Sunday, April 22, 2012

An Interview with Heather McNaugher: Part 2

In March, Blast Furnace published Part 1 of a two-part interview with Heather McNaugher. Following is Part 2 of the interview. 

photo: Joyce Connors
In your manuscript, System of Hideouts, why First Time as the opening poem and Between Us as the closing poem?

Initially I put “Affirmations” first, but I think people found it hostile, because a couple of readers told me it was not the one to introduce folks to me and the manuscript. But if you think that that’s a hostile or angry poem, you might want to pay more attention. So I put “First Time” first to set up the series of firsts…“First Memory,” “First Boots.” Then, the last poem, ending with ‘home,’ seems wistful and appropriate. 

Does your writing process allow you to write in the moment,” or do you typically need or allow distance from the subject before writing about it?

For a poem like “Roxanne’s Fern,” I wrote it within a week of her memorial service and all at once. I took it to Sandy Sterner, made a couple of changes, and then I spent another week with it, but it came quickly. 

Aside from fictionalizing the names of real persons in your work, is there ever a time, or has there ever been a time where youve felt it necessary to censor it? If so, when and why?

At the end of the day, I’m going to write the best poem I can. But I want to honor the relationships in my life. I made changes in the second round of galleys [for System of Hideouts] to avoid hurting people’s feelings. Some poems in [the manuscript] are difficult, but [they’re] my version of it. They’re not mean-spirited. I haven’t had the opportunity to say ‘my parents,’ plural, very often in my life, and I was very interested in saying that. Some of the poems, or the dedication at least, speak to that.

Talk about word choicemore specifically, verb choice; for example, “lacerate in  Emergency Contact.” Did that verb come easy?

I can’t remember. Probably not. I’m more interested in how the line ends on that word, how I had to re-structure the words before it into a more antiquated sequence, “would with a postcard lacerate,” versus the colloquial subject-verb construction at the beginning of most sentences. That’s from writing formal poems, learning how to structure the interior of a line to land on that end-rhyme or word. 

In the manuscript, there are switches between the I and the You.” What warrants this most of the time in your work?

I often start with an ‘I’ and land in a ‘You’ mid-poem. I do it sometimes in prose, which is very strange. I do make a deliberate decision. The ‘You’ feels more instructive. It invites and indicts at the same time, which has a finger-pointing quality. ‘I’ is more intimate and vulnerable. The question it comes down to is, do I want the vulnerability or more the hand shaking, finger-pointing, “universal” and inclusive, engaging feel the ‘You’ [provides]? 

Which poem in the manuscript demanded the most revision?

I wrote “Emergency Contact” a lot. Judith Vollmer [co-editor of 5 AM] said she liked it, so I knew I was onto something. [The poem] was a big deal for me. It’s one of the relationship poems. It’s nostalgic. It’s one of the first poems [in the manuscript] that does what a lot of the rest of them do: admission or acknowledgement of the kind of person I am. 

The focus of attention in your poems is intriguing; meaning, the objects from memory that stick with you. For example, In My Girlfriend’s Mother,” the radiator in the house, not the mother, takes center stage. How did you know, in writing a poem entitled as such, that you needed to write about the radiator?

That radiator popped up in my head for years. In fact, there’s a house in Squirrel Hill right now that I want because of its radiators. I love a good radiator [and when my then girlfriend’s mom painted it,] it looked so good; I think that’s why she’s in [the poem]. The process was so painstaking—to strip the prior coat of paint; an intricate, elaborate process. Meticulous. Obsessive. And then painting it black. It made the room with those wood floors.

It was one more aesthetic lesson that family gave me…the Conran’s furniture, two fingers of Jack Daniel’s [in glass]…I fell in love with that whole world. I didn’t know those things, that such quality and comfort existed. Once you know those things, there’s no going back. Like once you’ve slept on flannel sheets, you can’t go back to polyester. A lot of the poems [in the manuscript] are about class. I grew up pretty broke and covetous, so I had to latch onto family to get those things, which makes me sound like a mooch or an opportunist.  But I have no regrets, because they gave me an aesthetic to aspire to, which is priceless; they were very good to me.

You include some traditional form poems in the collection. “Pallbearer is one of them. Did you start out writing it with traditional form in mind?

Yes. I was practicing some traditional forms and probably teaching forms at that time, reading Gjertrud Schnackenberg. It came pretty easily. Once you rhyme something with ‘Presbyterians,’ you’re pretty impressed with yourself! 

What about titles? Does the poems content typically come first for you, or the title? Do you struggle much with creating titles?

I wait until the poem is written. A title can do a lot of the work; it can really affirm and instruct. 

You’ve mentioned System of Hideouts, the manuscript, is often about avoiding the writing process for you. Is some of the avoidance of writing based on fear?

Some of it is probably fear. One of the reasons I’m a teacher is because my students are really familiar with this, the fear. No poem is ever going to be perfect out of the gate, or even after 50 revisions. But once I’m really working on the poems, everything else is a distant second. 

What do you think it is that makes your poems confessional without being melodramatic? How do you avoid melodrama, of coming to a point of admission without judgment?

Honesty is not melodramatic or sentimental to me. It’s the opposite. Saying what people are afraid to say. Be stark—pare it down like stripping the radiator; the event without sentiment.

Editor's Note: Heather McNaugher will read from System of Hideouts on Friday, April 27 at 8 PM EST. The venue for the event is Square Café in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In addition to McNaugher, Main Street Rag (MSR) Publisher/Editor M. Scott Douglass will read from his new collection, Hard To Love, along with another poet, Amanda Reynolds (Heinz 56). McNaugher and Reynolds were both runners up for the 2011 MSR Poetry Book Award.

Blast Furnace is pleased to post the following two (2) poems by Heather McNaugher.

Denver to Tulsa

I don't fly unless there's a good-
looking girl on the other side.
A good-looking girl rocking her Stetson
and her internship at Tulsa Studies
for Women's Lit, foremost
feminist journal smack in the buckle
of the Bible Belt.
I don't fly unless the risk
of fiery death is offset by the chance
I might be saved.

So when the pilot gets on and says
her name is Susan and she'll be my captain
today, this should sound promising—
like an appropriately hot
radical send-off into the brazen arms
of my lover.

But I and 89 Republicans, fellow
travelers, we all look up, startled,
and grip the armrests a little more
dearly, tighten our seatbelts.
Hope no one noticed.

Shredder Pile

I need a shredder
endorsed by Cheney, Ashcroft and Rumsfeld—
on the box three black unsmiling thumbs-up.
I go online, Google "shredder." When I look up
it's 2009. Eight years throwing poems
on the closet floor.
Their outline pressing like a soul
through the door.


  1. This two-part interview of Heather McNaugher rocks! I had not heard of her before. I went to Main Street Rag and read more of her poems (from System of Hideouts). I'm having the library order this book!

  2. Thanks so much! It's always great to hear encouraging feedback from the folks who visit BF. Heather is, indeed, a gifted and very special poet. We're honored to have had the opportunity to interview her and feature a couple of her poems.