Sharon Ann McCartney, poet, instructor, and editor, was born on 3 September 1959 in Mesa, Arizona. Her father, Robert Dale McCartney, was an engineer and her mother, Gladys Evelyn (Brockway) McCartney, was a homemaker. McCartney grew up in San Diego, California, where she attended La Jolla Country Day School for her middle and high school education. While there, her English teacher was poet B.H. Boston, who she credits with introducing her to the art of poetry and encouraging her to pursue higher education at the University of Iowa. McCartney attended Pomona College, where she completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1981; she then pursued a master’s degree at the University of Iowa, which she finished in 1983. During her time at the University of Iowa, she studied with and befriended several other poets such as Larry Levis, Marvin Bell, and Stanley Plumley. McCartney credits those friends with providing considerable inspiration for her work. McCartney later received a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Victoria in 1994. She married Mark Jarman, a fiction writer, in 1984. They have three sons (Personal interview).
Of the numerous places that McCartney has lived in the United States and Canada – including San Diego, Iowa City, Seattle, Calgary, Victoria, Fredericton, and Waterloo – she highlights San Diego and Fredericton as especially important to her poetry. Of San Diego, McCartney says, “It remains my home. I wish I could get the smell of the Pacific Ocean into a poem. And exhaust fumes. That’s what I think about when I think about California, salt and exhaust” (Personal interview). McCartney wrote five books of poetry within sixteen years while living in Fredericton, which certainly corroborates her sense of New Brunswick as a suitable environment for creativity. Two of the books published here – Karenin Sings the Blues (2003) and For and Against (2010) – were highly lauded by reviewers.
McCartney’s other books of poetry include Under the Abdominal Wall (1999), The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2007), Hard Ass (2013), and Metanoia (2016). McCartney’s poems “Katahdin” and “Deadlift” were published in the anthology The Best Canadian Poetry in English for the years 2012 and 2013, a significant recognition of her talent. Several of her other poems have been included in anthologies, and she has also published widely in leading literary magazines such as The Malahat Review and Queen’s Quarterly.
In addition to the people already mentioned as being influential, McCartney was also encouraged by Robert Mezey, whom she met at Pomona College (Personal interview). At a time when she was receiving rejection letters from publishers and magazines, Mezey encouraged her to continue to write, and especially to write what she wanted to in the manner she wanted to, without giving credence to those who criticized her message or her style. Similar encouragement came from Anne Carson's poem “The Glass Essay” and Claudia Rankine's book Citizen: An American Lyric. All three offered the same advice: “just say it and screw what other editors and poets think” (Personal interview).
Sharon McCartney’s poetry has been generally well received by critics. In a review of The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Meghan Nieman says, “What we have here is something very particular which captures the drama of the human heart in a powerful, erotic, sometimes funny, and often sad way. That is hard to do well, and McCartney does it extremely well” (158). In a review of Under the Abdominal Wall, Ken Sparling is equally complimentary, writing that “These poems are like giant haiku, deceptively simple, the last line always a bomb falling out of nowhere. These poems gripped me in the way a good novel might” (75).
McCartney’s positive reception is also evident in the number of awards for which her poetry has been nominated and shortlisted. The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder won the Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry in 2008. The poem “Decaf” took second place in Prairie Fire’s Bliss Carman Poetry Competition in 2005, and was a finalist in Arc’s Poem of the Year Contest in 2004. “My Brother, Alone” won Queen Street Quarterly’s annual poetry contest in 2001. In all, thirty of McCartney’s works have been shortlisted or nominated for various awards and prizes.
A favourite style that she utilizes is to write from the point of view of characters and objects that, in the works of others, were not afforded the chance to speak. Works that McCartney has drawn on include Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, and many of Jane Austen’s novels. The tone that McCartney employs in those instances often differs quite radically from the source material; for example, the poems in The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder offer a more jaded and realistic portrayal of characters and situations than is present in the idyllic Little House on the Prairie books. In so doing, McCartney asserts her own interest in the complex interplay among the myriad of human emotions, emotions that even touch inanimate things. Her work frequently invokes feelings of disappointment, bitterness, regret, desire, and humour. These varying emotions are evident in the following lines from the poem “Snow White”:
Doesn’t take long to realize I’m nothing to the prince,
Gagging at his grim banquet table while he blathers
Breathless, a hush but penetrating looks. Joy on joy –
Of tenderness, an intensity I had not expected. Desire
In their stunted bones […]. (For and Against 42)
The myriad of emotions packed into this poem, and expressed through simple yet often-startling language, allows the reader to see past the happy ending of the original fairy tale and sympathize with a Snow White who is rendered more human and complex.
McCartney's work also asserts the dominion of the mind, that dominion triumphing over the inadequacies of the body. This theme is clearly evident in the following excerpt from the poem “Laska, Levin’s Hunting Dog, on the Loss of her Right Foreleg”:
I thought that dogs couldn’t change the way
people do, that I would always be what
I ever was, fluted heart, a tail for balance
on the icy banks, unerring nose –
I was proud of that – but now I see
that each life encompasses a hundred
small deaths, defeats, metamorphoses. (Karenin Sings the Blues 50)
Though the poem is from the perspective of a dog that has lost one of its legs, the wider meaning, which also resonates in much of her work, is that people are more than the sum of their parts. As another line in the same poem makes clear, “Perhaps human love transcends imperfection, / damage, decay” (50). A larger faith is therefore always in evidence.
McCartney’s importance to New Brunswick and Canadian poetry has also been editorial. She has been a poetry editor for The Fiddlehead and for local publishers. In those roles she assessed and nurtured the talent of many New Brunswick and Atlantic Canadian poets. Though she was a late arrival to New Brunswick, her work found a home in a province where natural language has always trumped artifice and showy technique.
Cassie MacPhail, Fall 2016
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Lahey, Anita, Sharon McCartney, and Kerry Ryan. “Poets on the Mat: Fighting for Muscle and Metaphor.” New Quarterly: Canadian Writers & Writing 127 (2013): 82-91.
McCartney, Sharon. “After the Chuck Jones Tribute on Teletoon.” Malahat Review 140 (2002): 10.
---. Against. Victoria, BC: Frog Hollow Press, 2007.
---. For and Against. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2010.
---. Hard Ass. Windsor, ON: Palimpsest Press, 2013.
---. Karenin Sings the Blues. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2003.
---. The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Madeira Park, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2007.
---. Metanoia. Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2016.
---. Personal interview. 18 Oct. 2016.
---. Switchgrass Stills. Orono, ON: littlefishcartpress, 2006.
---. Under the Abdominal Wall. Vancouver, BC: Anvil Press, 1999.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Cottrell, Barbara. “Four Poets of the Apocalypse: From Anna Karenina to Argentina to the Local Barber Shop to Jesus in Cape Breton, Four Atlantic Poets Take us Inside Their Own Stories.” Atlantic Books Today 42 (2003): 24-5.
Dawson, Joanna. Rev. of The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Sharon McCartney. Western American Literature 44.3 (2009): 292-3
Martindale, Sheila. “McCartney, Sharon. Karenin Sings the Blues.” Rev. of Karenin Sings the Blues, by Sharon McCartney. Canadian Book Review Annual (2004): 240.
Niemen, Meghan. Rev. of The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Sharon McCartney. The Dalhousie Review 88.1 (2008): 157-8.
Pierson, Ruth Roach. “Against.” Rev. of Against, by Sharon McCartney. Fiddlehead 241 (2009): 117-20.
Prozesky, Andreae. “The Taste of Granite.” Rev. of Against and The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Sharon McCartney. Books In Canada 36.9 (2007): 28-9.
Rhenisch, Harold. “Prose Maps of the New Freedom.” Arc Poetry Magazine 67 (2012): 110-4.
Sparling, Ken. Rev. of Under the Abdominal Wall, by Sharon McCartney. Broken Pencil 13 (2000): 75-6.
Stonehouse, Cathy. “Canadian Poets in the Wake of Plath.” Event 33.1 (2004): 125-30.