Maureen N. McLane is the author of five poetry collections and of My Poets, a hybrid work of memoir and criticism. Her new book, Some Say, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in July 2017. McLane talked to our poetry editor, Rachael Allen, about ecology, lyric authority, and balancing poetry with criticism.
The poems in your previous book worked from/under the guise of a character, ‘Mz N’. A number of poems in your new collection Some Say, to me, stem from experimentations with speaking from an ‘I’: there is no Mz N here. The book seems to experiment with the concept of what it means to say – the endless possibilities of speaking, what a reader might miss, what they might overhear, what is misheard, what it means to communicate in general. I think of W.S. Graham’s poem ‘Implements in their Places’, that seems to speak to a more complicated idea of hearing and speaking than just of speech and return:
Do not think you have to say
Anything back. But you do
Say something back which I
Hear by the way I speak to you.
With the book as a whole being called Some Say, and with those colloquial and tricksy titles such as ‘As I was saying, the sun’, I feel there is an effort to destabilize both the poems authority and the position from which you are speaking in the poems. The reader is made to ask, what might have been spoken before this poem? Who am I reading here, and what did I miss? To me, there’s a manner in this book of two-stepping, or play, as with the character of Mz N. Was an exploration in speech/lyric authority important to you here?
Maureen N. McLane:
Oh that Graham poem is so wonderful, and it was brought home to me in a new way in Denise Riley’s Say Something Back – which I encountered after I finished Some Say. Yes, for sure – the question of speech, address, responsiveness, whatever lyric enunciation might be, these all were humming in my ears in recent years, alongside the more character-driven, narrative-ish work propelling my book, Mz N: the serial. I envisioned them as companions, complements, and had a fantasy they might be simultaneously published. They certainly emerged simultaneously. The question of authority, I guess, arises for me more as a mode of responsiveness – a number of poems begin, as you say, ‘in medias res’, conjuring prior exchanges or possible horizons of thought and address. I don’t actually think this destabilizes a poem’s authority – I think it suspends it, decenters it from a declamatory position, puts the speaker in a condition of responding even in moments when it seems a poem asseverates. There are so many models of lyric – Allen Grossman and Susan Stewart beautifully and differently elaborate it – that consider lyric as responsiveness. Grossman has a scary, incisive model of Orphic vs. Philomelan origins of poetic power, Stewart an account of ‘lyric possession’. All these seem terribly resonant and extremely complex to me – accounts of ways we call, and are called, into being, speech, silence. But I also think of any lyric as implicitly choral, or as emerging out of some subliminal sociable chorus, some matrix we all swim in and sometimes ‘speak’ or ‘sing’ from. Fred Moten is brilliant on the sociality of lyric.
I felt there were ecological concerns running through the book, a thread that often spools away from descriptions or feelings on ‘nature’ and concepts of it, and becomes bound up with ideas of capital, destabilized truths or threatened fact. I’m not sure when you started writing these poems, but some of them feel almost prophetic in their utterances. The early poem, ‘OK Let’s Go’, grapples with this in particular.
Every bankrupt idea
Of nature “you can’t write about
Anymore” said my friend
The photographer “except
Let’s enrol ourselves
in the school of the sky
how to know
and unknow is everything
we’ll come to know
under what they once thought
was the dome of the world
I see the poems as working through certain historical ideas of the natural. You have written on, and have a deep love for, the Romantics, and I see an exploration of a Romantic idea of the world, while immersed in our contemporary, chemical-infused landscape. In a number of poems, like ‘Night Sky’, you almost offer a warning, how a ‘natural’ world could end up (and is arguably already within), bound up with language of sales, stocks and shares, sellable and without agency:
See the North Star kiss Mars
& Venus unveil her face
As admen brand the stars
And men sell shares in space
What was your thinking as you were working through this book on ecological spaces and how we position ourselves/walk alongside them?
There’s a huge ecological preoccupation here, yes, which continues from my previous book This Blue. It’s hard not to think about this, if you’re sentient! And it’s hard not to feel crushed, or forced into either hysteria or apathy. In my teaching and scholarly life I read a lot of Romantic-era writers and contemporary scholars on Romanticism, and many of them write brilliantly about a longer ecological-critical horizon for modernity (Anahid Nersessian, Anne-Lise François); and then, too, I’ve long been interested in the so-called life sciences, orders of knowledge, how poetry engages that (from Shelley and Erasmus Darwin to now . . .). I guess I would say I think the Romantics a) are not ‘romantic’ in the sense of nostalgic or ornamental or residual, which too often they get read as, and b) they are still our contemporaries, in that aspects of their thought and reckoning seem newly salient and often predictive. Mary Wollstonecraft on ‘the rights of woman’, John Clare on enclosure, Mary Shelley on technophilia and hubris, and so on – I find these writers to be resources, not nostalgic residues. (Other poets clearly do as well: see Anne Boyer’s Rousseau and Wollstonecraft, Juliana Spahr’s Shelley, Lisa Robertson’s Wordsworth and Rousseau.) Also, there is no nature anymore, right? That is Bruno Latour’s point, and many others’ point – that this forcible separation of ‘nature’ from ‘culture’ or ‘Man’, or what have you, is a modern fallacy, and we’re now having to live through the horrible fall-out, though not under equal duress. I could go on and on about the Anthropocene, contemporary theorists, ‘Four Futures’, periodization, questions of futurity, men explaining capitalism to me, etc but I’ll spare you! But out of that matrix, and many other vibrations and matrices, came the poems of Some Say.
I want to also talk about your book My Poets, a set of creative-critical essays on poets that have been important in your own life, which I love for so many reasons. I see it at this sort of intersection between biography, academic criticism, personal reflection and gossipy bit from poets’ letters. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the impetus behind the book? Some of the essays seem to be very personal, I’m thinking of the Louise Glück one in particular, that definitely hints towards an autobiographical thread. Did you find yourself writing the essays over an extended period of time, or did you realize that you had a group of essays that were relatively similar and then wrote the rest afterwards in the same vein? How did the book come about and how did you feel when you were writing something like this that’s such a hybrid text?
Most chapters in My Poets are oriented to a particular poet, but they are also governed by my specific relationships to those poets. I choose these poets because they’re ones with whom I had some kind of intense readerly relationship, and the specific time of reading them constellated times in my life in ways that were very vivifying and marking. So one way to think about the contours of lived experience is, for me, to think about the contours of reading experience. The germs of the book were a few essays I had written, one in honour of the poet Fanny Howe. I had written a lot of reviews and critical essays for some newspapers and journals and literary magazines since the mid-90s, and I found that writing is enjoyable and valuable to do; and at a certain point I also wanted to be writing in some other keys. I was thinking about, or longing for, something in the vein of what Baudelaire called a ‘poetical prose’. And certain occasions gave me an opportunity to experiment with that – one was an event honouring Fanny, who was a poet I admire greatly and who has since become a friend. And I had written another essay on Emily Dickinson, which is probably – to use your terms – one of the least ‘personal-autobiographical’ in the book. But I began to think about this as an opportunity to pursue these conjunctions, to return to poets who had partly made me, to work in new modes combining reflection, ‘criticism’, autobiography, stylistic imitation, homage.
It was after I had written the ‘My Elizabeth Bishop/My Gertrude Stein’ chapter, ‘My William Carlos Williams’, and the Glück chapter, when I knew I had the possible core of the book. For me, part of the experiment and the excitement was finding adequate form for each juncture, and it was also important for me to be clear with myself and hopefully with readers that this wasn’t a book about the poets I think are the best in the world, whatever that means – and that’s not a conversation I think is that fruitful, although we could have that – but about those poets who catalyzed something in me or marked a time of life. So many poets who have meant and mean enormous things to me – Stevens, Wordsworth, Anne Carson, Lisa Robertson, etc. – don’t have their own chapters. It was really a form of life writing under the guise of criticism. It was very strenuous to write, in part because there was a set of formal decisions that had to be made chapter to chapter. For example, part of the pleasure for me of the Bishop/Stein chapter was getting to swim a bit in Steinian seas. And the proem, which is the opening gambit of the book, came very late. I really wrestled with ways to begin a book like this because, on the one hand, a loosely chronological arc is suggested from, say, late adolescence ‘til the late 90s, but I wasn’t sure quite how I wanted to begin, and then it occurred to me that the proper way to begin was a Q&A that distilled the logic of the book, which is a citational logic – the book is very much a tissue of quotation. That’s part of its stylistic logic and its ethical commitment, in that I don’t think in fact it’s more intimate if I tell you who I’m sleeping with than if I quote Wallace Stevens. Each of those speech acts is equally intimate to me. And part of the logic of this book is to put pressure on what we think the personal is; the ratios of those kinds of shadings shift from chapter to chapter. But it was an exciting and a draining book to write. And I think, also, it came out of my own multiple commitments as a poet and having written a fair amount of criticism, both in a more general key and in a scholarly key. One thing I did not want to find myself lapsing into was a merely instrumental prose. I felt like that is a temptation, and so this book was an attempt not to do that.
My Poets begins its first chapter ‘proem, in the form of a Q&A’, which is what you hear at the beginning of the recording. And (to locate the chapter we recorded), ‘My Elizabeth Bishop/My Gertrude Stein’ is the fourth chapter in the book, and it’s grounded in a time when I was in fact trying to write my undergraduate thesis on Elizabeth Bishop.
The range of styles of writing is one of the things that makes it sort of gripping in its way. It reminds me of a program here called Desert Island Discs, where people choose the songs they’d take if stranded on a desert island. I don’t really listen to that much music, and having a book like this is a relatable thing for someone who mainly only reads poetry. There’s something about this book that feels fanatical. But you also run yourself alongside the poems and poets, and you see yourself and your own limitations, considering your own practice alongside what you’ve taken from those poets, there’s an honesty in how you write yourself into those poets’ lives and how you write those lives into your own.
That’s absolutely true – you mean ‘fanatical’ like ‘enthusiasm’ in an eighteenth-century sense, right? As in: You need to purge that! I appreciate your characterizing it that way, because I was trying to hold open a sort of chiasmic transitional space between self and poet, self and poem, that I wanted the book to honour. And also I realise that a book called My Poets is a specialty item. Desert Island Discs is a perfect analogy: other people might want to think about, say, My Filmmakers or My TV Shows or My Pop Stars. What I feel is that enthusiasm or fanaticism is shareable, even if you don’t share exactly the objects or the particular passions that a particular writer or musician has. I’m always reading my way into other people’s interests – why not? It’s amazing. And there were some books that actually helped me, inspired me in various ways: Edmund White has a book called My Lives, with chapters like ‘My Women’, ‘My Hustlers’ and so on. That way of organizing reflection and experience was very appealing and it made a big impression. And then of course Susan Howe has a famous book called My Emily Dickinson, which is a fanatical, brilliant book that doesn’t overtly traffic in the personal at all. Mine is more of an autobiography, and that’s one reason that I was so happy the book was nominated in the autobiography category for the National Book Critics Circle Award, because they recognized that that was a powerful pulse in the book.
I want to ask you rather crudely how you balance poetry and criticism, because I think that a lot of poets are quite frightened, perhaps worried, that the review will be critical, and there are a lot of critical writers who feel similarly about poetry. I could definitely see how My Poets feeds into your poems, that book is so much about poems as it is about poetics, but what about the element of your work where you review books critically?
I don’t think of it at all as a daily or monthly or even yearly kind of balance. Nor do I think there’s some ‘critical compartment’ of my brain, you know, some kind of phrenological model of my mind. In a way, in all modes of writing, I’m following intimations, intuitions, lures. I can and do feel my aversions strongly, so if I start to feel an aversion I will honour that aversion. I have the privilege right now of not doing writerly things I don’t want to do. And unless I want to actually talk about a poet I’m not going to review a book. I’ve never written a review about something I didn’t want to talk about, and I learned enormous things from writing to deadlines, writing to word counts, but I feel like life is short and time is short and I only want to be doing things that are essential to me and, hopefully, for others.
For a long time I had the good, complex fortune of pursuing things in a possibly false but felt sense of preserved freedom. For me poetry was a space of freedom, it was not a space of sociability. Not that these need to be opposed, but I think they can feel opposed if you’re feeling particularly vulnerable or fragile. And I felt so strained by my graduate studies in English and American literature that it actually ended up being really good for me that the reviews I was writing, the poems I was writing, had nothing to do with that program. Of course, everything cross-pollinates, but for me that kept certain kinds of writing uncontaminated, and uninstrumentalized. That was so crucial for me to feel any kind of happiness in writing. I feel fortunate in that. Everyone has to find his or her own way to their happinesses and their engagements in writing. How do you feel about it?
I think a book like My Poets is important and progressive as it is a result of allowing many ways of thinking about poems and writing to bleed into each other. I think it’s easy for writers to worry about where they’re placing their work or how their work fits with a larger or more accepted idea of what poetry is. And of course if you’re nervous or self-conscious, it will mean you perhaps don’t allow yourself to make strange or unexpected crossovers. And the weight of tradition bears on some people more than others.
Do you feel the weight of tradition bears on people? I feel like the weight of cocktail parties weighs on people. I actually feel, frankly, if you need to carry a weight, carry the weight of tradition. Or tune into the many traditions out there. That’s partly just the trans-generational logic of human beings. This is why it really helps to read dead people. They’re still alive, they just can’t be at the fucking cocktail party, they can’t reject your poem. Thumbs up! Read excellent dead people. Don’t only read the people who are alive, are you kidding me? Also, let’s read in translation, and against our own inclinations. It’s a big world, it’s a big, mixed English, it’s a big instrument, you know, and some incredible poets are committed to degrading the instrument: that’s the way Cathy Park Hong talks about her poetry. There are so many – what is it? that wonderful phrase Maggie Nelson takes from the poet Dana Ward – so many ‘many-gendered mothers of my heart’. There are so many possible mothers and fathers of our heart and of our writing, and maybe 1% of them are alive.
What is next for your work? Are you working on anything at the moment?
What IS next for my work? Ah, not clear. At the moment I’m working on some poems for friends, as a kind of birthday present to myself and others, and I’m looking forward to more expansive reading in the coming months, and to some possible collaborations with musicians and visual artists. I’ll also be helping to select poems from my books for a Selected Poems due to come out from Penguin UK, likely in 2019: that is exciting. Overall, I think I am in a more receptive than overtly productive moment – we shall see! It’s a weird moment, to say the least, so Wallace Stevens’s ‘How To Live. What To Do’ is much on my mind.
Photograph © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey