Cate McGowan is an essayist, poet, fiction writer, and author of two books—she won the Moon City Press Short Fiction Award for her debut short story collection, True Places Never Are; her debut novel, These Lowly Objects, released in 2020. McGowan’s work appears or is forthcoming in numerous literary outlets, including Norton’s anthology Flash Fiction International, Glimmer Train, The Citron Review, The Chestnut Review, Shenandoah, and Tahoma Literary Review. Most recently, her poetry appears in the Summer 2022 issue of LPR. McGowan is currently completing her Ph.D. Our conversations follows.
LPR: What brought about your poem “Ineffable” which I loved by the way?
CM: Oh, thank you! I’m so utterly pleased that you loved it! This is one of a series of sea pieces—I write a lot of ocean poems. I guess I’m terrified of the depths and fascinated there’s a whole world so close by we cannot see, a place where we cannot survive.
When I first started writing bits and pieces of “Ineffable,” I somehow reconnected after many years with “Postscript” by Seamus Heaney (I mention in my epigraph that my poem is “after” Heaney’s). I “rejiggered” my initial drafts, tried to echo Heaney’s rhythms and phrases, and discovered a similar theme—sometimes there are no words to explain what natural beauty can do for our souls, as Heaney’s speaker observes, when the birds and sea and wind can “catch the heart off guard and blow it open” (16). In my poem, my speaker’s introspection and feelings of coming about are similarly ineffable. If you’ve never read “Postscript,” “make the time” (1) and track it down.
I live in Florida and often drive to the beach—a national seashore called Playalinda that’s close to Canaveral. I go when I need to think, when I’m stuck with my writing or scholarship. That means I go a lot! Anyway, I keep an image notebook and try to record what I experience sensorily on the drive through the marshes or when I’m sitting in the sand, watching breakers, the sun jeweling the sea. Storms are particularly dramatic. But like love or trees or birds, the ocean’s a pretty over-written subject, so I try to make my water pieces as strange and new as possible.
A poem should be heard, too. The sounds are as crucial as any image; the aural experience is imperative for the listener. In a way, I try to capture something visceral, what can’t be caught, hence the title.
Also, I’m a bit of a concrete poetry dabbler, so in its proper form (on 8 x 11 paper), this work takes a more pronounced shape of a sail or wings or waves (depending on how you look at it). It’s exciting to talk about how the ocean “works” on me, but I also reckon because I’m from a family of visual artists, I derive satisfaction from fashioning my lines and arranging them pictorially.
Finally, this poem’s gone through many years of drafts. I settled on the two sections. They’re stacked high with discarded images from darlings I killed from other poems. I hope the theme resonates: we should let nature help us escape the world’s ills (and writer’s block). There are a lot of ills these days, aren’t there?
LPR: I love your use of the word “rejiggering,” especially that line “They dodge dump trucks in the freeway, rejiggering their flight.” Was it a word already in your mind as you wrote, or did it come much later?
CM: I can trace my using “rejiggering” back to an early 2015 iteration. I performed a deep search on my hard drives, and I have over 1400 versions of “Ineffable,” anything from significant revisions to minor changes, like losing a comma, and “rejiggering” appears in every rendition. I remember explicitly incorporating it after a colleague told me she was offended after she heard a character’s dialogue in a TV show use “rejigger”—to her ear, the term sounded too much like the N-word. While I completely understood her outrage, I was a bit sad that a word might be shelved because it sounds too much like an utterly abhorrent term.
Right then and there, I consciously chose to utilize the word and give it a contextual makeover. It possesses an extraordinary technical meaning and such lovely consonance and assonance—that long E, the J jutting into the hard Gs. However, I still struggle with that present participle usage, though it does lighten the word’s negative affinity. I studied with Patricia Smith, and she absolutely insisted I strike most “-ing” constructions from my poems. She’s right. They usually weaken a piece.
LPR: You write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Do you have a reverence for one over the other?
CM: My husband thinks my essays are my best work, but what does he know? I love writing creative nonfiction, but it terrifies me. I can’t hide behind manufactured narratives in nonfiction like I can in fiction. Poetry is a different kind of naked exposure. But the music of poems probably keeps me returning to them. I always think of myself as a failed poet who’s a mediocre storyteller. I’ve had more success in the past as a fictionist, but lately, I can’t get anybody to accept my bizarre tales. I think poetry’s ruined me for good. And I kind of like that. But like the old chestnut that my mother often spouted, “Home is where I hang my hat.”
LPR: Who are some of your favorite writers, ones that have influenced your work?
CM: It’s a long list!
Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Lucille Clifton, Patricia Smith, Carl Phillips, John Ashbery, Kwame Dawes, Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, Joe Millar, Ada Limón, Ruth Stone, Marie Howe, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Ilya Kaminsky, William Shakespeare, Muriel Rukeyser, Louise Glück, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Carolyn Forché, Jorie Graham, Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, Wisława Szymborska, and Diane Seuss.
James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Raymond Carver, Isabel Allende, María Luisa Bombal, Angela Carter, Emily St. John Mandel, Kelly Link, Brad Watson, Gabriel García Márquez, Eudora Welty, Umberto Eco, Rick Moody, Shirley Jackson, William Faulkner, Lorrie Moore, Ottessa Moshfegh, Virginia Woolf, Orhan Pamuk, Tim O’Brien, Joy Williams, W. G. Sebald, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colum McCann, Ernest Hemingway, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Barry Lopez, Zadie Smith, Phillip Lopate, Lydia Davis, Charles D’Ambrosio, Iris Murdoch, Mieke Bal, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Rita Felski, and Richard Rorty.
I could keep going, but you don’t have enough pages! These are just a few off the top of my head, and I know I’m forgetting some writer who means a great deal to me.
LPR: What writers and/or books are you looking forward to reading?
CM: The books collecting dust on my nightstand (I hope to finish them by the end of July when I have to return them to the library) include Ada Limón’s latest, The Hurting Kind (Limón’s emotional content’s never sappy, but always a gut-punch.); Joy Williams’s Harrow (I aspire to Williams’s diction and deadpan humor.); and Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility (Her sentences sing to me; her plots blow my mind). Sadly, I’m REALLY behind in my creative reading practice. But I can bend your ear all day if you want to hear about Kant or Hegel.
LPR: Is there a style or subject you particularly enjoy writing about?
CM: Honestly, I have no idea what style or subject I prefer writing about! I know that doesn’t sound very self-aware. Sorry. These days, I’ve been having fun with fantastic and fabulist elements in my fiction, while in my poems, I’m getting closer to confessional work. I have a giant notebook full of ideas and scraps of sentences that I dig into and find something that strikes my fancy when I sit down to write. Sometimes, a phrase gets into my head, usually a first line, and then I have to write it out and go from there. The latest: “Rooms where I’d fuck or get fucked, assorted and impractical.” I would be playing with power dynamics and how setting may play a role in matters of lust and love.
Anyway, if I want to learn about something, or if something intrigues or angers me, then I know it’s a topic I need to sit down and write about. And if I’m excited about an issue, I hope I can translate my ardor into a poem or work of prose. Sometimes I’ll try to write about a subject in various genres and see what sticks. But nothing’s off-limits or preferable.
LPR: What are you working on right now?
CM: These last five years, I’ve been working toward my Ph.D., and it’s taken so much time away from my creative endeavors, but it’s been worth it. I’m on the home stretch now with my defense on the horizon, but man, it’s been a bumpy road. At this point, I don’t even know up from down.
Over these years, in my spare time, I’ve completed a poetry collection that I keep retitling and rearranging. It’s about 80 pages long, and 75% of the poems have been published. And then there’s my latest collection of stories, with over half of the tales already appearing in lit mags. The stories are all centered on women. Initially, I set out to compose a feminist assemblage but concluded that I should let the women tell their stories without any agendas weighing them down. My characters often take me to places I don’t expect to visit! Anyway, with great luck, I hope to get both books published in the next couple of years. I’ll probably tweak them to death.
And when I complete my doctorate and can breathe, I plan to write a novel set in Atlanta in the 1990s. We’ll see.
LPR: What advice would you give to the writer just starting out?
CM: Trust your ear. Read, read, read. Seek out lesser-known works, lesser-known authors. You will find surprising and beautiful destinations off the main highway. Hone your reading skills. And when you read something you love, try to articulate why you adore it. If you hate something, work doubly hard to discern why the piece is distasteful to you. Record all these ideas. When you start to develop critical acumen, trust yourself. After reading and critiquing hundreds of other voices, you will begin to find your own voice.
No one will ever have your voice or experiences, so your perspective is valuable beyond measure.”
Try to avoid the zero-sum game—Winston Churchill once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Someone else’s successes should not be a threat. Instead, they should be celebrated; if that author can make it, so can you! We need more great writing, so the more people who produce and share, the better.
Know that many writers aren’t attention hounds or active on social media. Many are working through quiet lives, avoiding attention because it distracts from essential work. That said, many great writers never gain deserved recognition, but the creative life is fulfilling nonetheless.
No one will ever have your voice or experiences, so your perspective is valuable beyond measure.
Find kindred spirits, people with whom you can share your writing and who share theirs with you. You can grow together and support each other.
Don’t let others who don’t know your work (especially writers like me) tell you how you should do things. So, honestly, all this advice is moot.
*Art by the painter John Constable, “Rainstorm Over Sea.”