An Interview with Wryly T. McCutchen
Wryly T. McCutchen is a poet, hybrid writer, and community educator teaching, writing, and surviving in the Pacific Northwest. Their work has appeared in Foglifter, Lady/Liberty/Lit, Tiferet Journal, Nat. Brut, and Raven Chronicles. They were awarded an MFA in creative writing with dual concentration in creative nonfiction and poetry from Antioch University. Their first poetry collection, My Ugly and Other Love Snarls, is available from University of Hell Press. Their first memoir is in progress.
Jon Riccio: Congratulations on receiving the Lili Elbe Scholarship to attend this year’s Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Retreat. Sponsoring author David Ebershoff praised your “unique voice, their courage, and their resilient spirit.” This honor comes a few months after the publication of My Ugly & Other Love Snarls, where bicycles, babydolls, and the super-nautical roam with the candor of a churchyard howl. What was the timespan in which the collection took shape?
Wryly T. McCutchen: Thank you Jon! And thanks for inviting me to this interview!
Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I had absolutely no plan when it came to making this book. I have a lot of anxiety and self-worth issues and one of the ways I strategize against that as an artist is to thrust myself and my work into contexts that require me to produce projects I’m afraid of initiating for myself.
Early in 2013 I told myself I was “finally going to get serious about submitting my work.” With the help of folks at the BENT Writing Institute (a sadly defunct queer writing school/nonprofit in Seattle), I made a plan. This plan required me to submit my work to at least one publisher that I idolized/scared the shit out of me once every four months. In March I submitted a three-poem packet (including “Primer for the Docent,” and “Road Trip”) to Write Bloody Publishing. A month later they emailed me back to let me know that I’d been chosen as a finalist in their book competition. I was elated, stunned and 100% terrified. I had no book. And the deadline was less than six weeks away. With the excellent mentorship of Tara Hardy (who’s newest book My, My, My, My, My you should definitely be reading) and the luxury of a queer writing retreat in the backwoods of Tennessee, I dove into the three-year buildup of poems on my computer. I let them tell me what order they should be in and what parts needed work. It was a dark month, deep in the wilderness of my own words. I submitted my manuscript. I did not win. What Write Bloody gave me instead of a book contract was a list of publishers they thought my manuscript would be well suited to.
Slowly, I began to send my manuscript to a few of them. A year later, Eve Connell at University of Hell Press fell so hard for the slapped-together-in-four-weeks version of My Ugly that she and Greg Gerding assigned me an editor. After nine months of drawn-out edits, and a few more months on the waitlist, my book was given its iconic design by Olivia Croom and released in September 2017.
I think the series of events leading up to this book really cemented the way I think about and pull together larger projects. I don’t start with a plan. I start with a mess of materials, stick my fingers in and listen. If I’m lucky the accumulated flotsam and jetsam will tell me what/how/who it wants to be.
JR: The book’s dedication tells us “My name is different, my body is going through changes, and the language I use has shifted considerably.” This shift gives us such phrases as the angling of a “spatula towards alchemy” and “rusting flecks” that “scrape / cataclysm up esophagus / & shatter our common jaw.” Have you shifted the way you listen to words? How has their inhabitance of the page changed?
WM: Yes. The way I listen to words is constantly shifting. This is partly a function of my appetite for different forms and my desire to experience voices outside my current range of hearing (within myself and from others). Particularly in this book, what I was starting to shift into listening for was relationships between words (relationships that were neither sonic, semantic, nor syntactic). I let myself use words sometimes just because they “felt right.” It’s really tough for me to let go of the looming question “What does that mean?” and the specter of a reader saying “I don’t get it.” Same goes for my gender presentation, I guess.
JR: “My butch” is both anaphora and title of the third poem. Among other things,
My butch has a firm grasp on your shoulder.
She’s not afraid to clutch ankles
or use hipbones as a tuning fork.
My butch tells me
that being a happy mussel
is more important than suffering pearls.
What parallels do you draw between genderqueerness and the anchorage of repeated phrases?
WM: Perhaps that there really is not a tension between labels (which are often something we repeat about ourselves) and a fluid or changeable identity. It’s really common in QT spaces I’ve been in to hear “I don’t really do labels.” or the like. For me the labels are something to both hold onto for balance and also to interrogate, research, and to exhaust through attempts as redefinition.
JR: One of the longer poems, “My Ugly” is a call to the mirror’s empowerment. Its reflective surface allows the ‘I’ a series of declarations “Unsurprised / by reversals.” In the mirror there is healing, “dissent & magnificence.” Yet, “I don’t think we can reclaim beauty.” Was it ours to begin with?
WM: That line (“I don’t think we can reclaim beauty”) is a direct lift from the title poem’s inspiration: Mia Mingus’s Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability. I had the distinct privilege of hearing her read at the BENT Mentor Showcase (in Seattle) in early 2012. Upon hearing it, as well as while reading it the next day, I experienced one of those moments where I felt the soul of a piece so strongly that it was almost as if I had written it. I wished I had. So I did. My version of Mia’s address ended up being a poem.
In a more direct answer to your question: No. Beauty isn’t ours. Or it hasn’t been for a few centuries perhaps. I’m exploring the idea that beauty is a spell cast by our ancestors. When my ancestors cast and enforced their beauty spell into being it was about how one should look and strive to look (thin, unblemished, young, pale). Some of these ideas were absorbed into the norm, some of them were absorbed into the aspirational (beauty standards are a religion that transcend churches/mosques/synagogues).
In much of my youth I experienced wanting to be beautiful as wanting to be someone else. And in that sense “reclamation” is impossible. In the past beauty felt like something I could (re)claim due to my heritage and physiology (able-bodied, stereotypically attractive, white). I even recall saying things like “thank god my breasts are so big; now no one will notice my huge manly shoulders.” So much of trying to (re)claim beauty (the spells cast before us) can end up being acts that camouflage our true selves.
Perhaps I’ve become more optimistic since writing the poem in question. I do believe that through being and expressing ourselves intentionally we can create kinds of magnificence that undo the ill effects of chasing a beauty that will never belong to us. If we succeed, it won’t be at (re)claiming beauty, it will be at recognizing its power and not allowing it to control our choices.
JR: If I had a bicycle like your Red Rusthoney, I might’ve learned to ride sooner than fifth grade, banana seat notwithstanding. The sentence “You return motions tenfold like the hollow magic of moon gravity.” tells of a reciprocal relationship between rider and a chariot of “vermilion splotches. I love when your churning parts fall through.” Is bicycling part of your generative process? What words of gratitude do you have for your first bike?
WM: Jon! No shade on waiting to learn to ride! I actually had to be bribed with chocolate and a shiny purple helmet to learn to ride a bike. I had attempted before and while still not very good, ended up with a broken arm. And in college I had a bike I rode so rarely that by the time I moved out it was covered in cobwebs and dead moths! It took falling in love with a boy at the top of a very steep hill for my relationship to cycling to really stick.
My bike, first and foremost, is part of my mental health process! In a related vein, my bike is part of my creative process because it stirs bits of non-cognitive notions to the surface. I do some other somatic tricks to accomplish this result too. I actually taught a class this past spring on the body and writing practice.
Words for my first (Seattle) bike:
I don’t know how but
you carried my mother(’s
stubby legs) who carried me,
so carry this my still shimmering
strong, without-wheels grandmother
I am sorry,
that the last place I carried your frame
was to the donation pile.
JR: You flourish aquatic! Your “mollusks calibrate their tongues,” “barnacles gather / with frail fingers,” “fish-filled lungs tug at my river’s underbelly.” Not to mention the book’s cover, an assortment of sea creatures that look like preparations for picture day at MC Escher school. It’s as if water’s become a part of speech. Why is this element so fundamental to your aesthetic?
1. I’ve lived near water all my life. Mostly in the Pacific Northwest.
2. Whenever I enter the water I become part of it; a prodigal organ returning to its source.
3. I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid.
4. We are 2/3 water. Without water you could not speak, could not function.
5. I’m obsessed.
JR: “Babydoll & Spatula” reconfigures the story of Goldilocks, tilting it just a tad closer to world-wise but for the roadblocks –
One day, Goldilocks will learn to
& down her throat will be
forced the cold porridge of concern
with a simple ubiquitous script
How does your writing navigate the poem’s earlier-mentioned “burden of absolute nurture?”
I have a fear of childbirth. I experience deep dysphoria surrounding pregnancy and childbirth. At the time of writing the poem I did not how to identify this feeling (I hadn’t hatched yet). I just knew for damn sure that I didn’t want to be a wife. And I knew that I would die if I were to get pregnant. I read this poem now with some compunction. Because it reads as a poem about the confining experience of being raised to become the kind of woman someone else expects you to be. Which I think is an important poem, but one I rather think a woman should write. Not me. Because I am not one. My experiences of dysphoria and misogyny are muddled both in this piece and in myself. I’m working through the borderland between these two forces inside myself.
In fact, I have been working on a memoir for the last three years. Many of the scenes that have demanded to be written so far center on exactly this sticky “Is it dysphoria or is it misogyny?” question.
JR: You quote Audre Lorde, Seamus Heaney, and Leonard Cohen in “When you asked about the gift of violence,” their words from 1984, 1995, and 1992, respectively. Say someone’s reading My Ugly & Other Love Snarls thirty years from now. What do you hope their takeaway is from a debut published in 2017, “for everyone who has ever toiled and rejoiced their way through the blistering deliciousness of womanhood?”
JR: At Lambda you worked with the poet Dana Alsamsam on incorporating small-scale body choreography into the recitation of your work at the podium. How would these micro-movements apply to reading aloud some of the collection’s more charged poems, such as “Deflowering” whose
& disinfect cervix
with thin nimble
tools. “You’re doing really
The pain should subside
in about 24 hours.”
and “Smokeless Fires” where “We met in the suicide season?”
WM: The amazing work I was fortunate enough to do with Dana was fairly new (although my body has been calling for it for a long time). I hope to work with a local performing artist and friend, Casey Middaugh, to draw to the surface more of the motions my poetry is asking for.
I’m quite interested in incorporating other people’s voices and bodies, especially for “Deflowering.” I’d like to put it in the second person, read it as a narrator, and have the “you” subject of the piece uncomfortably shunted through events. I’ll play with it. What will be most informative, I think, will be having trusted folks with expertise, observe me read aloud and tell me what impulses they notice. It’s very easy for me to slip into autopilot mode for reading my work to a crowd. At the retreat I committed to delivering my work more purposefully.
Hot damn, Jon! Look how you got me doing the work I committed to at the Lambda retreat! You are a generous colleague with guile for miles!
JR: Your “Breaking Up” letter to Seattle is a prose poem that “snagged my vision on your distance, on the crisp of your wide cyan embrace.” Two-thirds of the way through you declare “Curiosity is my salt.” I think we’re all better off with a little packet of Pandora, despite what myth would have us believe. What are your present curiosities and how do they relate to your next cycle of work?
WM: In terms of what I’m finalizing and sending out: I completed a chapbook about grief and loss earlier this year that I’ve been shopping around. Some of the pieces in this new book have been published in Tiferet Journal and The Wanderer. In October one of the pieces from this chapbook will be published in Nat. Brut.
When it comes to my new work, I’m feeling hella spiritual and witchy lately (the further I go into my gender transition the stronger my spirit’s voice becomes). So (I) expect more magic. Inheritance has also emerged as an interest of mine; cultural and personal; toxic and nourishing.
I’ve been gifting myself with a young adult novel every month (This month it was Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor). They are filled with what is real, and also, HOPE. So much of what I read and write in these times is short on hope. I do not know yet how all these will relate to my next cycle of work. They are the flotsam and I haven’t stuck my fingers in just yet.
Jon Riccio is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers where he serves as an associate editor at Mississippi Review. Recent work appears in E·ratio and The Ekphrastic Review. A 2018 Lambda Poetry Fellow, he received his MFA from the University of Arizona.