A Conversation with Shane McCrae
BY PHUONG T. VUONG
Shane McCrae‘s most recent books are The Gilded Auction Block (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) and In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), which won the 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Prize for Poetry, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the William Carlos Williams Award. He has received a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a fellowship from the NEA. He is the Poetry Editor at Image, teaches at Columbia University, and lives in New York City.
Phuong T. Vuong, interviewer: I am curious what initially peaked your interest in sonnets and meter? And if it’s any different now, what keeps you interested?
Shane McCrae, poet: In some ways my interest started because of where I lived at the time. I lived in Oregon. This is in the ‘90s, 2000s. This was after the peak of new formalism. In Oregon, there was this press called Story Line Press out of Ashland. It was a press for new formalist books—like poetry and a lot of new formalist essays of criticism. I was reading books from all over the place and books affiliated with them, like Can Poetry Matter?, and what probably happened was that I randomly I picked up one of those books and started reading the criticism. I had only been writing poetry for about four or five years at the time, and I was still just grabbing everything I could see, and I was especially hungry for criticism about poetry. And Story Line Press, the new formalists, just offered a unified way of thinking. Although I basically disagree with everything they said, at the time I found it very interesting. I read book after book of new formalist criticism, and it got me to reading about meter—and this was all when I was an undergraduate—and it got me thinking, Do I want to learn about this stuff? And if so, why
My arguments were always very absurd. I would want Auden to think I knew how to write metrical poetry. I don’t know why. Auden has never been a central poet to me at all. I like Auden; he’s just not somebody I would read all the time. Also, I had this weird idea, which I understand is not based in reality, that if somehow I was deposited in, say, the 17th century, or the 16th, I would still want to be able to be a poet, and if I wanted to do that, I would need to know how to write in meter. I also had this dubious idea, but I found it compelling, that even if I wasn’t going to write in meter, I should still know how to do it, that if I wanted to live my life out of poetry, if that was what I deeply cared about, I should be able to write in these modes. Dubious in part because that’s not entirely true. Everyone has their own way of doing it.
What keeps me doing it today and what keeps me interested—and I am deeply interested—what keeps me interested is partly aesthetic. I enjoy it. I enjoy writing in meter. I don’t enjoy writing in free verse, and I haven’t done it in years and years and years. It’s not joyous for me. I don’t feel like I’m very good at it. It’s not very comfortable for me. I love reading it, but it’s just not a thing I like to write. The more I practice meter, the more I study it, the more I work at it, the more I have access to various sonic effects and rhythmic effects that I find exciting. And because of how many variations are possible, I feel like I have infinite resources, like I can play around with it or work with it forever. And I know this may not make sense, because free verse of course is free. But when I think about meter—traditional meter, various metrical forms—it feels like I am looking at something infinite. And I think it feels infinite because there are certain boundaries. Whereas when I think about free verse, regarding my own practice, I don’t get that same sense of infinite space, infinite possibilities. I just get the panic of it all.
PTV: I think that’s really interesting. I hear a lot of people saying that about how constraints are actually freeing. It’s an interesting thing that poets balance. I think this is a good segue to talk about some of the different things that are possible in sonnets or even how to define a sonnet. In my class, we are reading all these examples of things that are less than 14 lines, more than 14 lines, not iambic pentameter, using spaces in different ways. And course this definition of a sonnet is changing and has been changing. So how would you define a sonnet? What is the most essential thing about it?
SM: The most essential thing about it is maybe the volta, although you can do sonnets without voltas. The most essential thing about a sonnet is that structurally one side of an argument is one aspect of a thing and the other side is another aspect of a thing. Something is stated or something asked, and then that question or thing gets some answers. I think that’s the most crucial thing about it. I like the idea that the form means you are going to do more than one thing with content, that you can’t just go in one direction all the way. I think that that’s interesting.
I think more fundamental than a volta is that it’s short. I think that once you get to about 20 lines, you are probably past the boundaries of what most people would think of as a sonnet. Length is essential to this form. I think it’s really difficult to call a poem shorter than 10 lines a sonnet, although it’s not impossible. So a certain range of length and certain ideas about argument or how you will handle contradiction are going to be important.
PTV: I was going to ask about it, and I think you answered it, but I was going to ask about the sonnet as a rhetorical form. I think that is probably the most essential part for me as well. Like controlling—maybe thinking about today’s politics—a desire to go too far one way or another.
SM: Yea, I think the sonnet is an especially good form for people who are interested in politics, whether or not they have particular, strongly held beliefs. I have very particular and very strong beliefs. Nonetheless, it is useful for people interested at least in considering more than one side of things.
PTV: And thinking about the freedom that you were talking about earlier, what other questions or interests do you have with the sonnet? What are other ways you want to experiment through this form?
SM: When I was an undergrad, I took a class on Milton with a professor named Kenneth Erikson, at Linfield College. He said this thing. It might have been an offhand remark about how sonnets are a form in which formalist poets do their apprenticeships. And I thought, that makes sense to me. I ended up doing for my thesis as an undergraduate—it was a thesis of all sonnets. I like that idea of the sonnet as an apprenticeship, and I still think of it that way. I don’t think by any means I am out of my apprenticeship, so that’s one of the reasons I’ve gone back to it.
I don’t experiment very much with the sonnet form. The biggest experiment I’ve ever done with regard to sonnets, but also with regard to any poetry—although it’s especially meaningful in the sonnet context—is how I use slashes to vary line length while still marking where the line ends metrically. Where the forward slash is is where the rhyme word is. Using slashes in this way freed up the idea of what sonnets were to me. I’ve always been a sort of 14-line person when it came to sonnets. It meant that if I have 14 lines of iambic pentameter—14 lines of five feet—the other way to think about it was that I had 70 feet per sonnet. So if I was writing a poem and I had the slashes, that freed me up. I could do 70 feet per poem, metrically speaking, and 14 lines. And each line had to have a rhyme. With slashes, it meant that each rhyme didn’t have to end the line. One line could have 8 feet and one line could have 2 feet and together they equal 10 feet. That’s probably the most experimental thing I’ve done with it.
Otherwise, I’m fine with the form as I’ve inherited it, more or less. I find it exciting. The other thing is that there have been so many experiments in the form from the very beginning in English, that within the range of the inheritance of the sonnet there is an unbelievably wide area.
PTV: I like that idea of being an apprentice, of always learning. It can be useful to see where you fit in or to speak to a tradition.
PTV: Earlier you talked about having a strong point of view and, of course, your book has a strong argument. Can you speak more to that and about how sonnets in particular may have been useful for In the Language of My Captor?
SM: They were. The only sonnets in the book are by Jim Limber. I think every book I’ve done has had sonnets in it, but in this book they are only spoken by one character. When I was going to write the sequence of poems that involved Jim Limber and Jefferson Davis, I wanted Jim to speak in sonnets for whatever reason. I only conceptualized it after. It came to me. You know, poems kind of tell you what they want to be. After I had written the first few Jim Limber poems, a few lines came to me, and at first I thought they would be another Jim Limber poem, but the voice didn’t sound right to me and I realized it wasn’t a Jim Limber poem. It was a Jefferson Davis poem. It didn’t work as iambic pentameter. And usually, lines don’t occur to me that aren’t metrical just because I’ve been doing it for so long. I realized by how the lines occured to me how to distinguish them, and that is Jim Limber is iambic and Jefferson Davis is always gonna speak in syllabics. I thought of Davis as someone who was educated but his interests lay elsewhere than in the making of iambic pentameter lines. So that’s what you get, syllabics instead of pentameter.
All of the poems are love poems of a kind because, you know, Jim Limber’s taken from the only home he knows and the only family he knows. He’s taken in by these white folks who think they know his interests better than he does. He’s only seven years old. And as with most children, I suspect, he just wants to be cared for and he wants to care for other people. So even though the only figures he has are the Davis family, he wants to love Jefferson Davis, and he wants to love Varina Davis. Regardless of what Limber is talking about in the most obvious ways, they are all love poems. They are poems that are reaching for love; they want love. So I thought the sonnet form would work for that.
PTV: I feel like one of the things I’ve learned working with you is to respect, to figure out what the poem is saying as you’ve been writing it and respecting whatever form, or voice, or structure that it’s telling you it’s moving towards.
SM: I’m glad. I’m glad that was useful.
PTV: I don’t know if you want to talk about this next question much, but on social media, you’ve mentioned your reception as a poet who is a metricist and who is also Black. I think you said people were confused or don’t get your work. How do you make sense of the poetic form—especially the English tradition of sonnets and meter—and that intersection with race? Do you want to say more about that?
SM: The most interesting metricists I know working right now are all Black. Particularly Patricia Smith, who is extremely good at it and extremely varied and very interesting as a metricist, whereas I think I’m extremely basic at it. I will say that I’m very fastidious about it. I’m very careful. I’m really interested in sticking to the rules I’ve decided to commit to, which are generally well-founded and go back hundreds of years. And the reason I’m fastidious about it is my aforementioned anxiety about free verse. I just can’t do it. I think that if I stumble into it, I’ll end up ruining whatever it is I am trying to do. So, I’m very interested in staying in parameters, say pentameter or whatever.
What I end up finding in commentary about my poems, often reviews, is reviewers don’t know or don’t think about it, about certain exceptions, certain things you can do in an iambic line that is not just da DUH da DUH da DUH. They often comment on how my meter is rough or not quite iambic pentameter. I want to be positive, but it feels a little dismissive. I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing. My guess is no—usually the review seems like it’s coming from somebody who wouldn’t be dismissive. Nonetheless, it makes me feel like I’ve worked very hard for this thing, I’ve studied it years and years, and I’m careful about how I do it, and it always kind of rankles a little bit to hear that the meter is rough or I’m not doing it quite right, when I’m doing it very right, based on a lot of years of close study. I don’t know. It may have nothing to do with race. It may simply be that my conception of what an iambic pentameter line is and their conception of what an iambic pentameter line is are different, based on us having received different educations, but it always feels a little dismissive.
PTV: On my end, as someone who is still learning a lot, I feel very uncomfortable with meter and doing scansion. So it could be that too. Not to dismiss the racial aspect.
SM: Sure, that could definitely be the thing. And if a reviewer is uncomfortable talking about meter, I don’t think they need to talk about it. I started writing meter with the principle that I wanted my metrical poems to be as good as free verse poems, and I wanted to make them in a way so that people who didn’t know that they were in traditional meter wouldn’t notice. So I think it’s perfectly valid to talk about or review my poems without even mentioning meter. I think it can be avoided if someone is uncomfortable with it. Even though I care deeply about it, meter is not something the poems hinge upon; it has to do more with the making of the poem. I feel like I need it there, and I enjoy having it there. I love it being there. It’s a part of how I make them. It doesn’t have to be a part of how they’re read, I don’t think. I’m not sure if I’m right about that, but right now, that’s how I feel.
PTV: In In the Language of My Captor, you have these prose blocks and people expect them to be full sentences. I noticed the prose is really extended, layering on conjunctions, commas. I can’t make up my mind—the prose feels like both this reclamation, a sense of freedom, next to the structure of the sonnet, but also, because of the content and the structure of the sentences, it seems the prose reflects anxiety as well. Can you talk about the prose pieces and also how the prose fits next to the lyric form.
SM: There is a kind of sentence in In the Language of My Captor, a kind of sentence that I’ve been working on for several years. It exists for a couple reasons. One is that I’m not any good at writing prose. The other is a concern with having a prose voice that is distinct from what I sometimes call my poetry voice, but at least sounds like me. I wanted that in prose poems if I was going to do it at all. So that sentence was a way to build towards that. What’s funny is that just a year ago, I read this short piece by Gordon Lish and realized he had done the exact same thing and presumably before me. But I was unaware of him. He does very very very similar things with the sentence, at least in his most recent collection.
There is a way in which they are free, but I wouldn’t frame it that way because I don’t seek freedom from metrical restrictions. I don’t think I’m giving up freedom because I want to do this thing. It doesn’t feel that way at all. It feels free. And so I don’t think of the prose as a reaction to the poetry in that way.
I think of it as an attempt to do something particular musically. I’m doing them in a way—the shorthand version of this is—I’m not afraid of a run-on sentence. It allows for a lot of musical variation. The variation isn’t just in the sounds of the words. It’s in the way the reader’s mind works with them. There is a certain kind of background music behind the form’s music that begins to be apparent once the sentence passes over to being a run-on sentence. That has to do with the reader’s understanding of a run-on sentence, an understanding somewhere in their minds whether or not they are conscious of it at that particular moment—that a run-on is grammatically incorrect. It’s a certain kind of background music, or noise if you prefer, that starts to happen after the sentence breaks beyond its boundary that I think is interesting to play against.
I could say more about the prose in relation to the sonnet if you want.
PTV: Yeah. How do you see them in conversation with one another?
SM: Well, I don’t know about “in conversation” with one another with regard to form. The way I think about them is that there are certain parallels between my story and Jim Limber’s story. Although, of course, my story is nowhere as extreme and the stakes are very different, but some of the set-up is similar. There is also a kind of musical interplay. My guess is there is a different sense between freedom and restriction with regard to reading them, although I want my sonnets to appear as free as possible, even though they are metrical. I think they would come off musically differently. Hopefully they come off as musical.
PTV: My other question is about the book as a form. I learned that you have Jim Limber poems or other poems that go across books. For me, I thought that could reflect an interest in the persistence of racism or serializing or time. What’s your interest in poems existing across books, and are there things you want your readers to know?
SM: Well, in In the Language of My Captor, as you know, there is the purgatory section. In the next book The Gilded Auction Block, there is a section—a long poem called “The Hell Poem.” It’s a tiny epic, 40 pages long. And it’s about a person going to hell. It’s about other things, but that’s the basic narrative. So after I thought about it for a little while—that I have the purgatory section, that I have the hell poem—I realized this series would be incomplete if I didn’t write a book about heaven. The books follow on each other, so the next book is all about heaven, or people who inhabit heaven. Jim Limber is in heaven. But there’s an angel in it, too.
PTV: Can you tell us about your next poetry collection, The Gilded Auction Block? Are there new or revisited themes?
SM: Well, there is “The Hell Poem,” which, besides being 40 pages long, is illustrated with paintings by an artist named Christine Sajecki. In the most basic sense, the book is about America. “The Hell Poem,” even though it is set in hell, is about America. It’s not about America being hell. I’m not delusional in that way, but there are some very bad things going on and there are things that suggest if America were to become hellish—the way that there are plenty of other countries that are hellish in the world—if we were to become hellish, we would just let it be. These are things I find incredibly distressing and that’s what “The Hell Poem” is about. There are also a lot of poems about Trump, about what Trump means as a representative of America. Mostly about America right now. That’s one of the reasons why it was originally scheduled to be published this year instead of a few years down the road. The publication schedule is pretty quick.
PTV: It sounds like an important book, as of course your work is.
SM: Thank you very much.
PTV: So, this last question moves away from questions about sonnets and the book. But also I feel like it’s connected. I want to hear more about your reading practice because I feel like you just have an amazing memory of not only poems that you’ve read, but the knowledge of those poems is so deep. Can you tell us more about how you read as a poet? Maybe you don’t have a structure for it, but is there anything you feel like you can share?
SM: How do I read as a poet? Quickly. A lot of my habits are born out of habits I developed as a teenager. The idea that I would only have a limited amount of time to do things, and only at certain times. So just as I always try to be available to writing, to be able to write any moment anywhere, I learned how to read while I walk, while I go up and down stairs. And I like reading books fast. But of course sometimes certain poems you have to slow down for. I read fairly fast, and my attention is very focused and very based on the page. If I linger, after a certain point, the attention kind of disappears.
I like to read as variously as possible. I get uncomfortable if my attention becomes too obviously focused in one direction. I read poets that aren’t like my work at all. I read poets that I think would be ideologically opposed to my work. I like to read everything. I like to read about everything. I very much like to read the history of poetry. I’m not very interested in reading theory, although I’ve done it. I’m much more interested in reading criticism, criticism that is not exactly theory but based on reactions to the work.
I read a lot of books at once also. I’m not reading a ton right now. I’m reading 5 or 6. I feel I pay attention across multiple books. The thing I’ve really into right now is Arcadia. I desire more of this particular approach to rhetoric from Renaissance poets. Right now I have an edition of Fulke Greville I’m about to start reading. I want more 16th century rhetoric. It just feels good. I don’t know why. I’m feeling it right now. I’m about to read some novels based on video games. So I try to get in pretty much everything that I can.
PTV: Thank you so much for your time! It’s an honor to get to talk to you some more.