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John McCarthy talks about the power of poetry, emotional response, the intuitive process of writing, the haunting landscape of the Midwest, an amazing reading list, and so much more in SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES

By Leslie Lindsay 

Gorgeously stark and stunning collection of prose poetry that is at once mysterious, raw, and evocative. 

Selected by Victoria Chang (Pushcart Prize among many other accolades), as winner of the Jake Adam York Prize, John McCarthy’s SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES is an examination of growing up–of masculinity–but there’s more. Buried beneath these complicated, yet tender words is a yearning. Maybe it’s to be seen, to be heard, for greater compassion.

SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES takes place in the Midwest–mostly Illinois–and this is something I completely ‘got.’ There’s a working-class grit, but also a sentimentality, a deep attention to detail, a nostalgia for simpler things. This work, I am guessing, is deeply personal about drunk fathers and unwell mothers, it’s about instability, and resilience, and isolation. And yet, it’s inspiring.

I read SCARED VIOLET LIKE HORSES fairly quickly–a day or two–but it’s not meant to be rushed. I want to go back and savor the pages, fall into the folds of these glimmering metaphors, revel in the observations. This work deserves that. McCarthy’s tendency is storytelling–a narrative approach to poetry, and this is my favorite kind. I am enamored with the details, the texture, the way I was transported to a different kind of company, while simultaneously feeling inspired to write.

Simply put, I found this collection transformative and magical.

Please join me in welcoming John McCarthy to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

John, I read ‘Switchgrass,’ and whispered, “Oh my God,” after just the first one. The first one! My mouth hung open. I scrambled to the back of the book to read your acknowledgements section, because sometimes readers can glean a little from that. And I think I surmised that SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES is pretty darn personal. Can you tell us what inspired the collection?

John McCarthy:

Thank you, Leslie. That’s quite an opening endorsement. I wrote the book while I was living in Southern Illinois and attending the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. The program’s aesthetic was geared toward writing lyric narratives with a regional bent. We read a lot of authors who incorporated landscape into their poems, too. To attend the program, I moved down from Springfield, Illinois sight unseen after having lived in Central Illinois for twenty-three years. I have always loved Illinois, but once I moved, I was really able to start thinking about Springfield from an objective distance. Southern Illinois is a beautiful, magical place. It has swamps, cliffs and bluffs, rivers; it’s more like Kentucky or Mississippi than it is Illinois. I started paying attention to landscape and how it weaved its way into my work much more during that transition.

Also, I had just met my girlfriend (now fiancé), and I was driving back and forth between Carbondale and Chicago every other weekend to be with her and our daughter. It was a six-hour drive each way. Every other weekend I was on the interstate or driving side streets up the straight spine of Illinois. I did the math when I graduated, and I think I spent something like 675 hours on the road within three years. It was a lot of road. It was a lot of Midwest. It was a lot of thinking and reflecting. I think I wrote a lot of the book while talking into the voice recorder on my phone. When it comes down to it, the book was inspired by all the stories and narratives that happen in this landscape that a lot of people drive through or fly over. And yet, it’s not invisible or unimportant. It’s where we can learn a lot about ourselves or the ills of this country. And for me, it was where I was finally able to reorder, revise, and come to terms with the life I was leaving behind—familial trauma, religion, and most of all my own insecurities and their violent manifestations.

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Leslie Lindsay:

I’m guessing a collection of poetry isn’t always intentional. Maybe you write one here, one there, and before you know it, a collection. Can you talk a little about your process?

John McCarthy:

My process—for this book in particular—was pretty intentional. I knew I had wanted to write a book made of autobiographical poems. The MFA program I was in at the time encouraged us to write autobiographical poems with a lyrical-narrative bent. We also read and imitated a lot of poets who incorporated landscape and assorted regional themes into their poems. It certainly wasn’t required, but it was the natural aesthetic of the school’s pedagogy. It took about a year of writing really bad abstract poems about my immediate family before I figured out how to incorporate all the elements that make a good poem. After I finished SVLH, I probably had 70-100 poems that I threw away or saved for complete gutting and revision later.

That’s the high level answer. However, on a more granular level, I tried to read two to five books of poetry a week. During this time, I’d sit down and write little ideas out, tiny lines or words that seem to elicit some kind of emotional response that I can’t quite identify. I’d often go for a run and look for things in the landscape that mirror the emotions I was trying to express. It was a very involved process, trying to create a poem that exercises the objective correlative. I think the best poems are objective correlations—that is expressing in an image what most people would say directly.

I also think I’m more of a manic writer than a disciplined writer, for better or worse. I will often go a month or so without writing anything at all. During this time, I try to read essays and fiction. When I feel like I’m missing something, I’ll return to reading poetry and writing down images that come to mind until some formal narrative presents itself. I know some people are skeptical of the word intuition, but I’m a very intuitive writer. The inspiration and motivation ebbs and flows, and I trust that it will always be there, even when the inspiration to write takes its time coming back. Intuition like anything else is a skill. It just doesn’t have digestible metrics. But when I look back at what I’ve done, I see those accomplishments as suitable metrics for this intuition.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Since I typically interview authors of novel-length works, SCARED VIOLET LIKE HORSES is almost like micro-stories. Vignettes. A narrative approach to poetry. I kept reading because it felt so compelling. There’s structure, set-up in these pages. How do you see poetry as being different from other genres?

John McCarthy:

Good observation. I did intend SVLH to have a narrative arc. The first section revolves around events that happened in early to middle childhood. The middle section “Flyover Country” is meant as a bridge between the two sections, going both forwards and backwards in time. It’s in the middle of the book, and it is summative of all the themes the book wrestles with, especially the sense of belonging to a specific place. The third section of the book addresses this theme, as well as the aforementioned themes from my first answer, from the lens of late adolescence and adulthood. The voice in the third section is a little more autonomous, and the way the speaker meditates on the past is more grounded and, quite frankly, more mature.

I also write a lot of poems that have long lines and clean narratives with lyrical moments. Trying to differentiate poetry from other genres is such a loaded question, and I often find myself reverting to default answers. For example, Emily Dickinson’s popular quote:

If I feel physically that the top of my head has been taken off, then I know that is poetry.

I also like what Jericho Brown says:

Every last word is contagious.

I think these quotes differentiate poetry from prose.

To me, poetry is the prioritization of emotional truth. It is the prioritization of this truth over complete and contextual storytelling. When done right, the reader should be able to plug in what is missing or has been omitted without too much work. The poet Judy Jordan was one of my professors at SIU and she always framed her teachings with Gregory Orr’s four quadrant framework. Poetry is the combination of narrative, form, music, and imagination. I think prose can have all of these elements, too. It’s essentially what writers refer to when they talk about craft. But I think poetry pushes these elements outside of linear comprehension. People go to prose in order to be moved and to encounter stories that capture emotional truths, too, but they do so with the expectation that all of the context will be provided in at least a semi-coherent structure. Good poetry will free itself of the gravity of such context. It will make it invisible. It will allow the reader to bring their own context with them. Poetry will go right to the truth of the matter—to the blood in the sky. Poetry, I suppose, is made of the moments people remember from a larger event.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Any writer, of any genre, puts a little of his or her self into the work. Maybe intentionally (as in memoir), or subconsciously in fiction. Are these poems based on your life, people you know? Some of them are so deeply personal. So searingly raw and authentic. And gorgeous. Can you give us a little insight? And if they are based on people you may know, how do you keep that sort of…anonymous?

John McCarthy:

The book is autobiographical. All of the narratives in the book are based on real people and events that happened. Of course, names have been changed to protect identities. I think genre plays a role in the process of anonymization as well. With poetry, more omission happens because you have less space to work with, typically, so there is some freedom and anonymization that happens within that omission of what isn’t relevant to the prioritization of truth in that poem. And because it is a poetry book with a narrative arc, some of the events happen anachronistically than they did in my real life. I had to think about what made the most contextual sense to readers. Through this dual track process of necessary omission and prioritization, I feel like that puts up a barrier between how some of these people in my life live out on the page.

The act of reflecting on the past further anonymizes people and places a little bit. Ostensibly, I wasn’t feeling all of these meditations in the moment as the events that I write about took place. It took years of processing and distancing to even think about them with any kind of objectivity and clarity. If you’re asking if all the tenderness and violence that SVLH bears witness too is real—the answer is yes. However, the act of writing from memory makes of it a simulacrum. And in turn, a little bit more anonymous.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Reading poetry almost always inspires me to write. Whether a snippet for just me, words for a novel or a memoir…it triggers something, a memory, a feeling. What inspires you? What keeps the saw sharp?

John McCarthy:

There are a lot of things, but above all, there is reading. Life has gotten busier, and as a result, I’m not always able to read two to five books a week like I did even just a few years ago. I’m strategic about what I read though. I try and read a few short story or essay collections a month, along with a good novel. I’ll use the library to check out the new poetry releases, too. Reading a good book makes you want to write a good book.

I also help edit RHINO magazine and I run their local poetry forum at the Evanston Public Library on the last Sunday of every month. We read a few thousand submissions a year just for the magazine, and it’s always a pleasure to publish good work. The RHINO poetry forum has me reaching out to Chicago and Chicago-area writers all of the time. I invite them to come lecture on an element of craft before leading a community workshop on the poems that the writers from Evanston bring in. I’ve been editing and hosting community workshops in Illinois since 2008. For me, being a literary citizen is essential to staying motivated as a writer, and it is a key to success. It’s an act of genuine support and reciprocity. In addition to my job as a research analyst, all of these literary extracurriculars keep me busy. In turn, it makes me appreciate the little spurts of time I have left for my own writing.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Can you tell us a little more about you—what you might be obsessing about—what’s on your to-do list this week, or what you’re reading?

John McCarthy:

I just finished reading Andre Dubus III’s memoir, Townie. I resonated with it in a lot of ways. In some ways, I wish I would have read it before I wrote SVLH. He writes memoir through prose and I wrote memoir through poetry, but our message seems to be the same—pain, too, is an identity that is experienced through the body. And in certain class settings, among other racial and socioeconomic settings, there is an expectation for what you, as a young man, are supposed to do and act like. It’s forced upon you and you force it upon others. Like Dubus though, I realize there is a reckoning and a redemption that happens later. Both of our books want the same thing, too—more equitable, equal, and tender ways of existing in the world.

I am also currently reading or have recently read: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes; Wild is the Wind by Carl Phillips; Fitting Ends by Dan Chaon; Eye Level by Jenny Xie; Collected Poems by Lynda Hull; The Low Passions by Anders Carlson-Wee; Another Last Day by Alex Lemon; Holy Molly Carry Me by Erika Meitner; Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas; A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon; Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; 101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar; Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky; Brute by Emily Skaja; The Carrying by Ada Limon; The Tradition by Jericho Brown—among an ever growing and impossible to keep up with stack of books on my nightstand. I have a plan to read all of the books.

Leslie Lindsay:

John, this is been so enlightening. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

John McCarthy:

Glad you asked. In Southern Illinois—Murphysboro, Illinois specifically—there is a restaurant called 17th Street BBQ. It has won the World Grand Championship of BBQ multiple times. It is my favorite place in the world. When I die, I want my ashes scattered in their gravel parking lot with a little sauce shaken out on top of me. And for those inclined to explore BBQ, there is the lesser known and more hidden joint called Pat’s BBQ—also in Murphysboro and with a good back story—and it is just as good. Murphysboro is the BBQ capital of Illinois. But this is all I’ll say. I could talk about Illinois for weeks. You’ll just have to go and have a taste for yourself if you’re into that kind of thing. 17th Street keep me motivated as a writer, and they have a good Amber Ale, too.


For more information, to connect with John McCarthy via social media, or to purchase a copy of SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES, please see: 


mccarthyheadshotABOUT THE AUTHOR: John McCarthy is the author of Scared Violent like Horses (Milkweed Editions, 2019), which won the 2017 Jake Adam York Prize. He is also the author Ghost County (Midwestern Gothic Press, 2016), which was named a Best Poetry Book of 2016 by The Chicago Review of Books. John is the winner of The Pinch 2016 Literary Award in Poetry, and his work has appeared in American Literary Review, Copper Nickel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New Ohio Review, Passages North, Sycamore Review, TriQuarterly, Zone 3, and in anthologies such as Best New Poets 2015 and New Poetry from the Midwest 2017 and 2019. He received his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay via these websites: 



#prosepoetry #poetry #Midwest #family #grief #trauma #religion

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Milkweed Editions and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 for more like this]. 


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