Katharyn Howd Machan spoke to Cayuga Lake Books about her recently published poetry anthology, “Secret Music: Voices from Redwing, 1888.” The book is now available for purchase and can be bought on Amazon.
What is the feeling of publishing all of these poems written since 1987?
1985. I am deeply gratified to have them all together in my new book, Secret Music. Of course, they haven’t stopped, and I’ve even written several more since this collection was sent to the publisher [laughs]. The new book is going to keep these characters alive in me. And to have them all together this way, especially now that I’ve got the reading lined up with a number of people taking the voices, it becomes more fully alive for me. There have been two full stage productions in Georgia of the Redwing poems, and I’ve gotten to see them both. Costume, set, absolutely stunning. It turned into a play, essentially. And that full embodiment, outside of myself—I felt deeply gratified.
What is it about 19th-century rural life that gave you so much inspiration to create the characters and town of Redwing?
I have definitely borrowed heavily from other people’s lives crafting these poems, as well as from my own experiences. I’m not abashed about doing that at all. The fun that I’ve had with it is that, suddenly, 20 years later, I can create a sibling for someone. The best example I can give would be “Laura Pearce,” who was one of the first. It was in April of 1985, I was inspired by lilacs blossoming right on South Hill in front of somebody’s house. Maybe it was May… it was spring. And then it was many, many years later she talks about meeting a gypsy, romantic, you know, and the mother giving her the scarf, and all of this. And years later I create a twin for her who says, “Oh, she didn’t do that. She was meeting our pastor secretly in the woods—there.” So, who do you believe? You don’t know. Who do you believe? And it excites me that I could have characters play off of each other in that way. And the constellations of names: I took a lot of the names from a couple of cemeteries not far from Chautauqua. I wanted it to be very clearly not based in Ithaca. It’s further west. I always say Redwing is kind of central, western New York, within the fictional county of Tuscarora. But it was near Chautauqua that I took old names because I wanted to make sure they were names of the time. Because names have changed, some just aren’t used anymore. Like Theophilus. Have you ever been in a class with someone named Theophilus? [laughter] Our main lawyer for the college is Nancy Pringle, and Pringle was a name I saw on many gravestones because her family was from that area… so Pringle became one of the main names.
Have you or has your writing changed much from when you began writing this collection years ago?
These poems have continued in their own world, literally, of Redwing. I don’t see great differences between earlier ones and later ones. Maybe some different themes brought in from what I’ve experienced, perhaps, or seen in other people’s lives. Otherwise, my poetry’s changing all the time. For the past seven years, I’ve been working on a manuscript that I consider done at this point in time: Shapeshifter fox. That’s seven years of poems, hundreds of poems. Not all of them of the same quality, but you know. I just write a lot. And publish.
Did you have input towards the cover art for Secret Music?
Yes, I commissioned that wood carving from Mary Shelley at the beginning of the summer. She showed me sketches and we talked about it and gradually she created it. It was a gift for my husband for his 50th birthday, too. It’s about this big [makes gesture] and we have it over our fireplace. It’s stunning. The first edition of the Redwing poems from 2005 has the Pan statue on it. There’s just something to me about Pan being the wildness that has to somehow be restrained within most of these Redwing characters. They don’t dare say out it loud, but they’ve got this Pan in them. In some cases to the point of it actually being a pan-ic.
Is there something you’ve been reading and enjoying lately or an author you’ve been really taken with?
Eleanor Henderson [laughs]. And I finally read The Golden Compass, the Philip Pullman books and then his prequel. I finally read those. I got to read nine books while I was recovering from my recent operation. More Neil Gaiman. Right now I’m reading a book about mermaids and I’m reading an anthology of dragon stories. I’m reading and teaching this material, and I’m also working right now on a collection of science fiction fantasy poetry.