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This interview is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Joyelle McSweeney & Olivia McCannon 'in conversation'
Aliens and Ancestors
Olivia McCannon
In ‘The ‘Future’ of ‘Poetry’’, an essay published after the birth of her first daughter, Joyelle McSweeney writes that becoming a mother gave her ‘a vision of the present tense in which every moment has its opening on Death’. Far from doomy, this realization led to a sped-up, anachronistic, expanded model of both time and literature where every vista has a sightline on everything else, lit up with both exuberance and dismay.

McSweeney’s paradoxical vision of literature lit her way through several books in various genres, including a book of ecopoetics, The Necropastoral, which expands on this idea through discussion of poets from Wilfred Owen to Aimé Césaire. But this vision of a link between birth, death, and poetry, was also abruptly and shockingly fulfilled in 2017 with the birth and sudden death of McSweeney’s third daughter, Arachne.

Toxicon & Arachne (Corsair, 2021), published in the aftermath of this catastrophe, is McSweeney’s fourth book of poems and is her first to appear in the UK. She has called it ‘two books that answer each other’: the first, obsessed with mutation, contamination, and permutation, was written in the years and months leading up to Arachne’s birth; the second, written after her brief life and death, rewrites the first as prophecy. In Toxicon & Arachne, grief and damage are simultaneously present in the cellular, collective, and cosmic, in the personal, political, and planetary.

Toxicon sees poetry breaking out of Plato’s Pharmakon, more poison than cure, verse as virus, Apollo as god of both poetry ...


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