Our Lives Are Mystery: An Interview with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

by Lana K.W. Austin

ANDREW McFADYEN-KETCHUM is an authoreditor, & ghostwriter. He is Author of two poetry collections, Visiting Hours and Ghost Gear; Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books; Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.com, The Floodgate Poetry Series, and Apocalypse Now: Poems & Prose from the End of Days. Learn more at AndrewMK.com.

Lana Austin: Your second book, Visiting Hours, came out in March with Stephen F. Austin State University Press. It tells the story of losing your childhood love to suicide. I had the pleasure of blurbing the book. “In these pages,” I wrote, “we are able to traverse beyond the thin scrim that separates life and death, love and loss, and wonder and despair. Here is a book that is incantatory, where we journey, spellbound, through dream-like memories and richly imagined scenes alike. Here is a work full of startlingly marvelous images and here is a heart broken wide open.

Please tell me more about Mary, specifically if there’s anything else, now that the book is out and it’s been a while since you wrote the poems, that you could add in reference to her? Or, rather, do you feel a sense of true completion, some semblance of increased peace, with the book published?

ANDREW McFADYEN-KETCHUM: I feel at peace with her loss now. For so long, dedicating myself to writing Visiting Hours was the only way for me to process the enormity of my grief and forgive myself—along with everyone who was unable to save her. Now that the book is written and in the hands of others—it is almost as if Mary has her own plans for the book. Everything happens for a reason. She saved my life, and I’ve received a surprising amount of correspondence from readers saying that the book is helping them open up about their own experiences with depression, anxiety, suicide, etc. . . I never saw that coming. I wrote the book because I wanted to eulogize and share the Mary I knew, to keep her alive in the only way I knew how, to share “my Mary” who I lost meant the world to me for reasons that, at the time, were mysterious. Now, they are obvious. I wanted to express the following: No matter what, stay alive. You are NOT a burden. I want you to keep being on this earth. I want you to keep being my friend. I think I did that in Visiting Hours. For that, I am grateful.

L.A.: When you read back over the poems, which is the one that kicks you in the gut the most in terms of evoking memories of her? Why?

A.M-K.: Without a doubt, the first poem I wrote in the collection “Marysarias” and the title poem are still hard to read. The images, the metaphors—much of which came subconsciously—revealed how guilty I felt about not finding a way to save her life. They also reveal a spiritual adolescence that I began through the writing of the book. These poems are in the first section.

The highly-lyrical . . . perhaps, weird ones, like “Ice,” and “On the Hundredth Anniversary of Mary’s Death,” in which we exist in the other-worldy, post-apocalyptic, pseudo-purgatorial realm that dominates much of the second half of the book . . . those are the poems that actually make me cry as I read them. Those hot, stinging tears more like sweat than the stuff of tear ducts. Those poems are hard to read. And the final poem, “Epistle,” hits me hard, particularly the last line when I thank her during one of our communions for saving my life.

L.A.: What has her family’s reaction been to the book?

A.M-K.: Their unwavering support has been the thing of dreams. I consulted with her mother and father throughout the process—starting when I conceived of the book in 2007 and all the way up until it was published. I simply couldn’t write the book without asking, first, for their permission (they didn’t just permit me to write it; they encouraged me to) and, second, without consulting with them about the way I wrote it.

I’ll never forget sitting at the dinner table at which I’d shared so many meals with Mary and talking to them about the book and the poems I’d written and how I planned to write a book about their daughter. This was in 2008 or so. I’d written a few poems about Mary at that point and was pretty sure I wanted to write a nonfictional account of her life and what had happened to her. But, as we spoke, it became more and more obvious to me that there was no real way to do that. Although I was close to Mary, and she was super tight with her family until the day of her death, we had no real way of knowing why she had taken her own life. Her mother combed through her diaries and writing journals for years after she died as a form of healing (she and I even put together and published a chapbook of Mary’s poems called Treading on Cobwebs which is available on Amazon), her father and I talked about her every time we went fishing, but the details of her life were hard to nail down as well. My experience with Mary was unique to me. While there was obvious overlap with her family and with others I spoke with who knew her, it became clear that attempting to put Mary’s life back together from the evidence and relationships she left behind simply wasn’t up to me. Mary’s life and death were, ultimately, mysteries. That was the epiphany: Our lives are mystery. That was what I needed to explore. So I took a metaphorical approach to writing about Mary and her life as I experienced it and her death.

When I started sharing the poems that came out of that approach with her parents, they gave me their blessing. When I finished the book and started receiving rejections from publishers, they cheered me on to find a home for her. I am endlessly thankful for that. I needed to write this book. I pray they will continue to give me their blessing for its existence. They are my family. I love them. I need them.

L.A.: Have you witnessed others who have somehow been connected to suicide find a particular healing through the book? If so, any specific stories about that?

A.M-K.: I have received quite a few correspondences from folks who read the book and have been able to open up with their families about their struggles with depression. Some people have emailed me with stories of similar losses. I wish I could share that with you, but it’s important to keep all that private. What I can say is this: I never imagined this book could help people. At the end of the day, I wrote it because I loved Mary and I needed healing. In healing myself through verse, I took a journey that others, through the book, can take with me.

L.A.: Let’s talk about life and poetry more generally. Start with the end please. End goals with poetry, life, combo?

A.M-K.: In my poetry, and in my life, I would like to keep challenging myself and publishing more books that are the product of that particular challenge. I am not satisfied by the idea that all of my books might sound the same, and the real struggle is to create art that stands on its own without losing my voice. Each book I’ve written captures a distinct period of my life and each has its own timbre. I honor the mythologies woven throughout my childhood in my first book, Ghost Gear, and soothe my grief with the spiritual aspects of death and loss in Visiting Hours. In my third, a work in progress, I am writing about divorce, trauma, and the magic and joy that comes with falling in love again and raising children.

Keep evolving: This is my primary goal in poetry and life. To create my own way as a poet and an artist. The grind of a tenure-track university professorship in an academic world isn’t for everyone, and those opportunities are dwindling. I followed the professor path for many years until I took a detour from that world in 2015 when I cut back on the number of classes I was teaching and started my own editing/ghostwriting business. I never looked back. Running a business is hard work, but it’s enormously rewarding to help others craft their stories, help them articulate their hardships, and celebrate their triumphs. It’s not a bad living either.

I also want to continue to promote and celebrate poetry and poets—which I do through PoemoftheWeek.com (which I founded in 2006) and with the Floodgate Poetry Series (which I founded in 2014). I want to help poets feel seen, acknowledged. Being a poet is hard. There are few opportunities to really shine, and much of the encouragement is purely internal. It takes a toll on us. I want to help other poets, in the small ways that I can, be happy and healthy.

L.A.: Do you remember a specific moment when you knew you had no choice but to pursue poetry professionally in terms of MFA, etc.? If No, then how and when did you know over time, how did that coalesce/manifest slowly?

A.M-K.: It happened all at once. I was working my first job at the Produce Place in Nashville, TN when this odd little scrap of a poem fell out of the sky in the midst of sweeping the floor after closing. I was fourteen at the time and had been writing stories since I was a kid, but poetry wasn’t a part of my life in any way. Then, this one poem struck, and I fell absolutely in love with that tiny little moment of expression that shot me down from the stars.

After that, I wrote like crazy and pursued poetry in high school classes and in college. While my work showed promise, I knew I had a long way to go—and an MFA was the only way to grow as a poet. So I applied to MFA programs and then didn’t get in anywhere. I was bummed, but I decided to consider that rejection as an opportunity and went on a sort of . . . “tour” of professions: chef, political organizer, solar installer, landscaper, and all sorts of stuff I can’t even remember.

While I was exploring my career options, I was also reading and writing and publishing poetry. I thought about continuing on like that in perpetuity, but I had no illusions that I didn’t need more instruction. I believed that if I kept at it, I would eventually write well enough to publish a book, but I also knew an MFA would speed up that process, so I kept applying to programs until I got into one that fit: Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC). I had an incredible experience there. I wish I could go back.

L.A.: You incorporate multiple natural world images/themes in your work in a sort of, I say this in a good way, in a sort of “bastard homage,” but with your own pulse. Do you consciously evoke any of the classic poets who utilized natural world imagery so effectively in their poetry?

A.M-K.: I’m more interested in looking at birds than reading poems. I like to track wild life. I love swimming in lakes with my kids. I adore taking pictures of the heavenly bodies. I look to the natural world for guidance, so it works its way into my poems intrinsically. That doesn’t have much to do with the tradition even though I’d say I’m a fairly traditional poet. Enid Shomer selected Ghost Gear for publication by the University of Arkansas Press. The first word she said to describe Ghost Gear was “classical.” I was thrilled. Classical was what I was aiming for in that book. That said, I do not read the poets of the past much. I’m not an expert in the canon. This is one of my many failings as a writer. I’m much more invested in contemporary poets, but I tend to like those contemporary poets who are indebted to structure. They don’t write in forms, but they don’t compose sans design.

At SIUC, Judy Jordan taught an essay by Greg Orr called “The Four Temperaments of Poetry.” Orr’s essay argues that every poem bends toward narrative or lyric. Judy suggested that the best poems combined these temperaments in what she called lyric-narrative—poems that are both lyric and narrative at the same time. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think a poem of mine is any good if it doesn’t sing, and all songs are structured, all songs utilize imagery, all songs utilize lyric—and many of them tell stories.

L.A.: What NON-poetry artist/aesthetic individual most influences your work?

A.M-K.: I read a lot of prose and nonfiction. The Wonder of Birds is an amazing collection of essays. I really dig Ken Ilgunas’ books about living off the land. I’ve read Watership Down over a hundred times, and I just finished The House of the Spirits for the first time. It’s my girlfriend’s favorite book, so I read it aloud to her during the pandemic. It’s incredible.

I’m inspired by my dad. He’s a theoretical psychologist. He and I collaborate quite a bit, and he’s quite an inventor. He has this HUGE garden in the backyard I grew up in that is for all intents and purposes a piece of trash art. Every morning, he drives around the alleys in the neighborhood I grew up in looking for trash he can use in his garden and fashions these crazy structures for vegetables and flowers to grow on. In the afternoons, he sets to work on his scientific theories. He’s also an incredibly storyteller, so good I rewrote many of his stories into verse in Ghost Gear and made a YouTube channel of him telling some of them: There I Was. Watching him operate teaches me how to write better poems: Be open, use what others have discarded, be organized, work at it every day, sleep when you are tired, be independent, listen.

L.A.: What NON-aesthetic thing of any kind, the ANTI poetry/aesthetic appeal, influences your work? Are you even cognizant of it?

A.M-K.: Engineering. I get a lot of joy and such out of being a handyman, a more recent side hustle that, alas, due to the pandemic is on hold. I love going into people’s homes and looking at whatever needs fixing (a janky pocket door, a broken window) and figuring out how to set things right.

I love the NBA. I’m a huge Celtics fan. Basketball is a sport, yes, but it’s also an art. The best basketball teams utilize a structure, a sort of music to score the basket and stop the other team. They don’t just go out there and wing it and win. Not consistently anyway.

Poems are engineered in much the same way a pocket door is repaired or the Celtics (God willing) win a championship.

I’m also influenced, in a different way, by astronomy. What I love about astronomy is that you know something is up in the sky, but it’s hard to find. You have to set aside time and be patient to actually capture that tiny nebulae in the eye of your telescope’s lens. To get a great picture of the moon, you have to fine tune your process and take your time. To see the beautiful features of our universe, you have to search for them . . . and then . . . there they are! And you can’t believe you couldn’t see them before.

Probably the most important thing in my life is the finding of things we know are there but can’t quite see. We spend so much time down here on earth in our human world—which is such a shit show—looking at what we have already found. I’m looking at those things, too, but I’m also looking for what I haven’t been yet made conscious of. The stars, birds in the trees, true love, a poem that moves me for reasons I can’t understand: they are all one and the same.

L.A.: What has been your biggest stumbling block in your progression as a poet. If you overcame it, have you found that stumbling block ever rear its head again when you least suspect it?

A.M-K.: There aren’t any stumbling blocks. When you stumble, you learn. Stumble away.

L.A.: Everyone has early poems that when they read them years later make them want to die of embarrassment. What about the contrary? Is there an early poem, something written in your teens or early twenties, that you look back on now and that you’re actually shocked by your technical and/or aesthetic prowess given your tender age at the time?

When I was in high school, Nashville’s Centennial Park hosted weekly swing dancing in the summers. I was totally in love with this girl who would join me there to dance (but would never date me), and we’d see these old men hobbling around with their canes and think, “Huh?” But then the music would come on and they’d lift themselves from their chairs with their wives and would walk onto the dance floor and come alive. Muscle memory and love on display! In 1999, I attended the Tennessee Young Writers Workshop. In Jeff Hardin’s workshop, I wrote “To Watch Old Man Dance,” about that experience. It became the first poem I published, and I recently discovered my high school reprinted it in the yearbook when I went back to Hume Fogg as a visiting teacher and I thought, “Wow, this is . . . not bad!” I wouldn’t put it in a book. It’s trite and cutesy, but it translates that experience with music and love pretty well. I was happy to be happy with it.

L.A.: Do you write regularly whether you’re inspired or not?

A.M-K.: I used to have a strict writing routine, but I’m busy having fun with my children and being in love with my girlfriend and building a life with them right now. I probably pick up my third book once a week or so and pick at it, but without a routine, I can’t really produce, and that’s fine for now. I’m more invested in finding ways to get Visiting Hours out in the world during a pandemic than writing anything new. When I do get back to work, I’ll set a daily routine (likely an hour or so of writing in the morning before the house awakens), and I’ll revise when I’m not inspired and I’ll write when I am. That’s what’s great about writing: If you’re not inspired to write anything new, there’s always something old that needs improving/tinkering. If that fails me as well, I go on a walk or read and just let my mind wander. If I have an off writing morning, I just enjoy taking a break from everything else. There’s so much to do; when there’s nothing you have to do, I enjoy it.

L.A.: What, in general, tend to be the catalysts for you in terms of inspiration?

A.M-K.: Everything. Sure, nature is at the top of the list. But just about anything that enters my senses is verse stuff.

L.A.: Do you have a poem that you know you want to write (you have the idea and maybe even the first lines or a stanza, etc.) but feel that you are not where you need to be to bring it to fruition so it’s sitting there, waiting expectantly for you to catch up with it?

A.M-K.: I’m working right now on writing happy poems. I’m not writing much, but when I do write, I write about my girlfriend and my children, none of whom are genetically mine but I’m definitely stepdad. For many, many years, I was unhappy. I was married but had no kids. Then I got divorced and was deeply depressed and scarred and it took a while to find my girlfriend and her children. I was also horribly traumatized by my childhood (something I have now more-or-less healed from), and, of course, Mary killed herself when I was 20, so much of my verse up to now is a bit . . . dark. It’s not depressing, I don’t think. It’s hopeful and optimistic, but it’s not what I’d call “happy” either. Much of my third book is about surviving the divorce but now that my home life is so utterly happy, I want my verse to reflect that…which is oddly hard!

Poetry tends to be an expression of the dark night of the soul. Death is the mother of beauty, right? So poetry tends to be dark and depressing. Sure, there are happy poems out there, but they’re not exactly common. Poetry is an art form we tend to go to in hard times; thus, we tend to write it in hard times. I know I do. Writing about my happy family life isn’t exactly in my wheelhouse, but I’m getting there. When I finally decide to make the space to write again in a more organized, methodical way, it’ll come. I’m in no rush.

L.A.: Have you ever had a dream that is really a poem speaking to you and you wake up and write it, fevered and alive?

A.M-K.: Oh yeah. In the 13-year process of writing Visiting Hours, Mary would come talk to me and I’d more or less wake up and write down what she said. The whole second section is in her voice. The third section is in both of our voices at the same time—a sort of hybrid voice. I can’t think of a better way to describe those poems: fevered.

When I used to write ten friggin’ hours a day, I would dream my poems. Not in a fun way; I’d legit dream I was revising them. Like working all day at the bar and dreaming you’re . . . working at a damn bar. It was rough, but it also led to some productive revisions of my work. Now that I take a less fevered approach to writing, I don’t dream my poems much, which is great. It’s important to compartmentalize when you have a somewhat obsessive personality. I’m glad I have my poetry life here and my family life there and my career there rather than having them rolled all into one like I used to. That’s a much healthier approach for me.

L.A.: What question do you wish that someone would ask you but you’ve never been asked in an interview?

A.M-K.: How do you keep going? Despite all the struggle of being a writer, how do you keep at it? I’m not sure I’d have a good answer to that question, but I’d enjoy the conversation. Maybe I’d come up with some good ideas . . .

L.A.: You write poems of immense beauty. How do you feel knowing that, despite your poems’ inherent quality that they, like most poems ever written, will likely never be read by most people?

A.M-K.: I have this image of being on my deathbed surrounded by people I have helped craft poems, stories, books, websites, YouTube channels, whatever…and know I had an impact on their lives. I want nothing more in life than to help others achieve their dreams.

I don’t care if my books are read once I’m dead, but I do hope my books speak to people while I am alive. I think Ghost Gear spoke to people, and a surprising number of folks have contacted me to tell me Visiting Hours has helped them start talking about their struggles with depression and suicide. Like . . . wow. I didn’t even think about that in writing the book.

Life is hard. If I can finish off this life knowing I helped ease that difficulty for some folks in a meaningful way, that would have been a life worth living. That said, I don’t imagine there are many poets who don’t wish they’d read at Obama’s inauguration . . . Recognition and success like that would, obviously, mean a lot to me, but I think that sort of acknowledgement comes on its own. You can’t manufacture it or strive for it. You can strive to help those in your community. You can strive to write poems you think are good. You can strive to have a family and raise children who can be happy in this world. Those are the things I’m working toward. The rest is up to chance, the universe, God.

Author of the novel Like Light, Like Music (West Virginia University Press 2020), LANA K. W. AUSTIN’s poems and short stories have recently been featured in Mid-American Review, Sou’wester, Columbia Journal, The Pinch, Appalachian Heritage, etc. Winner of the 2019 Alabama State Poetry Society Book of the Year Award, a 2019 Hackney Poetry Award & the 2018 Words & Music Poetry Award, Austin has been a finalist and semi-finalist in multiple other competitions, including the James Wright Poetry Award, the Crab Orchard Review First Book Award, the Zone 3 Book Award, the American Short Fiction Award, the Still: The Journal Fiction Award, and the Machigonne Fiction Award. Born and raised in rural Kentucky, Austin studied creative writing at both Hollins University and the University of Mary Washington and has an MFA from George Mason University. Her full-length poetry collection, Blood Harmony, is from Iris Press (2018) and her chapbook, In Search of the Wild Dulcimer, is from Finishing Line Press (2016). Austin currently resides in Alabama, where she teaches writing in the English department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She is also a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance. 

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is an author, editor, & ghostwriter. He is Author of two poetry collections, Visiting Hours & Ghost Gear; Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books; Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.com, The Floodgate Poetry Series, and Apocalypse Now: Poems & Prose from the End of Days. Learn more at AndrewMK.com.

ANDREW McFADYEN-KETHCUM is an author, editor, & ghostwriter. He is author of two poetry collections, Visiting Hours and Ghost Gear; Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books; Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.com, The Floodgate Poetry Series, and Apocalypse Now: Poems & Prose from the End of Days. Learn more at AndrewMK.com.