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Unheard Melodies

Shane McCrae, interviewed by Jana Prikryl

Shane McCrae

Shane McCrae

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

A lot is happening at once, in different directions or even dimensions, in Shane McCrae’s sonnet “June 12, 2020,” published in our June 23 issue: the title refers to the day when a police officer fatally shot twenty-seven-year-old Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta; his name is spelled out by the first letter of each line of this acrostic; and the poem itself describes an incident in McCrae’s childhood, when he was sent out to kill a rattlesnake in the backyard. Startling points of contact between history and personal memory—often found by questioning the reliability of memory and the continuity of time itself—have always been central to McCrae’s work, beginning with his first collection, Mule (2011), through seven more, including his National Book Award–shortlisted In the Language of My Captor (2017), and now his new memoir, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun (out in August), and new poetry collection, The Many Hundreds of the Scent (out in October).

McCrae, who has a master’s in literary studies from the University of Iowa, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a law degree from Harvard, has taught in Columbia’s graduate creative writing program since 2017. I e-mailed with him last week about escaping the influence of the Romantics, whether writing a memoir has changed his poetry, and the music he’s listening to.


Jana Prikryl: The first poem of yours that we published, “In the Ditch in Which the Camera Finds My Body,” considers an event that ramifies through much of your poetry, when you were kidnapped at the age of three by your white maternal grandparents, who took you from your black father’s house in Oregon to Texas, and forced your mother to keep your location secret from your father. Your new memoir explores this terrain with great power, looking through the child’s eyes at his new life without necessarily resolving things that didn’t make sense at the time. In a way it’s a snapshot of memory—of the gaps that shape us—as much as of emotional trauma. I’m very curious how prose, as opposed to verse, allowed you to think through that history?

Shane McCrae: Most importantly, prose worries me—I don’t think I’m any good at writing it, and, in fact, it was a feeling of insecurity about my ability to write prose that acted as a secondary, but significant, impetus to my first efforts at writing poetry. Writing prose, for an amateur like myself, can be suspiciously effortless—after all, one has been speaking prose one’s whole life!—and, if one is fortunate enough to occasionally feel inclined to reflect upon what one is writing, that effortlessness can worry one into looking and editing more rigorously than one might were one struggling from the beginning to meet the demands of a particular form, like a rondel. By the way, I’ve never actually written a rondel—I just didn’t want to say sonnet.

Did working on the memoir change your relationship to writing poems, or prompt new poems on the same subject even as you were writing it out in prose?

Writing a memoir was the worst thing I ever did for my poetry, and I’m still trying to recover. As of yet, I’m not entirely sure why writing the memoir was so bad for my poetry, though I suspect it’s because writing the memoir required me to confront the fact of my kidnapping in a sustained and hopefully thoughtful way—writing a poem about my kidnapping requires me to confront the fact, too, but not in such a sustained, and ultimately suffocating, way. On the other hand, I tried to make the memoir as lyrical as I could, and I think that effort contributed to an almost unconscious subsequent effort to write poems that are unreasonably lyrical. This effort, too, suffocates me.

I love your phrase “unreasonably lyrical”—what does that mean to you? Is it like turning the knob up on a poem’s “difficulty,” or fragmentation, or some other form of experimentation that might not have occurred to you before you started a long work in prose?

Mostly it means denser language, I think—something like Berryman’s “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” or his sonnets. And it does result in a high degree of difficulty, even incomprehensibility. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, but the poems (and here I’m talking about my own poems) obviously want to communicate, and end up stumbling over their own tongues.

Many of your poems involve dramatic monologues and narrative (and some combine to form an epic that stretches across at least three collections); they’re far from the confessional lyric, which you once described as the privilege of white writers who can “occupy that position of grace” (and therefore describe a fall from grace) that isn’t available to writers of color. I’m interested in your take on narrative poetry and poetry that assumes the voice of a different person, and wonder if any Victorian or Romantic or other poets have particularly shaped your approach to these longer forms that don’t focus on your own experience?

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I think narrative is underused in poetry, but I also think I understand why it’s underused—it became exhausted. So much narrative poetry of the last fifty years or so has been linguistically flat, uninteresting, as if it were achievement enough to tell a story with line breaks. It seems to me there is a great opportunity at the moment for poets to rediscover the pleasure of writing narrative poems, and the magnificent work that can result (caveat: I don’t think any of my own narrative poems are “magnificent”). All poets need to do is utilize language of lyric-like intensity and concision to write stories.

No Victorian or Romantic poets inspired my turn toward narrative, though I have become greatly interested in the Romantics over the past few years, and I’m beginning to be interested in the Victorians. I just wanted to see what I could do outside of the lyric, and—despite the fact that I’ve written a memoir—writing a long narrative poem about myself seemed odious to me, so I wrote narratives about other people.

Can you say which Romantics caught your attention, and do you think they pushed your new collection in some way you hadn’t expected?

I don’t think the Romantics pushed my new collection in ways I hadn’t expected because I didn’t have any particular expectations for it. Also, I feel dubious about the whole Romantic project. Ultimately, it attempts to make every person not only an island, but an ocean, too—somehow the only ocean, in which every other person is likely to drown. Romanticism has led people in the West to an obliterating selfishness. I think it was useful for maybe fifty years—with regard to English-language poets, it was useful for twenty years (with Hopkins being a very late beneficiary)—and ought to have ended in the nineteenth century, but it never ended. All that said, it’s Keats for me all the time.

Reading your long poems about other people brings me very close to a unique interior voice. I wonder about the function of that masking—of your voice speaking through or from inside another. Do you think it allows you to say more about your own experience or your own feelings than you might in a conventional lyric, or has it led to verse forms that might not have occurred to you otherwise?

It would be foolish of me to say that writing narrative poems in the voices of other people doesn’t allow me to say more things, or at least different things, about my own experience and/or feelings than conventional lyrics would, but when I’m writing the poems I don’t feel like I’m saying things about my life—I feel as if I’m saying things about the person in whose voice I’m writing. It would probably be even more accurate to say I feel as if I’m saying things toward wherever it is the language of the poem is pushing me. But I don’t think writing in the voices of others has led me to write in forms I wouldn’t have otherwise utilized—but I would like to explore the possibility of writing in forms determined by voice.

You’ve been so productive over the last decade, publishing eight poetry collections (plus the new one!), in addition to a number of chapbooks, since 2010. Can you talk a bit about your writing habits? Do you stick to a daily schedule, or work to a certain quota when on a given manuscript? As a father, how do you work around the inevitable interruptions of family life?

Family life doesn’t strike me as interrupting—it is the primary thing, and I try to fit writing into whatever empty spaces I find during the day. I have no set routine or schedule, and I advise against such things. It helps that I wake up a few hours before the rest of my family does. With regard to putting a new manuscript together, usually I get a vague feeling that I might have enough poems for a book, and that feeling inspires me to tally the poems I have, and to figure out whether the poems I have work together. Then it’s months of agonizing and editing and agonizing.

I know that music has been important to the formal choices you’ve made in your writing over the years. What are you listening to these days? What other kinds of art do you take in, to help move your writing in new directions?

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Lately I haven’t been listening to music as often as I would like, and that’s causing a tiny psychological crisis. When I do listen to music, most often it’s classical, usually contemporary. I’m especially fond of contemporary composers from the UK, though the composer to whom I listen most often is an American named Michael Hersch. I’ve been a huge fan of his work for over a decade, and I’ve been buzzing lately because he’s working on an opera featuring my poems, the mere fact of which is an inexplicable and tremendous joy. Besides Hersch, I love the music of Gloria Coates, and I love the music of Galina Ustvolskaya, and I love the music of David Hackbridge Johnson, and I love the music of George Walker, and my gosh do I ever love the music of the band Liturgy. Finally, the Oxford Professor of Poetry lectures of Geoffrey Hill, to which I listen almost constantly, have been hugely important to my poems and my thinking about poems since I discovered them a few years ago. If you’re reading this, you should stop and go listen to those lectures

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