“Dear History”: An Interview with Shara McCallum

Tyler Mills

mccallum-shara-photo-200Shara McCallum is a poet whose poems are driven by an energy that sparks with questioning. How do we perceive the world? How do narratives of myth, the self, history, and motherhood interact? “The trick is to remember // time is a fish / swimming through dark water,” says the speaker of her poem, “Exile,” from her latest collection of poems, Madwoman (Alice James Books, US, 2017 and Peepal Tree Press, UK, 2017).

Listen to McCallum read her poem “Oh Abuse” from Madwoman, originally published in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.

Originally from Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of four previous books of poetry: The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, UK, 2011); This Strange Land (Alice James Books, US, 2011), a finalist for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature; Song of Thieves (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 2003); and The Water Between Us (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 1999), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry. Her poems have been published in the US, the UK and other parts of Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Israel and have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian. Recognition for her work includes a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, a Cave Canem Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series, and other awards. Since 2003, McCallum has served as Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University, where she also currently holds the Margaret Hollinshead Ley Professorship in Poetry & Creative Writing.

Tyler Mills: This Strange Land, your third book of poems, is a gorgeous collection that meditates on bodies—of water, of kin, and of land. The Kingston, Jamaica of your childhood comes to life in poems addressed, “Dear History.” A “Miss Sally” speaks throughout these poems as a voice that seems almost mythic in her warnings and explanations. And the figure of the mother recurs through retellings of mythological stories in poems such as “My Mother as Penelope,” “My Mother as Narcissus,” and “My Mother as Persephone.” What inspired you to return to memory in these ways?

Shara McCallum: Memory has often been a spur for me as a poet, not so much in a narrative sense but in the way a spark a feeling or image often leads me to a poem. I’m curious about why we remember what we do and how our memories come to define us, as individuals and as groups of people organized around such social concepts as nation, race, etc. Equally, if not more so, I’m interested in why certain parts of the past (private and public) are forgotten or deliberately covered up. But I think your question is really, What does memory have to do with myth for me?—which is a great question and much harder to answer. When I was writing the poems you mention I don’t think I was conscious of wanting to recast my memories as myths, but I have always loved myths, fairy tales, folk tales, and storytelling itself. I see myth as a way we can widen our gaze as people—helping us to see past our own, personal experiences and to recognize that others have also had these same lives, these same foibles and failings and joys our ego keeps insisting are unique to us. In some sense recasting my mother (who is already transformed by becoming a figure and not the real woman once I put her into the poem) as these mythical characters was my way of trying not only to see my “real” mother and the figure of the mother in the poem more fully but also to refract ideas of womanhood and motherhood through multiple characters at once.

TM: What was the most challenging poem for you to write in This Strange Land? Why?

SM: It’s a toss-up: either the long sequence that opens the book—“Dear History”—whose poems/parts I wrote and rewrote for eight years, working to get the different voices and threads of personal and public histories to occupy the same plane; or the collage poem, “From the Book of Mothers” which was composed (as all of my collage poems have been) out of scraps from my notebooks, which I then typed into a file, and quite literally cut-up into slips of paper that I arranged and rearranged on the floor, to see what the poem would be. What both the long sequence and long poem share in common, I suppose, is the idea of arrangement as crucial to their expression. They also reflect my desire to get at a larger story or idea or truth by employing multiple voices, points of view, and tonalities—things I’m attracted to as a writer. The other reasons these poems—and this book as a whole—were so difficult for me was that many of the poems began before I became a mother, and were largely coming out of one subject (Jamaica in the 1970s as I was growing up in it), and then my writing was disrupted in every sense—thematically, aesthetically, and practically—by motherhood and the upending of self that resulted. When I understood that this rupture had to become the subject of some of the poems, that’s when I began to understand how to write and finish “From the Book of Mothers,” perhaps most obviously, but others like the “Dear History” sequence as well, if less obviously.

TM: In 2013, you were awarded the prestigious Witter Bynner Fellowship, selected by former-poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. In what ways has this award influenced your writing life?

SM: Having that endorsement from Natasha Trethewey, whose poetry I love and admire, was in and of itself a gift. The fellowship was also instrumental in a tangible sense: I used part of it to rent a house for a week a few summers ago and went away for my first writing retreat. Before I had children, I wondered why many writers I knew went to retreat/residency centers. I preferred writing at home, ideally in my kitchen or living room—somewhere with wide open spaces. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this was because I was in a completely empty house with long hours alone. Since having children, and with my husband staying home with them, I am rarely alone in my house now and write any and everywhere and in every crack of time I can find, often waking very early in the morning to do so when I’m in full swing with poems that are calling for my attention. Over the past dozen or so years it turns out that I really could have used a retreat or residency, but the institutionally-funded ones require a minimum length of stay (two to three weeks) that until very recently was untenable for me. Having the support of the Bynner made it possible for me to define my own ideal residency and, as important, allowed me to fund it. That week helped me to reconnect with myself as a writer in a sustained way and find my way to Madwoman.

TM: In addition to writing poems—which can be an intensely private act—you also work publicly on behalf of poetry in multiple arenas: as Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry, you work on behalf of writers at many stages of their careers. Can you talk about the ways that your roles in the poetry community intersect, or even influence one other?

SM: I don’t know if they intersect that often. Writing a poem is for me an intensely private act, as you describe it so aptly, and a solitary endeavor. It’s an act of looking inward, akin to meditation or prayer, and comes from a desire to make sense of my life and the world in language that relies on compression, of image, music, idea, and feeling. The other types of work I do—teaching, directing the Stadler Center, or even giving a reading—is the opposite: outward-looking, communally based, and very public. I remember as a young person becoming aware of the possibility of being a poet because of others. That younger version of myself is who I remember when I teach.

TM: Could you talk a bit about “that younger version” of yourself? What was it like for you to work on your first book of poems, The Water Between Us (which won the Agnes Lynch Star­rett Prize for Poetry)? When did you know that you wanted to pursue poetry?

SM: I wrote the poems I included in my first book in a period of about four years in my early twenties, while I was a graduate student in an MFA and then PhD program, so it was begun with the support of the workshop and then finished on my own. I worked on that first book quite blindly and blithely, hoping that it would be published of course, as we all do, but not sure what to do other than to write, write, write and read, read, read a lot. I remember the PhD experience, in particular, as a solitary one and formative in the way that isolation can serve as a chisel. During my years in that program, I was living in rural, upstate New York and commuting eighty miles to the university where I was taking my degree. I would drive to Binghamton, two or three times a week at most, for class in the evenings and then get in the car and drive back home right after the class ended late at night. This routine lasted the first year and a half, until I finished coursework and was on to exams and the dissertation, at which point I was on campus even less. The long hours driving up and down I-88, and the many hours I spent by myself during the days I was home alone in the various farmhouses my husband and I rented in the country, came to define my writing process. They allowed my mind to wander and me to fall into long periods of silence, of reading, drafting, note taking, writing, and rewriting. This habit of mind and the writing practice I cultivated in those early years has stayed with me since. Although I no longer have nearly as much time as I did then, it is that rhythm I return to when I write.

I should say that I think it was possible for me to be completely alone for extended periods partly because of the time period I was living in then: this was the early-mid 90s when email was just beginning to be in use, there was no internet to speak of (at least none I recall and, if so, not in the way we talk of “surfing the net” now as a recreational activity), no cell phones in wide-spread use, no texting, no Facebook, no Twitter, etc., so when I say alone, I mean alone. In those years, a principal way I stayed in touch with friends was by writing letters by hand, which I think of now as having also been part of my training as a writer in how, among other things, to sit with my own mind and be still. Some of the friends I corresponded with by letter were themselves also beginning poets, and this made the letter-writing even more inextricable from my poetic development, since in our exchanges we talked about our ideas of process, craft, what we were reading, and what poems we were working on at the time. This may sound all very nineteenth century, but I’m only talking about twenty years ago. The other key aspect of my isolation in those years, when I look back on them now, is that I didn’t know a great number of other writers yet. I don’t mean that I wasn’t close, personal friends with a huge number of poets. I mean I didn’t know many at all, and I definitely didn’t have much of a clue of who was who in contemporary terms. Much of my “poetry community” in those early days was comprised of a handful of close friends who were, like me, working to become poets, and a much vaster number of long dead great poets and great poets very much alive who I was becoming acquainted with, meeting them in their poems and on the page. During my years in New York, I sometimes felt lonely as a consequence of all of this, but now I’ve come to think of all of it as very lucky.

As to when I knew I wanted take myself seriously as a poet—that happened early in my first year in the MFA program. I was young when I went to Maryland (twenty-one), right out of college, and I had taken only a couple of poetry workshops prior to getting into the program. I remember often feeling like a fish out of water—if you could see the notes I took where I misspelled the names of the poets everyone would rattle off in workshops, you would know what I mean. I’d been an English major as an undergraduate and thought I knew poetry, but I’d read primarily British literature and largely pre-twentieth-century literature, so that first year in the MFA for me was a kind of baptism by fire into contemporary American poetry—which, rightly or wrongly, I felt all of my fellow poets in the program had been writing, reading, and breathing since they came out of the womb. That was the primary reason that after one year in the two-year program at Maryland, I decided I needed to go on to do a PhD. I knew if I wanted to really become a poet, I should probably become intimate with somebody besides Keats.

TM: Would you describe the process by which the poems of your recent book became a collection in comparison with (or contrast to) the poems in your first book, The Water Between Us? I’m thinking about that phase of the project where you’re sitting on the floor, pages spread all around you, thinking about the book’s arc. How did you approach this puzzle most recently—or even now, as you’re working on your latest manuscript—and how did you approach it when you were working on your first book “blindly and blithely?”

SM: The process of putting a book together has actually been quite similar since my first book—which is that I spread the poems on the floor, as you mention, and see what the arc is, which poems might best speak to each other in succession or benefit from being farther apart, and which overall order allows the poems to best chime. This process is largely intuitive and led by my reading aloud a lot and listening to how, for instance, the closing of a poem sounds when juxtaposed with the opening of the next, or how just opening and closing lines and titles of successive poems work (or not). As to when I assemble poems into a book, this happens late in the game. With Madwoman, for example, I kept the poems I was considering for the manuscript in alphabetical order by title up until nearly the end. Particularly given the recurrence of the voice and figure of the Madwoman throughout the collection, I didn’t want to jump ahead and over-determine how individual poems might unfold or limit the directions they could go in (tonally, subject-wise, etc.). Does that make sense? Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy putting books together and seeing how poems inevitably engage in conversation with one another once you start arranging them as a book, just as I love sequences/series and long poems for the similar reason that they offer a larger canvas—or better accommodate a fugue—but I resist putting a book together for as long as possible when I’m writing so that I can give each poem/part my full attention and allow for it to be as divergent as it wants to be. I think there should be tension in a book, as in a poem, between coherence and disunity.

TM: What advice would you have for poets now who are just starting to pursue a life in poetry? I can’t help but think about how much has changed in the landscape of contemporary poetry—and I’m thinking about social media in particular—since I was starting my MFA program more than ten years ago. How would you encourage a younger poet who is beginning to work seriously on craft, on tone, on voice, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram—and I might be forgetting one!—to have the ability to, as you said, “sit with my own mind and be still?”

SM: Well, I teach and so this comes up quite a bit, as you might expect. To address this directly from the get-go, with my undergrads I often begin each semester by reading Adrienne Rich’s essay, “As If Your Life Depended On It.” Afterward, I ask them to describe what prevents them from reading and writing with the kind of devotion and attention Rich’s essay puts forth as a challenge for us all in that essay and which they ostensibly want to meet by virtue of having signed up for my course. We talk about psychological challenges of course but some of things standing in their way are far more mundane. Inevitably social media as a symptom and/or cause of their scattershot attention comes up in the conversation, and I offer them some practical tips on ways to be alone with themselves—some of these include asking them to consider where to write so they can be alone and what time of day might best suit their lives and dispositions. I also suggest they lower their standards—write for shorter intervals more often and be prepared to write badly. To stave off the seductive distraction of technology, for the semester they are working with me I ask that they keep a notebook and write early drafts by hand (which almost all of them are happy to do) and that they keep technology turned off or at a physical remove from them whenever they are writing. I’m honest with them that I, too, find it easier to respond to email than to write a poem (which I do!)—and that seems to get the point across that this is a shared and ongoing struggle. The other thing I’ve done for the past several years now early in the semester is an exercise that combines yoga with writing. The purpose is to root them in a somatic practice akin to the cognitive act of writing and to connect writing to a conscious effort to fall outside of time.

Graduate students I teach, as with the post-MFA fellows and residents I get to know at the Stadler Center, usually have already cultivated a poetic practice when I work with them, so our conversations around social media tend toward its role in increasing their anxiety over whether or not there will be “a seat at the table” of contemporary poetry for them. Let me say I don’t think the desire to claim a space for oneself is something new in emerging poets of today (and in many ways it is useful as a spur to all of us, as ambition and ego are not altogether bad). The difference I see for writers coming up now than was true for me at that same stage is simply the amount that can be known at every instant about who else is publishing, who else is winning that fellowship you coveted, etc. From my experience and observations, focusing on this information does not feed the writing life (not to mention one’s soul), and perhaps this is especially the case when we are first trying to develop a sense of our own voice and vision and to find faith and confidence in both of these. What I suggest to emerging writers I have these types of conversations with if they seem to want my advice is really pretty basic: disconnect and stop paying attention to what everyone else is “getting” or what you think they are getting. There is no everyone else, there is nothing to “get.” There’s only you and what you are capable of achieving at any given time within the art.

TM: Which programs or events have you been the most proud of planning during your tenure as Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry? What are your goals for the future?

SM: I’m most proud of the community I’ve been part of and have helped build. The core of the Stadler Center has been constant in my time as Director—the Program Manager Andrew Ciotola and I have worked together for over a dozen years now. I think of Andy and me as the heart or engine of the place, or sometimes as the ones “behind the curtain” pulling all the levers like mad if it’s a particularly busy time! But there have also been an incredible array of visitors over the years who have shaped the Stadler Center by their presence and engagement, who have come through one of our various fellowship or residency programs or have been visitors giving a reading—staying for a couple years, a semester, sometimes a week or even just a night—all of them adding their imprint to what we do and who we are. And there are of course my brilliant creative writing faculty and staff colleagues and the students (like you once were, Tyler) and the members of the local community or individuals in the region—you get the gist—who fundamentally make the Center what it is. The Stadler Center is in a building dedicated to poetry, which is a rarity in this world, but the Center is an idea that resides in the people who connect to its mission and nurture that vision.

You have asked me about programs and events though, so if I have to single out one contribution I’ve made as director it would be the addition of the Poetry Path. It’s the Stadler Center’s first public art project and engages people who are poets, as well as those who are not. The Poetry Path comes out of at least two key beliefs I hold on to: that people can be deeply moved by poems, even if they don’t read or study poetry formally, and that poetry gives each of us an opportunity to be more fully present in our day and in our lives.

As to the future, that’s harder to predict. For now I’m trying to enjoy where I am while I’m here.

TM: I love what you said about your beliefs, that “people can be deeply moved by poems even if they don’t read or study poetry formally, and that poetry gives each of us an opportunity to be more fully present in our day and in our lives.” Which poets—or individual poems—do you turn to again and again when you’re suggesting work to someone who might not be an avid reader of poetry? And which poets (or books) are especially part of helping you personally “be more fully present” day-to-day?

SM: There are so many poets and poems I love and/or admire, so it would really depend on who I was talking to and where they were coming from as to what poet or poem I would recommend. Some of the poets/poems that quickly come to mind as ones I return to over and over are John Keats, who I earlier mentioned—all of his odes but especially “Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn”; Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”; Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”; Emily Dickinson, “I’m nobody! Who are you?,” “My life had stood a loaded gun,” and “I cannot live with you”; Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Luck” and scores of his blues poems; Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West” and “Sunday Morning”; W.B. Yeats, “Second Coming” and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”; Robert Frost, “Acquainted with the Night” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay”; Sylvia Plath, “Morning Song,” “Poppies in July,” and “Poppies in October”; Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays” and “Middle Passage”; and Derek Walcott, “Schooner Flight” and “Love After Love.” The list go on almost endlessly: Lucille Clifton, Agha Shahid Ali, Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Eavan Boland, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lorna Goodison, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Li-Young Lee, Elizabeth Alexander—all of whom I return to repeatedly. I feel like I’m of course forgetting someone essential (like Shakespeare and his sonnets and my latest obsession Robert Burns!) but I’ll stop for now.

TM: We first met when I was your student your first year as a professor at Bucknell. You had recently published Song of Thieves, your second collection of poems. You were also expecting your first child. Looking back to this time, how would you say that your sense of yourself as a poet, a teacher, and even a person, has grown? If your present-day self had the chance to whisper into the ear of your past-day self, what would she say?

SM: It’s difficult to say exactly how I’ve grown in these ways, so I’ll simply say that I hope I have learned some things over the past dozen or so years since we met and that I will continue to become a fuller and more complicated version of all these roles/selves you mention. What’s easier for me to answer is your second question. I would tell my younger self to be more patient with and forgiving of her limitations and to stop apologizing so damn much. I think as women, and especially when we are younger, many of us say “I’m sorry” far too often. Every time we can’t do something, disagree with someone, or even feel we might disappoint someone, we feel the need to explain/defend ourselves unnecessarily, preface our replies with apologies and qualifiers, or equivocate in some other fashion—and then we worry for countless hours afterward that we’ve done something wrong, that the other person(s) will take offense, won’t like us, etc. If nothing else, this is a waste of time and exhausting. If you’ve really hurt someone or made a mess of a situation, of course you should take a hard look at yourself and assume responsibility for your actions. I’m not advocating arrogance or narcissism here but, rather, a willful self-possession. I think as women it is especially crucial that we find ways to own a sense of our value much younger than most of seem able to do, particularly when I consider how men tend to behave at a similar age. What I’ve observed with the young male students I teach and mentor and with the junior male colleagues I work with is that they definitely have their own battles to fight, but by and large assertion of self generally isn’t one of them.

I should note that much of what I’m saying is advice I still dispense to my forty-four-year-old self, but one of the great gifts for me of aging is experiencing what my grandmother had assured me would come to pass. From when I was a young girl she would say that the forties is a great time for a woman because we “know ourselves” by then. The older I get, the easier it is for me to care far less what people (who haven’t earned the right to impact my sense of myself) think about me, my work, a decision I’ve made, etc. It’s a relief.

TM: I think what you said is so important: thank you. My last question involves poetry itself. What do you think a poem can do when it is its most successful? What do you think is the secret that a poem can carry inside of it?

SM: The poems I read and return to and frequently memorize, are ones where I experience the sensation that every word is exactly the right one and where it needs to be and that the form and feeling of the poem are in near perfect alignment. I also highly value sincerity in a poem—of voice, idea, and emotion, yes, but also of form. I admire most those poems whose poetic moves and gestures feel organic, necessary, and inextricable from the poem’s larger vision or purpose. And, lastly, I am most drawn to poems that have something at stake and something to say, that go beyond the exercise of linguistic dazzlement, gorgeous as it may be. As is true for most of us, I aspire as a writer to the standards I see being met or exceeded by the poems I hold in the highest regard.

I think your question about the “secret” a poem can carry is a fantastic one and difficult for me to give just one answer to, so here are some of the secrets that I find the very best poems carry inside themselves: the history of their making, the history of our reading of them, and their voicing of unresolvable questions.

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