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 ab