Interview

An interview with Meg Kearney on her recent collection of poems, All Morning the Crows.

RC Early on in reading All Morning the Crows I realized I needed to hear the songs of the birds. Getting a sense of their sound helped me appreciate and understand the poems. For example, I never would have gotten the visceral meaning of “Limpkin” without hearing its terrifying cry. In your research did you listen to the sounds of all or some of the birds? How did it help you in constructing the poems?

MK Oh yes, thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology! (https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/) With “Limpkin” especially I used a recording of their cry as a sort of sound track as I was drafting. But I listened to virtually all of the birds mentioned in the book, either because they are “regulars” here in New Hampshire where I live or because I looked them up. Often my (then) dog Trouper would go a bit nuts, wondering where the heck the bird calls were coming from.

RC Of all the birds in your collection how did you come to choose Crow in the title to represent your flock of poems?

MK As I worked on this book—I first starting drafting these poems back in 2012—I simply called the collection “Bird.” And that was still the title when I started sending it out to various presses and contests. It wasn’t until it had won The Washington Prize and I was working with my editor at The Word Works that I was told the title “Bird” was less than stellar and I should come up with something else. Then it was actually my friend, the amazing poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, who came up with All Morning the Crows, which is actually from my poem titled “Pheasant.” But what I like about it most is its open-endedness; it feels like the beginning of a story, and in a sense it is.

RC It seems you have assembled the birds to build a nest — a nest for rebirth. To find, to piece together, twig-by-twig, poem-by-poem, your creation story. How is this so?

MK In part I suppose this book is a sort of creation story, a mix of fact and myth. The birds are a jumping-off (winging off?) point, sometimes enabling me to get away from the personal “I” and sometimes allowing me to dive into some very personal material.

RC The first poem is “Owl,” and the first three words are “She birthed you.” Clearly an emphatic opening. How did you come to choose Owl as Mother? In what sense is she?

MK This is a poem that is very difficult for me to talk about, because it came from such a deep place. As you well know, poems attempt to express the inexpressible—if I could have said what that poem says in any other way, I wouldn’t have had to write a poem about it. That said, I do know that as I wrote this piece, I had it in the back of my mind that owls swallow their prey whole, and then cough up the undigested parts in a furry sort of lump called a “pellet.” And I consider owls to be fairly elusive, which is certainly true of my first mother, whom I never met as an adult. The rest is mystery.

RC In “Crow,” you puzzle together the story of your mother, a former nun, who gave you up for adoption. In “Duckling, Swan” which reads like the heroine’s journey (after Joseph Campbell), you refer to yourself: “I was the art / of my mother’s mistake.” How do these poems relate to each other in you?

(My take is that the work of art transforms into the living artist — the poet — who bears witness of the story in these poems.)

MK I like your take. And indeed, these poems are related. Adoption has always been a major theme in my work, including in my three verse novels for teens—all written in the voice of an adopted girl named Lizzie McLane. The first book in that trilogy, The Secret of Me, was first called My Life as a Mistake. It was my editor and the marketing team at Persea Books who made me change it—you see I have a history of having to change my books’ titles! But I think the idea of being a mistake since our very conception is something many adoptees grapple with; for those of us given up as infants, and whose birth circumstances are kept a secret, how could it be otherwise? So all of that is part of what’s in play here.

RC You make extensive use of enjambment that sparks internal rhyme emanating from the body of the poems. Poetic devices, yes, but it appears so effortless and organic, I experience the poems as birds singing. In this crafting how is the balance of intention and intuition?

MK As someone who has great respect for you as a writer, I take that as a huge compliment! Thank you. I think the internal rhymes, the enjambment, the inherent music of the poems stems from a blend of intention and intuition—listening to the words as they come and following their sounds as a way of figuring out what comes next. Often, too, I think of what Stanley Kunitz used to call “the sense of sound”—how the sound of the words is an inherent part of their meaning; which is also what Frost was saying in “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same”: that the birds’ songs carried Eve’s “tone of meaning but without the words.” And all of that is thanks to years of reading poems by others and also memorizing them as a way to understand how and why they work.

RC Your dog is present in some of the poems. Who does she/he represent?

MK The dog, who appears with the woman figure in what I’ll call “the cabin in the White Mountains” poems, has at least a couple of functions. One, he literally ages from the book’s start to its end, thus creating the sense of time having passed. But he often saves the woman from herself—that might come across most strongly in “Chickadee”—and I see that as his main function. This is often what our pets do for us, I think!

RC Your pen is a quill. From what bird do you choose a feather, and why? Imagine all birds are of the size that have feathers you can write with.

MK Amazingly, for my birthday in June I received a quill pen with its own little holder and bottle of ink! And it is a raven feather—I won’t surprise anyone by saying that would have been my choice, anyway. I’m such an admirer of birds in the Corvidae family; they are extremely smart and clever.

RC In “Starling” Mozart bought a pet starling when it “whistled his G-major / concerto.” In “Scarlet Tanager” Dvorák hears a scarlet tanager like “a strain of a violin / on fire” and scores it in his American Quartet in F major. Are you the conductor, the birds your orchestra, This Morning the Crows your symphony?

MK Perhaps I am composer as well as conductor, but let’s just say that I like that idea very much.

RC “Sparrow” is your closing poem. You and your flock have taken us on a journey — your life’s journey from birth, (“Owl”) to contemplating your death — the migration of your soul. The closing couplet, “May we fling that fresh earth skyward / then lift our faces as it rains back down.” An exhalation of joy. How did you feel, what did you experience with this closure of the collection, as a person, and as a poet?

MK It’s fascinating sometimes what we do in our work without consciously knowing it—what I realize now is that the first poem, “Owl,” involves both birth and death; and so does “Sparrow.” But in writing “Sparrow,” which was also one of the last poems I finished for this collection, I felt an almost physical sense of closure. Then I sent it to a trusted friend, who said that she wants it read at her funeral. Talk about compliments!

RC Finally, this appreciation: When I finish a book, whatever genre it may be, I experience a rippling effect, and that work comes to rest beside other kindred works in me that bear witness and certify the truth I have received. Two poems welcomed All Morning the Crows: Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” repeated with the closing line, “And to do this to birds was why she came.” And these lines from “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens:

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker.

My experience of birds and their songs is forever altered and infused with what you have made of them in your poems.

MK Richard, I can’t thank you enough. Unsurprisingly, we are both Frost fans! These last few years I have often thought of the line from Hopkins’ “The Windhover”: “My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird.” I’m grateful for the gifts these feathered beings have given us, and for this insightful interview.

 

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