Vermont Poet Countervails 'Untethered Loss' Of Pandemic, Opioid Crisis With Humor, Family History
Vermont author Kerrin McCadden is back with her first book of poems since the 2020 release of Keep This To Yourself, which featured verse about the loss of her brother to an opioid overdose. Her new collection is called American Wake, and touches on similar themes of loss, but also celebrates her family's rich Irish history, and her efforts to connect the thread of that past with the present.
VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with poet Kerrin McCadden about her new volume of poetry, American Wake. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
There are poems here that seem cognizant of the past and your own Irish roots. And I'm wondering why you wanted to dig into that past. They're in poems like "In Leghowney, Donegal." Please feel free to correct me, I probably butchered the name of that part of Ireland. How do you say that?
Kerrin McCadden: You got the first one right, and that's impressive! ... During the time that I was writing the poems for this book, I was thinking a lot about home. I'm a second-generation American, and an Irish citizen. I grew up with my Irish family. My grandparents — my father's parents — both came from the same valley around Leghowney, Donegal, and they came over separately and met again in Boston and fell in love and got married.
I was raised with them, and they had these beautiful accents. There was this constant reminder that they were from this other place, but they never talked about it. If they ever argued they would end with my grandmother saying, "Well, at least we didn't have a dirt floor, Johnny." Which was just a great memory of how feisty and funny she was.
But they were gone, both of them, by the time I was 18. And they wouldn't talk about Ireland and they would tell me "Whist yer blether, whist," when I would ask if they wanted us to be Americans. And they had been through a lot.
What does that mean, "Whist yer blether?" I'm not even saying it right.
"Whist" just means "be quiet." But "yer blether" is just, like, "blather." So, "stop your blathering" is really what it means. And whenever she'd want me to be quiet, she would say "Whist, whist, whist," which is also a lovely word that makes it into, I think, one of the poems in the book.
I always wanted to know where we came from, [but] they wouldn't tell me, so I figured it out. I found my father's first cousin, still on my grandfather's farm [in Ireland]. And so these poems about Ireland are written there.
"This is a place where our country is in a mass mourning. And we felt out of control … and also, I think of the title in terms of the opioid crisis, an American moment that is also uncontrolled, untethered loss." - Kerrin McCadden
You know, I'm going to assume that the title of this collection, American Wake, is not an intentional recognition of the pandemic that we've been struggling through for more than a year now, at the time that we're speaking. Do you feel though that the title does work in that context?
I do. What the title actually means is, it's a reference to the tradition of sending your children, when they would leave to go to America from Ireland, they would have a real wake for that person. It was called an American wake, you would treat the person who is leaving like someone who had died. You would eulogize them, and you would have an official wake for them. It would be an all-night affair. And in the morning, you'd walk them to the boat. Because you'd never see them again, you'd have to treat them like they were dead.
So, this idea of the living being treated like the dead, it just hurts my heart. It's a beautiful and terrible ritual. So the idea of it being resonant in this time is definitely true. This is a place where our country is in a mass mourning. And we felt out of control, much like the Irish did when they were sending their children because there just wasn't enough to eat. And also, I think of the title in terms of the opioid crisis, an American moment that is also uncontrolled, [an] untethered loss.
This book feels very much to me, like a past, present and even kind of insouciant wink at possible futures. And in talking about possible futures, I would love for you to read a little bit of one of my favorite poems in this book. It's called, "Choose Your Own Adventure: Loneliness." This is not at all as sad as the title might suggest. You cleverly work in an interactive kind of reading here. If you could just read us the first portion, to give folks an idea of where you were going with this.
Sure. "Choose Your Own Adventure: Loneliness":
What I love about that, and those last two lines you just read there, those are in italics in the book. So it is like that pause, where you can jump to a different part of the poem. And you can literally read this poem in a different way each time, and I did this, and you get a new meaning from it, depending on what and how you choose. What inspired you to choose this method?
I am so delighted that you took the time to read the poem in many different ways. That was my fantasy, that somebody would say, "Oh, I could do it this way!" And so that's really delightful to me.
I write a lot about difficult things, and this is, like, a sad theme. But I really like humor, and I like the tension between a little bit of absurdity and deep emotion. Like, "Wait, what? what are we doing?" You know, "I can read the poem many different ways, about how to feel sad?!"
And I also love the idea of it being recursive, that there are so many layered ways that we can feel lonely, and that we can wander through our loneliness in in myriad ways. So, using a form like that can help you write about something difficult.
Correction 8:36 a.m. 5/6/2021: Kerrin McCadden is a South Burlington-based poet. A prior version of this story stated she was based out of Montpelier.
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