Like Horns on a Skull: An Interview with Carey McHugh

Robert Ostrom


The taxidermist will
mold, skin, gut, preserve, reassemble, and mount a creature, usually with the goal of making it look the way it did when it was alive. The final product can serve a variety of purposes—amusement, utility, education, and in terms of taxidermied pets, nostalgia: it helps preserve emotional connection. Carey McHugh manages the language equivalent to the art of taxidermy. The poems that make up her debut book, American Gramophone, restore life to the long dead and permit us to view, up close, these foreign and often dangerous animals, people, places, memories, or experiences. In “And Now, the Educated Hog,” McHugh writes, “You could say it was an adjustment. Like a tree/ uprooting inside me. Like being bricked up/ in a silo. Even the sun put me to sleep. At first/ I was content without a knife. Then, I couldn’t walk/ across a field without dreading roundworm.” Each poem is meticulously assembled and tightly sutured, as is the entire book; reading American Gramophone is akin to visiting a forest diorama in the Natural History Museum and standing at arms-length before a lynx, mid-kill.

In early December, Carey (who is, unsurprisingly, obsessed with taxidermy) came over to my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. Over a few glasses of wine, we discussed her startling new book.




Robert Ostrom: Talk about the process of writing this book.

Carey McHugh: I started writing it in graduate school, and it has appeared in various permutations throughout the decade. For me, the process of putting a book together involves rearranging it and sending it out and getting a bunch of rejections and then rearranging it again and sending it out and getting a bunch more rejections and thinking, “Alright, maybe if I pulled this poem and put this one in, that’s going to be the lynchpin. Now it’s gonna get accepted!” So for a while I was stuck in a revolving door of poems, which I think I once advised you never to do.

RO: What is the oldest poem in the book and which one is the newest?

CM: The oldest poem is probably “The Ferrier.” I think the newest one is probably “Seafaring to Tracheotomy” or “And Now, the Educated Hog.” Those two came around the same time. “Self-Portrait as Shedding” is really old. “Somnambulist” is old. It’s weird to go back and still see those. In fact, I tried to take the “Somnambulist” out because it just seemed ancient and dusty.

RO: How do you feel about it now?

CM: I feel ok about it now. It took me a while.

RO: So does it sort of settle?

CM: More like congeals. Like an aspic. Like, put it in a fridge, or put it between a cover, you know, and then you think, alright this is a thing. And now I can’t change it, so it feels like it was always meant to be this way.


RO: Talk about the title. How did you come up with it? Were there other possibilities? Did you send it out under other titles?

CM: I sent it out for many years under the title Aviaries and Asylums, which is now a four-part poem in the book. And I sent it out with this title because I was thinking, “What’s holding this book together? It’s birds and madness. And I thought, well, in “Aviaries and Asylums,” there’s this strange community that’s somehow been locked up, imprisoned. And early on I was writing a lot about insane asylums that had been built in the late 19th century, early 20th century and abandoned. I think I was watching a lot of Ghost Hunters at the time, and they always go to these abandoned sanatoriums and it terrifies me. That shit scares the shit out of me. I’ll watch when I’m alone and I can’t stop.

RO: Why do you watch it if it scares you so much?

CM: Because I want to see if they make contact with the other world, ok?! I just want to see it! And every episode they’re like, “Ah ha! I saw movement! It could be a human spirit or a rat.” And I always think, “Oh this time they’re really gonna find a ghost.” So I’m kind of obsessed with those old abandoned buildings, and at the time I was thinking about asylums and captivity, and I liked the idea of writing about it.

RO: Why do you like that?

CM: Disease and mental illness are unexplainable in some ways. I’m thinking of it, specifically, in the context of “ye olde” medicine and how people didn’t understand the science behind it. It must have seemed like a connection to another world. It’s shocking and unpredictable—is it demonic possession or is it genetics? It must have been terrifying and outlandish to have gone through life facing a mental illness at that time, or to have been a doctor having no idea what you’re dealing with.

RO: I also think, at least in the poems, it serves as a metaphor, representative, if a little exaggerated, of a common state. Those extreme examples can be an easier way to talk about our own feelings.

CM: Right. It’s like our current state, but heightened.

RO: I feel like with a lot of books, while writing them, the author, herself and her work, changes. Some of this change is deliberate—you don’t want to keep making the same gestures over and over again in your poems, but other stuff is more circumstantial. Do you agree with this? And can you talk about what changes you and your work underwent during the decade-long evolution of this book?

CM: I became sort of bored hearing my voice in the same way over and over and over. I think when I started writing the book I was more concerned with language and how the sounds of words pivoted off of each other within a poem. I think I was less concerned that each poem would be understood, in terms of having a clear meaning. I was really interested in scaffolded sound and how one sound would plant the seed for another word later on in the poem. As the manuscript progressed, I wanted to start doing something a little bit different.

RO: Do you think that the change from those more sonic concerns to a different voice, perhaps concerned more with conveying experience, is also part of getting older?

CM: It isn’t getting older; for me, I think it’s becoming more vulnerable. We’ve talked before about the necessity of doing whatever is the most difficult thing to do when writing a poem. And the thing that’s hard for me is to just tell the truth and to be vulnerable in my writing. And I think I’m moving towards that.

RO: I think that’s great. My hope is that the act of writing benefits us in some way, and doesn’t steer us off bridges.

CM: Writing is like therapy plus a relief valve. Someone came up to me after the reading and said something like, “Oh now I see why you write poems like this. So that you don’t kill people.” I was like, “Yeah. Exactly.”

RO: Was that an admission?

CM: Haha. “Your honor, we have her on tape!”

I started thinking about it like, maybe poetry is where I keep my anti-civilization emotions. Maybe I just put all that in here so that I’m more free to walk around the world and not be as creepy and homicidal.

RO: Do you have a sense of what, now that this book has come to fruition, you’d like to do next? Besides work on your deltoids. Or, of course, you can talk about that too… And how does having this first one out there impact your thoughts on future writing? Could it be limiting?

CM: First of all, let me say I’m glad you mentioned my delts.

RO: They’re huge.

CM: Yeah, I’m still working up to having the biggest delts this side of the Mississippi but…

RO: Where are they?

CM: Delts? Right here.

[where the deltoids are]

RO: Oh yeah, because you want wings.

CM: Yeah. So I can get around by flying. It seems more expedient. In addition to deltwork, I want to continue writing. In the new poems I’ve been writing, there are some real bald-faced, bold statements that feel to me like, “Hey, how do you do? Welcome to my real life.” So I think maybe I will continue in that direction. Not to say that it’s all going to be autobiography from here on out, but I think it’s interesting to keep opening that door and see what sort of emotional turn it takes.

RO: It’s interesting because I feel like students are often urged to hide their experiences and emotions, or at least mask them in poetry.

CM: Well I think for this book, I wanted to just suck all of the sentiment away. I wanted it to be skeletal like branches with no leaves. I wanted it to be a creepy outline like horns on a skull. This bare, stark, maybe appalling thing. And now that I’ve done that, maybe the next book doesn’t have to be that.

RO: Ok I want to come back to that when I’m less afraid. So, now that this first book is done…

CM: Thank god!

RO: Now that it’s out in the world, do you think it can be limiting in any way? Do you think you’ve announced, this is how I write and therefore . . .

CM: I think it’s useful to have the book out. I mean you’ve got to start somewhere, right? And then you have to make a movement from that. This was my first effort, this is what I had in me, and now I hope that I can do something else. I hope this isn’t all I can do.

RO: I’m sure that it is.

CM: I wish we had a stenographer that would actually be…typing this interview.

RO: She’d have to be really old.

CM: Yeah. She’d be sitting on a stool right over there.

RO: Are you relieved in some way that your book didn’t get taken earlier?

CM: Yeah. I guess so. I can say that now because it’s out. If you had asked me that before it was published, I would’ve just flicked you off. The thing for me is, it had to stop or it would’ve just been this revolving selection of poems every time I wrote a new poem and found another to be too old. So I had to get it out so there could be a stopping point. Otherwise I would’ve revised it to dust.

RO: I know the owl poems are some of the younger ones in the book, and I’m wondering if you can talk about this project. To me, they maintain everything I love about your work, but allow a little more whimsy. Can you tell me about how the project began, took shape, and what you felt like it allowed you to do in this book?

CM: I was actually researching (I use that term loosely)… I was looking for a cool-sounding owl species to put in a poem, and I came across this website called The Owl Pages, which has a frequently asked questions section. Some are your basic owl questions: What do owls eat? Why do they hoot? And some are so outrageous and so bizarre and so spectacular and I was like, I also have these questions about owls and other living things, and I want to answer these questions for myself. They seemed to fit with all the birds in the book (they’re everywhere) and I thought it would fit well with my voice and my intentions for the book. So the questions became titles. Having question as titles, particularly absurd questions, was very freeing. It allowed me to be less rigorous. The titles are funny. So I think it opened the possibility to a little levity in my poems.

RO: Great answer.

CM: Advantage, McHugh!

RO: This isn’t a tennis match.

CM: That’s what you think.

A Tennis Match
[for comparison, an actual tennis match]

RO: I’m gonna ask you one more question and then we’ll take a break and get some more wine.

CM: Yay!

RO: When I think about American Gramophone the musical, I basically think of money. Because it’s brilliant. I mean, the book is brilliant, but also my musical adaptation is a goldmine.

CM: I hope Meryl Streep is playing the lead.

RO: Maybe. No doubt the chorus would be made up of lumberjacks and carpenters. All the instruments would be made from bird bones, rusty tools, and torture devices.

CM: Advantage, Ostrom!

RO: But really, the book has a remarkable cast of characters: ex-marksman, the farrier, the messenger, a woman with her throat cut, the warden’s girl. And yet, when I read the poems, the voice in my head is singular. They don’t feel like persona poems. Do you agree? Is it the same for you? Where did all these characters come from and why are you so drawn to them?

CM: You know what I’m drawn to? Ye olde professions. Like a farrier (a shoer of horses). Farrier is such a strange word for it, and also, what a bizarre thing to be done! Or a lumberjack—I like the idea of someone going out into the woods and just cutting down a tree with heft and delts and blade. This singular work. I’m not sure I thought of the poems as persona poems. I can’t say that I did as I was writing them, though I guess technically, that’s what they are.

RO: It just feels to me like it is the voice of your poem.

CM: It’s like my poems are wearing different hats. Now my poem has an ax. Now it has a horseshoe and an apron.

RO: It’s almost as if the poem is possessing those people, not visa versa.

Speaking of voice, talk about your writing process. Do you read your poems aloud when you’re done with them or as you’re composing them.

CM: I used to do that a lot more. I’ve found that I don’t do that as much right now until I feel like they’ve come to a state that could be a first draft and then I read them. I rarely just sit down and crank out a poem. What I do is either use an assignment, create an assignment for myself, or do a negative image, or if I find a title that I really like I can sort of have that as a platform, a jumping-off point for the poem. So those are the ways I write these days. Unfortunately. Rarely do I just sit down and blooobloooblat! And it just comes from my pancreas and spills out onto the page.

RO: If I had to describe your poems, the first word that comes to mind is density, both sonic and in terms of content.

CM: You mean destiny!?

RO: I mean density. You write about metal and horses and timber. There’s a lot of muscle in this book: commands like, “Tell the trees to pin me down or clear out.” And I love this about your writing, but I wonder if you ever received any pushback? If people maybe expected you to write differently?

CM: I think people want a story. People like a narrative, and I think sometimes what I’m aiming for is an emotional experience, or rather to convey an emotional intelligence instead of a linear narrative, so I’ve had a lot of pushback on that because, yeah, I think naturally, people want a story. People want to see me baking cookies too, but that’s never going to happen.

RO: Your poems repeatedly refer to the body, which often is injured, broken, or decaying. And, more so than not, it is resigned to this. For instance, “The spine spoils it’s own alignment.” Or, of course, “Woman with Her Throat Cut.”  Why do you think this is? Where do you think this impulse towards violence comes from? Can you tell me a little about what accounts for this violence?

CM: I think of it in terms of aging, rather than violence. “Woman with Her Throat Cut” is different, of course. The title comes from an Alberto Giacometti sculpture. When I first saw it, it floored me, it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen because you can kind of make out her ribs and you can kind of see her bent knees and the trachea that’s just been a little bit cut. And even though there’s no head, there’s no hair, no real appendages that look human, it is devastating.

I think a lot about antiquated machines, like the gramophone, and the body is this organic machine, headed, ultimately towards decay, and how do we live with that? How do we reconcile it?

RO: Lots of horses in this book. What’s that all about?

CM: It’s funny because I have so many horses here in New York City! I was thinking about writing this book, because I wrote it all here, and I was wondering if I had been living in another place, if I’d been living in Tennessee, would I have written this book. Probably not. Can I talk about that in terms of taxidermy? If I can get there?

RO: Yeah and I’m also interested in what the distance from the location that’s inspiring the poems does to the poems.

CM: As you know, I moved around a lot during my life, but my extended family is in Tennessee, they always have been, that’s the one constant, the one place I’ve always returned to. When I was a kid, my father and my grandfather had a cattle farm in northern Georgia, near the Tennessee border, and we would go up there on weekends. They had horses for a while, and they had other animals, I think, but by the end it was mainly cattle. And I have these really strong memories of being there. There were all these things that were dangerous, things that we weren’t allowed to touch. “Don’t go up into the hayloft. You’ll fall out.” It was this sort of mysterious place that was so different from my suburban Atlanta life or wherever I was living at the time; it just seemed like another universe that belonged to my dad and my grandfather. And it fascinated me. There was always work to be done at the farm: roofs to be mended and fences to be fixed and cattle to be tagged and branded and fed. It informed so much of my early memory and imagination. It was something special—this whole other universe that existed outside of my life. And now my parents have since moved back to Tennessee and they have some horses and some property there. So again, it’s this place I go back to that still has these elements that are so different from where I’m living in New York.

RO: Do you think there’s something about it being in your memory that alters it?

CM: I think it’s like memory and imagination being conflated somehow. I think it’s the same with taxidermy. There’s a lot of taxidermy in the book. And in fact, we had this one deer head hanging in our living room for a long time. It was a deer that my dad had shot, and I was always appalled by it. I didn’t understand it. Why was it inside the house? Why did it have eyes? I remember being really young and looking up at it, and I remember this panic but also intrigue. How did this come to be here like this? And sometimes they’d take it down to dust it and I’d just pet it and be like, “Is it creature? Is it ornament? What is this thing!?”

It’s a reminder, maybe, of some history that I visit but don’t completely enter. Because I don’t hunt like my dad and my uncles and my brother. I’m a vegetarian in fact. But it’s something that’s always been present in my life. There was always talk of camo and bird dogs and guns. It wasn’t like those things were foreign objects. They were always in the mix somehow. And that’s so foreign to my life now that I think I go back there in my memory and I try to pull it up somehow and understand it.

RO: I remember being up at your parent’s last year and seeing all these things and thinking, oh, now I see where these things are coming from. In particular, I remember the horsehair birds nests.

CM: They’re so cool. They’re heartbreaking. Those were in a poem.

RO: Do they use them?

CM: Who? The horses? The horses can’t do a thing with them! The birds, yeah, they use them.

RO: If your book was sold with one prop or had a kind of crackerjack box surprise, what would it be?

CM: It would either have to be a rusty nail, a shotgun shell, a heron feather, or an owl feather. Or a hoof. Some sort of boney, animal part. This is not being packaged with food, right?

RO: I might have something here.

[RO reaches into drawer, pulls out a plastic bag]

[actor’s pre-enactment of McHugh’s horrified scream]

CM: Oh what is it? OH MY GOD, THAT’S NOT . . . They’re not human!?

RO: Yeah. They are.

CM: So apparently what we have here in Rob’s drawer is a human jawbone. A fragment, complete with three intact human teeth.

RO: Can you put it away? It scares me too much.

Describe your ideal reader.

CM: My ideal reader is wearing boots, some sort of work boot. They may or may not be wearing some sort of bone earing. Not human bones.

RO: Are you just describing yourself?

CM: They have a dark streak. They’re open to whatever language is giving them.

RO: This is your first book and somewhere someone you don’t know is reading it, has read it, or is going to read it. And that must feel pretty crazy. Larissa Szporluk has this line in Dark Sky Question: “the girl somewhere,/ who reads you,/ whose skin has memorized your life./ Nothing stops her fingers;/ they swim with you at night.” Talk about the experience of, after all this time, having readers.

CM: I like that you just implied I had no readers for 10-plus years. I was just writing in my dungeon at home.

RO: Well pretty much. But you know what I mean. These 10-plus years are now bound and someone’s going to crack it open.

CM: Yeah, I think that it’s very strange to have people reading it that I don’t know. On one hand it’s strange to have people reading it that know me well but who don’t know my poetry. But then there’s that other thing where people I don’t know are reading my book and commenting on it online. Which is just a whole new sort of bizarre thing because they’ll say things like, “In this poem where this is happening.” And I’m thinking, “That’s happening in that poem? I had no idea.” I’m learning a lot by reading what other people have to say and the conclusions they draw from reading my work.

RO: Is it kind of exciting?

CM: Yeah. It’s exciting. It’s a little scary too because, like, say it to my face, sucker!

Again there’s vulnerability in it. I have no control anymore. Which is somehow freeing, right. It’s like, well, it’s out there, and there’s nothing I can do.

RO: If all of civilization nearly died out, and your book was the only text to survive, how would you imagine a new people or religion that developed believing your book was a holy text? Which it is.

CM: They’re an agrarian people. They’re living off the land. I wouldn’t call them primitive, but they’re hunting and fishing.

RO: They’re aggressive. I mean, they know what they want.

CM: They have sharp tools.

RO: And sharp tongues.

CM: They’re shooting straight from the hip.

RO: Saying things like, “Plainclothes, help me to my things.” I like these people.

CM: Yeah, they’re wearing hats. They’re a little sinister. They give you the sidewinder, if you’re not careful. They’re skeptical. These are a skeptical people but they’re hard working. They’re industrious.

RO: They sound like Lutherans.

Riddle me this: Your book has to marry another book. Which does it marry?

CM: There are two books I can think of. I think it marries The Youngest Butcher in Illinois or Ritual and Bit. They’d both be really good companions.

RO: It can marry both of them.

CM: Is this a polygamy thing? Then yes, those two.

RO: In preparing for this interview, I asked my 7-year-old niece to help me brainstorm some questions. She had a lot of ideas, and I’d like to end the interview with one of her questions because I think it really implicates your readers in the writing of the book.

[Ostrom’s niece pulls no punches in her questions for McHugh]

CM: Ok.

RO: So, after the dedication to “Rob,” would it be appropriate for people to write “Ostrom”?

CM: The book is actually dedicated to my husband Rob. I’m sorry for the confusion.

RO: That’s weird because it doesn’t say that.

CM: I’m sorry.

RO: So yes?




Carey McHugh’s poems have appeared in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and Tin House, among others. Her chapbook, Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds &c., was selected by Rae Armantrout for the Poetry Society of America’s 2008 New York Chapbook Fellowship. Her first collection American Gramophone (Augury Books) was released in October. She lives and works in Manhattan.

Robert Ostrom is the author of The Youngest Butcher in Illinois (YesYes Books 2012). His chapbook, Cross the Bridge Quietly, is forthcoming from Phantom Books, and Saturnalia is publishing his second book, Ritual and Bit. He lives in Queens and teaches at New York City College of Technology and Columbia University.

Lily Kaye is a second grader who lives in Western New York. She is currently working on a novel, Diary of Coco the Magic Unicorn.