An Interview with Shane McCrae by Andrea Francis.
Andrea Francis: In your forthcoming book Blood (Noemi Press, March 2013), you note that several poems are adapted from slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Would you talk about how you navigated using a primary source text to create poems? What sort of obligation, if any, did you feel toward relaying a particular story? Obviously, this is a book of poems, but do you feel like you’ve created a secondary source text, an interpretation, a translation, or something else?
Shane McCrae: I discovered the interviews from the Federal Writers’ Project by accident: I found a collection of 100—it’s called Voices from Slavery—on a rack of half-off books at Iowa Book in Iowa City, and it struck me that I could probably make an entire book of poems from the narratives. Lamely, I ran out of steam after a few months, but I managed to adapt about 15 or 20 narratives, and six appear in Blood. When I was writing the poems, I felt the most important thing was to try to keep the language of the poems—the syntax and word choice, primarily—close to the language of the interviewees (I started to feel this way, however, only after I had written the first poem—the first poem happened before I had a real sense of what I was doing). Probably my priorities are all screwed up, but: As language-users, we’re shaped by the events of our lives—not only do these events make the content of the stories we tell, but our individual grammars, I think, are, at least in part, formed thereby as well. And a loop is created: The events of our lives contribute to the formation of our grammars, and our grammars shape our stories of these events. So, the grammar is at one remove from the event, and the story is at two removes. Obviously, that model is too simple, but that’s something of what I was thinking when I was writing those poems.
It’s hard for me to say exactly what the poems are. I call them “adaptations” because I do change events and words sometimes—events more than words, though I sometimes say things the interviewees didn’t say. The poems are freer than found poems, but a bit like translations, maybe (this is coming from a guy who knows nothing about translating; this is coming from a guy who really likes Dryden’s translation of The Aeneid).
But I also felt it was important to be true to the content of the narratives. Maintaining this fidelity made me uncomfortable sometimes, because several of the former slaves expressed positive regard for the institution of slavery, and I felt I couldn’t ignore those voices. Most likely, I’ll always feel uneasy about the project, but I tried to hold myself to a standard of interfering only so much as I thought was necessary to make the narratives work as poems.
AF: I’m intrigued by this idea of our “individual grammars.” What do you mean by “grammars?” Since you aimed to keep the language of the poems in Blood close to the interviewees, what did you learn about theirs? What did you learn about yours in the process of writing these “adaptations?”
SM: I’m using “grammar” to mean the way one organizes/uses words or gestures or anything else to communicate. I don’t know anything about linguistics—and, believe me, that makes me sad—but it strikes me that grammars must be kind of like fingerprints. I can’t imagine any two being exactly alike. And, mostly, I learned that it’s a scary thing to try to inhabit somebody else’s grammar, an effort that can’t possibly succeed. The best one can hope for is surface similarity. With regard to my own grammar, I try not to be too conscious of it, so as not to make myself anxious. I keep an eye open for habitual phrasings and words, because succumbing to habit is one step away from sinking into laziness, but otherwise I try not to think about it.
AF: You don’t have to say, but I have to ask—though I don’t want to be anxiety provoking. What are a few of your habitual phrasings or words? I wonder if our particular habits are also unique like fingerprints, or if those are the pitfalls of a shared and commoditized language.
SM: Of course you have to ask! But I don’t think I can say. I mean, I think I know what some of them are, but I worry that naming them in an interview would, for me, at least, be an artificial way of overcoming them. Each writer’s particular stylistic habits come into being as things necessary to his or her work, and he or she must treat them carefully while also always struggling to work through and past them. If I were to acknowledge them here, I would feel obligated to abandon them immediately, and I’m not sure they’re through with me yet.
AF: Along those lines, Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text talks about how a writer is in a constant relationship with pleasure. He says that the writer “plays” with the mother tongue, the mother’s body, “in order to glorify it, to embellish it, or in order to dismember it, to take it to the limit of what can be known about the body.” He suggests we may take pleasure in a disfiguration of the language, which in a sense means we are disfiguring nature. When I sit down to write, I don’t think, hey, I’m disfiguring nature, but in a way it goes back to what you said about being twice “removed.” What is your relationship with language? Are you actively involved in pleasure when you write, or are you just recounting pleasure? Are your poems forms of action or representation?
SM: Writing is extremely pleasurable for me, yes! But, for the most part, the things I write about are not pleasurable things, so in that sense there is a remove between me and the poem at the root. I try both to capture the moment of composition and to write “about” things other than the moment of composition—I try to make poems that are forms of action and representation. But so much of writing is self-delusion! And I have no idea if I actually manage either—I suppose I would be more likely to miss the action than the representation. The action seems like a more difficult thing to catch.
AF: Going back to your new book, Blood, what was your role in creating it, and how was it different or similar from your role in writing your first book, Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011)?
SM: Well, I had never done adaptations before Blood—I had hardly ever even used research in poems before. All the poems in Blood rely on research except for the last poem/sequence. But actually writing the poems felt basically the same; other than the research, my process wasn’t drastically different. And it wasn’t like I was writing the poems in Blood with books propped open on my lap—although I would, you know, sometimes leave my desk to do a touch of research. But only sometimes!
And, yeah, sometimes I had a book propped open on my lap.
The poems in Blood are, however, often a lot more violent, and a lot more engaged with history and the lives of others, than the poems in Mule were. Even though writing them felt the same, they ended up very different.
AF: So, the poems in Blood are more violent, more engaged with history and the lives of others compared to the poems in Mule. Does that mean the poems in Mule are based on events in your life? In that case, which book was more difficult to create? Personally, it takes a lot of mental stamina to engage with charged material when I’m writing. Do you have resistance when writing challenging material? If so, do you notice any irregularities in the books because of this resistance?
SM: It feels strange to say, almost like admitting a moral shortcoming, but I don’t feel more resistance when engaging with charged material. In fact, I feel more energized when I’m working with charged material. It’s the quotidian stuff that’s hard to write about, and I’ve never been able to get even a little of it into a poem. That’s not to say my poems are buckets of excitement—rather, it’s just to point out a particular weakness I have as a writer.
I don’t know which was more difficult to create, actually. Both were more difficult to create.
AF: What were some of the major obstacles and/or pleasures you faced in creating Blood or Mule—whichever/however you want to discuss?
SM: The oldest poems in Mule are some of the first poems I wrote after committing myself to a major stylistic shift—in fact, the poem that starts, “Lord of the hopeless also dear” was the first poem I considered successful (I had to fight, and fight hard, the urge to put scare quotes around that word) after the shift. Before the shift, I had been writing heavily punctuated, single-spaced free verse poems that had very little to do with how I needed to write and very much to do with how I felt I needed my poems to sound like the poems I was reading—because, duh, if you make your poems sound like poems that have already been published, your poems will get published, right? I was lonely then, and didn’t feel a part of any community of poets, and didn’t have the strength to be lonely.
Slowly, very slowly, I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere. And that would have been ok if I had at least been writing the way I wanted to write, but I wasn’t doing that, either. And so I decided I needed a change, and so I changed everything, or what felt like everything, about my poems. And so much joy came with that change! I remember writing Mule as four years of joy; it’s hard to remember the obstacles.
AF: When we first met in Iowa City in 2010, I couldn’t figure out exactly why your poems struck me. Now, I’m thinking it’s because they are like labyrinths. When I read them, I often get turned around, but then, in the turning, I’m lucky to see or hear something I hadn’t before. The poems assemble and disassemble, and then reassemble again. So, what is this thing in your work about leaving no stone left unturned, and then revisiting it to turn it back over, or am I just going crazy? Sorry, maybe this is more of a question for my therapist.
SM: No, that’s a great question! I like repetition in art—and I also like a lot of drone music, which can be thought of as working in a similar way to music that utilizes a lot of repetition. And so, really, I think my poems sound that way because I’m trying to imitate the art I like. But I think I like repetition in art because it is analogous to the way my mind usually works—when I think about things, I tend to approach them from many different angles, almost obsessively (really, this is an answer for my therapist). This is also why I like densely contrapuntal music—I find it soothing because it sounds to me like thought. And contrapuntal music is like repetitive music—it’s just that the repetition, or the process similar to repetition, occurs vertically rather than horizontally. That is, it happens top-to-bottom rather than front-to-back.
AF: Are there drone bands? Is this like a genre of music I’m missing out on? Can you give me a favorite link/example?
SM: Sure, there are plenty of drone bands, but I should say up front that I’m no expert on the genre, which contains multitudes of ways of doing the same thing all the time. I would recommend Richard Skelton’s music, which often occupies a neat/weird space between droning and being repetitive. For example: http://aeolian.bandcamp.com/track/noon-hill-wood
AF: Speaking of repetition, when I read your poems I become entrenched in sound recordings, snippets of a history, cut to loop. The poems think while they speak. In the last section of Blood, “Brother” is a beat that carries me as if I’m in a chant or a prayer. It picks up speed, or slows and grounds me. In Mule, it’s “Lord,” also toward the end of the book. Of course there are hidden others, like “anyhow,” or whole syntactical constructions within a poem that seem to reflect the content. In Mule, there’s this excerpt from “The Cardinal is the Marriage Bird,” where the cardinal’s hoppy, wounded movement is reflected in the disjointed, repetitive phrasing:
The sunlight in the room in the day / The sunlight
on the snow the snow like frosted glass / The cardinal in the snow
as clear as if it were on the inside side of the window
And not in the world the cardinal is
The marriage bird and flies in the sunlight on the snow / Between the sunlight and the snow
a shadow on the snow but still /The sunlight on the snow
The cardinal on the windowsill
a flash of shadow and the cardinal is the shadow bird / A flash of wound the wound
bird evergreen to evergreen
Wound leaping evergreen to evergreen / Imagine
welcoming the wound
How do you determine the weight and speed of sound in your poems? Do you hear/see elements of sound as distinct for each poem, or do you think about them on a grand scale?
SM: Process-wise, I don’t think I can say anything useful about this, because I rely almost entirely upon my ear. The only other important factors would be meter and rhyme. But I can at least say that I think of each poem as its own sound-world. I don’t have the ear or the mind necessary to think very much about how the sound of one poem might fit in with the sounds of other poems—although I do think I can tell at least a little bit when one poem sounds ok next to another.
AF: On that note, how did you determine the movement of Blood as a whole? I’m also thinking here specifically about the four sections of the book, and the title of the last poem, “Coda: Love Between Men, which explicitly situates us in musicality.
SM: The poems in Blood are presented more or less chronologically. The book begins with a slave revolt that happened in 1811, and it ends in the present day. However, it wasn’t until I was putting Blood together that I realized I could and should organize the poems in that way. Happily, when the poems are arranged chronologically, “Brother” comes last, and the last poem/section of “Brother” is, as you mentioned, “Coda: Love Between Men.” My hope is that the final lines—the final line, especially—will resonate with the reader’s experience of everything that has come before, and perhaps cast at least some of it in a new light. Codas can do those things in music; hopefully, the coda in Blood will work in the same way.
AF: Who is your audience right now? Is this different than your reader? Do you have more than one? Is your audience in mind when you write?
SM: Fortunately, so far the only audience/reader I have in mind when I write is myself. But I try not to have myself in mind, either. I was gonna say something like, you know, the words themselves are my only audience, but that just sounds ridiculous. It’s how I really feel, but it sounds ridiculous.
But, yeah, I do think of words as an audience.
AF: I love that idea, of words as an audience. Can you expand on that, or the feeling? The benefits or limitations?
SM: To some extent—and here, as always, no matter how pronouncementy what I say might sound, I can only speak for myself, really—I think writers desire union with words, and perhaps when we talk/think about writing as an escape, we aren’t really talking/thinking about writing as an escape from anything, but rather toward abstraction. That is, we don’t want what we write about to be abstracted by words—though there is no writing without some degree of abstraction—instead, we want our selves to be abstracted with words. When a writer does a reading, he or she forms a temporary community with his or her auditors—some people, I imagine, would say that’s the whole point of readings—and, in much the same way, when I write, I form a community with the words I use and those I know and don’t use (and those I don’t know?). Both are communities born of the particular occasion of the art. But words are the first community, and the ideal community, and the first audience.
AF: Let’s go back if we can to your roots. How did your relationship with poetry start? Where did you grow up and what was it like there? Which writers first sparked you?
SM: I spent my childhood or nearly so in Round Rock, Texas, which is a suburb of Austin, though I don’t think it started out that way. My neighborhood, which seemed to me at the time to be situated precisely between Round Rock and Austin, was vast and dangerous, but its dangers were such that it was really only dangerous for children. Most of the other kids thereabouts—and when I say “kids,” I mean toddlers to ten year-olds—had weapons, usually bb guns, sometimes pellet guns, sometimes worse things, and could attack from a distance. My grandparents, by whom I was raised, didn’t trust me with that kind of power, so I had to settle for long, serrated survival knives, the occasional pair of nunchucks, and a throwing star or two (distance but no power). But only once did I find myself with a gun in my back—most of the time it was fists and feet and rocks and sticks. Sometimes the sticks were heavy.
My relationship with poetry started there, in Round Rock, with Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, which was an incredibly popular book when I was in elementary school. Being literal-minded and subject to many rocks and heavy sticks, I thought the precarious sidewalk on the cover of the book was a real thing in a real place, and I wanted to go to that place and see that thing. And I think now that might have been the real attraction for me. I wouldn’t read A Light in the Attic, I wouldn’t read The Giving Tree—even though, like everyone else, I read The Giving Tree.
But there were quite a few years post-Sidewalk when I didn’t read poetry at all. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I bothered with it again, and then only because I had seen a very sad after school special in which Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” was read out loud at a memorial for a teen who had killed himself:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I wanted to be a teen who had killed himself! From then on, I was in love, and insisted upon writing poetry, despite my lack of skill—I was fortunate enough to be too unskilled to know how unskilled I was.
AF: You recently won the Black Lawrence Press chapbook contest for Nonfiction (December 2013). In this chapbook, you have a section called “Memoir,” many of the poem’s titles begin with “Essay on…” and there is also a “How to be in Prison” section. You said you were “bothered with it [poetry] again” after hearing Plath and thinking about death as a teen, and from then on you were “in love.” I think about Plath, and your use of others’ narratives, and wonder, what is your relationship to confession? To “nonfiction?”
SM: Confession seems like the sort of thing I ought to have thought hard about, but I haven’t, really—well, that’s not entirely true. For one thing, I have to think hard to do any thinking at all. For another: To me, confession in poetry has never been new. Poets have always written the sort of poetry that was celebrated and reviled as “confessional” in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s (and, really, ever since)—at least, if you look at subject matter, and subject matter is supposedly what confessional poetry is all about. What started changing in the 50’s wasn’t poetry, but the attitudes of critics, poets and readers toward confession. It was a time that required something that could be perceived by members of the middle class as shocking from the art that was being produced, and if the work itself couldn’t, for the most part, actually be shocking, then the only thing middle class critics, poets and readers could do was manufacture a sense of shock for the materials they had at hand. The middle class needed to be shocked, because a break had to be made with the pervasive hyper-conformism of the 50’s. So, suddenly, ordinarily messy autobiographical subject matter became “confessional,” and shocks were generated—after all, a “confession” requires a crime. And what is a crime but a disruption of order? The age demanded a disruption of order.
And so I find it hard to have a relationship with confession that is particular and distinct from my relationship with poetry in general (which is not to say that I believe all poetry is autobiographical—and thank God it isn’t). People have always written autobiographical poetry. It’s just one method of approach—and like all methods of approach, it is not to be employed exclusively.
Nor is my thinking about nonfiction very sophisticated. For the most part, I think the stories of other people are holy, if not sacrosanct, and shouldn’t be retold lightly. But I don’t have access to the truth of anybody’s story, not even my own. Since I don’t have that access, I try to treat stories from history and stories from my own life with respect, and hope not to diminish them—and to do no harm—when I retell them. But those are impossible hopes—which is as much as to say that when I’m writing nonfiction, wishful thinking keeps me going.
AF: I’d love to ask a nuts and bolts question of revision, especially since you are in the midst of it for Noemi. I read an essay you wrote for Necessary Fiction where you conclude, “there is no writing anymore, only revision.” But you did say you revise further after a poem is “done.” What does that look like? How do you re-enter the space of the individual poems? Does any of this apply to revision for publication?
SM: It looks a lot like mid-process revising, except I move more quickly—I’m more decisive, more confident. I re-enter the spaces of the individual poems by never leaving those spaces—I’m always tethered, even if only by a thin thread.
Often, when I’m about to submit a poem to a journal, I’ll revise it—sometimes heavily. I find this to be fairly low-stress and light, even fun. But when I’m revising a whole book, especially one that has already been accepted, the process becomes a bit more complicated, and although it’s still fun, I’m usually a lot more anxious. Possibly this is because I’m revising with the movement of an entire book in mind, rather than just the movement of a single poem.
Probably the shortest way to say all this is that I never stop writing my poems. I’ve written in my head a lot ever since my first child was born when I was 18, and maybe my poems stay suspended in there because so much of the process happens in there, and the page itself is secondary and mostly just the place where the results of the process are recorded. But I don’t know how it is for anybody else. Maybe it’s the same for everybody else?
AF: I think it’s mostly the same for me. I’m convinced I have a terrible memory, but there must be something keeping track of all those lines because when I go to compose they just kind of show up on the page. I never know if they will stay, or remain in that form, but at least they show up. Shane, you must have a lot of tethers, as you always have so much in the works. What’s next for you?
SM: As far as writing goes, I have a few projects in mind, but I can’t really say what they are for fear that the extra self-consciousness will render me incapable of completing—or, for most, starting—them.
What I would like to do next is teach. I’m all pumped up about teaching, but I don’t actually have a job yet. I’m very fortunate, I think, because I actually want to teach—at this stage of my life, I don’t think anything would make me happier. Other than that, I would like to become a good person—but, you know, ha.