with Ethan McGuire:
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Ethan: I started trying to write little stories and essays as soon as I could spell, but I did not take my writing seriously until high school. Up to that point, I would write some things down but keep very little. Mostly, I would just make up stories while doing chores on my parents’ hobby farm, or I would dream about
making a living as an outdoors writer for Field & Stream when I grew up, or I would sit at a picnic bench in front of a PVC pipe—pretending the pipe was a microphone—and act like I was reading some radio commentary I had composed.
I never actually took my own writing seriously until the tenth grade, when an English teacher, Dr. Seibert, handed me a writing assignment. I don’t remember the details of that assignment, but I do remember exactly the poem it worked out of me. Something clicked in me then, and I knew, from that moment, I simply had to become a writer.
My first big influence was definitely Louis L’Amour. I consumed his books as a kid. I loved his writing style; loved all the real, lived details he injected into his prose; loved the way he described his
characters’ surroundings—especially the American West—as if the Earth itself was poetry, both magical and mean. I was influenced by various outdoors writers, as I mentioned, in the tradition of Ernest
Hemmingway, because I wanted to brave the harsh elements of the more primitive world and tell people about my adventures. Then, I discovered Milton, reading Paradise Lost in high school. Milton put
me on the path to writing poetry. I had written poetry for sure, but Milton showed me poetry could give me the same feelings of awe and amazement that music did.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Ethan: When it comes to writing non-fiction, I have a hard time knowing my biggest influences. I love the movie
reviews of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael; the historical writing of Stephen Ambrose, Bruce Catton, and Shelby Foote; and the lay theology writing of C.S. Lewis. I love so many others too. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I like too much art!
When it comes to poetry, I can speak better. Probably because I have been focusing most of my recent writing efforts on poetry. I skip fiction because I haven’t written much of it lately.
At the moment, if I were to call myself a disciple of any particular writer, I would single out the poet Dana Gioia. Gioia constantly impresses me with the way he works in both formal and free verse, as well as essays and criticism. One of my personal writing goals is to bring together both old and new poetic styles, which Gioia does. I also appreciate that he works in the literary world without ever being
condescending toward working class readers, toward any non-literary readers, and I appreciate how he brings our attention to the primitive, oral, memorized tradition of poetry. Just consider his
accomplishments as NEA chairman, the “Poetry Out Loud” program, and his “Can Poetry Matter?” essay.
Also, I must mention, I probably receive the most artistic inspiration from music, especially from such artists as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell. Their lyrics coupled with their music give me chills! They speak directly to the human experience, like Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon . . . the list goes on. I feel Cohen’s “tower of song” behind me as I write for sure, and, of course, there is always the struggle to hew out one’s own style and voice.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing?
Ethan: I grew up as a hillbilly, really, in the Missouri Ozarks, and I have enjoyed the art of storytelling ever since,well, from before I can remember. My family, on my father’s side, is extremely proud of our Irish heritage, and they have always loved that Irish people have a great reputation as storytellers. As a little
kid at family or church get-togethers, I would sit down and soak up all those stories. Unfortunately, I was never the best at memorization or the oral storytelling tradition, but what I did memorize was the
feelings I experienced listening to the grown-ups tell tales. It was exciting to step into a story in its telling, to imagine along with a speaker.
At about eight years old, I began playing music with my family and friends, and we did that just about every day. Bluegrass, folk, Gospel. In living rooms with huge pots of coffee, on front porches with jugs of sweet tea, at backwoods church “singings,” at outdoor festivals in the heat of the sun, this hill music was forever present in my life, and it gave me a love for poetry.
My parents instilled in me a love for reading too, and I read voraciously as a child, anything I could get my hands on. When the love for storytelling and reading met in me with the act of creating music, I began to want to write my own stories as well.
This hillbilly influence we can call it, that is definitely present in my writing. In the rhythms, the subjects, the word choices, even in my outlook on life. The mountains, the folk music, the hill people’s
superstitions, the fire-and-brimstone preachers, my grandparents telling me about their Great Depression childhoods . . . I find these thumbprints in my writing all the time.
Q4: Have any travels away from home influence your work?
Ethan: Moving away from my home in the Ozarks definitely influenced me in that I gained a wider perspective
of the world. Even though most people travel around the country, and even though many people travel around the world, the majority live most their lives where they grew up. Now, this is not necessarily a problem, if people have grown up in a community and stay within that community to thrive, and to help others and the environment around them thrive. As Wendell Berry teaches us, we all need to find
communities and contribute to them, which we cannot do if we are jumping ship every few years.
However, living, even temporarily, in a different environment among different people reminds one of how great the wide world is.
Now, currently I have chosen to live on the Emerald Coast, in Florida near the Gulf of Mexico. Living near the sea has enriched my soul. We forget how powerful a force water is on our planet, and constantly being near a gigantic body of water makes you confront that fact, which I try to do on a regular basis.
Countless poets have described the sea, but it never ceases to amaze me. It is such a naturally poetic force, the majesty, the repetition of the waves, the formed formlessness, the wildness tamed in some
way that we hardly even understand.
I have always traveled around the U.S. quite a bit too, although I still need to visit other countries. That I haven’t left America yet is a major weak spot for me. But my parents always traveled, and my wife and I do too, so that gives my writing a sort of restlessness. I certainly am forever wrestling with conflicting desires of individuality and community, which does pop up in my work.
Q5: Any pivotal moments when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Ethan: Music first seduced me as a kid in church, a country church where anyone who wanted to play music was welcome to join in, especially during evening services or monthly “singings.” I would play around with a ruler or something, pretending to pluck an instrument. My father played mandolin, so around eight I decided, “Hey, I want to play the mandolin too!” After learning mandolin, then came guitar, bass, a little singing, helping arrange, writing my own songs. It all happened gradually, but I guess I’ve always
Of course, my love for music smoothly transitioned into a love for poetry, especially since I have always enjoyed analyzing lyrics and the way they work with the music around them. That first assignment from Dr. Seibert—where I realized I had to be a writer, if not by profession, by passion—I turned in a poem for that assignment, called “The Warriors.” Actually, an extremely revised version of that poem, called “The Woodsman,” may surface soon from me, so I won’t say much more. My first published piece of writing was a poem too, called “Snow,” with which I won a poetry/picture contest, when I was in tenth grade, a few months after having written “The Warriors.”
So, at that point, I was off to the races, reading anything I could like I had done for years but now with even more purpose, and writing in any genre I could imagine. Paradise Lost, though, as I said, that is the
first time poetry truly awed and amazed me, the way Milton employs blank verse there along with a fantastic vocabulary and imagination in his wonderful retelling of Creation and the Fall of Man. Lines like
this still give me chills:
. . . Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquished, rolling in the firey gulf,
Confounded though immortal. . .
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Ethan: I love the Emerald Coast’s white-sand beaches and warm water. The sunsets we have down here on the
Emerald Coast are breathtaking, all orange fire and navy and lavender. It never gets old. I enjoy kayaking with my wife, taking our young chocolate Labrador out, hiking, being with friends, visiting restaurants, traveling, watching movies, reading, playing and listening to music. Honestly, I probably like too many
things! I need to be more judicious. I like to stay busy but am trying to learn that a certain amount of boredom actually has some value. I need it for my mental health!
Q7: Do you have any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
Ethan: Sure! I would definitely encourage anyone interested in my work to visit my website TheFlummoxed.com where I post my writer’s journey, and I post other stuff too, usually creative writing,
like new poems, essays, etc. that I do not want to submit elsewhere for various reasons. You can follow me on Twitter as well, at @AHeavyMetalPen, where I am most active these days. In the last five months, you here at Fevers of the Mind have published seven poems of mine of which I am quite proud, and I am honored that you have included me in the writing community you are building. Plus, I am currently working on my first poetry collection, which, of course, I hope someone will publish! I appreciate self- publishing, but for one, I am not good at design, not much good at all, and for two, I desire to have some kind of writer/editor collaboration.
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
Ethan: For this question, I will give you something from one of my favorite poems that I have written and something from one of my favorite songs.
First, my own work. Here is a little more than one line, rather a stanza, the small chunk of my writing that I have thought about most the last several months. This is one of my favorite stanzas from my poem “Salt,” which appeared in Fevers of the Mind on February 23rd, in your “Avalanches in Poetry” series:
My upward way is at once my downward.
The downward path, it rises up likewise.
God sees all time present for forever.
I am not God; the night still spreads outside.
For some reason, that stanza regularly spins on repeat in my head.
For a quote from one of my favorite songs, here is my favorite part from the song which most heavily influenced my poem “Salt,” Leonard Cohen’s “The Future,” the bridge of that song:
Things are going to slide,
Slide in all directions.
Won’t be nothing,
Won’t be nothing,
You can measure anymore.
The blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold,
And it’s overturned
The order of the soul.
I think about Cohen’s “The Future” a lot these days, right alongside Krzysztof Kieślowski’s excellent film series The Three Colors Trilogy. Both Cohen’s album The Future and Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy
were released in the same period, the early 1990s, a time of great change and unrest. The Berlin wall was coming down, the European Union was coming up, a changing of the guards was occurring all over the world. Both Cohen and Kieślowski were at once optimistic and pessimistic about these changes. Our world is shaking up again, so I run to the wisdom of those who have gone before us.
Q9: Who has helped you most with with writing?
Ethan: First and foremost, I must mention my parents, siblings, and wife, who have given me invaluable encouragement in all my creative pursuits. My mother encouraged me to read. My father led me to
think critically about all art. My siblings supported me with kind words and collaboration, especially in music.
My wife urges me to pursue creative projects, and she reads and critiques my work; any time I get stuck, she nudges me in a better direction. For example, oftentimes I will be working on a poem, essay, etc., and she will give me some advice completely against current conventions. I will usually take her advice,
but not quite understand it, although I can see that her advice is good. Then, later, I will hear some writer most special to me give the same advice in a lecture or something, and I always think, “Dang!
Maybe my wife should be the writer!”
After my family, there are a few people who jump into my mind.
Andrea Walker, as the editor of the West Florida Literary Federation’s The Legend, published my first poem when I came out of a creative writing publishing hiatus. In the September 2019 issue of The
Legend, Andrea published my poem “Newlywed Song,” which kicked off my transition from primarily publishing non-fiction—especially music and film criticism—to primarily publishing creative writing. The
last thing I had had published of that nature was my contest winner, “Snow,” back in 2009. Andrea went on to publish other pieces from me in The Legend and Life in the Time of Corona, and she is involved in another project of which I will be a part soon. She has always had kind words for my work.
Two other women in the West Florida Literary Federation had a motivating influence on me also, Juliet DeMarko and Debra Stogner. I was in a biweekly poetry workshop with Juliet and Debra, among others, for a little while, and they helped lead me back to the poetry road. In that same vein, I am a member of an online writing community called “The Poetry Pub,” led by Jen and Chris Yokel who have helped me gain confidence in my writing, along with other members like Chris Wheeler, Janna Barber, Shigé Clark,
and Una Kavanagh. Talking about writing communities—and I know “community” is a word I have used a lot; repeating words is a tendency of mine, for good and for bad; let’s call it poetry—I am privileged to be part of the ones built by David O’Nan here at Fevers of the Mind and Brenda Stephens at The Dark Sire.
Finally, I would be remiss if I went without mentioning my friend David Malone, with whom I returned to writing in the first place with our website “E.D. – Music, Movies, Etc.” We are not very active on “E.D.” (yes, the name is a joke), but it is still up. Writing there gave me the courage to share my work with the public.