Poetry as a Timeless Place: A Conversation with Shane McCrae

Shane McCrae’s seventh poetry collection Sometimes I Never Suffered was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2020. Traversing heaven and earth in equally ambitious strides, the book engages with history, politics, theology, economics, and race, among numerous other subjects. The recipient of many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, McCrae spurs readers to question overly simplistic delineations between the past, present, and future. Noted by Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker as a “shrewd composer of American stories,” McCrae centers his storytelling prowess in Sometimes I Never Suffered on multiple narrative threads that invite us to reimagine conventional notions of heaven in the context of human flaws that, he suggests, may not disappear after we have departed from our bodies. I corresponded with McCrae about his process in shaping Sometimes I Never Suffered, his development of a distinctive style across several poetry collections, his relationship to the pressure of readers’ expectations, his vision of the interaction between religious faith and art-making, and more.

LM: In Sometimes I Never Suffered, we encounter two central characters: Jim Limber, Jefferson Davis’ adopted mixed-race son, who finds himself wandering through the afterlife, and an angel who has been hastily assembled by fellow occupants of heaven and then sent plummeting to the earth. What do you view as some of the most significant similarities and differences between Jim and the angel, and in what ways do you see the juxtaposition of their narratives as clarifying and/or complicating your exploration of the book’s main themes, which include class, justice, race, and faith?

SM: Hmm (I feel I ought to begin every answer with “hmm,” but I’ll indulge myself in this regard just this once)… Well, you know, when I was writing the book, I didn’t think much about their similarities and differences, nor did I consider their similarities and differences when I was organizing the book—which, I suppose, was when I ought to have thought about such things if I was going to think about such things at all—and I have found myself not capable of thinking about their similarities and differences at all insightfully since the book was published. Both Limber and the angel are wanderers, I think—more specifically, neither is at home where he lives, and so each is restless. And neither knows quite how to situate his own power in relation to the power that governs, or at least orders, his being. Hopefully the latter fact, at least, eases the exploration of the themes you mentioned. When I was making the book, I only knew Limber and the angel ought to be in it together.

LM: In your book The Gilded Auction Block, which precedes Sometimes I Never Suffered, you focus a great deal on elements of contemporary culture, engaging with figures like Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, and Joe Arpaio, while immersing readers in a familiar world of highways, Walmarts, and guns. In Sometimes I Never Suffered, you make a distinct turn from this contemporary setting into realms of existence, including heaven and limbo, that possess a largess not rooted in any place or period. Would you share with us how and why, particularly as related to your exploration of race, you felt drawn to shifting from the contemporary emphasis in The Gilded Auction Block to the less temporally bound universe we encounter in Sometimes I Never Suffered?

SM: Although this might sound absurd given how the book turned out, when I was writing Sometimes I Never Suffered, I wasn’t trying to explore race, and so that exploration—at least, as far as I understood it at the time—was unrelated to the shift in emphasis. I only knew—that is to say, I believed—I was trying to write a book about Heaven; I didn’t know how to do so, but it seemed to me that to move away from the glaringly contemporary might be useful (and, to some extent, I was probably trying to create a space in which I didn’t have to think about Donald Trump). Heaven is a timeless place, but it turns out human problems do not progress toward resolution—and perhaps do not change fundamentally at all—according to the motion of time, but, considered in this way, exist independent of time.

LM: Sometimes I Never Suffered contains a poem titled “Old Times There,” which unfolds as a verse play featuring Jim Limber and the man who adopted him, the former President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis. Were there any specific verse plays that acted as models for you, and what were some of your motivations and challenges, formal and/or thematic, when it came to shaping this part of the book and making it converse in meaningful ways with the rest of the collection?

SM: No verse play was a model for my own—at least, I wasn’t conscious of using any of the verse plays I’ve read as a model. Partly I was motivated by the desire to do something new, partly I was motivated by my partner Melissa’s engagement with theatre here in New York, and partly I was motivated by a sense that I couldn’t conclude Limber’s story without allowing Jefferson Davis to speak one more time, and I didn’t want to give Davis a whole poem to himself. The most significant formal difficulties I encountered were maintaining the sonnet form—the rhymes and meter especially—while attempting to make Limber’s speech sound natural, and finding the proper degree of ridiculous loftiness for Davis’ voice. My hope is that “Old Times There” works like a “bad” ending to Limber’s story, though it isn’t the only or even the definitive ending.

LM: Various BIPOC poets have written about finding themselves in a kind of double-bind with regard to subject matter, feeling as though they receive negative reactions both if they focus too much on race in their writing and if they focus too little on it. Poems such as “my dad asks, how come black folk can’t just write about flowers?” by Aziza Barnes and “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This?” by Hanif Abdurraqib come to mind in this context. Another poem that explores this issue is Phillip B. Williams’ “Maskot #1: “They sure do love them some black pain.” Would you elaborate for us on some of the pressures you might feel, as a BIPOC poet, to write about certain topics rather than others, and also talk about other expectations for the work of BIPOC poets that you’ve encountered in the contemporary literary world?

SM: In a way, of course, this question enacts the very pressure it asks about; that’s isn’t at all a complaint, just an observation. But to answer the question: I don’t feel that pressure when I start writing a poem—in other words, I don’t feel pressure to write about any particular thing—rather, I feel it when I’ve finished writing a poem, almost as if I must justify the poem’s focus. I’m not sure I’ve stated that well. What I mean is, seemingly regardless of what I think the poem is about, when I am asked about it or when I read a reaction to it, the poem is a poem about race. I can understand that—I write about race a lot. But I sometimes think the application of pressure to black poets to write about race, which is simultaneously an effort to understand black poets as writing about race—especially when it’s white readers and poets doing the applying/understanding, which is often the case—is an effort to put black poets in their place, to simplify them, and to make their work a kind of pornography, useful for stimulating gratifying feelings in white readers and poets. I do not think the effort is malicious insofar as I do not think it’s conscious. But I do think it is operative.

LM: You mentioned that the pressure of readers’ expectations is one you tend to feel only after a poem is completed. Given your poems’ obvious attention to both prosodic and rhetorical effects, how do you think about the reader’s experience when you’re writing?

SM: Most of the time, I don’t think about the reader. I care about the reader—very much—but while I’m writing, I’m thinking about the poem I’m trying not to ruin, or to ruin less. Very occasionally, I’ll write something that I, confused by the rush of endorphins, will think is ok, and I’ll wonder whether a reader, were I to have one, would think it’s ok, too. In other words, I hope the reader finds something that pleases them.

LM: Your work is steeped in knowledge about history, theology, philosophy, and numerous other topics. Would you elaborate for us on the role that research, if any, plays in your writing, and also discuss how you approach creating poems that seek an artful balance between historical facts and lyrical invention? It would also be fascinating to know if your legal training impacts your engagement with factual material in the context of poetry.

SM: Specific research is part of my writing process only when I’m writing about historical figures; otherwise, I find it gets in the way. Most of the time nowadays I don’t do any research at all. But I do read a lot, or try to, in history, theology, philosophy, etc., though I am at best an interested albeit mostly uninformed amateur with regard to those subjects. When I’ve done research in the past, I’ve tried to learn only as much as necessary to avoid being incorrect about something I could have learned about via research—which sounds like a tautology, I know. When I’m writing a poem about a historical figure, sometimes I will encounter a crux that requires particular knowledge of the figure and/or their environment—what foods might the figure have eaten, for example. In order to get past the crux, I will do research. But it is important to restrict the boundaries of one’s imagination only as much as is necessary; one must allow oneself as much room for invention as possible if one is going to write at all.

LM: There is a short section of Sometimes I Never Suffered titled “Limbo,” and it contains a single poem that exists, appropriately, in a sort of limbo amidst the rest of the book. In that poem, “Jim Limber Burning Where No Fire Is,” we encounter the following lines: “We are the ghosts of who comes after us / And their memorial.” The lines encapsulate a theme that recurs frequently throughout Sometimes I Never Suffered and your other books as well, the notion that black people find themselves in a version of history that moves backward even while it moves forward. Would you talk more about the idea of black figures from the past existing as “the ghosts” and “the memorial” of those who come after them?

SM: That idea is one way of attempting to talk about the flattening effect of racism, which works across time. Individuals who are viewed according to racial stereotypes are abstracted and become interchangeable with other individuals who are viewed according to racial stereotypes. As a consequence, in the eyes of those who view black people according to racial stereotypes, I am a ghost—a vague but identical stand-in for black people who will come after me.

LM: While each of your books possess distinct stylistic features, there are elements of your style that have remained consistent over the course of every collection. For example, you largely eschew punctuation of any kind, often insert spaces in the middle of your lines, frequently break lines in the middle of words to achieve various kinds of rhyme within and between your stanzas, and repeat words and phrases in close proximity to each other. An engagement with the tension between meter and natural speech is another hallmark of your approach to poetry. While your style has been called “propulsive,” it also at times has the opposite quality, creating halts and lacunae that prompt the reader to circle back and re-read before continuing forward. Would you discuss your process in arriving at the stylistic features that have come to define your work, and also talk about what you view as the relationship between your subject matter and your style?

SM: I can try, at least, to talk about the process that brought me to the stylistic features you mention. Until about a year after I got my MFA, I wrote in what I essentially understood to be the dominant period style: lightly surreal, lightly humorous, conventionally punctuated, post-Ashberyian (though, of course, he was still alive at the time—I mean after the emergence of his poetry) free verse. The poems were never very good, nor did the writing of them feel natural to me (by which I think I mean the writing of them didn’t feel like an extension of myself). About a year after I got my MFA, I met Garth Greenwell, who helped me to recognize that the poems weren’t good, and I decided I needed to break with them, so I tried writing poems I considered to be the opposite of the poems I had been writing up to that point: no more free verse, no more punctuation, no inviolable allegiance to conventional syntax. Immediately, the writing of the poems felt natural, and very quickly the poems themselves got better. I’m still trying to evolve—I’m working on punctuation. I would like to figure out my own way of using it that nonetheless communicates readily. As for the relationship between subject matter and style, I don’t know. I would like to think the style would accommodate any subject matter. Style should accommodate more than it determines.

LM: That’s a terrific sentence: “Style should accommodate more than it determines.” You mentioned earlier that you think of Limber and the angel as essentially “wanderers.” In the context of your evolving style, I wonder if you consider yourself a kind of wanderer, or the artist more generally as a wanderer?

SM: Even though I love Romanticism, I find the term I’m about to use a little icky because it’s a bit self-aggrandizing. Still, I would like to think I more closely resemble a pilgrim than a wanderer, insofar as I have an inexpressible and only dimly understood goal. And I think most artists are pilgrims in that way. What we seek doesn’t (yet) exist, and we race toward it. We make it as we race.

LM: In all of the books you have published thus far, your poems abound with religious imagery, biblical references, and characters seeking various forms of spiritual reconciliation. Related to this, you serve as the poetry editor of Image, a journal with an emphasis on publishing writing that engages with the “religious traditions of western culture.” In an interview in “The Millions,” you said “when thinking about God, one inhabits a space in which one can think forever.”  Would you talk about religion in your own life and how it informs your endeavors as a writer and editor, and also elaborate for us on the notion of God as a conduit for the kind of thinking that goes into the making of poems? Do you feel that exploring race within frameworks of Christian belief has led you to discoveries and insights about your subject matter that you might not otherwise have reached?

SM: Religion doesn’t have a role in my life—at least, that’s not how I like to think of the relationship. I try to live a life that accords to my Christian faith, though I’m always coming up short. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say I’m attempting to find a role for my life in religion. As for thinking toward God, it seems to me that positing God as the object of one’s thought clears an infinite space before one. In this way, my thinking feels freed when I am thinking about God. And yes, I do feel that exploring race in a specifically Christian way has led me to have insights (though, actually, I don’t want to suggest any of my thoughts are insightful) I wouldn’t have otherwise had. In particular, doing so has helped me to realize that people often think of Heaven as a perfect place to which they will bring their imperfect selves. But of course, that isn’t possible—one must be perfected to inhabit Heaven permanently (I am setting aside the question of whether Heaven is the place of permanent residence people often seem to think it is).

LM: Your next book Cain Named the Animal is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, Giroux, in April 2022, and we are pleased to feature several poems from the collection in our current issue, including “For Sylvia Twenty-Eight in July,” “Please Come Flying,” and “Whom I Have Blocked Out.” These poems, one of them addressed to your daughter, one to your beloved poetry mentor and friend Lucie Brock-Broido, and one to a figure from your childhood, suggest that your forthcoming book enacts a return to more directly personal territory than we encounter in Sometimes I Never Suffered. Would you discuss for us some of the goals and challenges that went into shaping Cain Named the Animal, and what you view as a few of the main continuities and differences that the book possesses in comparison to your previous collections?

SM: In a way, while I was writing it I wasn’t writing it—I was just writing poems, one at a time, with no sense of writing toward or into a particular theme. In fact, I was surprised to discover the book existed. But one day there it was, in an abstract way, and the work then was to make it more solid. It is half a book in which many of the lyric poems I wrote over several years are collected, and half a book of poems adding to and hopefully complicating my poems about God and religion—in particular, several of the poems are alternate/non-canonical continuations of “The Hell Poem” from The Gilded Auction Block. The goal always is to make a book that ends in a way meaningfully different from the way in which it began. I’m still writing poems about my grandparents, and my partner, and my children, and race; but I’m still discovering as I explore those subjects. The book includes a number of love poems addressed to Melissa, which to my mind is the happiest thing about it. But most importantly, as far as my efforts to write poems are concerned—if anything having to do with that subject can be considered important—it’s the last book in which there are no unpunctuated poems (I don’t think of “Old Times There” as a poem). It only took me fifteen years to use a comma.

LM: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Shane! We hope readers check out your poems in our current issue, get their hands on a copy of Sometimes I Never Suffered, and mark their calendars for the release of your forthcoming collection Cain Named the Animal in Spring 2022.

 

Shane McCrae’s most recent books are Sometimes I Never Suffered, shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, and The Gilded Auction Block, both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Later this year, the Cleveland State University Poetry Center will release an expanded edition of his first book, Mule, with an introduction by Victoria Chang. McCrae has received a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University.

Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle is a poet, essayist, critic, and librettist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. Her work has also been featured through the PBS NewsHour Online Poetry Series, Poetry Daily, and American Life in Poetry. She has received awards, scholarships, and fellowships through the Yaddo Colony, the MacDowell Colony, the James Merrill House Writer-In-Residence Program, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, among others. Caitlin earned a PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she served as Associate Editor of The Cincinnati Review. She has held Writer-In-Residence teaching positions at St. Albans School, Interlochen Arts Academy, and Penn State Altoona, and she has taught at Boston University and the University of Cincinnati. Caitlin currently teaches as a faculty member in the Frost Farm Poetry Conference, and she will join the literary and academic community at Washington & Jefferson College this fall as Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Writer-In-Residence.
Caitlin Doyle

Author: Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle is a poet, essayist, critic, and librettist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. Her work has also been featured through the PBS NewsHour Online Poetry Series, Poetry Daily, and American Life in Poetry. She has received awards, scholarships, and fellowships through the Yaddo Colony, the MacDowell Colony, the James Merrill House Writer-In-Residence Program, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, among others. Caitlin earned a PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she served as Associate Editor of The Cincinnati Review. She has held Writer-In-Residence teaching positions at St. Albans School, Interlochen Arts Academy, and Penn State Altoona, and she has taught at Boston University and the University of Cincinnati. Caitlin currently teaches as a faculty member in the Frost Farm Poetry Conference, and she will join the literary and academic community at Washington & Jefferson College this fall as Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Writer-In-Residence.