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You Can’t Help Being a Person: The Millions Interviews Maureen McLane

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Poet and critic Maureen McLane’s new book More Anon: Selected Poems includes work from her first five collections of poetry including Mz N: the serial and the National Book Award finalist This Blue. In her work, McLane writes a variety of registers and approaches and styles, with as wide a range of subject matter as forms. Her poems range from the political to the erotic to the intellectual. There’s a playfulness to her work that sometimes obscures how detailed and precise that work is. McLane also has two poems in The FSG Poetry Anthology, which includes work by nearly every poet that FSG has ever published, and places her work in conversation with some of the great poets of our time. Both books offer an opportunity to read McLane’s poetry anew, and we spoke recently about how she came to understand her work and about trying to contextualize it for readers old and new.

Alex Dueben:  I’m curious about the process of curating a selected volume of your own work.

Maureen McLane:  It was interesting being an anthologist of my own work. I knew I wanted More Anon to have a representative core from each book, but I also wanted to make sure that through-lines across the books could be signaled in various ways—for example, the various versionings of Sappho which appear in each book. And I wanted this selected poems to reflect the sense of emergent seriality in my work. I have a poem featuring the character or persona of “Mz N” in my first book, Same Life (2008); later on, that character became the basis for a much longer development, in what ultimately became the book Mz N: The Serial (2017). In More Anon I wanted there to be some sense of what persisted or developed over those years of my writing life. I also wanted to preserve the range each book offers: from some very short intense lyrics to some more essayistic poems to longer sustained work.

In selecting the poems for this book, I fortunately didn’t feel like I was going back to a stranger. The book draws on 20 years of a writing life, and sure, you go back with some distance and maybe a slightly different, more dispassionate eye, but I was glad that I didn’t feel estranged or remote from my earlier work. It felt of a piece, even if in some cases I wouldn’t write the same poem now. (Would one ever write precisely the same poem twice? Again?) That was interesting to discover, because it’s not like I sit around rereading my books. [Laughs.] Usually when I give readings, I tend to read from recent work. So it was interesting to go back to the beginning, as it were, and to think about how to shape a book that was alive and not a doorstopper. I mean, this isn’t a collected work: I’m not dead! [Laughs.] And hopefully, too, as the title More Anon suggests, the book welcomes new readers, and points to a horizon of ongoing writing and engagement. I hoped the book might offer something fresh and inviting to people who don’t know my work, and something fresh too to those who might be familiar with my poetry.

AD:  I have Jim Harrison: Complete Poems, which just came out and that’s a massive project where, when you’re dead, someone else can put it together. [Laughs.]

MM:  Exactly! [laughs] I mean, there are some wonderful poets who later in life have done that—and thankfully they are still with us and writing beautiful work. Louise Glück had a collected some years ago that was excellent, and now she’s writing some amazing new work. Fred Seidel had a collected a few years ago. But that’s a very different kind of project and I am hopefully decades away from that!

AD:  So why did you decide on this format and not a new and selected volume?

MM:  Some of those books are really wonderful and I enjoy reading them. For example, Toi Derricote’s I: New and Selected: I really liked that. It offers a survey of her career, obviously, but also a launching pad for the new poems. A couple of years ago, I did a Selected with Penguin U.K., in the spirit of introducing my work to a British audience. This new book for FSG—More Anon—was a slightly different project, because my work already had a presence here in the U.S., and this gave me another and different opportunity to distill the work, and maybe reintroduce it. My last book of poems, Some Say, was published in 2017; I had submitted that manuscript in 2015 alongside Mz N: the serial, and since 2015 I had been doing other kinds of writing, while also writing poems in several different keys. I felt like I didn’t want to include, say, 10 or 12 poems as the “new poems.” I felt I had another kind of manuscript emerging, and that More Anon would be a chance to take stock, to winnow and then frame poems a bit differently—not to introduce wholly new work. Another reason why I called the book More Anon is that, touch wood, there will be more from me anon. [Laughs.] Hopefully not too long from now. So, I didn’t want to dilute what was slowly distilling. Maybe that was stupid, I don’t know. For good or ill, I don’t tend to think about things in terms of “marketing.” I try to follow what feels formally and compositionally true to that moment in my writing life. Jonathan Galassi, my editor, was very on board with that, too—making it a selected, straight up.

AD:  You’re very consciously framing the book and the work with four quotations to open the book, and opening and closing the book with an envoi and envoi eclipse. I loved the envoi, which ends “make her regret everything about her life / that doesn’t include me”. Isn’t that what we all hope for? [Laughs.]

MM:  [Laughs.] These micro decisions carry a lot of weight. All of my books have envois—a kind of gesture sending the book out to the world. I realized that I did not want envois ending the sections from each book; I wanted there to be a sense of a new and  broader unified arc. So I begin and end the book with an envoi. In terms of epigraphs, I undertook a similar kind of selecting—choosing to sound a few notes for the whole collection. One can think about this almost musically: here’s an overture with little provocations and motifs, little sparks that hopefully will fuel a slow burn—or a poetic conflagration!

AD:  The quotations you include from H.D.—“Spare us from loveliness”—and Alice Notley—“Experience is a hoax”—are very intentional.

MM:  [Laughs.] So much of this reflects a kind of both/and, neither/nor quality of my mind. H.D. is a poet who you could argue trafficked ostentatiously in loveliness, even if the content of her verse is often about erotic duress or unlovely conditions. One could say that this line is a bit rich coming from H.D., but it’s a wonderful line and a wonderful note to self—as well as a note to the reader. Ditto with the Notley. These lines grooved themselves on my mind. These meta-poetic moments became wonderful glosses on my experiences of reading and writing—Notley pressing hard on the idea that poetry is “about” “experience,” as if experience were some kind of unmediated obvious thing. I just love that Notley presents this as one gloss on her own work: it’s like, okay, let’s pay attention. [Laughs.] So yes, there’s an intentional spin these epigraphs want to introduce. They certainly have spun in my mind and they became a way of transferring that spin to the reader.

AD:  You also have quotations from Malthus and Blake which push that framing in a more political direction. Which is related to notions of experience and loveliness, especially when we talk about queerness and about what it means to be a woman in the world.

MM:  Definitely. And they point to other trajectories baked into this book—trajectories about modernity, America, prophecy, “identity,” “experience,” after-lives. And the Shelleyan question arises, “What is life?” And for whom? I think the Malthus quotation—“Life is, generally speaking, a blessing independent of a future state”—is highly arguable. All of these epigraphs are meant as goads, not simply as endorsements. They all have an edge, a torque to them, and I would think they would vibrate differently for different readers.

AD:  I also kept thinking of the Malthus quotation in relation to the Notley quotation. From the Buddhist perspective, there is only the present, the past and future are illusions.

MM:  That’s wonderful. Of course Malthus was an Anglican pastor, so he was deeply not a Buddhist, but it is a really interesting philosophical claim he’s making in his famous or infamous essay on the principle of population. Which is an amazing and crazy and still influential document. But also one thinks of Keats—as he wrote in an 1817 letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”  On the one hand, Keats is longing for such a life, but he’s got this existential unavoidable predicament of living via sensation and thought—“where but to think is to be full of sorrow,” as he writes in the Nightingale Ode. I love that the Malthus and the Notley did a two-step for you. [Laughs.]

AD:  As part of going through all the books and selecting representative work in different ways, I kept thinking about how in all your books, you’re not a poet who has a single tone or approach. There’s a way in which you’re playfully looking for an approach in a similar way you’re trying to playfully look at the world. This book tries to represent that.

MM:  That seems to me really on target. For me, certain approaches or tones or phrases tend to determine the path of the poem. A poem like “Excursion Susan Sontag” goes immediately into a kind of strongly voiced mock-professorial key—“Now Susan Sontag was famous / among certain people”—and it’s almost like you’re riding on a different bike or driving a different car, compared to other poems. I have tended to pursue this multiplicity of tones and modes in every book. Some books might be more in a certain key, but certainly my first book Same Life had a real diversity of approaches. I personally don’t see that as a haphazard eclecticism, I see that as almost an effect of sensibility, as you’re suggesting. It’s not the case that I can’t imagine writing a book or ultimately publishing something that is all in one key. I met a poet some years ago and they were surprised because, having read some of my work, they thought I was going to be very grim and dour. [Laughs.] I remember another poet said to me after a reading, I didn’t realize your poems were so funny. I didn’t know what to make of that. [Laughs.]

It’s a funny thing how tone reads to people and how a multiplicity of tones reads. I talk about this a lot with students because I can think of many wonderful books in a profoundly unitary key, or with a common approach throughout—some of Glück’s books, for example, or, to go in a very different direction, David Kirby’s, can be like that. Or think of Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, or Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets. Or Donna Stonecipher’s amazing books. Or consider a poet like H.D. Obviously I feel like there are a lot of instruments to play on, and some people like to play on many and some like to play on one.  I see that this analogy is breaking down pretty quickly, because you can play in a lot of keys or modes on some instruments, if not all. But anyway, it’s also the case that Mz N and Some Say were written during the same period, sort of dividing up the poetic universe in my mind. Some Say is in a focused lyric key, while Mz N tracks an actual character, in looser, more expansive poems, some of which move into essayistic or narrative territory. This was the way I found myself channeling different tendencies in those two books. We’ll see what happens in the future. I have found myself writing more prose poems, which is interesting and a little surprising to me.

AD:  From your first books with poems like “Mz N” and “Saratoga August,” you were interested in longer narrative poems.

MM:  That’s one of the reasons I included “Saratoga August” in More Anon—it’s a multi-part poem which does have story in it, narrative elements, alongside lyric and song: these modalities are not mutually exclusive. At least for me or in me, whether as a reader or a writer. So yes, I think that that’s 100 percent right. In the early 2010s I was writing My Poets, a poeticritical memoir, and that shifted some internal gears. I realized I wanted to do more within poetry “proper” in that essayistic, autobiographical/autofictional key. I found myself going back to the Mz N figure, which I hadn’t expected to do at all. That was a surprise to me. So from this vantage I can see how different kinds of writing opened doors for other kinds of work. At a certain point I’ll likely be able to look back and say, here I came to the end of the line with such and such a thing. I don’t yet know what or when that will be, but certainly one doesn’t want to be repetitive. I haven’t been a poet who’s operated much from a principle of will or decision or program in the sense of: “Now I shall do X,” or “Here is my project book.” Though I suppose we could call Mz N: the serial that. I admire some writers who do proceed that way—Donna Stonecipher, MC Hyland, Cathy Park Hong, Srikanth Reddy, Edgar Garcia—but that’s just not the way I’ve tended to go. I’m usually responding to certain things in the environment, whether it’s ambient stuff or political things or my internal environment. I keep notebooks that are full of jottings and I’ll look back and start to see threads, but I tend to see these threads only later. And out of that gets woven a manuscript.

AD:  Someone asked me to describe your work and I half-joked that you’re a very philosophical poet and you also write about sex, not as a series of metaphors using SAT words.

MM:  That’s a wonderful compliment. Thank you. [Laughs.]

AD:  I mean that as a compliment, but you also know exactly what I mean.

MM:  I do. I really do. And we don’t need to name any names. [Laughs.]

AD:  Just as you enjoy playing with style and approach, and I think this was clear from the beginning of your published work, you want to write about life and experience and what that means in ways that don’t always get addressed in poetry.

MM:  That’s true and that leads you into different places. Some poems zoom in intently on the erotic. Some poems focus intently on registering a soundscape or landscape. Or some poems want to be looser, baggier things that pivot among politics, weather, erotics, story. So much is inflected by things I’ve read and heard and admired—and not necessarily in poetry, it might be in essays or fiction or music: works that are capacious, that allow for intensity but also expansiveness of concern, attention, scope. I want to honor all those registers.

AD:  I don’t know what the queer poetic tradition is, to the extent that there is one, but part of queer writing is about trying to encompass many things and address it and look at it and not hide essential things behind metaphor or being an aesthete.

MM:  It’s important that there are many queer genealogies and paths available now, more than there might have been 30 or even 15 years ago. Certainly the emergence of an identifiable queer literary and theoretical tradition opened up a lot for me and many others. Anything from Virginia Woolf to H.D. to Gertrude Stein to Eileen Myles to Frank O’Hara to James Schuyler to Audre Lorde. I remember reading Olga Broumas and Adrienne Rich early on. Foucault’s writing. Eve Sedgwick’s. This is all very ‘90s, a crucial decade for me. Critical theory was a lifeline for me and also a kind of horizon. This was about sexuality, sure, but also more broadly about what constituted my sense of the given, and testing and sounding that out. Not having the luxury of certain assumptions. Or not wanting that luxury. Or not being able to sit with that. So in terms of a “queer poetic tradition,” there was and is for me a socio-psycho-sexual domain and also a stylistic dimension, questions of formalization and style and experiment carried by literature, art, thought: and this has been galvanizing and inspiring. All of this gets reimagined by new and emerging writers, in many languages. The horizon of what queer traditions were circa 1995 versus 2022 is very different, in part because of all the thinking and writing and protesting and grief and tragedy and solidarity and transformation that the past 60 years have wrought in the U.S., but also internationally.

I was saying recently to a friend that before I had any conscious affiliation with “queerness,” I was responding to writers who I later realized or discovered were queer. It is endlessly interesting to see how your unconscious knows more than you do. There were many reasons I was particularly oriented, so to speak, to H.D. and Stein and Virginia Woolf. Also to writers whom I liked couldn’t quite “get,” like Frank O’Hara. As a teenager and in my early 20s I had a very idealized sense of a poem and of poetry, but part of me also had a strong critical debunking impulse, too. Or rather, a critical, analytic impulse. When I was struggling and searching and flailing in my 20s (and beyond!), I found some really good avenues for thinking—if not yet solutions for living—via queer and gender studies. Also via Enlightenment and Romantic-era thought. And I drew on the poets and writers who were vibrating in my mind.

AD:  As you were talking I couldn’t help but think of My Poets, which is a work of criticism and I don’t want to say that it’s not consciously a memoir because you were very conscious of what you were doing, but you weren’t just saying, here are poets I like.

MM:  Exactly! I understood My Poets to be a kind of memoir via a reading life, which in my cases was always feeding back into sexual, erotic, intellectual trajectories. These, for me, are very enmeshed. For other people, eros might be enmeshed with film or music or sports, but for me, these poetic encounters were generative. Marianne Moore has a line in her poem “Picking and Choosing,” “literature is a phase of life.” Which might suggest you outgrow it, but that is not, I think, her point. I think My Poets was testing that out: the relation between literature and life-phase. A chapter like “My Elizabeth Bishop/My Gertrude Stein” offered a way to talk about those writers and their work, but also to talk about gender and sexuality and sexed writing. The book aimed to explore the interpenetration of reading and living.

AD:  Before we ever spoke I remember coming across My Poets and trying to write a different kind of criticism, which doesn’t always show its work. Which isn’t quite what I mean, but you found a different way into talking about the poetry that spoke to the relationship a lot of us have to literature.

MM:  Thank you. I remember that at some point I read Edmund White’s My Lives, which had chapters like “My Hustlers,” “My Friends,” etc.  I was attracted to this way of grouping things, to this alternate way of writing memoir via relationality. In My Poets, the chapter rubrics invoking specific poets (“My Chaucer,” “My Shelley,” “My Fanny Howe”) opened onto other matters too—questions of marriage and erotics and religion and reading itself and being a student. I didn’t go, oh, now I shall hybridize criticism. [Laughs.] I have done a lot of normative critical writing, but by the mid-2000s I was moving towards another key. My Poets was really fun and also hugely challenging to write; there was certainly no one saying, okay, give us 5,000 words on H.D.

AD:  To circle back to the beginning, and the title, which says that there’s more to come, more soon, I know you’ve done a lot of scholarly work on ballads and minstrels and these works which have come down to us anonymously. We don’t know who made them or when, we have vague notions of traditions, and I kept thinking of Mz N, which is a series of poems about someone not unlike you, shall we say?

MM:  That’s a lovely way to phrase it.

AD:  Your name is on the book, obviously, but here are a lot of poems and a lot of different kinds of poems and the title is telling the reader, just go with it.

MM:  You really hit a bunch of nails on their exact heads. After hovering among titles, I went with More Anon, because it ramifies in all these different directions you point out—and also “more anon” suggests “more to come,” and also raises the question, or possibility, of “more anonymity.” That is a thing that I’ve been long interested in. We’re all really preoccupied by our individuality. Or most of us. Certainly I can be! [Laughs.] You can’t help being a person. And then there is your ego and investment in your work, but also you know—or get reminded—that in the longer flow of time, all this is contingent and provisional and erasable. I have for a long time been interested in anonymity and poetry, in ballad traditions in particular. English and Scottish ballads usually entered into print—via broadsides, or anthologies, or other books—without authors. Some so-called traditionary ballads were circulating for decades or centuries, and one reason they survived is that they were so beautifully distilled or memorable that enough people wanted to keep singing or reading them. It’s useful to think about a poetic economy and vitality that’s circulating that way as opposed to the commodity-form of the author and the book. It’s a useful reminder, too.

I think it was the poet Devin Johnston who reminded me that Thom Gunn said he wanted to write with the same anonymity you get in the Elizabethans. I’m sure that’s a paradoxical kind of commitment, and a beautiful aspiration. For me, the Mz N figure  was an enabling device allowing me to do all kinds of things with the figure of autobiography but also to write in a more narrative or dramatic way. “Mz N” points as well to the question of pseudonymity and to “n” as an anonymous or unknown variable. I think of Rimbaud, “Je est un autre” (“I is another” or “I is someone else”). I respond to that non-alignment or self-estrangement, which is certainly a profound experience for me and I think for many people. [Laughs.] I’m enough of an old-school psychoanalytically oriented person that I feel like we’re not in charge of that self-estrangement or non-alignment. That’s our given condition as humans. I always think of a line from the geneticist Richard Dawkins, that a chicken is just an egg’s way of making another egg. From poetry’s point of view, a poet is simply poetry’s way of making more poetry. If you’re a poet, of course you will likely or even necessarily experience an intense personal engagement or sense of vocation, but from the perspective of poetry out in the world, you’re just a medium for generating more poetry out in the world. [Laughs.]

Maybe the Buddhist ambition—if such a paradox can be held—would be to aim to write poems that travelled widely and not under anyone’s name. I mean, you called me up to interview me, which is lovely, but think of somebody like Robert Burns. He published a book under his own name but he also became a prominent song collector in late 18th century Scotland. When these songs were published by the editor/impresario James Johnson, it was in a multi-volume collection of Scottish songs called The Scots Musical Museum. There were 600 songs published over several years, and at first Burns’s name was nowhere, though he’d contributed or set the words for some 200 songs. Once Burns got famous, the editor wanted to be sure to attribute certain song texts to Burns; hello cultural capital! But Burns was by then dead. RIP Burns! He’s a fascinating example in poetic and musical history: somebody who was a prominent author but also an incredibly important song collector. And his legacy toggles between “Robert Burns,” this supersaturated cultural figure with a proper name, and anonymity—someone who set the words to songs many know, like “Auld Lang Syne,” though few know he was the poet there. This bears on many other traditions too, not least the history of Black song in the Americas, and all kinds of so-called oral traditions.

AD:  You’re also in The FSG Poetry Anthology, which is an incredible book, and maybe especially in the context of the last question, how do you think your two poems in the book read in the context of this broad illustrious company, and just being read as part of this book which is a selection of postwar poetry?

MM:  Isn’t it a great book? If it’s not cheesy to agree. I found it really surprising—lots of discoveries, not least from poets I thought I knew (e.g. Bishop, Heaney, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Katie Peterson, Devin Johnston, August Kleinzahler). The book sets up new resonances and reverb; obviously it’s an honor to be in it, and its establishing of a longer and international reverb is inspiring, as is the longstanding commitment to poetries in translation. How my poems might read in this context: well, that’s probably for others to say—but it is striking to see poems organized by decades. One of my poems appears in the 2000s section, while another appears in the 2010s. I told the editors that I hoped to be one of the poets of the 2020s!  But seeing things this way, you get a slightly different feel for generationality, and also there’s a nice push I think against monumentality: some big monuments are clearly represented (Heaney, Walcott, Bishop, Lowell, Neruda), but not as monuments, rather as poets among a company of poets; and one also encounters poets less hyper-canonical, like Louise Bogan. And to see the array of poets gathered in the past 20 years shows new lines of poetic and cultural force, I think—in the work of the poets I mentioned above, or in, for example, Shane McCrae’s work, or Iman Mersal’s poetry, translated from the Arabic by Robyn Creswell.

It’s interesting; I hadn’t thought of the book as a post-war book until you said so. I guess I also feel that “postwar” might be a kind of historical artifact; it feels very 20th century, very Cold War, and that might be an accurate and striking way to think about a good swath of the anthology. And the historical sweep of FSG’s poetry publishing.

AD:  It’s interesting to read all these poets—the ones I know and those I don’t—and see them in conversation because of how they’re grouped together. Demarcations like when FSG started or even the decades are somewhat arbitrary and vague. When did “the sixties” end and begin, for example? But out of such randomness, relationships emerge. Your editor asked for a selected volume, so you assembled one. Decades from now, will it feel like a natural demarcation or a random one? Who knows? But it’s a nice collection of poems.

MM:  Your thoughts make me think of a hilarious essay by Kay Ryan from some years ago, “I Go to AWP,” in which she casts a gimlet eye on project books, books with “arcs,” all those requirements (and sometimes impositions) of conceptual structure and organization. I suspect “a nice collection of poems” would be a fine gloss on things, in her view. And yes, modes of grouping can be arbitrary or vague, but they can also be enabling, at least sometimes, right? As for my selected, well, as you say, who knows how it will feel decades from now. But I can tell that even now it feels, for me, like a useful, and certainly not random, demarcation. The chance to make More Anon was an occasion for reckoning and taking stock, while allowing me to feel out the intimations of further, as well as returning, commitments as a writer. I’m hoping some of those glimmerings will take worldly form in some collaborative projects and in a forthcoming book, What You Want: we’ll see—more anon!

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