MARIA C MCCARTHY: Cherry Cheer
Angela C. Dye talks to Maria C. McCarthy about There are Boats on the Orchard, her new poetry collection, in advance of Maria’s headline gig at Roundabout Nights on 2 August.
Hello Maria. What inspired your latest collection?
Maria C. McCarthy: “Living alongside orchards for seven years, watching their decline. Writing in a shed that overlooked a disused orchard, where all sorts of things were dumped (including boats). Walking the local orchards near where I lived at the time: the village of Teynham.”
Although There are Boats on the Orchard is a statement that could be read with indignation I see it as a sad resignation that ‘development’ and subsequent neglect and displacement wins.
“Yes, I noticed with sadness, the felling of ancient cherry orchards, and the loss of the old ways of fruit-farming.”
What is the best thing someone has said about your poems?
“‘Quietly devastating.’ Moniza Alvi said it. She kindly wrote a quote for the back cover of my first poetry collection, strange fruits. My favourite poem of mine is ‘After the Fire at Matalan’ from strange fruits. It’s about the fire at the store in Strood years ago, written over several months, from first impressions on the day of the fire to the aftermath and rebuilding. I liked taking a very ordinary thing, making it poetic. Just reading the title raised cheers in Medway audiences!”
You have a way of imbuing the ordinary with pathos and integrity. I loved the description of it as a turkey carcass.
There are Boats on the Orchard is a beautiful book: smooth and shiny as a russet hued apple. Delicate drawings belie the weighty subject. Detailed and whimsical, focusing on elements of the poem to re-visit. Jaunty red cherries on the back, the lively boat and apple on the front, bustle with kinetic energy, taking us wistfully, passively-angrily, yet joyfully, on a Kentish walk, particularly Teynham, off the A2, and Lynsted Orchards. Why should people be excited by this book?
“One big reason is that There are Boats on the Orchard is illustrated by Sara Fletcher. I love what Sara has done in response to the poems and the landscape that inspired them. The poems take the ordinary and make it beautiful, and they also chronicle a changing countryside. They are nature poems, but gritty and real. I am excited about the pamphlet as a physical object. It has been beautifully designed, by Mark Holihan, and litho-printed.”
Maria, many people’s books are an exposition of themselves. You are visible in this book as an observer, mostly through a garden shed window, placing the landscape and fruits at the fore-front.
“Yes, this woman’s place is in her shed, a voyeur with a window on the wildlife. We only moved to this part of Kent in 2008. It is not as if I grew up with the sight of sheep grazing beneath fruit trees, nor did my family occupy cherry orchards for a few weeks each summer to pick the fruit. Yet I am sad that these things are disappearing.”
The sad wistful “I want to cling to the branches” in ‘An exhibition at the village hall’ shows loving powerless resistance. The whole book seems to be about that. Displacement, things where they should not be, ‘Eden village’ where paradise no longer exists, coach houses pretending they have a connection, an ochre patch apologising for itself on a map. In ‘Boy on a ladder’ I can imagine the old farm trucks trundling. Still they come down Lynsted Lane…
“I wonder what it would be like to live in the present, to be concerned only with what is going on now, not to pine for a past that is not mine, not ours.
I do think that being an outsider helps us to see things more clearly, to record them. Being neither fully Irish nor English has given me an outsider’s view, standing aside and watching, not fully engaged with a nostalgia that is not mine to own.”
That sense of being bereft: “rabbits graze beneath its battered hymen. / The skirt that wrapped its legs lies ripped by autumn winds” from ‘The orchard trampoline,’ shows what this means to you. Rape, violation! The road in ‘Eden Village’ has an ‘‘open mouth’’, swallows the old farm. Anger raises its head in soft sarcasm – “This is paradise regained” – yet nature gets last word as tree stumps are now giants. Poplars say “shush” in conspiracy: we will win, we will grow back. Who wants to tell them that Swale plans more homes along that stretch. Grief in words from ‘Pioneer.’ “There was snow this time last year”, proclaim the party is over. In ‘The orchard ladder’ they’ve smashed the land, “like dulled lights left / after Twelfth Night.” There were not enough voices to stop the trees decline. So Autumn lied to the cherry vines when they curled for sleep and sent bulldozers and bonfires?
“On the day that There are Boats on the Orchard was collected from the printer’s, news came through of plans to build houses on the orchard that I thought of as mine. I am glad not to be there to see this happen, but happy to have the poems and images in this pamphlet to chronicle the years of living next to the disappearing orchards of Kent.”
Trials and Triumphs
In ‘Know your cherries’ orchards seem permanent and resilient by reference to ‘‘heavy cropper”. At the end we see they need watching, need our care. What canker romps the orchards? The obscenity of idiotic planning is alluded to in ‘Drought.’ “A drought is declared and it rains for a week.” Can we trust authorities? I love your bunting flying flagrantly, reviving, fluttering on, like triumphant poplars at the end sprouting from stumps. Sad bemusement permeates. In ‘Dry dock’ we see the mourning of other losses and thefts too?
“I became ill in 1999, and had to give up work. The illness persists to this day. There was a period of bereavement, as I had lost a great deal through becoming ill: work, social life, relationships, then, out of the blue, I started to write poems. Then later, stories. A friend gave me a beautiful notebook. I started writing in it. Poems at first, as they are manageable physically for someone with little energy.” (Bite sized chunks of the writing apple!)
“I had early success in a couple of competitions (beginner’s luck, perhaps), and one had the prize of paying half my fees for a creative writing course at the University of Kent. I later completed an MA in Creative Writing. I was forty when I first started writing. It’s never too late, there is more life material to work with at that age. Autumn is my favourite season. It was the season in which I was born.”
So close to harvest, no wonder…
If music were cherries?
Your attitude to music seems to reflect your need for authenticity in your poems, and that seasonality, the expectation of delayed gratification, to have things in proper place and time.
“Led Zeppelin is my all-time favourite. I go back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue a great deal, and to Bowie and Neil Young. I listen to music on vinyl, as a preference, though an iPod in the car is a wonderful thing. Sometimes, it’s good to think of something I’d like to hear, and wait till I get home to put a record on, rather than have music on demand. At present, I am mostly listening to Alt-J and Fleet Foxes. I love Fleet Foxes’ ‘Helplessness Blues’, as it has lyrics about an orchard. It’s totally gorgeous.”
Home is where the heart is?
The grass locked boat. It is where it should not be. Nothing is where it should be: the wrappers in the trees, a child’s plaything in the orchard, houses on old farms. Coach houses that can’t be haunted as no coachmen were ever there. You have moved from the orchards now? Do you feel at home?
“I have moved back to the Medway Towns now, where I lived for twenty years previously, before moving to Teynham. There is a sense of returning home. As you open There are Boats on the Orchard, you are greeted by a picture of rabbits, which were part of the landscape I looked out on in Teynham. At the back of the pamphlet is a sketch of a fox. As I open the curtains in the early mornings, I often see a fox visiting our garden. It feels like a kind of circularity in the collection – starting with ‘Prologue’ which refers back to my home in Strood, and ending with ‘Last’, which is about leaving the orchards and my home in Teynham. I love being by the river or sea.”
Do you have any rituals around writing?
“I like to write in A4 notebooks in pencil, the notebooks must be given to me by someone else.”
I love this, the sense of occasion and provenance.
“It stems from the first gift of a notebook that started me off. I prefer pencils, as they move fast over the page, and I like the sense of renewal every time I sharpen a pencil. Plus, the smell of a newly sharpened pencil is wonderful.”
What genre (or fruit basket) would you place yourself into, if any?
“I am a poet and a short fiction writer. I suppose I am a writer of literary fiction. I have had a go at Science Fiction in my stories. I also write memoir, which largely appears on my blog, but has also been published as articles in journals. I like to think my writing is accessible as well as literary.”
I definitely saw that in your work, a light touch laced with subtle literary devices. What is important to you as a writer: truth, authenticity, form, structure, rhyme, story, image, etc?
“Truth and authenticity, above all. Everything I write stems from some sort of real-life experience, even the Sci-Fi. I do, however, believe in craft. The raw material needs working and reworking. I do like rhyme in poetry, but as Michael Donaghy once said to me (at a poetry masterclass), “rhyme is a virtuoso technique.” It can be terrible if used badly. I admire Patience Agbabi, who uses rhyme beautifully.”
The rhythm of lines from’ Boy on a ladder’ “beating the birds, loading baskets / ferrying cherries to trains and barges, / and off to the London Markets” has a lovely wheel over stones cadence that sums up archaic jollity and business. I love how you describe rubbish hanging in the trees with 40 p reduced sticker: rape of the villages and fields is cheap and callous. Your words are gently aggressive and you rely on syllables and word length to convey sound. In ‘The Fallen’, “A chainsaw bite at the back of the knees / does for the spent trees. They lie where they fall.” Short sharp syllables make me feel the zig zag jag of the chainsaw.
Do your poems work better on the page or performed?
“I think they work equally as well. I am not a performance poet, but I do perform my work. When writing and editing, I do a lot of reading my work aloud and listening to it. What jars on the ear will also not be working on the page.”
Yes, they do roll over the tongue and kiss the ear I found. I am looking forward to your readings from this book at Roundabout Nights on August 2nd.
Cherry picked advice for aspiring poets?
“Read lots of poetry, go to readings by other poets. Find poets you particularly admire, and read everything you can that they have written. Discover what you like about them, and how your work fits with theirs. Join a class or a writing group. Get feedback, and take on board the valid criticism; forget the criticism you reject. Be strong enough to defend what you think is working in your poems; sometimes critics have their own agendas. Most of all, write and write and write; then edit and edit and edit. If you draft six poems, you might get two good ones out of those. I would also advise not to share your work too early – work it up first. I know not all writers would agree with that last one, but I would never share a poem that I had written that day.”
Like a cherry has to grow and be nurtured and plucked at peak time…
And to finish on a cheery note. Your favourite colour?
“I love shades of pink to purple. Or blue. Sometimes green. On reflection. I don’t have a favourite.”
Perhaps cherry is your favourite? “Glossy, burgundy coloured’’ skin? Or perhaps “Banana-yellow, flushed with orange.” You have made me want to seek out these varieties from ‘Know your cherries.’ Sadly I may not be able to find them. If I do they may be sold as overpriced, heavily packaged ones in Waitrose, rather than at the stalls on the A2 with swinging wooden signs…
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Maria.
More from Maria:
There are Boats on the Orchard, by Maria C. McCarthy
36pp (illustrated). £7.00. July 2017. Published exclusively by Cultured Llama and only available here.
Discover more on Maria’s blog.
You can also read one of Maria’s poems, ‘Slugs’, and a short story, ‘Starlings’, in Confluence issue 3, available here.