Interview: Shane McCrae

Shane McCrae is an American poet. He is the author of the poetry collection Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2011)and the recipient of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award. In 2012, McCrae’s collection Mule was selected as a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2010, American Poetry Review, African American Review, Fence, and AGNI. McCrae attended University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Harvard Law School and is currently a PhD student in English at the University of Iowa.

Below, he talks with poet and MFA candidate Patrick Lee Clark about musical influences in poetry, the importance of reading for developing voice, and Will Smith.

I was fortunate enough to stumble across your Iowa Workshop interview where you described your love of music in your poetry. Personally, I’m a music guy too, which leads me into this observation I have about your book Mule. The late Etta James has a song entitled, “I Rather Go Blind.” When I listen to its lyrics and then read through a couple of pages of Mule, there’s this juxtaposition between the song’s content and Etta’s sweet and controlled wailing and your bluesy diction and content, and form that heightens this sense of separation that Mule captures. In Etta James’s song, she states, “I rather go blind than to see you and her talking,” yet I believe that poetry, since it has helped you push through a major life event, has become something that you rather go blind than to lose your relationship with it. As you have experienced more, has poetry become more therapeutic?

No, thank God! Although I don’t know what I would do without poetry, although I don’t know how I could live if I couldn’t write it and read it, I think writers have to be careful to avoid allowing their writing to become therapeutic—that is, in the end, after one has written something, one might very well realize that the writing helped one to resolve a particular issue or to heal a particular harm, but I think it is dangerous to approach writing as therapy. As a writer, I’m already inclined to think my every word is precious (barf, I know; I almost gagged writing that), and I think if I were to approach my writing as therapy, that inclination might devolve into a dictum—because, you know, look what wonderful things writing is doing for me!—and that would be terrible for the writing itself. One must be willing to recognize that one’s words are often worse than useless if one is ever to make them useful.

I grew up with scars from bike falls and sibling brawls, church sermons, Marvin Gaye, Reverend James Cleveland, and BB King playing in the living room stereo, governmental checks written out to me because of my speech disability. But in my home, we didn’t have weekly family library visits nor many books in our house. Langston Hughes argued that if minorities are to write sonnets, then at least let them be colorful and authentic. He’s saying accessibility gets poets the eye, yet I believe that a poet’s voice is built from that poet’s life content rather than by what they’ve read. I want people to experience my content as I’m experiencing my content. Any advice?

I guess I would have to gently disagree—one’s life experiences, I think, shape one’s receptivity and give one a store from which to draw images, rhythms, positions, subjects and other useful things, but one’s voice as a poet is shaped in large measure by what one reads. Think of it this way: We are surrounded by language all the time, and much of that language is filtered through various mass media, which is aimed at a lowest common denominator of language ability. That language is essential to writers, absolutely essential, but the constant bombardment of that language can, and often does, incline us to reproduce that language. In and of itself, that’s not necessarily bad, but notions of individualized voices go out the window. Now, of course, it’s impossible to have an absolutely individual voice anyway, but I think it’s worthwhile to do as much as you can to make yourself sound like yourself, and it’s a mistake to think that’s likely to be accomplished by simply opening your mouth and talking—when you do that, you reproduce what you hear and what everybody else hears. Reading books can help you to shape your voice, and, paradoxically, reading a lot of books can help you to sound more like yourself—it helps to have many examples of how other writers have made themselves sound like themselves, and it helps to see that it is in some ways a very artificial process. That said, not growing up in a house full of books—and I didn’t grow up in a house full of books—can make one feel as if one doesn’t have advantages others do. But one does have the advantage of the language of one’s home, and one can always read books later to see if books will help one express that language. And other things can help—music, for example, has shaped my language as much as books have.

Concerning your latest project, a historically inspired project similar to your In Canaan chapbook, should we as readers expect the same level of musicality? When I think about In Canaan, workhollers, spirituals, and the blues come to mind. Could that be the case for your latest completed book?

It’s black metal, actually, behind both In Canaan and Blood, my forthcoming book. I mean, always Braxton and Brötzmann and Coleman and Coltrane, always work hollers and hymns and spirituals, always the Delta blues, yes, but these are a constant atmosphere alongside shoegaze and (contemporary, especially) classical, and black metal in particular was in my mind when I was writing these poems—although, you know, the not Satanic kind.

Maybe you have come across the slogan KONY 2012, either through the Web, the News, or otherwise.  In defining Shane McCrae, are you a global poet whose writing stretches across continents, or are you the domestic poet whose writing stretches across only matters at home? What can political poetry contribute to politically charged ideas or events? 

I think a purely domestic poetry might be impossible these days, particularly for poets living in the United States—the globalization of English + the internet = the potential for poems to stretch across continents regardless of their content. Political poetry can do many things, though I suspect it most often works incrementally, and it might be best at fostering emotional connections to causes, and perhaps making certain political ideas memorable. I write poems that I think of as political, when I do write poems that I think of as political, with the awareness that they will not likely do big things, but that they might do small things—that a poem might, if the poet is very lucky, be the feather that tips a scale toward justice.

In my childhood, I remember wanting to become a movie star (still do). I figured that if I became great in playing sports, playing the piano, or gracefully making my little brother tap out from a Scorpion Death Lock, the opportunity to crossover into the film industry would become tangible. For instance, Eminem, Queen Latifah, Will Smith, and The Rock all are entertainers who eventually crossed over into the film industry. Can the rising poetry of young, old, dark skin, fair skin, or any poet open the doors so that they would become an entertainer asked to crossover into the film industry?

Well, yeah—you mentioned Will Smith, and he’s a poet, isn’t he? “Parents Just Don’t Understand” is pretty well written, actually. And Biggie had one of the best ears of any 20th century American poet.

What are four cultural/historical events that have shaped you as a man in the United States and in the world? And has/do/will remnants of these events appear(ed) in your poetic works?

There are more than four, and more than these, but these cultural/historical events have shaped and show up in my work: the Jesus event, the Laozi event, the Muhammad event, the Simone Weil event, the Sylvia Plath event, and the event of the history of black people in America. But, you know, I keep myself open to influence all the time—I think that’s essential to trying to be a writer.

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