of other people’s work that have gotten some feedback that makes me think “Sorry, was there not enough body in that? Was this supposed to be more titillating? She forgot to give the peep-show, sorry!” That’s a small challenge I’ve set myself—keep the clothes on, blow the top of the head off? We’ll see how it goes over, but for the time being I’m writing more idea-driven poetry.
KK: Well, thank you so much for talking to us.
RM: Thank you for your close reading.