Julianna McCarthy was selected by TBR’s Editors as the Summer 2011 Center-Featured Series Poet. The Twelve Days in August When… is a cinematic poem detailing the writer’s unforgettable coming-of-age as the world exploded around her during World War II. You can read her series poem in the Summer 2011 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Julianna McCarthy below!
INTERVIEW WITH TIDAL BASIN REVIEW SERIES POET, JULIANNA MCCARTHY, AND TIDAL BASIN REVIEW POETRY EDITOR, TRUTH THOMAS
(Interview conducted via email correspondence)
Truth Thomas: It is an honor to enter into the rich cinema of your poetry. I am a great fan of your work. What prompted this series poem at this point in your writing journey?
Julianna McCarthy: Thank you, Truth. It’s an honor to have this poem chosen. Actually, the first draft of “Twelve Days…” was written way back in 2003. There have been many drafts since the; I think it’s finished now.
TT: Why the long title?
JM: Oh, I did try some shorter tent titles, i.e., “Morning”, and then inevitably “Evening.” Titles are tricky. I finally settled for imitation, a riff on Defoe’s “Moll Flanders: the Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders” or Fieldings’ “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” with its many subtitles for each volume – the “Wherein’s” as it were.
TT: Your poem is replete with piercing imagery—riveting, in fact. It represents a series of scenes like a play set in verse. Its dramatic aspects of a 16 year old coming of age in a time of war captivate like a well-made movie. Do you think that your background as an actress informed that craft aspect of this work?
JM: I’m not sure there is any way to avoid one’s background; I’ve had a lot of jobs: on an assembly line, as a truck dispatcher, a clerk/typist for Care, Inc., a reservation clerk for a cemetery, a mother… and an actress. The actress is most likely the one who has a fondness for writing persona poems and following a narrative structure.
TT: Is Franklin High School rooted in reality? To what extent is this poem autobiographical?
JM: The poem is completely autobiographical, right down to “For Whom the Bell Tolls” at the movie house in Cambridge Springs. And yes, there is a Franklin High School that held its football camp each summer at the state normal college. I remember going to games in Franklin —no bleachers. We just walked up and down the field with the action and there were flame lit oil drums to warm our hands and thermos cocoa. Wonderful.
TT: One of many elements that enthralls in this poem is your use of contrasts. The speaker in the piece is framed in the waning days World War II, in presumably a small town somewhere in America. However, just as clearly as you paint the narrator in a safe suburban world, you also fix the narrator’s thoughts on the brutality of war—on America’s nuclear attack on Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Was this employment of contrasts intentional?
JM: I think the contrasts are more inescapable than intentional. The small town of the poem is Edinboro, Pennsylvania, in that little piece of land between Ohio and New York (only 90 miles). It is spectacularly beautiful – woodlands and the foothills of the Allegheny mountains. It’s glorious. At fifteen, I knew you didn’t need a war to die young. I’d already lost friends to Polio and Scarlet Fever and Whooping Cough and Meningitis and drowning—I’d been to my share of funerals. The war scared me, but nothing like the news about the A bomb and to hear of it while in such a gorgeous setting. That was monstrous— “the force of a hundred suns.” How can you even imagine that? Then, when I saw the newsreels, it paralyzed me.
TT: “Resurrection” appears to be a strong undercurrent in your poem. Indeed, the narrator’s retelling of salvation of a kitten rising from the arms of violence fuels the plot of the piece. You even name the kitten Lazarus. One might argue that the resurrection of the cat is mirrored with the possibility of the rebirth of Japan’s nuclear bombardment. As a writer, do you believe it is possible for innocence to be reborn after enduring the horrors of life—especially of war?
JM: I think it’s possible. It’s certainly necessary if we are to survive. If innocence can’t be “reborn,” then it must be reclaimed. I like your using the phrase “after enduring the horrors of life.” Enduring is such an accurate word. As I grow older, I find myself struggling to resist cynicism. It’s so seductive to see oneself as a sad, but wiser woman – and so silly.
TT: You capture the history of wartime America in this poem in great magnetic detail. It reads as if the bombing of Japan happened yesterday. What accounts for this?
JM: It was a BIG time. The years before August 6th, 1945 had been filled with some shocking revelations. We lived at the movies and the newsreels had been grisly and upsetting all during the war. We scanned the faces of the dead and wounded looking for brothers and friends, for fathers and uncles. We sometimes sat through the movie more than once to make sure we hadn’t missed anyone. People called each other up if a local boy was spotted. Those newsreels: there was so much – the first pictures from the death camps, Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their heels, Hitler’s Bunker, VE day in New York and Europe, and of course, the great national sadness when President Roosevelt died. For me, the bomb did fall yesterday and it will continue to fall yesterday until the day I die.
TT: What I find particularly impressive—and piercing—is the timeless quality of this poem. In the latter section of your verses, the teenage narrator documents what it was like when World War II ended. She speaks of people telling “bad fall out jokes,” and folks celebrating with “Car horns.” When I read this, I was reminded of the spontaneous celebration America observed at the death of Osama Bin Laden, equally replete with bad Bin Laden jokes and car horns. Admittedly, the scale and nature of the two celebrations was profoundly different. Still the tendency for people to gloat over the death of enemies seems a consistent refrain among the living. You capture this well. As you approached this poem, was it your intention to record history, or to offer commentary on the violent, insensitive bent of humanity?
JM: A little of both, really. I wanted to tell what it was like for me that summer of ’45 and I also wanted to indicate that the introduction of an atomic weapon was life changing—everyone’s life changed.
TT: Often events that occur in our formative years brand our life long steps. To what degree, if any, did the events of World War II impact your writing and your acting?
JM: To the nth degree, I’d say. WWII was the subject of all the new plays and movies. If you were acting you were acting in something about the war. For example, five years after the events of the poem when I was performing in Carmel, California in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (which examined the morality of a man who placed his responsibility to his family over his responsibility to the soldiers who depended on the integrity of his work), I would fall asleep every night to the sound of gun-fire and bombing runs from maneuvers at near-by Fort Ord for the war in Korea. It never ends, does it?
TT: Again, I must say it has been an honor to immerse myself in your work. What artistic efforts currently fill your table? What can readers and theatergoers expect from you in the future?
JM: Well, I don’t know about theatergoers, but I am writing more and more of my own story in memoir and in poetry. My children, Thea and Brendan Constantine, are both writers. Thea lives in Portland and is presently working on a novel, selections of which have appeared in Black Boot. Brendan is a poet and teacher; his books Letters to Guns and Birthday Girl with Possum are already in bookstores. I am immensely proud of them. I have family stories I want to tell them. We’ll see, right? Thank you for asking.
Julianna McCarthy lives above the snow line, with a dog and two cats in the Los Padres National Forest. She is the 2009 The Bridge First Prize winner and a Schieble Sonnet Prize winner, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, and a Pablo Neruda Prize finalist. Her poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, Alehouse, The New Southerner Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, Best Poem, and others. Her chapbook, Photoplay, was released in 2009. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from New England College.
Truth Thomas is an educator, musician, poet, and a Poetry Editor of Tidal Basin Review.