THE POWER OF POETRY

POWER OF POETRY #122: CATHRYN McCARTHY

With writing, I go through phases. Before the pandemic began, I’d believed I was on a roll, disgorging schlocky fiction that messed about at the boundaries of my sexuality, while challenging little. I was selling books; I was being read. I whined pathetically to my partner that I still possessed the right to call myself a writer, and I had fantastic excuses for saying nothing of any consequence. After all, the last of the small queer fiction presses I’d worked with was eviscerated by the ravenous hog of Amazon last year. To even try and publish anything new would be to enter into a war of cyberspace algorithms that the individual writer or indie publisher would never win.

Being an introvert, I coped okay with lockdown, at least superficially. It still left me dissecting my social anxiety and self-doubt. My terror at the prospect of joining the rest of my street for 11 o’clock socially distanced coffee had me beating myself up for days. I all but embraced a flare-up of my fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, which diminished my productivity. Another excuse. So many excuses.

I stopped writing, turned off the voice I’d ceased believing in, and I read—news, fiction, history, essays, poetry. So much poetry, so many indie voices fighting, whispering and shouting in the face of dominant political, corporate and nationalistic discourses more dangerous than any we’ve known in our lifetimes, all compounded with an environmental apocalypse. Black Lives Matters brought more stark issues to my attention. While I sought out outstanding voices that I should’ve read before—Vanessa Kisuule comes immediately to mind—mine collapsed further in on itself. What could I add? What right did I, a moribund white fiction writer, have to say anything anyhow?

Devoid of any clear intent, I restarted writing poems. I have read and written poetry all my life, despite having previously published it only once before, in 2014. Forty-eight hours later, I had a purpose—to read, listen, learn, and write from a place of modesty and personal truth that I’d long since deserted. Poetry distils the voice to its very essence; if you have nothing to say, poetry betrays that instantly. In 2020, for a writer to say nothing simply isn’t good enough. If words are a weapon, poetry can be the sharpened point, and one of the fiercest tools an individual can turn to as they struggle with social injustice, fractured identities, and mental and physical health.

Of course, poetry doesn’t have to be confrontational or public. It can be cathartic and therapeutic, for an audience of one, and that is equally valid. Writers, and artists in general, are often cruel to themselves and their own harshest detractors. Poetry, including the beautiful lines of James McInerney, reminded me of the importance of kindness, to myself and others, and helped me regain confidence. Poetry also afforded me the freedom to write without pressuring myself to publish. I thus discovered that I did still have something to say, notably regarding my national identity and its shameful colonial underpinnings, and a sexuality that, despite years of fictionalizing, I still haven’t fully explored or embraced.

So maybe it is time I joined the socially-distanced coffee morning on the global street and regained my voice. For me, poetry has been the platform of renewal, but all writing and thoughtful verbal expression matter. Because whether you mumble to yourself or shout to the entire world, there has never been a more important and pivotal moment to speak than at the present.


In her many lives and pen-names, cathryn mccarthy has written queer romantic fiction and a PhD thesis (UCL) exploring the colonial underpinnings of British identities in the nineteenth century. She has worked for over a decade in heritage, arts and theatre.

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