Open Alphabet welcomes Carey McHugh and American Gramophone,
published by Augury Books (ISBN 978-0-9887355-5-2).

Carey McHugh

Carey McHugh's chapbook The Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds &c. was selected by Rae Amrantrout for the 2007 Chapbook Fellowship of the Poetry Society of America. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals such as Tin House and Boston Review and she participates in the Fish House audio archive.

She is a graduate of the School of Arts at Columbia, where she is an adjunct professor, teaching creative writing.

... Tonight the marsh is a riddle

of breeze and milkweed. The stems change men to birds

and, like troutlines, hold them still, sometimes slack.

Fires light up as usual and we watch the dirt as beetles

slowly and single-handedly take to death on their backs.

-- from Aviaries and Asylums / 4. Escape

Open Alphabet: How did you come to poetry? At what point did you know you were a poet? American Gramophone

Carey McHugh: I distinctly remember, at age seven, receiving a rejection letter for a poem I had submitted to Highlights Magazine. This was the beginning of rejection, and so, perhaps the beginning of true poethood.

OA: Do you have a regular poetry writing practice? Did the publication of your book precipitate any changes in your creative habits?

CM: I wish I could say that I am one of those writers that sits down at the same time every morning and writes beautifully and coherently for at least two hours — but I am not. I write in the sawed-off spaces in a day, in bits and fragments. Very often, I will go weeks without writing. When I do sit down to write, I like to have a few poems up on my desktop, so that I can flip back and forth between them. After the book was accepted for publication, it was decided that adding a few more poems might help flesh it out a bit. Generally, I’m a pretty slow writer, but this need for new poems lit a fire under me.

OA: There are figures that surface repeatedly in American Gramophone, such as the owl, the heron,  the throat, the fox. In your writing of these poems, did the owl, for example, bring poems or did the poems arrive with the owl already in attendance?

CM: Luckily, the owls brought the poems! I first encountered the owls when I was browsing the frequently asked questions section of The Owl Pages — an excellent, informative website that details the habits, habitats, psychology, and physiology of owls. Some of the questions are your run-of-the-mill owl concerns: What do owls eat? Why do they hoot? But some of the questions are wonderfully strange: I already own an owl, and am having trouble with [Breeding, Incubation, Feeding, Health, Personal Hygiene], can you give me some advice? I selected some of the more peculiar questions as titles, and the series developed from there.

OA: How does sound make its way into your writing? Here, I am thinking about the sound of the words in  a poem ("stacked rattles stammering") as well as the audio imagery ("four strings tuned in fifths to sound  the falling").

CM: Early on I was very interested in using sound to help scaffold poems. I would plant seeds of sound in a piece and work to create echoes throughout, building the poem around the sounds. As a result, these early poems are dense and spiked with sound-ricochets and buried rhymes. As I continued writing, this tight sonic structure opened out a little, so the later poems are not as sonically rigorous.
Unfortunately, I am hopeless when it comes to playing musical instruments; however, I love the shape and heft of them and the possibility of music they contain. My husband is a musician, and we have guitars and banjos and mandolins and ukuleles hanging on the walls in our apartment. Over the years a variety of these instruments have made their way into the poems.

OA: You point to recordings, webpages, textbooks and artwork as inspiration. When you first saw the Robert Frank photograph that spawned "Car Wreck, Reliquary", for example, did words come immediately or after some incubation?

CM: There was much incubation. I first saw the photograph “Car accident—U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona” when I was flipping through The Americans. The book has so many incredible, standout photographs, but this one in particular caught my eye. The landscape in the photograph is desolate and neglected, it seems to have a force of its own—it swallows up the scene, which in itself is quite stark: four people stand surveying what appears to be a covered body. There is such resignation in the photo; it’s heartbreaking. I wanted to describe the photo, but more than that, I wanted to create an experience for it to correspond to. I wanted to write a poem which would contain the emotion—the resignation and the senselessness and confusion of the accident—along with the silence and sadness of the aftermath.

OA: What is on your desk? Who are you currently reading and who do you return to?

CM: I seem to be on a non-fiction kick at the moment. I’ve just finished The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs, and I’m halfway through Sally Mann’s excellent memoir Hold Still. The book includes photographs of her childhood as well as some of the controversial photographs of her children from her show “Immediate Family.” Mann writes about landscape with the care and attention she gives to describing family members—it’s fantastic. As for poetry, I’m currently making my way through Sasha West’s collection Failure and I Bury the Body. The book is dark and skeletal and lovely, the poems circle back on themselves creating a strong, coherent collection. I always return to Berryman’s Dream Songs, and I always find something new to love.

OA: What is next for you? Are there more poems that are looking for book?

CM: I’ve recently started writing a series of poems that takes titles from a pocket-sized first-aid book for miners. The book was originally published in 1922 and includes terrifying instructions (and photographs!) for assessing and treating wounds, ruptures, broken bones, etc. Perhaps in the not too distant future these poems will find their way into a collection.