An Interview with Shara McCallum
By Magdelyn Hammond
Magdelyn Hammond: When did you start writing poetry? Have you always considered yourself a poet, or are there parts of yourself that were always a poet even before you started to write seriously?
Shara McCallum: I started writing poetry seriously about the same time I came to Maryland. I was almost 22 then. I had always written poetry, as far back as I can remember, but I think of that period as marking my beginnings as a writer because it was when I began to consider the craft of a poem consciously and deliberately. I don't know when I began to think of myself as a poet -- that's not a word I use very often in relation to myself. I say I write poetry but rarely say I am a poet. I'm not afraid of the word per se but the phrase "I am a poet" seems somewhat static and stilted. Writing poetry is something I see as active whereas being a poet makes me think of someone sitting around waiting for inspiration or someone posing in some fashion as a "poet." As to the other ways I was becoming a "poet" before really being serious about writing poetry -- probably when I was dancing and singing, which I pursued much more actively and seriously than writing poetry up until my early twenties. I don't think those activities are synonymous with poetry but I've always been attuned to sound and rhythm, both on and off the page.
MH: You received your MFA from the University of Maryland. Which poets did you work with, and how do you feel they influenced your growth as a poet?
SM: I worked with Michael Collier, Michael Waters (a visiting professor for one semester but who had a profound influence on me), Phillis Levin, Stan Plumly and Merle Collins. They all left a mark on me in different ways. I knew virtually nothing about contemporary poetry and had been writing and having
others look at my work for only a year before I came to Maryland. So everything they told me I believed and followed without question. Luckily, as a whole they offered different perspectives on what made a poem "good." This was at times confusing but ultimately very vital in that it helped me to begin to develop my own sense of the aesthetic I wanted to work within. The professors of literature I worked with at Maryland also had a significant influence in my development as a poet. I was first and foremost a student of literature as an undergraduate and how I came to love poetry was by reading it. In college, for example, I studied the Romantics with a wonderful teacher named Kathy Freeman, and Keats has had a lasting influence on my ideas of poetry up to this day. Similarly, when I was a grad student at UMCP, I took literature courses in African American and Caribbean literature with folks like Elaine Upton (a poet in her own right), Mary Helen Washington, and Nicole King. They offered me a very different perspective and aesthetic than what I was seeing in workshops in particular. The combination of all of these was invaluable.
MH: In what ways have other poets influenced your poetry?
SM: I suppose as they've influenced most other writers -- they are the models to which I've turned time and time again to learn from and be inspired by. That hasn't changed. Today I was reading *The Other Voice*, a collection of essays by Octavio Paz. These weren't poems but rather a poet talking about the development of modern poetry. Again, I felt that sense of awe for the mind that would create those essays, even when I disagreed with some of what Paz said. This is often what I feel when I read the poetry of great writers -- awe even if it isn't the way I'd go about a poem. I don't know how all this consciously trickles into my poems but I know that the desire to be a better writer, which comes in part from reading the greats, does challenge and spur me on.
MH: How has writing poetry affected the way you read poetry?
SM: Tremendously. Reading as a writer for me means reading poems with the intent to learn from them and "steal" from them. I think not only about the merits of the poem but about the craft behind the poem and how the poet achieved what she or he did rather than simply experiencing the effect of the poem. This
both diminishes and increases my sense of pleasure in reading poetry. It diminishes it to the extent that it's hard once you see the man behind the curtain to believe in the wizard anymore. But it increases it because it
adds layers of engagement for me as a reader of poetry.
MH: Who are you reading right now?
SM: A list at this moment: Michael Ondaatje, Adrienne Rich, Yehuda Amichai, Robert Hass, Wislaw Szymborska, Eavan Boland, and George Seferis.
MH: Often poets say they read poetry that is quite different from their own. Do you find that to be true? Do you actively seek out certain kinds of poems to read?
SM: Yes and yes. I naturally gravitate toward voices that resonate with the voice of poetry in my own head. But it is often more important for me to read poems that have very different predilections than my own. This is in part how I think we continue to grow as poets. While there are some theories of poetry that suggest that a poet writes the same poem over and over again throughout the course of her or his life, I don't want to accept that as an easy out from the difficulty of invention. I think it's fine that we all, as
poets, have obsessions. But it's important for me to push myself to explore new terrain (I mean this both formally and content-wise). One way I try to do that is by challenging myself to write poems outside of what I know I can do or already have done. What better way to be inspired to do that than by reading someone who is doing something very different from you. I think our taste as poets/readers changes over time as a reflection of this. I probably shouldn't admit this but the first time I read Adrienne Rich, for example, I was about nineteen and I just didn't get into her work or understand, other than theoretically, its significance. I couldn't find a way to enter her poems. Now, almost ten years later, this has changed dramatically. I hope to continue having such experiences throughout my life. I don't know that I'll ever be able to love every poem I read but I want to gain in my appreciation for a variety of aesthetic and political approaches to creating a poem.
MH: I'd like to ask you about your own approach to writing. Kwame Dawes has said of your first book of poetry, *The Water Between Us*, "Shara McCallum reminds me that there is a fresh and compelling body of literature emerging from the Caribbean that is effectively bringing dynamism, grace, and beauty to world poetry." Do you consider yourself a Caribbean poet? How has your experience in the Caribbean affected your poetry?
SM: Yes, I see myself as a Caribbean writer. Also a Jamaican writer, an American writer, an African American writer, a West Indian writer, a woman writer. I may be forgetting some. But I lay claim to all the geographic -- physical and psychological -- spaces I can. My experience in the Caribbean was that I was born in Jamaica and my formative years were spent there. I don't know how to quantify the ways that this fact of my history has shaped me as a person and so am hard pressed to do the same for my poems. But I do know that when I write, often I return to that landscape (emotional and physical) and that I continue to feel drawn to do so. It may not always be that way and then it will become a question for critics to answer -- what makes one a Caribbean writer? a coincidence of birth (see Louis Simpson as a problem in answering this) or of subject matter?
MH: So what do *you* think makes a Caribbean writer (keeping in mind that I know you could write far more on that topic than you have space for here, so generally)?
SM: This is a difficult question to answer, which is probably why I tried to sidestep it initially by saying it's a topic for critics to tackle. Even while I don't see myself as a literary critic, I do teach courses in Caribbean literature and have written a few critical articles so this is something I have been compelled to try to articulate before and probably will again. Some of the things that make a writer "Caribbean" -- birth or at
least some tangible link to the Caribbean would be one, through parents, through spending a significant amount of time in the place, etc. I think the poetry of tourism, while it can be very powerful when done well, doesn't make one a writer from the country one is visiting. Above that, I think there is often a draw in the work toward thinking through what it means to be a writer from that part of the world. This may or may not involve content. It's a gross simplification of the work of Caribbean writers to suggest that the common link is that coconuts appear in every poem or story, as is sometimes the unfortunate result when the landscape of the work is fore grounded in discussions of it. Instead, one more viable link might be to consider why the work of various Caribbean writers frequently raises shared questions that are holdovers from a history of colonization -- race and class relations and issues of nationhood, for example, are prominent in the works of numerous Caribbean novelists. The problem with answering a question like this one is, in part, that the term "Caribbean" is one that cannot withstand the pressure of superficial analysis. There are too many differences in history, language, ethnic and racial composition and the like throughout the various countries we group together as Caribbean to do this question justice in such a small amount of
time, as you recognized. Ultimately, as in trying to name any area or period of literature, I suspect that taxonomy is more useful for critics/scholars and students of literature than in fact for writers of literature. Writers are more concerned with trying to name and bear witness to the particularities of the world and our experience in it than we are with assembling work that provides neat categories for analysis.
MH: I agree, so let's turn to some of the more personal aspects of your poems. At a reading I attended you spoke about your grandmother's impact on your life and poetry. Can you say a little about her?
SM: The grandmother to whom I was referring is my maternal grandmother. She was born in England, adopted as a baby and raised in Trinidad. She went to boarding school in Canada as a teenager, came back to the islands at seventeen and met her first husband at a dance in Jamaica -- he was from Venezuela, spoke no English, she no Spanish, but somehow they were married and she was living in Venezuela by the age of nineteen. She had my mother at twenty. Her life is an interesting one to me for several reasons, not the least of which is the ways in which she has had to adjust to numerous shifts and upheavals and the fact that she has so often done so through humor. She has a wonderful wit and one of her favorite expressions when things go wrong is to say, "you have to laugh or else you'll cry." I don't want to risk making her into a caricature so I'll stop here and simply say she has been a great source of inspiration, poetic and otherwise, in my life.
MH: How do you view your family's place within your writing life?
SM: My family's history has to this point in my writing life frequently been the initial source for ideas for poems. Yet, the amount of transformations that occur in my working with that material often moves the poems so far from that origin that the link is virtually a trace element. For example, one of the poems in the new manuscript is called "Autobiography of my Grandmother" and is loosely based on incidents from her life. The poem is in two parts, the first section on her life growing up in Trinidad, the second based on her experience going to boarding school in Toronto from age 12-16. I sent the poem to my grandmother recently for her to read it and her response was that I got the second part "right" -- referring to the story she had told me about leaving her window open one night and having snow pile up on her blanket. It was so cold in the room, that instead of getting up to shut the window, she said she just kept inching up more and more in the bed until she was curled into a ball and a pile of snow had gathered at the foot of her bed. But, as to the first part of the poem, she said she had no idea what I was talking about. Of course she didn't. Other than allusions to her scoliosis and her mother's mental illness, I made everything up. In general, that is how my family comes to function in my poems and essays -- our history and the stories of individuals in my family are fodder but not the end product of my writing very often.
MH: Many poems in *The Water Between Us* rewrite or revision myths and folktales. Why do you feel drawn to that subject matter, and are you still writing mythological poems?
SM: The poet has always had a responsibility to address the culture in which she or he is raised and lives; and culture, second only to being conveyed by language itself, is transmitted through the stories, fables, and myths we make of our experience as human beings. It follows that rewriting these tales is one avenue to addressing their permanence and their effect on us ontologically. On another level, I simply am enchanted by these tales. The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettleheim has a wonderful book describing this phenomena called *The Uses of Enchantment*, which I came across while doing research for the long poem in the first book about fairy and folk tales and how they are retold, "jack mandoora me no choose none." I love the Anancy stories I heard as a child growing up in Jamaica in the same way that I love the Greco-Roman myths I learned in school in the same way I continue to go back to the Judaic and Christian tales that, whether I "believe" in their veracity as fact or as symbol, are the groundwork for our culture. In the second book I've continued to be fascinated by myth but in most cases am rewriting myths that have no culturally based literary antecedents. The myth of my father and his struggle with schizophrenia and ultimate suicide, which occupies the first section of the book, is one example. The story of tangle hair, a series of three poems, based on a story my mother made up when I was a child because I hated having my hair combed and would often run away and hide when it was time to do that is another as is the appearance of a completely invented figure called "the madwoman by the sea" who crops up in at least two poems in the collection. In these cases, myth making is a tool I'm using to transform more personal and individual experiences into something larger -- into symbol and into poetry.
MH: Do you have a favorite poem in *The Water Between Us*? Which one and why?
SM: I'm partial to "Calypso" but that's probably because I enjoy reading it very much.
MH: My favorite poem is the last one, "What the Oracle Said," which has a fairly dark tone. Why did you choose to end with this poem? Do you feel that its somewhat bleak view of fate reflects back on the rest of the book?
SM: I should note by the way that originally the book ended on another poem, called "Palimpsest," with similar tonal echoes but it was a less successful poem. I have my editor, Ed Ochester, to thank for the suggestion of dropping that poem and ending with the "Oracle." I do think, despite its bleak view as you describe it, that closing with "What the Oracle Said" cements the movement within the book that I was trying to achieve. The book's obsession, or one of its obsessions, is with loss, with what can never be regained. Simultaneously, the poems are a testament to longing bred out of loss, albeit a fruitless one
but one we nevertheless engage in. I liked the idea of this all having been predicted in oracular fashion and the way that this poem would then reshape everything that had come before, in a sense suggesting it had all been destined. Now that I'm saying this I find it strange to consider that I would write something so dissimilar from what I think of as my own philosophical viewpoint on this issue -- I don't believe in destiny but do think it is a powerful literary and dramatic concept.
MH: The epigraph for *The Water Between Us*, "Only the magic and the dream are true. All the rest's a lie," speaks to your concern for truth. Would you discuss your perception of the place of truth seeking in poetry?
SM: I think poetry is about seeking truth but that this truth is an emotional/intellectual one rather than truth as we normally think of it, which is to say something factual. The Rhys quote is an apt way of describing the goal of poetry as I see it, which is that you use metaphor, symbol -- things that are unreal or magical or dream-like -- to get at a greater truth than otherwise could be ascertained by going after it directly. Another way to think of this movement in a poem is through Emily Dickinson's famous quote, "tell all the truth but tell it slant." I like the emphasis on magic and dream in the Rhys quote, though, particularly as someone coming from the Caribbean where these are often indistinguishable from what we think of as reality here in the U.S. I think Rhys, a Caribbean writer herself, understood that. It's no wonder that magical realism would come out of Latin America. Given our history, only in our part of the world (here, I'm grouping Latin America with the Caribbean) would that kind of understanding of what is "true" emerge.
MH: *The Water Between Us* explores many of the heartaches and pleasures of childhood. Do the poems for your next book also follow a theme?
SM: They follow several themes. As I've already discussed, one section is about my father's life -- reenvisioning that, as I was only nine when he died. Other sections are about childhood, the lives of women (some real, some invented), and then I suppose a more "expansive" look outward to the larger world and
the intersections between an "I" and "we" and "them." I'm trying to answer this question but have to say I really hate the word "theme" in relation to poetry. It always feels inadequate in describing a poem because what you are trying to do when naming a theme is to summarize the subject of a piece of literature -- which works much more effectively in prose, which is driven by a subject (a narrative idea), than poetry, which is driven by an image (a non-linear, sensory idea) and by sound.
MH: Okay, point well taken (literature class rears its ugly head). I guess what I'm interested in here is the obsessions I see in your poems which naturally happen with all writers. But I'm particularly interested in the patterns I see in your first book, which intersperses pain/pleasure, childhood/adulthood, reality/truth with little or no barriers. The first book seems to focus in on how the echoes of the child's life reverberate in all of those experiences. So I think I was asking, what reverberates in your next book?
SM: Well, as I've really just finished working on the book I'm not sure I have the space to name these yet. One thing that helped me to organize the book was the idea of memory -- what we actually remember and what we forget, both. Out of that came the idea of making things up, which happens throughout the book in various ways, perhaps most notably in the poem "Coda" about my father in which I address him and say at the end of the poem essentially that I couldn't remember him, I didn't really know him (I was
too young when he died, he was too ill even while alive, etc.) and so I could either forget him entirely or make him out [do you mean "up"] -- I chose the latter. The other idea that helped in thinking of the collection as a whole for me, as implied by the title (which is "Song of Thieves" now, by the way, not "Songs"), is that of theft. The sources of this theft or loss are many in the book -- mental illness, suicide, other deaths, human conflicts on a larger scale. I'll be interested to hear what you and others think are the reverberations since they sometimes but not always are the same as what I see. I think it was Lowell who said the poet is the least reliable source in discussing his or her poem.
MH: And speaking of *Song of Thieves*, when can we expect it?
SM: Now I wish I could be the oracle and answer that. What I can say is that I've finished the collection now and will begin this fall to look for a publisher.
MH: I think some of your readers (me included) are looking forward to its release almost as much as you. In the meantime, though, I know you also write personal essays. What do you write about, and have you published any of your essays?
SM: The essays I've written so far have tended to be autobiographical narratives, though frequently not presented in traditional narrative fashion. A few of them have been published. One, "Snapshots in Black and White," deals with the experience of being of mixed race and with looking white when identifying myself as black. That essay is coming out this fall in Creative Nonfiction's "Diversity Issue." I'm excited to have the essay included in that journal/issue because I consider myself really a beginning essay writer and the journal is such a good one for the field of creative nonfiction. This issue in particular promises to be a great one -- John Edgar Wideman, for example, has a piece in there.
MH: That's great -- I look forward to reading it (and assigning it to my students!). I find that writers of poetry often make the best writers of criticism -- do you have any plans to write criticism?
SM: As I mentioned before, I've written some criticism -- an article on Julia Alvarez (on her novel *In the Time of the Butterflies*) and a couple of articles on poets Lucille Clifton and Marlene Nourbese Philip (a
Trinidadian-Canadian writer). I did a PhD after my MFA so these mainly came out of that experience. I'm not sure if I'll write longer pieces again. Maybe if the mood strikes me. I do write book reviews fairly often
and those I plan to continue to produce. I like doing them because they are shorter and thus more manageable to work on between other writing projects and also because I feel strongly that poetry needs to be a more significant part of our overall literary culture. Writing reviews of poetry is one way I can put my money where my mouth is.
MH: What do you tell people who say you are young to be such an accomplished poet?
SM: Well, I'm 28 right now and I guess that's young by today's standards for poets but Keats had written his great odes long before he was my age. When I compare myself to someone like him I feel rather old and think I have a truly long, long way to go to come anywhere near to being an accomplished poet.
MH: As a professor at the University of Memphis, what advice do you give students who are new poets?
SM: My best suggestion -- the one I give to my students and continue to give to myself -- is to read. Read, read, read, then read some more. Then write and keep writing. And try -- and it's very difficult -- to divorce these activities from the rest of what governs your life. Whether that is what you do to earn a living and its demands on your time, or your family obligations, or the desire to publish (which I think almost all of us have but which can still be a distraction). Finally, I'd say find readers of your work who will be critical and encouraging, both. I have a handful of people in my life -- my husband, who is not a poet but who is a great editor and critic, and friends, many of whom are also poets -- who I trust with my work and whose presence keeps me going.