An Interview with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is the author of Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014, Finalist for 2014 Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award, Finalist for the Colorado Book Award), series editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2014), founder and Editor-in-Chief of PoemoftheWeek.org, and editor of Warning! Poems May Be Longer Than They Appear: An Anthology of LongISH Poems (forthcoming) and Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2012).
His poems, reviews, interviews, and podcasts have appeared in journals such as The Writer’s Chronicle, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, The Missouri Review, Blackbird, InsideHigherEd.com, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others.
Andrew holds a Masters of Fine Arts Degree from Southern Illinois University - Carbondale, is Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books, and is a contributing editor for The Southern Indiana Review. He is also an award-winning freelance Editor, Writing Coach, and instructor of Creative Writing and English at the University of Colorado Boulder.
MARK JAY BREWIN, JR. How good it is to be talking with you, sir! It’s been quite some time since we’ve had a chance to chew the fat, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to catch up in front of a reading audience. First and foremost, congrats again on Ghost Gear! I know it’s been out for over a year, but it’s been getting tremendous nods from reviewers and some serious post publication prizes recently, deservedly so, which is just stellar. Fantastic work. BUT, let’s get down to brass tacks: With an acclaimed first book in your corner, one hell of a book tour under your belt, not to mention publications at some of the top journals in the country, where do you go from here? Do you have any creative projects on your plate at the moment?
ANDREW McFADYEN-KETCHUM. I’ve spent the last year and a half enjoying Ghost Gear as much as possible. I started writing when I was seven or so, started writing poems when I was 14, started writing Ghost Gear when I was 25, and saw it published 34 days before I turned 33. Publishing a book has been my life goal (other than having a family) for about as long as I can remember, so when my first book finally came into existence, I knew I wanted to spend as much time enjoying it and sharing it with as many people as I could. So I went all out and threw some book release parties, set up the book tour (which quickly blossomed into something much larger than expected thanks), and my press (University of Arkansas) has been very generous about submitting it to post-publication prizes and reviewers and such. It’s pretty thrilling to see that readers actually, you know, like your first book, and while there are obviously plenty of readers who don’t, there’s nothing like a killer review of your book, getting some post-pub love, and traveling the country to perform. It’s also exhausting. The real magic comes from writing itself, not publishing or success or whatever you want to call it, so I’ve taken the summer to key things down a bit and start figuring out what’s next.
Ghost Gear took nearly five years to get picked up. While I revised it nearly every time it got rejected (somewhere around 100 times), I spent much of those years writing a second collection of poems about my childhood friend, Mary Interlandi, who jumped off a building to her death in 2003. I started writing Mary’s book in January 2008 and just finished it last summer. I let it sit for about six months, revised it a few times, and sent it out this spring. I’ve revised it once a month since then and am happy to say it’s “done.” I’m sure I’ll make changes to it, and I’m hungry for suggestions from editors and readers, but I’m pretty in love with it right now, which is a wonderful and rare feeling. Ghost Gear is one type of accomplishment; completing a second book outside of grad school is another. It was a grueling physical and emotional experience to probe what happened to Mary and to her family and her friends for so many years (I didn’t write a single poem about anything for seven years), and I did it totally organically. I never, never knew what I was doing when I was writing new Mary poems or trying to figure out how to arrange them into a readable collection or trying to figure out what I was trying to say or what a poem even meant in the first place. I let the book tell me what to do and followed it even when it proved itself wrong over and over again.
I’ve been writing new, non-Mary poems for about a year now. I’ve been writing quite a bit about my experiences in Ferguson and Baltimore and with the amazing people of BlackLivesMatter and the NAACP. They’re a mix of journalism, narrative, and personal reflection kind of like Ghost Gear, but I’ve also been pushing myself to write poems I don’t know how to write and am reading poets I don’t typically lean toward. So I’ve been writing sonnets, poems that are neither narrative nor lyric, poems without any punctuation, poems in super-short lines, prose poems...that sort of thing. Why do what I already can? Sure, that’s okay some of the time, but I’m learning as much as I can right now, and it’s going pretty well.
I’m particularly enjoying writing a series of what can only be called fantasy poems, poems staring characters from the real world that are completely and obviously made up. Right now, for example, I’m writing a poem about finding a glowing snake and cutting it open to find the source of its glow. It’s set in my old neighborhood and stars real people from my past and present, but announces its fictionalization very clearly. I mean, snakes don’t glow, right? I think I’m doing this because it challenges me to find the purpose and meaning of the poem I’m working on in a way that’s a little more extreme than everyday poet doubt. If the story isn’t true, why put real people in it? What does it mean when a real person is depicted in a fictional narrative, lyric, setting, etc? Is it okay to write purely fictional poems? I think these fantasy poems counterbalance the very real, sickening, enervating, and (I’m now comfortable admitting) traumatizing experiences of BlackLivesMatter, but they do seem to be about the same thing: Human cruelty and the wonder of the world we inhabit.
I’m also writing quite a bit of prose about BlackLivesMatter and my experiences with the NAACP, so it seems that my subconscious is settled on a theme but is saying “fuck it” when it comes to how to write about that theme. Who knows where it’s all going, but who cares? I have a book on bookshelves and a second MS I’m very happy with, so I may as well wander through the dark and see where it takes me.
BREWIN. Your poem “Visiting Hours,” which is up alongside this feature, is a piece of work with tremendous breadth and length, and is a heck of an accomplishment. To maintain a narrative for that long, with such attention to sound and imagination, and the fact it offers such variety in forms as the sections progress—well done, good sir. Then again, of course this is excellently executed; you are no stranger to the longish poem. What opportunities or freedoms of the long poem keep you coming back for more? How do you navigate the uncharted distances of a long poem as you compose it?
McFADYEN-KETCHUM. I think the trick to a long poem is to inhabit it. You can’t just wake up one day and write a long poem and then revise it for a little while and have something functional. You have to live in the poem and treat its writing like Richard Bausch treats the writing of a novel: as an act of discovery. The more you discover, the more you can discard, the more you can let the poem take shape on its own. I also read 2-3 novels/memoirs/etc a month, edit a ton of fiction and non-fiction, and have co-edited an anthology of long-ish poems tentatively titled Warning! Poems May Be Longer Than They Appear: an anthology of long-ISH poems that is very close to finding a press. So I’m a pretty serious student of longer forms. That’s part of inhabiting a long poem: inhabiting other long poems.
Then there are more formal considerations. I’ll never forget the day Jon Tribble said, “The trick to a long poem is to reward the reader every three lines.” I’m not sure you have to reward the reader that often (though I try to), but I think the very notion of “rewarding” the reader is key in a work of greater length. Poets aren’t always in the business of rewarding their readers, but if you write a long-ass poem that doesn’t excite the reader pretty damn often, try again. I also think it helps to be as clear as you can be on the surface and to provide the reader with manageable chunks of text: stanzas, sections, short lines, sequences...that sort of thing. Imagine if Simone Muench’s Wolf Centos was one long poem. Imagine Robert Penn Warren’s Chief Joseph Of The Nez Perce without all those sections and voices. Imagine Ed Hirsch’s Gabriel without those asterisks at the bottom of each page or in single stanzas rather than tercets. You’d lose your mind!
You also have to think about how a long poem works in a larger context. Mary’s book is more or less composed of short poems interspersed with longer poems like “Visiting Hours.” This allows me to tell her/our story but to also give the reader a chance to breath and to reflect, which is what poetry is all about. Ghost Gear works this way as well, but the poems aren’t nearly as long, so I’m definitely pushing hard in this second book. I like to think I’m a pretty functional poet and writer in general. I push language and form and story and lyric pretty damn hard, but I also let my reader push back an as much as I can. I’m fond of saying that poetry is a collaboration with the world; I think that’s what I’m talking about here.
BREWIN. Let’s chitchat about heart. The tenderness and detachment in “Visiting Hours” is striking, absolutely haunting. Of course, I am reminded of “The Gatehouse Heaven” by James Kimbrell, due to the similar setting and impeccable musicality in both, but also because I am again amazed at how a person can confront the wide abyss of sanity, can put just the right words together to capture loss. What makes these writings so effective, lasting, is that the heart of these poems is an actual person. I imagine the balance between catharsis and craft must be nearly impossible to achieve, a constant battle. Would you mind waxing poetic about how you approached this piece of writing, what the process was like? How has it differed from the writing in Ghost Gear, if it has at all?
McFADYEN-KETCHUM. Again: inhabitation. I often hear people say that poets are not their poems, that the poet and her/his work are not one and the same. While I understand the sentiment and know it works for other poets, this doesn’t work at all for me. If I’m writing poems without investing my person and my heart, if I’m not inhabiting my work, if my work isn’t essentially me, it’s a heck of a lot harder to balance catharsis and craft, as you put it. Humans are crafted after all. By nature, evolution, parenting, God...take your pick. We don’t just fall out of the sky. And all humans experience catharsis. Thus craft and catharsis are inseparable, in the human and in the poem. This, of course, is my personal philosophy. Other poets who are a hell of a lot better at this would probably roll their eyes at me. But it works, and I’m a believer in doing what works, even if it’s scary or embarrassing. Whoever you are, if you can find a way to craft a poem that’s soulful and true and heartfelt, whatever that is: do it as often as you can. For me, that’s inhabitation.
I’m glad you noticed the connection with James Kimbrell’s “The Gatehouse Heaven,” one of the best poems I’ve ever read. I emulated “Gatehouse” quite a bit in order to write “Visiting Hours.” I knew I needed a poem in Mary’s book that told the story literally and metaphorically and did so as clearly and as simply as possible without losing its heart, without losing its music. Much of the book goes off and does some pretty strange stuff, so the book needed poems that would ground it, that would fix it firmly to the earth. “Gatehouse” provided some structural guidance but also showed me how to tell my own story and in my own way.
Looking at early drafts, about half of the sections were in the original draft and about half were stolen from other shorter poems I wrote in the process of putting the collection together or even sections of other poems. A few of the sections were written entirely independently but were always considered part of writing Mary’s book, even if I wasn’t sure they would end up in the book in the first place. This is more or less how Mary’s book operates. It’s not a book-length poem, but it’s damn close. Everything depends on everything else.
It’s also important to note that I consider the line itself a form. If you want to go through and scan each line, I think you’ll see what I mean. Not that I’m suggesting you should do that, but I like to give my language a sense of structure even as it’s in free verse. So the line itself will be in some sort of fixed form I’ve either come up with on my own (ie lines that mirror themselves: iamb-iamb-anapest, dactyl-troche-troche) or traditional line forms (i.e. iambic pentameter). These little forms then echo themselves vertically and from stanza to stanza, section to section, poem to poem. The result is a poem that feels formal even though, technically, it’s not. The shadow of iambic rather than iambic itself.
BREWIN. Andrew, you’re Series editor for the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume, which is pretty darn cool, if I do say so myself. The first installment featured killer works by Jenna Bazzell, Martin Anthony Call, and the incredible intellect that is Campbell McGrath. Talk about bringing out the big guns! Give me a little bit history behind the project, how did the Floodgate Poetry Series come to be? And, maybe, if you can (pretty please), give us some details about the next volume in the series?
McFADYEN-KETCHUM. I have a few mantras I live by. One of them is “Always be giving back” (think Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross: “Always be closing.”). Another is “Always give back more than you get.” I also love making things. Poems are the main thing I make, but I wouldn’t feel terribly good about myself if I stopped there. So things like PoemoftheWeek.org and Apocalypse Now and Floodgate and marching with the NAACP and helping friends build additions to their houses are the result of that.
I also think it’s important to find ways to promote great writing as well as new writing, a belief at the center of all of my projects but is particularly pronounced in Floodgate, which publishes a chapbook by a big name alongside two chapbooks by smaller names in a single volume each year. Thus Campbell McGrath next to two poets who have yet to publish full-length collections. Volume II comes out in November with chapbooks by Judy Jordan (her first collection in 11 years) and Kallie Falandays and Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs, both of whom have yet to publish full-length collections. Volume III comes out in November 2016 with Enid Shomer’s first book of poetry in 15 years, a chapbook co-written by F. Douglas Brown and Geffrey Davis (both Cave Canem fellows with great first books) and another co-written chapbook by brothers Anders and Kai Carlson-Wi (both of whom have yet to publish full-length collections).
I’m very excited and proud of it. Floodgate is a unique partnership between poet, editor, and publisher that isn’t terribly common in the poetry community, and it’s a way for me to make more poetry than I can on my own while spotlighting new and exciting work by a range of tacticians. Pretty cool stuff.
BREWIN. Sweet goodness, sir, are you a man of many hats (though I don’t think I’ve actually ever seen you wear one)! You are Founder and Editor-in-Chief of PoemoftheWeek.org, Contributing-editor for Southern Indiana Review, Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boots Books, not to mention a FREELANCE EDITOR, Writing Coach, university instructor, poet, and God knows what else you do in your spare time, but these things haven’t simply fallen into your lap. Having gone to grad school with you at SIUC, I know you’ve always made incredible efforts to serve the poetry community, to develop your marketability as a writer, and to build your own audience. At a time like this, when the academic system is buckling, it seems your past energies have brought great reward. Maybe you can talk with us a little bit about entrepreneurship and the contemporary writer? What advice do you have for MFA candidates looking down the long corridor of their career?
McFADYEN-KETCHUM. My mom has a Shirley Chisholm quote on her office wall that says, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” I think that’s exactly right and have believed for as long as I can remember in serving my community. I almost never think about promoting myself. No bullshit. America’s marketing culture, I think, has gotten a bit out of control. We see it all the time in the writing community; everyone’s so desperate for a job or to publish or to sell their books, that they’ll spend more time marketing than writing or doing work in the community. I’m not interested in the rat race, and, luckily, self-promotion is a happy side effect of the service I so enjoy engaging in. Not its cause. So why worry about marketing myself? I worry about everything else as it is!
Listen: If you give back often, you will get back. Often. I didn’t know that when I started a literary journal in college or when I started PoemofthWeek.org in graduate school or came up with Apocalypse Now. Now, of course, I do, so I suppose I’m tainted, but I work with that same basic attitude: What can I help create ad share that isn’t mine, and how can I share it best?
Yes, the academic system is buckling. Maybe it’s, in fact, buckled already. I think that will become clearer here soon. Either way, you’re simply not paying attention if you think you’re going to get an MFA, publish a book, and get a TT job. Some do, but the majority of us do not. I think this is a good thing now that we know it’s happening. When it was happening and no one was talking about it, that was truly foolish and, simply put, shameful. But poets are just people and now that we know what’s going on, it’s time we stopped complaining about it and started doing something about it. And while I love teaching, I’m not sure writers are serving their communities very well in that role anymore, not to mention that greatness (or even minor goodness) rarely comes from following the leader. The leader has been telling us for decades now to go to college, get an MFA, publish some books, and get a job teaching others how to do this. That was a great model 20+ years ago, but that system egregiously underserved most anyone who wasn’t male and white and blindly following that path at this point is part of the reason we’re where we are today.
So my advice is fairly obvious: Stop. Stop following the leader, and start taking risks that won’t kill you. See where that takes you. Repeat. It can be a gruelingly slow process, but it almost always pays off. It’s not so different from writing a poem: You’ll make plenty of errors along the way, but you’ll be better for it. I worked for years in this way without much compensation. Even now, I pay for PoemoftheWeek.org myself (with the help of occasional donations), I only get a small royalty for Apocalypse Now, and I don’t get paid at all for Floodgate (something my publisher begrudgingly agreed to), and I spent every cent of my Ghost Gear sales and royalties to pay for my activities with the NAACP and BlackLivesMatter. Money comes from other sources loosely but most certainly connected to these activities. I now make about 70% of my scratch as a freelance editor and only teach 4-5 sections of comp/cw a year. When I first got out of grad school, I was teaching 12-15 sections. 12-15. That’s criminal (I’ve said as much in a number of testimonies to the Colorado State Congress), and it takes all the fun out of teaching. Now that I only have to teach a few sections a semester, I can actually enjoy it, and my students are much better off. This simply isn’t possible when you triple that number and are barely making 30,000 bucks a year. So all that free work I was doing and am still doing is worth it. My business is booming, I’ve had experiences money can’t buy, and I’m making all sorts of shit I couldn’t make any other way.
BREWIN. Besides admiring your good humor and nature, your kickass writing, and NUMEROUS accomplishments and accolades (and so on, and so forth), I have also been in awe of your participation in several marches for social justice and racial equality. Let’s talk about your activities in the Civil Rights Movement. Last year, you joined the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, a 134-mile march from Ferguson, Missouri to the state capitol in Jefferson City, and this year—just this month—you are walking from Selma, Alabama to Washington D.C. to bring further awareness and attention to other tragedies and failings all across America. I think of these honorable, incredible efforts to better this country, and I am immediately reminded of Jake Adam York and his Inscriptions for Air project. As a university instructor, have these experiences changed your approach to pedagogy at all? As a poet, do you see participation in these types of activities as an extension of our craft?
McFADYEN-KETCHUM. An extension of our craft is the perfect way to put it. And extending our craft into other domains is something I certainly took from Jake. Jake was my mentor, as a poet as well as a citizen. Jake created the very journal this interview is being published in and Abide beat out Ghost Gear for the Colorado Book Award last month, something I’ll have to eventually forgive him for. He lives, in my mind, in the present tense, not the past, and my efforts in the poetry community and in the broader human community are certainly in his honor.
But it’s a little hard to explain why I’ve put myself out there as much as I have. When I went to Baltimore, I didn’t know if I’d be coming back. When I went to Ferguson, I knew there was a good chance I’d end up in jail. It was scary, but I did it anyway. I grew up in a mixed-race neighborhood, so many of my friends growing up were black. My father was a CO during Viet Nam, and my mother is currently president of the Tennessee chapter of Mom’s Demand Action, so I certainly come from activist stock. I know what it’s like to be constantly harassed by the police and by the government in general, and I grew up right in the middle of the sort of racism that generates people like Dylann Roof, not to mention that I graduated from Virgina Tech, and I used to work in politics... So it’s all part of a larger story I’m still putting together.
When Michael Brown was killed under suspicious circumstances, I wasn’t at all surprised. What did surprise me was our government’s response. It’s one thing to jail people for burning down buildings and even to bring in armored vehicles to quell unrest (though I’m not endorsing this behavior), but refusing to indict police officers who kill unarmed citizens, aiming laser sights on protestor’s chests, blaming the black community while we proudly display the Confederate battle flag... Hell no. I refuse to pay my taxes like a good boy without using the freedom those taxes buy me and the privilege our history affords me (I’m a tall white dude for crying out loud) to fight injustice and out-right cruelty, particularly when it’s focused on a disenfranchised community by those with power. America is all about forging a better union, and we still have a lot of work to do in that department.
I consider it my duty to put my body out there, not just my words, so when I saw that the NAACP was marching across the state of Missouri to pressure the governor of Missouri to actually deal with the problem (he never did), I saw an opportunity to serve my community and to learn about what was really going on. I showed up in Ferguson knowing absolutely no one and within hours was embraced by a community of people I had zero connection to. All the amazing things that followed are, as I said before, the natural side effect of giving to your community. My friends in Ferguson and Baltimore and in BlackLivesMatter and in the NAACP are more than friends: they are mentors. I’m not sure they see themselves as mentors to me, but that’s exactly what they are. I have learned more about how to live from them than I have from anyone else in my life. They literally stared down the barrel of a gun and refused to give in. Talk about hope. Talk about hard work. Talk about guts. These are qualities the black community and black people in general have in abundance. The rest of the country takes this for granted or, in many cases, refuses to believe it. I’ve never known such bravery, and I’m so blessed (yeah, I said it Charles: blessed) to be a tiny part of that bravery. I wasn’t able to march the entire 1,000 miles from Selma to D.C. but am happy to be marching the last 200 miles or so. Will this change anything? Yes. If you’re one of those people who says it won’t, look at our history. This nation has a long history of going about it this way. This time is no different.