Interview: Laura McCullough

Laura McCulloughIn 2013, Laura McCullough had four books published, Rigger Death & Hoist Another (poems, Black Lawrence Press), Ripple & Snap (micro-fiction/hybrid, ELP Press), The Smashing House (a short fiction chapbook, ELP Press) and an anthology of essays she edited, The Room & the World: Essays on the Poetry of Stephen Dunn (Syracuse University Press). In 2014, ELP Press will publish her linked monologues, Shutters*Voices*Wind, and will also reprint her poetry chapbook, Women & Other Hostages, and her second edited anthology, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, will be published by University of Georgia Press. Her other books are Panic (poems, winner of the Kinereth Gensler Award and a BOTYA finalist, Alice James Books), Speech Acts (poems, Black Lawrence Press), and What Men Want (poems, XOXOX Press). She has been awarded scholarships or fellowships from Sewanee Writers Conference, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, The Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, and others. Her essays, criticism, poems, creative non-fiction, and short fiction have appeared in The Georgia Review, New South, Guernica, The American Poetry Review, Green Mountains Review, Pank, The Writer’s Chronicle, Gulf Coast, Pedestal, Painted Bride Quarterly, and others. She is the editor of Mead: the Magazine of Literature and Libations and an editor at large for TranStudies Magazine.

TCJWW: One of the themes in your most recent book of poetry, Rigger Death & Hoist Another, is failure. What does it mean to fail and still go on? What forces shaped this collection of poems?

McCullough: In the book that came out before this one, Panic, all of the poems were in third person, many about difficult or even disastrous events. For example, the first poem, “Dissolution and Assemblage” is a poem about masculinity which takes as its occasion a construction accident where a man loses his leg. Many of the poems in Panic are emotionally true for me—living in post-911 New Jersey, raising teenage sons, having people in my life with health issues—but none of the poems were written in first person; I wasn’t complicit in any of them, and this began to seem emotionally dishonest.

My MFA is in fiction, and increasingly I am trying to find the confluence between prose and poetry, to work in the hybrid interstices. In Rigger Death & Hoist Another, I tried to keep narrative rebar in the structures of my poems, but re-claim the authorial “I” in creating the poems and the world view of the poems in relation to each other.

We all fail. At things we do; at relationships; at life. In its most basic, death is the ultimate failure. How we go on, and flounder, get back up and reinvent ourselves, find new hope, meaning, hooks into life, the ways we survive the hurts we all bear is part of what concerns me in this book. But there is a fair amount of anger, too, I think. Frost said that we have to write from grief and not grievance if we are to achieve poetry. I bore that in mind with all of these poems. I probably failed. I’ll go on! In fact, I’ve just had a new book come out, Ripple & Snap, a micro-fiction/prose poem story about the aftermath of a public suicide. How the people who witness it are affected, how they go on.

Thinking about it now, maybe Rigger Death & Hoist Another is really an elegy for my lost boys. I have five children, and the oldest three are now college age. Many of my poems address in some sidelong way what it means to give sons to the world. Mostly, I feel as if I failed them, as if I have lost them. Though the title poem is about meeting an oil rigger in Scotland once, a man who works on the sea for many weeks at a time, over the course of the book, I connect that to sending sons into the world, how mothers can not protect them, how we fail them in so many ways. Or, more to the point, how I feel bereft and guilty as a mother. And there is no getting back those years, no re-doing their childhoods.

TCJWW: In past interviews, you’ve talked about experiencing/writing about grief on macroscopic and microscopic levels—how these macro and micro views of grief, sympathy, and empathy work themselves into your poetry. Could you expand on this idea? How does this dichotomy of perspective work in your new project, Jersey Mercy?

McCullough: In many ways it’s embodied in the structure I just talked about, in the twining of speaker and main character, in the way close observation as a strategy is employed and then sidled up to the more lyric meditations later in the manuscript.

But the issues are really central ones of my life. No matter what I am writing. The book, Ripple & Snap, that just came out is about a public suicide, but it’s really the first expression of an early grief in my life. When I was 19, my boyfriend committed suicide after leaving a note on the front seat of my car. That haunts me, how instead of leaving the note, he could have knocked on my door, on anyone’s door; he could still be alive today had something intervened. How does one live with that? What kind of failure does one experience in a situation like that? How not to take on an enormous guilt, how to go on?

I know something of that, and so I wrote this book, but, like I’ve said about the other books, I am not fully honest in it. Where is my complicity, if not in my boyfriend’s actual death, then in his story? I am working on a memoir about that. I hope I can find a way to tell it true.

TCJWW: I adore your new poem “Nautical Tattoo,” published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Baltimore Review. The language moves from the intimate space of skin to ocean navigation—sailing into the unknown oceans, visiting the equal parts stunning, exhausting, floundering country of grief. This poem is part of a new manuscript about the Jersey Shore. Could you tell me more about this project?

McCullough: These poems are the most successful combining of my fiction and poetry sides. At first all of the poems were narratives, with recurrent characters. The main character, Mercy, is a young woman who frequents the Jersey boardwalks of Asbury Park and Atlantic City. She ends up getting pregnant and having a child across the poems. There are a lot of other characters, as well. There is a linear narrative over the arc of the book, but there are many departures from it, as well.  The poems are sonically driven, effected by EDM music and the Jersey Shore Club scene.

The problem with the poems for a long time was that I’d gone back in a way to writing the poems from Panic: poems at a distance, poems about characters and events, but there was none of the hard won mind-at-work I’d tried to achieve in Rigger Death & Hoist Another. Finally, I realized the poems and the manuscript as a whole was failing because I was not complicit in the poems. I spent close to a year re-writing them and writing new, more lyric poems to add to the manuscript, so now, as the arc builds, it opens toward more tenderly wrought poems, and then returns to the more narrative. This is important to me because one of the things I believe from my fiction training is that the first person speaker is always the main character of a story. So as much as I claimed at the start of this answer that Mercy is the main character in Jersey Mercy, that was a lie. The speaker—even the distant narrator—is the main character, and I have rewritten the poems so that the twin characters of the speaker and Mercy are the steel beams upon which the other poems and characters are assembled.

I’ve spent my whole life on the Jersey Shore, and the ocean, the shore towns, the clubs, they are all part of the landscape of this new manuscript.

TCJWW: I stumbled upon this fantastic photograph of you looking out over the ocean, a seemingly endless landscape. I love the idea of the ocean as something that cannot be dominated—a relentless, yet life-giving force. As a Jersey Shore writer, what does the Atlantic mean to you?

McCullough: I have trouble being away from the ocean. Bodies of water matter to me, and I recently learned it may be due to the negative ions produced by falling, turbulent, or tumbling water. I love waterfalls, too. Any body of water will due in a pinch. As a child, I used to make little damns of sticks and rocks along the curb to capture rain water gullying along the street. I have an early poem from my first book about how water pouring on rock wears it away over time. I love Tony Hoagland’s poem “Little Oceans.”  It ends, “How would we know what an ocean was unless it was uncrossable” which is, of course, a metaphor for the immensity of otherness in those we love, how we can never fully know them. Or the last line of Mitchell’s incredible novel about empathy, Cloud Atlas, “What is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?” The character is responding to being told his act of humanity will be no more than a drop in the ocean, but it is also meant to evoke ocean as metaphor for humanity, our collective-ness. Our connected-ness. I feel this looking out at the ocean, the immensity, the grandeur, my small part in the amazing-ness, that I am not alone.

The title poem of “Rigger Death & House” is about meeting an oil rigger when I was on the coast of the North Sea in Scotland. I was working then on the Ripple & Snap project, but meeting this man in a working class town bar while he was on shore leave effected me a great deal. He was on shore leave and wanted companionship. We had a few drinks. Had some laughs. He showed me his tattoos, including one inside his mouth: one word, MOM, inked upside down, so when he pulled his lip to his chin, you could see the word. It gripped my heart when when he did that, how men carry their mothers inside them, hidden somehow.

Over time, I storified the elements of meeting him and that story began to collude with the grief of my sons’ separating from me, that old-as-the-world mothers’ grief. There are several linked poems in the book about that, but the title poem ends with water, water as a metaphor for all of those feelings, and why we:

sift death-ashes

into rivers and oceans, stand on the edge

of wide water facing it, or rowing over it

or churning below it, or building platforms

above it, as if we might claim some control

and maybe why we drink, why we pay

for the rarest malts, the most smoke

and wood,

why we hoist another one, nosing and tasting,

taking sips and rolling our lost

histories around the tongue, so they penetrate—

and distill—

the scarred membranes

hidden inside our mouths.

TCJWW: You’ve also mentioned exploring the poetic line as a signature of breath. How do you do that? What discoveries about poetry have you made by listening more closely?

McCullough: The Jersey Mercy poems are more syncopated and rely on more assonance, consonance, and near and broken rhyme than on the music of rhetorical strategy—though there is still some of that—as my other work has been. The Rigger Death poems are more cadenced.  My ear is developing as I find this hybrid musicality between my prose and poetry gestures.


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