A Poet’s Life: On Making, On Being, On Surviving with Professor Shane McCrae

Rebecca Pinwei Tseng
October 12, 2021
McCrae headshot

A Poet’s Life is a series in which we talk with Columbia poets about everything from living as a poet to making a living as a poet.

Here, we talk with Associate Professor Shane McCrae about the interaction of sound and sense, the influence of music on poetry, and how the world has changed since the pandemic.

Shane McCrae is the author of The Gilded Auction Block (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, The Animal Too Big to Kill (Persea Books, 2015), Forgiveness Forgiveness (Factory Hollow Press, 2014), Blood (Noemi Press, 2013), and Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011), as well as three poetry chapbooks, and one nonfiction chapbook. His poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, PoetryThe American Poetry ReviewGulf Coast, and other anthologies and journals, and he has been awarded the Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Pushcart Prize. He received an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a JD from Harvard Law School, and an MA in Literary Studies from the University of Iowa.

Let's begin by speaking about what poetry even is. In an interview with Image Journal, you stated, "Poetry was either going to be the key to the rest of my life or there just wasn't going to be a key." What compels you towards poetry?

Originally I didn't have anything going on in my life. I was in 10th grade when I discovered poetry and I had been failing school for years. I couldn't conceive of a future for myself. I found poetry accidentally. I was shown in school a movie in which a teenage boy kills himself and his sister makes an announcement over the intercom at school. She does this in defiance of the authorities at the school. One of the things she mentioned is that he was reading a lot of depressing poetry before he killed himself. She quotes "Lady Lazarus" by Sylvia Plath: "Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well." It just really resonated with me. I aspired to be a goth at the time and it felt very gothy. I had read Shel Silverstein when I was very young, but I had never heard anything like "dying is an art." I wrote eight poems that day. They were very bad. I kept writing poetry, however, for some years, and I fairly quickly convinced myself that this was something I wanted to do. I'd never wanted to do anything besides skateboarding before. Even though logically, I should have thought, maybe I'll become a professional skateboarder, something was telling me, not consciously, that I would never be good enough. But poetry felt like a possible future. I fell in love with this strange thing that I heard in Plath's poem and I wanted to do whatever that was. I love writing poems. I love reading poems. I love thinking about poetry things. Thinking about poetry leads me to think about history, theology, philosophy. It is the way through which I perceive a lot of life. It is essential to my life.

What would you say poetry can reveal that other forms of art or literature can't?

That's a good question. What poetry does that is different from the various things that other arts do is in the interaction between the reader and the sound. There's a way in which poetry is trying to communicate to a reader in ways that are different from prose or any kind of art, in that it's trying to communicate via tension between sound and meaning. Whatever it wants to say to you is not just the words themselves, but how those words sound and how considering the sounds of words interacts with the meaning of words. Sometimes there's harmony and sometimes there's dissonance between sound and meaning, but poetry is the art that focuses especially on the sound of words.

In class, you mentioned you’ve spent the last 16 years writing in meter. How does the sound of meter inform your work?

I like that working in metrical forms gives me a set of parameters against which I can push. Something pushes back. I need [that] kind of resistance to get me to think about things I would not otherwise think about.

Do you see meter influencing the subjects of your work?

I don't think, broadly speaking, writing in meter influences my choice of subject. I never think this isn't the sort of subject that I could make work in. I start writing and the subject reveals itself as I go along and hopefully some kind of sense reveals itself. Eventually, I know what the subject is or what a subject might be, and I have to figure out how to continue these things in a meaningful way within the form. If I want to say a particular thing, I also have to meet the requirements of a particular meter and maybe a rhyme.

Having written seven books, has your relationship with meter evolved?

I allow myself some freedoms that I maybe didn't allow myself in the beginning. I'm still strict in a lot of ways, but I'm thinking about particular relationships between rhymes and so on, rather than form, differently.

On the subject of sound and subject, let’s talk about music. In 2018, you curated a playlist for Poetry Foundation, and in the article, you stated, “I tried to match the poets to songs that gave me feelings similar to the feelings their poems gave me.” While no match can ever be perfect, has there ever been a song that you feel speaks to your voice?

“Lisztomania” by Phoenix. There’s this bouncing repetition throughout it. When I was writing my first book, I had come up with how I wanted to utilize sounds, repetitions. I was writing the book when [the album] came out. It felt like something that mirrored what I was trying to do, so that was a big deal in thinking about how I wanted things to sound. There's a way in which the repetitions in “Lisztomania” are working in an ecstatic way that I'm hoping I do a little bit in those poems.

How does music influence your work now?

When I was writing my first book, I wanted something beautiful. But I didn't want to claim that I could make something beautiful, so I wanted something that was a manifest effort toward something that felt beautiful to me. At that time, that was dream pop and shoegaze music and the Cocteau Twins. I wanted to write in a way that would make my poems hit in ways similar to the bands that I loved at the time and have loved since I was a teenager. In my second book, I was afraid of getting trapped in the particular rut of my first book. So I was trying to make a poem, a book that was in some ways the opposite. I wanted it to be ugly. I wanted it to be violent and the rhythm to be different. You can tell the same person had written the poems, but I wanted them to hit in very different ways. So as a complement to that, I was listening to black metal. After that, I have not conceived of my books in musical terms.

Besides your MFA, you also earned a master's from the University of Iowa and a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School. Can you speak more about your background and experiences that led you to teach at Columbia?

I wanted to be a poet since I was a teenager. At first, I thought that meant I didn't need to pay attention in school because if I was a good enough poet, that would be the thing that would make my life. It was in some ways an excuse and in some ways a justification for my not paying any attention in high school. When I was in my early twenties, I was realizing that I might not yet be a successful enough poet that a university would just give me a job teaching. I had to think about the future to some extent, and poetry was the framework that allowed me to do that. So I went to community college, then a four-year college. After that, I got my MFA and my JD then my MA. There was a way in which I got my MFA, maybe to some extent thinking, well, I'll be qualified to teach, but realizing at the end that I wasn't going to just be handed a job. So I needed to figure out how to make a living. Law school seemed plausible. Particularly because I was doing research and some of them listed the percentage of graduates that have jobs upon graduation, and the school I ended up going to was like 99%. Everybody gets a job if you want one, and because I had very little faith in my abilities, I thought if I go to a school that guarantees I'll get a job, I don't have to have any ability. I should add Columbia was the first MFA program I ever heard about. Because it was the first one I ever thought about, it became my dream school. Columbia had always been in my mind while I was doing this other stuff. Other than that, I was always very anxious about not knowing as much as my peers. In order to attend community college, I felt like I had to read everything and I kept that habit up, and I think that helped prepare me for Columbia.

Let's talk more about making a living as a poet. How do you make space for poetry in your life, knowing that money is necessary for survival?

I love teaching, so it doesn't feel like it's work and it doesn't feel incongruous with what I'm doing otherwise. But I recognize that I am in a very privileged position at Columbia, and I often wonder how it is that I got here. So I'm not a great example. I have, what seemed to me, the best circumstances for writing and earning a living if you're a poet. I did a lot of odd jobs. It helped to work at a place from which I didn't feel like I had to take my work home. Answering phones, being a receptionist, [and] I worked very briefly in a factory. I worked retail, and I was a temp for a while. None of these was a career path, but each was a way to earn money that also allowed me to not be working 24 hours a day. When the workday was over, it was over. Which I suspect is the way it is for a lot of folks trying to write poems and earn a living. So I don't know that I have any good recommendations. I was just sort of trying to hustle my way into a place that would give me enough money to live on.

In this past month, can you name three things you've been thinking about?

Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. And I've been thinking about vaccines for children, because my daughter is 11, and it's in some ways very frustrating—she’s slightly too young. And it feels boring to say, but I've been thinking about the pandemic in general. I hate Twitter, but I saw a tweet last night. It was talking about how we all died a year ago and we're in an afterlife. There's a way in which that's a little dramatic, but there's also a way in which I understand it. There's a very real way in which the world seems to have died about a year ago, and how we know it's dead is we can't get it back. Everybody was like, oh, well, things will come back, but they won't. I can't imagine a future in which I don't wear a mask. For one thing, it's been great not getting a cold every year. Like I've not had a cold since the pandemic started and I'm just like, well, why do I want a cold? Even if they've burned COVID off the face of the earth, I don't want to get more colds. But so many things are so profoundly different. Being alive in the world makes it difficult to mourn the world.