Finding One’s Way Through Bewilderment: Virginia Konchan interviews Nathan McClain

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In this interview, VIRGINIA KONCHAN talks with NATHAN McCLAIN about his second full-length collection, Previously Owned. Touching on process and craft, literary influence, racial justice, and faith, this rich conversation celebrates the range of McClain’s poetry and the sense of history and place in his work.

Virginia Konchan: I’ll start by saying that your second full-length poetry collection Previously Owned is a masterpiece. It contains and expands upon many of the themes of Scale, specifically those of familial, cultural, and historical legacies and inheritances, and the role of the poet-observer, yet takes them further, beyond the dynamic of a father-son relationship, to the relationship the speaker has with his wife, his country, neighborhoods, art, language, the legal system, the Bible, literary history, and animals, to name a few. What was the impetus, for you, behind the writing of Previously Owned? Do you see your books as moving along a thematic or formal continuum, and how would you characterize the overlapping concerns and differences between them?

Nathan McClain: Aww, you’re very kind. I feel like you have to say that because you’re my friend, haha, but I’m grateful for the generosity in your reading and thinking about Previously Owned. And I’m also glad you’re reading something of a progression from my first collection, because I also read it that way, like a worldview that has been enlarged, moving beyond the walls of the domestic space (though this collection—my work in general—continues to be quite interested in the domestic space, a space rife with material for building poems) to the broader landscape and society, our collective memory, cultural histories and, as you point out, legacies, and so forth. Or at least I hope that’s the effect—that as I personally grow, so grows the work.

I can’t say I embarked upon the poems of Previously Owned with a particular goal or project in mind. That hasn’t necessarily been my process—rather I offer my presence and attention to the poems that present themselves to me in hopes that particular obsessions arise and make themselves evident as poems accumulate. Honestly, I’m not entirely certain how I’d work if I had a “project” in front of me. I can say, however, that in the process of writing poems, I began thinking frequently and deeply about the absurdities of the criminal justice system, as well as our laws governing a woman’s bodily autonomy (long before Roe would eventually be overturned), though I wasn’t sure how those concerns might live together in a singular collection. What through-line might be woven to bind them? I see my books as moving along at least a thematic continuum, particularly with their interest in domestic, the private, in close personal relationships, in their interest in witness, in intense attention and looking, through a stronger sense of place—be it imagined, i.e., “Mafia Myth,” or the idyllic pastoral landscapes of Western Massachusetts—seems to have taken a more significant role in Previously Owned than, say, in Scale.

previously owned cover

VK: I’m so glad you brought up “Mafia Myth,” the collection’s second, establishing poem. There is a sense of agency and invention in this capacious poem (“It’s up to you / It’s your town”), which uses imaginative displacement throughout (“You could be a mother You could / be a son”) to elevate the poem to a mythopoetic incantation that so powerfully suggests the town (or place, writ large) as a kind of tableaux or stage for being, for culpability and innocence, and for historical actors to live beyond inherited scripts and summary judgments of what or who constitutes “good” and “bad” (people, such as the “Pistol cocked” vigilante, cops, a junior high school principal, and medics; professions such as civic office and law enforcement; and towns). There’s also mention of a bakery, reminding me of your devastating poem “Fire Destroys Beloved Chicago Bakery” in Scale, which also links personal and public grief to language.

“Mafia Myth” spurs the realization that we are constantly co-creating history, and “reality,” based on our observational biases, and the urgency of “decisions to be made,” and that “cops,” in the context of social justice, are tasked with determining between these conceptual binaries, while themselves human and prone to error, or worse, racist policing and lethal violence.

This interpretative capaciousness and dialing back to myth (as distinct from “fact” in a post-truth, fact-denying age) foregrounds the ethos and witnessing of the speaker, and highlights the absurdity of which you speak (in the criminal justice system, and laws governing women’s bodies and reproductive choices) in a way that is never didactic, but that instead provides an alternative perspective—that of liberatory, readerly choice—to polarizing rhetoric and pain.

NM: “Mafia Myth” also presented an opportunity for the wonderful juxtapositions that can happen when pop culture (i.e., a game of deception) intersects with challenges of the present day to create greater nuance and import, to create layer and subtext. I don’t know that the poem might have had as much heft were it attempted at another time in history, but I could be wrong. Hierarchies have long been utilized to establish and hold power, and there have long been those who crown themselves arbiters of righteousness.

VK: We make do with the materials at hand and are lucky when those materials lend themselves to iconic poems as “Mafia Myth”; it truly has the timeless feel of great poems, and great art, and yet interpolates with contemporary life—and threats to it—with unsparing accuracy.

And the time is always now to speak truth to power, even if it is just our personal truth.

Speaking of juxtaposition, there are so many wonderful subtexts to Previously Owned: Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” and “In the Waiting Room” come to mind as standouts, in the references you make to “historical knowledge” in “What You Call It,” and the investigations into language, society, and identity that you make in the 13-poem “They said I was an alternate” series. You’ve previously mentioned several inspirations for Previously Owned (including Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s The Orchard, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again, and John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry), and I was wondering if you could speak to your writing process in terms of your literary influences: do other poetry collections or poems find their way in unconsciously, as answered questions or intertextual weavings, or is it ever a more deliberate choice to engage with other collections of poetry?

NM: Anyone who knows me knows my deep and abiding affection for Bishop’s work and the craft therein. When I began drafting “What You Call It,” I had no idea that it would, in any way, desire to be in conversation with “At the Fishhouses,” a poem I’ve long admired for its ability to simply soar in those final lines, after so much crisp detail, but I welcomed that reaching, especially as interested as this collection seems to be in history. When it comes to literary influences in Previously Owned, each of the poets mentioned in the above quote (and far more than that, might I add) taught me something different about how craft might be deployed to enact a particular poem’s concerns. I loved how Ellen Bryant Voigt “eschewed the period” (her words) in Headwaters—the propulsion and tension it offered each poem, and her dynamic sentences—and while my “Alternate” sequence largely omits end punctuation (as opposed to all punctuation), there were ways in which I found that craft choice could suggest not only a literal resistance to closure, which is certainly my speaker’s relationship with the criminal justice system but also heighten the various absurdities of each poem’s content and scenario. Velocity and thrust were certainly of interest to me, but I appreciated also how the lack of end punctuation defied certain normative expectations with regard to what we might expect when we enter a poem, how it allows for the syntax of sentences to collide or conflate, how it allowed the poems (I hope) to resist easy interpretation. So, my influences show up thematically as well as structurally, but mostly, they’ve taught me—continually teach me—how to better deploy craft in my own work.

VK: I see so deeply how Bishop’s painterly eye, and readerly ear, and her ability to soar to a close after such nuanced observational detail have informed the optics and craft of your poems. How your craft choices could suggest “not only a literal resistance to closure, but also heighten the various absurdities of each poem’s content and scenario” is a brilliant way of putting it, and reminds me of your interview in Mentor & Muse, in which you discuss how repetition of diction, useful juxtaposition, and the interrogative mood propels the progression and suspension of your poems, and in the work of the poets you admire (including Larry Levis and Carl Phillips).

And your omission of end punctuation in the “Alternate” sequence speaks to your profound ability to create closure not through decanting a stance, or leaning on image or metaphor, but instead by suspending the aporias of perception and judgment in ways that re-open the poem (in lines like “but who / the hell did I think I was,” and “again They said/ Do you understand”).

Alongside craft, other intertextual conversations I observed in your work include the speaker’s engagement with Christianity, specifically the Bible. “Where the View was Clearer” references Genesis, the story of Abraham and Isaac, and “some new holy land/ some long promise. . . finally fulfilled”; the final “They said I was an alternate” poem references parables; and the entire collection wrestles with questions of distance, looking, seeing, unbelief, and doubt, of both perspectival and metaphysical kinds. I found this fascinating, as I took one of the major undercurrents of the book to be a passage from Ecclesiastes 1:9: “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (italics mine). What role does faith, or faith in poetry as a corrective and balm, play in your work? Do you feel that poetry is capable of renewing our perceptions, especially today, in any kind of transformative or new way?

NM: Perhaps I should have used that quoted text as the epigraph instead, haha?!? That’s such a good one, and so apropos!

To your observations, though, I actually grew up in and around the church. I spent much of my early adult life intimately involved in church and biblical study, so it doesn’t surprise me that such engagement and imagery would find their way into my work—there are biblical nods that also appear in Scale. So often we make metaphors and build images from our lives, right? Our lived and learned experiences?

I do love your question about “faith, or faith in poetry as a corrective and balm.” Of course, the suggestion of poetry—the very act of writing and sharing a poem—as an act of faith is not original, by any means, but it remains particularly relevant to this collection. There is someone reaching, and there is someone on the other end of the line who might reach back, who might share in my experience, even though it may include loss, or disappointment, or pain. I see that as faith, absolutely. I see that as prayer.

If thinking is what human beings do with experience, which also includes feeling, then so much of my poetry has been about discovering how I’ve thought (and felt) about my own past and present experiences. And for me, that often entails seeing those experiences anew. What was it Frost said about surprise and tears in poetry? None in the writer, none in the reader? The poem as a method of finding one’s way through bewilderment is an important facet of my work. If I enter a draft having already solved the mystery or puzzle of it, it probably isn’t a poem I’ll share, though I wouldn’t discount it as a poem I might have needed to write as a drill, as a step toward the poem I ultimately need to write.

VK: I love that you say so much of your poetry has been about discovering how you’ve thought, and felt, about your own experiences, past and present. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to fully extricate ourselves from the lyric’s entanglement with feeling and emotion, and I’m glad for that. I think poetry itself creates structures of perception and feeling, that both condition and shape how we approach a poem (recalling our own feelings, and humanity).

And how this shared feeling and humanity interpolates with notions of belief, and faith—not in ideology, but in another person holding the line for you, contemplating your every word—yes! Flannery O’Connor’s book Mystery and Manners beautifully engages with these questions, too, of mystery, craft, and faith, and of creating moments of epiphany and grace spontaneously.

NM: And so much of the lyric impulse is tangled up in “how something felt” as opposed to “what happened,” or narrative, right? Before I attended grad school, I can’t say I gave much acknowledgment or consideration that a “reader” was even present (especially a reader such as yourself), let alone necessary to complete the poem with you. I wrote to impress with my command of language, rhetoric, and music, not necessarily to communicate. I feel like Previously Owned has wider arms than those earlier poems, and thank the Lord, haha…

VK: Absolutely! If it’s a selective remembering, then at least it’s an honest one, if Muriel Rukeyser’s words hold true (“The universe of poetry is the universe of emotional truth”). I had a similar passage, in coming to anticipate, acknowledge, and appreciate readers of my work: as “objective others,” in the words of Diane Seuss, or “two interiorities speaking to each other,” in the words of Steph Burt. A crucial moment in a poet’s life, that wider embrace (even if we have to think through whether and how poetry “communicates” in any reliable, legible way—I think it does for other poets, though, and many readers: long live symbolic communication)!

I definitely felt drawn into the world-making of Previously Owned, in part because of the directness and intimacy of your address, and questionings, which are laced with exigency. “In the Gardening Section of Home Depot” ends, ‘Take my hand. What could possibly go wrong?’ And the preceding poem, “A Public Service Announcement,” concludes ‘shouldn’t every child be offered/ at least a shot, however small, at this life?’  Burning questions, indeed.

On the subject of address, Previously Owned interpolates with race, culpability, the pastoral tradition, American history, ekphrasis, the Romantic question of solitude versus solidarity or togetherness, and most especially to my reading, with language, grammar, lexicon, and subject formation. And your essay “This Beautiful, Needful Thing: On the Poetics of Home in the African American Diaspora” engages with and connects two poems (“Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden and “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay, about Eric Garner) that both establish and subvert readers’ expectations on the level of perspective, form, syntax, diction, anaphora, on the subject of the unrealized dream of freedom, the fulfillment of America’s past promises.

Therein, you write, “[Poetry] helps us make sense of the world and how to emotionally orient and navigate ourselves within. And there is so much to make sense of—with the nation reeling from the impact of a global pandemic, our national death toll rising, a dearth of responsible federal leadership or direction, and a country divided over the legacy of its own brutal past.”

How, in your work, do these two forms of work—racial justice, and the realization of freedom for all that is written into America’s founding documents—and the work of poetry, intersect? In other words, what are some ways you find poems or a poem’s structure to be liberatory or suggestive of freedom (literary, interlocutory, participatory, silence-breaking, grammatical)? What excites (or frustrates) you the most about the limitations of the English language? Do you see this work of poetic interrogation and disambiguation to be connected to that of social and reparative justice (even constitutionally, in terms of free speech), and if so, in what ways? I’m thinking specifically of the “They said I was an alternate” series; a poem therein, “The sentence,” magnifies our sense and appreciation of how a grammatical “sentence” (homonymic with a legal sentencing) can embrace contradiction and is dependent upon its parts, and interpretation, for meaning (“A man/ is subject to his sentence”). I’m curious about how this experience of serving as an alternate in jury duty, and your experiences with the justice system, inspired you to turn to syntax (subject, predicate; subject, object, verb) to think through the vexing partiality, subjectivity, and injustices caused by language and legality, and how the repeating title of “They said I was an alternate” foregrounds language reception.

NM: I appreciate your bringing Previously Owned into conversation with that essay, of which I am very proud, thank you. It’s interesting, this “intersecting” of which you speak is a fairly new exploration in my work, at least from the standpoint of explicitness, though I’ve greatly admired what felt possible for such intersection after spending time with Jericho Brown’s The Tradition or John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. As well as Robert Hayden’s poetry, and Martha Collins’ poetry. Joyce is quoted as saying, “In the particular is contained the universal.” That tends to be where my focus lies in my writing and approach to a poem—I try not to speak for everyone in my work, and I try not to speak to everyone.

The “audience” is an abstract thing, in real-time. You have an abstract idea of who your audience is and often that is your ideal audience, someone who understands the significance of the work you’ve placed in front of them. In my own work, I’ve found greater specificity in a poem to be incredibly powerful, to resist making some dispersed, generalized statement about the world, which can be tempting, especially when one has a platform, be it a journal or stage—to decry or declare, like a prophet or oracle. Because the personal is political, and vice versa.

The act of writing a poem is a decision to break silence over a subject, event, memory, experience, etc. However, the poem doesn’t entirely say all that we might want it to—rather it approximates speech, operates as metaphor, and is therefore limited in its ability to enact social or reparative justice. Language is significant, absolutely, but language can feel a bit empty when, say, you’re reading poems to one another at a rally for Black lives that cannot be resurrected and a justice system that goes untouched. Poems are incantatory, mystical, but their manner of raising the dead is different than what Black mothers are weeping for. I don’t know if that completely addresses your questions, but I hope so. They are important ones.

VK: It does. And I’m moved by your turning to the particular and specific, irrespective of an abstract idea of audience, or a platform by which one is given the power to speak, whether on behalf of oneself or others: social media platforms come to mind, as an attenuation of this problem of feeling self-authorized or even pressured to speak or write in inauthentic ways.

Your work in ekphrasis, which also preempts the “political” with a felt sense of the personal, is also a valuable study of how art, like poetry, can be a refuge and higher call in our times, a way to filter personal history through art history, the politics of the gaze, and the scene of looking (in the way you interrogate the use of “examining pain” in “Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot,” for example, connecting contemporary history to a sculpture created in 15th century Italy).

Narrative, lyric, myth, fable, formal experiment, and a linguistic examination of place, history, race, the justice system, and the domestic realm—Previously Owned covers these grounds with such deftness, subtlety, and a lightness of touch, while speaking prophetically to our times.

Anything else you’d like us to know about the collection, your process, or writing habits, or perhaps you could whet our anticipation with a sense of what you’re working on now?

NM: You’ve so generously and deeply considered this collection, and I am incredibly grateful and humbled. Right now I’m working on a number of essays, many of which are craft-centered, but also interested in literary and cultural criticism. I tend to work fairly slowly, so poems have been far slower to arrive. Though I have begun what I believe to be a longer (or so I’d like to think) poem sequence thinking on my experience of renting a community garden plot in an Illinois suburb and growing food. I’ve been thinking a lot about inheritance, what we leave to our children, and that has greatly shifted from Scale to Previously Owned to the poem I’m working on now. But I’m taking my time—I’m in no real hurry to finish the next thing.

VK: Good things come to those who wait, and I deeply admire how you let your evolving concerns and experiences shape your work, rather than grafting a rushed agenda onto them. Very in keeping with time-honored agricultural methods! And I can’t wait to read your essays, from which I always learn so much and return to often, as touchstones of process and craft.

Thank you for this exciting conversation, for your treasured friendship, for reminding me of the enigmas of poetry, and for writing such a profoundly important and memorable collection as Previously Owned.

Godspeed with your current projects, and I hope this collection finds a pantheon of readers who recognize themselves, their families and loved ones, and our country, in these poems—and that you find a garden plot (or backyard) to continue growing food in Massachusetts!

 

Nathan McClain is the author of two collections of poetry—Previously Owned (2022) and Scale (2017)—both from Four Way Books, a recipient of fellowships from The Frost Place, Sewanee Writers Conference, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and a graduate from the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson. A Cave Canem fellow, his poems and prose have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Daily, Plume Poetry Anthology 10, The Common, Guesthouse, and Poetry Northwest, among others. He teaches at Hampshire College and serves as poetry editor of the Massachusetts Review.

The author of four poetry collections, including Bel Canto (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2022), and Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift, well as coeditor of the craft anthology Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (University of Akron Press, 2023), Virginia Konchan‘s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Atlantic, American Poetry Review, and The Believer.

Finding One’s Way Through Bewilderment: Virginia Konchan interviews Nathan McClain

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