The Operating System


I first met Jack McCarthy at the Seattle Poetry Slam in 2003. He was doing his normal “catch the crowd off guard” old-man routine on stage, blending his extreme charm and undeniable wit with true sentiment and a little bit of dirty.
McCarthy is a master storyteller and legendary spoken word poet. His work is the definition of poetry transcending space. His poems very intentionally live in two places at once – exemplifying Jack’s philosophy that poetry should both “stand-up” in text as well as in performance. His sense of value and understanding of the poetic line is obvious on the page and equally clear as he brings his poems to life on stage.
In 2007 Jack and I traveled together to Salem, Oregon to do a reading at Willamette University. He was a spry 68 then and insisted he would drive. I was pumped, I’d finally cornered the wily ol’ master and couldn’t wait to sit back and glean his secrets. As we rode I5 south from Seattle, we chatted here and there, not too much about poetry, mostly about the differences and similarities of the Blue Hills and the Cascades. We kept our eyes trained on power lines and telephone poles to count the Red-tailed Hawks along the way.
We spotted a lot that day. Jack said it was always a good sign when headed to a reading if the hawks were perched on the hunt. I didn’t ask why, no reason to question. It made sense to me like things do sometimes without explanation. Maybe he found kinship in their attention to detail, their patient observation waiting for the kill. He was just like that in a lot of ways, with poetry and with the Slam in particular, all the way up to the end. Every single poetry reading he attended you’d find him with a soda and a little journal jotting down phrases and scratching notes while others read. Competitive bastard, he was taking our best lines, not to steal them necessarily but to remember them, to know his prey. He was making sure that when it was his turn to take the stage he had something sharper. But when the game would end and the poets mingled, if you were lucky and deserving, Jack would pull you aside, brandish his notebook and read back to you one of your lines. He’d do it with ease, with generosity, soft and kind, knowing the best compliment he could offer was to say, “I wish I wrote that,” and he meant it. Every time.
Jack McCarthy has two recently published full-length collections, What I Saw on EM Press, and his posthumous book, Drunks and Other Poems of Recovery on Write Bloody Publishing. He is one of the greats, and I miss him: Jack McCarthy the “Stand-Up Poet.”
Jack’s website –

Careful What You Ask For

I was just old enough
to be out on the sidewalk by myself,
and every day I would come home crying,
beaten up by the same little girl.

I was Jackie, the firstborn,
the apple of every eye,
gratuitous meanness bewildered me,
and as soon as she’d hit me,
I’d bawl like a baby.

I knew that boys were not supposed to cry,
but they weren’t supposed to hit girls either,
and I was shocked when my father said,
“Hit her back.”

I thought it sounded like a great idea,
but the old thing I remember
about that girl today
is the look that came over her face
after I did her back.

She didn’t cry; instead
her eyes got narrow and I thought,
“Jackie, you just made a terrible mistake,”
and she really beat the crap out of me.
It was years before I trusted my father’s advice again.

I eventually learned to fight-
enough to protect myself-
from girls-
but the real issue was the crying,
and that hasn’t gone away.

Oh, I don’t cry anymore,
I don’t sob, I don’t make noise,
I just have hair-trigger tear ducts, and always
at all the wrong things: supermarket openings;
the mayor cutting the ribbon on the bridge.

In movies I despise the easy manipulation
that never even bothers to engage my feelings,
it just comes straight from my eyes, but there’s not a damn thing I can do about it,
and I hate myself for it.

The surreptitious nose blow a discreet
four minutes after the operative scene;
my daughters are on to me, my wife;
they all know exactly when to give me that quick,
sidelong glance. What must they think of me?

In real life I don’t cry anymore
when things hurt. Never a tear at seventeen
when my mother died, my father.
I never cried for my first marriage.

But today I often cry when things turn out well:
an unexpected act of simple human decency;
new evidence, against all odds,
of how much someone loves me.

I think all this is why I never wanted a son.
I always supposed my son would be like me,
and that when he’d cry it would bring back
every indelible humiliation of my own life,

and in some word of gesture
I’d betray what I was feeling,
and he’d mistake, and think I was ashamed of him.
He’d carry that the rest of his life.

Daughters are easy: you pick them up,
you hug them, you say, “There, there.
Everything is going to be all right.”
And for that moment you really believe
that you can make enough of it right

enough. The unskilled labor of love.
And if you cry a little with them for all
the inevitable gratuitous meanness of life,
that crying is not to be ashamed of.

But for years my great fear was the moment
I might have to deal with a crying son.
But I don’t have one.
We came close once, between Megan and Kathleen;
the doctors warned us there was something wrong,

and when Joan went into labor they said
the baby would be born dead.
But he wasn’t: very briefly,
Before he died, I heard him cry.

Jack speaking on poetry in 2008

Matt Gano has been writing and teaching professionally since 2004.  His debut collection Suits for the Swarm was released on Moonpath Press, April 2013. In 2011, he was invited to lecture as a guest speaker for The Juilliard School in NYC and performed as a featured poet for “Page Meets Stage,” at the Bowery Poetry Club. He was Writer-in-Residence at the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity in Hong Kong in 2009, and led creative writing workshops the previous year for the Youth Creativity Summit in Seoul, Korea. He has represented Seattle at the National Poetry Slam multiple years and is the 2008 Seattle Grand-Slam champion. Matt is currently an Artist-in-Residence with Seattle Arts and Lectures, Writers in the Schools. –



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