In Shane McCrae’s poetry, a studied rawness pervades on dual registers. There’s the more direct register of content, where visceral, exploding diagrams from an anatomy of divorce in his first book, Mule, transmute into the detailed slides from dissections performed on American slavery’s ignominious legacy that appear in his second book, Blood, and remain just as gruesomely lucid in his forthcoming fifth collection of poems, In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan, 2017). Then there’s the formal register, where a subtle technical apparatus deployed in a no-nonsense idiolect has evolved apace with, regulated and kept checks on, the other’s plots and images.
What these two conveyors of different but hardly extricable senses look like running in tandem is something like this:
The keeper put me in the cage with the monkeys
Because I asked to be
Put in the cage with monkeys
Most of the papers say the monkeys
must // Remind me of my family
The liberal papers say the monkeys must
Remind me of my home
The papers don’t ask me
You’ll want to know where these lines are coming from and the answer is the prenominated latest book’s beginning, a sequence of poems told from the perspective of a black captive in a human zoo. A stimulus such as this, uncooked and given no garnish, elicits an unsettling response from the gut and it should. The choked, tussive lacks of breath symptomatic of that response show up not as elisions to mark where words falter, stuck in the throat, but as pauses imposed to reveal a speech tempo caught falling behind itself trying to reconcile the unreal reality of the words its meting out.
When I sat down to interview McCrae I could scarcely think of a more appropriate topic to begin with than these pauses that he manages to pack so much significance into. My intent was to steer the conversation to the larger thematic contour of the book by discussing the technics of how the gasps and quiet interruptions hew closely to it. Equally true to their role in the poems as out of them in abstraction, I found that McCrae’s silences belie all appearance and are sources of more to be said than meets the eye. But you’d best hear that from him.
The Rumpus: Something interesting happens when prosody becomes not only dependent on the ear but on the eye as well. In a way, a visual prosody, or aspects of it, makes sense since so much poetry is taken in through the eye. I mean, what’s a reader, really, but a highly trained viewer? In my estimation, one of the more distinctive characteristics of your poetry is your use of the virgule, historically a typographical tool for critics and the compilers of manuscripts. The virgules seem to cut into the material of the poem’s sound and then into the resultant incision pools a dense silence wherein the meaning of what preceded a slash and what will come after it stalls in the flash vantage of immediate appearance. Am I very far off here? I’m not certain one way or the other; I can’t seize on any strict periodicity to this practice you’ve developed… not that there needs to be any regularity, any pattern. But, either way: why? Why, rhythmically, semantically, break the line within the line?
Shane McCrae: Although I know the virgule creates a pause, and even functions as a little wall (and I struggle against these qualities), I am using it as it is used by critics and compilers. If I can quote myself, I explained whatever it is I’m doing once for No Tell Motel, and I still think it’s the clearest I’ve ever been about this: “I don’t write free verse poems—mostly because I can’t. But I am interested in the musical effects achievable with free verse. [My use of the virgule is a result] of my attempts to create a meter that is simultaneously formal and free, and to think, for musical purposes, at the level of the verse paragraph rather than the line. As a consequence, the metrically important unit is the verse paragraph—e.g., a traditional sonnet has seventy feet (5 feet per line x 14 lines), and since what matters when writing in this way is the total number of feet (and, of course, the poems do rhyme, though some of the rhymes are very slant, and don’t follow a regular pattern), individual line lengths can vary, so long as the thing has 70 feet at the end… Where a line ‘ends’ metrically is denoted by a ‘/’ if that point falls anywhere other than the actual end of a line, and generally where each new line ‘begins’ metrically is denoted with a capital letter (the only exception being when a line begins mid-word).”
Rumpus: I’m realizing that the “and” joining rhythm and sense at the end of my question also sets them apart. I’m not sure of either their ligature or division. So let’s go with that. Care to offer a take on the possibilities for a rhythmic sensibility that arrives to readers separately from, even antecedently to, language as such?
McCrae: Hmm. I wouldn’t want to divorce form and content—the virgule, for example, has meaning, and itself contributes to content. It’s just that the meaning isn’t stable. I’ve read and heard several interpretations of my use of the virgule, and they have consistently extended far beyond my intentions, and I’m thankful for that. That said, I believe rhythmic sensibility is always a product and extension of language, defined broadly, among other things. But it is an immediate product and extension—no time elapses between the exposure to language and the creation of rhythmic sensibility. I do try to incorporate particular rhythmic and generally sonic motifs I discover in music as such, and if one thinks of language in a narrow sense, that, perhaps, suggests a possibility for a rhythmic sensibility that enters poetry from outside of language.
Rumpus: In your next book, In the Language of My Captor, due out in February from Wesleyan University Press, you’ve availed yourself of a stylistic resource unutilized in your previous collections of poetry: prose. It appears in the form of a short, incisive memoir from a brief period in your childhood, a memoir that, in spite of its length—eighteen pages in total—manages to achieve a broad topical range. And most of what falls within that range, it strikes me, is off the moorings that keep a lot of memoirs perilously tethered in the narrow straights of the ego. It moves from personal subjection to domestic abuse to altruistic suffering, a suffering endowed with a meditative bent towards the afterlife that I’d say approaches eschatology. Does prose for you have any kind of dilatory capacity that, coupled with retrospection, allows for an ordering of the protean reality that childhood leaves, necessarily, so misunderstood or divested of critical reflection? Could you have done the same in poetry?
McCrae: Well, yeah. Certainly for me prose has a dilatory capacity, insofar as I don’t trust my abilities in prose. I imagine I could have done the same thing in poetry, but sometimes I feel more fluent in poetry than in prose, and as a consequence perhaps I might pass too quickly by a thing that I might, in prose, have struggled merely to articulate. That struggle creates space, and it seems to me a particular kind of space into which memory flows easily. I suspect I think better in poetry, however. This might sound counterintuitive, but I think the occasionally greater fluency (or what I, at least at the time, think of as a greater fluency) creates, mysteriously, more push back, though it is a more rapid push back, and my mind, such as it is, has to race to maintain its position. And that racing makes, sometimes, better thinking.
Rumpus: I also wonder here about the role of your childhood self as a psychopomp. The memoir you’ve embedded in this book charts a desolate geography, a literal ghost town, that ends before a mass grave where the you whom you’ve written is atremble at the bleak possibilities of the afterlife, particularly the possibility that anguish goes on in spite of dying. Is it the imaginative capacity of our earlier selves, a capacity most of us would agree that we have grown distant from, that keeps the fantastic fixed in reality in this case?
McCrae: Well that’s a fairly Wordsworthian way to look at things! But yeah, actually—part of the poet’s work, I think, is to maintain or reintroduce the imaginative capacity of their earlier self while nonetheless maturing. And I do think the more successful the poet is at this particular thing, the greater their achievement as a poet. In fact, one might read the orphans at the end of the memoir who persist, frozen in torment, as themselves representative of that imaginative capacity maintained, and therefore harnessed to confront the difficulties of adulthood. What, then, am I working with? Can they be released from torment? The goal would be to free them, to allow them to move again, and perhaps even step out of the fire.
Rumpus: And the memoir was, in this case, a way for you to, as you say, reintroduce the imaginary capacity of your earlier self while nonetheless maturing?
McCrae: I used to harbor the notion that I would write a full-length prose memoir. And I was encouraged by lots of people to do this. And I thought that it would happen. Then I realized as I was writing prose that I don’t like its extension much. I love to read it. You know, I love to read long books. I enjoy experiencing that extension. But it’s not something I feel comfortable with and not something I think I can gain comfort with by practice. It was a real struggle for me while writing this memoir to get past three pages or so. In poems, I can write long poems. But length in prose: no. Still, though, I started writing the thing years ago and a version of it was published by Essay Press under the title 30 Paragraphs. And I’ve built on it and edited it considerably since then. I thought, I think, there are some worthwhile things in it. But I hesitate, or overthink… and you can’t do that in a book of poems, like I’ve done now, and not think about Life Studies.
Rumpus: Aha! “91 Revere Street.” That was my next question; you beat me to it.
McCrae: Well it was in my head but I knew that what I was doing was different. “91 Revere Street,” the way that piece functions in Life Studies, is almost as a gate. There are poems in Lowell’s old style, then “Revere Street,” and on the other side everything is different. But I’m not doing that. The other thing happening is that the poems in my book, though obviously there are incredible degrees of difference between my situation and that of Jim Limber—the adopted mulatto son of Jefferson Davis—I think that parts of the memoir about me really resonate with the poems about him and Davis. What I originally thought the memoir was going to be was the story of a black child being raised by white racists. This latest presentation is just one of the many attempts I’ve made to try to get that material working.
Rumpus: One of the starker contrasts I notice between, on the one hand, In the Language of My Captor, and, on the other, “91 Revere Street” and Life Studies, is the difference of applicability. “91 Revere Street,” in part, presents a bildungsroman in miniature that establishes the ethos for the aesthetically new poems that follow it and that perspectivally depend upon its events. It’s something to the tune of “my familial agon and my personal struggles in its aftermath are so inextricably rooted in the history of a place, Boston, that I can’t tell you anything about one without illuminating the other.” They’re mutually productive. Especially now—though maybe sixty or seventy years ago it wouldn’t have had this effect—your memoir uncovers a touchstone for problems that have been pushed aside and not talked about or not given their due attention, problems that are only now receiving their overdue attention. The many abuses of racism being so many cases in point. Is it that the Jim Limber poems, for you, support the memoir with a broader historical framework?
McCrae: Yes, that does make sense. The point is that—and obviously this is more sub-textual and reader-dependent—it’s horrific that Jim Limber’s story and my story can speak to each other intelligibly. What Lowell was doing with “91 Revere Street” and his own poems was a kind of personal history as history in general.
Rumpus: Confessionalism’s emergence in many ways from psychoanalysis makes it predicated upon, the way Freud said psychoanalysis was predicated upon, a hysteric’s dilemma, a dilemma that prevents the cessation of talking (about the self), which is a problem in so far as it needs to be cured but the only way to do that is through the seemingly endless exposition of the innermost self that analysis entails. You’re not indulging in this kind of egotistical insistence on the self. So you’re using yourself as a parallel rather than a point, rather than an omphalos around which the world organizes itself?
McCrae: I’d agree with that. It’s partly to do with having real difficulties when it comes to how Confessionalism relates to writers of color. I think confessional poetry is in its way very Catholic, capital C. One of the formative ideas of Confessionalism, beyond psychoanalysis, is a very actual fall from grace. And, at least in America, people of color never occupy that position of grace the way that white people do. So I think that in some very actual ways the confessional mode, strictly speaking, is not possible for non-white writers. It troubles me. I don’t know that I even could do what Lowell did. The other thing, too, is that the confessions of writers of color are bound up in history—Lowell, he’s bound in history too, as we’ve been discussing, but more as a maker of a history that terminates in him—much more collectively. It’s a history wherein the ego cannot function the same way. The history I deal with, I try to deal with it as one person amid a million equal inheritors.
Rumpus: Would you say that Confessionalism is a privilege?
McCrae: Sure. Yes.
Rumpus: It’s undoubtedly a privilege to go to an analyst and have that person help you disassemble your soul and guide you through patching it back together. Even the critical apparatus around Confessionalism is freighted with a bunch of erudite medical lexemes that not everyone has access to in theory, let alone in practice.
McCrae: Absolutely. People get anxious about dividing sorts of poetry, say Confessionalism from political poetry. But Confessionalism is very much an expression of racial privilege and of class privilege. I don’t think it’s always a blind expression of these privileges but it does have its genesis in them, in the politics of them.
Rumpus: What about the difficulties that Confessionalism’s influence poses to the first-person singular pronoun? This tension, pre-Confessionalism was strained enough—the lyric always seeming to serve two masters, song and self, a bit at odds with the single purpose its namesake implies. “I” after “I” after “I” starts to sound like dangerously banal, naive self-importance. You, however, use the pronoun through persona. Is that a way to avoid this problem? Or, perhaps better: is it a way to pull attention to points of slippage at which one “I” can become another?
McCrae: Yes. You’re saying something very… What I actually think you’re asking me… Not to be the boss of what you’re asking à la “here: let me tell you what you’re saying…” But what I’m hearing is this being really a question about audience. Yes. I think that the casual reader and the lyric and confession are trickily tied up together. I mean often when I read my students’ poems my first impulse is to say, “O, the subject of this pronoun, this ‘I,’ is whatever kid wrote this poem.” The audience for lyric poems is “confessionalized” to some extent. And I think this audience tends to find long narrative poems, for instance, kind of bewildering.
Rumpus: So are we on the bad end of a solipsistic break in poetry? I hear fiction writers such as Brian Evenson, for instance, talk about why they do what they do in terms of “allowing readers to undergo an experience outside their immediate realms of possibility.” They’re describing something done in a service that exceeds the self. Maybe we’d make a normative statement here and say that poetry ought to do the same thing. I don’t know. But I do know it’s at best infrequently that you hear poets formulate their practice in that way. I’m personally not sure why. What do you think?
McCrae: I definitely notice the absence of character in most poetry, which is not so say that I’m an innovator in that regard. Character-based poems are not weird or new by any stretch but they feel strange and new because the atmosphere is one in which no one does that. People always talk about, and with good reason, poetry’s unpopularity. When people say that they forget or they brush aside the fact that in the middle part of the last century poetry was immensely popular. Dylan Thomas was basically a rock star; so was Anne Sexton. People elide that part of poetry’s not too distant past. One of the consequences is that in the popular imagination we think of poetry as one thing. We don’t think of it as a medium through which people recount episodes from history. We think of it as a thing that involves someone getting up and telling stories about themselves, generally skewed toward pain. I don’t know that it’s a solipsistic break but it certainly has some of the characteristics of one. As yet, readers haven’t gotten sick of that one thing.
Rumpus: Which is bizarre, right? Poetry, at its origins, didn’t derive from this inbent impulse.
McCrae: It is bizarre and I think that it’s possible to shift away from thinking about poetry in this way. I think that the moment we’re living in offers the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time in that a lot of things having to do with identity politics are being talked about in poems. The only problem there is that a lot of the time these are being talked about in confessional modes. But, if your concern is getting away from the confessional type of poem, then talking about history, while not talking about it in a reflexive, first-person way, is one means of doing so. I realize that’s a very self-serving thing to say because that’s exactly what I do. But I have a much more difficult time talking about contemporary atrocities in a way that’s focused just on the present from one perspective alone. Possibly because I am black, though other black writers do this just fine. It’s just part of my way of being black. If I want to talk about these issues now, I need to step back into their history.
Rumpus: And how does In the Language of My Captor tread through this history differently than your other books? Is it a matter of taking the same steps, just in a slightly different direction?
McCrae: I think it’s the best book yet. Or I feel that way. I’ve had the most control over what I’m doing. I think this book does a better job of inhabiting the voices of others, and of inventing or reinventing those voices—a more thorough job of making actual characters. This book is also a more a focused exploration of a particular subject. I tend to think about this book in terms of captivity, in terms of exploring different kinds of captivity and putting forward a token of escape. I think the memoir’s integrated pretty well. In Blood I was trying to work personal history into American history but had a hard time doing it. So what I wound up doing was putting personal history aside. But I didn’t do that with this one, which contains a lot more back-and-forth. The last section in this book, too, may be the best ending I’ve accomplished. In the past my other projects have, for me, collapsed at the end. Here I consciously tried to hold various currents together. I think I did an okay job of that. It’s much harder to dip in and out of this book.
Rumpus: The book closes with a poem titled “Still When I Picture It the Face of God Is a White Man’s Face” and the last word of that poem, the last word of the book is “no.” It’s “no” in italics, moreover, which implies, yes, dialogue but it’s therefore unavoidably typographically set apart as to look more assertive, too. So is this a poem that begins, already at its title, with a proposition only to end by refuting it? Does the whole book close on a note of protest?
McCrae: Well it’s going to sound kind of silly, really. But for the whole book, while I was writing it I mean, I was thinking about how to allow room for hope, a legitimate hope for escape from the cycles of abuse that the book talks about, a legitimate hope for escape from captivity to racial parity or whatever it is. The speaker of that poem turns to his daughter and asks her, “do you see it?” The daughter says, “no.” That’s an expression of hope that the next generation maybe won’t be trapped in these sorts of cycles. If she doesn’t see the face, in a way she’s escaping.
Rumpus: Then let me ask you: this book being your most fulfilling project, one that ends on a note of hope, where do you go from here? What’s next?
McCrae: I don’t know. I feel very inclined at the moment to… I don’t want to take a break, exactly; I want to still write. I have a couple of book ideas, at least topically. I feel like there are some technical things I need to think about. For me what I’ve been trying to figure out is how to really write narrative poems. Now, I’ve gotten to the point where, in the barest, most literal sense, I can make one. I need to figure out how proceed from there, how to make one that’s compelling. I’m working on some narrative stuff. I hope I can write toward my interests. But poets should be afraid of too fluidly responding to what they’re interested in. I’d be suspicious of the next project if I just sat down and it came easily. You can use resistance as a way to tell you what it is you should and should not be doing.