Looking at Tacoma’s Literary Scene through the Lens of Local Writer Nicole McCarthy

Nicole McCarthy
Pacific Northwest writer Nicole McCarthy talks about her involvement in Tacoma’s literary scene, her work at The James Franco Review literary journal and her philosophy on writing. Photo courtesy: Nicole McCarthy.

Set against the backdrop of the wide open windows and the checkerboard tile of Tacoma’s Café Brosseau, writer Nicole McCarthy certainly looks the part. She has the sort of jet-black hair and porcelain skin that gives her small frame a kind of fairytale quality. Pair her stately repose with the still-steamy latte at her right and the laptop snapped shut at her left and she is the portrait — to borrow from Joyce — of the artist as a young woman.

Nicole’s schedule is jam-packed with the written word. She spends her days wading through literature and workshopping her writing with classmates during her rigorous first year at UW Bothell’s MFA in creative writing and poetics program. After school, she’s at work helping customers find new reading favorites at King’s Books in Tacoma. Her free time, when she gets it, is full of recreational reading and writing, as well as behind the scenes work as the managing editor at “The James Franco Review.”

Nicole McCarthy
Nicole McCarthy, right, reading her original work at Tacoma’s 2015 Lit Crawl. Photo credit: Lee Heath.

We caught up with this Pacific Northwest native over coffee to learn more about her involvement in Tacoma’s literary scene, her work at “The James Franco Review” and her philosophy on writing.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been a reader my entire life, and I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was in elementary school, I used to do reading competitions, and I’d stay home on the weekends to read, too. My mom used to always tell me that if you want to be a good writer you need to be a good reader, and so I was constantly reading.

I finished NaNoWriMo in 2009, and the experience of writing every single day and really having a good time with it made me realize that I should be writing. In 2010, I was on a path to UW Tacoma to get a writing degree and there was no changing my mind. And it still hasn’t changed, since day one. A month into my senior year of college, I was driven to keep going, and the idea of graduate school invigorated me completely.

What has your education in creative writing been like? How did you decide to go from UW Tacoma to the not-so-nearby campus in Bothell?

UW Tacoma has a more intimate campus, smaller class sizes, and I was looking for a more individualized approach to learning. I had also heard good things about the creative writing program that was still growing at UWT. My time there was nothing short of amazing. I spent two years working for the literary arts journal “Tahoma West” planning readings and events.

At the beginning of my senior year, I had been experimenting with poetic performances and mixed media. I started working with things like poetry projections and digital chapbooks and was moving towards an interest in collaborative technological possibilities.

Nicole McCarthy
One of Nicole’s creative projects, pictured above, involved gluing stanzas of poems into women’s magazines to encourage others to question unrealistic beauty standards. Photo courtesy: Nicole McCarthy.

Janie Miller, a writing professor at UWT, noticed that I was experimenting with form and genre in an effort to deconstruct the ideas I had about conventional standards of creative writing, and so it was Janie who recommended I look to the UW Bothell MFA program

I think the greatest thing about the UW Bothell MFA program is the opportunity for experimentalism that is so readily supported by the writing faculty that I find not only tantalizing but necessary in a creative writing program. The room for growth and exploration feels boundless.

What do you mean when you say you’re experimenting with non-traditional creative writing?

With my performances, right now I am interested not only in the space on the page (when writing and creating) but also the space that I occupy while reading and how that space relates to my body and the bodies of the audience members.

With the performance I did for the Tacoma Lit Crawl, I was exploring themes of presence and absence as a military spouse to convey to the audience moments in my life in which my husband’s presence feels almost completely erased (while he’s on deployments). I had artists behind me slowly “erasing” themselves with white paint as I read, while simultaneously passing out dozens of images of my husband and I, with his image, whited out. Blurring his image out in a series of our photos examines the idea of memory tampering. I wanted to plant the question of whether or not he was actually in the photo and present in those moments that are captured.

Much of my work is based around textual materiality — how something is laid out on a page; what white space can do; how mixed media changes or enhances meanings. While that’s still important to me, there’s something so boundless about immateriality, about the freedom of text or images to go anywhere in an electronic space.

Nicole McCarthy is a first-year grad student in UW Bothell’s MFA program as well as the managing editor of the James Franco Review. Photo courtesy: Nicole McCarthy.
Nicole McCarthy is a first-year grad student in UW Bothell’s MFA program as well as the managing editor of the James Franco Review. Photo courtesy: Nicole McCarthy.

Another project involves gluing stanzas of poems into women’s magazines to encourage others to question unrealistic beauty standards. The best art has an element of activism to it. Moving forward, I have the sense that my projects will evolve into digital technology and how my body can be intricately involved.

How has your time in Tacoma influenced your perspective as an emerging Pacific Northwest writer?

My identity as a writer is irrevocably tied to Tacoma. The overall aura of the city has had an impact on me and my writing. It’s been a combination of the people I’ve encountered and the milestones I’ve shared that’s culminated into something. It’s a time of my life that exists in a bubble living inside me. How Fitzgerald felt about New York? That’s how I feel about Tacoma.

Tell us about your role at “The James Franco Review”?

From the website: Editors will be reading your work blindly. Please make sure your name or other identifying marks aren’t anywhere on your manuscript and this includes in the filename. If you really want to put a name other than the title in the file name use James Franco’s (i.e. FRANCO_MYSTORY.doc) because right now you are him.

When I signed on in May of 2015, the review had been out less than a year (Corinne Manning started the journal in late 2014). It started out as a project questioning privilege and access in the literary industry. James Franco had a collection of poetry published that was a tad underwhelming, but he’s James Franco, so he got published. Our goal is to support underrepresented writers and provide a platform to share their voices.

Nicole McCarthy
The best art, says McCarthy, has an element of activism to it. It was with this in mind that she posted tasteful guerilla poetry pieces around the city as a student of UW Tacoma’s creative writing program. Photo courtesy: Nicole McCarthy.

We have rotating editors every issue so the tone and content of our journal is always changing. Some people submit multiple times knowing their work may strike out with two editors, but be picked up by a third.

When Corinne approached me to help, there was no doubt that I wanted to be involved. The mission statement about visibility and access is important to me, as well as the opportunity to work on a literary journal that was growing and changing in the world.

Where can we look for your work, and what are your plans for the future?

I’ve been published in various places like Tacoma’s “Creative Colloquy,” and I was recently published in “Punctuate,” a journal dedicated to non-fiction work out of Chicago. You can also find some of my visual performances online.

My goal this summer, since I’ve been working on a book — not a novel, but a non-fiction poetic hybrid collection — is to polish that. It’s poems and essays and images, etc., exploring my experiences as a military spouse. When I started dating my husband, I looked for literature on how to deal with existing in this new world, because it was so unknown to me, and all I was finding was the “Idiot’s Guide to Being a Military Spouse.” Things like “How to Register Yourself for Health Insurance.” It wasn’t any of the answers I was looking for, so I started writing and collecting pieces during my senior year of college. At the core of my poetics is a dedication to honesty — a sometimes-morose transparency in my experiences to share with others who may not know or feel comfortable asking about.

Do you have any advice for writers who are interested in exploring or becoming involved in the local literary scene?

Nicole McCarthy
McCarthy says it’s exciting to see Tacoma’s literary scene continue to grow and says there are many ways for aspiring writers to get involved.

The great thing about starting my undergrad program at UW is that I could literally see the Tacoma literary scene growing. And it still is — rapidly. It’ll be interesting to see what’s going on in Tacoma’s creative writing scene in five years.

Creative Colloquy is a great place for people who want to get into the Tacoma writing scene. The open mics are a great start to get your feet wet. I know that they’re in their second year and they’re really growing the journal. They’re going to start doing readings in Olympia soon, and they just started the Tacoma Lit Crawl, which I did a performance for last October.


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