By NETTIE FARRIS
Christopher McCurry has been writing seriously for five years. He enthusiastically credits his mentor, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, with “open[ing] in [him] a space [he] didn’t know existed.” Under the direction of Stoykova-Klemer, McCurry works as an editor for Accents Publishing in Lexington, Kentucky, where he teaches high school English. He spends his summers working toward a Master of Arts in Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English and following his passion: reading. McCurry’s first collection of poems, Splayed, was published by ELJ Publications in 2013. His second collection, Nearly Perfect Photograph: Marriage Sonnets, is forthcoming February 2016 from Two of Cups Press, a small independent publisher based in Greensboro, North Carolina. I first became acquainted with Chris when he was in charge of editing my own first collection of poems. When he began writing sonnets (I’d been writing sonnets myself) I became curiouser and curiouser. Following are excerpts of our conversation, occurring over time, on poetry and the writing process.
Nettie Farris: Why the sonnet?
Christopher McCurry: The sonnet form happened organically. Sonnets are supposed to put ideas, emotions, concepts, in conflict with one another, and I found that idea useful for these poems. I began looking at my relationship with my wife through this lens. The overlap, of course, is that we were the two in conflict.
NF: Most of your work seems to take place within a domestic landscape. Yet there is tension working against this domestication. I’m curious, (especially since you used the word organic). Have you experimented with exploring the natural world in your poetry? I’m thinking (as opposed to the domesticated moon, which sits on the couch in “When the Moon Is Your Lover” from Splayed) the untamed, wild natural world.
CM: I think the ultimate goal for these poems rests in finding out what is natural in a relationship between two people. That state that cuts through tradition and culture, cuts through distance and really unites. Don’t ask me how to achieve that state because if I knew I wouldn’t have to write these poems. I want my marriage to last, and so I wanted to explore the obstacles that can arise when you commit to a lifetime with another person, like recognizing that the language we have to refer to each other and our bodies is damaging, insufficient, and often absurd. But I’m avoiding the question a little, I think. So, in so far as we as humans are a part of the natural world, then I have written about it, and I like to think of myself as a little untamed, but here I am, with a set boundary, a marriage that imposes form on a life.
NF: Which was the first sonnet? Are they in chronological order as written, or not?
CM: I do number the poems in sequential order as I write them and keep them that way until they need to be organized for a cohesive collection. At first, I wanted them to stay in absolute order and even retain their individual number, but that didn’t make much sense in the end. A book still needs to be a book regardless of what the poems (or poet) may want. So I renumbered the middle poems as needed and shuffled them around some, cut the ones that weren’t ready to be published yet. But the first sonnet is the first one I wrote for this series. It’s the base form, the tonal chord that I hope resonates in the other poems.
NF: What are your plans for the omitted poems? Are you planning to revise them? Do you plan to continue this sequence? Are you continuing to write sonnets?
CM: I share the poems with my wife, Eloise, first. I write the sonnets for her, for us. If they are omitted from a collection, then they are either bad poems, outside of the narrative or emotional arc of the collection, or didn’t transcend the relationship. There’s one that was going to be in the manuscript about Keira Knightley, but mostly it was an inside joke in poem form. I still like it. Eloise still isn’t impressed. Leigh Anne Hornfeldt, the editor at Two of Cups, was right to recommend its removal. The ones that need more work, and there are quite a few, I will try to revise into better poems, definitely. I hope I’m writing these poems for my entire life, in the same way I hope to be married to Eloise for my entire life. Right now I feel like they will always be sonnets, but I’m open to change. I do want to keep working on the form; I still think there’s more to learn from using them as a lens to look at my life with Eloise.
NF: I often use a persona, and I consider myself a storyteller; so, it disturbs me when people assume my poetry is autobiographical. However, you seem to be upfront (at least with these Marriage Sonnets) about the autobiographical nature of your writing.
CM: I won’t hesitate to say that the Marriage Sonnets are about my actual marriage, but I think the facts have to be called into question when writing. I see no reason to tell the truth if a fabrication will convey more to a reader. I did actually scare Eloise to tears when I sat Abra on top of a ledge to look at a waterfall, but she didn’t slap me. There was no blood. Well, she didn’t physically slap me. I think the pain and the wound we both felt were tangible. The tricky part is to manage whether or not a reader will feel betrayed by the fabrication. I don’t think I have that one figured out. Really I guess we are talking about our relationship with and to readers, and I want to be friends with anyone willing to read my work. Sounds kind of corny, but I crave a dialogue, like this one, to help me explore these ideas and issues of my life, but also more generally what it means to be human. When writing autobiographically, the fear of hurting someone or the relationship you have with them can create a barrier to the work that needs to be done—not just the work of writing, but the work of searching out the questions that are impossible to answer but need to be explored. Do they need to be published? Maybe not. That’s up to the author, but I think there’s a way to do it respectfully. Maybe, in this way, a persona or the narrative distance of storytelling are just different lenses that need different care, yet both are trying to capture something essential and worth sharing.
NF: Can you say something about the relationship between reading and writing?
CM: I’m a reader. Always have been. Each year I try to make more room for reading in my life, much to my wife’s chagrin. I like all genres and my current passion is graphic novels. Reading is my way of processing the world. Since I began writing, the way I read has changed. I read for craft now, as well as for entertainment and information, though I still primarily read for enjoyment. Nothing wakes up the desire to participate in the world like a good story or poem. It just so happens that I like to participate by writing my own stories and poems, but I think I could be satisfied if people just let me talk with them about the good books we are reading. While we are on the subject, I just read Blue Is the Warmest Color and it rocked my world. You’ve got to read it, if you haven’t.
NF: What is the one thing you would like your students to learn?
CM Allow others their humanity and to claim their own.
NF: How have you grown since your first published collection, Splayed?
CM: I’m still in love with the world in the same way the speaker of Splayed is. Or at least that’s my reading. I still find relationships and gestures within those relationship fascinating, which is what I admire so much about your book, Communion. But I do hope the Marriage Sonnets show some growth toward a more complex relationship with language and structures of thought without sacrificing the reader’s engagement and understanding.
NF: Is there something you want to add? Something not prompted by my previous questions?
CM: If you happen upon something I’ve written, please don’t hesitate to reach out and tell me what you think about it.
Nettie Farris is the author of Communion (Accents Publishing, 2013), Fat Crayons (Finishing Line Press, 2015), and the micro-chapbook Story (Origami Poems Project, 2016). Her chapbook The Wendy Bird Poems is forthcoming from dancing girl press. The recipient of the Kudzu Poetry Prize and a Distinguished Teaching Award from the College of Arts and Sciences University of Louisville, she teaches college writing and world literature.