KR Conversations

Rose McLarney

Rose McLarneyRose McLarney has published two collections of poems, Its Day Being Gone (Penguin Books)—winner of the National Poetry Series—and The Always Broken Plates of Mountains (Four Way Books). She is assistant professor of creative writing at Auburn University and poetry editor of Southern Humanities Review. Rose has been awarded fellowships from Bread Loaf, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee, Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, and the Darmouth Poet in Residence program at the Frost Place. Her poem “After the Removal of 30 Types of Plants and Animals from the Junior Dictionary” can be found here. It appears with other poems in the May/June 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “After the Removal of 30 Types of Plants and Animals from the Junior Dictionary”? Also, it is noticeable that the words your persona suggests are being removed still exist in our contemporary lexicon. What does the choice of including still-living species in this piece do for its urgency and relevance?

I was troubled by these removals, of course, and by more than a particular volume of a book produced—what such editorial choices indicate about broader attitudes. Many of the words the dictionary’s editors cut are names for things that are still very much alive, which suggests that elements of nature will be irrelevant to those who are young now. It suggests that we shouldn’t even try to save the beings the words indicate, though their extinction need not yet be seen as assured, and that we go ahead and eradicate all notion of them from our minds, even as sentimental memories or subjects we might speak of in mourning.

At the same time, as a poet, I am also almost always pleased by a list of words, which is a source of associations and sounds. I wanted to be able to put some of those would-be lost words back on the page (at least the little page of poetry that I control), but I also wanted to hear the alliteration roll toward what surprising next phrases it would and to play with the alphabetization, working backward and forward from A-Z, and see what language that would summon.

I should mention that I was made aware of the changes to the dictionary—and that a group of writers led by Margaret Atwood had already made statements some time ago requesting that the words be restored—by an article in The Guardian. The words around which I composed my poem were collected from this and other articles.

The words your persona cites as being removed from the dictionary do not exit alone—they are linked, almost like synonyms, to larger values and ideals. What does this relationship do to the original word? Can bluebell become another accurate way of pronouncing beauty?

“Do not exit alone”—that’s well-phrased. Words aren’t just linked to abstractions (values and ideals); they’re linked to living beings. “Beauty” as a word doesn’t necessarily articulate anything particular. To see a bluebell—sky-blue bright in spring woods, numerous blossoms nodding on each stem—does.

There are instances when many of us question what our lives are worth, I imagine. To have these concerns answered with a conceptual argument isn’t, for me, as effective as experiencing what feels meaningful. I am sometimes troubled by being someone who has let herself turn into a specialist in words rather than actualities. So I write an environmental poem. So I write my Senator. And what? But then I have the fortune, for example, to run through the woods and see a flame azalea asserting itself more brazenly than any speaker or a dogwood lofting upwards above all this, and I know that while there may not be much I make or anything I save, there is certainly enough to stay and look at to fill a life, if selfishly, also well.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

My first book (The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, published by Four Way Books) was, comparatively speaking, though it didn’t seem that way as I was working, less of a struggle to write. I had lived all my life, at that point, in the southern Appalachian mountains, a beautiful place (there’s that word), among people with a distinctive way of using language. I’d been gathering and distilling images and phrases for my twenty-something years that were fairly ready to present themselves as poems. The second book (Its Day Being Gone, published by Penguin Books) was more difficult because I wrote it as I was in the process of leaving home—the one thing I swore I would never do—and so had lost confidence in my ability to offer any wisdom to anyone. But I found ways to form the questioning of myself into a poetic style and method of inquiry into the larger world.

I have put more intention still into the third book. (I prematurely call it a book because I have set it aside for the time being. There are no publication plans yet.) Instead of images or voices, I set out to have this third book, which I am calling Forage, be driven by ideas. I could not have thought harder about its concepts and structure. In some cases, I also could not have fought harder to keep writing what I intended because, as a female writer, as an Appalachian writer, readers may have certain expectations of bodily or folksy elements in the poems.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing? 

Environment. My first two books are indebted to the material provided by one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, the wonderfully storied and vernacular buildings among the mountains, and the speech and culture of people whose lives are set such landscapes. Those books are out in print—maybe some will want to read what they have to say for themselves.

So I will speak a bit more about my current writing projects. If I no longer have ancient mountains I have known all my life to look at, I cannot avert my eyes. I need to learn what the deep South (where I live now) is, what the un-idyllic America is, because I am a part of them. I cannot ignore the shopping plaza I pass through; there are telling things displayed in each grocery cart. If I begin days by running through neighborhoods now, I need to study the curls of newspapers thrown on curbs like they were shells on shores. I know who gets which paper and when they are late to pick it up. I can suppose what the trash they put on the curb or their political signs say in contrast or complement to their potted plants. You have to see wherever you are. And find the trees that are there between paved streets, too.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I am working on my fourth book while the third—cures? Is that the word for it? (“Pickle” and “ferment” don’t sound much better.) The first drafts of poems for the fourth book took the form of unusual recipes, informed by study of Southern foodways and imagined from the perspective of a woman who resists authority by cooking with intuitive measurements instead of a cookbook. These poems led me to continue pursuing the imperative voice, sketching out a series of poems presented as caretaking instructions—for a house, for an animal, for another human, for one’s future self, for this earth. In turn, these ideas prompted me to begin expressing ideas in the style of a field guide, which prompted questions such as how do we know the lives that share our habitat? What can’t be captured by criteria and list, or remains unnamable? The instructional mode is helping me see that it is often uncertainty that drives me to my subjects. Sometimes I have knowledge to share, but more often as a writer, I am trying to work toward greater understanding.

I eviscerate my work, so through ugly revision I doubt the final book that results will resemble what I describe here or even contain how-to poems, but in this starting process, I get to study up on all kinds of subjects. Yesterday I was reading the Foxfire chapters “How to Wash Clothes in an Iron Pot” and “From Raising Sheep to Weaving Wool.” (A lot of steps there.) Today, I’m reading Ruskin’s markedly different prose—and delightfully bossy prescriptions—in The Poetics of Architecture. (“Now, when smoke is objectionable, it is certainly improper to direct attention to the chimney; and, therefore, for two weighty reasons, decorated chimneys, of any sort or size whatsoever, are inexcusable barbarisms; first, because, where smoke is beautiful, decoration is unsuited to the building; and secondly, because, where smoke is ugly, decoration directs attention to its ugliness,” etc.) Those are beautiful phrases, so I will stop there without trying to decorate them.