The Illusion of Prominence: An Interview with Shane McCrae

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Shane McCrae is the author of six books of poetry: The Gilded Auction Block (forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux), In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; The Animal Too Big to Kill (Persea Books, 2015), winner of the 2014 Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award; Forgiveness Forgiveness (Factory Hollow Press, 2014); Blood (Noemi Press, 2013); and Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011). He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City. 

This interview was conducted in January of 2020 at the University of Michigan. It has been edited for clarity and length.


Bryan Byrdlong (BB): I want to start the interview in a similar way to how you start your most recent book, The Gilded Auction Block—a sublime work—with a question about the use of Trump as a subject and his presidency as a cultural object. In the opening poem, The President Visits the Storm you write:

America you’re what a turnout great Crowd a great 
crowd big      smiles America 
The hurricane is everywhere      but here an
Important man is talking here

The use of white space and the unpunctuated syntax appears to interweave your speaker’s voice with a cadence with his. I know you’ve cultivated the use of meter over multiple projects but what effect is this interweaving of voice meant to have here, if any? And, did you have to do something to adjust.

Shane McCrae (SM): To some extent. I did it that way because there was a certain musical jumpiness to it that I really enjoyed. I realized that I wrote the poem in a way in which it’s easy to read the speaker as Trump but it’s supposed to be someone introducing Trump. It’s iambic but there is a greater disparity between the unstressed and stressed syllables, particularly in the opening line that makes it full of this specific energy. I thought that the energy made it sound like someone who is trying to get a crowd fired up even though the message of that poem is pretty grim. 

Also, what’ll get a poem going for me is a certain music and that first line occurred to me right before I went to bed. I wrote it down in Gmail right before I went to sleep and then I wrote the rest of the poem all in one sitting. But, I think the reason that line occurred to me was because of the way it hops along and sort of sings. I think that’s the music that I’m trying to sustain and occasional disrupt in the poem.

BB: That’s a good starting point. I want to talk a little more about the book in terms of the order. The first section appears to engage with the dual work of ekphrasis and documentary poetry from After Carrie Kinsey’s Letter to Theodore Roosevelt engaging with the letter Carrie Kinsey of Bainbridge, Georgia, sent to President Theodore Roosevelt to The Brown Horse Ariel in which an epigraph of the Sylvia Plath poem in which she uses the n-word is juxtaposed with a reimagining of her character Ariel. Does this contrast of American art and history in this section frame the notion of The Gilded Auction Block or is that a larger idea? 

SM: Well most of the things that people see or respond to in my poems are things that I haven’t noticed. In some ways, if you put the Carrie Kinsey poem next to The Brown Horse Ariel, the interplay between the two poems is what a “gilded auction block” is. Carrie Kinsey desperately hoping the president will respond to her plight and Plath’s off-hand use of that word as a sort of adjective is devaluing. I think those two things together are what the Gilded Auction Block is, an illusion of prominence, this brilliantly glowing prominence that you’ve been raised above so you can be sold.

BB: Pivoting toward the idea of America in the book, in the second section, I love the direct address to America in these more intimate lyrical poems because I find them especially personal. Why did you choose to write directly to a personified America for this project?

SM: A lot of these choices are made insofar as how a line occurs to me. The first one was the “Everything I learned about Blackness I learned from Donald Trump” poem which had the line, “America I was driving when I heard you.” That was when the poem got started. I was thinking how I couldn’t remember what about Trump I thought was the death of America, but it was something that I heard when I was driving. It felt like that’s the way the poem came and it was necessary to maintain that personified America. But, you know, that’s also the sort of wrestling that the book is trying to do. America is the angel that the book is trying to wrestle with, and so, it’s constantly needing to reinvoke and readdress America. The constant need to reinvoke the constant need to readdress has to do with the experience of being Black in America and this feeling that one is never listened to in a lasting way. There will be reactions to horrors and atrocities visited on Black people and the reaction will seem forceful but very quickly dissipate. And so, by referring to America again and again I’m trying to get America’s attention.

BB: In an interview with Poets & Writers, you said the most challenging thing about writing the book was not giving up on the Hell Poem which makes up the entire third section. What books, insights, methods helped you get through such a long, narrative, epic and what inspired it in the first place?

SM: I don’t know that I was reading any particular books; it was more of drawing upon books I’d already read, Dante of course, Paradise Lost. What kept me going was the fact of having written it, which is maybe a bit of a paradox. I wrote it relatively quickly initially and there being so much writing out there and it being the longest sustained poem I’d ever done; I didn’t want to throw it away. I thought it might be something worthwhile in it if I could make it work. I revised that poem for years trying to get it right. Originally my fifth book, the book that became The Language of My Captor, was just going to be this 60 pages long extended poem that was built upon the ‘Hell poem’. One section was incorporated into the ‘Hell poem’ as it was published but most of it, I abandoned. And so, for a while I was engaged in this project in which I was talking about Hell in this long form narrative. But I ultimately did get it into a form that I thought was okay.

BB: This leads into my next question. Within that long poem there are before each section sublime visual pieces by the artist Christine Sajecki. Can you tell us a bit about how that collaboration came to be? 

SM: Some years ago, a journal wanted us to work on a poem together and that’s how I became aware of her work. I think she’s a wonderful artist; I liked her work so much that I asked her to provide a cover for the next book that I was doing which was Forgiveness, Forgiveness. She did and that grew into this ‘Hell Poem’ project. I wanted images to go with it because I was thinking of illustrated editions of The Inferno and she was kind enough to make these images. She was always very responsive and very quick. As I said, the project took years because of my revisions but she was very patient about it and I was very happy with what she made.

BB: Switching gears to talking around the book, the more books of poetry I read, the more curious I become about how poets use the epigraph. Can you talk about how you came to choose your two epigraphs for the most recent book? And what you think in general makes a good epigraph?

SM: I think what makes a good epigraph is one that sets the mood for what happens after it and I think that if it’s super useful it will also point the reader somewhere that they haven’t looked before, maybe an author they haven’t read. It’s like an establishing shot; it’s good for setting up the reader’s expectations or getting them prepared for certain feelings but also getting them prepared to look at different things. 

One epigraph I chose was the Stina Nordenstam song, “The Man with the Gun.” I’ve loved her music since I first stumbled across it, and I thought that epigraph was appropriate to the little bit that the book says about gun violence. In one section of the book, I chose to elicit a response to the man with the gun and ask about where he’s been. There’s a way in which I think Trump is a worst-case scenario built into American democracy and capitalism, like sooner or later there’s going to be a Trump, and so there’s question so where has this person been? And, it’s a dreadful arrival but nonetheless it’s perhaps an inevitable one. 

The Anne Carson epigraph I liked because of what it says about “what starts in the ground.” I liked the idea of where action begins and where does action remain rooted, in regards to political action. For action to stay in the ground isn’t necessarily a bad thing because work can be more effective when done in secret. I think poems work in a subterranean way and I was hoping that those two epigraphs would set the book up for readers.

BB: I think they definitely do.

SM: Good! 

BB: One more question for the music lovers, in 2018 you helped curate a playlist for Poetry Foundation. Now in 2020 are there any songs that you are listening to, to write, to relax?

SM: Yeah! I listen to music mostly when I can figure out the time. I don’t listen to music when I’m writing because I get distracted by the other music and I don’t want that to interfere with my poetry. A while back I was really affected by Thomas Schmidt-Kowalski, his third symphony. There was a composer named William Wordsworth a 20th century composer who’s a relative of William Wordsworth the poet and his 8th symphony is really wonderful. There’s a certain group of late symphonies that are very stripped down very minimal: Wordworth’s 8th, Malcolm Arnold’s 9th, their very wonderful, very stark. I’ve really been getting into this composer named Benjamin Lees; my favorite composer of all time Gloria Coates and Galina Ustvolskaya and also, I’m always trying to figure out the music of Robert Simpson, his symphonies and string quartets. Otherwise I listen to a lot of goth.

BB: Nice!

SM: I’m really into the Sisters of Mercy in this kind of abstract way. I don’t listen to them as much as I think about them. I love their songs, but their main dude Andrew Eldritch is such a cerebral songwriter and there’s a way in which the Sisters of Mercy is almost performance art. 

Also, the last thing I’ll say is as I’m very into bands that are simulacra bands, bands that copy other bands. There’s a band called The Merry Thoughts. They were a German band who tried to copy everything the Sister of Mercy did including down to how they dressed. They found a singer that looked just like Andrew Eldritch and tried to write lyrics the way that he did. It’s essentially a band that is trying to be a tribute band but writes their own songs. You can sometimes find bands like this; there’s another band called The Caves, another German band who copied the Cure all the way down to having a singer who sounds exactly like Robert Smith. What I find interesting about these bands is that—the Cure only made one Disintegration, and I think that’s one of the greatest albums of all time. The Caves did their own album that was the sound of Disintegration, but it wasn’t written by the cure. If you want more Disintegration you can go to The Caves or if you want more Sisters of Mercy you can go to The Merry Thoughts. I’m very interested in that. So yeah, I guess that’s where my head is with music right now. 

Bryan: I’ll have to give them a listen! Thank you for your time.

Shane: Thank you!