Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Coffee Chat #7: Shane McCrae

While I was at AWP this year, a book was recommended to me more than once and that book was Shane McCrae's Mule, published by Cleveland State University Press.  I, like many readers, can be a bit skeptical about recommendations.  However, I loved this book and highly recommend it.  I also recommended it at Ron Slate's blog here.

What I loved most about this book was the originality of the voice.  I just haven't read a book that sounds quite like McCrae's book.  After I read his book, I had so many questions about how this book was formed, as well as questions about McCrae as a person and a poet.  I sought him out to interview and he was gracious enough to answer my questions.  I hope you'll read his interview below and buy the book.  Not only is McCrae a great poet, but he also seems like a darn nice guy too.


VC: As someone with four degrees myself in various different areas, I noticed in your bio that you have an MFA from Iowa, a JD from Harvard, and are now pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Iowa, and I assume you have a BA as well.  Tell me about your interest in the pursuit of education?

SM: You know, it’s hard for me to think of myself as someone interested in the pursuit of education, although I imagine I am—I couldn’t stand school when I was younger, and I still have some trouble with it. In fact, the main reason I dropped out of high school was that I was so hopelessly behind in my work—because I skipped school most days—that I had no chance of graduating in the foreseeable future. Since I had already repeated the 10th grade, I felt like maybe I had been in school long enough.

So I had a bad time in school, and didn’t start college until I was 21, about to turn 22. By this time I had decided that I wanted to be a poet—in fact, I had pretty much decided that at 15, based upon nothing—and I thought school might be good for my writing. However, I hadn’t ever known anyone who had actually gone to college, and, in part because of this, had a very distorted notion of what college would be like. Fearing my own inadequacy, and having no common sense, I prepped myself for community college by reading the complete works of Chaucer, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, all the poetry of Dante, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, all the Greek and Roman epics, and a bunch of other crap I can’t remember at the moment. It was a dumbass thing to do. But I got used to the hectic pace necessary to get all that reading done—not a very good reader, me—and have been riding that momentum ever since, really.

That said, I am so thankful I did that dumbass thing. I loved writing long before I loved reading, and if I had hadn’t forced all that stuff down my words-gullet I don’t know that I could have ever grown to love reading as I do. And reading has become one of the few things in life I can’t imagine being happy without.

Also, I like to think my education has made me a more useful person—more compassionate, more open-minded, more willing to put the needs and desires of others before my own. And if it has, then I am even more thankful for that.

VC: You once said that you want “accessibility and the avant-garde to duke it out” in your poems (or something like that) and that “accessibility” is actually very important to you.  This intrigued me because it seems like we've been so polarized and have had an “either/or” mentality (although have you read the anthology, American Hybrid by David St. John and Cole Swensen?).  But you don't see it that way--can you talk more about this and where this mentality came from?

SM: I’m not sure exactly where this polarization came from, though I would say there is (or used to be) an incentive for writers who are consciously “accessible” and those who are consciously “avant-garde” not to allow too many hints of any other inclination—if a writer has created audience expectations, it can be dangerous for that writer to produce work that occupies a space too far outside those expectations. But I sometimes think those distinctions are only practically meaningful when a reader is in a mood for a particular kind of poem or book, and doesn’t want to bewildered by too many options. And nowadays—and I think this has something to do with the increasing accessibility of information—readers seem not to be bewildered by their many options, and instead embrace them. And this makes such distinctions less and less meaningful. For my part, I just like a lot of different poems and poets—Sandra Doller, yes, but also William Dunbar. I’m suspicious of people who say they like poetry, but not certain “kinds” of poetry—I think what they really mean is that they like some poems, but not poetry in general. This is a perfectly understandable, even laudable, position, but it’s not mine.

But that’s only half an answer to your question. I do want my poems to be accessible to the average reader (although, of course, no such reader exists), but I don’t think this means the poems have to be straightforward. Although the fragmentation of American culture (and I refer to “American culture” here not because I think it’s primary, but only because I write as an American, and could not choose to do otherwise; obviously, many other cultures have been fragmenting as well) has been apparent for at least 100 years, I think the sped-up process of fragmentation that the internet has encouraged over the past 20 years or so has made it easier for readers to understand syntax that has itself been beaten up a little. And this, in combination with other factors, has expanded the boundaries of accessibility so far that the accessible and the avant-garde now overlap considerably. This is perhaps more readily visible at the intersection of music and popular culture.

Well, now we’ve got less than half an answer.

I like all kinds of poetry. When I write I want to write all kinds of poetry. I also want to write poems people might find enjoyable and/or helpful in some way—which is probably overly ambitious of me.

I haven’t read American Hybrid yet, but I’m gonna.

VC: Your first book, MULE, is so unique in its voice--I don't think you sound like anyone else.  Tell me how you started writing those poems and where your inspiration came from?

SM: Aww, thanks! I started writing those poems in 2005 after several years of struggling to write traditionally punctuated free verse poems, none of which really felt like me—I was writing the way I had been taught to write, not by any particular person or even a particular school, but by my own (fairly shallow, I think) reading of contemporary poetry. Eventually, I got tired of writing these poems—I could see how bad they were, and was depressed—and decided that the only way for me to make a clean break from them was to basically do the opposite of everything I had been doing. So I ditched the punctuation and started using meter and rhyme. And I began to feel like I was writing the way I was meant to write, and poems came quickly and considerably more easily than they had come before. The very first of these poems were devotional, and for a while I couldn’t figure out how to write anything but devotional poems. I managed it eventually, but when I did the devotional poems left, and I’ve been trying to get them back ever since.

VC: I read in an interview with No Tell Motel that you don’t write free verse poems because you can't.  Your poems to me at least, seem like a combination between free verse poems and formal poems.  How do you construct your poems and how does formalism play into the writing of your poems?

SM: My poems are all very strictly metrical, and all of them employ rhyme. That said, I do make use of elision, etc. to keep my iambs from sounding too regular—nothing fancy, all tricks poets writing in meter have used for hundreds of years—and most of my rhymes are very slant. I also use a lot of sight rhymes and even a sort of rhyme I guess I’ll call a slant sight rhyme, which is basically something that looks like a slant rhyme, but isn’t (just as sight rhymes, like “near” and “bear” look like they should rhyme, but don’t). Admittedly, that’s not a trick that has been commonly used for hundreds of years. But often what I’m doing with the rhyme and meter is building a home for the poem, and what I’m interested in is ticking off the boxes on the formal checklist—that is, making sure it has walls and a roof. This may be a terrible thing to say, but I’m not necessary interested in the sound of the rhyme—I try to write the poems in such a way that the rhymes aren’t obvious anyway—but am instead interested in having something that satisfies some aspect of what a rhyme does. So as long as two words look like they might sort of rhyme (like, say, “cough” and “trash”), that’s enough for me.

VC: One of my friends always says to me to “make it new” if I am treading on subject matter that others have treaded on (which is basically everything).  Your subject matter is wide and varied, from race, to family, to divorce, to religion.  Do you think consciously about making it new?

SM: While I definitely think it’s valuable to approach subjects in new ways, a poem is about so much more than its subject matter—it’s about its sound, its images, the shapes of the words, its visual field, etc.—and if these other things are handled well, the newness of the approach to subject matter becomes less important. But I don’t want to suggest that I think I handle these other things well—still, those are the things I tend to think about. I think it helps to not think too much about subject matter until a poem is almost done, if at all.

VC: Does subject matter come first for you as inspiration or does form come first?  Or something else?  The reason I ask this is because I found all of your poems, no matter on which subject, to have a similar form to them.  I was intrigued by the fact that you could probably write about anything and make it interesting and new.  

SM: Well, most of the poems in Mule are sonnets or sonnet-based, and that’s probably the biggest reason that many of them look formally similar. But the only time I ever have my subject matter in mind before I start writing a poem is when I’m writing a sequence, and even then I only have a broad sense of what the sequence is supposed to be about—I have very little or no sense of what the individual poem is about. I’ve found that when I have my subject matter in mind before I start a poem, that poem usually ends up stilted.

But do I ever wish I could write poems with the subject matter in mind beforehand! I imagine that would be freeing.

VC: Why the sonnet?

SM: I think it was something a professor—his name was Kenneth Ericksen—once said in a class I took on Milton as an undergraduate. He said that back in the day, poets used to do their apprenticeships, so to speak, by writing sonnets, and once they felt they had those down, they moved on. Since then, I’ve always felt it was an appropriate form for me to write in.

But as a form, the sonnet troubles me, albeit for entirely personal reasons. I worry that I’m too used to it. After I had been writing exclusively in meter for a few years, free verse lines stopped occurring to me—nowadays, whenever a line plops into my head, it’s always iambic, and usually in tetrameter, pentameter, or hexameter. In much the same way, I tend to think of any as-yet-unfinished poem as a sonnet waiting to happen. Obviously, this is a terrible, terrible thing. I’m working on it.

VC: Repetition seems to be something you use often in your poems in a very masterful way.  How are you constructing the repetition in your poems so that you achieve that right balance?  And why is repetition so important to you in your work?

SM: Repetition is important to me, I think, mostly because so much of the music I love is repetitive. So often my use of it is based on the sound of it—if I try repeat something in a poem and it doesn’t sound right to do so, then that instance of  repetition just doesn’t work. But the sense of it is important, too, and I like to think that a repeated thing won’t sound right if it doesn’t make sense, independent of how it sounds (if that’s possible), to repeat it.

I think repetition can give a reader the sense that he or she knows where he or she is in a poem, that he or she is not lost. As a person who is often unproductively lost in poems (I wouldn’t want to eliminate the sense of being lost entirely; it can be really useful), I know how helpful this can be.

VC: Instead of punctuation, you use slashes, spaces, etc.  Tell me why you decided to use no conventional punctuation?

SM: To be honest, it just sort of happened—mostly, it really was because I had been using punctuation in all those poems I didn’t like, and I wanted a change.

To begin with, I only used the caesurae; the slashes didn’t come until 2007 (I remember because it was the year I graduated from law school). Eventually, I got a little tired of what I was doing and wanted to experiment a bit. It occurred to me that if I were to introduce slashes, I would have far more control over rhythm. Here’s how I use them: Traditionally, a sonnet has fourteen lines, each of with has five iambic feet. Here’s the sestet of a famous sonnet by Hopkins:

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

I realized that if I were to introduce slashes, then I could keep the form in the “checklist” sense I mentioned above, but have more control over the sound of the lines, and, in a way, write both traditionally metrical verse and free verse at the same time (part of my impetus for introducing the slash was to see if it would possible to do such a seemingly paradoxical thing). I’ll demonstrate what I mean by introducing caesurae, slashes and new line breaks to the Hopkins (blasphemous, I know):

Yet God (that hews
mountain and continent,     / Earth,
all, out;     who, with trickling increment, / Veins violets and tall trees makes
more and more)     / Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world
without event     / That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

Now, of course, I didn’t improve the Hopkins thereby, but you can see what I mean—the slash indicates where a line ends metrically and makes the form apparent. This allows me to break lines wherever I want—and so to write traditionally metrical verse and free verse simultaneously.

VC: What poets inspired you in the writing of MULE?  When I was reading it, I oddly heard a little of Brigit Pegeen Kelly and her book SONG, probably due to your use of repetition.  Your repetition feels more urgent, though.

SM: Stein, Beckett, Yeats, Finale—it feels strange mentioning one’s influences; I wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression that I think I live up to them. But those three, and Plath (always), and (always) Keats, Herbert, Berryman—I think Aiken, too, and Kevin Shields, and Andrew Prinz. And I had Rābiʻa al-Basrī’s famous prayer in mind a lot of the time, also:

            O my Lord, if I worship you in fear of hell, burn me in hell.
            If I worship you in desire of heaven, deprive me of it.
            But if I worship you for your own sake,
            then do no not deprive me of your eternal beauty.

I would say that the prose of William Tyndale, including his translations of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, was often rumbling through my head as well—his prose is wonderful, and wonderfully forceful.

But I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read Kelly. But I will. There’s just so much out there, you know? And I miss so many necessary things. I haven’t read a single novel by Faulkner, for instance. Sigh. Now I’m embarrassed.

VC: How long did you send your manuscript out before it was picked up by Cleveland State University Press?  Would you describe yourself as anxious about the process or patient?

SM: Probably I was anxious. But anxiety requires hope, and since I don’t win contests, I didn’t have a lot of hope when I was sending the manuscript around. So maybe I wasn’t so much anxious as I was resigned to defeat?

I had been sending it around, in one form or another, for about two years. But I hadn’t sent it to many contests because I couldn’t afford them. So I was really very lucky when Michael Dumanis expressed interest in the book, and I will be forever grateful to him.

VC: Why don’t you win contests?  What do you think about the contest and prize system in poetry?

SM: The contest and prize system makes a lot of sense to me, actually—not a lot of people buy poetry, and contest fees help to fund books and all kinds of other necessary things. And, in a weird way, they help to create a community—whenever I enter a contest, I feel like I have a stake in the winning book (which, you know, isn’t gonna be mine), and it feels good to help in that small way.

But I don’t win contests, no. And it’s not as if my work is particularly and incomprehensibly revolutionary, which I imagine can be a bar to victory. This may be a mundane answer, but so many stars have to align for one’s manuscript to win—the right readers have to read it in the first place, and they have to pass it on to the right judge who has to be in the right mood. I just haven’t had the right stars.

VC: Michael Dumanis seems to be doing some really interesting work at Cleveland State in terms of the poetry books he and his team are publishing.  Do you think he is trying to push the envelope in terms of the types of work he is publishing?  And if so, how?

What I love about what Michael and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center are doing is that they’re publishing work they believe in, and that’s their foremost criteria. And I think Michael is trying to put work out there that occupies that space where the avant-garde and the accessible overlap—or, rather, and what I think means more, I think he’s not especially worried about that space, but instead his own sensibilities guide him there. But since the CSUPC is a respected press, this in itself helps to move poetry in America forward. It doesn’t hurt that he’s an amazing poet himself.

But, as much as Michael does—and he does a lot—everyone else at the CSUPC works hard toward the same goal, and the books wouldn’t be possible without them. When Mule was being produced, I was especially lucky to be able to work with Krysia Orlowski and Chris Smith, who seemed to be doing everything for everybody all the time, and Amy Freels, who made the cover and made it more beautiful than I could have imagined it.

VC: What is it that you are trying to achieve when you write your poems?

SM: I’m worried this will sound square, as well as questionable from a theoretical perspective, but I really hope that the poems I write will move somebody in a way that is positive. But I would be just as happy if somebody who was terrified of spiders used Mule to squish one.

VC: Is there anything about the poetry world that frustrates you?

SM: I’m frustrated by practical difficulties sometimes—like, I wish it were easier for me to travel so that I could do more readings, and I wish poets were all masters of social interaction so that my own inadequacies wouldn’t hamper conversations. And I wish it were easier to get a teaching job! But I still feel like I’m fairly new to the poetry world, and haven’t yet really begun to be frustrated by it.

VC: How would you say ethnicity fits into your identity as a poet?  Would you want to be labeled an African American poet, why or why not?

SM: Lately, my struggles with my own ethnic identity have been my only subject—they have been rumbling beneath the surface of things that would seem to have nothing to do with them. And so I think it would be in a way an honest thing for me to be labeled as an African American poet, at least right now—I do write about race and my own experience of signifying racially. But I don’t think such labels are really necessary, and I worry people use them so as to know what not to read. It’s too easy for, say, a white reader to think, “Oh, she’s a black poet—her work has nothing to do with me.” But the point, I think, is not that the black poet, when writing about race, is writing only about some aspect of blackness—he or she is writing also about an aspect of being human, and that work has to do with everybody.

VC: You have 3 kids, I understand.  How does being a father affect your poems or the writing of your poems?

SM: Lately, it has had more of a practical effect than it used to—I just haven’t had much time to write. But overall I think being a father has been an immeasurably positive thing. And, really, I wouldn’t know what being a writer who doesn’t have kids is like, anyway—my first daughter was born when I was 18, and I can’t remember what writing was like before her. She was the beginning of me, and the beginning of me writing.

In general, I would say that having children helps one to understand how unimportant one’s own desires are, and it helps one to get a real sense of one’s one beliefs and politics—I am not the sort of parent I imagined I would be, at all. This might not be true for everyone, but I didn’t know who I really was before I had kids.

VC: At AWP this year, I became obsessed with asking this question--do you feel joy when you write?  “Joy” was another poet's word, not mine!

SM: Yes! Thank God, yes.

VC: Since I haven’t met you in person, how would your friends describe you?  How would you describe yourself?

SM: Boring and boring plus (plus what? nothing good), respectively.
VC: You seem so humble in the interactions I’ve had with you so far--that you can’t believe anyone has read your book, yet your book was the one book everyone told me to buy at AWP.  How does that make you feel?

SM: I don’t know, I really don’t know. If anybody likes Mule (if, yes, anybody has in fact read it), then I’m happy, so happy. It doesn’t matter to me that the book is being talked about, except insofar as that brings it to the attention of a reader who finds some pleasure and/or good in it.

VC: I can't wait to read your next book--what are you working on now?

SM: Right this very moment now, I’m not working on anything—well, I’m researching the history of lynching in the U. S. for a sequence of poems I hope to write. But I haven’t been successfully writing. However, I did just finish my second full-length manuscript this past February. It’s called Colored Would and I’m really excited about it—it’s more unified, I think (in a good way, I hope) than Mule. As it turns out, I seem to be interested in writing books with fairly unifying themes—I hadn’t known this until I started work on the poems that became In Canaan, which is also the first part of Colored Would, and which I started writing a few months after Mule was taken. The poems in In Canaan try to tell a version of the story of Margaret Garner, and writing them was unlike any writing experience I had ever had before—having a theme focused my attention and helped me to dig a little deeper, hopefully, than I could have done otherwise.

That said, it would be nice to write a book of disparate lyrics, if I could ever manage it. But I need all the help I can get.

VC: What should I have asked you but didn’t?

SM: What’s my favorite band? My Bloody Valentine. But you asked everything you should have—I’m just throwing that in. Plus I love Melissa.