Interview with Caitlin Scarano

Caitlin Scarano

Caitlin Scarano

 Describe your MFA experience and what makes the University of AK—Fairbanks program unique. How has moving to Alaska influenced your writing?

The UAF MFA program is unique to me in two major ways – the location, and the fact that it is a three-year program.  I’m currently in the first semester of my third year.  My skill and discipline as a writer improved so much over the first two years of the program, but I would not have felt ready to graduate last May.  This time to develop as a writer is essential.

I grew up in a fairly rural area in southern Virginia.  When I got accepted in the UAF MFA program, I’d never been to Alaska.  I shipped a few boxes, got a one-way plane ticket, and moved to Fairbanks.  I didn’t know anyone in the entire state.  As a general life rule, I think it is good to be uprooted every few years.  I don’t want to become complacent or unaware of my environment.  The extremes in weather, landscape, and daylight here make it impossible not to be aware of or in tune with your environment.  If you go outside during the winter at 40 below and you aren’t prepared, it could actually be a matter of life and death.

Also, the people up here are weird and I like that.

If you had to go to graduate school for something other than writing, what would that be and why?

I actually already have an MA from Bowling Green State University in College Student Personnel, which was a really great program.  Considering the state of faculty jobs in literature and the competiveness in publishing a book, I think the MA from BGSU was a more professionally practical degree for me, and I still plan to have a career in student affairs someday, maybe working in a university women’s center or service-learning center.  For now, I just want the time and space to write, and UAF has given me that.

In the poem “Death sniffing at me like a dog jamming its snout in my crotch,” the speaker references the death of a college friend. How did this experience find its way to the poem? Was it a trigger or were you surprised at its entry into the poem?

The title of that poem is from a line of a C.K. William’s poem in Wait.  That line is so kickass, I decided to try it as a jumping off point for my own poem.  The night before I wrote it, I had asked my boyfriend if he would live forever if he could.  He said probably not because he wouldn’t want to see all of his loved ones die.  I had this bizarre moment of almost smugness in my familiarity with death, because of my recent proximity to it, which is absurd if you actually think about it.  No one can be familiar with death except the dead.  Casually contemplating immortality led me to the reality of mortality.  So no, the death of my college friend wasn’t a trigger for the poem.  The title of the poem triggered memories of my experiences with death and I wrote them as they came.  I wasn’t sure where it was going, but sometimes you just have to follow the poem where it leads you.

In addition to the references to death in “Death sniffing” there are other references to death and loss throughout these poems. Can you talk about what you see as the relationship between hardship or loss and your poetry?

A poet friend of mine told me he writes to amuse himself.  I don’t question this but I can’t identify with it.  I usually write because I am bothered by something (or many somethings) and I need poetry as the space to meet what troubles me, hang out with it or grapple with it, and attempt to work through it or allow it to work though me.  But I think poetry often complicates rather than solves.  I don’t choose my themes, they just keep surfacing, and death is certainly one of them.

Reading the poems featured on TPB gallery, I notice that several of your poems include images and references to sex. What role do you feel the physical body plays in your work?

The physical body and poetry don’t lie far from each other in my mind.  Both respond to and need authentic emotion.  I crave – and keep in mind that this is just my aesthetic – poetry that is sensual, visceral, and grounded in reality, not just the abstract and meditative.  Rilke wanted this (“to be a real person among real things”) and look at how embodied his poems are.  What is more present than the physical body?  Better yet, the friction between two bodies?  This makes me think of Sharon Olds and the criticism she’s gotten for how she writes about the human body and its various functions.  A friend and I were discussing Olds’ work in a Richmond bar a few years ago and this friend, a very amazing poet herself, said that sex is the ultimate act against death.  That sounds about right to me.

One of the characteristics of your poems that I appreciate is their tension. How do you develop / increase tension in your poems? Is it something you pay a high amount of attention to?

The more I write poetry, the more I theorize it.  My poetry seems to be working best when it is authentic, strange, and personal.  Direct, honest attempts to portray the personal, especially regarding issues or themes of death, sexuality, mental health, family, guilt, etc, are bound to be emotionally wrought or tense to some degree.  I don’t force tension for the sake of attention – that seems cheap to me.  But I believe one should go for the throat in a poem, whether it is the throat of the subject, the image, the reader, or the poet herself.

What characteristics do you look for as an indicator of a ”good” poem as the editor at Permafrost? Are there characteristics of poems you do not choose for publication?

In the first read I trust the instincts of my initial reaction.  If I like it then I try to determine why.  To me, “good” poems are strong on multiple levels – content, authenticity, ambition, craft, how they teach, surprise, and delight or rattle the reader.  There is nothing that automatically rules a poem out from consideration, but predictability and sentimentality (preciousness, self-pleasingness) are turn offs for me, poetically and personally.

What effect has acting as the editor at Permafrost had on your own poetry?

Seeing the variety of submissions we receive gave me the confidence to submit my own work far and wide, and develop a thick skin in the face of rejections.  It also sharpened my ability to edit and critique my own work.

Do you subscribe to any publications? If so, what are they (poetry and other)? How do you use them?

I currently subscribe to Poetry, Zoetrope: All-Story, Poets and Writers, and The New Yorker.  I make a point of reading Poetry from cover to cover, but with all the others I pick and choose what I read.  I regularly access Brevity and Poetry Daily online.  I listen to the podcast “Other People with Brad Listi” at least once a week; he interviews writers in a great, personal, and atypical way.

What type of selection process did you use in choosing poems for The Panagea Prize?

I looked at my recent work and chose the poems that didn’t make me cringe – that is usually a sign that they still need work!  I didn’t have trouble grouping the poems thematically.  I’ve been circling some of these themes for a while now.  I selected these poems because they surprised me and seemed in dialogue with one another.  In them, the reader can see how I’m contemplating issues in my family history and my current relationship, all the while under the knowledge that death lingers in the background of all our lives, however close or distant.

What are your favorite or most influential books of poetry?

Sharon Olds first and foremost, especially The Dead and The Living, followed by Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us, and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets.  As an undergraduate English major at James Madison University, I was quite taken with Auden and Yeats.  “When You are Old” is still my favorite poem.  I owe a lot to Plath, and every time I read Bishop she teaches me.

What are you reading and enjoying right now?

This is one of the questions I was most excited to answer.  In poetry, as in academia, we all know the importance of reading and learning from the masters. I spent the first two years of my time at UAF attempting to become at least familiar with the masters in preparation for the fairly rigorous comprehensive exams all MFA students take during their second year of the three year program. Fortunately, I passed the exam, but afterwards I remember feeling this weightlessness, an anticipation that I identified as the freedom to finally read only what I chose. A critique I’ve heard of MFA programs is that they produce too many writers who are writing too many books, and, as some would say, too many mediocre books.  How ridiculous is that entire idea?  Too many writers?  Too many books?  That sounds utopian.

But I feel the opposite of this claim – I am so eager to read contemporary work being produced by emerging, hungry poets.  So, to answer your question, I’m reading newer stuff by newer poets. This summer and fall I read Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning, Allison Seay’s To See the Queen, and just finished Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins (which is an amazing collection).  Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye had a huge influence on me recently.  If it isn’t so presumptuous to say, I feel like I’m working in (or toward) a similar vein as Rekdal was in that book. Of course, Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap was an excellent recent read as well, but I’ll stop drooling over her for a moment to say I think we, as poets, should also be reading as much fiction and nonfiction as possible.  Last week, I read DeLillo’s Point Omega and I remembered my initial reaction to him when I read White Noise in college – something like, “Books can be like this? Books can do this?”  It is good to be reminded of that feeling.