“Red is the highest hue in the rainbow: A Conversation with Rose McLarney about Colorfast”—curated by Tiffany Troy

Rose McLarney’s latest poetry collection, Colorfast, turns not to the exceptional red, rare, ruby but to the ruddy, plenteous garnet. If the language of North Carolinian folklore, property contracts, and recipes “speak commands” to the women of the South and in the United States, McLarney looks to what happens when the unattributed handwoven textiles from the 19th century “appear faded because they were responsive to the vividness of the sun” and “[w]hat happens after the writing ends/ and dinners begin?” Much as the common source of nutmeg and mace shows “how the fineness of life/ cannot be uncoupled for its finitude,” Colorfast teaches us the “greater hunger” of the women who serve others, who sing praise, dress up each morning, and who once were happy to consider slimness a measure of beauty.

Rose McLarney’s collections of poems are Colorfast, Forage, and Its Day Being Gone, from Penguin Poets, as well as The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, published by Four Way Books. She is co-editor of A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, from University of Georgia Press, and the journal Southern Humanities Review.  Rose has been awarded fellowships by MacDowell and Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences; served as Dartmouth Poet in Residence at the Frost Place; and is winner of the National Poetry Series, the Chaffin Award for Achievement in Appalachian Writing, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ New Writing Award for Poetry, among other prizes. Her work has appeared in publications including American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, Orion, and The Oxford American. Currently, she is Professor of Creative Writing at Auburn University.

Tiffany Troy: Colorfast begins with the poem, “Question,” which addresses the reader and asks “shouldn’t garnets be precious/ because they are plenteous, / making finding color in the hearts of rocks/ more likely?” How does this first poem open the reader to the world of Rose McLarney and the poems that are to follow?

Rose McLarney: By posing a question, I hope to engage readers, not just as readers, but as thinkers. The poem’s final question about what you regret not keeping is a broad one, to which I believe many people, regardless of their backgrounds, will have an answer. Is there a place, be it a region, or a particular house, you left too easily? Are there people who, even if you can’t make them stay, whether in a relationship, or alive in this world, you didn’t treat as treasure when you saw them every day? So, there are ways in which I was hoping not to make the poem just about the world of Rose McLarney.

However, you’re right that the question you quote presumes its own—my own—answer of yes. And this poem does set up themes for the book as a whole and make reference to things that are of personal significance. Dyes and stones fascinate me because of the long history of humans seeking sources of colorants and gems and minerals, as well as, on a more individual level, because my mother used to dye and weave and I spent my childhood picking garnets and mica out of the dirt.

(Ok, and now that you’ve got me digging into this, I am seeing that there is what family might recognize as typical Rose behavior in “Question.” I tend to be overdressed for many occasions, and am always going outside and off trail. The image of white dress in the mud is probably derived from my own experiences.)

One more note on this poem: It wasn’t originally titled “Question,” but, as I was organizing the manuscript, I came up with this title as a kind of partner and offset to the final poem’s title “You Must Know.”

TT: I love the image of the white dress in mud because the idea of “dye” is central to your collection. Your gesture in “Question” for the book to reach towards people who have felt value in the ordinary they left behind that definitely feels present throughout. Of course, though, your book also embodies a vision of the South, where seemingly benign folklore are re-examined alongside ambition, economy, and remembrance.  Can you speak to us about the process in writing Colorfast?

RM: I wrote this collection over a number of years, beginning with some assignments in subject matter and style I gave myself, trying to get a fresh start after publishing my third book, Forage, in 2019. These assignments included trying to write in a commanding voice, using imperative statements (since I tend to write in questions and asides) and to draft material based in creative research (or maybe I should call it wild reading) on topics such as gemology, archeology, and color theory.

After some time, I began to allow myself to break away from those assignments, returning to subject matter close to my homeplace in the Southern Appalachian mountains and allowing the poems to move into whatever shape and syntax seemed the most natural fit for them. I ended up with poems that I think are quite distinct from my past work in that they reexamine history, folklore, and memory more critically and, probably most significantly, center on women’s and girls’ voices and roles.

The final step in my process is ordering the poems. But just because it’s the final step and I have considered each poem a finalized piece before putting it in the manuscript doesn’t mean this part of the process is easy or quick. I obsess over details such as making sure there are the same number of poems in each section of Colorfast and Forage. I want the beginning and ending poem of each section to be in conversation with each other and I want each section to segue meaningfully to the next. I often end up entirely revising poems for the sake of how they will fit in the book as a whole and the narrative arc or tonal progression.

TT: I think what you describe is true for many writers, which is that prompts are helpful to overcome a writer’s block, but eventually you do need to break free from those assignments in order to create a body of work truly your own. For the writers among us, what did your revision process entail? How do the poetic forms you deploy contribute to the narrative arc or tonal progression of the collections overall?

RM: When dealing with practicalities, I aim to be an efficient person and someone who avoids waste, but I am not an efficient writer. (This is not to say that I do everything else with ease, as anyone who has ever seen me try to decide what to pack in a suitcase knows. But I mean that I chide myself when I take too long at other tasks, while I understand that writing requires time.) My drafts and revisions are numerous, the amount of writing I discard is considerable, and I spend hours at my desk profligately. I’ll often take a poem through several utterly different shapes on the page, try changing its point of view or the order of its parts, or convert the metaphorical implications. All that is likely to last from a first draft will be some essential image. I wish I could say this taking time was a peaceful process. But, in truth, I’m usually not able to work through my writing ideas and problems by watching the leaves or sitting beside a stream; I have to be actively typing and backspacing. In the end, though, the poems should have clarity and stillness and encourage thoughts with those qualities.

I’m not sure form does shape narrative or tone in my writing. I think that form ought to serve meaning, and that I should have a sense of what I want to say before I decide how I am going to say it. I would never set out to write, say, a villanelle, just to write a villanelle. I’d have to have an obsessive subject in mind that I knew would be amplified rather than limited by the form. (And, actually, I’d probably still write a pretty terrible villanelle.)  Though I do start with articulating the content of poems, the shapes they take on the page are of great importance. I am intentional about the length of each line, the number of lines in each stanza, and the number of stanzas in each section. I’m pretty sure you’ll never catch me publishing a poem with one line sprawled out longer than the rest unless I had an effect firmly in mind. If you do see a poem of mine that is irregular, I probably invested even more effort than usual in its form, and realized that its tone was such that it needed to be unconstrained.

TT: The duality between efficiency and profligacy in thinking about going about a regular day versus writing poetry is fascinating, as is the idea of form serving the narrative or tone but not dictating it, so to speak. I feel this tension is also present in the contrast between scarcity/ withholding and abundance/ feast.

The poems in Colorfast draw from a keen observation of Southern womanhood through these complex layers through the arts and crafts, visual art, folk wisdom, cuisine, which in turn showcases values (the peppercorn or the sugar in “Cakewalk”). Do you consider yourself a poet of place? And who are some of the writers that inspire you in writing about Southern Appalachia?

RM: The western North Carolina mountains where I grew up, though they are actually quite subtle, rounded mountains, loom large in my work. And Forage, my previous book, used the writing process to investigate and contemplate new areas I moved to in Oklahoma and Alabama. The location in which I currently live in Georgia is not yet so explicitly the subject of published writing. But, while I am getting to know it, this is the place I am doing my writing from and its quiet pine woods and soft sandy creeks must be a part of all my thinking on any matter. 

I appreciate that you used the phrase “poet of place” rather than “regional poet,” as the latter label tends only to be stuck on Southern writers and can be used to reductively suggest their work, because it’s set in an identifiable landscape, is not broadly relevant. A poet of place sounds like the title of someone who can write about any locale to which they are attentive.

My first impulse in answering the question about poets of place who inspire me is to be too comprehensive and start listing: Paisley Rekdal for the West, Larry Levis for the West Coast, Rick Barot for the Pacific Northwest, Marianne Boruch for the Midwest...

But, recalling that you actually asked about Southern writers, I will say that Ellen Bryan Voigt and C.D. Wright were major early influences (though they’re not Appalachian by most definitions).  The books currently on the shelf nearest my desk, which must mean they’re important, that take interesting angles on the South (again, not necessarily Appalachian, and, afterall, what constitutes Appalachia is contested) are by Vievee Francis, Charles Wright, Adrian Blevins, Joy Priest, Annie Woodford, and Matthew Wimberly. I also want to put in a good word for Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poets edited by Bianca Spriggs and Jeremy Paden. Finally, I’m going to steer the conversation so I can mention a book I’m looking forward to: What Good is Heaven, which will come out in fall 2024, by Raye Hendrix, a young Alabama writer (who I had the good fortune to teach).

TT: The reading list is superb! Your final book recommendation made me realize that you are also a teacher. I am also reminded of Mary Hathaway’s “Eden, Idaho” (HAD) in how you trace and turn inherited or learned wisdom on its head, as in “All Those Elizabeth’s.” That poem begins with a North Carolina folklore:“Hold a dumb supper.../ .../  If a traveler arrives in time for the meal, he/ will be the one who asks you to marry him”? In “Cakewalk,” the motif of cakes is used to explore the societal and familial expectations placed upon women (for the speaker’s grandmother, mother, and the speaker herself). What do food/ cooking mean to you and how do they present themselves in Colorfast?

RM: For me, cooking is a way to be creative that is both low stakes and essential. Cooking, I’m not trying to concoct anything that withstands critical scrutiny and the toll of time; I’m trying to use whatever vegetable may be overproducing to make a soup that will be eaten and gone within an hour of completion. And a well-cooked meal almost always makes everyone feel welcome and satisfied, which can’t be said of poetry. So cooking is a good offset to my meticulous, heady writing practice, and a means to feel connected to my family, not all of whom have been literary types.

The women in my family have an innate knack for cooking. My mother can get three hot meals a day on the table, probably with a bouquet and linens, at an exact time and on a budget–and get most of the dishes washed before guests sit down too. But I didn’t really learn to cook when I lived at home, maybe because I was an unappreciative loner as a teenager, probably because my family’s style of cooking is so intuitive and utterly unmeasured and unexplained. A poem that speaks to this subject, in addition to the ones you mention, is “When Asked to Explain Her Cooking.” It combines material from Foxfire books about folkways and from listening to the women around me such as the quote on timing ,“I just know how done looks, how long is/ long enough.” I did learn to cook as soon as I moved out on my own, by throwing things in a bowl and then adding some more things and most likely putting the mix in an iron skillet—just how my mother cooks, and successfully, if I may say so myself.

Another poem in Colorfast relevant to this conversation is “How Well They Liked the Meal,” which touches on the crushing side of the role as cook: the constant obligation, the immediacy with which your output disappears. I mention this because cooking is, in my life as a woman with my identity and a job outside the home, at this time, a choice. But I understand that it has not been a pleasure or an option for many.

One more poem I want to note is “Studying the Silences.” It acknowledges how women and people of color have been forced to cook for and serve others. But it also looks at the power some have been able to take in kitchens, in some cases writing and reading recipes—the only literacy they were allowed to practice—and in others eschewing recipes, making up their own rules, and speaking in the commanding language of an instruction-giver.

TT: Thank you for walking us through the poems, in particular because cooking has always fascinated me as an impermanent art (to be consumed) yet also central to who we are and the role that we play in society. In closing, what are you working on and do you have any closing thoughts you would like to share with your readers?

RM: I have what I believe may be a complete manuscript of lyric essays. But, while it seems I can write prose and journals will publish individual essays, I feel out of my field and unsure of what’s next. So I have spent a share of my free time over the last year peeking in the prose folder, making no changes, and closing it again.  I suspect the essays are pretty smart and have style, yet it can’t hurt to let writing age and see how it reads when I have (even more) distance.

In other time I have available for writing, I am shifting myself out of prose mode and back into poetry. To make sure that I do not have a prose hangover and that I am not over-explaining and writing in bulky syntax, I am drafting in unpunctuated and uncapitalized lines. Not too long ago, Mississippi Review accepted one of the only poems in the new form that I’ve sent out. Maybe that example will be available online at some point.

Closing thoughts–that’s a big, generous question. Well, I am often asked and often speak about the influence of my homeplace on my writing. What I rarely discuss is that my poems are not about a precise town in North Carolina. I combine and mold select elements of my observations and experiences there with select elements gathered in other places (such as Madison County, NC, where I moved on my own in my 20s when it was quite undeveloped) and elements influenced by other art forms and imagination more than any physical location.

I was invited to put together a playlist of songs to accompany Colorfast for the site Largehearted Boy, which offers playlists from a great array of authors, and I began and ended it with songs by Will Oldham (and filled it with tracks with not-even-slightly Appalachian aesthetics). I did this because the folkloric qualities of my poems are as informed by contemporary retellings and repurposing like his weird ones as by the original songs and tales. I’m taking the opportunity to talk about this distinction maybe because I wonder what the folks back home think of my writing. 

More important, I’m doing it in order to credit contemporary artists and writers for their formative roles in my work and to point out that Appalachian art can continue to be generated without every one of its makers looking back to the same past point in time. 

Also, poetry has similarities to history and memory, which Colorfast interrogates, and which are constructed by fallible, individual human minds.  Fabrication and omission in shared narratives can certainly be racist and sexist, repressive and unjust, and Colorfast is deeply concerned with those problems. But I love, too, invention and selectivity and how a person can craft a piece of art such as a poem that, better than a straight accounting, resonates with a truth and beauty and rings broadly and deeply true with a wide-ranging audience.

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor of Tupelo Press, Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review, and Assistant Poetry Editor at Asymptote.