My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
The poet on responding to atrocity through formalism and sneaking an epic into his upcoming collection.
Shane McCrae and I got together at a McDonalds, where all of our desires could be met so long as they were on the menu. To know the where is to begin to dream, to dream is to inscribe desire within the menu, thematically affixed between buns of heaven and hell. From early work entrenched in broken dreams of marriage and childhood, to more recent collections like this year’s The Gilded Auction Block (FSG), McCrae’s poetry centers on the tragic status of dreaming. These poems, by their engines of repetition set in tight formal structures, fly outside themselves to subvert the present order’s radically stifling organization of the when-and-where we dream. Before we spoke, we purchased chicken tenders and a Big Mac from the touch screen menu.
— Anastasios Karnazes
Anastasios KarnazesI know that you have often written poems after playing video games. The Hell Poem, with its pixelated descent, particularly seems inspired by your experience with Skyrim. Are video games still a part of your practice?
Shane McCraeWhen I lived in Iowa I used to go out for long drives in the hilly, empty country listening to music, which helped clear my head. It got me to a thinking-adjacent space from which it is easier to write. That practice of driving has since diminished, but a few years ago I noticed I got that feeling as I was playing Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword and was wandering around on the planet below the clouds. Now playing video games is really my only source of the feeling.
AKIt sounds like the simulated space and the daydreaming go hand in hand.
SMI have a condition that is supposedly related to narcolepsy. As soon as I close my eyes for longer than a blink, I start to dream. I dream all the time. I didn’t know until I was in law school that it was not everyone’s experience. The other night after I finished reading a story to my daughter and was putting her to bed, I made the mistake of closing my eyes, and I started to have a dream right away. She just sat there for a while and was like, “DAD.” And I was like, “Oh.” So, it can be problematic but it’s mostly fine.
AKIn video games there is a heightened sense of responsiveness and your poetry similarly responds to poetical histories and historical events past and present. For instance, your recent poem after Willie McCoy’s killing. How does formal rigor help translate a quick and responsive poetry?
SMFormal rigor helps me think because it gives my thinking a shape ahead of time. Some formalists have what non-formalists think of as a kind of paradoxical relationship to this idea. Richard Wilbur claimed that he would never think of what the form would be before he wrote the poem even though he was very strictly a formalist. Having the box of whatever shape or size to put a poem into just helps me think of what a poem is going to be and what it is going to say.
With the Willie McCoy poem, I didn’t have a box to begin with. I don’t think up lines that are non-metrical anymore so I had a tetrameter line and another line which wasn’t. Eventually a stanza started taking shape that operated in a certain way and then I could repeat that. I don’t know what form’s relationship to responsiveness is except insofar as it helps one think. I worry that if I were just writing a free verse poem in response in a short period of time to something like the killing of Willie McCoy it would just be me yelling.
AKI’m interested in how the poem arose, since it came out around the same time as the event.
SMThe Guardian sent me an email the morning before the poem appeared and said they would like me to write something in response to publish right away. So I wrote it that day. I got the email while at my daughter’s end of year ceremony and I realized I didn’t have time to wait for better circumstances, so, after the ceremony, while she was playing at Chuck E. Cheese with her school friends, I was at the table, writing the poem on my phone, and I sent it to the Guardian that day. I made some edits the next morning right before they published it. I like the idea of what one might call occasional or even commissioned poems because form does the thinking for me, and being given a subject does even more of that thinking.
AKIn the poem you write “Willie McCoy is sleeping clouds / Sleep in the wind / as they are shoved through the blue precincts of heaven.” You’ve talked about confessional poetry being mainly a white poet’s pursuit since it assumes a state of grace before the fall. In seeing the relationship between blackness and heaven in the McCoy poem, it seems heaven means something different for white people and black people?
SMI’m reading this book about the crucifixion that talks about racially different ideas of what heaven is. It is more widely spread in the black community that heaven is a place of justice and more widely spread in the white community that heaven is a place of bliss. I think that the poem’s suggestion of heaven as a place that is “blue precincts,” which is admittedly a ham fisted reference to the police, was me trying to combine those ideas and ask, What if heaven is a place of justice, but the authority was white? That’d be a bummer.
AKIn “Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned From Donald Trump,” you write “Even in my dreams I’m in your dreams.” And in “The Hastily Assembled Angel Falls at the Beginning of the World,” you write, “but nobody / Would name the things he saw the way he named them.” Dreaming or imagination, things which we normally consider as a part of our freedom, are actually things which imprison or separate us.
SMWell, freedom is a bad thing for imagination. Historically it seems to be the case that imaginative expression responds well to a degree of repression. Which is not to say that I am pro-repression by any means, but that the imagination likes something to struggle with. It’s similar to working in form—you have a thing to fight against that tends to sharpen your thinking.
AKI think of dreaming as something that can get us outside of something that we are inside. But you show dreaming as something which is always inside of something else.
SMHaving grown up in predominantly white environments, I expect that it is the case for a lot of people in the US that even their subconscious mental states are conditioned by whiteness.
AKThe last poem in The Gilded Auction Block features your daughter and an idea of generationality. One of the poems in the middle features a grandma. How do familial relations and lineages bear significance in your poetry?
SMI think it has to do with the fact that when I was growing up, my family was normalish but not, since I was a mixed-race child raised by my white grandparents, which in the 1970s and 1980s was somewhat unusual. I was also probably writing in response to losing my relationship with my father when I was three—I find him the hardest person to write about.
AKThere is Eden too though and the poems in which she appears are a little more hopeful.
SMKids are great.
AKThese poems also seem the most future-oriented, whereas the other poems are more historical. Not that kids are the future, but that there is something about being with her that sets your sights there.
SMI think it’s hard to think about one’s children without thinking about futurity, at least it seems hard to me. Maybe it’s easy for others. While we live in a not exactly hopeless time, but also a not especially hopeful time, I think that for many centuries people have felt the same way and thought of X or Y thing as essentially the end of the world. I think Trump is the end of the world. And my hope is that my children discover their own end of the world, that we get past this one.
AKThere are sneak peaks of the new book which was almost called The Rainbow Into Life. I really liked that title, but it’s not called that anymore is it?
SMI’m glad you liked that title, people didn’t. Now it is called Sometimes I Never Suffered, which is a last line from a different poem. The Rainbow Into Life was from the first line from the first poem, but that poem isn’t in the book anymore. It’s a continuation of things I started in the other books. Much of In The Language of my Captor is comprised of the piece “Purgatory/A Son and a Father of Sons,” which is a sequence of prose pieces and sections mixed with the Jim Limber sonnets. It’s the first part I finished of this long poem called “The Story in the Ground.” The second part of that book is the Hell poem.
Sometimes I Never Suffered has a preface that says it’s the third part of “The Story in the Ground.” So if you buy or check it out from the library, you have map for the whole long epic. Then you can get the other parts and look at them and see how it does or doesn’t work. It was a thing I did. I snuck in an epic. I had Purgatory in Captor and the Hell poem in Auction Block, so I had to do Heaven , but Heaven is beyond me. I can’t write a kind of poetry that could be deserving or meet it, but I nonetheless did the best I could.
In Sometimes I Never Suffered there are two long sequences and a single loose poem. The new book is a lot about children and about heaven and the Hastily Assembled Angel and this non-sequence of sonnets spoken by Jim Limber, who returns but is dead. Multitudes and multitudes. I don’t know how people will read it if they do. I’m no D.A. Powell by any stretch of the imagination, but he had his first three books be a long thing and they were eventually collected together, and I wonder—if people really want to read the whole thing, they have to get In the Language of My Captor, The Gilded Auction Block, and Sometimes I Never Suffered, but I really fantasize about having them all in one book.
I wanted to try a lot of different forms. Across the books there are prose bits, sonnets, poems in syllabics; there’s a tiny play in the new book, blank verse stuff, a couple narrative poems in the larger thing. It was my way of trying to mix in a lot of older modes into a form that is very diffuse. When I think about the contemporary sequence and what it can or can’t do, I usually think about The Dream Songs, which is to me almost only a sequence because [John] Berryman says it is. It’s nominally a sequence but it’s really just the form he wrote into. There are many, many loose dream songs that aren’t in The Dream Songs.
The contemporary long poem covers such a wide range of possibilities, from very loosely connected things, to tightly narratively organized things. I wanted a poem that embraced as much of that as I could with Dante’s The Divine Comedy as a framing device because that’s the epic, other than the Odyssey, that people think of when they think of epic poems. I used the Commedia as an umbrella and just put all this stuff under it. The umbrella is the thing that made it apparent that this was an epic poem, but the stuff in it was organized according to a lot of different principles, and reflected thinking about different ways that sequences and long things are made. I was probably just trying to have my cake and eat it too.
AK“The Hell Poem” is so good. I know I’ve said that before about the bird especially. It’s a real adventure and not in the ye olde type way, which I didn’t know there was a way to write.
SMNarrative is such an obsolete mode in poetry. I wasn’t thinking about that as I was writing, but then I realized that the technology of how to write a narrative poem has been almost entirely lost. The narrative mode was the dominant mode for centuries. It wasn’t until the last fifty or sixty years that it atrophied basically to non-existence. That should be really scary. There was a whole kind of poetry that most people writing poetry now literally could not write. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do it, because I know very much that I cannot write it and don’t understand how it works. I didn’t want to be separated from the roots of this thing through which I am trying to live my life. Also, it’s fun.
AKI read something about retro music, and why it isn’t just nostalgia. Pop music is itself outdated, so we need to integrate its outdatedness into its form.
SMThe thing about pop music, which I love, is that if you’re thinking in the rock idiom, there’s not a ton you can do. If you add electronics then you have more moves you can make. That’s why post-rock was exciting. But post-rock was exciting like thirty years ago. And it was these people, around the same time as shoegaze, so a time of really cranked up experimentalism and a lot of ambition, trying to figure out, What can I do with these rock and roll things to make a thing which is still recognizably rock-ish but is more sophisticated or at least different. Talk Talk’s album has three twenty-minute songs on it or whatever. I love that kind of music, but it was just another dead-end.
Sooner or later there is a degree of very serious training you have to do or you’re going to run into a wall, where you reach the limits of what you can essentially just make up yourself. That’s why there’s a benefit to studying poets from hundreds of years ago that you may not like for any number of very good reasons. It benefits you to learn their moves, so you don’t have to invent their moves again. I was in a rock band and I really just wanted to be My Bloody Valentine, but later there was a moment when I thought I wanted to be a composer. If I had studied composition, the vistas of what I could have done would have been broader, but if all I’ve done is listen to shoegaze, I’m just going to make shoegaze, and sooner or later smack into a wall not knowing how to do … extra-shoegaze? Kevin Shields, in an interview with Alternative Press, back when it was actually an alternative magazine (ooh burn), right after Loveless came out, said he thought they would be a rock band for a while, but then he wanted to move to what he thought would be the ultimate music, which was music that was essentially formless and had no keys.
I thought that was really exciting, but it was already done a hundred years ago in classical music—this thing with no keys that is amorphous yet very rigorous, and the Second Viennese School very quickly imposed the twelve-tone system trying to give form to this formless thing they made. If Shields, who I love, let me be clear, more than most human beings, had limits to his thinking because he wasn’t reading Schoenburg—and why would he because he is doing something which genre-wise is very different—it nonetheless would have been useful to do the training and expand from there. I feel like I sound super elitist. Everybody has to determine which bits of culture are important to them. And if folks want to contribute to the bits of culture they find meaningful, it helps to study those bits.
AKYou’ve said your autobiographical poems feel the least satisfactory. What makes you keep some of them?
SMI think they are not as good as my third-person poems. Often we assume the “I” in a poem is the author’s self even if we say we shouldn’t. Writing poems about other people gives me more room to think. We live in a context where that’s difficult because you don’t want to trample on the expression of people who actually lived and expressed themselves, so sometimes you have to invent people. Whereas with poems about me, memory degrades, things change, and so the poems feel unstable in the same way that the self feels unstable.
That used to be one of the main things poets did, thinking about other perspectives. Thinking about lives that you couldn’t live. For very good political reasons, and maybe aesthetic reasons, the range of alternate selves that are available to one has gotten smaller, and I think that diminished range to some extent has made poets nervous about doing third-person at all, but I think that poets should still feel freedom to invent selves.
AKIt feels safer too.
SM I was surprised to discover I could write poems that weren’t about me, I basically had no idea. Now that’s my thing. Although the new book I think has one poem about me. For a long time, it didn’t have any, and I think I might get rid of that one.
AKI think it’s cool to have a mix of historical, mythological, and biographical speakers.
SMYou should do it all. American poets in the twentieth and twenty-first century have a lot of anxiety about writing long poems. I used to think that that had to do with The Waste Land, and this is related to the idea that you should be able to do all the things. But I have been reading Keats again because I’ve been having this thing with the Romantics lately. He really wanted to do a long poem, really bad, it hurt him. Keats was fundamentally a lyric poet, but his inclination to write a long poem was that Keats wanted to be great, and he thought great poets wrote epics. He kept trying but never quite got it.
I read Endymion the other day, and tweeted about how awesome I thought book three is, but I didn’t tweet that book three is also the place where you see that the poem as a whole is a total failure, and he can’t write it. It’s beyond him. It’s filled with really beautiful moments, but it’s obvious he doesn’t really know how to handle a narrative. Keats feels a certain lyric responsibility, that the narrative has to be beautiful and do all these things that lyric poems do, but he has to also figure out how to tell a story, and by book three the whole thing just falls apart.
AKIf your lyric drive is hardcore, you’re going to have a bad time writing a narrative, because you’re going to be like, Oh pretty thing I could say.
SMThat’s why I myself feel a lot of angst about writing narrative, but I want to. I also think one of the reasons why narrative poetry in the twentieth century disappeared is because a lot of narrative poems lacked lyric or linguistic interest. So, I want to figure out how to do that.
AKJust let the language tell us where to go.
SMYeah. Just do it in words. Wise stuff.
Anastasios Karnazes is a recent a poet-in-residence at Berkeley Lab with poems at or coming to Adjacent Pineapple, The Iowa Review, The Breakwater Review, Care Zine, and elsewhere.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.