Barn Owl Review Contributor Interview: Gary McDowell
by Sara Tracey
In the second Barn Owl Review Contributor Interview, Gary McDowell talks about writing, life as a PhD student, and the inevitable wait that comes with finishing a manuscript.
First, the basics. When did you start writing and why?
Where do you find inspiration? What themes or images keep popping up in your work?
I started writing in high school (well, aside from the illustrated stories I’d write for my family when I was in grade school). My stepfather died of brain cancer when I was sixteen. He had been a huge influence on my life and once he passed I started carrying a notebook with me everywhere I went, jotted down “thoughts” and “memories” that I would then later turn into horrific little poems about my “feelings”: truly atrocious stuff, seriously… so bad. I think I did it because I felt like I needed a place to record what I was going through. I didn’t respond well to psychologists and writing seemed a natural way to deal with my grief, with my pain.
I also used to go to the shore of the Fox River in Illinois while in high school and write about my surroundings, the broken tree stumps, the muddy water, the frogs, the vegetation, the dead catfish that littered the inlets. So I guess maybe nature, and my connection to it, got me interested in writing a more serious poetry, a poetry more mature than adolescent grievings. And then, at Northern Illinois University I took a fiction writing course and from there found Modern and Contemporary poetry through my professors recommendations. Then I kept writing because I couldn’t stop. I still can’t stop, and I hope I never do.
I draw inspiration from music, film, literature, nature, etc. The things, people, and events that surround me inspire me. Music though is where it’s really at for me: I love Muddy Waters, Metallica, Neutral Milk Hotel, Son House, Ben Webster, CLOP, Jay-Z, Leadbelly, Queen, Rascal Flatts, Silver Jews, Talib Kweli, Tom Waits, Wilco, Miles Davis, and on and on. I love the way different genres of music mix and filter through me, the images I get by going from a Billy Joel song to a Beatles song to a Blitzen Trapper song to an LL Cool J song.
Reading (anything: newspapers, historical nonfiction, poetry, fiction, etc) inspires me, too. It’s nearly impossible for me to read and not want to write afterward. Is this normal? Anyway.
As for images and themes? Fathers, sex, fish/fishing, rivers, water, childhood, birds (I love birds!!). There are so many common themes and images in my work… it’s sort of depressing, like maybe I need to invest in some new material!
Who are you reading? (Or what’s your favorite book of 2007/08?)
My favorite book of 07-08 was F. Daniel Rzicznek’s Neck of the World (Utah State UP 2008), winner of last year’s May Swenson Prize. Runner’s up would include: Peter Gizzi’s The Outernationale (Wesleyan 2007), Peter Conners’ Of Whiskey and Winter (White Pine Press 2007), Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin 2007), Alex Lemon’s Hallelujah Blackout (Milkweed 2008), Joshua Kryah’s Glean (Nightboat Books 2007), and others. Don’t even get me started on the fiction and nonfiction… so much good stuff out there this year!
I might as well mention a few others, books that I’ve read recently and loved but that didn’t come out this year: Charles Wright’s Country Music, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, all 3 of Peter Gizzi’s previous books, Seamus Heaney’s The Government of the Tongue, Louise Gluck’s Proofs & Theories, and Charles Wright’s Halflife and Quarter Notes. So many more I could name though!
Who are your biggest influences (literary, mentors, other)?
I’ve been extremely lucky in that I’ve studied with very giving, very inspirational poets at all three of the higher-educational schools I’ve attended: Amy Newman at Northern Illinois University, Larissa Szporluk at Bowling Green State University, and William Olsen and Nancy Eimers at Western Michigan University. They have all been mentors to me, provided me with insight, encouragement, and criticism… though I must say that Amy’s mentorship has been the longest lasting and meant the most to me. She’s the best—a friend, a poet, a teacher. She introduced me to poetry when I was lost and confused about my professional and scholarly ambitions as a scrappy 19-year old; she helped me understand that being a poet had a lot more to do with heart and determination and grit than with berets and coffee and black t-shirts; and to this day she continues to encourage, support, and influence me both with her literary wisdom and her unfaltering friendship.
As for literary influences… well, there’s so many. Here’s a few (though I know I’ll forget someone really important): Faulkner, Rilke, Charles Wright, Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping), Tom Andrews, C.D. Wright (Deepstep Come Shining), James Wright, Berryman, Dostoevsky, Joyce (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Gary Young, Rosmarie Waldrop, Russell Edson, Ted Hughes (mostly just Crow), Robert Hass, Yeats, Hemingway Larry Levis, Raymond Carver, Kevin Canty, and most recently, Peter Gizzi. I also return often to Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us and all of Oliver Sacks’ books. I find that really great nonfiction influences me more than poetry most days.
And music (see question #2 above). Jackson Pollock’s art. So many influences, so little time!
Which literary journals (besides Barn Owl Review, of course) do you enjoy most?
I like to read any and every lit journal I can get my hands on. I love seeing what my peers are up to as well as reading writers I’ve never read before. Isn’t that feeling just tremendous, when you read a poem by someone you’ve never heard of and then immediately flip to the contributor’s notes to see where else they’ve published so you can track their work down? Oh man, I love that! Anyway, there are a few mags that I either subscribe to or at least try to read every issue of: Colorado Review, Laurel Review, RHINO, DIAGRAM, Tin House, jubilat, Gulf Coast, American Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Sentence, Poetry, Black Warrior Review. There are so many more great literary magazines than space allows here.
What advice would you give to writers who are just starting to send out their work?
Read. Read widely and voraciously. Also, go listen to poets read (or go to PennSound online or some other audio archive and listen and listen and listen). If you live anywhere near a city with a good reading scene, go check out some of the ‘stars’ that come through town. I saw Robert Hass read when I was first getting started in poetry and it changed my life. Also, don’t silence yourself; be honest, be forthright, be fearless in your writing and your reading. Just go for it. Write like hell. Read like hell.
You’re currently looking for a publisher for your first manuscript. How did you get the project ready for the mail, and how are you handling the wait?
As for getting my manuscript ready for the mail… well, I’m still working on the damn thing. I find that it’s an endless process. I’m always tinkering, I’m always refining and tweaking. But eventually I just stop and put postage on it, write a check, and mail it off. I have to. If I don’t, no one will ever read it. In all seriousness though, this is where my mentors (Newman, Szporluk, Olsen, Eimers) have been so important. I’ve shown them different drafts, different incarnations of the manuscript, and their input has been crucial to the book’s development. It’s a tough beast, the first book manuscript. I don’t know much about it, I guess. I’m not sure I ever will. I just keep my head down and write and revise the best I know how. As for the waiting, it’s tough. I wish the turnaround were quicker, but I have been on the other side of these manuscript contests as a reader and screener and I completely understand why the process can take months. And to be honest, I’d rather wait.... hopefully that means my manuscript is getting a good read, some solid consideration. But I’ll not lie, waiting sucks!
You’re working on your Ph.D. at Western Michigan University. Why did you decide to take the academic route?
Yeah, the PhDisease. Seriously though, I went to Northern Illinois University more than 10 years ago in hopes of becoming a Computer Scientist, a video-game programmer (I know, dorksville… like poetry’s any better!?). I took one Calculus class and as soon as the semester was over I ran, not walked, but ran to the advisor’s office and switched my major to English. After a semester in the English Department I realized I wanted to teach. Teaching high school, however, didn’t appeal to me. I loved what Amy Newman and my other college professors meant to me and decided that that’s what I wanted to do with my life: teach upper-level literature and creative writing. It’s great that the profession allows writers time to create and teach, even though the jobs are nearly impossible to secure. I love the atmosphere of the classroom, of the university, of young minds working together in the humanities, using their minds and hearts to create, build, and synthesize the literature of the past, present, and future. I can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else.