Prose Feature: “Reckoning with Our Hungers: An Interview with Shane McCrae” by Cate Lycurgus

July 22, 2016

Shane McCrae is the author of four books of poetry: The Animal Too Big to Kill (Persea Books, 2015), winner of the 2014 Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award; Forgiveness Forgiveness (Factory Hollow Press, 2014); Blood (Noemi Press, 2013); and Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011). He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He teaches at Oberlin College and lives in Oberlin, Ohio.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: At the risk of being obvious, I’ll begin with your latest collection and its title poem, “The Animal Too Big to Kill.” The poem remixes the dynamics of agency and faith, speaking both as a one who has the power to refuse to participate in killing and also as a “creature that requires signs Lord from You” with the subsequent suggestion that “killing the animal too big to kill would be a sign.” Can you speak to some of the animals “too big to kill” and, in absence of that sign, how the poems offer a way to live with them, tackle them, tame them, swallow them?

Shane McCrae: I was thinking, at the time, about how the body of every carnivore is a walking graveyard—which sounds dramatic, I know—and about what an animal made of all the animals I’ve ever eaten would look like, since traces, or traces of traces, of those animals are inside of and also constitute my body. The animal would certainly be much larger than I am, and I imagine larger than any animal that has ever lived, and I carry its ghost and possibility with me. I don’t know that the poems offer ways to swallow such animals, or to tame them, or even to tackle them, but I hope the poems are examples of efforts to live with them. One cannot choose but to live with them, and one cannot write without them even if one doesn’t acknowledge them—they are in the blood that feeds the brain and body and therefore in every word the brain and body make. If I say “Hello” to you, I speak the animals that made me. Hopefully, the way the poems offer to live with them is this: One lives with them by living—they are not a problem to be overcome or accommodated; they are one’s own being.

CL: Hello! “Whatever you speak you owe to destruction”—I can’t help remember that Celan epigraph at the beginning of Blood. I’ve had a similar thought regarding the trash I produce—what sort of flotilla of shopping carts would I have to pull around carrying all the waste I’ve made over the course of my life? Whether our consumption comes at the expense of animals, or natural resources, or other people, this “animal too big to kill” suggests that continuing to live requires some degree of predation and violence. “The death in us is bigger than the life in us,” you write in Blood, which also speaks to duende and somehow honoring death to make song. If we can’t choose but to live with these deaths, what are the claims our hungers make upon us? How (or) do these demands affect the forms of fracture/fissure/slash that you employ?

SM: I almost prefaced this answer with, “If I may be melodramatic for a moment,” and then I remembered who I am. So: For those of us who are to at least some extent economically privileged and live in the United States, our hungers are the meek in us, inheriting us, and we need never acknowledge their implications. But I think we abdicate our responsibilities to each other when we don’t acknowledge the implications of our own hungers. It is not so much that our hungers make claims upon us, but that love does, and if we are to love each other we must reckon with our hungers, because our hungers are strong enough to interfere with our love, and, indeed, to override it. Most of my work, I sometimes think, is an effort to arrive at more love, even though I suspect it doesn’t often seem that way. For me, a lot of my feelings begin with or through music and the “forms of fracture/fissure/slash” you mention are mostly musical devices. Since I don’t use conventional punctuation—or haven’t used conventional punctuation in most of my books, at least (my new manuscript might have some periods and commas and dashes) I utilize slashes and small bursts of white space along with traditional meter (usually—my new manuscript might have some prose), line breaks, and stanza breaks to regulate my music, such as it is.

CL: An effort to arrive at more love. I can’t get past the music this impulse creates—you have deep-throated hearts-to-heart. In Mule you write “you/Will recognize yourself in the singing      you/Will not recognize yourself in the songs.” Can you elaborate some on how you see punctuation (or the lack thereof) as regulating these songs, and how that intersects with the identity of the one who speaks them?

SM: In a way, my decision to abandon punctuation (I don’t think of the slash as punctuation, although I know other people do, and I imagine it, strictly speaking, probably is punctuation) was somewhat arbitrary. Before I started writing the poems in Mule, my poems were over-punctuated, and at the end of every line I had to remind myself that I didn’t need to add a comma. When I abandoned punctuation—and with it free verse and, at the time, regular use of conventional syntax—I felt like I suddenly discovered my own voice, or maybe “sound” would be a better word, and so I think more of me is in every poem I write now than had been the case ten years ago. I feel I have more freedom with regard to tone of voice and modulation when I don’t use punctuation—commas are so heavy! Question marks are so heavy!—and I also both hope and believe the lack of punctuation creates more space for the reader to enter the poem. The reader has to determine, at every moment, what tone of voice the poem’s speaker is using, and whether what was just said was a question, etc. Hopefully, that helps the reader maintain his or her engagement with the poem. Also, most of my poems are dramatic monologues, and I like to think the lack of punctuation signals a speaking voice. Finally, when I don’t use punctuation I feel it is easier for me to utilize the rhythms of speech and the rhythms of thought, and I like to place them beside each other in poems, as parallel musics.

CL: Part of the wonder of your poems is exactly how those rhythms of speech and thought allow readers near painful or wondrous inconsistencies and know them both as true. The raw splits do open a space for readers to enter the marriage and divorce poems of Mule, or slave narratives of Blood, though these are far from the experience of many. The epigraph of the newest book is from Hebrews—Paul’s ultimate call to the Hebrews for empathy. How do you see empathy as functioning in poetry, and how does your use of “we” work in that vein?

SM: Generally, I’ve tried to avoid “we”—in fact, I just searched through The Animal Too Big to Kill, and was, despite my efforts, surprised to discover I didn’t use “we” in it even once. But I did use it a lot in Mule, and somewhat less in Blood. And I used it in ways that make me uncomfortable now, and I’m not really comfortable reading those poems anymore. I don’t feel qualified to speak for anybody at all, not even myself, really—I think this discomfort has something to do with empathy. But when I was writing Mule, my use of “we” also had something to do with empathy. Mule arrived in the wake of a lot of wounded, angry, accusatory break-up poems, none of which made it into the book. And in the poems in Mule, I used “we” in an effort to empathize with my ex—I was trying to acknowledge that both of us had been in the marriage, and both of us had ended it. I was trying to acknowledge that although I felt like I was the only former participant in the relationship with valid feelings about it, my ex no doubt felt the same way. But I no longer feel comfortable assuming even that much about other people.

CL: Fascinating. And embarrassing, on my part! For me as a reader to internalize a ‘we’ where it does not exist is a testament to how close the spaces of the poem allow readers to come. Or maybe this stems from my own tendency toward “we,” not out of any confidence that I can speak for anyone, but with the wild hope that we can be a we, more like an “are you with me, are we in this, y’all?” I guess it’s a tall order. It’s interesting that you don’t feel comfortable with those poems and the speaker’s authority, as though one must have credentials for the self-discovery so many of your poems fracture toward. Here I’m thinking of the second section of “How You are Owned”:

when you at 14 for the first
time break a bone/ You    when the doctor shows you
The x-ray think it looks
more real than you are
In the middle of a black void Lord you see

a broken white bone glowing

I’m interested in the way that, both within and across collections, your speakers evolve and identity complicates. Can we ever escape or re-make our identities? What role do poems play in this?

SM: Oh, gee! You shouldn’t feel embarrassed at all, and I hope I didn’t come across, you know, like a jerk. I’ve used “we” in the past and I’m sure I’ll use it again, and you had no way of knowing I don’t currently feel comfortable using it in poems. Now, in response to your questions: It depends on what we (see?) mean by “identity.” I think we can re-make our identities in a surface way, though I don’t know that we can ever escape our identities. And I think it’s in the struggle to re-make ourselves toward goodness—assuming we’re trying to do so—that we’re our best selves; even if we can’t achieve goodness, I would say we must try. That sounds a little abstract and off-topic, I know, but I just mean that in attempting to become a better person, I am attempting to re-make my identity. But I guess I would also say that almost any degree of self-consciousness compels one to try to escape one’s identity, even if only in little ways—I think efforts to escape one’s identity are often involuntary, whereas efforts to re-make one’s identity are almost always voluntary, and escape hardly requires actual self-consciousness at all. And as for the role poems play: I don’t know what it is. But I can say I think I am at my smartest and best when writing poems, and I hope poem by poem the act of writing itself is dragging me toward becoming a better person.

CL: If not re-making identity, maybe it’s a sort of confession of identity:

Growing up black white trash Lord even now
I wasn’t sure which
parts of whiteness I could claim

If the writing is dragging toward becoming a better person, I think they complicate what “better” means. Could one strive to be “better” than Christ? I ask because so many of these pieces incorporate or address the Lord, and double in my mind as confessional and devotional, somehow. How do use see these modes interacting?

SM: I can answer the first question in several different ways: One can of course strive to become “better” (whatever that means) than Christ—one can strive to do anything. But whether one believes it is possible for a human being to become better than Jesus depends on who and what one thinks Jesus was and is. I, personally, do not think it is possible to become better than Jesus, even though we haven’t pinned “better” down yet. I guess I should pin it down, because I do believe one could become a better power-lifter, and probably even a better carpenter, than Jesus was. But I do not believe one could become a better person (unless one ranks people according to their power-lifting abilities)—and so I think I’m using “better” to mean something like “morally better” but also “kinder” but also “more loving” but also “more self-sacrificing,” etc.

I think the devotional is inextricably confessional, but that is partly because I believe in a God who made and maintains the universe and every being in it, and any measure of mortal devotion to that God must necessarily confess the separation of the self from that God. But I do not think the confessional is always devotional. Now, specifically with regard to confessional poetry: As a person of color living in the United States of America, I have a complicated relationship with confessional poetry. I do not think it is possible, strictly speaking, for a person of color to be a confessional poet in America. The condition of the confessional poet assumes a fall from grace, but only whites occupy the initial position vis-à-vis grace from which the confessional poet must fall—people of color are always already (ugh—I hate that formulation) fallen. But I also love a lot of confessional poems and poets, and sometimes I wish I could write as they wrote.

CL: By that token, or maybe by my own belief, a white person could not be “unfallen,” either—we’re all as in need of grace or as guilty of separation as the next. And perhaps that’s where other associations with the confessional, as some sort of absolution for guilt, come across as self-indulgent, or hubristic, because unlike the devotional poem, confession can exist without an object “of” and assume a certain blindness. Your poems do feel confessional, to me, but relational as well. What would you advise contemporary poets as far as writing from our moments in history? Especially given the ethics you mentioned earlier, of speaking for anyone but yourself?

SM: Well, first let me clarify: In a theological sense, everybody has access to grace; but I meant grace in a cultural sense—in America, only whites enjoy cultural (in the broadest sense of the word) grace, and so only whites can fall from it. According to this way of thinking, the confessional in the cultural sense is available to them, and them only. As for advice—I don’t know that I have any useful advice. Despite my discomfort with the pronoun “we,” as you point out, I have often spoken through historical personae—and I’m not sure how to square my willingness to do so with my aversion for speaking for others. I suppose maybe I square that circle this way: When I am speaking through historical personae, there’s a record that can—and hopefully will—be consulted by the reader, and by comparing the poem to the record the reader can determine what liberties I’ve taken. But when I’m using “we” to include people with whom I have personal relationships, there usually isn’t a record, and when there isn’t a record to consult I feel uncomfortable speaking for anybody but myself. Anyway, back to the advice: I still don’t have any—and I think that’s partly because I myself am no good at writing directly from (and I am including “about” in that “from”) the present moment. But when I am writing about historical events that can be read as being indirectly “about” the present moment, I find it helps to keep in mind that the actors in those events, about whom I am writing, were human just as I am—both those behaving well and those behaving poorly—and that, had I been among them, I would have been the worst among them.

CL: This humility surfaces across all your collections. And I think some of this relates to the way the poems feel like uncensored entreaty, or lament, or discovery. For me, a poem is rarely that simple or ready-made though, so I’m curious—what is your writing process like?

SM: At the moment, I’m experiencing a crisis of confidence, and so I don’t know what my writing process is like—I feel uncertain about everything having to do with my writing. But I think I remember what it was like. I feel, at least, like I’m always writing—what I think is actually happening is that I am always laying the groundwork for future poems. However, a few days ago I finished a poem I had been trying to finish on and off for about two years, and I noticed that as soon as it was done—as soon as I felt the spark I feel when I finish a poem (which is not to say, not at all, that my poems generate sparks for anyone but me, nor even to say that they consistently generate sparks for me, but I do feel a particular burst of energy when I’ve finished a poem)—I felt as if a very tiny, painless but irritating sliver had been removed from my mind, and I realized that sliver had been there since I finished the first draft of the poem, which seemed complete but wasn’t good, two years ago. So poems—both poems to come and poems I’m working on—are always taking up space in my mind. But, despite this, I don’t know how I ever manage to get a poem started, though I can certainly locate the sources for at least a few of my poems—most of the time, in fact, I feel suspended between the impossibility of starting the next poem and the necessity of writing it. That said, when I actually do write, I’m completely absorbed by what I’m doing and I feel incredibly happy, and usually I’m thinking about sound and meter, in part to distract myself from thinking too much about what I want to say, which I can always see, nevertheless, just beneath the thoughts about sound and meter, just out of reach, thank goodness.

CL: I wonder if the sliver in your mind results from the essential discovery a poem, or the act that writing poetry instigates? As Eliot describes the poet as a catalyst, present for the poem to take place, but not the art itself, I do feel changed in having received a poem and don’t stop enough to offer gratitude for what poetry has done for and in me. Especially since it is probably more than whatever those poems have offered to the world. What has poetry, or the writing of it done for you? What powers do you think it has?

SM: Oh gosh. I would feel embarrassed listing the things poetry has done for me. Poetry has given me my entire life. For one thing, I would never have met my partner, Melissa, if not for poetry, nor would I have any of my children. I certainly wouldn’t have my job, nor would I love to read as much as I do. And I wouldn’t have my mind; I wouldn’t have my self. And I’m so happy to be a part of the family I’m a part of, and to work the job I work, as the person I am. Poetry has made me perceive the world the way I perceive it. Poetry’s power is both local and limitless—it happens person by person, but it often reverberates in and through each person in such a way that the people poetry happens with (it’s always with, never to) become new people, and whatever they do next and forever they do as new people. Poetry is a revolutionary force, because it is a force for renewal.

CL: A power as both local and limitless—not unlike the “Think Globally, Act Locally” calling for so many environmental movements. It sounds revolutionary, but really, local is all we can do, the self all we have to go on. And I wonder about just that, how poetry in particular provides a way onward, “forever as new people.” Last week I heard Jane Hirshfield speak of how poetry cuts against fundamentalism because it requires complexity, nuance, subtlety. She said that when “a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing the poem gives you is the sense that there’s always, still, a changeability, a malleability of inner circumstance, which is the beginning of freedom.” In light of the new poems you have in Gulf Coast, perhaps, what are your thoughts on this?

SM: The poems in Gulf Coast are from my fifth book, In the Language of My Captor, which Wesleyan will publish in February of 2017. There are several sequences in the book—and I do think the book as a whole is about freedom, or at least aimed toward freedom—from the perspective of a person living in a human zoo in the United States of America in the early part of the 20th century. He is physically a captive, but he is also in some sense free, or as free as one can be and still be in captivity—his mind is as free as it can be—because he understands both himself and his captor, his “keeper” in the poems, in ways his captor cannot. But his freedom is, of course, problematized by a great many things, and one problem with the idea of a free mind in a captive body is that the mind and its freedom are in large measure determined by the circumstances of the body. Even though the book is about freedom, it is not a book that believes freedom is possible for anybody in America at the present moment—ableism, homophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, and the other bigotries under which we all suffer imprison us all. But the book seems to believe that freedom is becoming possible, that with each generation children are being taught more freedom.

CL: The idea that we must teach freedom is a strange one, especially in this country ostensibly founded on it. But the nation was also founded on the backs of bondage, and I wonder about this in the context of poetry as teacher. It seems freedom often requires the opposite—being un-free—either through an experience itself or capacity to imagine what it means to be constrained. In its construction, poetry is all about constraints, so—how does poetry teach freedom? How might it even teach justice? Or recast our conceptions of ‘poetic’ justice?

SM: My first instinct is to say “I don’t know.” I don’t know. I don’t know that poetry does teach freedom, but to confess that would seem to be to confess that I am not a part of making the coming freedom my book seems to believe in. I think my problem is that even before I begin to think of an answer, I re-formulate the question somewhat, so that it becomes “How do poems teach freedom?” And that’s the wrong way to look at things. I don’t think poems themselves teach the freedom necessary to any particular moment. But poems do, under the right circumstances, incline their readers toward further engagement with poetry, so that those readers then read more poems, and sometimes even write their own poems. And reading and writing teach freedom. When a person is reading most actively, his or her mind strains to push beyond the boundaries of the world it knows and understands—static knowledge is a kind of prison, and static knowledge about many things is many prisons. Similarly, the act of writing a poem is a struggle toward the momentary freedom ideal for the writing of poems—a struggle which, I believe, occasionally achieves its goal. And maybe I’m being too optimistic, and maybe I should only speak for myself, but I believe the more often a person achieves that freedom, that wide-open-mindedness, the more a person wishes others might also achieve it, whatever their routes to it might be—the act of writing helps a person to appreciate openness and freedom. But that awareness, if it can be called that, must be tempered with an awareness that the freedom of the individual, as the individual understands it, is always conditioned and limited by the unfreedom of their unfree contemporaries.

CL: Can you elaborate some on that moment of freedom for you, as you’re either reading or writing? What instigates or perpetuates it? What does it look like on the page?

SM: I don’t know that I ever achieve that freedom through reading—reading is a struggle toward it, and I think that struggle cannot be transcended. But very occasionally, when I’m writing or trying to write, somehow my mind becomes open enough, as I try to steer it away from thinking it knows anything at all, that I feel a little free. So I suppose what I’m talking about when I talk about freedom is receptivity, and that really is a kind of Medieval notion of what freedom is—not, as we now conceive it, the power to achieve one’s will, but rather the fulfillment of one’s particular nature, which folks in ye olde days thought of as being inclined toward the good. I think the beginning of this kind of freedom might very well be increased receptivity. Another way to look at it is: I am most free when I’m writing because I am a writer—when I’m writing, I am most who I am, and therefore I’m most free. I think writing can help everyone be more free, however, even folks who are not writers, insofar as it helps them to be more receptive, both to themselves and others.

CL: Since “freedom” is in part exemption from external control or regulation or restraint, it’s interesting you find this in writing, so invested in form or structure, and on a broader scale language, its attempt to define or claim. In your poem “Claiming Language” you write “I want a different language           Lord/not a claiming language           /I want a language//like the language           Lord/ our bodies use to free each other.” Which poets write in that sort of language, or inspire that sort of escape from knowing? If you encountered someone with no previous experience of poetry, (or maybe an experience of poetic constraint) what one poem would you share with him or her?

SM: I feel like I’m starting a lot of my answers with “I don’t know!” I’m sorry! But also: I don’t know—I don’t know that any poet writes in that sort of language, nor am I sure it’s possible to write in that sort of language. But, even though I would love to be able to write in that way, I don’t feel unhappily disadvantaged because I can’t—poetry has its own consolations. As for a poem I would show a person with no experience of poetry—that’s a tough one. It really depends on the person. For me, the poem that did it was “Lady Lazarus.” That was the first poem I really heard. I don’t think there’s a universal first poem, nor do I think there’s even a poem that would work for most people as their first poem. Maybe something like “We Real Cool,” or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening?” I think when people first hear those poems they first think “That’s pretty neat,” and then they might feel inclined to read other poems. And then find the poem they need.

CL: As I found yours. Thank you so much!

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit

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