2006-04-06 / Front Page
Writing poetry as a process of discovery
Poet will read from 'The Dancing Bear' April 18 at Brookdale
BY KATHY HALL
McCullough's first book of poetry, "The Dancing Bear," was published by Open Book Press in February, and she has two more thematic collections ready for publication.
"I'm a proponent of 'I write to discover what I know,' " she explained. "Each [book ] deals with one obsession. I write a lot more poetry than what goes into the book. It's almost as though a poem gets written and it raises a new question in my mind 'til I figure out what I feel and think about the issue."
The title poem in "The Dancing Bear" is a "meditation" to [Federico Garcia] Lorca's duende, which she defines as the daemon or force in writers and artists that both inspires and torments them.
"In the poem I talk about the daemon as the dancing bear, something frivolous but with a dark side," she said. "A dancing bear is a source of delight to us, but training the bear was very dangerous and painful to the bear."
The metaphor seemed appropriate for a book that she describes as containing "many dark poems, but I'm told they have a playful edge."
McCullough has a second book accepted for publication that explores what men want - from a woman's perspective.
"I have three sons and was raised with only brothers," she said. "I have some things to say about men's victimization, about a patriarchal society, but there are also a lot of love poems about men in this collection."
She has also assembled a third "more experimental" collection titled "Mirror Neurons" that deals with aesthetics, intellect, beauty and aging.
McCullough, who holds an MFA in writing and literature from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., began writing poetry and fiction in her teens. She attributes her interest in the craft to her mother, who read to her from the "Best Loved Poets of the American People" and "The Golden Treasury of Children's Poetry" when she was a small child.
McCullough has also published a collection of short stories and is working on a novel. Although she was already a published fiction writer, obtaining a poetry book contract took time.
"Publishing poetry is very difficult," she explained. "The Number 1 thing you have to do is read and know the journals, get to know the publishers and see what they are publishing."
According to McCullough, poetry magazines and journals serve as a "vetting process."
"You have to get 15 to 20 poems published in journals before you can get a book," she said.
McCullough's poetry has appeared in a number of literary magazines and journals, including "Nimrod," "Hotel Amerika," "Gulf Coast," "Nightsun," "Iron Horse Quarterly," "Boulevard," "The God Particle," "Poetry East," "Confluence," "Exquisite Corpse," "Word Riot," "Tarpaulin Sky" and others.
McCullough also stressed the value of networking, noting, "A lot of poetry books get published through contacts through small publishers and university presses."
McCullough's writer's voice is shaped by a combination of her poetry and narrative skills.
"My education in the craft of fiction certainly shows up in my poetry, and my knowledge of poetry definitely affects my fiction in ways I couldn't predict," she said. "I'm less of a realist than I was, less interested in the mimesis [trying to re-create reality] and more on metaphor."
In addition to her creative work, McCullough enjoys teaching writing, research and literature courses at Brookdale Community College, where she is an assistant professor of English.
"I love [teaching] freshmen," she said. "They are at a point in life when they are discovering who they are and what they are going to be. I want to challenge them to think more critically.
"Writing classes at their best ask students to be thinkers. That's the focus of Brookdale's English department," she added.
McCullough chairs the Creative Writing Committee and the Visiting Writers Series, which brings both emerging and acclaimed writers to the Brookdale campus. She also serves as faculty adviser to the English Club and makes sure the students not only hear the writers but also spend some time getting to know them.
"I always arrange for a dinner where students and some faculty get an opportunity to talk to the writers, to learn about the craft of writing and the vocation," she said. "That's my favorite part, having the students talk to the writers."
One of McCullough's current obsessions combines poetry and physiology. In a paper titled "In Defense of Shelley: the New Science of Mirror Neurons and Its Implications for a Theory of Poetics" she presented at the Mid-American Review's 2005 Winter Wheat Festival of Writing in Bowling Green, Ohio, she explored the relationship between mirror neurons and the idea of the objective correlative in poetry.
Discovered in the 1990s, mirror neurons are brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action but also when a person observes the same action performed by another. Mirror neurons allow a person to feel another person's emotions, and scientists speculate that they are the basis for compassion and empathy.
The poet T.S. Eliot borrowed the idea of objective correlative from the visual arts as a way of explaining why certain elements in poems cause an emotional response in the reader.
"I've coined the term 'mirror neuron effect' to describe what happens when people respond to art with that sense of transcendence ," McCullough explained. "For poetry audiences we all know what that is; somebody reads a poem and everybody goes 'Ahhh.'
"I'm taking Eliot's observation a step further in saying the reason the objective correlative does this may be explainable vis-a-vis the discovery of mirror neurons."
As a writing teacher, McCullough wants to explore the craft techniques that enable poets to achieve that effect.
"The best contemporary poems try to explore the initial metaphor and then replace it with a new one," she explained. "It makes us feel we know something larger than we knew when we entered that poem."
McCullough will be reading from "The Dancing Bear" at 7 p.m. on April 18 at Brookdale's Warner Student Life Center in Navesink Room I.
She will also participate in a panel discussion titled "From Inspiration to Finished Poem: Craft and Technique in Poetry" as part of Brookdale's upcoming Spring Writers Conference May 5 to 7.
The Brookdale Spring Writers Conference is open to the public.
"We are particularly hoping to reach out to high school and community members as well as our own students," McCullough said.
The conference will include readings by Nebula Award winner Jeff Ford and National Book Award winner and New Jersey's first Poet Laureate Gerald Stern. There is a $170 registration fee for the conference, but evening readings are free and open to the public.
Information on the conference can be found at http://writersconference.brookdalecc.edu.