Washington Writers' Publishing HouseWashington Writers' Publishing House

Catherine Harnett Shaw

Interview with Catherine Harnett Shaw

Q: How and when did you find out that your book was being published?

I can’t remember exactly where I was when I learned that Evidence was selected by Henry Taylor, but wherever I was, it was very exciting. Still Life was picked in 1983 and I remember getting a phone call in my apartment. I was ecstatic and called my best friend right away.

Q: What was it like seeing your book in print for the first time?

It’s like seeing your baby born. It’s very hard to believe that this is my work. Also realizing that it’s too late to change my mind now. It’s out there for better or worse.

Q: What kind of poet/ fiction writer do you see yourself as? Is there a particular genre or subject matter you find yourself revisiting often?

For as long as I can remember, I have been a poet. But I am now branching out into short stories and personal essays. I always come back to poetry, though. There are certain things that must be distilled into a poem—nothing else will do.

Q: When did you first realize that you were a writer? Can you pinpoint a specific time in your life, or did you always know that you wanted to write?

I remember exactly where and when I knew I was a writer: sixth grade, in the armchair in our living room. I was working on an assignment for school, and I wrote a short piece about shopping for Christmas presents. I re-read it and thought it was spectacular. I remember the high I got from writing—that was the first time.

Q: Can you discuss your writing practice? Are there particular places or times of day that you find most conducive to writing?

Until recently, I worked full-time and squeezed writing in whenever I could. That worked because my style is to get a germ of an idea and let it percolate until it’s time to sit down. Then the poem usually comes, close to fully formed. Writing short stories is different; it takes longer than writing a poem, though the process of incubation is similar. Now that I am retired, I am trying to write something every day. That’s the advice that other writers always give. But I am not inclined to sit down at a desk from 5 a.m. until 10 a.m. and write. That’s not my method, and it is impractical for me since I have a daughter at home. Actually, night seems to be a very conducive time for me, after things have settled down.

Q: What is it about your writing style that makes you unique?

My cadence, restraint and voice. I am able to take on different personae in my poetry and get inside their heads. My prose has a cadence just as the poetry does. There again, I am trying to create a universe in a very short space and it’s necessary to quickly establish a unique voice.

Q: What do you think the WWPH has done for the Washington literary scene?

WWPH has generously supported and published high quality poets and writers for a long time. I wish it was better known and got more exposure and credit for its work.

Q: How involved are you in the DC literary scene now?

I haven’t done many readings lately and I don’t belong to any high-profile group in D.C. For years, I have been in a workshop with Elaine Magarell and Barbara Goldberg. We meet and share work with each other. Each of us has published books, but we are always reaching higher. Now that I have more free time, I intend to get more involved in the writing community.

Q: What people have most inspired your work? Why?

There are a number of teachers throughout my life who encouraged me. My writing group and friends have helped me improve and believe in my work. Rick Peabody was very kind to me in the beginning and supported my work by publishing it in Gargoyle. Those people gave me confidence and in that sense, they inspired me.

But in truth, it’s really life that inspires me—the good and the bad aspects of life make it impossible for me not to write.

Q: What is your favorite book?


My favorite book is Light Years by James Salter. I first read it in the 1970′s and re-read it every few years. The language is poetic and simple, and the characters interest me greatly. The book somehow gives the reader a sumptuous meal in its pages.

Q: Who are your favorite authors and why?

I am embarrassed to say that I am not as avid a reader as I would like to be. My favorite poets are T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Yeats. I am drawn to the British and Celtic sensibilities for some reason, and the language. I also like Stephen Dobyns because he is able to write with an absurdist tone and poetic words. My favorite prose writers are Updike and Salter. Both of them invite me into specific lives.

Q: What is the best writing advice you ever received and from who?

I think it was my college English professor, Leo Cooley who told us to write about what we know. Since we are learning things every day, this advice seems to still be fresh.

Q: What is the strangest job you ever had?

When I was in college I got financial aid and had many, many jobs. The weirdest of these was working with an old woman in a very hot room feeding information into a big machine called the Addressograph. To this day I have no idea what the machine did. I just remember vowing that I would always have a window wherever I ended up working. And then there was Capitol Hill, but that’s a whole other story.

Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world to write, where would you go? Why?

I always fantasize about going to Ireland for several months, renting a small house in the countryside. It is very green, but bleak at the same time. The house needs warming and I burn peat in the fireplace. I don’t go any further than that. All I know is that I probably be writing with a pen and not a laptop.

Q: What is your favorite DC: restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore?

There are so many faux places I go now in the suburbs. Nothing compares to Afterwords in Dupont circle. When I was young and living in the city, I would go there for coffee and the atmosphere. I liked its narrow aisles and the café and music mingled with the smell of books.

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