The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Shane McCrae about his new book The Animal Too Big to Kill, listening to music while writing, addressing God in poetry, and The Oak Ridge Boys.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
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This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So first question from me about the book, and don’t let me hog all the space: did you pick the cover image and if so, where did you find it? It’s an intense image.
Shane McCrae: Gabriel Fried pointed me to the artist, and I saw the image and knew right away it was perfect. I’m pretty simple: There was a tiger and it looked big.
Brian S: Ha! And then the tigers coming out of the mouth. It’s funny how we can find a piece of art that just relates to our work in a visceral way sometimes.
Shane McCrae: I’m trying to decide what music is good for a live chat. I was thinking “The Unnatural World” by Have a Nice Life, but I think I’m gonna go with “Stellar Regions” by Coltrane.
Molly: Was there any particular poem that most related to the title? I saw some connection in the last poem, so it made me curious
Shane McCrae: Well, the title came from a line in a poem that I also ended up calling “The Animal Too Big to Kill.” And I kind of liked the sound of it, basically. Partly because in some ways the book is saying both that there’s no such thing as an animal too big too kill, AND that we’re cornered by such animals every day.
Sarah: I loved the way the title and those two poems framed the book.
Brian S: One of the reasons I was so taken with this book is because I shared what felt like some background. Not being mixed race raised by white supremacists, obviously, but I was raised in a working class neighborhood—the white trash part of town—in a trailer and we were Jehovah’s Witnesses, so the constant reference to belief and scripture were all very familiar. But I think I would have loved the book even if I didn’t have that background because you made the poems so vivid.
Do you think about audience at all while you’re writing? Or about how your life is so tied up with the art?
Molly: Ah, right! Recency bias got in my mind’s way. I enjoyed the relationship between humans and the divine in relation to the animal too big to kill in that poem.
Shane McCrae: Thanks Sarah! I was trying to make that thing, you know, maybe at least seemingly coherent.
I WORRY about audience, yes, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing as thinking. And I also worry about my life being tied up with the stuff I write—but I try to write a lot of entirely made up poems to balance things out.
Thanks Molly! I was trying to kind of make the book about, you know, thinking about God, but that was hard and maybe only worked sometimes. I did, at least, insist upon addressing God almost all the time, hoping that might look like thinking.
Sarah: It made me want to write poems addressing God, and I always like when what I’m reading fills me with impulses like that.
Brian S: I was just looking again at the “Moneychangers” poem where you talk about Jesus feeling want and desire. I really appreciated the way you made Jesus human in that poem. It demystifies him some.
And maybe figs were usually
The cheapest food available and still You sometimes didn’t have enough
Shane McCrae: Sarah: I was trying to kind of fulfill a promise to my wife, Melissa, who suggested years ago that I write a book of poems addressing God.
Dana: You mentioned that you were looking for music to listen to during this discussion. Do you have particular music that you listen to while writing? Or certain musical inspirations? While reading, I was finding myself drawn to read these poems aloud. Your verse is so musical and rhythmic.
Shane McCrae: Brian: Well, I was trying to maybe, like, get my head around Jesus a little, which I found and find impossible—but I do believe in Jesus as wholly God and wholly human, and I believe the human part was human.
Sarah: (Ha! That’s the best. Thanks, spouses!)
Molly: I loved your poem “Museum of Science and History” and the poignant ways you use the whale skeleton to address race and otherness.
Brian S: The human part of Jesus is way more interesting to me.
Yes Molly. Yes.
Shane McCrae: Dana: I actually can’t listen to music and write poetry at the same time, but I do kind of think about the music I’ve been listening to when I write. The first book was My Bloody Valentine, the second book was black metal, I don’t know what the third book was, and the fourth book was trying for some jazz, kind of, but also country?
Thanks, Molly! That’s a real skeleton in the natural history museum at the University of Iowa.
I don’t know that I find either aspect of Jesus more interesting than the other, although maybe I think about the God one more.
Molly: Oh wow. To me, the size of the skeleton mattered to that poem—a whale, not a smaller animal like a mouse that could hide. And now, knowing that it maybe was about a whale skeleton in Iowa, something even more out of place, makes sense…
Shane McCrae: My youngest daughter, Eden, used to love to be frightened by that skeleton. But, yeah—that makes a lot of sense. I’m always glad that other people are way smarter about my poems than I am.
Brian S: On Twitter earlier I mentioned that “Claiming Language” was one of my favorites in the book. Can you talk about how that poem came about a little, and how you see it fitting into this collection?
Molly: Haha I’m glad that makes sense. Sometimes I feel like it’s harder to talk about poetry than stories—like on what level should poetry be addressed? The literal, metaphorical, linguistic…
Shane McCrae: Brian: Hmm. Hmm. That one was kind of, you know, sitting around at the time, and I thought, you know, if any of my poems are good, that might be a good one, and so I wanted it in the book. But I couldn’t figure out where it should go because it kind of didn’t make sense anywhere. And I’m not sure it makes sense where it is! But I wanted a poem that wasn’t strictly a bummer. And I wanted a poem that maybe had something to do with how folks address each other, since that’s important to and in the book.
Molly: You’re ahead of me. I can’t imagine being able to talk about a story.
Brian: And I guess I wanted a poem that had something to do with family that wasn’t negative, so as create an atmosphere for “The Seven Last Words of Christ.”
Brian S: That poem, well, let me put it this way. When Amy and I got married after being together eleven years, we had problems figuring out how we wanted the officiant to refer to us for the very same reasons you put forward in that poem. We use husband and wife now for convenience’s sake, but that poem, man, it’s us.
Evie: Greetings, Brian, Shane, everyone! I’m kind of lurking/multitasking this evening, but wanted to just say that I enjoyed the book and am glad to see it getting some attention. Also, as a native of Nashville, I can appreciate (with some amusement) a poem that cites The Oak Ridge Boys.
Brian S: Hi Evie! Yes! I had their version of “Elvira” on a loop in my head for a day or two after reading that poem.
Shane McCrae: Brian: I’m so glad to hear it resonates with you! I worry, man, I worry—I worry that nothing comes across.
Hi Evie! Thanks! Childhood was weird, and The Oak Ridge Boys were in it.
Sarah: The word “wife” is so loaded in our society. I felt that poem too.
Did any poets in particular turn you onto using repetition the way you do?
Shane McCrae: Yeah—and the truth is, I haven’t changed the way I refer to her, but I had to at least talk about how stressful and wracked the whole thing is.
Sarah: Gertrude Stein, My Bloody Valentine, Finale…
Brian S: How long did you work on this book before you started sending it out?
Shane McCrae: Also: I wanted to a syntax that would help me to not force rhymes/stress about filling out a line, metrically.
Brian: I dunno. I guess, uh—it seems like it must have been about a year? Or less, actually.
Evie: I had a summer job one year with one of their sons. : ) [The Oak Ridge Boys, that is.]
Shane McCrae: Brian: I had/have a habit of sending books out before they’re ready. And then I edit with almost absurd intensity. But I’ve done about a book a year. My thinking has been: When R.E.M. were great, they did an album a year. I’m not great, but why can’t I do a book a year?
Molly: Being probably not yet born when they were in their heyday, I’d never heard of The Oak Ridge Boys before—I’m listening to “Elvira” now & enjoying it! 🙂
Brian S: That is impressive. I’ve been working on my current manuscript for 2+ years. We had twins in the middle of it, but still. That’s a great attitude to have, though.
Evie: Did you get a lot of hands-on editing from Persea or just put yourself through that process?
Shane McCrae: Oh, yeah—for most of the time I’ve been writin’ books I’ve also been doin’ hella parenting. I learned to write with my desk in the living room, next to the TV. But mostly in my head, and I try to be able to do it under any circumstances.
Molly: I also really liked how you addressed embodiment, especially in “How You Are Owned”… especially the part about the skeleton & bones, inside and outside of the physical body.
Shane McCrae: Evie: Persea was great, but I’ve always put myself through that process. I think I cause a lot of headaches for editors—it’s impossible to keep up with the ridiculous amount of changes I make.
Brian S: I know that use of “body” has been around for a while now, but it seems to have gotten a lot of attention lately with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s use of it in Between the World and Me. I’m glad to see it get the attention, though.
Shane McCrae: Molly: Thanks! The one with the skeleton and bones came late, after the book was taken—I needed something, some kind of poem that wasn’t there already, and wrote that. Also, I think about the body kind of all the time, being as how I’m really uncomfortable in mine.
I had to turn Coltrane off—it was kind of wrecking my everything. I just can’t write and listen to music at the same time. My brain, y’all!
Sarah: Same here.
Brian S: And I’m with y’all on the music thing. Older I get, the more I need close to silence to write.
Evie: It’s interesting—you can write poetry with the TV on in the room, but music demands something from you that won’t allow you to write, not even “chat.” Music is just intense like that. For me, anyway.
Brian S: The phrase “growing up black white trash” reappears very often in that middle section. Could you talk a little about where that phrase comes from? It’s such a potent descriptive phrase.
Molly: Yeah, that came across. I feel like that must have been a real mindfuck of a way to grow up, in many ways perhaps, but also in terms of body acceptance. I was trying to feel into the potency of your phrase that Brian just mentioned, and what it would be like to be a kid growing up, and “mindfuck” was the word that came to me first.
Shane McCrae: Brian: I guess I was just thinking about how my grandparents, who raised me, would be considered “white trash,” whatever that means—mostly for being racists, I’d say. And how, as a child, I wanted to be like them, and identified with them culturally. And I like having a phrase lying around to get poems started. It’s like having a key.
Molly: And yeah, music can help me get going, but often I need it to get started or I put a song on repeat to drown out annoying conversations around me.
Shane McCrae: Evie: Well, I wanted to be a composer for a while, and for a while, and maybe still, I found writing music much easier than writing poetry. So maybe my brain clings to it.
Brian S: I have a white noise app on my phone for when I need to drown out the surroundings.
Dana: RainyMood.com is excellent for that purpose as well.
Shane McCrae: A white noise app wouldn’t work for me—I would be too distracted by the non-white noise noises I could still hear, even more distracted than i would otherwise be. So I have to just accept the regular noises.
Evie: Wow! That is cool. Music’s loss is poetry’s gain…
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? Any new books we should be on the lookout for?
Shane McCrae: I’m about to dive into Stanley Lombardo’s translation of Statius’s “Acchlleid” because I’m too lazy to polish up my Latin, and I’m also LOVING Garth Greenwell‘s novel, What Belongs to You, and I’m so feeling Margaret Ross’s first book, A Timeshare, plus that complete Larkin that came out a few years ago, and Martin Corless-Smith’s newest book, Bitter Green.
Brian S: I’ve never heard of Acchileid. I have to look that up. Right now I’m reading Christopher Logue’s War Music, which is a version of the Iliad. Acchileid sounds like it’s right up my alley.
Evie: What are you writing these days?
Shane McCrae: Evie: I’m trying to figure out how to make my fifth manuscript, which is done, work.
Evie: Good luck! Looking forward to it!
Shane McCrae: Brian: Statius wrote a very boring epic that he finished, the Thebaid, and this one. The Achilleid is the only classical epic I haven’t read. So, you know. Gotta.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight Shane, and thanks for such a potent book.
Shane McCrae: Thanks everybody!