An Interview with Gary McDowell by TJ Jarrett

McDowell_AuthorPhoto20121) Because I know you, I know these poems weren’t written sequentially. Are they born of your obsessions, or better asked — are there themes you tend to revisit?

You’re correct, they were not written sequentially, and in fact, they span three distinct “projects.” “The Museum” is from my forthcoming book Weeping at a Stranger’s Funeral (Dream Horse Press) and is part of a series of disjunctive, associative lyrics I wrote in 2011 and 2012, whereas “My Mother the Philosopher Considers Non Sequiturs,” “She Shrugs,” and “Come Morning” are from a finished manuscript, written before Weeping..., of ekphrastic poems, and, finally, “Laughter” is new.

I tend to heed to Charles Wright’s idea, which he talks about at length in his prose, that poets are obsessive creatures, creatures of habit and habitual obsession. The idea that we all harbor wells of inspiration that we mine over and over strikes a chord with me. I tend to revisit several themes/subjects: fathers, fatherhood, fishing, rivers, lakes, sexual relationships, spirituality. I like to think then that my poems are, as you so eloquently state, “born of my obsessions.” And, obviously, it’s not like my themes/obsessions are unique, so surely there’s more to poetry than a poet’s obsessions, but it all, for me anyway, starts there.


2) You worked on an anthology on prose poetry, so I’m always a little surprised to know you write in line most of the time. Do you frame poems line by line or do you work on line after the rush of the words come through?

The prose poem is one of my favorite forms of poetry, and I do write them quite often, but lately I find myself drawn to lineation anew. For a while there (maybe 2006-2007), I wrote only in prose, but as my ability to sit down for long writing sessions dwindled (mostly due to fatherhood and its responsibilities), I fell in love once again with brevity, with dislocation, with the space and fracture of lineation. As my writing time became more fractured, so did my poems. Don’t get me wrong: I am entirely grateful for this. My work has matured, or at least grown differently, as a result of these changes.

So I tend to work in fragments, in quick bursts of image and line and sound; the poems do, lately anyway, come preformed in lines. Organic form? Maybe. Or it could just be that I take so much time with each line that I hear the line well before I actually write it down, so the shape reveals itself in three-dimensional space before it ever sees the page. I rarely, if ever, write an entire poem in one sitting. I may write a poem in a day, but it’ll happen over several 5-10 minute bursts on the treadmill, while playing checkers with my boy, in-between Dr. Suess titles with my daughter, while boiling pasta water, etc. I love the way language adapts to us just as much as we adapt to it.


3) If you had to pick a team: Team Sound or Team Sense… which would you choose and why?

I’m Team Sound all the way. Eliot’s dictum, “Poetry can communicate before it is understood,” has always been dear to me. I don’t strive for confusion or complication, but I do accept the inevitability of complexity. The poem “should not mean / but be,” right? Sense makes no sense. Everything else in life craves order (finances, family, work, health, etc). Of course there’s chaos inherent in all of these things, but when I come to the page—as a writer or as a reader—I want to be invested in the imaginative world. Look, I’m not afraid to be ugly, I’m not afraid to reinvent or be reinvented, but in order for that to happen, I must relinquish control somewhere along the way. So leaving sense behind and adopting the sense of sound helps me do just that. “Words are everything else in the world,” wrote Stevens, and I couldn’t agree more.


4) Describe the moment when it first dawned on you ‘Oh, wait. I’m going to be a poet.’

As an undergrad I thought I’d pursue an MFA in fiction. I wrote and wrote short stories, but I simply didn’t have a knack for plot, for narrative. But I could, at least according to a couple of my patient, saintly professors, form images, create textures and moods and tones. One of those professors—who’s now a great friend, mentor, and exceptional poet herself—Amy Newman, suggested I give poetry a shot. So I did. I read, at her recommendation, Nick Flynn’s Some Ether, Jorie Graham’s The End of Beauty, Maurice Manning’s Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, poems by Reginald Shepherd, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, etc. Damn the sentimentality, but I fell in love. This would have been 2001-2002. I started writing poems and haven’t looked back since.


5) If you had a flux capacitor and would set out to meet a literary figure, would you travel forward in time or to the past? Who would you visit there?

A flux capacitor!? I love the detail of this question, TJ. Only a poet would choose to write flux capacitor instead of time machine. Love it! Anyway, I’d go backwards. I’d go to the heart of the heart of the matter: 1950-60s Boston: Lowell, Berryman, Schwartz, Jarrell, Plath, etc. Mostly Berryman though. Ever since I read Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman by Paul Mariani and Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson, I’ve wanted to see Berryman at work, to watch him compose those Dream Songs. I’m captivated by their imagination, their language. I’d love to see him at work on those poems in the cramped bedrooms and offices he frequented in those early years of the work.

Gary McDowell poems in TQ1:
“The Museum”
“My Mother the Philosopher Considers Non Sequiturs”
“She Shrugs”
“Come Morning”


Gary L. McDowell is the author of Weeping at a Stranger’s Funeral (Dream Horse Press, 2014), American Amen (Dream Horse Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Orphic Prize, and They Speak of Fruit (Cooper Dillon Books, 2009). He’s also the co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, 2010). He is an assistant professor of English at Belmont University in Nashville, TN.