“Imagining decay comes easily to me”: A Conversation with Rose McLarney

Rose McLarney is the author of three collections of poetry, Forage, Its Day Being Gone, and The Always Broken Plates of Mountains. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, Missouri Review, The Oxford American, and many other journals. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Auburn University and Co-Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of the Southern Humanities Review.


Forage is Rose McLarney’s third collection of poems. This deeply musical, interrelated collection considers subjects including the extinction of Carolina parakeets, the emergence of coywolves, the sweetness of scavenged persimmons. Forage examines American violence and exploitation, and tends to the “flickering of the familiar before it expires.”

The following interview took place via email in August 2019. It has been edited for length and clarity.


Katie Pyontek: What was the original impetus for Forage? How old is the oldest poem in the book?

Rose McLarney: I developed my original idea for a book oriented around the concept of tributaries when I relocated to Oklahoma for a previous academic job. I was struck by the state’s dryness, meaning its lack of water, as well as its contradictory wetness during its prohibition-defying, cocktail-drinking heyday in the 1920s. One of the oldest poems in the book is “A Fine Dust,” which is based in my reading about the Dust Bowl, and my walking amid the present-day art deco mansions with their sprinkler-irrigated lawns.

After a few years, and another move to Auburn, I adapted the book concept to incorporate poems about the increasing range of locations I was trying to come to know. I also had to figure out what to do about the poems I was drafting in which animals figured—after I had given up all the animals who were once my companions on my small farm, and sworn off taking them as subjects of my poems. Yet, there the drafts were, demonstrating just how hard it is to resist making animals beasts of burden, whether as laborers or under the weight of metaphors for oneself. I saw that the work that would become Forage mostly dealt with environmental and social concerns, and that animals could help travel between these themes.

The very oldest poem in Forage, “Many Kinds Make the Crowd,” is about an animal—an elephant hung at a circus by a mob. Much more than a decade ago, the front page of the newspaper in the small North Carolina town where I then lived was comprised of two articles: One was about a local hunter shooting an 18-point buck that weekend, and the other was about this elephant’s killing in 1916. My earlier drafts of a poem using material from the newspaper wondered about this combination, about nostalgia and proximity, and about interest in whatever is far back in time but nearby in another sense. (The elephant’s killing was “just over the mountain,” the paper offered as explanation for revisiting this gory story.) Those early drafts failed to deal with the full weight of the subject and I gave up on them. It wasn’t until more recently, after current events had made it impossible for my writing to avoid issues of race and violence, that I was able to fully recognize that it was partially the reminders of lynchings in the elephant’s story that made it so deeply uncomfortable to encounter. Then I wrote the difficult poem that appears in Forage, which is about the potential for hatred and violence harbored in people, especially when formed into groups.

KP: A line in “Seasonal” asks, looking at a suburban football field, “Why not such a field as subject for study, / rather than a farm’s.” What drew you to consider the suburban as pastoral? How has the idea of pastoral changed for you while working on Forage?

RM: As much I love actual rural places, much of what has always interested me about pastoral poetry is that it has often been about a “figment.” (That’s David Baker’s word from his essay, “The Pastoral: First and Last Things.”) Virgil composed a nostalgic ideal for the relief of city dwellers who wanted to turn their attention to something other than their own settings. Frost’s poetry about little New England farms might initially be taken for pastoral, but really he is writing about sites of failure in cold and rocky soil. Today, when the word “pastoral” is used, it’s likely to be with some irony or to point out the impossibility of such ideals. Many poets are adapting the word “pastoral” for the purposes of poems about their contemporary, and often urbanized or disturbed settings, and in their own variously quirky and crushing ways. It’s hard to choose just a few examples, but some of my students’ favorites are Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue and Ansel Elkins’s poems, such as “Mississippi Pastoral” from Blue Yodel. That poem is about the Old South and sounds like the Old Testament, but while it has an element of nostalgia, it evokes an Eden to be fled, to paraphrase a reviewer.

My poem, “Seasonal,” began when I moved to Alabama to teach at Auburn University. I was trying to get over feeling sorry for myself because the surroundings weren’t as pretty as the mountains and rivers of western North Carolina that I was used to (which is not the most substantial cause for sorrow). I tried to think about the good qualities of the place—since every place does have them, for those who pay attention to find—and got the uncharacteristically light-hearted opening of the poem on the page. But, once my consideration of the landscape led me to think of how humans have exploited each other and destroyed other species, and history and the future, that tone proved unsustainable.

KP: “Hereafter” describes a post-Anthropocene world. “Imagine all the swimming then, among wrecks filed along the freeways. / An idyll of engines stopped utterly.” How did your imagining of that post-human world influence your poems, and vice versa? 

RM: Of course I worry about what will happen to people. But—when observing firsthand the disappearance of a fish species in a familiar stretch of stream after the removal of vegetation that provided shade (a hint of what large scale climate change will do) last week, or, this morning, hearing on the radio about how dung beetles on a far continent who have successfully navigated by the Milky Way since the time of the dinosaurs may now become disoriented by our artificial lights—the injustice of the impact humans have on other life forms strikes me as even more wrong. To write post-Anthropocene poems, to think that the assumption that our species has the power to end the world could be false, and that there are creatures better at surviving can be a relief.

Imagining decay comes easily to me, as I’ve always been drawn to old house sites where only a few cultivars growing the woods suggest the former domesticity, chimneys standing in fields without their burned buildings, or whatever structure is missing its paint and has cracks in its glass. Maybe this draw is not entirely nostalgia for the past, but a sort of picturing of the future. However, I should point out that “Hereafter” is phrased as conjecture, a tentative wish, because it’s a fantasy of someone who would like to believe there is an escape from the damage she’s been a part of, but knows heaven is the place that’s already been given.

KP: In “Winter Hard,” horses escaping a wintertime fire instantly freeze solid when they enter a lake. The speaker reflects, “Which makes no sense. But never mind / science. The idea stays with us.” Can you describe the role of this line within the poem, or within your poetry?

RM: Those lines cut into the poem with a voice that contrasts with what has preceded and sounds pragmatic. Yet what they are arguing is to disregard science and sense.

I am talking about those lines as “they,” like strangers, because, when I was drafting the poem, they surprised me with their appearance. Yet their down-to-earth briskness sounds more like my own speech than anything else on the page.

Getting down to the truth is what we want, right? Yet, if we are to get on with the larger story, there’s no use in quibbling over this point.

The poem “Winter Hard” has its own particular argument about connections and distance. But the part you have picked out of it also speaks of overarching themes and conflicts.

I’m a scientist’s daughter. Yet I am a poet.

People demand proof. Yet emotion governs decisions more than fact.

“Hope is the mother of the stupid,” to quote a Polish proverb Zbigniew Herbert referenced. Yet what use or excuse is there for doing anything but hoping?

KP: Simple pleasures are portrayed as a kind of spiritual nourishment. How do you understand things like sex, eating, and going for a run intersecting with ecopoetry?

RM: The term “ecopoetry” is helpful to me when I want to distinguish poetry that includes the natural world (ideally without sacrificing artfulness) from that which romanticizes or politicizes nature. But I don’t think about ecopoetry as a guiding principle when I sit down to write, or when going running.

That said, a person who is trying to be aware of her part in a whole does tend to examine whether her pleasures are necessary or at others’ expense. In the poem you are referencing, “American Persimmon,” I believe eating the fruit is what the speaker ought to do. To let the persimmons go to waste on the sidewalk because they’re not pretty or because to gather them is not conventional would be closer to sin than to enjoy them. Some readers may be surprised that a book titled Forage doesn’t contain more poems about, say, how to differentiate between a chanterelle and a jack-o-lantern mushroom or how to cut the spines out of nopales. But there is plenty of salvaging, ranging from an elephant enjoying fruit rind she finds on the riverbank before she is killed, to a couple who, before pouring cheap liquor, rubs rind on glass rims to scent them. I open the book with a short piece about gathering windfall in a suburb because I believe such acts of appreciation are important, along with the lessening of consumption associated with environmentalism.

KP: How was the process of structuring and revising Forage different from other books you’ve written? 

RM: In my first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, I did not use any sections, though it seemed like that was the expected thing to do, because I viewed the poems as all part of one arc, and of one landscape. I divided my second book, Its Day Being Gone, into three sections: A section of poems set in the U.S. and influenced by folklore, a section of poems set in Central America with its own mythic quality, and after this interlude, a third, more contemporary section set in the U.S. that revisited and reflected on the contents of previous poems. Forage is a very different book, in that it is not as place-based or narrative, so I knew I would need to come up with a new approach to organization.

The result is a book in five sections, each containing eight poems. The ending and beginning poems of each section are intended to both speak to each other and to the poems they follow or precede in adjoining sections. There are also recurring notes throughout the collection. I revised the poems many times before putting them in the manuscript, of course, and then revised them all over again and again specifically for their place in the greater order. I don’t write poems in traditional forms, but the way I conceive of books as sequences, and fixate on numbers and balance of parts, is beginning to seem like its own sort of formalism.

KP: “A Fine Dust” opens, “Is there time to marry, or at least / to buy a house, plant a maple by the door, / and see it mature? That’s what the small / mind asks when someone speaks / about the big picture: /” How has ecopoetry shaped your relationship to the big picture?

RM: I would say that the big picture shaped my relationship to poetry, and that is why my writing acknowledges eco- and other systems. I was raised by a staunchly environmentalist father, who gave me the sense that the resources a person consumes in a life means that she had better do something worthwhile with it, and by an outstandingly frugal mother, who was at every minute making or repairing something of use (or figuring out why we didn’t need something at all). So, if I am going to spend my days adjusting a small number of words that may or may not ever appear in slim volumes of poetry, I want to have a good share of them aim beyond myself.

Which is not to say that I am under the illusion my work isn’t dominated by the “I” or anthropocentric. When some people speak of “ecopoetry,” getting the human out is what they have in mind as writing’s goal. I’m doubtful that is possible since writing relies on human language, and every view must come from an eye. 

KP: “A Participation of Waters” addresses the “stagnant refrain” of violent anti-Black racism and the racially-motivated murders of Black Americans. The poem asks, “And in a storm, who can claim she’s just watching?” What led you to this line? 

RM: Working on earlier drafts of “A Participation of Waters,” I was observing, pairing atrocities in the news with a particular image of rain that day. (Wasn’t an image what I was supposed to provide?) Yet the poem did not feel right, and simply remarking on the injustices felt like a too-easy reaction. So, I decided that if I was going to make a poem out of the lives that had been taken from people, it was going to have to interrogate my own position, as well as the innocence of anyone, in any region of the nation, who may have benefited from social and economic systems that so favor white people. That led me to swivel the lens around and view the overflowing gutters of my old house and myself in the shelter of the screen porch below.

In general, I agree with Carolyn Forche when she warned against construing the personal as too separate from the political, and wrote, “If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance.” Figuring out how to compose—and recognize as an editor—meaningful, rather than opportunistic, poetry of witness will be an ongoing project for some time.

KP: In “Peach Juice,” you write, “If only she knew what tribute, / in return, to pay.” How has poetry effected the ways you pay tribute? 

RM: In the process of drafting “Peach Juice,” I explored new phrases, such as “dead zone” and “algal bloom,” and the roots and parts and connotations of “tribute” and “tributary.” On my desk now, I have the beginnings of many more explorations of naming. There’s a list of the common names of varieties of the dagger moth: Delightful, Medium, Nondescript, Puzzling, Unclear, Hesitant, Afflicted, Retarded, Funerary. (I have ordered it so as to amuse myself with the suggestion of a story of some assistant assigned to catalog genus Acronicta and growing weary of his task.) There’s a list of the names of members of the family who used to own the bend in the river where I grew up: Loy, Tyndall, Jewel, Titus, and Beulah. Also, there’s a book in which an architect proposes that we need to coin names for contemporary houses, since the majority of us now do not occupy those that fit in any one clear style such as Greek revival, colonial, stick style, or ranch.

I don’t know what from among these assorted notes and sources will ever be incorporated into a book of mine. And that which I praise (unless I’m writing about my husband or mother in an obvious manner) probably doesn’t get much benefit from poems. But interest in words is an interest in distinctions and articulations and understanding. Having the intention to write poems maintains a kind of sensitivity, keeps me engaged with the world and with an eye out for what is good about it.

KP: How has writing Forage changed your writing practice?

RM: The fourth collection of poems that I am working on now is turning out to be the most personal I have written. While this could be interpreted as a reaction to idea-driven Forage, the truth is that, in daring to address issues in Forage, I have become braver about subject matter in general. Like many women, when I was a beginning writer, I gathered that I would be more likely to be taken seriously if I stayed away from feminine themes. Now, I am finally writing about family, the body, etc.

The next collection will continue the practice of writing poems that tell different sides of a story or entertain opinions that are not my own. In Forage, for instance, the optimism of the mothers who go on having children despite climate change in one poem is recast, when read in the context of other poems, as willful ignorance of the bleak prospects children will grow up into. And, though I am no defender of the South’s role in the Civil War, a poem does meditate on the aesthetic motivations of Sherman’s photographer. The poems also continue to contain queries and uncertainties. Openness may be criticized as ambivalence, or questions as rhetorical, but I am going to go ahead with putting more feminine patterns of expression in poems, rather than defaulting to what could be typified as a masculine style of asserting conclusions.

KP: What projects are you working on now?

RM: I was recently working on a poem for a new edition of Don West’s Clods of Southern Earth, edited by Rebecca Gayle Howell, which will reissue his labor rights and proletariat poems along with poems of response commissioned from contemporary writers.

I’m polishing poems that will appear in a chapbook titled In the Gem Mine Capital of the World. It is about the good fortune of coming from an area of the mountains where there was no mineral wealth mining companies found worth pursuing in a major way.

And I am alternately descending into my obsessive process of sequencing and re-revising the poems that will be a fourth collection someday and extracting myself to pursue side projects with visual artists and writing lyric essays.

Finally, phrasing some answers in this interview in the obnoxious royal we, or as if it were possible speak for all of humanity, doesn’t do anything to lessen how much it’s been all about me. I’m an editor, as well as a poet, because I like to give time to others’ writing. So, readers, if you have poems that are ready to be in a journal, send them now until November (through Submittable) to me at the Southern Humanities Review.


Katie Pyontek

Katie Pyontek is an MFA candidate at Ohio State. She has received a fellowship from Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts and is an alumna of the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Tin House Winter Workshop. Her writing has appeared in New Ohio Review and South Seattle Emerald. She lives in Columbus, OH.

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