Sharon McCartney

Interviewed by Gerard Beirne

Gerard Beirne

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Sharon McCartney has published five collections of poetry with a sixth, Metanoia, forthcoming in 2016 and a seventh, Villa Negativa, in progress. Her poems have been included in the 2012 and 2013 editions of the Best Canadian Poetry in English and in 2008 she received the Acorn/Plantos People's Prize for poetry. Her poetry relentlessly explores the self with brutal honesty but with a wry humour always close to hand. As George Elliott Clarke wrote about For and Against, “"You don't read these poems, you feel them: Hammer in the head, shod foot on the throat, stiletto in the heart. It's those combos of wild, piercing insights (or unusual but poignant images); yep, that's what makes it good for you - or kills you, laughing." Earlier this year I sat down with Sharon to talk about her two new manuscripts, the evolution of her work from collection to collection, and the function of poetry in getting closer to the self.

Sharon McCartney: The Via Negativa was the link to Thomas Aquinas and was the Christian approach to understanding God, which is to say that we can’t understand God, that we never will. So the only way to understand God is to try to understand what God is not. So that’s the negative way, the Via Negativa. So Villa Negativa, I just decided to play on that, and then the poems are not about God, but it’s more like a way of understanding yourself. We can’t understand ourselves because in order to understand something you have to have objectivity. You have to be able to step away from it, and we can’t step away from ourselves. So how do you understand yourself? It is by defining what you are not which takes time. So that’s what the new manuscript is focussed on.

Gerard Beirne: Is the poetry a way then of stepping away from ourselves?

Yes. It provides you with objectivity, and you can sort through events and challenges… all those kind of things. That’s the way I see it.

And you have said that the structure of the poems is different in your new work?

Yes. It’s little episodic pieces… I call it an aphoristic narrative because there is still a story being told, but it is in short two or three line pieces. And that just came out of, first of all, trying to write while I was at work…

Constrictions of form…

…yes, write a few lines then go back to work. But it is also from writing in my journal. Every morning I get out the journal and, you know, just write bits and pieces and sometimes that ends up in the manuscript. Sometimes I’ll sit in bed with the journal writing and I’ll think, “I like that. That’s a good one” (laughs). So then I send it to myself on my phone, and that means that they have to be even shorter because I am using the touchpad of my phone. So I end up doing editing just because I’m typing it into the phone. Then I email to myself and later go downstairs and pop it into the manuscript. So it ends up being really short, but then I end up going back and doing lots of editing too.  Just pare it down more and more.  And that’s part of the Via Negativa, it’s getting rid of everything that isn’t the poem and also getting rid of everything that isn’t yourself…saying, “That’s not me. That’s not what I am anymore,” so they kind of go together.

So the editing of the poem, you are using that as a focus to pare away…

Yeah. “Not that…not that…not that…” and then you get down to what it is…. Clarity and simplicity that is what I want. I feel like it has taken me a long time to get there and to get away from trying to write like other people, trying to write like ex-spouses who use a lot of big words and language…saying, “No, that’s not me. That is not the way I write.” That’s part of it too, getting rid of all that stuff. And clarity, that’s what I want just clarity and simplicity…say what it is that I want to say as clearly as possible. So that’s part of editing it down too, making it as clear as possible. Hopefully in a way that also incorporates interesting language… I feel I have got away from the image, and I have to consciously force myself to go back to concreteness and images because I just want to, you know, pontificate (laughs).

I am just wondering if you see this as a continuation from your last book, Hard Ass?

Yeah. Well Hard Ass was kind of like a hybrid book because it had weightlifting poems that were more traditional…For me, I had always been writing where I would write a draft of the poem and then go over it and look at each word and say, “well that word could be better. I could come up with a better word there.” Just going over it word by word and reworking the thing which is really fun. I like doing that. But there is also a long series in that book, The Married Man poems, and those were really different. I just decided… I thought, “well, fuck it, I am just going to write what I want to write and say what I want to say and not worry about (sighs) going to (laughs)…I love Thesaurus .com. I love it because it can take you in different directions from where you started. So it is not necessarily getting another word that means the same thing…that’s where you started…but you follow the links around and you might come across a much better word that means something entirely different. So I like it for that. I really had fun writing that series…it got me to a different way of writing partially because it was material that I felt very strongly about and it came out really easily. And that’s [the same] with the aphoristic narrative…It’s really fun writing that way because I just don’t worry about anything…so write, write, write.

So thematically looking back at your books, For and Against…

That was a real break-up book…and so much anger. I find that book hard to look at now. It is so angry, and the editor of that book he wanted anger, but the pain that is involved in that is just disproportionate to the value, I think. And I look at that book and…I’m just glad, I’m glad I am past all that.

Do your books build from one to another?

Definitely chronologically because I write so autobiographically. The first book was all about child-birth, the physical act and then the second one went through family stuff, my mother dying and linking back to other family events. The third book was Karenin Sings the Blues and that is a series of linked poems having to do with breast cancer. So again just the chronological progression, things that come up in life. The fourth book was dramatic monologues, The Love Songs of Laura Ingalls Wilder. That was the most fun I had writing a book. I just see that as kind of an aside ‘cause it was so much fun (laughs). It got criticised as being this long one-note sombre serious lament, and I felt like, “Wait a minute, there are jokes in there! It’s funny! A penis talks!” I felt like it was misunderstood. So then the Married Man book, I see that as a book about failure and what we learn from failure because the married man relationship had failure written all over it. It started from failure. And that’s what the gym is about too - weightlifting is all about failure. And you get stronger through failure, and I love that as a metaphor.

So those two sections complement each other?

Yes, and the Married Man series ends on a note of strength and positivity for me which is finding that amorphous other that you think that you need to get through life, finding that in yourself. That’s how that series ends. And that was through being stymied and being involved with someone that you can’t be involved with. So then what do you do? How do you go forward? You have to get involved with the only person that you can really be involved with which is yourself. In my life that was complemented with my work with weight-lifting in the gym. When you are doing weight-lifting the only person you are really dealing with is yourself. It is yourself and gravity (laughs) because gravity is what makes them heavy! You discover who you are and what you can do by pushing yourself to the point that you can’t do it anymore. And then that’s how muscles get stronger too. I fell like that is how you get stronger personally. Metanoia is going to be my next book. Metanoia is…. I read all this Christian stuff, and I am not a Christian. I don’t believe in God. I believe that we are God. And that is why we have always been searching for God because we are God we can never step out of that. We can’t find God because we are God. I read all of this Christian stuff and Buddhist, Eastern philosophies. The Christian stuff is particularly illuminating.  Right now I am reading Meister Eckhart who was a 13th century Christian mystic. I read his sermons and it invariably leads to writing in my journal. What I was reading recently was all about unity. He says that God is unity and the ego is separation. The translation I am reading uses the word “ego” which I don’t believe Eckhart actually used, so it would be interesting to be reading the originals. But anyway, the ego is separation, and that’s what keeps us from knowing ourselves. He says that’s what keeps us from knowing God, but I think that’s what keeps us from knowing ourselves, this false sense of who we are which is a necessary evolutionary tool. It got us to where we are but also stands in the way, causes great unhappiness. Envy, attachment, thinking that there is the external and the internal, and we need the external in order to achieve any level of happiness, but the external is always changing and you can’t hang on to it, so it is continual challenges. I find all of that really useful. Whenever they talk about God or he talks about Jesus, Son of God, I just translate it into my own terms and use it in a way that is useful to me. So that’s what the new manuscript is about. The Metanoia is the Christian conversion, and Metanoia, for me, that manuscript was kind of building on the Married Man series… saying goodbye to a whole lot of things and saying hello to new things which is a new me.