Interview with Catherine McGuire
Catherine McGuire is a writer and artist with a deep interest in philosophy, the “Why we are here?” question that lurks under so much of our lives. Using nature as a mirror, she explores the way humans perceive themselves and their world. Her chapbook, Palimpsests, was published by Uttered Chaos (www.utteredchaos.org) in 2011.
She is webmaster for the Oregon Poetry Association and claims her entire garden as her “poetry office”.
SCP: So first off Congratulations on wining the Poetry Prize. We had a lot of great submissions and really think your work is top notch. Can you kick us off by telling us a little bit about yourself? About your writing and the impetus of your work?
Catherine: Thank you very much for selecting me – I’m delighted and honored. And I’m happy for my poem (feels like a “child” getting a prize). I’ve always been a poet; since the earliest time I can recall, I was saying, and then writing rhymes. Looking back now, I wonder if poets are born, not made. I certainly didn’t have access to poetry (except Cat in the Hat rhymes) until 4th grade, when we moved near a library. That was a major turning point in my life. I still remember finding Rabindranath Tagore in 8th grade – a mindblower. Also in 4th grade, we were made to memorize a classic poem per week – I usually did two. Oddly, I never really studied poetry or English in college; a couple of bad teachers drove me away.
I’m not just a poet, of course (I wish!) Tried my hand at many jobs in several fields (the 1975 recession meant my Bachelors took me 9 years). Too many clerical ones; but also grant writing, tech writing and about a decade as a mental health therapist. Lots of fodder for poems. I’ve had two children’s books published by TSR, Inc. I’ve lived in New Jersey, New York City, Southern California, and Oregon. Not much of a traveler, but I enjoy watching travelogues online; the differences and similarities among cultures is fascinating.
For the past four years, I have been living in a small town, working from home by maintaining websites, writing technical articles for various newsletters and selling my crafts on etsy.com. I am attempting a simple, self-sufficient life via a large garden, a flock of chickens, a trio of rabbits and a manual approach to my needs. I’ve traded off the flexibility of middle class wages for the natural setting and quiet that I crave, and I’m happy with the trade.
SCP: Can you tell us some more about this poem? What brought it on? Are you an avid reader of Li Po and his clan, or was this more of a random piece inspired by a passing read?
Catherine: That was a lucky circumstance, or synchronicity. A friend gave me a large, wonderful book of Chinese poetry Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry (in English, of course). I had been enjoying it a lot, and I was amazed at the similarities of expression – the poets’ grief at the various wars that ravaged the countryside (over and over), the need to get away to nature and the wonder at the natural beauties that city folk seemed to ignore. They were saying what we say – back in 400 AD! It does strongly suggest that human nature hasn’t changed much in centuries. I felt the need to respond, and that’s where “Lucky Frog” came from.
SCP: You recently had a chapbook published by Uttered Chaos called Palimpsests. Is this your first book, or rather how much have you published (or self-published)? Can you tell us a bit about Palimpsests, the title is quite intriguing?
Catherine: The word palimpsests (I do love the sound of it) refers to the scraped manuscript page where traces of the old text can be seen underneath the new text – thus, old stories re-appearing through the new ones (ancient monks would scrape off old pagan books to write new Christian ones, as vellum was expensive). When I was approached by the publisher, and looked at my poems, I saw a theme of myths and fables that were re-cloaked in modern terms. Thus Cassandra shows up in a modern psych unit, Athena is seen in the Middle East and the Little Mermaid speaks from a corner tavern. There are many patterns in life, for those who look.
Palimpsests is my first chapbook by an independent publisher. I had two previous self-published books: Joy into Stillness: The Seasons of Lake Quinault (that’s in WA’s Olympic Peninsula – gorgeous!) and a for-fun Poetry and Chickens (I have a flock, and lots of chicken poems). I love to combine my artwork with my poetry – my photography is in Joy…, my chicken sketches in P&C, and a collage is the cover of Palimpsests.
SCP: What are your feelings about the current poetry publishing landscape? Cheaper and more innovative technologies allow for the existence of such venues as Uttered Chaos and Seven CirclePress. Some would even say we are in the midst of a paradigm shift, what are your thoughts on such notions?
Catherine: I am grateful for the electronic revolution that has opened poetry and literary fiction up with so many new outlets. I’m not sure about “paradigm” – I’ve read enough history to know that the printing press, the steam-driven press, the typewriter and the mimeograph all opened up new avenues and created blooms of small presses that lasted a while and then big giants gobbled them up. It may be this way for electronic, sadly. Though there are always smaller presses alongside large commercial ones.
The good news about the e-presses and small press houses is that they are able to make an impact that is larger than their size – they have rippled out and shifted the older publishing scene. So it’s true that you don’t have to be huge to have an impact.
And I will admit something taboo – as a middle aged poet, I don’t feel like I have a good grasp of the new poetry landscape, and that is natural: there are new generations of poets already concocting a vibrant new poetry scene, and I’m content with that.
SCP: In stride with that question, what are some of your favorite journals, zines, and publishing ventures?
Catherine: That’s a hard question to answer. I write widely varying poetry (I have over 1,000 poems in my submissions database and 271 are actively being sent around) so I send to a wide set of publications – 117 different ones so far! New Verse News online has accepted 11 of my social commentary poems; Avocet, a print nature poetry journal, accepts many of my nature poems; Gray Sparrow Press had me on the same online page as Maxine Kumin (a hero of mine).
One of the wonderful things about submitting poetry is that I find new and wonderful zines and presses all the time! And some of the newer ideas for poetry – like your postcard “broadsides” – I love that. Another press, BluePrint, hosts a “blog carnival” where poets put their poems and illustrations on their own websites, then BP posts a page of links gathered on a theme – that’s a fun variation on an “issue”. And in Oregon, we have a fun project – Mailbox Poetry: people put realtor’s boxes in front of their houses and fill them with broadsides, generally a poem a month. It’s really catching on! And there are some publications that I long to get into – like Gettysburg Review, The New Yorker, Southern Review.
SCP: In another interview with you available on the Uttered Chaos website you said that poets were once “the keepers of the tribe’s memory.” That’s a beautiful thought. What do you think the poet’s true role should be in age when so much of our “memory” is caught in photos, videos, televisions, computers and thousands of other forms of tangible media and art?
Catherine: I do think about that a lot, and I love to read others’ thoughts on it. Wonderful essay by Joshua Michael Stewart in your latest issue of CircleShow, by the way. One point of view that resonated with me was psychologist James Hollis’ saying, “Poetry is not affectation, nor aesthetic sleight of hand, but a mediation between humanity and the numinous.” He also states that in a plastic, throwaway culture, the poet’s job is to “affirm, to render what is real, amidst the fleeting moments and disappearing things.” That speaks to our desire to understand the world, and to share our understanding. With the modern onslaught of images and ideas, poets can find/create strong, resonant symbols that point to human depths.
One of my poems in Palimpsests, called “Mnemosyne,” deals directly with this issue. I quote from the last section:
Not the tendril lifting
Not a goddess
SCP: Any other thoughts, dreams, warnings, tidbits you would like to share with the world?
Catherine: I would like to urge poets to read widely from other countries – both to stretch your mind and to see why poets living elsewhere than the US are imprisoned and feared. Poets have power, and perhaps we’ve forgotten that. And read from many historical times – see how similar and different life has been.
I would also like to thank the readers, writers and lovers of poetry! It’s a huge tribe, and I’m always amazed to meet new members. No matter what the mainstream media says, poetry has an essential place in our culture. It’s just not easily encapsulated, and thus ignored.
SCP: Awesome! To close it out could you point us towards some other places on the web a hungry reader could find some more of your work (if any)?
Catherine: There are 11 in New Verse News archives http://www.newversenews.com/ (search for “McGuire”) including “Orphic”, “Avatar” and “Living On Foodstamps and the $150 They Get from Nielsen.”
Palimpsests poems published online:
“Curing Cassandra” http://www.melusine21cent.com/mag/node/114
And you can find one of my chicken poems and more information on my writing at :http://www.cathymcguire.com/poetry.htm
SCP: Thanks so much!
Note: Hollis quotes are from “The Archetypal Imagination” by James Hollis; Texas A&M University Press, 2000