Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Julia McCarthy

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Julia McCarthy

Julia McCarthy talks to Open Book about the poet's underworld — living in rural Nova Scotia alongside nature's red tooth and claw — and how this environment influenced the writing of her poetry collection Return from Erebus, recently published with Brick Books.

Julia McCarthy will be reading at the Art Bar Poetry Series on Tuesday, June 14th and at the Press Club's Pivot Reading Series on Wednesday, June 15th. See our Events page for details.

You can also catch her — along with Brick Books authors Brian Henderson, Karen Enns and Adam Dickinson — at the Niagara Literary Arts Festival in St. Catharines at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 19th. Find out more here.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new collection of poetry, Return from Erebus.

Julia McCarthy:

It was a difficult book to write…eight years from start to finish. When my first book came out I’d already written away from it and was very aware of a shift.

Without articulating that difference, I tried to follow it daily as much as possible, either by reading or writing or both. I think this book reflects the inner and outer worlds I inhabited during its writing, the overlap between them, finding its way into language. In many ways it’s a record of that overlap, letters from the chiasma.


What was it about the Greek mythology of the Underworld that inspired you to write this book?


I think it was more my direct experience that fed many of the poems. Writing while experiencing deep solitude and reading a lot, particularly early Greek thinkers/writers/poets….along with poetry. At the same time I remembered that the Celts thought this world to be the underworld and I began to understand why.

The act of writing a poem struck me as a complete cycle, as winter and summer, fall and spring, as both a voyage and a return, a death and rebirth, that shift in consciousness that occurs when you’re working well in spite of yourself and bending to the poem’s will, when you’re listening to the poem, both the preverbal whisper and the image, that frequency just beneath the words that carries them along, following it and hoping you are recreating that same shift for the reader so that the poem becomes both container and contained, both vessel and river, where hopefully, it becomes whole. I believe this to be paradise found.


There's a darkness to these poems, and many images of night, winter and blackness. Do you do your best writing at night, or is it the Underworld that gives the poems this atmosphere?


There are so many underworlds aren’t there? There’s the shadow side of nature/ourselves and life in general, our unconscious both personal and collective, there’s memory and all the worlds we can’t see and all the shades between.

I live very rurally and thus enjoy a lot of solitude, which does create a certain atmosphere. When you don’t interact much with people for long periods of time you experience things differently, you’re less distracted, more alert and more present to subtle things, which creates a different mood and tone in which to be. Contrary to my expectation, my world expanded rather than contracted. I do tend to be a night person by nature and walk in my woods at night or sit outside listening to the wealth of creatures. I have heard the death screams of animals caught by owls, the strange mating calls of porcupines and the hollow sound of a winter’s night. I do live across from a cemetery; it has a lovely view of the small valley in which I live, so I walk up there regularly. In some sense I’ve been surrounded by the dead, those I’ve known and those I’ve not. It’s bound to seep into my work.


Despite the darker tones, white is also a common image in Return from Erebus. You even have a poem called "Poem in White," which meditates on the absence that white evokes, calling it "the primary wound." What did the juxtaposition of light and darkness mean for you during the writing of these poems?


The world of duality is such that we need one thing to know the other or its opposite in any meaningful way. To experience light you need the dark, to know joy you must know sorrow and vice versa…yin and yang, each contains the seed of the other. Or as Jung wrote:

Our greatest treasure is not natural possessions or money, but is that which is hidden deep within our own subconscious. It is that dark, unused part of our self that is, in fact, light that is unconscious of itself.

For me, I think the “primary wound” is the way human culture has evolved….the idea that duality or the world of distinctions (i.e. this isn’t that) is all of reality rather than a limited perception on the gross level, creates a kind of absence, unconsciousness, a severely unrealistic view. The “primary wound” is one of consciousness on some level, a loss of innocence in the sense of grounded awareness of wholeness, connectedness. I think it was Marcus Aurelius who wrote about singularity and plurality using sunlight to illustrate that it is broken up by walls and hills and uncountable things, it splits into many forms and various shapes, can cast shadows but it is still sunlight.

At the core of metaphor-making is a more inclusive way of being, a "this is that" awareness that to my way of thinking is as realistic and as whole as it gets.


Tell us about the poems called "Meditations on Ephemera" that ribbon throughout the book. Where did you begin with them, and how do you see them interacting with the other poems in the collection?


Because I experienced the death of so much and so many in a concentrated period of time after moving back to Canada — and to Nova Scotia in particular, where I’d never lived before — it would’ve been impossible to not really understand the statement: know that everything you love will die.

It was in many ways a fragile time, when fragility was a luxury I didn’t have. I think the meditation poems grew out my awareness of the fragility of life and a growing attentiveness to presence, whether it be an earwig, a dying fly, dust motes, the sun or more abstract things, which seemed important to ground in concrete experience, thus the Idea and Poem and Metaphor meditations. Originally they were written in a sequence, micro to macro, but when I was shaping the manuscript I let go of that idea and found interspersing them through the book worked much better. Some of them, I think, help ground the aesthetic of the book.


Return from Erebus is your second collection. How was the experience of writing this manuscript different from the writing of your first book, Stormthrower?


It was very different….I think of my first book as an apprenticeship and it took far too long — some poems in Stormthrower were written by a 19-year-old, others by a 36-year-old, and that made for an uneven book. Also I was living mostly outside of Canada during those years, in unusual and difficult circumstances, moving around a lot including to different countries (and a move back to Canada for a spell to study with Robin Skelton, who became a good friend and mentor).

Return from Erebus was written entirely while living in one place and in a more concentrated time period of eight years. I think there’s continuity in Erebus that the first book lacks. Though I’m still very proud of some of the poems in the first book, I feel without a doubt the second book is the one I was meant to write, if I’m meant to write anything at all.


How does living in Nova Scotia affect and influence you as a writer?


I think it’s been tremendously influential for me as a poet…..something in the air here…the salt perhaps? but it feels open and removed and connected all at once. The forest behind my house has been a huge influence, living rurally which is a slower pace, but especially in Nova Scotia where everything is geared down compared to, say, Ontario. I’m never far from water here, which in some form seeps into my work here and there.

I’ve lived here now for 14 years…the longest I’ve lived anywhere in the last 28 years, and that in general has been hugely advantageous…allowing me focus and concentration I didn’t have before moving here. I’m now officially allergic to moving….my headstone will read: "Here lies Julia, who isn’t moving anymore!"


What poets would you say have had the greatest influence on your work?


Definitely Gwendolyn MacEwen has been the single most influential…it was hearing her read her poems on CBC’s Anthology program when I was around 12 that stunned me….I realized she was doing something incredibly important, and I wanted to do that too. I didn’t understand her work at all then, of course — I was only 12, but it was a visceral experience that changed everything for me.

At the same time I was also reading Plath and Hughes, Jay McPherson, and learning a lot by osmosis about image-making and the mythopoetic impulse.

These earliest influences were probably the greatest ones as well. Later I came across John Haines, Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin and their translations….and would say they've been very important to my sensibilities as well. I studied for a time with Robin Skelton in Victoria, back in 1988 or so, and learned a great deal from him. He was a wealth of poetic knowledge, and became a mentor; he and his wife, Sylvia both became good friends.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


I’ve been reading W.S. Merwin’s new book, The Shadow of Sirius and The Yale Anthology of Twentieth Century French Poetry…..just love Merwin’s rich subtleness as in the poem “Little Soul” (after Hadrian):

Little soul little stray
little drifter
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things

It doesn’t get better than that…


What are you working on now?


Right now I’m working bit by bit on new poems and have no idea whatsoever where they are going. Also I’m reading a lot of poetry and non-fiction.

Julia McCarthy is originally from Toronto. She spent ten years living in the United States, most notably Alaska and Georgia. She has also lived in Norway and spent significant time in South Africa. Her previous collection of poetry, Stormthrower, was published by Wolsak and Wynn in 2002. She now resides in Nova Scotia, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

For more information about Return from Erebus please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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