Meet the Authors: Carrie McGath

Hello, readers! Welcome to the first edition of “Meet the Authors,” a series for the visiting authors that grace Lewis University with their presence. On March 3rd, the University welcomed Dr. Carrie McGath and Dr. Rita Mookerjee to AS 158 where both authors read poetry and gave a Q & A afterward. For this “Meet the Authors” post, we will be focusing on Carrie McGath and her wonderful poetry (stay tuned for our post about Rita Mookerjee and her amazing work as well!) Now for a brief introduction to Carrie McGath and an exploration of her work and the thought behind it:

Before Dr. McGath and Dr. Mookerjee presented their work for the University, they made a special appearance at the Advanced/Intermediate Creative Writing class taught by Dr. Simone Muench. At this closed event, the students listened to the wisdom presented by each author and had the opportunity to ask questions following the presentations. For this blog post, we will run through some of what McGath discussed throughout the private session as well as the University event that occurred after.

Dr. Carrie McGath

Bio: Carrie McGath’s first collection of poems, Small Murders, was released in 2006 by New Issues Poetry and Prose. Since then, Carrie has self-published five limited-edition chapbooks, including: Ward Eighty-One, The Chase, So Sorry to See You GoOhio Lonely, and Dollface. She is currently at work on her second full-length collection of poems, The Luck of Anhedonia. Her poems have appeared in literary journals including The Chariton Review, Hiram Poetry Review, and Barrow Street. Her poem, “Dear Anhedonia” won the AWP Intro Journals Project Award in 2019 and was published in The Tahoma Literary Review.

Carrie is listed on VIDA’s ‘anti-list’ of Under-Acknowledged Women Writers where author, Monica Drake writes: “… McGath reimagines a world that opens to grand possibility while simultaneously remaining painfully claustrophobic,  and therefore married to a new kind of truth.”

In addition to being a poet, Carrie has worked as an art critic in Chicago since 2009 and has contributed to Chicago Art Magazine, Chicagoist, Third Coast Review, and Brut Force as a Midwest contributor covering Outsider Art. 

Carrie is a Doctoral Candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

End of Bio-

Dr. McGath received her BA in English from Ohio University in 1999, going on to work toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University the same year, graduating in 2002. In 2009, she enrolled in The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving her Master’s degree in New Arts Journalism in 2011. McGath’s thesis for her Master’s was her manuscript Small Murders. Finally, McGath became a Doctorate Candidate in Poetry at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2022. Small Murders, published in 2006, is a 58-page collection of some of her strongest and most beautifully disturbing work.

Dr. McGath began her presentation to the class by announcing that she is currently working on a second full-length poetry collection titled The Luck of Anhedonia. Dr. McGath creatively adopts different personas in her work, each one possessing a distinctive voice that manifests in her poems. Her first chapbook, So Sorry to See You Go (2011), is a patchwork of poems created after interviewing artists that worked in performance and circus in the Midwest. To develop a deeper understanding of the people and events she would write about, Dr. McGath visited Baraboo, Wisconsin, and researched the town’s history from library records.

Another one of her chapbooks titled Ohio Lonely (2013) looks at the genealogy of her family, which is coupled with her own art collages that contain family photographs on her website. Often inspired by art when writing her chapbooks, she mentioned her interest in her own collage artwork, saying, “I like putting things together.” Dr. McGath’s artistic influence was often from Surrealist movements, particularly the Dada movement. She would hang out with the “art crowd” at the Art Institute of Chicago while working toward her Master’s degree, gaining inspiration from artists such as Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer, specifically their doll sculptures. In art, McGath looks for “things that attract me without really looking,” often finding inspiration from artists she has been following for a while. She simply takes them in and sees where it takes her on the page.

In a critical discussion of the craft of poetry and composing a chapbook, Dr. McGath emphasized that since the chapbook form is so small, it is easier to delve into a specific topic in her poems. On her website, she describes chapbooks as “concept albums,” pointing out that she enjoys chapbooks for this reason as she is able to create an artistic ordering of her poems. For the reader, they can experience an entire story throughout the chapbook if read in one sitting, similar to the artistic feel of listening to an album. A student asked about the process of ordering her poems, which she often spreads the poems across the floor [with interjection from cats] as a storyboard. In this cyclical process, she decides the order of her poems, asking herself how long she wants the story to progress. Once finished, she mentioned how she often hand-sews her books. 

Another student asked about her poem, “The Practical Side of Dreams,” and her inspiration behind it. The poem is a persona poem of a hotel cleaning lady, who sees both the luxurious and dark sides of the high-end hotel. Dr. McGath said she was inspired by the work of French artist Sophie Calle who took a job as a hotel maid in 1981 in Venice, Italy. Calle recorded whatever she found in the rooms through a camera and tape recorder. These anecdotes, coupled with Dr. McGath’s own personal hotel stays, inspired her poem. 

McGath then chose to read for the class. She read “Little Elephant Girl,” which she plucked from a postcard, and “Living Half Woman,” which has memorable lines such as “your well-earned string of pearls,” “fan with little ivory spines,” and “Read Proust and eat fish for dinner.” The conversation then transitioned to Dr. Mookerjee, whom we will speak about in our second post. 

Reading Event

The poetry reading after class began with Dr. McGath reading from her new poetry collection The Luck of Anhedonia, which is still in progress. She explained that Anhedonia was chopped into three segments: the living, the dead, and the living and the dead. She talks about Anhedonia as a character and that domestic violence is a catalyst for Anhedonia escaping to the desert. Much of what Dr. McGath looks at is the complexities of gender roles in her characters, as well as tethering specific images throughout the collection, such as a red-headed horse. In this sense, she draws upon a maternal role to “bring life back to the creatures of the desert” when looking at the binary worlds of the living and the dead. The chapbook collection has a lot of western “cowboys and cowgirls” imagery which connects to the setting of a desert, which she found inspiration for during a trip to Las Vegas and Joshua Tree. Her collection contains inspiration from different sources, such as a poem about Faith Bacon, a burlesque performer who lost her fame and leaped to her death in 1956. Another inspiration was Eveline McKale, who jumped off the Empire State Building to her death. Life Magazine called it “the most beautiful suicide…

 Before arriving in Vegas, a psychic friend of hers who does tarot card readings had told her, “I see you getting a poem out of Vegas before getting one out of the desert.” Surprised by this, she found the poem came to her after returning home from her trip which she wrote based on her experience in Vegas. It was inspired by a showgirl she saw standing in a casino when she noticed her orange plumage, which prompted her to title the poem “Orange.” A line from the poem is, “Hidden in the sand, finally safe from every man…” After Vegas, Dr. McGath ventured to Joshua Tree and stayed in the desert. She continually found inspiration for her poems from different sources, like a newspaper article she found shopping in Joshua Tree City which she took to create a cento. 

Overall, McGath’s new poetry collection discusses depression and dealing with mental illness through the character Anhedonia. On her website, McGath says, “These are poems about myself and the adventures I have with my alter-ego, Anhedonia.”

Below is our interview with Dr. McGath: 

  1. What is the current project you are working on? Please explain it in as much detail as possible. 

I am currently at work on my second full-length collection of poems, The Luck of Anhedonia. I have been working on this collection off and on for nearly ten years. There were times I left it and didn’t work on it, having this sense I wanted it to hibernate and breathe, giving me the space to not only reflect on the project but also give me the distance from the poems so that I could see them with a more objective lens when I returned to them. These breaks can sometimes be fruitful and I would write more poems. But sometimes these breaks would not generate any new work and that is okay. 

This project was inspired by a postcard of a wax mannequin by Detroit artist, Barbara Abel titled Longing. A friend of mine saw the postcard at an art fair in Denver and thought of me since I have a fascination with mannequins as these fixtures of doubling, these stand-ins for humans. Seeing the mannequin on the postcard, I was immediately inspired. I was also in the throes of a depression at the time and she seemed like a kind of savior to me. I knew she would inspire me to write again. And she did. The word “anhedonia” is defined in the 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “… a markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all activities most of the day, nearly every day.” The word’s origin began in the late nineteenth century from the French in anhedonie and from the Greek, hedone. Both the mannequin and this word would become a poem titled, “The Luck of Anhedonia,” a poem that has been through a dozen revisions eventually becoming “Dear Anhedonia,” the opening poem of the collection. This poem sets up the narrative of the speaker and the persona of Anhedonia that plays out throughout the collection. 

The setting of the desert throughout the collection came to me a little later. I had never been to the desert when I decided on this setting, but I was attracted to it since it seemed like this mystical place, something otherworldly. As I started to write other poems for the collection, I noticed I was writing a lot of poems about deceased individuals and began to think of the desert as this mystical place where the living coexist with the dead. My collection is now in three sections: “The Living,” “The Dead,” and “The Living and the Dead.” 

  1. How has your work on the current project differed from past projects? Has your approach to poetry changed as a result of this new project?

This current project, The Luck of Anhedonia (TLoA), has a lot of similarities and a lot of differences from the process of past projects. One of the main similarities is research, something I often turn to in all of my projects. The element of research in TLoA mainly came into play when I was working with persona. For the JonBenet Ramsey poem, I continued researching not only the murder of JonBenet through reading and documentaries, but also putting myself into the harrowing position of this little girl’s last moments as well as her love of performing in pageants and her relationship with her mother, Patsy Ramsey. Instagram also proved helpful in discovering stories about so many fascinating women in silent film and burlesque in the 1920s and 1930s. I discovered the performer, Faith Bacon, on Instagram since I follow a page called, Silence is Platinum which is such a rich page to discover the stories of so many fascinating women. I would then continue research on my own once I found figures I felt would fit so well into the overall narrative of the collection. The main narrative is how toxic masculinity and the cruelty of the world has impacted both the most innocent and the most driven and empowered women I discovered in research. 

My first collection, Small Murders, contains a lot of ekphrastic poems and a lot of poems that helped me heal from a variety of things in my life at the time from struggles with depression, bipolar, and anxiety to struggles with an abusive relationship.

My chapbooks are all based on research as a way to avoid any exploitation of the people in my projects and instead celebrate their individuality. Ward Eighty-One was inspired by photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s project by the same name. This was a documentary project where Mark and journalist Karen Folger Jacobs, spent time with the women in this ward at the Oregon State Hospital in the late 1970s. I felt an affinity with these women since I was suffering with my own struggles with mental illness and each of their stories just captivated me. I wanted to give these women a voice in the poems and this chapbook really started my love of the persona poem, a form I often turn to in order to celebrate so many different women from all walks of life and places and time periods. Working in persona allows me to distance myself for an objectivity while also inviting the opportunity for me to step into another woman’s shoes.

The main difference from my current project and previous ones is mainly subject matter, but I am also furthering my work with craft in experimenting with an array of traditional poetry forms in TLoA including experiments with erasures, centos, sonnets and the villanelle. I have found working more with traditional forms has been a wonderful experience for me since they are always a lovely challenge and I learn a lot from these challenges.

  1. At the poetry reading you spoke about Anhedonia as a character and how you gained inspiration from going to the desert. Could you describe your trip in more detail? What are some memorable experiences from this trip that shaped this new project?

The trip was one I had planned for the spring of 2020 and the Covid pandemic obviously stalled that plan. I was on Dissertation Leave in the spring of 2020 which is why I wanted to go then since I wanted the direct inspiration to continue working on TLoA. My partner and I were finally able to go in August of 2021 and it was truly inspiring. We started the trip in Las Vegas and ended the trip in the Wonder Valley of Twentynine Palms, California near Joshua Tree where we had a cabin smack in the middle of the desert. Both of these places are so markedly different. Vegas was campy and wild and where we were in the desert was startlingly quiet and eerie. 

I was having a lot of insomnia in Vegas (I think because of the constant activity there). When I couldn’t sleep, I would go down to the casino floor in our hotel and play the slots or grab a drink at the bar. In those moments, I would listen to everyone around me and watch people. I kept seeing this one showgirl with these large orange feathers on her bodice and on her headdress no matter what time I was in that casino, whether in the middle of the afternoon or the middle of the night. She looked exhausted and I felt a connection to her in that sense. I started a poem about her in my journal while still in Vegas and worked on it more in the quiet of the desert. Once I was back in Chicago, those starts to the poem while I was traveling eventually became the poem, “Orange.” The raunchy beauty of Vegas and poetic quiet of the desert both hold so many memorable moments. It is a trip I will always treasure and reflect upon. I plan to return to these places whenever I can since it was so fruitful to my creativity. 

  1. During the reading you mentioned that you have created many chapbooks. Could you briefly describe what you find important about the experience of creating a chapbook? 

I have written five chapbooks and feeling that impulse to go back to a sixth I have been working on about the wholly harrowing 1947 murder of Elizabeth Smart (aka: The Black Dahlia) tentatively titled, Dahlia’s Chest Pain. I am particularly fascinated by the theory of Dr. George Hodel being her murderer. He was a physician in Los Angeles and an avid collector of surrealist art. There is a haunting resemblance to how her body was found bisected and the depictions of women in the majority of surrealist art by men in the movement. I am fully on board that Dr. Hodel murdered Smart and even his son, Steve Hodel, is convinced of his guilt and has written several books illustrating that. As a detective and the son of Dr. Hodel, he has a particularly intimate lens into why he believes his father is the murderer. So this chapbook is comprised of poems in the voice of Smart, but I am also toying with the idea of some poems being in the voice of Dr. Hodel to show his unfathomable evilness as a person and likely a murderer of more than just Smart. I am convinced he murdered other women, including his secretary. 

The five chapbooks I have written with the exception of The Chase are very much based in research. So Sorry to See You Go came out of my Masters thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the presence of the circus in art of the Midwest. I did a lot of archival research at the Newberry Library to see how present the circus was in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. Ohio Lonely is a collection of poems about my family and is based on discussions with family members as well as genealogical research. Finally, Dollface, comes out of several years of research on the artwork of surrealist artist, Hans Bellmer and surrealist artist and poet (and lover of Bellmer), Unica Zürn. These chapbooks are all quite short since they are razor-focused on a particular subject. I find chapbooks to be generative smaller projects while I am working on a larger project like a full-length collection. They all kind of feed on one another and organically evolve into other projects. 

  1. Could you please elaborate on your philosophy on choosing an order for your poems in a chapbook. In your website bio you say, “I think of my chapbooks as concept albums. As you would play an album from start to finish, my intent is that my reader reads my chapbooks from start to finish in one sitting. There is a story in the ordering of the poems just as there is a story in the poems themselves.” How do you begin to compose that order? Does it depend on the chapbook? How do you begin ordering your poems? 

As I mention in the above quote, I absolutely see a story in the ordering of poems whether it is a chapbook or a full-length collection. I write a lot of narrative poems so they inherently involve a story and I keep the overall narrative thread in mind when ordering poems in any project I am doing. Like writing poems, ordering poems feels very mystical. It is a feeling almost like a trance and I “listen” and “see” how the poems want to ribbon through the overall narrative. I think this can be related to my background in collage, actually. I am very calculating in how I place the images in a collage and each work tells a story in a sense. I recently was in an international art exhibition that was online only called Decahedron, curated by Jenny Lam. I was even very cognizant of which pieces I wanted together in the exhibition to tell the story I wanted to impart to viewers. I love hearing from people who view my work that a particular piece gets them thinking about the story they see in the work. I use found photographs of strangers I buy at antique stores and I imagine who they were and work from there. My poems feel like their own little creatures, but they are also related … like the poems share a genealogy. This is why ordering is so meditative and so important for me. That genealogy cannot be properly told without ordering. The ordering of a book goes through many iterations as it comes together and I literally spread out the pages on the floor of my living room so I can see and feel the ordering. 

  1. How do you find inspiration to write something new and how do you deal with writer’s block?
Smile Through the Pain

I don’t really believe in writer’s block per se because I think one is always writing in a sense even when not putting pen to paper. I am always processing current projects and another project is always in the pipes for me. I am always open and observing and researching things that interest me and that is very generative. I always carry a notebook and a pen with me in case a line or image or title hits me. My work as an art critic always gives me inspiration and I surround myself with people who intrigue me as creatives in particular and the conversations I have with those people in my life always proves to be generative and inspiring. 

I also gain inspiration by creating my own visual artwork. I do collages and find that creating visual art often sparks me to write and it is something I practice to keep me present in my artistic process with art and with my writing. I have been writing a lot of essays in the last couple of years as well when I feel something I need to express but it doesn’t “fit” in the form of a poem. Writing these essays is also something that keeps me present in my artistic process. 

Reading a lot of texts is also essential to writing and I read a wide range of books including poetry, art history books, and true crime in particular. In writing TLoA, I have read several books on the women of the wild west since that notion of the badass cowgirl is very much a recurring image in the poems and particularly in the character of Anhedonia. 

  1. Could you describe in more detail your relationship with art? You mentioned that you get a lot of inspiration from art pieces you get enjoyment from. Has there ever been a piece of art that inspired multiple poems or even a collection of poems? How does collage art play a role in your poetry? 

As I mentioned above, making art myself is essential to my writing process, but beyond that, art is so central to my life. With my art history studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and beyond as well as my work as an art critic is just integral to how I see the world. Art is everywhere if you take it all in. I write a lot of ekphrastic poetry in general. In my first collection, Small Murders, I have poems about two paintings by Salvador Dali, a poem inspired by Frida Kahlo, and a couple poems about the work and the odd character of Hans Bellmer. Dollface is a chapbook wholly inspired by Bellmer and his tumultuous relationship with artist and poet, Unica Zürn.

Working myself with collage, my placing images and text to a work is to me much like the consideration I take in line breaks, white space, and even forms I work with in my poetry. It is all very related for me. 

  1. Is there a particular experience or piece of advice that you think has shaped your writing as a whole? Is there any wisdom you live by as a writer? 

For me, there are two golden absolutes to write: write on paper and read a lot. I had the immense honor of studying for two years with the poet, Mary Ruefle who is also very visual in her erasure projects. She always believed in the physicality of writing on paper or on a typewriter and I have always completely agreed with this and do this in my classes when I teach writing. It is different to draft a poem with a pen or pencil on paper than to type it on a laptop. I have a couple vintage typewriters I use as well. My Remington Rand is from the 1930s and my Olivetti Lettera 25 typewriter, a similar model by Olivetti that the musician, Nick Cave, uses to write. Like a pen or pencil to paper, using typewriters also had that physicality I love when writing. Your whole body and being is going into that poem or essay. This could never happen typing on a computer. I never draft on a computer. I usually write in my journal first by hand and then type it on one of my typewriters. Only when the poem is “done” do I type it on my laptop. Editing on paper is also essential to me. I cannot edit on a screen. 

In March 2019, Ruelfe was interviewed in The White Review and I love how she discusses the physical act of writing. She says, “I write by hand because that is how I began, and I love it. Moving the wrist, the marks the pencil or pen leave on the paper – like the trail of a snail – well, it is like drawing, no, it is drawing, and I am so enamoured of this activity that sometimes I write continuously without actually forming real words, I call it ‘fake handwriting’, and it’s just as much fun as actually ‘writing’. By fun I mean it’s just as much a mystery. This whole wrist-moving action is why I write in the first place. I don’t like tennis, or knitting, I like writing with my hands.” I absolutely identify with what she is saying here. Amazing. 

  1.  As a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, what words of advice do you have for students looking to go into studies related to creative writing?

Be an active listener and reader and enter a creative writing class or program open to learning other disciplines. Take a science class if that is something you are interested in or an art history class or a studio class in photography or painting or sculpture. I feel this interdisciplinary outlook to be so essential to great writing and an edifying experience overall intellectually. 

Beyond this, choose a journal you can always carry with you and a pen or pencil you like and always have them on you. This way, you always have a way to write down thoughts, lines, images, drawings when something intrigues or inspires you. I use a variety of journals, but I like lined journals with off-white or cream paper I find easy on the eyes if you find yourself writing in the sun. I have always used and continue to use Ticonderoga pencils and Pentel Rolling Writer pens. I don’t use anything else. 

10. To conclude: Please list five pieces of writing you would recommend (anything included, be it movies, books, etc.).

I have an eclectic range of things I adore and would recommend without hesitation. As far as filmmakers, I absolutely adore anything by David Lynch. Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks have especially been integral to my aesthetic and my creative life. His ability to capture macabre humor with melodrama and a haunting eeriness is why I always return to his work. Jane Campion, Peter Greenaway, Wes Anderson, and Atom Egoyan are among other filmmakers I would absolutely recommend. My musical tastes go from punk from its heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s to new wave, classical, and goth. Nick Cave is an artist who is so much a part of my life and is such an unwavering inspiration for my work. I would recommend his music with the Bad Seeds, his side project, Grinderman, and his current work with Warren Ellis. Tori Amos is another musician that inspires me; her lyrics really are poems and her incredible command of the piano and performance never ceases to amaze me. 

It is hard to nail down books since there are so many. Sylvia Plath is a poet I always return to and one who constantly continues to surprise and captivate me. Her collected poems and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, are essentials to any library to me. I am drawn generally to the confessional poets of which Plath is a part along with Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. For contemporary poets, I adore Diane Seuss, Brenda Shaughnessy, Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Tony Hoagland, and Cate Marvin. I would absolutely recommend Aimee Baker’s poetry collection, Doe, a project that is so important. The poems in this collection are based in research of missing and often-unidentified women and she often uses persona to give these women a voice, so Baker’s work very much aligns with the work I do in my own poetry. I also read a lot about art and Therese Lichtenstein’s book about Hans Bellmer, Behind Closed Doors, is incredible as well as Michael Peppiatt’s biography about the painter, Francis Bacon is stellar and is titled Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. I also enjoy reading true crime books, particularly about the Black Dahlia murder in the late 1940s. A couple of those I would highly recommend are Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder by Mark Nelson and Susan Hudson Bayless and Steve Hodel’s Black Dahlia Avenger, as well as Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell. My fiction faves would be Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick series, Monica Drake’s work, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, and Mary Gaitskill.

-End of Interview-

A special thank you to Dr. McGath for taking the time to visit and respond to our interview. 

To learn more about Dr. McGath visit

Stay tuned for our interview with Dr. Rita Mookerjee.

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