Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle grew up in Auckland with a sister, a father, and a Marguerite. Her debut collection, Autobiography of a Marguerite, is poetry and creative non-fiction at the same time. Her writing speaks openly on mental and physical illness, familial love and its discomforts, introversion, domesticity, and what it’s like being in her twenties in the 2010s.
Zarah had some substantial recognition as a poet in New Zealand at a young age, and finished a Master of Arts degree in creative writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters at 22. Autobiography of a Marguerite, her thesis project, was published by the small Wellington-based press Hue & Cry in 2014. Last year, Zarah started making and selling zines, small staple-bound collections of her freshest poetry and photos.
Zarah reads her poems in a distinct kind of monotonic voice. She carries carrots in her bag for munching on at local readings. When I went to Auckland, she took me to the Wintergardens to see the Amorphophallus titanium, aka the ‘corpse flower’, and look at drawers full of dead things in the Auckland Museum’s children’s centre. I’m so glad she’s my friend.
Caro DeCarlo: Where did your interest in writing come from?
Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle: I’m not sure – it started when I was really young. Before I could write, I would dictate stories to my grandmother and then I would illustrate them. When I was at primary school, I was frequently working on poems and stories, and I remember taking some of my home-made books to school putting them in my school library for other kids to read, ha. I was also very interested in film and drawing and acting as a child, but around the age of 12 my interest in writing became the main focus. My interest in writing probably came out of feeling lonely and like an outsider, but feeling very sensitive to other ppl + environment, and needing to express things that I couldn’t in any other way. Wanting to make myself/other ppl feel less lonely, and also wanting to leave something behind.
CD: When did you first start thinking about & generating the writing that appears in Autobiography of a Marguerite?
ZBM: I first started thinking about the writing in 2011, when I was working on a manuscript of prose poems that dealt with patterns, beliefs, and illness (in the first half of the year), and while taking a course on life writing and auto/biography at the University of Auckland (in the second half of the year). Studying books like Georges Perec’s “W, or the Memory of Childhood” and thinking about theory as well as stylistic choices behind auto/biographical writing was a pretty important precursor to working on Autobiography of a Marguerite.
I started generating the writing in 2012 while I was completing an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University’s IIML.
CD: Has your writing style changed consciously since you’ve left the IIML? Has it changed since you started making zines?
ZBM: It has changed both consciously and subconsciously. I guess I feel that I never want to get stuck in a pattern of writing the same thing in the exact same style year after year. Obviously there’ll still be a common thread in the style, but, I want to have some change, and challenge myself to do something different. I just want to be open to following a feeling/path/direction and writing in the way that comes with that feeling/path/direction. I don’t want to stop myself going somewhere because it ‘doesn’t seem like me.’
When I left the IIML I wanted to write in a different way than I had been writing. In 2013 and 2014, I mainly read prose-y things and wrote things that leaned towards prose, I was kinda like, ‘fuck poetry rn.’ But last year I became interested in poetry again and started working on poems. In a very different style to the work in Autobiography of a Marguerite.
I think my writing style hasn’t changed since I started making zines, but there was a change just prior to beginning to make zines. Influenced by slight shift in my personality (ha), using Twitter a lot, reading particular writers, focusing on art/artists more (in particular video/performance art and conceptual art), and listening to certain albums.
CD: What are you working on now?
ZBM: Short poems, unidentified prose thing, unidentified poetry project. (When I first typed that it came out as: short poems, unifidentiyed prose thing, unidenfritied poetry project. I like the look of that better, with the typos.)
CD: You recently read for Slow Canoe in Melbourne, and travel between Wellington and Auckland for readings and festivals. How important (or not) do you think it is to be reading your work aloud as well as writing for the page?
ZBM: I think my work suits being read on the page rather than read aloud or performed, most of the time. But I still think reading work aloud is important/has its place. Reading work aloud to an audience is a different way of connecting with people, and can bring insight to the poem (for reader and audience). For some people hearing your work at a reading will be the way they first come across your writing. Also some people at readings are there because they prefer to take in information by listening rather than by reading (like my sister. She hasn’t finished reading my book but she will come to my readings).
CD: Does social media affect your writing?
ZBM: Yes, definitely. Anything you use a lot can’t help but affect the way you think, and so then affect your writing. My social media usage has increased a lot since end of 2012. Using instant chat and Twitter has influenced the way I write, in form and content. Also part of my writing process these days involves looking for and scrolling through particular twitter and Instagram accounts that fit with a particular feeling/mood/aesthetic. I will collect fragments that snag my attention, or certain words/images will trigger me to remember something and I’ll write a phrase based on that, etc. In the past I used collage techniques with books and articles, now it’s twitter and Instagram. (And this will change again, I’m sure.)
CD: What’s a typical day like for you, if there is one? What’s an ideal day?
ZBM: A typical day for me and an ideal day do not have much crossover at the moment, except for the activity of interacting with assorted pets. My sister went overseas and left me with her rat, cat, and two guinea pigs. They are a lot of work but I really like having them around.
from Autobiography of a Marguerite
Often I find myself in the living room, looking at the blank TV as though I am watching a movie, with my knitting needles in my lap, until I become what I see, until I become a movie. I feel that my limbs have been stuck onto my body by a clumsy child.
Often my father comes into the living room holding a tube of glue, and asks if I have anything that needs gluing. I always say that I don’t have anything that needs gluing. A disadvantage of most adhesives is that they do not form an instant bond, unlike many other joining processes, because the adhesive needs time to cure. Once my father pointed at my slipper. Look, the sole is starting to come off, maybe it needs gluing. No, it’s fine, I said. He looked very disappointed.
Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle has been published in Shabby Doll House, Sport, Minarets, and Sweet Mammalian, and you can buy her book at Hue & Cry Press. Her art can be found online here. She tweets @zarahbm. A few of her latest tweets include “i feel drunk but it’s because of rage and kombucha!!!” and “craving broccoli”.