S T U A R T M C P H E R S O N
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: We’ve published three poems from your debut full-length collection, Obligate Carnivore (Broken Sleep Books, 2022). Congratulations! It’s a brutally gorgeous book that, among many other things, critiques and corrupts the language of toxic masculinity. Can you tell us how this project arose and/or evolved?
Stuart McPherson: Firstly, thank you! And thank you for publishing the poems! I’m delighted to see this book readying itself to journey outwards into the world. The work itself is a natural evolution from my pamphlet, Waterbearer, which is a very introspective and personal book that observes the impacts of an abusive past, but something that I had to write in order to be able to move on and do other things. With this book, I wanted to write more broadly, and to express how I felt ‘as a man’ in the world, but also to write about the struggles that some men have with breaking free from the more toxic aspects of ‘what masculinity actually means’. From my own perspective, I’ve never really felt like I understood ‘masculinity’, and I’ve always found it an incredibly difficult subject. I still feel like it impacts negatively on both society and me personally, and in terms of things like identity, work, sexuality, relationships, mental health etc. And so with Obligate Carnivore I wanted to take this and call it out. I want it to be a book that people can read and in some way identify with how the structures and ideals we perpetuate for ourselves are deeply unhealthy, and that there is much to be gained from connecting with our more honest and vulnerable sides.
COMP: Sonically, your poems are so percussive (“Work hard proud admiral, to die in-chrysalis”; “Waspish on an orchard floor”). How would you describe the music of a Stuart McPherson poem?
Stuart McPherson: I find this fascinating because music, and specifically drums and percussion, is something that has always been present throughout my life. I didn’t quite realise that it had made it into my poems! I would like to describe the music of my work as ‘rhythmic’ and I like my poems to have some element of internal rhyme. The way the words sit next to each other, as well as reflect off each other, is very important to me. They certainly have to ‘click’ in some way. I put a lot of deliberate thought into this. I’d also like to think that the poems have a degree of musical ‘volume’, in the same way you might listen to more extreme music. I want the poems to stop the reader in their tracks almost as if to say ‘woah- this is heavy’- of course, I’m not sure if I achieve that! Equally, I try to incorporate some more discordant, off-kilter elements in my poems. If they were a bunch of bands meeting for a fight in a parking lot I’d say ‘Full of Hell’ meets ‘Song of Zarathustra’ meets ‘The Wonder Years’ – except they wouldn’t be fighting, they’d be geeking out about all the other bands that they like.
COMP: Obligate Carnivore is chockfull of formally adventurous poems—a wide variety of visual layouts—from dense prose poems to spare, haiku-like sequences. How do you find a poem’s form?
Stuart McPherson: I write all of my poems either straight onto a word doc or into a phone. I like having the freedom of being able to chop up a poem very quickly, to try different forms. It’s important to me that a poem looks visually pleasing on the page, and I’m a huge fan of symmetry which can sometimes be difficult as I often find myself measuring pieces on the screen (ridiculous I know!)
For me the writing process usually puts a poem through four or five different forms before I settle on the right one. It really is a case of gut feel. I don’t start out with any particular form in mind, I tend to let it find itself as the work progresses. The shorter pieces are sometime born out of ruthless editing, and the longer prose form pieces might be more a case of stream of consciousness. From time to time I like the form of a poem to manifest a visual element or theme of the poem itself, for example I have one poem deliberately shaped into a skull (the poem is titled ‘A Skull in the High Tide of Masculinity’, and a series of poems shaped into teeth (The poem itself talks about the teeth of a carnivore and so the words are formed into incisors) This does still happen quite accidentally though, I’m not that clever! Ultimately, it really depends on what feels and looks right. Maybe it’s a slightly chaotic way to approach writing, but it’s definitely most comfortable to me. If I worked on paper nothing would ever get finished, and I’d probably use so much of it that there would be no trees left and the world would be a barren, uninhabitable rock, all because of poems.