An interview with Patricia McCarthy

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We spoke to Patricia McCarthy, one of the judges for our Poetry Prize 2017, who gave a bit of advice on entering this year’s competition.

As well as editing the poetry journal Agenda, you’ve also had many of your own collections published, including two titles due to be released this year alone (Rockabye from Worple Press and Shot Silks from Waterloo Press). Do you struggle to divide your time between writing and editing?

Patricia McCarthy:  It is really quite a big struggle between doing my own writing and all the work involved on Agenda. The trouble is Agenda takes up the same kind of psychic energy – concentrating on all those poems, and essays – and often my own work has had to be put on hold. This happened when I was teaching too. I have quite a lot of work that has never seen the light of day as I have done nothing with it. It is only because now I am becoming so ancient that I am trying to put in order poems done a while back, and also making sure I do fit in my own new poetry, though I can’t do this to order. If  I get on a roll with a sequence, I defiantly and stubbornly let myself do it, even  if this means waking up before dawn and burning the midnight oil.

As I have recently finished a new sequence, I feel washed out, as if I will never write anything else – I think this is often the way, so Agenda is to the fore full time. It takes a lot of energy, especially as there are only two of us running the whole journal.

It’s so great to have you as a judge after winning The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2013. How do you think winning that prize helped you grow as a poet?

It  was a real honour, and also a crazy gamble, to win the National Poetry Competition (I needed to pay a huge vet bill and never imagined my number would come up as I have never even won a raffle).

To be quite honest, and I hope it doesn’t sound awful to say so, I don’t really thing that that prize helped me grow as a poet. I have been writing poetry for so long that I would be a bit weird if I didn’t by now have a voice of my own, though of course one can always evolve in new directions.

Publicity-wise, I think I could have used winning the prize more constructively and got myself reading in more Festivals etc. But I am a bit of a country cabbage and, while I do like giving readings, I don’t really enjoy getting out and about too much. It’s awful when you live in the country to struggle to get the last train back, and then have to drive etc. It puts me off, though I really did appreciate the Poetry Society organising a reading for me in Keats House in Hampstead, and even more specially, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, where I was put up in a really plush hotel. And now they have asked me to read some of my horse poems in a lovely gallery near Guildford, to accompany the curator on a few guided tours. Some real horses are being brought along which will be amazing.

Winning the prize probably does help, though, (or should) with getting your work published.

It also gets you going gambling again! For example I have entered it twice in the last two years and have been shortlisted each time, so – nearly, but not quite! I don’t enter any other competitions.

Do you have any advice for poets entering this year’s competition?

It is often said that you can write a poem specially for a competition and I do think the poem has to stand on its own (not be part of a sequence). I think it is all very random, really, and a lot depends on the subjective choice of the particular judges, once they have selected the last, say, 100 poems they choose to highlight. I suppose it is a good idea to look up the poems written by the judges as, if you like their work, there might be a bit more of a possibility that they will like yours. The same applies to sending work into poetry journals.

I also think it is important for poets entering this year’s competition to read a lot of current poetry, and to subscribe to such inspiring journals as Agenda, which specialise in poetry. I had to say this!

Could you tell us three things you’re reading/watching/listening to/thinking about and what you think of whatever that may be?

At the moment I am reading John Burnside’s new collection, Still Life with Feeding Snake (Cape poetry), Michael Longley’s new collection, Angel House (Cape poetry), Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake (Cape Poetry), Jorie Graham’s Fast (Carcanet) , Sinead Morrissey’s new collection, On Balance (Carcanet) and  Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby. I am reviewing them under a title ‘Pedestals’ for the imminent issue of Agenda. Longley, Burnside, Morrissey and Berry I particularly admire, but am not so sure, personally, about Oswald and Graham.

And finally, what is your all-time favourite poem? Or if that’s too tricky, whose work do you admire the most?

I honestly don’t have one favourite poem, but Yeats and Rilke I always go back to.

Interview by Abi Lofthouse


Our annual Poetry Prize runs 1st May – 30th June. More information here.