Reaching for Epiphanies: An Interview with John McCarthy

Interview conducted by Joshua Jones

John McCarthy is the author of the recently published collection Scared Violent like Horses (Milkweed Editions, 2019), which was selected by Victoria Chang as the winner of the 2017 Jake Adam York Prize. He is also the author of Ghost County (Midwestern Gothic Press, 2016), which was named a Best Poetry Book of 2016 by The Chicago Review of Books. John is the winner of The Pinch 2016 Literary Award in Poetry, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2015, Copper Nickel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sycamore Review, Passages North, and Zone 3. He received his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

John McCarthy’s latest book, Scared Violent Like Horses, ruminates on growing up lower class in the Midwest and coping with family traumas. The stories of a hardscrabble life dominated by silos and switchgrass are told with an impressive tenderness that contrasts starkly with their often-painful subjects. Particularly striking are those poems which dwell on the ways that boys become initiated into a culture of violence and what happens when that means of engaging with the world becomes inadequate.

The poem “Noise Falling Backwards” which appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of the American Literary Review, shows the very kind of grappling I admire so much in McCarthy’s work. Here, he’s returned to the “toolshed of memory” he’s been warned away from. Engaging in the honest task of memory is a form of trespass, secret and dangerous, but the rewards of such expeditions are a form of insight and awareness different from the comfort or clarity we might long for.

After meeting John at the 2019 AWP conference and reading his book in a single gulp the following week, I couldn’t resist hearing how it came together. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his process and composition of the book by email.

JONES: Scared Violent Like Horses is one of those deceptively simple books that encompasses so much while staying largely in one place. I’m thinking of the several different series of poems scattered throughout the book, like the self-portraits or the North End poems. How did some of those series begin, and how did you decide on their integration into the book?

 MCCARTHY: When I set out to write Scared Violent Like Horses (SVLH), I had no intention of setting it in Springfield, Illinois, especially the north end. I was writing a lot of abstract and surreal poems about family my first year in my MFA. There were a lot of moths and feathers and birds. I don’t think any poems from that year made it into SVLH except for “Definitions of Body.” I realized that my book couldn’t just be about a traumatic relationship between mother and son; it had to ground itself in landscape, too, since the landscape and the events that took place there intersect with a specific familial trauma. That’s when I started writing poems about Springfield and the north end. A few of those poems just happened to be set in the north end where I grew up, and when it came time to order the poems, I viewed them as anchor points throughout the book to help pull the reader back to its central location and heart while at the same time letting the reader launch off into these other narrative threads that include toxic/tender masculinity, the complexity of friendship, classism, as well as the way religion manipulates the speaker’s perception throughout life.

In regards to the Self-Portrait poems and the two Portrait poems, they came about a little more unintentionally. Because the book deals with trauma, I realized they were all about disassociation from the self, which often happens when we’re processing events that have happened to us or that we may have felt forced to participate in. When I realized that was what these poems were doing, I titled them as such. On a mechanical level, I think it breaks up the voice throughout the book and gives the reader something surprising. Because the book spends so much time mining childhood, I felt like these poems were representative of how childhood perception is often full of projection and association as a means to understand some of the more complex and difficult things happening at that moment in time. Writing those poems with that kind of imagination, for me, mirrors the way children play pretend to make sense of the real world.

JJ: I was interested also in the book’s three-part structure. The first and last sections feel very much of a piece, and they frame the somewhat independent middle section composed of a single poem in parts called “Flyover Country.” What were some of the things that went into your decision to order the book this way?

JM: When I was ordering the book, I felt on an intuitive level that I wanted to follow some sort of chronological narrative arc. So the first section is very much early childhood and the third section is very much teen to early adolescence ending with the discovery of redemptive independence. I wouldn’t call it coming-of-age or any of that. It’s more of a historical record. But I’d rather not get into taxonomy of genre. It is what it is. You can call it whatever you want to.

It felt natural to give “Flyover Country” its own space since it expands and contracts through time in an anachronistic way. If you think about the way an infinity sign looks, there’s a point where the line crosses back over itself, so I looked at “Flyover Country” as the point in which a never ending story crosses back over itself and moves forward and backwards at the same time depending on which way you’re tracing the line. It’s also representative of all of the book’s themes that are explored on a more granular level throughout the other two sections. Additionally, I felt like this poem is in and of itself a narrative arc. It begins and ends with a celebration and praise of the Midwestern prairie, whereas the other two sections address the brutality that obfuscates the tenderness of the region. However, in between the celebratory and the jubilant is the strained relationship between family, the generational pain that sometimes binds a person to a place, as well as a more meditative look at what the violence in my life was really masking and reacting to. I looked at “Flyover Country” as a set of stories within a story. I wanted this section to serve as a more holistic break between two personal sections. If you think about the book as a dialectic between the universal and the personal—whatever that means to you—the first and third sections are the personal and “Flyover Country” is the swing toward the universal before swinging back again.

JJ: Thinking about the way you describe that movement back and forth between the first and final sections makes me think of the that Catholic hymn that shows up at the beginning and end of the book. It speaks maybe of a notion of faith that isn’t so much lost as struggling to find a purpose for its enduring presence. Could you talk about the role of faith in the book or your poetry more broadly?

 JM: I grew up Irish Catholic. I attended a Lutheran school briefly for one semester, but all the mental gymnastics and stories that were supposed to be taken literally just fall apart on me. On an emotional level, I think the stories in scripture are helpful to be aware of and can serve as access points into specific ways of understanding history and human morality, but when they are venerated to an absolute truth, and masquerade as the one and only truth, it’s time to question and resist.

Additionally, so much violence is in the name of religion. Power and control seem to be the end goal and religion the means. Depending on one’s position in society, one’s faith may have different motives. And on an emotional level the kind of faith that I have experienced has manipulated people into hating themselves and judging others harshly, which creates this confused lashing out, often in verbal piousness but sometimes in violence. In SVLH, my friends and I were struggling to make sense of ourselves but didn’t have any other language for it except for shame—which is a mindset that doesn’t give the speaker the language needed to critique or question the things he is being taught. So the speaker and the people he knows critique themselves, which ultimately manifests in violence towards one another. To this day, I wrestle with all the things I was taught to feel or forced to feel because of someone else’s incomplete version of God. And this grappling is so constant and ubiquitous that it’s just there to be struggled with. There’s no end to it, nor is there any one defining moment of its presence. You are right to say that it is not lost but something to be struggled with, and I struggle with it constantly, which is why my version of faith shows up in my work in the same way that wind exists.

Nevertheless, prayer, to me, is synonymous with hope—the two just have different means by which they yearn. And because prayer was a framework that I was given to understand life, I think its application will always show up on a subconscious level in my poetry even as I refute or resist its methods. One of the central undertows of SVLH is about having hope and praying, in a kind of corrupt way, for more tender ways of existing and being in the world. The speaker is praying throughout the book because at that time it’s what he was taught to do. Prayer was his lens for looking at the world. And at the same time, he didn’t even believe in what he was seeing, and he didn’t even know if the world around him was real, hence some of the dissociative self-portrait poems.

Of course, I only speak for my experience with Catholicism and of a version of God that is only mine and very much incomplete, too. And if faith has provided someone the mental fortitude to overcome addiction, mental illness, or anything else, I seek not to take that away from them.

JJ: Formally, the book favors longer lines and prose poems. What about those formal choices appeals to you?

JM: I love long sprawling lines that just reach and reach for the craziest of epiphanies. I’ve sat here and reflected on this question for a while now, but I think it mostly has to do with the instruction I received at SIUC which focused on rooting the work in a specific place. I think the landscapes I write about—The Midwest, the prairies of Illinois—lend themselves to wideness and expansiveness; so I think the line length as well as the overall length of the poems, which includes a prosaic style, mirror the regions and regional features that inhabit my work. Much like Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style uses distinctive lines and edges in his architecture to mirror the plains and prairies, I feel like my poems structure their narratives around a similar geography.

JJ: Were there any things (about yourself, your writing, or your subject matter) you discovered in writing the book?

JM: This is a great question. This is a very confessional book, and I know that there are a lot of schools of thought out there that question the validity of confessionalism, believing that poetry should look away and restrain itself right before the raw emotion, capturing an objective interrogation as well as some kind of post-modern observance which is self-aware of the thing that is being felt or experienced in the poem. That’s all well and good, and I love all the different intentions that poetry can form within itself, but I like confession. Maybe it’s that fallen Catholic guilt that compels it, but I like looking back at choices made, events of my life and interrogating why such a thing happened and how it has continued to change me over time as well as each time I choose to remember and share. And I like how through the process of meditation, the experience being reflected upon connects to a wider audience or a collective interpretation.

For example, in the poem “Last Rites,” I write about being alone with a man who wanted something sexual from me before he died. When I workshopped this poem, my friend Meghann Plunkett said, “now you know what it’s like to be a woman all the time and every time she is alone with a man.” When she said that, I realized SVLH is ultimately a book about confessing real events and drawing lines of empathy that need to exist in the world in more tender and gentle ways, as well as understanding that emotions are endlessly nuanced and are the strongest access points we have for empathizing with others’ experiences that we may not be immediately aware of. There’s always room in the world to be more sensitive, yet we deny those moments to others and to ourselves often out of fear and insecurity or willful ignorance. If I want anything for this book—it is to have it seen as a framework for compassion.

And yet, poetry is so much more than therapy and processing—though those two things are very important in their own right. One thing I did realize was how little I had processed a lot of what happened to me in earlier versions of this lifetime. By writing about them honestly and straightforwardly and then letting my colleagues break them down in workshop, it forced me to see cause and effect. I was able to explain what my own personal history had been lacking and I hope that by meditating on that I was able to heal and reach for some sense of redemption.

Since I ask so much of the world, I needed the book to provide some kind of reciprocity. And that reciprocity goes deeper than just offering up an ostensible explanation for violence—that violence is often the product of fear and insecurity—but that there are many different ways of being more sensitive. That if we reflect on the moments of violence in our life with a lens of willing tenderness—maybe we can do a better job at consistently living our lives as such—maybe we can fail at that less often.

Joshua Jones is a candidate for the Ph.D. at the University of North Texas and received his MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His poems have appeared in Salamander, The Collagist, and The Woven Tale Press among other journals. He is the reviews editor of American Literary Review.