An AFTERWORD with Shara McCallum: Part Two

photo credit: Stephen Shwartzer

Please read Part One here.  In this second half we have just discussed the fact that Bucknell no longer has any semester long “Bucknell-In” programs that are not in Europe, the fact that students don’t see the Caribbean as a destination for study, and the difference in Jamaica’s love-hate relationship with Britain and America’s anglophilia.  Now I bring the conversation back to the book and the CD that accompanies it, leading us into a conversation about publishing, oral traditions in poetry and Shara’s love of the line. 

Jessica Vooris:  Going back to the book, what was the decision making around having the CD? Because I didn’t realize that was part of it.  I just ordered it online and then I was super excited, thinking “There is a CD! Now I can listen to Shara.”

Shara McCallum: I know, I wish they would advertise that on the website and also make it more apparent on the book itself.

So, how this came about is that when my first book came out I gave a lot of readings and I would over and over again hear from people, “Do you have a CD?” And that was the schtick for the last ten years, 12 years, since my first book came out.  So when this book was coming out I switched publishers, which was its own saga, not by choice.  No-one usually switches publishers.  Sometimes, if it is a move up in the literary world, so I can’t say never, but Pittsburgh didn’t want this book.  And they had done my first two books, and that was really hard for me as a writer, I really experienced a lot of doubt from that, but after I sent it to them twice, the third time I sent it to them I also sent it to other places, including Alice James, which wanted it.

They loved it, and I had good responses from other places which was really helpful to me, because it reminded me of what I would say to my students that I had somehow forgotten myself, that this is entirely subjective at a certain level. You know, there is craft, and then there is aesthetics.  You have heard me talk about this.  They are two different things, right. It wasn’t necessarily that the poems were bad, as I was beginning to feel because this one reader didn’t want them, it’s that it wasn’t for him.  It wasn’t his book. And with the number of books that he has to select from, my gosh, he only has to take those that he loves.  That’s the prerogative of an editor.

Anyway, in the end it worked out brilliantly.  I love Alice James.  I love the editors I am working with, I love that I am a part of a press that was really, really excited about the book, that actually is better to be there, rather than to be with a press that took it begrudgingly or reluctantly.  And also that they were willing to do a CD.  The other publisher had no interest whatsoever in doing it.  When I suggested it with the second book, they said no, that’s not what we do.  They may someday change their mind, I mean publishing models are changing.

But for me it was important for a number of reasons, I have always felt that poetry should exist in the world in an oral format and I am clearly not a performance poet or a spoken word poet.  I am writing for the page but I think by virtue of being who I am and dealing with language and voice in a way that is so important for me as a poet that it was helpful for me to have that ability to communicate that to the reader. So it gave me an ability through the CD to say, here is the poem in the written form, which you can experience however you would experience a written poem, and here is the poem as heard by the author. So you can also have a different sense of what that poem is for her.

JV: Well that is part of what I loved about the CD.  First of all I think a lot of the language and dialect does come across on the written page but then to also be able to hear the voice, to know that is how it sounds is great.  And then also  I find it interesting to see what lines stick out to me when I read it, and then what lines stick out when I hear it, what lines do I hear over and over? I sat and listened to it once through, and then I had it playing while I was packing up my room at the end of the semester and I found that I would key in at similar lines, the same lines in particular poems, and would think, oh, it’s this one.  That different experience of listening to it versus reading on the page, is awesome.

SM: That makes me so happy.  My experience of poetry as a reader has always been, I love poets, but really I love poems. And really, when I get down to it, mostly I love lines. So that makes me so happy to hear you say that.  I don’t know if I talked to you guys about Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays” because I just love that poem so much.  But even when I get down to it, I love words, because the reason I love that poem so much, it’s beautiful all the way throughout but the ending, “what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices.”  I love that poem for that couplet, and I love that poem for the words austere and offices.  So that is what we take in a way, the language. It is the experience that is communicated, I think, for some kinds of poems.  I definitely write in a lyric tradition, where there is the insistence, I think, of the speaker and there is an integrity in the speaker of my poems that is important to me.  I also write out of a narrative tradition of storytelling, so that is important to me that that is communicated, but I wouldn’t be a poet if I didn’t care about language.

And I am not a language poet, I am not given over to the idea that that is the only thing that matters because I care too much about communication and forging a relationship between the word and the reader, but I care about language, so.  And the CD helps privilege that, you know.  The oral format, what you are going to take, is not the whole poem.  It’s like I say to students when they go to readings, don’t try to listen and get the whole poem and analyze it, that is great, but that is not what you can do when you listen to poetry and that is not you should do.  It is not the only way to experience a poem—to analyze it and critique it. You should also experience it as a living work of art, the way you would go to a dance performance.  And I am sure you think conceptually about what does that movement mean, but you would also just appreciate the movement you are seeing and the relationship between the movement and the music, or lack thereof, or whatever and so, all of that is what went into the CD for me.  And I have been so happy with this press, they have been great.  This is the first CD they have ever done, but they were willing to do it.  And the technology exists, it’s really easy.  I did the recording here in Lewisburg, this guy has a studio in his, like, garage, and I recorded it there, and sent them the finished CD, and it cost me a hundred bucks to record it.  And then they charge a little bit more, but not that much more for the book than they would without it. Because you can reproduce CDs really cheaply now, that’s what I mean about the technology being there.  I think more and more poets will in some way include that, whether text remains a written form in book form or it goes to a digital form, it’s still written work and this is something separate to me than the new multimedia forms now.  It is rather a vehicle to honor a very old tradition of poetry, as opposed to what I see happening with other moves with technology and poetry which makes it more visual, it moves the fields of play.  I am quite traditional in the sense of really going back to the roots, which are oral.

JV:  Thinking about your comment on lines, I think that is why I liked the poem “The Book of Mothers” because  of the fact that there is a narrative there but it is made of pieces, repeating the alphabet to your daughters and pieces like that.

SM: Yes, definitely.  And that poem was written as a collage.  The process for that poem is what dictated that finished form.  It was an assemblage of many, many lines and snapshots of language, that weren’t always about motherhood.  So that is the thing too, that I have always believed, that you write lines of poetry as a poet, just like as a choreographer you choreograph movement. And then, if you are interested in narrative, as I am, and in self, as I am, then you work with that, and you compose it that way. But the material that I start with as a poet, is always just lines. And then I let those become shaped wherever I go.  From the Book of Mothers I felt there were all these lines that were about motherhood or mothering that I have that never made it into finished poems.  And sometimes I would write more as I started to assemble them, but I ended up cutting out, I went through my notebooks and I typed up all these different lines and then I cut them out and I sat on my study floor and I arranged them.  And that’s why I said, I mean literally, it was produced as a collage.  But each poem, the form it takes is going to be different depending on the demands of the subject matter.

JV: Yeah, that is another thing that is interesting.  I think that I listened to most of them before I actually read the book, so then also seeing the form on the page versus what I had been listening to, and how I had imagined the shape of the poem compared to what it really was, was fascinating.

SM: Even for poets who don’t work in vernacular or dialect or any of those traditions, for example Margaret Atwood, has a book of poems “The Door” with a CD in it.  And I loved hearing them in her voice.  In the written word as well as in the spoken word she is so dark and ironic, you know, and that really came through in her readings in it.  So, like you, I put it in my car and I’m listening to it and I’m not listening to it in the way I would read a book of poems, I’m listening to it a lot more casually. In the way that sometimes I will want to sit and listen to a piece of music and sometimes I’m okay with doing other things and having it as part of my pleasurable experience of my life. And I think that is what CDs of poetry allow us to do is to realize that poetry is part of a lived experience not just an analytical or conceptual experience.

JV: When I was packing and had it playing my roommate actually asked, “Are you listening to recitations of prayer? Or something?”

SM: That’s the closest we come now to understanding why you would do that.

JV: Yeah.

SM: We think, why would you listen to something without paying attention to narrative? But I love that, because I have said before in interviews and you know, poetry is the closest that I come to prayer. It is a way in which I feel very still and yet connected to other things at the same time and the language, um, that I use, is often that of devotion.  So that pleases me, tell your roommate that I am so glad that she thought I was praying.  Any prayer that has ever been meaningful for me, has been that which releases me from myself and some conscious relationship to the world.  That is actually what Judaism was for me, because I was singing in Hebrew, but I don’t speak Hebrew, and actually if I were to translate it into English I would never want to say those words.  I don’t believe in much of what I am saying but I really appreciated the sort of mantra fashion for the sounds that give me great pleasure and I love saying [hebrew letter.] that I put it even where it doesn’t belong.  I like lighting candles, you know.  I believe in the aesthetic as more than just beautiful, as something that is ritualistic and makes us feel spiritual, but not dogmatically religious.

JV: I guess one more thing that I was curious about as I was reading was the influence of Greek mythology, particularly to do with mothers and daughters.

SM: Right, Penelope and Demeter and Persephone. Um, I think that started in 8th grade, and then it was reinforced when I encountered poets like Louise Glick Gluck and Lucille Clifton and then a little bit later, Eavan Boland because like a lot of women poets, in particular, we use myth.  And Greco-Roman myths are great kind of over-myth for Western culture, so part of my culture, even if we aren’t Greek or Roman, none of us are, we understand the world through those myths.  It is a site to revisit for its possibilities to be reinterpreted.  And I feel the same about Judaic and Christian myths as I do about Greek and Roman myths, they permeate our culture, sort of like Freud, whether you have read him or not, Frued is somewhat in our culture, even in our language, so the idea that we have a conscious and unconscious mind, which even people who have never read Freud have heard of.  That is the way in which I think ideas permeate culture.  So in making them explicit and rewriting them I hope to bring attention, in a really feminist way, to the possibility of these stories to be read differently as they continue to impact our ideas about what is possible and at play in our lives, so why shouldn’t a poet rewrite them, why shouldn’t we do that, in the same way that I am really interested in history as a site to revisit because I think it stays with us, imbedded within us.

JV: Well, that brings us right back to the beginning of our conversation about history and the political. Things going on in a political climate that we don’t realize how they affect us until later on.  [Likewise] the mythologies in our lives.

SM:  There is a story there that we are responding to, even though I haven’t had that exact experience, it is familiar and it is a way out of, and I have used this word before, narcissism. I think the self is important and biography is important and a huge source for me as an impulse to write a poem but I think that that experience has to be larger than the self and myth is a way to frame that. You take some part of your experience and impose that on this larger structural narrative or vice-versa.  And it has more resonance, than just the individual story and I value the individual story, you run the danger of saying the personal narrative is not valuable. And I don’t want to say that, but only that the individual story can be myopic.  And looking beyond the individual, which is so valued in our culture, allows us the opportunity to be social beings and that is really important to me that I not only see myself as an I, but that I see myself as part of we or various wes.  And myth is a way to do that. I am not just talking from Shara’s perspective.  The other reason I really like it is gives me a way of speaking as another, not just as myself.  It frees me from the tyranny of the self. It allows me to enter another consciousness. Just like when I was acting, the pleasure in that for me was adopting some other character that maybe I drew from some part of myself but that I was able to go outside of myself too.

JV: So, before you run-off, what is on Friday?

SM: It’s on Saturday, and it is a poetry and some prose readings of faculty, fellows, residents who are here this semester, like Smith Henderson is our new author in residence and he is going to read, and then some students too. It’s a one hour reading, of some of the writers’ work here, not everybody wanted to read, so it’s not everybody. I think all of the residents are reading and the fellows. I am reading, I think Paula is reading, I don’t think Robert is. It is hard with prose. I don’t think Claire is.  It’s the factor, when you tell someone to read for three minutes that’s easy for a poet, that is not easy for a prose-person. But Smith was going to do just an excerpt from his novel and then I think we have maybe 4 or 5 students, current students reading.  So come if you can.

JV: definitely, I plan on being there.

SM: It might be interesting too, one of the benefits of doing this kind of format is that you can contextualize it. Cause when I looked at your blog I thought, who is the audience for this, and then I thought, well students! Who were here, clearly, so it would be fun to say, we did this interview at Cherry Alley, that same weekend I went to this reading. That is what people will connect to.  I mean they may remember something that I said, but I think it is the connection to the community that they feel a part of, that will make them,

JV:  yeah, in terms of work and balancing writing and your work, and the Stadler Center, I think that will be of interest to people who, the students, who graduated who are now thinking about their own jobs, where they are going,

SM: And I will say it has gotten amazingly better, my job I find very manageable and enjoyable.  I used to say for years  there is no one part of it that I don’t like, I just can’t do all of this.

JV: yeah, the balance of it all.

SM: I am such an organized person and that comes naturally.  I was teaching 3 courses a semester, running the poetry center, designing new courses, advising students, all of the different things that were asked of me, it was just over-whelming, and so I am really very grateful that I was able to really get, finally, the administration to see that it wasn’t tenable, in the long-term, and now I can put more attention.  I don’t know that the product is that different from people watching it but what it feels like, was that I couldn’t do new ideas ever.  So now I am excited about changes that will happen with the poetry center for as long as I get to direct it. I have new ideas for new internships and fellowships and I think it is a good thing that I can give more time and energy to a place that I feel really deserves it.

JV: So many of my memories are of being in Bucknell Hall and attending poetry readings and seeing the core group who was always there and the people who you don’t really know but you think, they must be in a poetry class right now, and connecting up with them. Actually my first week I was on campus, and I was that first-year, oh my gosh, what am I doing here, I don’t know anyone, I went into Bucknell Hall and lay on the pews, just for some…

SM: some comfort.

JV: Yeah, the comfort of being in a space where there was no-one else there.

SM: What a great story, you should put that in the interview too. (Laughing.)

JV: I will. (Laughing.)

SM: Because I really think there are students like you who I have worked with, who really understand what that space is, what that place gives to Bucknell and you know, I don’t expect it to be for everyone, but the more students who can come into that, we try really hard to get students to go in there sooner.  That is why we are doing this event this first week of classes, so that students know we are here, and we can say, we are here for you.


5 thoughts on “An AFTERWORD with Shara McCallum: Part Two

  1. Pingback: An AFTERWORD with Shara McCallum: Part One « THE BUCKNELL AFTERWORD

  2. Pingback: No Thursday Classes and Shara McCallum’s “This Strange Land” | Women, Art and Culture

  3. Pingback: No Thursday Classes and “This Strange Land” on Tuesday | Women, Art, and Culture Fall 2013

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