Scared Violent Like Horses: A Conversation with John McCarthy

John McCarthy is the author of Scared Violent like Horses (Milkweed Editions, 2019), which won the 2017 Jake Adam York Prize. He is also the author Ghost County (Midwestern Gothic Press, 2016), which was named a Best Poetry Book of 2016 by The Chicago Review of Books. John is the winner of The Pinch 2016 Literary Award in Poetry, and his work has appeared in American Literary Review, Best New Poets 2015, Copper Nickel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New Ohio Review, Passages North, Sycamore Review, TriQuarterly, Zone 3, and in anthologies such as New Poetry from the Midwest 2017. He received his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.


Lisa Higgs: I’ll just start with the fact that you and I met in Springfield, Illinois, when we worked together on Quiddity, a literary journal run at the time by Benedictine University, though neither of us lives there now. As such, I was immersed in the familiar locations that your collection invokes. I was struck how intimately and compassionately you portrayed the North End of Springfield—which features prominently in Scared Violent Like Horses. This part of town is divided from other parts of the city by train tracks running through town. What drew you to writing about your upbringing?

John McCarthy: I’m not the first person to say or feel this, but I believe the longer you stay in a place, the longer it takes to figure out how to write about that place without being sentimental. I was in Springfield for over two decades, and I suppose it took about five years of being removed from Springfield before I started to write about it. I’d even venture so far as to say that when it comes to the landscape itself, one has to physically remove themselves to know what they want to write and write it well. I didn’t intend to write about the north end of Springfield. Before I even knew what the book was going to be, I was just free writing and trying to write poems that captured the essence of what I believed to be downstate Illinois. After I had filled my notebook with simulacra, I noticed that I had the material for a few poems that potentially could be sequential. When it came time to order the book, I thought about how these anchors could provide granular context to the reader as they imagine and conceptualize the larger landscape that the north end exists within. As the book evolved, I knew that the book had to explore the paradox of loving a place that one wants to leave behind, among many other themes. And those other themes—which I know we’ll chat about in a bit—are framed by the existence of certain realities on the north end. I’m glad you noted the compassion that is present in those particular poems. I’ll talk more about compassion in a bit, too, but I think compassion was a necessary function when writing about the north end in order to avoid self-pity or other misery-esque tropes. The writing needed to work toward something, and I knew that something had to be a turn toward the compassionate.

LH: Setting is as much a character as the people who populate your poems in both of your books, Scared Violent Like Horses and the earlier Ghost County. What about the Midwest, in particular its despair and decay, interests you not only in terms of place, but also in terms of character?

JM: To create an interesting character in fiction, it’s a general rule that you have to put your main characters through hell, sometimes kill them. At least that seems to be the general consensus. And I suppose I put an immense pressure on the landscape in the same way. In hindsight, that’s what I intended to do with the north end poems you mentioned, too. But in terms of the Midwest, I suppose the thesis of Midwestern Literature is a kind of elegy. There’s a general sense of guilt and abandonment. I think that feeling exists in the Midwest due to the decline of corrupt industries such as coal mining and oil drilling. Capitalism takes and takes until there is nothing left.

In order to make this connection I want to mention that I recently had the privilege of attending the North American Review Conference in Iowa, and I had the honor of hearing writers Terry Tempest Williams and Taylor Brorby speak in depth about the alteration that Iowa and the West have undergone. Tragically, Iowa is the most altered state in America. Brorby cited that only 1/10 of 1% of the original prairie remains. The rest has been removed as a result of coal and oil. Hearing Williams and Brorby speak was beautiful, but also heartbreaking. So I think what I’m trying to say is that this ignominious alteration and abandonment of the Midwest is what I try to illustrate and eulogize.

LH: This is perhaps an odd question, but is loneliness an inherent part of the Midwest, or at least of its more rural parts? As someone who lived nearly a decade in Springfield before moving back home to Minnesota, I remember acutely the body-feel of isolation or loneliness of Springfield, which you capture with such a difficult combination of beauty and pain in your poems. Is this even a question you could respond to—what is at the root and soul of the rural Midwest?

JM: All of our regional boundaries are Eurocentric. These definitions, while literal, aren’t really anything but conduits for regional stereotypes that we use to try and make sense of places we may have only read about, passed through, or watched a video of. What’s really at the root and soul of the rural Midwest is colonization. All of that land once belonged to Native people. It was stolen like the rest of the country was. When you ask about loneliness being a distinct feature to the Midwest and the Midwest that shows up in my work the answer is that I don’t think it’s unique. I think most places feel this sense of loneliness. Even in city centers there’s a mental health crisis. Contrary to the absurd and imbalanced accumulation of its wealth, the tech industry has one of the highest rates of depression and loneliness. So I think what is at the root of this loneliness is not some regional truth, but the ways in which capitalism and colonization have been opportunistic at the cost of landscape and human life. It dismantles what is natural, and after taking what it needs, it leaves behind barrenness. Right now, our entire Earth is getting ruined and left barren due to climate change. The “root and soul” of the rural Midwest is a symptom of something much larger and much more dire. To quote Bill Nye, “What I’m saying is the planet’s on fucking fire. There are a lot of things we could do to put it out—are any of them free? No, of course not! Nothing’s free, you idiots. Grow the fuck up.”

LH: Silence and violence seem to work in counterpoint together in Scared Violent Like Horses. I think of “Flyover Country” in relation to poems like “What I Mean When I Say I Don’t Box Anymore” or “On Fighting.” Was this an intentional connection? How do you see the relationship between silence and violence playing out not just in your book and your life, but across the Midwest region?

JM: This question, to me, seems really close to the genesis of the title for the book. Silence is a space for reflection and that comes out in the bookending praise that “Flyover Country” begins and ends with, but it also manifests as fear, guilt, shame, and confusion. And once those things take root in the psyche and in the body, they often spill outward, sometimes in violence. I don’t think we are naturally violent. Violence springs from fear and insecurity. Humans and horses have this beautiful relationship with one another and that relationship lives in an area of trust and tenderness—both qualities of silence if you will. Then there’s the elements of our relationship with horses that are violent: the ways we often talk about putting an injured horse down; the ways in which we domesticate and train them, which is not unlike how Catholicism’s flawed idea of God has exerted power and control over my past life; and then there are the ways in which horses kick and run chaotically about when frightened. This relationship between silence and violence is an inextricable part of being. The point of it all—I guess if there is a point to it all—is that through silence—meditation and self-examination—we come to a threshold that we can cross into toxic and violent behaviors, or we can learn how to control that violence and not allow ourselves to be governed by fear and insecurities, especially in terms of how we view, teach, and talk about masculinity. Converting trauma into tenderness is difficult, and I guess my only hope is that someone sees this book as a way of becoming more tender toward the world.

LH: Scared Violent Like Horses approaches the subject of love in complicated ways—love for a mother who is not truly present due to mental illness, love for a father whose life did not turn out as he expected, love for a town that seems part graveyard, love for your friends who are more often than not going to beat you bloody, love for a woman who has her own wounds. As you wrote the poems in this collection, how important was it for you to find compassion for people and places found within its pages?

JM: To me, elegy can sometimes veer off course into self-pity, especially when writing in a confessional style. It did take me awhile to process everything you just asked. It took years in fact. And when it comes to the way love or its opposite has affected us, it was important for me to remember that it was no one’s responsibility to make sure I’m dealing with my baggage in a healthy way. That’s my responsibility, and I think there would be something juvenile and self-pitying if I didn’t choose love and compassion in the end. I believe that the right choice is the one that works toward understanding and kindness. I don’t think it would make for good poetry, or at least the truth of it wouldn’t be as deep. I’m still thankful to all of the people and places you mentioned above, and I love them, too. Going back to an earlier point—now that I am removed from it all—it’s my responsibility to not nurture those wounds or search for solace in any feelings of disappointment, anger, or resentment. Doing that would be toxic, and the whole point of the book is about recognizing and breaking that cycle.

LH: Your collection is most frequently in the first-person, including several self-portrait poems that are from the vantage point of objects from childhood. How direct a line from poet to narrator exists in this collection? What issues have you navigated by using first person, particularly given its highly personal subject matter? Given that many readers will associate the poet directly to the first-person point of view of a poem unless given clues in title or elsewhere, what does a poet need to consider in poems using first-person that represent a viewpoint not tied to the poet?

JM: I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask about this because I think the viewpoints of the book are tied to me. The book is confessional. Whether or not you have positive feelings toward confessional poetry is another issue, but I think the point of confession is to engage in the act of it, but also to meditate and to examine while simultaneously describing events or emotions taking place as a way to illuminate some deeper truth. For me, confessional poetry is a way to go back in time and allow yourself to know then what you know now. If done well, it can help instruct the reader to interpret similar parts of their own lives with the same frameworks for truth searching—elevating the narrative beyond itself so that the writing is possessed by the autonomy to call itself a poem.

The few poems in Scared Violent Like Horses that are not in first person are there to provide some differentiation of voice and perspective. For the most part, the book is an ongoing interpretation of events and the roles in which I, as the speaker, played. The poems which are portraits and self-portraits are about interrogating the interiority of the self. Similar to the ways in which we must remove ourselves from a place to write about it accurately and without sentiment, I had to detach from myself and find a channel that allowed me to look at myself without sentiment or self-pity.

Since contemporary American poetry has been so influenced by the advent of confessionalism and its many iterations, I feel like the use of first-person is much harder to signal distance and removal than it is in fiction, unless working in persona. Not that it’s wrong or impossible to do so; I just think that’s part of the poetic zeitgeist right now.

LH: One way of reading Scared Violent Like Horses is to see the first section as a map to your childhood neighborhood; the middle section the multi-section poem, “Flyover Country,” as a bridge; and the third section as an adult reaching toward redemption. Do you think the people who populate your poems would agree with your depiction of Central Illinois?

JM: No, I don’t think all of the people who populate my poems would agree with my depiction of Central Illinois. Subjective memory is a fallible and unreliable narrator. Combine that fact with the imagination of poetry and the presentism that confessionalism and meditation on the past create and you have an artifact that is unique to one person’s inconsistent and creative interpretation. I’ve had people come up to me and say I don’t agree with you. They’ve said, Central Illinois isn’t as sad as you make it seem in your book. I got to say, I agree with them, too. There are certain truths that revealed themselves while writing Scared Violent Like Horses, and they just happened to reveal themselves in the more challenging aspects of Central Illinois. Ostensibly, a 79 page book of poems can only hold so much, especially when that book represents almost three decades of a life. If someone wanted to critique the book in that way, I’m sure they could be successful. It’s far easier to judge and critique something than it is to create it. Scared Violent Like Horses is about an only child growing up in a very specific part of Springfield. Like all writers, I had to make an authorial call about what personal narratives actually made sense to include, what narratives were appropriate to include, and in which order to include the narratives to create a compelling book.

LH: Springfield is not unlike a lot of other small Midwestern cities and towns—a church and bar on every corner so it seems. The final section of Scared Violent Like Horses features the Virgin Mary in a pothole, the Catholic sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and last rites, hymn lyrics. What role does religion play in the journey for you as a poet and in growing up and growing away from your hometown?

JM: Having been raised Catholic, I think religious themes will always appear in my work. Catholicism was the framework for which I was supposed to view the world, but it never sat right with me. It always felt like something was missing. The amount of guilt and shame I made myself feel along with the veneration of self-sacrifice to the point of self-abuse was too much. As a result, faith will always show up in my writing as a point of tension, as an undertow to the way meaning is constructed within a life. I wouldn’t call my work spiritual though—it never addresses faith as an outright practice—but I do find myself using some of Catholicism’s practices as access points to examine and meditate on the conflicts that occur within the interiority of the self. For example, the sacrament of baptism involves a sprinkling of water over the head to signify someone’s faith in the trials of Christ. In the poem, I use the more secular definition of the word baptism, which means to initiate a person into a new activity or role that is difficult. In that poem in particular, it’s a new stage of life.

I think faith and spirituality do a lot of good in the world and provide a healthy and supportive community for a lot of people that go out and spread kindness, but I find the Catholic church to be economically exploitative and deeply problematic for women. And after the child abuse stories have come into mainstream light, I want nothing to do with it.

To your final point—I’m not sure leaving had anything to do with my relationship to religion. I feel like the narrative of leaving hometowns behind and experiencing profound change is a caricature at this point. Even if I was still living in Springfield, I’d still be running around as a “fallen” Catholic. At the end of the day, I don’t like what the Catholic church stands for, and I don’t like the way it makes me think or feel about myself. It doesn’t change how I think or feel about individual people, and I give all my gratitude and love to the people in my life who are Catholic and who have helped my life become what it is.

LH: I am interested in how you equate loneliness less with a regional truth than with an inherent natural imbalance that arises from colonization and capitalism. These seem fruitful places to explore in future writing—is this where you see your current work heading, or have you discovered some new subjects to explore in the coming years?

JM: I don’t enjoy talking about future projects. Once I talk about them, something clicks into place or changes, and I feel like a liar. Once I say it out loud, it’s like I corrupt the vision. I want to avoid that as I like what I’m working on right now. What I will say is this—I’m still writing work centered in a specific region. But the scope of themes in the new poems are different. Scared Violent Like Horses addresses classism and toxic masculinity, among others, through a past self. The new poems will address new themes from a more recent self. Themes from Scared Violent Like Horses will still be present, but they will be broader. As a writer, I feel like it’s an inevitable job requirement to grow in public. What I’m working on is a new stage of growth.

LH: You reminded me recently that we once talked about the writing life outside of academia, or rather whether or not to get an MFA if you are not interested in an academic life. Now that you are out of your MFA program and have embarked on a non-teaching career, what benefits do you see from taking the time to get an MFA degree?

JM: I would love to teach again at the university level one day. I genuinely enjoy teaching. I still pay attention to the job listings for poetry positions, but you’re right, I have a good career right now with a good company doing ethnographic research. I love my colleagues, too, and I think to have steady work in a healthy environment is a rare and privileged thing, so I’m hesitant to entertain anything else. I’ve worked jobs where this was not the case. And I’m in a position where I can’t follow visiting writer gigs at universities, and I have no illusions around how hard it is to land tenure professorships—and it’s getting harder. That’s reality, and I like realism.

Our boss—and he hates that word—is a good dude who is worth his weight in gold. He values creativity and kindness above all things. He, too, has an MFA—in sculpting—so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say my MFA helped me get the job. There’s certainly been a steep learning curve since I didn’t go to design or business school, but the soft skills that the MFA teaches, such as patience, storytelling, creative and critical thinking, as well as the workshop model, have helped me work collaboratively with people and take criticism. It’s taken about a year, but I finally feel like I found my footing in a new world.

One benefit to not working in academia is that my writing life gets to be wholly mine. It feels much more like a retreat when I get the chance. Sometimes the chances to write are sparse, but they’re there, and they come back. I feel like I live two lives, and I enjoy that. It’s like a dialectic. Each life is an escape from the other. It helps with being productive. In the experience I had, the MFA gave me plenty of time to figure out where my passion lied, and it gave me time to figure what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to how I make room for that passion as life continues to get busier and busier.


Lisa Higgs

Lisa Higgs’ third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2019. Her poetry has been published widely, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.

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