Begin with Language: Talking with Becka Mara McKay
I met Becka McKay not long after I moved to South Florida in 2012. I liked her instantly—a smart, witty, perceptive person and a fellow creative writing professor who taught at the university just up the highway from mine. Then, I heard Becka read her poetry, and I was enthralled.
I have never forgotten the opening lines of one of the first poems she read, which also appears in her brand-new collection, The Little Book of No Consolation, forthcoming from Barrow Street Books on April 15: “Listen: God gave me an ass that goes on for days, / like a gesture of faith you can shelter under. / In a dream, a careless underling lets slip // the name of my competition. I was interviewing / for a job much like my own, which paid better / and promised more misery.”
The poem is called “Your Madness Always Loses to the Angel in a Fistfight.” Even just hearing the title, I was hooked.
After many years of socializing at Palm Beach Poetry Festival events, I finally interviewed Becka for The Rumpus. We talked about inspiration and rejection, immersive reading and prompt-based writing, and Becka’s vocations as a poet, translator, and teacher.
The Rumpus: For all the times our literary paths have crossed over my first nearly-decade in South Florida, I realize that I have never asked you about your literary origin story. That is, I don’t know much about your life before academia, before you began teaching and publishing your own poetry and translations.
Becka Mara McKay: Child-me would probably be much less astonished than teenage-me! I wrote poetry from the moment I learned to write, but as I got older, I began to separate that part of myself from who I imagined my future self would be. And I also think I spent a lot of time getting in my own way (although not necessarily always in an unproductive way). I took a lot of paths that were art- or literature-adjacent: I began college as an architecture major because I’d been an honors art student in high school and that seemed like a good way to be artistic but still make a living. But I have no depth perception—like zero binocular vision—and so the more advanced drafting classes became really difficult for me, and meanwhile I was falling in love with my history classes and writing history papers, so I eventually switched majors (still writing poetry in secret basically all the time, most of it undoubtedly not very good). One day my thesis advisor said to me, whatever you do, you should definitely make writing a part of it. You are a writer. I carried that around with me forever! I graduated and got jobs in publishing—writing adjacent! And I still wrote poetry, and showed it to very few people.
A couple of years after I graduated, when I was living in Minnesota (my home state) and working for a children’s book publisher, a bunch of my college friends and I had Thanksgiving together, and one of them happened to mention that she was taking a poetry class. And it was like she had illuminated something for me that I had never been able to shine a light on for myself. So, I went home and started taking classes at the Loft Literary Center, and after several years of that, one of my teachers said she thought I should go get an MFA, so I did. Although it would be another dozen years between that MFA and the job I have now—the only academic job I’ve ever had—so it’s not like the path got a whole lot straighter just because I was willing to call myself a poet in the world. I am aware that the trajectory of my life feels like it’s been very much shaped by conversations with people who probably have no idea of the influence they ended up having. Does that happen to other people, or am I just particularly impressionable? I think about this a lot, especially in terms of how and when I encourage my students.
Rumpus: Were they always poems you wrote as you were coming of age, as opposed to stories or plays or essays, and why do you think poetry held such tremendous appeal for you? Maybe I should step back even further and ask what writing a poem meant to you in your youth and how your sense of poem-making has changed over time, in light of your experiences with formal study, extensive reading, and your own teaching of the genre?
McKay: When I was very young, I wrote stories as well as poems, and got them published in the elementary-school literary magazine, Salamander Soup! (I remember one in particular about a Clydesdale with red hair on his feet instead of white.) But as I got older, I grew more interested in language than plot and characters, I think. Maybe because I was studying French and Hebrew all through school. Or, maybe that’s just how I experience the world. Also, poems provided more opportunity for teenage angst, of course. When I was in seventh and eighth grade I became very interested in songwriting, and I have notebooks filled with angsty song lyrics.
I love your question about my sense of poem-making, because the more I write, the more I really believe that each poem teaches me how to write the poem that comes next. I can only work on one poem at a time, and I’ve usually drafted it by hand so many times that I have (briefly) memorized it, recited it to myself while walking the dog, thought about it while falling asleep. And then the moment of finishing the poem feels like stepping off of a cliff: I’m certain I’ve written my last poem (every time! every poem! it’s so dramatic!). But then this poem I’ve just finished appears beneath my feet somehow, and makes a bridge to the next one. (I realize this makes writing poems sound like an Indiana Jones movie, which would be awesome, actually.)
Rumpus: I’m wondering what you think about the role the naysayer plays in your history as a poet. Do the people who tell us we can’t—or we shouldn’t—spur us on? Have they spurred you on, perhaps in unexpected ways?
McKay: Ha! My relationship to naysayers has always been, who are you to tell me I can’t do something? That’s my job! Which is just to say that paradoxically I will attempt to do anything at all I’m told I cannot do, but I will also have periodic arguments with myself about what I am capable of doing, and sometimes I lose those arguments. But I would never take anyone seriously who told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t be a poet. It’s like getting rejections—briefly annoying and then let go.
Rumpus: I appreciate your description of what the process of writing a poem is like for you, and it makes me want to ask about the poems themselves, the final versions that result from that process. Let’s use one poem in particular as our shared text—a poem that was published just today in Ovenbird called “We Are Commanded Forty-Seven Times to Be Kind to Strangers.”
The poem has a full-sentence title, which conjures a story that the poem then does not go on to tell. This is something I find both whimsical and provocative about your poems. It’s as if there’s this giant house that only you can see—you, the former architecture major!—and as you leap from line to line, you’re flinging open doors to rooms that your speaker will not walk through all the way but in which I, as the reader, am free to linger and explore. With every line, you bring me to a new threshold.
What can you share about the inspiration and assemblage of “We Are Commanded Forty-Seven Times to Be Kind to Strangers”? In what ways is this poem representative of a Becka Mara McKay poem, and in what ways, if any, is it anomalous?
McKay: I love the idea of leading readers through a house but not helping people through every door. You might have just described my favorite kind of poem, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that someone would say that about my own work.
This particular poem is part of a series of sixteen poems I wrote in late 2019 during winter break. (I have never before and doubt I will again write sixteen poems in such a short period of time.) I was going through a document in which I’d transcribed 613 of free writing I did from January 2017 until late 2018—one page of free writing for each painting in Archie Rand’s book of the 613 Biblical commandments.
I went through the document and copied out lines I liked, and when I’d filled a notebook page, I’d see what seemed to organically fit together, and shuffle and cut and paste and collage until the poem emerged. And all the poems are sixteen lines long, so I ended up with a perfect square, but that wasn’t planned—I just got to the end of the document. And the titles came straight from the document also, so they are all strange sentences. There are two here, and one more here.
These poems are representative of my poetry only insofar as I am always making rules and tricks for myself when I write, and my poems almost always begin with language I’ve generated from free writing or language I’ve collected elsewhere—lectures, readings, weird stuff I see on the internet. (I am always coming across scraps of paper and Post-it notes with the weirdest phrases on them—right now tacked up on the cork board next to my desk is a piece of paper that says “the conceptual refrain of going to get a beer.” I don’t know where it came from.)
So, I would never think “Oh, I’m going to write a poem about the 278th commandment.” (That’s where the broken donkey neck image comes from.) I just wrestle with the language I’ve generated/accumulated until it has meaning for me, and music. The obsessions always find their way out and onto the page.
Rumpus: I think I’m remembering this right, but of course correct me if I’m not: a couple years ago, when you were on a sabbatical, I believe, you shared with me that you read a different book of poetry every day for an extended period of time (weeks? months?). I was enchanted by this prospect and the deep immersion that came with it. What did you learn from that process? What poetic moments linger most vividly in your mind? And how did that sustained practice (ritual?) influence the poems you wrote concurrently and/or thereafter?
McKay: It’s so interesting you ask this now, because I’ve started reading a book of poems every day again. You are remembering correctly! I went on sabbatical in fall of 2017 and decided to read a book of poems every day—it ended up being one hundred and twenty books. I did that again for the first few months of the pandemic. And then, with no real end in sight to the pandemic, I’ve decided to try doing it for a year.
I started the practice (or ritual, yes—everything I do in my poetry feels so ritualistic when I have to describe it!) in part because I was looking for things to do that I didn’t feel like I had the time to do before my sabbatical, and also because I kept buying books of poetry but never making the time to sit down and read them. I also just really enjoy the practice of sitting down with my coffee and a book of poems and the little sticky notes I use to mark my favorite lines and spending the time immersed in it, start to finish. I love to see what other tricks poets use to get inside their poems—what kind of resources they use, how much language they borrow/steal/recycle, what forms they employ and invent. What kind of map they offer for navigating the book. (What kind of rooms they lead me to, to use your metaphor!) Yesterday I read A Treatise on Stars by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, which felt like being inside the poet’s head while she meditates into near-disappearance inside language. The day before was Finna, by Nate Marshall, which was sort of the opposite—the poet meditating on language in a way that renders him extremely visible, extraordinarily present. But these poets aren’t so different—it’s just a kind of fascinating juxtaposition that happens as the books pile up.
I keep a notebook of lines that I find especially striking or brilliant, and these lines find their way into my practice—as something to respond to in free writing, for example.
Rumpus: I also want to circle back to translation and ask how you found your way to this practice/ritual. What has translating the work of other poets taught you about the kinds of meaning and music you want to make in your own poems?
McKay: I think my translator origin story is not so different from a lot of writer-translators, which is to say it contains a moment of hubris followed by humility and obsession: I came across a poem in translation and thought I could do a better job. In my case, it was a Hebrew poem by the medieval poet Eleazar Kalir, and (spoiler alert), I did not, in fact, do a better job of translating the poem (the translator, Israel Zangwill, was a well-known writer himself, but I didn’t know that at the time), but I fell in love with the process, and I’ve been toiling away at it since the mid-1990s.
One of the things I love most about translation is how much research it can require—how much you can learn about a single word, a single allusion. My doctoral dissertation was about translating biblical allusion in Hebrew poetry, and I translated dozens of poems for that. My own poetry is undoubtedly influenced by those years of thinking in/about and writing out those other rhythms, but maybe not in a way I could point to. But the other influence translation has on my own work has to do with that research—all of the information I discover and store away to include in poems.
In my first book, I have a poem that talks about how the verb to be doesn’t have a present tense in Hebrew. The new book has a poem that mentions the Book of Daniel, and the book I’m working on now is, as I said, all about those 613 commandments. So, my practice of poetry, my experience of Judaism, and my work as a translator do feel fairly inextricable, whether I want them to be or not.
Rumpus: What about your translator-self? Do you think of Becka the Translator as ushering a new version of the poem she is translating into the world, or is your goal in translating to leave as little trace as possible of your own presence on the page?
McKay: That is an excellent question whose answer tends to be very situational. Many, if not most, of my translations—particularly if I’m working with a living author who hasn’t been translated before—require that I try as hard as possible to excise or suppress my own poetic vocabulary and create a voice in English for that poetry. But with work that is more toward the “creative translation” end of the spectrum (although all translation is creative—I just don’t have a better set of terms), I feel like I can take more liberties. I’m thinking specifically of the work my students and I often do on classic writers such as Ovid and Dante, when the translation sometimes ends up in a different medium altogether—my students have translated Dante into dance, music, cake, handmade books, video games…
Rumpus: Something I always ask my students, which I can’t resist asking you as well: What is the “heart poem” of The Little Book of No Consolation for you? By “heart poem,” I mean the poem that epitomizes what the book is about for you—the poem you would use, perhaps, as the trailer for this collection if it were a movie.
McKay: It’s impossible to pick just one! But if I could pick two, I might pick “Donkey’s Breakfast” for the way it pushes on repetition until it almost breaks, and then the poem that became the title poem, “The Little Book of No Consolation,” because it reminds me of that uncle, who died in late 2019, and the funny ways he and other loved ones show up in my poems and accompany me throughout the book.
Rumpus: I had forgotten, Becka, or maybe never connected the dots, that we are both only children. To ward off loneliness, and admittedly to serve my social nature, I invented an extensive imaginary family—nineteen siblings!—with whom to play.
Do you ever think of your poems as imaginary friends or siblings? If you had to choose a poem from your own body of work to date that brought you the most comfort to write, the most satisfying anodyne to sadness or loneliness, say, which poem would it be?
And, while we’re on the subject of superlative poems, if you had to choose a poem you didn’t write that has sustained you most significantly through difficult times, what poem would it be, and why?
McKay: I would probably be a happier person if I could think of my poems as imaginary friends! I am more inclined to think of them as feral animals I have to take care of: I am their keeper, but it might be dangerous to think of myself as their friend. It’s not a perfect metaphor for the relationship, but I think it adequately illustrates an uneasiness as well as a sense of responsibility.
The poem that has sustained me the most in difficult times is probably “The Anthropology of Water,” the long poem sequence that concludes Anne Carson’s Plainwater. It’s a poem about many things, but I admire it especially for the way it embodies grief, using an ordinary physical ritual (swimming) to represent the endless way we travel to and from our dead.
Photograph of Becka Mara McKay by Jason Grunebaum.