For Rose McLarney, Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Auburn University, poetry is more important than air ducts.
She’ll tell you that directly — especially on Monday mornings since those are her writing mornings.
Wednesday mornings are also writing mornings ... and maybe Thursday and Friday. And if the world doesn’t get in the way, McLarney might write on Saturday and Sunday mornings too.
“I’ve always woken up early and smarter than I will be by the end of the day,” she said.
Thankfully, as the sun set over the Jule Collins Smith Museum’s garden hedges, which were ripe with monarch butterflies headed south for the winter, McLarney took a break from writing to talk about her education, writing habits and prolific career.
McLarney’s third collections of poems, Forage, was released in early September 2019, from Penguin Books.
She is the co-editor of Southern Humanities Review, a quarterly literary journal published by the Department of English at Auburn University where she teaches poetry writing to advanced creative writing students.
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McLarney has taught poetry and creative writing across the country, and her work has been published in some of the nation’s most prestigious literary journals.
But before this academic and literary success, McLarney didn’t even think she would be a writer.
“I took some creative writing classes in college, but I didn’t think it was practical or whatever, which was silly,” she said.
McLarney is originally from the Appalachian region of western North Carolina, but you would be pressed to tell that from her voice.
She’s intentional with her words and doesn’t have a hint of an accent. Her voice is brittle, and she says “poem” in a single syllable.
McLarney said she was interested in editing and publishing while an undergraduate at Warren Wilson College outside of Asheville, North Carolina, but she was hesitant to pursue poetry or writing as a career.
“I knew I wanted to do something with words,” she said. “I was lucky to get an internship and then a job at a publishing house. It wasn’t literary publishing, but I kind of felt like I had succeeded by doing that.”
Even though she felt like she had succeeded, McLarney also said she felt something was missing at this job.
“After I had graduated and was working sort of a suit-wearing job, in the evenings I would work on my poems as something to keep myself interested in life,” she said.
For McLarney, those late-night poems were also a way of coping with the more rural environment she found herself in after college.
“Instead of going out at nights, this was my way of recording the rural scenery around me and reacting to it,” she said.
Eventually, McLarney decided to submit some of her work for publication at literary journals and said that if she didn’t get accepted at any of them, she would apply for an MFA program.
“That was sort of naive because you almost never get accepted to journals, and it was the first time I had sent poems out, and I had sent them out to amazing journals I would still be surprised if I got in now,” she said. “So, of course I got rejected.”
Nevertheless, McLarney kept her promise of going back to school and enrolled in Warren Wilson’s Master’s program for writers.
Shortly after finishing that program, McLarney’s first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, was accepted for publication.
“It was just a stroke of luck,” she said. “Usually people have to suffer longer than that.”
From there, McLarney taught at universities across the country from her alma mater in western Carolina to Oregon, Oklahoma and eventually Auburn.
In part because of those cross-country moves, landscape, environment and natural scenery almost always function as motifs through much of McLarney’s work.
She’s written about grazing cattle, apple orchards, lamprey eels, Appalachian ridges, Oregonian rain and that feeling of longing for woods to refill the vacant lots in town.
Moving from urban areas to rural ones has made McLarney acutely aware of the influence a landscape can have on a person — especially where they grew up.
“I think the [place] that I’m from has had a far deeper effect than any that I’ve moved to because of the length of time and because I was there at a formative age,” she said. “I think just the product of moving is that your natural reaction is to care less because you kind of think, ‘Well, how long am I going to be here? Do I even need to know this stuff?’ But I’ve tried to fight against that urge everywhere I’ve gone.”
One of the consequences of writing a lot about rural landscapes in North Carolina, Oklahoma and Alabama is that many people have tried to label McLarney as a “Southern writer.”
For a while she accepted that term, but as she continued to travel around this region of the country and see diversity in it, McLarney started to question the validity of the term.
“Nothing’s the same,” she said. “The landscape’s not the same, the accents aren’t the same, cuisine’s not the same, history definitely is not the same. There were lots of things for me to learn.”
But now, as someone whose job is to study the details and write about them, McLarney said those subtle differences are important.
“The overall purpose of poets, I think, is to make people notice things — whether it’s about the natural environment or art or their mothers or whatever it is,” she said. “It’s about getting people to slow down and really notice the fine details and the implications of the details of the things they see.”
Having come from writing poetry at night after work, McLarney said being a creative writing professor has given her the time to write and a sense of sanctioned approval she struggled to find before.
“I don’t think I feel guilty about [writing] anymore,” she said. “I have sort of a puritanical work ethic, and I would feel sometimes that the poetry was a silly way to spend my time.”
That time is especially important because McLarney said it doesn’t just allow her to write more; it allows her to writer better.
One of her biggest complaints as a creative writing student was the harsh deadlines for work. According to McLarney, having to turn in a piece at the end of the semester often didn’t let her get enough distance from the writing.
To augment that, Kerri Green, one of McLarney’s graduate students and her intern, said McLarney is trying to help her own students develop an efficient writing structure.
“Her poems are always so formed and structural and really detailed in this craft way that is more guided,” Green said. “She helps us build that writing work ethic to where even if you don’t want to write, you still have something you should be writing.”
Even though she has this structure, being a professor lets McLarney take more time with her work.
“Now, I kind of have the luxury of holding on to things for a while,” she said. “I think that time is the most valuable way of getting distance, so you’re not longer attached.”
As many writers, artists and other meticulous professionals know, that lack of attachment is often vital to ensuring that an audience can understand a work.
“Sometimes if I have an idea of how things connect, I just kind of impose that on the poem, and I can’t see that, to another person, it wouldn’t make any sense,” McLarney said.
As she has now been publishing for nearly a decade, McLarney is also using that sanctioned time to ensure that her works feel new.
“The latest book is definitely the one I am going to say I worked the hardest on because it was more idea-driven and less personal,” she said. “When writing a poem, I try to think if it’s different from what I’ve done before. Is the conclusion expected or did it come too easily for me?”
McLarney’s writing and her career — each with their own changing landscapes — have been a constant contradiction between exploring the world and then keeping it at bay as long as she can to write about it.
“I just write a lot,” McLarney said. “I’ve never been really great at relaxing, so I write a lot — a lot more than anyone sees.”
And now she’s at a place where no one can stop her.
“I can say, ‘Hey, Monday mornings, I will not schedule this meeting; or no, I will not meet the guy to look at whatever is wrong with the ducts in the house,” McLarney said. “To me, writing is probably more worthwhile that getting your ducts cleaned anyway.”
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