Sober Cooking with poeT lynn mcgee
By TNG Online Contributor Erin Adair-Hodges
While cooking is often employed as a metaphor for the sensual, that’s not the role it plays in Lynn McGee’s new collection of poems, Sober Cooking. Instead, the act of scrubbing and breaking, slicing and offering becomes a kind of alchemy, transforming everyday chores into gestures of devotion.
The lyric narratives in McGee’s work swirl around losing love to both illness and prejudice; the speaker’s sick partner was kept from her by a family and a system that, at the time, did not recognize the validity of the two women’s relationship. Cooking, as it appears in the book, allows us to see the depth of this commitment, to see it as “real” in every way, much as the speaker in the poem “Small Flame” recalls seeing “you at the stove, stirring black beans / and corn, hands fragrant with basil.” The quotidian domesticity, a hallmark of long-term relationships on display here is set up against the sick lover being “spoon-fed cranberry juice / and crushed ice.” These are tender gestures of care, but the spoon’s deployment in this poem also examines the complexity of romantic love: that implicit in the commitment is a swearing that someday, if we are lucky, we will spoon-feed the infirm lips we love.
That the speaker is involuntarily removed from this role is the book’s center, making it in many ways a contemplation of absence. Ghosts appear at the edges—even the speaker in “West Village Sidewalk Café” wonders if she’s still there: “a ghost / with a wallet, / but I sign the receipt / in my quick way, / awakened by my name.” When we lose a partner, even if they still live, we mourn not just the demise of the relationship but the separation from who that love had made us into.
Sober Cooking, though, isn’t a reader on how to get over loss—but rather, how to integrate it. The penultimate poem, “The Dead Visit Before a Routine Procedure,” braids the strands and histories of what and whom we’ve grieved while pointing inexorably to the future, to living: “I was back / in the world of teeth / and trains, the world I hate / and love.” The book is a clear-eyed look at the consequences of humanness, the Elizabeth Bishop-ian disaster of loving and losing, as well as the adventure of the unknown next.
Sober Cooking (Spuyten Duyvil Press) is Lynn McGee's first full-length collection. She's published two chapbooks, both contest winners: Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press) and Heirloom Bulldog (Bright Hill Press). Her poems have appeared in many journals, including The New Guard, Right Hand Pointing, The American Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, Ontario Review, Storyscape, 2 Bridges Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and Sun Magazine. She earned her MFA in Poetry at Columbia University and was awarded a MacDowell fellowship. She has taught freshman writing at many private and public universities and schools. She received the NYC Literacy Assistance Center’s Recognition Award for her work in adult literacy. She also received the Heart of the Center Award from the LGBT Community Center in NYC; as a volunteer, she developed their first GED class. Today she is a staff writer at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York (BMCC/CUNY).
Lynn McGee writes and works in New York City, more specifically a particular borough, I’m sure, but I’ve only been to New York once, in 2015. I ended up lost with a dead cell phone in Central Park, where—much like a Larry Levis poem—I ended up talking to a statue of a Polish horse in the rain. Because Lynn and I are separated by time zones and thousands of miles, we conducted this interview via email in March.
Erin Adair-Hodges: The title of your collection, Sober Cooking, creates the expectation that the poems might explore sobriety. But it quickly becomes clear that this is not the kind of "sober" the book centers on. What is compelling to you about the idea of soberness, outside of the 12-step lexicon we're familiar with? Was this an interest that led to the book, or did the title and its related poems emerge once a pattern was distinguished?
Lynn McGee: "Sober," in the context of Sober Cooking, relates to staying grounded and focused in a crisis. When my then-partner went into the hospital with heart failure and had two strokes, I was banned from visiting her (I will never forget her mother’s shrill voice yelling down the hall at me, “Go home! You’re not family! Go home!). This happened just as my father began a decline that quickly led to his death. It was as though I left my own life, my own body. I went through the motions of getting up, taking the train to work, doing my competent best at my hectic job as a staff writer at a college. But often, coming home, I walked the wrong way when I got off the subway. I forgot appointments. Or I stood shell-shocked at the curb waiting for a light to change, missing my chance to cross—more than once. To help myself "come back," I tried to pay close attention to small tasks, like chopping vegetables. I found this comforting. I did stop drinking, mostly because I needed all the help I could get to stay alert, on top of everything else I had to do in my daily life. And I began to exercise compulsively, another way of staying in my body, fighting the erasure I felt from being cut off from [my former partner] R. I literally saw my name disappear from the online visitors’ calendar at the hospital, the first clue that I had been banned, which perhaps triggered "West Village Sidewalk Cafe" in Sober Cooking where I wake myself up, in a sense, by signing my name on a receipt. But no, the book has nothing to do with sobriety in the 12-step sense.
EAH: At the center of the book is all kinds of loss, not all of which we have the vocabulary for, such as the loss of a relationship neither party wanted to end. How did you approach creating a collection around absence? What concerned you about the task of writing not about what is, but rather what isn't?
LM: I don’t think of this as a book about what “isn’t,” because it is so grounded in observation, i.e., what is physically “there.” The opening poem is about slicing a ginger root, and introduces the loss central to the narrative thread. It felt like the best poem to start with, because it sets up the struggle to stay in the world of nutrients and tasks—the world of “teeth and trains,” I say in one of my poems—the world where it is possible to thrive, as opposed to melting into a fog of sadness, which is where I felt pulled.
EAH: One of the book's concerns seems to be the extra-institutional rituals that bond a partnership or a family and how these are often not validated by those outside. Rituals that say "you are mine/I am yours." Can you talk a bit about the role, then, of poetry in the documentation of these private relationship markers?
LM: Yes, good point; we make our own rituals when we are excluded from those embedded in the culture. Some of this manuscript was written a couple years before the Summer 2015 Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. R and I didn’t have that option at that time. In an early poem in the collection, “Our First ER,” I refer to the romantic moment when she offered to be my health proxy, as I lay on a gurney in an emergency room, after a scare that turned out to be nothing. It felt like a proposal to me, and the kind nurse with long braids was our witness as we signed the papers. By documenting that moment, I am disregarding anyone who doesn’t want to validate gay and lesbian unions. I am claiming my right to love and be loved.
EAH: We all fashion our individual mythologies and origin stories—what is the challenge, and also importance, of putting those on the page, translating them for readers?
LM: I think it’s important to tell our truths, because it enables others to do the same, even if they don’t articulate their truth in a literal way, but rather, let it give them strength to make a change they need to make. I so take for granted that I am a lesbian, and I am so uninterested in anyone’s disapproval of that, that I forget this is a book that might help someone open their lives to the kind of love they want. Anyway, I hope it can do that.
EAH: If you could, speak about the process of creating Sober Cooking as a cohesive collection. When did you know this was the book, that it had traveled to the point where you could put it out there?
LM: Sober Cooking is a hybrid manuscript, in a sense, which incorporates the manuscript that came just before it, Cold Star. The generation of poems that became Sober Cooking actually started when R went into the hospital with heart failure, then had two strokes as I sat with her one evening. A few days after that, I arrived at her room to see the “Family Only” sign on her door. Cold Star helped get me through an earlier period of time when I moved out of her house and we tried to maintain our relationship in separate households. Eventually, we entered a tender period of reconciliation and renewed determination to make our life together, just before she fell gravely ill and I was cut off from her. The manuscript covers all those facets of a relationship: deep love, deep pain, sexual joy, dating awkwardness and excitement, letting go, moving on. Also during this time, as I mentioned earlier, my father died. So I wanted to honor his life with a poem in the book and I wanted to honor my sister who died in 1999. I think of them as a unit, along with paternal grandmother, and I refer to the three of them in the poem “Night,” and of course, in “The Dead Visit Before a Routine Procedure,” which describes the time I sensed them hovering as I lost consciousness before being rolled into the procedure room.
Sober Cooking is a hybrid of two manuscripts, which gave me a chance to cull out the less brave poems. I switched up the chapter organization quite a lot; Cold Star had chapters divided by seasons. But I ditched that classification system for chapters organized around the energy of the poems, as characterized by a key phrase pulled from one of them, to serve as a chapter heading. Again, a constant in the book is my resolve to emerge whole again from the experiences I describe. I don’t always write about myself. In fact, this manuscript is so much more personal than my usual work. But I do process everything by writing about it in a condensed, visual way. Central images help me realize things I am trying to admit to myself, and I’m glad I have that.
EAH: I'd also like to ask what you're working on now. Does gearing up for the release of a book zap your creative energies, or do you find it renews them?
LM: For me, productivity is linked to how much energy I have left on a day-to-day basis after taking the long subway ride in to work, doing my hectic job, then commuting home. My best time to edit is on the train in the morning. I'm so far north, I get a seat, and instead of switching to the express about midway, I stay on the local and enjoy the leisurely hour-plus it takes to get to Lower Manhattan, editing hard copies of poems all the way down. I'm always working on a new manuscript. The one I'm focused on now is [titled] Reality Roofing. It contains mostly new work.
Erin Adair-Hodges is the recipient of the 2015 Sara Patton Poetry Stipend from The Writer’s Hotel. She also won the 2014 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize from The Georgia Review, as well as prizes in editing and writing from the National and New Mexican Press Women Awards. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in places like Boulevard, Green Mountains Review, Kenyon Review, The Pinch, Superstition Review, Radar and more. She teaches writing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she lives with her family. Check out her blog: We Are Leaving Without You, visit her website and follow her on Twitter @erinadairhodges.
"Tender Roots: Sober Cooking with Lynn McGee" by Erin Adair-Hodges, copyright © The New Guard, 2016. All rights reserved. Shanna McNair, Editor.
Our next author interview/ book review is coming soon. Stay tuned! ::Our reviews center on writers published in TNG.::
The Writer's Hotel, The New Guard's editorial and publishing arm, gave a free lecture to graduate students on writing practices and publishing at Dartmouth College last November. The event was curated by the Dartmouth graduate student club, the Dartmouth Writers Society. Here is Dartmouth's review of the event: http://tinyurl.com/jzv86jg
The New Guard Reading Series hosts free reading events at Longfellow Books in Maine, and TNG Readings also take place as part of The Writer's Hotel Master Class in Fiction, Nonfiction & Poetry reading events program in NYC in June of each year. This year's reading will be at Book Culture, on June 3 from 6-7:30 PM and will be catered with snacks and wine! 2016 readers are TBA.
New TNG readings are TBA. Past Readings in Maine have included such readers as Charles Simic, Tess Gerritsen, Bill Roorbach, Scott Wolven, Jaed Coffin and Sarah Braunstein. NYC Readers have included writers such as Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Roger Bonair-Agard, James K. Zimmerman, Harry Newman, Adeeba Afshan Rana, George Drew, and Caron A. Levis. Thanks so much for coming out and giving your support!