Q&A with Kent MacCarter

17 February 2012

Kent MacCarter is Cordite’s new Managing Editor. In the Hungry Middle of Here, his first collection of poetry, published by Transit Lounge Press, was reviewed in Cordite in 2009. In 2012, another poetry collection, Ribosome Spreadsheet, will be released as well a non-fiction anthology he is currently co-editing on expatriate writers now living and writing from Australia. MacCarter currently sits on the executive board of The Small Press Network, an advocate association for small presses as they meet challenges of the digital revolution in publishing. He is also an active member in Melbourne PEN. This interview with Kent is presented as a postscript to the Cordite-Prairie Schooner Work feature.

Can you describe your typical day at work?

My alarm on my mobile phone goes off at exactly 7:03am each weekday, and thus commences my day at work. The first stroke of business is taking care of my infant son’s former business – a cloth nappy/diaper change. I find that the older he gets into infancy, approaching toddler-dom, the more fragrant this task is. I’m glad he ‘works’ – but it’s definitely work for my wife and I in reacting to how efficient he does so. It’d be far more work (and parental panic) if he didn’t work.

My work day continues with a run to the tram/streetcar. The paid, 9-5 aspect of my day unfurls in the form of an online content developer role. Nothing to do with writing whatsoever. These daytime hours can be changelings – if it’s web-based, multimedia or has any whiff or distant fug of IT-relatedness to it, then it’ll cross my placemat and leave a jam stain on my ‘to do’ list. There are pockets of time – chiefly during a lunch hour – where I tend to SPUNC: The Small Press Network business or other admin tasks of being an engaged writer in the world.

Do you consider writing poetry to be a form of work?

Yes. I do. But the term ‘work’ has a loaded negativity to it, an assumed arduousness that isn’t necessarily applicable to a given event of ‘work’. When I’m writing in the evenings, if asked, I’ll say that ‘I am working’. I have certainly put more time and effort – altogether more work – into most pieces of writing than I have, say, mowing the lawn, migrating online content (now largely tantrum-free in this modern era), editing an essay or searing a kangaroo fillet appropriately without overcooking it. These are all acts of work. Some are pleasurable, some not so much. Writing is ‘work’ every bit as much as craftily using Windows on a PC to cloak the newspaper article you’re getting paid to read on a Monday morning at 10am.

How long do you generally spend writing an individual poem?

This fluctuates wildly. There are groupings of days where I spend many consecutive hours per day working on a single poem. I call these poems ‘host’ poems. The host poem typically starts with a great idea, a line, a series of sounds in my head that I need to capture. Sadly, I’m not always so deft and fleet-of-trouser as these shimmering ideas that come to me. Too many times, I fuss, sculpt, belabour and edit the host poem until it’s a bloated, misshapen antenna of histrionics and lyrical fizz. I should save more versions of work in progress than I do.

The good news is that these ‘host’ poems spawn offshoot ideas. Tributary poems. I call these poems the ‘parasites’. These ideas drain the succour from that first, flashy idea and, like a tick engorged with blood, form their own identities and shape at the expense of the host poem. I realise that this is a gross and garrulous way to describe this process, but it’s what seems most appropriate. The parasite poems come fast, largely intact. Small swarms. They do require work and time with a version or two, but not nearly the slog of my host poem attempts. It is these parasite poems that wind up becoming my best work and the pieces that are accepted for publication far more often than not.

Is work a preoccupation or theme in your poetry?

I cannot say that it is, but I dearly wanted it to be early on. When I was studying with Thom Gunn and Karen Volkman at University of Chicago – when any and all tutelage was new to me – I had grand plans to incorporate a strong proletarian grain in my writing from the get go. I was agog with Benjamin Reitman’s quasi-autobiography, Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha – as Told to Dr. Ben Reitman, finding a battered old copy of it in a Hyde Park alley on a freezing January night. I was caught up in the sexiness of the ‘hobohemian’ climate of Chicago’s history – Chicago being the epicentre of itinerate workers from 1880 to 1950 – embarking on many midnight scouting trips to find where Bughouse Square or the Dil Pickle Club once stood and all their phantom agitators and reprobates which still might lurk.

I found that it was just too vast of a piece of history to try and harness. I had sex with Nelson Algren’s City on the Make and it dumped me, hard, the very next day. Chicago’s is an interesting history of workers and workers’ rights, a historical horizon that allowed American communism to dawn. I worked on a revision of Nels Anderson’s On Hobos and Homelessness when I was at University of Chicago Press. I also binged on the entire list of the Charles H. Kerr Publishing House of Chicago. Those books certainly fuelled my imagination.

Now and then, themes such as those I was so smitten with then break in to my writing and set up camp in my wobbly jungle, but not, so far, with the success even close to some of James Wright’s or Philip Levine’s work. At times I’ve attempted to force themes of work into my poems, the results always catastrophes. The topic still fascinates me.

What is your attitude towards unpaid publication?

As a baseline, I believe writers should get paid. Paid something … even if that something is quite miniscule. That said, I have worked in and amongst small presses in Australia for years now and contributor payments are not always feasible. Margins are tiny or non-existent for a small press. I have come to rest in a position where I am not at all bothered by unpaid publications, especially if it’s my successful submission or piece pitched to a publication that had not otherwise asked me to write anything for them. Plenty of my poems were published unpaid. That won’t be changing any time soon.

I do have some issue when a publication asks a writer for a specific contribution, then asks them to do it for nothing too – but that’s not my business. If both sides are happy in such an arrangement, then great. I think you have to be in the writing game a long time and with considerable success before you start demanding a payment for everything of yours that’s published. And, honestly, such a demand renders you a bit of jerk in so doing. Most people have no qualms in doing freebies, but this does not mean they’re inexhaustible.

What is the smallest amount you’ve ever been paid for the publication of a poem?

The smallest amount I’ve ever been paid is forty Australian dollars for appearing in an annual anthology of poetry. This payment was from a publisher and via a publication series that has considerable exposure in Australia, too. Like I said, $40 is something – a few tasty lunches that, ostensibly, are free. I look at it that way.

The publication was put out by an established enough press to necessitate at least some payment to all contributors to maintain their prestige. I’m certain the payment rates weren’t democratic for all contributors. Emerging writers are paid less than established ones when a press’ stature mandates a payment to all. By stature, I mean when a press has been successful enough that it can’t not pay at least something. Fair? Well, not exactly. But that’s how it is.

I find that smaller publications which have managed to sustain ways to pay contributors – writers like me – are much more socialist about who gets paid what. And that works well on small scales and tiny budgets.

Describe your poetry writing work environment.

I feel as if I should say that I only use #6 lead pencils, a notebook with paper stock that doesn’t show through, is of voluminous trim size and has a pleasing shade of green that becomes the wont of a sharp pencil particularly winningly. The poet William Stafford had some system-er-other like this. But that would be utter rubbish if I tried that on here. I wrote my MA thesis while sitting on a beanbag on the floor with a cat frequently shitting next to me in its catbox. I admit this not to be flippant, but honest. I would actually enjoy more of a regimen and designated writing space.

My poetry writing environment is guided far more by the hour of day in which a ‘must-record’ moment strikes. At times, that’s at work during the 9-5 day career. More often, it’s between 11pm and 2am, sitting in the 1930s-era couch and chair collection my wife and I got last year. They have huge side arms that can hold at least two beverages, pens, pencils, a laptop. It’s a comfy cockpit from which to guide an approach. The only missing part is an antimacassar to absorb all the bad lines and ideas that leave their oily mark on time invested in a given poem.

What do you think is the (ideal) monetary worth of a single poem?

$300 would be brilliant. But that’s a bit rich to say, isn’t it? I’m jesting, anyhow.

I do think poetry is oftentimes left the crumbs of a given publication’s overall contributor budget (say, if poems are interspersed with fiction and memoir, etc). The truth is that poems – in these cases – are not selling points. They’re included because the editors enjoy poetry. And that’s an equally if not more important currency than cash; managing editors that enjoy poetry and are willing to publish it.
But, hey? I still relish a payment of any size for any poem of mine that gets published. It’s still a good feeling.

Have you ever worked as an editor? Describe your experience.

I’ve worked as an editor in just about every way a person can. One of my hats at University of Chicago Press was editing marketing material. How to adroitly put why you, the most important and hallowed university library in Bulgaria, need our journal on Shaker furniture? Of course you do! While the duties were touted as editor, it was simply try-hard copywriting.

I’ve been a developmental editor for educational publishing in Australia in a few places. This is more like herding cats and/or keeping 40-50 plates all spinning atop poles at once in vague harmony. A more appropriate term is project manager. It’s a terrific skill to have and I am grateful for having gone through the wringer a few times in roles like that. You learn so much that you never knew you needed to know on how to gestate a book.

I am currently editing a literary non-fiction collection of essays – this is to say I am curator to the book, although I’m also acting as a developmental editor for its contents and, to some degree, a structural editor as well. This is a lot of work. So far, I am enjoying it immensely.

It is with wonderful, fortuitous luck that I married such a genuine, hard core book editor – the kind that turns a promising manuscript out from its unbridled messiness, through a pasture of ideas and suggestions and into a gripping final product that you pick up at a shop. It is an artful, meticulous profession that takes years to master. I’m nowhere near that. Having a PhD in English or Creative Writing does not qualify a person as this kind of editor, contrary to some popular thinking.

When asked your occupation, do you reply ‘poet’?

Yes, I do at times. Not always. Anybody who answers with ‘Poet’ to a question like this knows that the asker, if distinctly not also a poet, writer or somehow involved with books and literature, will likely fail to suppress a guffaw right in your face. Not always, but likely. That’s okay by me. I am not ashamed to be a poet. Or a writer.

Oftentimes, I’ll reply that yes, I am a writer and leave it at that. It’s as accurate a reply as ‘Poet’ is for me. Poetry is but one blimp in my airspace that is my interest in writing and literature … an elastic ‘vehicle’ that inflates and deflates itself noticeably in any given season or year in my life.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Honestly, I cannot remember. But I do know that I came to writing, reading and books quite late in my blossoming life. I also remember having strong, at times aching urges to be ‘on the go’ … years before I spent my requisite 15 minutes totally into the Beats. I recall distinctly in grade 4 during recess – having just moved from the greater Minneapolis area to Santa Fe, New Mexico weeks before – sitting atop a half-buried tractor tyre in the playground and gazing out to the distant Interstate 25 thrumming with cars. Movement. And I was stuck. There. There in the muck of fourth grade, in the muck of being aged 8, in the muck of a playground tyre that wasn’t going anywhere.

I’ve lived a very peripatetic life since then. I’ve worked as a deck grunt on a flounder trawler off the coast of Homer, Alaska; as a fudge packer (yes, honestly!) in a confectioner’s ‘shoppe’ on Mackinac Island, Michigan; as a barista in one of the many espresso carts in Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium; as a mutual fund accountant in the vault of a converted bank; as a grossly overpaid IT consultant for the University of Melbourne, teaching English on the education black market in Sienna, Italy (quite the cottage industry at the time), etc.

I’ve never had an ideal that I want to be when I grew up. I’m still not precisely sure what it is I currently am, let alone might be. But I do know that I am now the managing editor for Cordite Poetry Review, so maybe I am finally getting somewhere!

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