Six Questions (and a Poem): Interview with Shara McCallum

Originally from Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of five books of poetry: Madwoman (Alice James Books, US, 2017 and Peepal Tree Press, UK, 2017); 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.

She has recieved significant recognition for her work, including a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a Tennessee Arts Commission Individual Artist Grant, a Cave Canem Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series, and a poetry prize from the Academy of American Poets.

Her poems have appeared in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies in the US, the Caribbean, Latin America, the UK and other parts of Europe, and Israel; have been reprinted in over thirty textbooks and anthologies of American, African American, Caribbean, and world literatures; and have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian. McCallum is also an essayist and publishes reviews and essays regularly in print and online at such sites as the Poetry Society of America. She has delivered readings throughout the US and internationally, including at the Library of Congress, Folger Shakespeare Library, Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, Miami Book Fair International, Calabash Festival (Jamaica), Bocas Lit Fest (Trinidad), StAnza (Scotland), Poesia en el Laurel (Spain), Incoci di Civilta (Italy), and at numerous colleges and universities.

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. She has been a faculty member in the University of Memphis MFA program, Drew University Low-Residency MFA Program, Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA program, and at the University of West Indies in Barbados.

David Kristof: How has your background of being born from Venezuelan and Jamaican parents affected your poetry and work?

 Shara McCallum: I’m interested in culture generally and have attended in particular in my work to issues of identity, in terms of how individual experience is socially mediated. This of course includes my own experience being of mixed-race and of mixed-nationality (Jamaican-American). I think my own ancestry as well as that of other family members and the fact that I migrated to the US as a child prompted me to ask a number of questions that poetry has (like any number of modes of inquiry) always been asking: how do we know ourselves at different points in our lives and as a consequence of the intersection of the self with the world, the individual life with history?

DK: My poetry teacher, Mr. Janosco, has drilled into my mind that very few contemporary poets utilize a rhyme scheme, but you do in your poem “Parasol.” What do you personally think about rhyme in contemporary? Should more poets use it?

SM: Your teacher is right that fewer (though not zero) contemporary poets use meter and rhyme in a traditional way, in part because of the difficulties with and limitations inherent to writing formal poetry. English is a particularly rhyme-deficient language (when compared, for instance, to Spanish or French or Italian) and therefore it’s very easy to produce clichéd rhymes and doggerel when using a strict rhyme scheme and deploying only traditional rhymes. Some contemporary poets, myself included, think you have to give up too much in order to write formal verse. But I do believe strongly in the presence of rhyme in poetry in a more general sense—rhyme as any echo of sound—and think many contemporary poets use rhyme in this looser iteration of it. For example: using internal rhyme rather than end rhyme (in terms of where rhymes are positioned) and using slant rhyme (assonance, alliteration, etc.) rather than true rhymes (“blue” and “true”). I would never suggest that poets discount working with rhyme altogether and for some writers there is great freedom to be found paradoxically in formal rather than free verse, but I would suggest to beginning poets that they consider a more flexible and organic approach to the soundscape of poems—working from the ear and allowing associations of sound to lead from one word to the next. “Parasol” is certainly a poem I wrote largely by ear. Words and phrases in a poem often feel to me as a writer like they are “right” not only for their evocation of image and meaning but also for their aural qualities (rhyme in this looser sense I’ve defined here as well as rhythm).

DK: When you were younger, did you ever imagine yourself as a poet who has published work read daily?

SM: Never. I didn’t consider being a poet until I was in my late teens, around twenty. I was exposed to poetry and loved reading and writing it much earlier than that but I did not take any of it or myself seriously. I didn’t think of myself as poet in good measure because I had no framework to imagine it: I had no idea that people continued to write in the present or a conception of what that would mean for someone from my background (all the writers I knew were men who were long dead and mostly from England—I was a fan of the Romantics). I’m grateful that I had a poetry workshop toward the second half of my time as a university student, which changed all of that.

DK: When you are writing poetry, do you use a computer or the classic pencil and paper? Do you feel pencil and paper is better for the creative flow?

SM: I almost always write with pen and paper, in several journals I keep going at once. I can write prose on the computer but not poetry. I think there’s an intimacy I associate with handwriting a poem while drafting it—a certain fluidity and connection between myself and the poem that feels essential to composing poems—which would feel lost to me in a typewritten/computer interface.

DK: Being a student of contemporary poetry, I am obviously reading contemporary poetry. When I read it, is there a particular element or something I should pay particular attention to?

 SM: I would recommend that you read poems aloud, memorise them, imitate them, enjoy them for their “music” as well as how they speak to you in their ideas and emotions, and love them for their words, phrases, and lines as much as for what they “mean” or what they are “saying.” The latter is important and critical analysis is not bad—it’s what allows us to train our own intelligence and consciousness unto the art object we are experiencing. But to really appreciate a poem—as with any art—you should also learn to meet it and take it on its own terms.

DK: Your newest book Madwomen comes out January 1st! What can we expect from it?

SM: I think the easiest way to answer this is simply to let you see one of the poems.

Memory

I bruise the way the most secreted,

most tender part of a thigh exposed

purples then blues. No spit-shine shoes,

I’m dirt you can’t wash from your feet.

Wherever you go, know I’m the wind

accosting the trees, the howling night

of your sea. Try to leave me, I’ll pin you

between a rock and a hard place; will hunt you,

even as you erase your tracks

with the tail ends of your skirt. You think

I’m gristle, begging to be chewed?

No, my love: I’m bone. Rather: the sound

bone makes when it snaps. That ditty

lingering in you, like ruin.

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