“When you lose someone, it’s a very public event”: An Interview with Kerrin McCadden

Kerrin McCadden is the winner of the 2018 Button Poetry Prize for her chapbook Keep This To Yourself. Her work explores the truth and strain that addiction imposes on the family unit, portrays the tangled what-ifs behind sudden loss, and advocates against the silencing of suffering. McCadden has also published Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes (New Issues Poetry & Prose 2014), is a winner of the Vermont Book Award, and has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and many others. She currently teaches at Montpelier High School in Vermont. McCadden and I met back in February at Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, Vermont, where we ate a cheese board and discussed grief, the writing process as an educator, and how Keep This To Yourself came to be.

To discuss my life as a writer with you, I know that in the face of loss, I’ve become consumed with writing about a particular situation over and over again. At one point, one of my peers mentioned that I had written “too much” about a particular event. In the time that you were writing about your brother’s death, I’m sure that the feelings and urge to write were almost obsessive. Did you ever face any criticism or pushback for writing about your brother’s death for an entire chapbook?

No, no. I haven’t written many poems about him as much as other things I’ve written about. My first reaction to that comment to you is that’s not the right comment for anyone to make. I was once at a conference where Kim Addonizio was talking about divorce poems, which I have written a lot of, and a participant asked “How do you know when you have written enough? How many is too many?” The response was “When you’re done, you’ll be done.” There is no “too many.” You’re writing the poems you have to write, and what you do with them is up to you, but you’re mining that personal experience. You’re digging around inside yourself and looking at all the angles, thinking “How many ways can I package this and process it?” Ultimately, you’re processing your life, but you’re also making art.

Of course you’re going to make a bunch of bad moves. We all do. All of your poems are rough drafts for other poems, potentially. We can’t say the whole big thing in one poem sometimes. Sometimes we need to say it in increments. Keep writing until you are done. Other people? Whatever. I think you have to keep going—the more obsessive you are about something, the more you’ll find the right angle for you.

At what point did you look at all of the poems in Keep This To Yourself and say “Okay, I’m done” and decide that it was a cohesive chapbook?

It was a night in the middle of winter, last winter. I saw that the chapbook deadline for the Button Poetry Prize was coming up, and a couple of others, and I thought, “Do I have a chapbook?” I started looking at the work. I’ve been working on a second collection, a full length collection, for a long time, and it’s got three different threads in it. There are poems about the destruction of families and homes, which is an obsession of mine, and it’s got a thread about going back to Ireland. In the past 10 to 12 years, I’ve started going back and staying at my grandfather’s farm and re-establishing the connections we lost when my grandparents came over here. Ireland is really important to me, and thus the themes of home and exile. Then there’s the third thread about my nuclear family, my childhood with my brother, and his life as an addict. The collection is all loosely about home and exile, and brokenness and repair. I was looking at those pieces, and I thought, “well, maybe one of these threads could be a chapbook.” And I realized these poems about my brother could not only be a chapbook, but could be useful to others, that maybe his story might help another family, or another sister, or someone like my brother. The poems about my brother are a story that’s overwhelming so many in our country, ripping apart so many families.

To bring up an analogy I’ve been returning to lately: a journalist can’t drive by a car crash—they have to stop and report on it. They can’t say to themselves, “Not today. I’m driving past.” I’m a writer, I thought, and my brother’s life is my car crash.  Poets are all reporting on the world—the interior world, the exterior world. I pulled the chapbook together in an evening. It took me only about a day to sit on it, which is rare. I’m usually really slow and obsessive.

This book has been a long time in the making, though. There are poems in it that I wrote years before he died, almost a decade before he died. It took me a night to put this chapbook together, but it took me a very long time to write.

This is kind of a mechanical story of building the chapbook itself. The other part of the story is a much longer one, of course—about the opioid crisis itself and how it tears through a family, and how hard it is to turn that narrative into poems.

A phenomenal and moving part of Keep This To Yourself is the consistent re-use of the “reverse overdose” poems throughout the chapbook. It provides the reader with many emotions and images to think about. What inspired this mini series of poems within the chapbook?

These poems are actually one poem that I broke up into segments for the purposes of the chapbook. They chronicle the life of an addict inside of a family, moving backward through his life. I hoped that threading “reverse overdose” though the other poems was a way to show how little our life made sense. How time doesn’t solve addiction, doesn’t help it make sense.  “reverse overdose” was inspired by “Reverse Suicide,” by Matt Rasmussen, a poem in response to the suicide of his brother. He “undoes” the suicide through a reverse telling—each action being undone as the poem moves forward.

For years, I worried that I would out-live my brother. It’s something you wonder about when someone you love is an addict—whether they are going to stay alive or not. Addiction is an illness, of course, and an addict doesn’t ever become “un-ill.” The way fate feels, living with a brother who is addicted to heroin, is that time is cruel. Time always seems to involve hoping—that each new day brings possibility. Hope can feel cruel while on the rollercoaster of a life like ours. Writing his story backward—his whole life—felt like a way to untie a knot, to bring him back to peace, to have the ending of the poem be a beginning where he was innocent again. Writing the poem felt like giving a gift to him.

This chapbook takes on a very personal and intense aspect of your life. How did you feel when the chapbook won and was going to be published?

It took a year from when the book won the prize until its publication. I had a year. For most of that year, I didn’t show the book to my parents. I really wrestled at first with how to tell them that I had even won the prize. I was instantly terrified and thought “What have I done? Now our story is going out into the world.” I was half-wishing that it wouldn’t be out there, while also knowing that it should be. It took me eleven months to let my parents read the book, and I dreaded it the whole time. I was terrified to tell my sister-in-law that the book existed. She’s raising my brother’s son right now, and I dread the notion that he might read the book. He’s young. I kind of hope the book will go away before he’s old enough to find it. It’s the one time I’ve ever felt thankful for a limited print run.

This takes me back to what I said about being like a journalist—feeling like I can’t look away. This is the thing I can’t not write about. It’s my material right now. It’s not my thing to make gold out of, but it’s my thing to wrestle with. If I don’t wrestle with this story in my poems, I wonder, is the rest of my work honest?

I take a lot of courage from poets like Sharon Olds, who doesn’t confess that she’s writing about her own life. She is so brave. I can’t hold out that mask, though, like she has. She writes about difficult things with gusto and clarity, and a fearlessness I hope to embrace..

When readers reach “Only Child,” a personal favorite of mine, they feel desperation, sadness, and loneliness. This is the poem from which the chapbook draws its title. Personally, I get that you publishing this is a sort of act of defiance against those who made you feel as though you had to keep everything to yourself.

No one specifically told me to “keep it to myself,” but nobody wants to brag about the fact that they have a family member who is struggling with addiction either. When you lose a family member, it’s a very public event, regardless of how you lost your loved one. Everyone wants to know what happened. What’s the story you tell? I know it’s really hard to say to people “this is how the person we love died.” It’s a huge struggle. It’s also awful to have to keep retelling the story—but it’s also a strange comfort. What seems unreal becomes real. Everyone knows someone that has been touched by this epidemic. What plagues everybody touched by this epidemic is this feeling of shame. We didn’t do enough. He shouldn’t have done that. He made these choices. Why was life so hard? All these questions and these feelings about how awful it is. Nobody wants to say exactly how awful it was. It’s easy to want to keep it to ourselves.

I have a friend, for instance, who was instructed by his parents to lie. I think what plagues people in families with addiction is secrecy. In society, we think that these deaths occur in alleyways, in drug-houses, in communities of homeless people under bridges, but really where they happen is in everybody’s home. In every kind of family, every kind of community. Secrecy contributes to the addict’s feeling of not belonging and their self-isolation.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how when someone has cancer, we provide them with all kinds of support. We make gestures toward them so they don’t feel alone. We make out-pourings of love. With addicts, we instead shame and blame. We don’t, as a culture, know how to care for these two types of people in the same way. I think this is a big part of the epidemic. We dehumanize the people caught up in it. This is where that overarching theme of the chapbook comes in: what will we keep to ourselves and what are we willing to tell? It’s been hard to be willing to tell it, but it’s a story that needs to be normalized so that people in the throes of this illness can receive widespread care. And when an overdose happens, it’s a fact. We need to look at it—at the story, at the individuals. People need to be seen.

In your interview with “Poet Speaks” in 2018, you said that “I think that’s what poets are doing most of the time…talking to ourselves,” which I find to be an interesting concept. In this chapbook, are you talking to yourself?

Yes. I think where the poems are born is in talking to myself. I was trying to solve the equation of the problem about addiction, and my family, and my brother. Those poems were written inside and for me, but because I’m a poet I know that I will put them out. I’m the audience at first, but I know that they will be released. That’s where the revision process comes in. I always think: Does it make sense to someone else? I don’t start worrying about the external part of the poem until the process of revision.

I often begin a poem with what I call a “talking draft,” where I write like I would talk, onto the paper, into the idea of the poem. Then I pay attention to language and structure and sound, revising toward what the poem needs to become. Whenever I come across my first-drafts, I’m like “Oh, this is a terrible poem!” What an ugly thing!

As someone who personally is beginning to enter the teaching profession, I know just how time consuming the job can be. It can also kind of mentally exhaust your passion for reading and writing at times. How does your writing impact your profession as a teacher?

It’s hard, but teaching and writing are separate. Each of them takes up a lot of time, and each competes for the time the other takes. I’m really just too busy, but at least I get to think about writing 24/7. I transact writing and reading every day. I think teaching is wonderful, and teaching in public school is incredibly fulfilling, but it’s an expensive job in terms of time.

I love working with teenagers, and I love seeing what they can do with language. I love their sense of humor and I love how real they are.  I do daydream, though, about working at the hardware store. When you put the box on the shelf, it stays there. I can point to the nails when someone asks, “Where are the nails?” The nails are always there, in the same spot. Teaching is not like that, but the utter unpredictability is what makes teaching rewarding—the constantly shifting days. Making a life that includes both teaching and writing means quite a bit of juggling and an utter commitment to both, singularly, even though when we get lucky, they feel like they are holding hands.

There are gifts, too. I can write with my students. And I learn from them. Teenagers can be astonishingly good writers—especially when they learn some moves separate from the traditional expository writing formulas in which they are so well-trained. That’s the exciting cross-over between being a poet and a high school teacher—figuring out what I can bring to them from the world of contemporary poetry, which poems I can read with them that show them uncharted ways of writing their own work.

In your teaching, you encourage students to not conform to one idea of what they “should” read and instead allow them to learn what they like for themselves. When you were in school, did you have educators that pushed you to do what you were interested in?

In high school, we did what we were assigned, and nothing was individualized, except for the creative writing assignments, which I loved. I always had a side study gig, though. I often rejected what was being done in school. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to read another thing by Ernest Hemingway!” I was going off and reading on my own. I won’t say that I was well-read, but I come from a family where reading was recreational and stories were important. It was not necessarily important if what we read was classic literature. I did stumble into the classics, though. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the first book that I ever really read that was a “classic,” and I was 14, and it blew my mind.

Nobody died in the books I’d read before. Tess was so beautifully written, and I had never seen anything like it. Tess began a long, slow-growing love affair with beautifully written things that require patience. I also fell in love with the Beat Poets. My mother gave me a book by them that she bought at a church sale, and I was shocked about what was happening on the page. I became obsessed with how you can build a world with language that unexpected. The world is unexpected, you know? And to find language that could reach into the negative space of experience, what felt otherwise inscrutable, began my real passion for poetry. I admired the Beat Poets’ imagination, language, and vision. I started writing poetry on my own at that point. I had tremendous teachers, but none of them taught how to write poetry. I wrote poetry badly, like really badly, for a long time.

One of my favorite friends on Facebook is actually my ninth grade English teacher, Warren Brown. He is so supportive of the work I’m doing now, and I’m so in awe of his commitment to language and literature, still. When he sends me a note about anything I’ve written, and calls me some amazing nickname he called me decades ago, I feel so humbled and so grateful.  I feel lucky to have been taught by people like him. I hope I’ve done something good with what I was given as a student. I may not have been taught during a time when individualization was the norm, but I was given all the tools of mind and craft to do the work I do now, and I’m grateful. There are so many paths toward a literary life!

There is so much heaviness in being a writer, but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate what makes us happy. Let’s end the interview on a good note: Tell me about a recent moment when you felt happy.

I always feel happy, number one. Not precisely always, but I’m never too far away from feeling joy. Two nights ago, my son, who is seventeen, had to build a wind instrument out of any materials that he chose. He decided to make it out of carrots. That evening we were all sitting around with carrots, trying to figure out how to make them make noise. He ended up with this wonderful carrot ocarina that played five notes. When he played it and it played perfectly, there was this overwhelming moment of “Oh my god!” It was just ridiculous, but it was an intense moment of joy—a favorite recent moment.

Lindsey McGowan a recent graduate of The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, will begin her graduate English studies at the University of New Hampshire in the fall. She is currently an associate editor at Pine Hills Review. Find her on Twitter at @lindseyxdaisy.

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close