Poet and Editor Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum took time to answer questions on his latest poetry collection, Visiting Hours (Texas A&M University Press), and how myth-making, space, and honoring the voices of those who have departed all play a central part in not only his writing but how he views the relationships around him.
McFadyen-Ketchum is the author of two poetry collections, Visiting Hours and Ghost Gear; editor of Apocalypse Now: Poems & Prose from the End of Days; Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books; Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.com and The Floodgate Poetry Series; and professor of creative writing at Colorado Community College. Learn more at AndrewMK.com.
Hillary Leftwich: Considering the subject matter of your first collection of poems, Ghost Gear, how has your voice changed between then and now regarding your newest collection? Do you see your focus changing over time when it comes to themes, or do you stay consistent with what inspires you?
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Ghost Gear is about growing up in a mixed-race, working-class neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a coming-of-age story that versifies many of the stories my father loves to tell about his own coming-of-age—so much that I created a YouTube channel where you can watch him tell these stories here. While dad sticks to the truth sometimes, he also knows how to embellish, and, in many ways, his story of near-drowning in Alaska (“Ghost Gear”) and of nearly being struck in the face by a copperhead in the Louisiana swamps of his boyhood (“The Everchamber”) became the things of myth to me when I was a child. It was an honor to recreate/retell those myths poetically and, around those poems, construct my own story that is, yes, true but is also, yes, invented. Ghost Gear works sort of like family history and a book of tall tales, at the same time. It sets a foundation for how I came to be with a healthy dose of both fact and fiction. Some of the poems are short. Some are long. Almost all of them merge lyric and narrative.
Visiting Hours uses a similar approach poetically and mythically but to tell an entirely different story, that of the suicide of one of my dearest friends, Mary Interlandi, at the age of nineteen in 2003, and the aftermath of her suicide for those of us she left behind. It took a decade to write, and all I wrote about for that decade was Mary. When I started Visiting Hours, I thought I was going to stick wholly to the facts. Who was I to embellish? But then, as I worked deeper and deeper into the subject, I realized it was the other way around: Who was I to stick purely to fact? Who was I to supposedly know why she did what she did? Who was I to judge in any way the actions of someone who could never be present to tell her story her own way? Who was I to tell her story at all? I realized that the story was not about Mary and what happened to her but about the terrible grief and guilt we all felt when she died and about the utter mystery of her death. Why did she do this to herself? Why? Why? Why? And how can we survive the guilt and grief that came with it? All of us who knew her deeply have talked about this for years. Her death will always remain a mystery, and how we managed to get through the grief, the guilt, and all the other terrible feelings that came with it is a mystery as well. The book is about my grieving process, about how her death shook my foundation to its core, and how I managed to eventually forgive her (and thus myself and all of us who failed to keep her alive) for her death.
HL: The theme of mythology being a presence in both of your collections says a lot about you as a writer as well as a son and a friend. What kind of research, if any, did you do for these collections, and was it more an exploration of time and presence, as both collections elude to, or more of a personal journey of your own?
AMK: It’s strange. I’m not terribly into mythology. I know the constellations, but the stories behind them, who knows? I certainly know who Zeus is/was, I’ve read the Bible three times, I read all sorts of literature based on myth, I’m pretty sure Thor isn’t just a comic book character … but I have never cared much for all that—the myth of my own family and life, and creating that myth itself, that, for some reason, has always come naturally to me. No doubt this is partly due to my father’s storytelling, but there’s something deeper about myth-making that has always resonated with me. What exactly that is, I don’t know, but it comes as it comes, and I allow it to be as it be. My guess is that myth-making is what drew me to poetry; line breaks lend themselves to myth-making, in particular. The Bible, Beowolf, Norse mythology—all of it is in verse … Maybe because poetry was the first written form of story-telling and myth is the human attempt to make sense of the mysteries of the cosmos. Maybe it has something to do with the form itself, the fact that so much white space is employed, that so much dark matter we cannot see but, somehow, can measure and is a force …
I don’t know that I’d say I researched a lot for either book, but I certainly lived a lot and talked to many people and, in the case of Visiting Hours, existed in Mary’s space for quite some time. That’s a sort of research you don’t find in books, rather, as you put it, in the journey. I certainly visited, physically, many of the locations in Visiting Hours (much of which is right down the street from where I currently live in Nashville), but I also visited with Mary in my imagination. I went back in memory and relived much of my past life with her. She visited me in my dreams.
HL: The idea of existing in someone else’s space is intriguing and speaks on poetry and how space is interacted with. Within this same concept, can you describe how Visiting Hours might be used in the same manner and what did you learn about the space of others writing this collection? Was there one poem in particular that stands out to you?
AMK: In many ways, the spaces we exist in and share are what Visiting Hours is about. The first section is composed of poems in my voice, which sets the scene, introduces the characters, establishes the tone, etc. The second section is all in Mary’s voice, and all the poems are set in the afterlife. By the third section, our voices come together into a sort of … “merged voice”—the result of years of writing and meditating on Mary, what happened to her, what she was saying to me in my dreams and in my imagination, and, of course, how the world moved forward with and/or without her.
The space I occupy in the book isn’t Mary’s space. It isn’t my space. It is our space. We created it when she leaped from that building, and we simply could not let her go. It’s all in my imagination. None of it is real. Sure, the building she leaped from is real. The McCabe Park Golf Course is real. I am real. Her parents are real. Mary is real … But the poems in her voice certainly aren’t actually in her voice, right? They are my voice imagined to be hers. So whose space is … what exactly?
I have always called Visiting Hours “Mary’s book.” By that, I originally meant “this book I’m writing about Mary,” but the more I said it, the more people thought I meant it was actually her book. Who am I to argue with that? The book is an act of visitation: 24 hours in a day, 24 poems: 24 visitations. Sometimes I am visiting Mary; sometimes she is visiting me; sometimes we’re visiting with ourselves, with nature, with the world she destroyed, with the world she created when she destroyed the first one.
When Mary killed herself, she created a space in the minds of everyone who knew her that didn’t exist before: the space in which a young woman we knew and loved took her own life. That’s a terrifying prospect: that someone you love might do what Mary did. She made suicide real. Mary made it all the more real for those who knew her who knew someone previous who had committed suicide. That is another space we share. Visiting Hours was my way of containing (not containing) that space. So that I could move on and not be terrified my children would take their lives simply because my dear friend had. I also wanted to make a container for that space to eulogize my departed friend and share my experience of grieving her departure and eventually recover. That is yet another space we share.
Look: if you are born on this earth, tragedy is going to strike. There’s absolutely nothing you can do to stop it. If you thwart one disaster, another springs up in its place. 2019 was an insane year for just about everyone in this country. When my girlfriend (mother of my stepkids) said last February, “Maybe this year will be a little less insane,” COVID struck.
No matter how good you are, how great a parent, how wonderful a friend, how honest a member of your community, you will lose someone dear before their time. You will have to grieve while dressing your toddler or sitting in traffic on the way to work or while making love. And you will have to recover and move on and grow and be happy despite it all. That space is the most human of all spaces. That space is our space. This book is our book.
“Smith Lake” speaks to me, now that the book is a year old, the most. It sums up the entirety of the book in less than a page. It’s hard to read no matter how much time I spend with it, even as it hits all the right notes for me. Perhaps that will change as time moves forward. I imagine it will:
We wanted to touch the moon, that flashbulb
that bobbed on the heat-glazed pane of Smith Lake.
So we dove, Mary and I, fully-clothed from the dock,
paddled slowly that body of water as chorus
Frogs and crickets boomed back and forth
from the reed-thick shore. There, at the lake’s
Dead center, we joined arms, our bodies
ringing the moon’s reflection. Treading water,
Mary cupped her palms beneath that beacon,
lifted it to my lips, and said Drink… And what
Could I do but follow when Mary side-stepped
buoyancy and dove beneath the moon,
Dropped easily through zones of cold
and colder water, the frog-slick star-vines
And hydrilla swaying heavily in the drifts, her hair
held suspended by the water’s hundred hands?
If only I could go back to the moon’s conception
when it first broke free of the earth to fly that first
Tethered orbit around the world. If only I could
tell the Jade Rabbit’s story, trace its outline
From ridgelines and craters like the Man in the Moon,
that hare, lore says, grinding herbs in an urn
For the immortals, that moon returned
to its rightful station overhead. I want you
To see Mary making small motions with her hands
to keep from rising as we held our breaths who knows
How long until she rose, thick ribbons of reeds
unraveling from her ankles, Mary surfacing
So slowly it was as if she climbed not water but sky,
Mary backlit by darkness, Mary slipping
Into the moon.
Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices, 2019), which is one of The Accomplices’ Bestsellers, a finalist for Big Other’s Best Fiction Book of 2019, and voted as one of Entropy’s Best Fiction Books of 2019. Her hybrid memoir, Aura, is forthcoming from Future Tense Books in 2022. Her writing can be found in The Rumpus, Entropy, Denver Quarterly, The Missouri Review, and numerous other print and online journals. She runs ☿ Al·che·my Author Services & Workshop, reads/selects/judges for The Colorado Book Awards, and teaches creative writing at Lighthouse Writers. Find her: hillaryleftwich.com and alchemyauthorservices.com.