An Interview with Rose McLarney
by Justin Bigos
Justin Bigos: Rose, there are many things to admire in your forthcoming, first book of poems, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains. The book contains voices, and yet I sense a voice; stories, and yet I sense a story. You have a poem titled “Ars Poetica,” and another titled “Poet,”but there are many poems in this collection that could stand for the whole, the way a leaf of a fern looks like a fern. It’s a big question, but can you talk a bit about how you see these poems speaking to each other? And how did that help you arrange them into the pages of a book?
Rose McLarney: These are my ambitions for The Always Broken Plates of Mountains: A cast of speakers, like a chorus, express the thoughts of people who share a rural background and landscape. The landscape is more than the physical setting in the Appalachian mountains—it’s an atmosphere created by weaving together stories of both personal and larger cultural loss. The poems are not only about romantic love, but perhaps more significantly, about faithfulness to place. Though the perspective in this sequence varies, the poems are united by a characteristic voice. The voices are alike in that they are understated and musical, with tendencies to defer and deflect, as were the voices around me as I grew up. The voices are also united because they speak of love and loss, experiences that are so utterly un-unique that perhaps the only way they can be interesting is to use them as points of commonality.
At least that’s what I hope happens in the book. A significant time for me as a writer was a morning when I was shuffling through my many poems and began to think that they weren’t necessarily redundant because they addressed the same themes, or necessarily at odds because their speakers were different, but that they could work together. Now, reading and writing poems in series and sequences is a kind of acknowledgment that, though poetry can look so concise and definitive, you can’t express a thing well enough all that quickly or easily. Or I can’t. Sequences give me a chance to make the admission that I may never articulate what I want to completely, yet show my continuing best efforts.
Of course, while series allow me to try out different iterations of an idea, they are also limiting. A number of the poems I write just wouldn’t fit in this book. (For instance, some of my greatest pleasures are rather exotic cooking and experimental music and those subjects have no home in The Always Broken Plates of Mountains.) I’m well into working on my second book and, for it, I am trying to write distinctly different poems about another country, another continent, from another point of view, and there will be poems that won’t find company in this collection either.
In answer to your question about how the poems are arranged in the book, they are grouped by and progress through an arc of tones (though nothing as neat as a plot triangle). My intention was for the book to feel as if it resolved—even if the resolution at which it arrives is a message about disappearing, keeping quiet, being still. (Those may be some of the predominant messages I got from mountain culture. I don’t want to romanticize it. Of course, that instruction in humility may have also prepared me to inhabit personas.)
JB: I admire the various qualities of imagery in the book. In your poem “At the Mountain State Fair,” you write, “Rides are lighting up the night,/ shaking people and making them shriek.” The imagery resides in the music of the lines: the long i sounds in the first line, which rises in pitch—suddenly shaken by the long a and sh-sounds and jerky rhythm in the second line. You’ve managed to create the sense of a roller coaster in only two lines. In another poem you write the indelible image of bridesmaids climbing a silo to line “the steel tower/ with fuchsia, powder pink, red, and orange satin.” The image is striking in its colorful juxtaposition. How do poems let you know if they require different qualities of image? Are you mostly listening to the lines or seeing what they summon?
RM: My ideas tend to originate from images. Every night, I make myself write one image from the day in a notebook. The notebook is in no way a journal—you could read it and have absolutely no ideas of the events that had occurred. But the notes give me something to search through for commonalities, and allow me to start poems from a concrete, grounded source.
Only after I’ve got a sense of what I want the poem to say do I let sound drive it. I don’t turn to sound as a source until later because, as much as I am drawn to music, I understand it less and coherence and clarity are big concerns of mine. Yet, sound is essential—and I’m appreciative that you noted it in your analysis—because it is often what lets writing achieve some sort of transcendence, something I didn’t expect, and it is what can save my poems from being overly rational arguments or simplistic equations of image and meaning.
JB: One of the recurring concerns in the book is story. Story is often associated with the South, and your poems both embrace and toy with that association. In your poem, “They Said It Was Too Late,” you write of meeting a man “who told the kind of stories/ I wanted to hear.” In “Jubilation, Then,” the speaker says, “Once, stories . . . were like explosions of elderberries.” And in “Disclaimer,” the speaker mentions a place called “Lover’s Leap,” named for a Cherokee girl who killed herself out of love, but actually is just a place where “a coon hunter” fell over—and lived. The final stanza of the poem: “and you can see why they tell the story/ the way they do,/ and why I prefer their stories.” While the poems embrace story, as it is connected to place, the speakers seem to understand that story is ultimately a fiction, a work of art—and therefore to be savored. How much is your book a defense of story, in the Southern tradition—if it is such, and if there is such—and how much of this is just Rose McLarney being Rose McLarney?
RM: While I value the way poetry can stay in a moment and I have never been particularly interested in what happens—in events, in action, in change, in leaving—I am interested in story in the sense that I am interested in how the manner of telling makes the meaning. We all know that eyewitness accounts are not dependable evidence, that any two people’s memories of events and exchanges differ. So, whether it’s about a region or a relationship, when you choose to tell a story with nostalgia or condescension or another tone, you are making the history it will survive as longer than whatever the actuality was. If you can stand the story-teller role, there’s a way in which what you know well never is really lost.
The poem you mentioned earlier, my “Ars Poetica,” is not literally my story, which should give you an idea of how thoroughly I take advantage of personas. The speaker’s rarely Rose McLarney. I’m not all that fascinating and I worry about being liked too much. That’s why I am constantly espousing the idea to my students that what could really be most liberating in writing poems is not confessing their autobiographical secrets but becoming someone else.
Perhaps even worse than that for my students, if they misapply my writing advice to their personal lives, is my suggestion that there are truths truer than the truth. To elaborate on what any fiction writer knows: While the chalk mine in “Ars Poetica” might have been a couple counties away from the school I attended, or a man’s diction was not quite so refined, if it is the image of that stripped mountain or the summation of his words that best and most economically illustrates what I want the reader to register, isn’t the altered version the more accurate?
All that said, the poems are representative of, emblematic of, and indebted to direct experience of the landscape and culture in which I live.
Read the rest of the interview here!