Jack McCarthy (writer)

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Jack McCarthy after a performance in Worcester, Massachusetts on October 23, 2009.

Jack McCarthy (May 23, 1939 – January 17, 2013) was an American writer and slam poet.


John (Jack) Xavier McCarthy was born in South Boston, Massachusetts, the oldest of four children. He later received a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. In the beginning of his senior year, his mother died in a car accident and in the following spring his father died suddenly from a heart attack. The day of his father's funeral Jack received a scholarship to attend Dartmouth college. At Dartmouth along with his other studies, he began his lifelong interest and study of poetry but dropped out of school as Alcohol intervened in his life. He started attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings in 1962, stayed sober and returned to graduate from Dartmouth five years later (in 1967). He remained an active member of A.A. for the remainder of his life and would later write about his experiences in some of his best-known poems.

In 1968 he married Joan Reynolds (of Westwood, Massachusetts)in 1968, and had three daughters. He remained close with his children after he divorced in 1986. In 1989 he first met Carol Sinder after placing a personal ad. They were married in 1991 at St. Ann Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

McCarthy began writing poetry in the 1960s and was temporarily encouraged after his poem South Boston Sunday was published in a Sunday edition of the Boston Sunday Globe in October 1976. He was disappointed that its publication did not open up any doors for him and concentrated on his career as an information technologist working with banks and insurance companies. In 1993 he took his daughter, Kathleen, on her 17th birthday, to a poetry reading at the Cantab Lounge in Boston, Massachusetts, with the intention of getting her interested in poetry but wound up performing a poem and then returning to perform poetry in competition with other poets (Slam Poetry). This quickly led to some local recognition and he was asked to be part of the competitive Boston Slam Team that would compete in the National Slam Poetry competition in Portland, Oregon in 1996. The competition was filmed by Paul Devlin as part of the documentary SlamNation[1] which was released in 1998 and McCarthy is interviewed and seen performing on stage during the film. He is listed on the official SlamNation official website as a prominently featured poet with a brief bio and picture.[2]

McCarthy relocated with his wife Carol to the Smokey Point neighborhood of Arlington, Washington approximately 35 miles north of Seattle, Washington in 2003 and they eventually purchased a home nearby. He became involved with the Seattle Slam Poetry and Seattle Spoken Word poetry communities and was invited to be one of the main-stage performers at the Washington Poets Association Burning Word Festival on Whidbey Island (Washington)in April 2006. That was also the year he started the Evergreen Invitational Poetry Slam which was held at the Evergreen Unitarian Church in Marysville, Washington (2006 through 2012). In October 2007 he was asked to perform one of his best-known poems; "Drunks" at the Costa Brava AA Convention held in Spain (they flew him there). In 2010 and 2011, he taught performance workshops for the MFA in poetry program at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. He remained active in the poetry community giving performances through November 2012. As he battled against cancer (since 2011)he prepared the manuscript for a collection of poetry and short prose pieces called Drunks and other poems of Recovery which was published posthumously by Write Bloody Publishing in 2013.

Jack McCarthy died in his sleep of complications from cancer surgery on the morning of January 17, 2013, in Seattle, Washington, with his wife Carol by his side.[3][4]


In 1996, McCarthy competed and took a spot on the Boston poetry slam team and went to the National Poetry Slam held that year in Portland, Oregon. While he was there, Paul Devlin, a filmmaker, was shooting a documentary on the phenomenon of slam poetry and utilized McCarthy extensively throughout the film.

In 1999, McCarthy was named "Best Stand-up Poet" in The Boston Phoenix Best Poll.[5]

In 2000, McCarthy was a semifinalist in the Individual category of the National Poetry Slam as a member of the Worcester, Mass., team.

In 2007, McCarthy was the winner in the Haiku category at the Individual World Poetry Slam.[6]

Critical Reception[edit]

Donna Seaman, writing for the American Library Association Booklist, said of McCarthy: "McCarthy is now not only a much-loved star in the performance poetry world, he's also a vibrant and inspiriting poet on the page. A self-described working guy who has battled a number of unhealthy addictions, McCarthy brings his compelling experiences to his poetry with nimble humor, hard-won wisdom, and a raconteur's knack for telling diabolically barbed stories. In his admiring introduction, poet Thomas Lux praises McCarthy for his 'natural, unforced,' voice, and for his unfailing lucidity, and indeed, McCarthy is concrete, candid, personal, and utterly captivating. He's also caustic, sexy, and smart. As he writes with wry insight about his boyhood, Catholicism, the Red Sox, asteroids, his daughters, old cars, advertising, our time as the 'Golden Age of the Opinion,' and his love for his wife, he casually but resoundingly extrapolates invaluable lessons in living from each memory, episode, observation, and meditation."

In 2006, the poet and critic Victor D. Infante wrote about McCarthy in OC Weekly, saying "The small details of quiet, desperate lives get glossed over in the heavy traffic of media, the sweat and exhaustion of everyday labor lost in inhuman terms like 'rightsizing' and obscenities of massive unemployment being seen as irrelevant to an 'improving economy.' Daily, it seems less and less like there's any value placed on everyday life. McCarthy looks at that and still finds something beautiful; his affections are not just reserved for the glaringly lovely, but for what gets left behind in the face of such dazzle. 'The first robin of spring/is like the clicking of a tumbler/in some marvelously complex lock," he writes. "But there's never anything about/the last robin of fall/that announces it/as last.'

"What's truly remarkable is McCarthy's ability to convey that beauty with an utter lack of pretension. 'I just have hairtrigger tear ducts, and always/at all the wrong things: supermarket openings; Tom Bodett saying, 'We'll leave the light on for ya.' Elsewhere, he writes of his and his wife's propensity for run-down cars. 'Sometimes I get home from work/and Carol's ecstatic./'Jack, I met the most wonderful/towtruck driver today … We had the most incredible conversation!/He's a very unusual person.' … a couple years with me she's on/a first name basis with every/towtruck driver in Middlesex County. Triple-A has us on speed dial.'"

In a 2012 review of McCarthy's book, "What I Saw," in the journal "Union Station," poet Mindy Nettifee wrote:

"The opening set in 'What I Saw' is a walk through Jack’s personal museum of masculinity—sexual urges and authority figures, fathers and sons, baseball and anger. The most ambitious and wrenching is 'Magnum Iter,' a rich reflection on his own difficult rite of passage. There’s an intimacy to it I think I’m prepared for, but then I’m not. By the second act, I’m tearing up, and by the third act, when he posits that, 'If we survive the terrorism of/ our very maleness, we arrive,' I’m ready on page 22 to call it my favorite poem in the book.

"But then 'Phlogiston: Jack McCarthy’s Universe' arrives. It’s a poem for his failed marriage to the mother of his daughters, built on the guiding metaphor of a long-debunked scientific element that was believed to have negative weight. By the second stanza I’m swooning as he makes his turn into the real topic— 'An element of negative weight:/ I love that explanation for/ the brilliance of its wrongness.' And of course, the book marches on, and just when I’m getting that woozy beauty sugar high, he delivers Fava Beans (& Sour Grapes) and straight off compares an acquired taste for poetry to Hannibel Lecter’s preference for human flesh, and…I actually cannot ruin this poem for you if you have not heard or read it by discussing it further. It’s just too perfect."

In the Boston Globe, columnist Joanna Weiss said, "His poems were unpretentious but eloquent, and they shook a lot of old assumptions about poetry’s place in the world."

In the poetry magazine RATTLE writer,poet, Chris Jarmick looks at McCarthy's poem; Epithalamion: A Few Words for Kathleen. writing: "It’s one of Jack McCarthy’s masterpieces. It was written to be read at his daughter’s wedding.

Kathleen, when she was eight years old
started coming with me to my Friday night meetings.
that group had really good coffee,
and as she made her way time after time to
the coffee pot, I’d lose sight of Kathleen because she was short,
but I could follow her progress by watching the heads turn
to bless her with their eyes as she passed
beautiful child that she was.

"I won’t ruin your discovery of this poem because it’s a beautifully nuanced poem-story that creates a very poignant and touching narrative about Kathleen’s childhood and marries it to her wedding day. . . The carefully crafted line breaks, word choice, and phrasing make it easy for you to hear it, as if someone is reading it to you out loud. The oral storytelling beats are on the page and require no effort to accept. It’s a poem that celebrates grace, and it is in and of itself graceful in its presentation."[7]


"SlamNation," directed by Paul Devlin


Actual Grace Notes Wordsmith Press Whitmore Lake, MI -Out of Print- ([1] 2001)
Say Goodnight, Grace Notes (EM Press 2003)
Almost A Remembrance: Shorter Poems (Moon Pie Press 2011)
What I Saw (EM Press 2012)
Drunks and Other Poems of Recovery (Write Bloody 2013)


Breaking Down Outside a Gas Station (Wordsmith Press 2002)
By Gift Unearned (EM Press 2008)


  1. ^ SlamNation
  2. ^ http://www.slamnation.com/cast.htm[permanent dead link]
  3. ^ https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/01/27/jack-mccarthy-legendary-writer-boston-slam-poetry-scene/0SHmgSBAy9MLKeds0d2EIL/story.html
  4. ^ https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=972&dat=20060222&id=_mplAAAAIBAJ&sjid=CJQNAAAAIBAJ&pg=2477,620889
  5. ^ "The Best - Arts & Entertainment". Boston Phoenix. Archived from the original on 2015-10-11. Retrieved 2013-01-19.
  6. ^ "SpokenHeard with Jack McCarthy and Susan Dobbe Chase 10/07 by SpokenHeard". Blog Talk Radio. 2012-10-07. Retrieved 2013-01-19.
  7. ^ http://www.rattle.com/poetry/what-i-saw-by-jack-mccarthy/

External links[edit]