Maureen N. McLane
That man over there
as you sidelong
smile I do not think
he's a god
or frankly that great
but it's true he's glowing
under your eyes &
the sun that moments ago
was shining on this bench
where we sit across
from him now
as I think of your
I desire death &
I almost shove back
in my throat the call
to the Perseids calling them
down now to shower
him dead in their shower
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Poet and divagator Maureen N. McLane grew up in upstate New York and was educated at Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Chicago.
She is the author of three books of poetry: Same Life (FSG, 2008), World Enough (FSG, 2010), and This Blue (FSG, 2014), which was a Finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry. Her book My Poets (FSG, 2012) — an experimental hybrid of memoir and criticism —was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography.
Currently a professor of English at New York University, she has written poems on “weird life” and two books on British romanticism — Romanticism and the Human Sciences (2000) and Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry (2008), both from Cambridge UP).
McLane's poems, essays, and reviews have appeared widely — in The New Yorker, The LRB, The Paris Review, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Poetry, Grey, Boston Review.
Her next book of poems, Mz N: the serial, comes out in May 2016.
What are you currently working on?
Let’s see: I’m marking! I’m also awaiting final proofs for Mz N: the serial — my next book of poems coming out in spring; avoiding an essay on Wallace Stevens I’m meant to finish; getting ready to return to a mess of notebooks, which are a hash of jottings, drafts, musings.
You teach. For many writers this can be a blend of vocation and necessity. You've spoken about teachers placing things ‘within your orbit’ which seems analogous to poetry. That image or notion which has the sense of being given at the right place and the right time.
“A blend of vocation and necessity” just about nails it. And I try to offer students what I myself was offered, and what I see my admired colleagues and my partner offering — rich, provocative materials; space for intense engagement; serious feedback; opportunities to sit with things and not know in advance. I do like this line from Ezra Pound (all caveats about Pound noted!): Damn your taste, I would like if possible to sharpen your perceptions, after which your taste can take care of itself (Pound, “Prefatio”).
Beyond that, a lot comes down to serendipity, yes — the fortuitous timely conjunction.
You’ve spoken about an ‘inner ear’, which suggests that poetry, even in your head, is aural, as speech or music, it’s about being pronounced or knowing that it can be pronounced?
Pronounced in the mind if not actually by the body, yes; inner musics tend to lure me in, and certainly readings (live or recorded) can bring forth that music, can sound a poem (or essay or story) anew, aloud—and I’ve often found myself brought to new work, or rethinking work I thought I knew, after I’ve heard it read (or heard recordings): Claudia Rankine, T. S. Eliot, NourbeSe Philip, Kei Miller, Liz Berry, Kathleen Jamie, Amiri Baraka, Rodrigo Toscano. I recently heard the poet August Kleinzahler read one of Lucia Berlin’s stories: masterful. He’s also an amazing reader of his own poems.
My main channel of encounter is, though, “silent” reading. For me, the pulse conveyed by a book, by print, is often as audible, as it were, as that of any recording or live reading — Shelley and Sappho are as audible, potentially, as any living poet.
There's a professionalisation of the writer - a certain expectation from the public and publishers, how much of an issue is this?
It’s an issue, though less immediately for me, because I don’t teach in an MFA program. I think there’s a great burden on teachers and writers to navigate the social and professional location of writing and all the rigmarole that comes with that. Like most writers I have an allergy to that, but then, I can afford my allergy, because I have a job that largely insulates me from those pressures. My most intense experience with professionalization — one I found deeply aversive — came through my graduate studies in literature: things had gotten very professionalized there, in PhD programs in the US in the 90s, and it’s likely only gotten worse. As a teacher my job is both to help graduate students with professionalization and to protect them from its worst deformations. Professionalization isn’t all bad: it can offer a useful form or code of adult interaction; tools for self-reflection — especially pedagogical self-reflection; and can flush out old-boy bullshit that used to govern a lot of academic (and indeed literary) transactions (and to some extent still does, I’m sure). But that sense that everything you do is part of résumé-building and networking is to me appalling, more so in the realm of poetry than in literary scholarship. This is perhaps an index of my romanticism: poetry was for me always supposed to hold a possible space of freedom, of non-utility—but not, let me emphasize, of quiescence. I’ve been very fortunate in my publisher FSG and my editor Jonathan Galassi—no pressure there, just strong engagement. It’s also true that I’m a poet, and there isn’t a mass audience demanding X or Y from me! as there might be if I were a best-selling novelist or someone in demand on a particular lecture circuit.
You often directly address the reader - and that address shifts handsomely between a specific 'you' as in the person reading right now, or 'you' as in everyone. You employ tactics, direct address, questions, asides, which would deliberately draw on the reader's presence. You’ve addressed the reader as a lover, or a loved one in ‘For You’. You’ve also chastised them: ‘The effort your life / requires exhausts me.’ Does gender have any business here? Yours, the readers? I've not (yet) asked this of anyone else, but it seems appropriate here...
I suppose there is always some business for gender, no? some gender trouble, as Judith Butler might put it. But what that dynamic might be, when and how it’s foregrounded, varies from poem to poem, project to project, reader to reader. Certainly a tradition of, and a future for, queer erotics and imagination matters a lot to me, as a reader and writer; also the potential surprise, shock, or caress of address itself. I have wanted my work to channel a multitude of tones and modes of address, including those not “typically” (sic) taken up by women. And I hope that over time a wide range of readers could find themselves addressed in various ways by the books.
You play with time and context. In ‘Some Say’ you move from ‘ships in sail’ to ‘badass / booty shakin’,’ which could be very dissonant images - again in the same piece ‘Some say / porn Some jolie laide’ which shouldn’t be, but are, smoothly connected. Were these difficult sequences and images to connect, or is this a more organic process than logical?
I would say it was more an organic than a logical process, but then, the subconscious does have a wily logic, doesn’t it?—as does language itself, motoring one on an associative road…these turns and moves arise partly from long sitting with Sappho’s poems, her fragment 16 hovering behind this poem “Some Say” (“Some say a host of horses, a horizon of ships under sail is most beautiful”. . . ): there’s a logic of comparison and contrast and comeuppance baked into her poem (some say this, some say that, and that, or that: but I say this)—the logic of the priamel device itself, which governs what unfolds in my poem as much as it does Sappho’s fragment.
‘That Man’ is one flowing situation. In this the person you’re with is giving attention to someone else. You acknowledge the brilliance of that moment, of someone being captured, and also an irritation (you want him dead). Does a piece like this develop as one idea? It reads as a thought, a decision.
Ah, this is another one with a Sappho poem as its seed!—the great Sappho 31. And that fragment is just brilliant in establishing a triangle, a situation of great duress, in which a woman is looking on as a man addresses her beloved: the poem is famous for its sensuous synesthetic breakdown as the speaker is ravaged by an erotic inflammation . . . If I borrowed that initial situation—or rather, if I found myself in a situation which recalled to me Sappho’s fragment 31—it’s also the case that my poem ultimately moved a bit elsewhere: toward its final gesture, a kind of curse—which is something Sappho doesn’t call for explicitly (her fragment breaks off, so we can’t be sure how it rounds off: but it doesn’t seem to pivot as my poem ultimately does). So that was a definite thought and decision, where to take the situation, how to end it.
One reason I have gravitated to Sappho and some other lyric poets (Shelley, Catullus) is their fluency in creating what you call “one flowing situation,” one intense unfolding moment of enunciation, which might evoke a very complicated social scene, or an intimate self-reckoning, or an explicit address to another.
‘This Blue’ as a collection holds together interests, and pushes against categorisation - as a nature or pastoral poet. you’re working within a zone without having that zone define you. In fiction this is a tough call, if a fiction writer plays with genre, they’re often more inside of it than outside.
This is an interesting and generous take! I suppose someone could say of the poems in This Blue, they’re all lyrics, of different stripes, and that the book is confined or structured by that. But there are several kinds of ventures in it — a long strange essayistic poem “Terran Life,” songs, meditations, tightly rhyming stanzas, monorhymes, free (sic) verse. . . each of my books has a kind of formal and generic variety, within that broad category “poetry”: this next book Mz N: the serial is another kind of departure, far more narrative in some of its impulses. I suppose I end up being what Whitman called “both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it”!
Poems from THIS BLUE by Maureen Lane. Copyright (c) 2014 by Maureen Lane. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Maureen McLane at The Poetry Foundation
US Publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux
For You at The New Yorker
Three poems at The Paris Review
This Blue at The New York Times Review
Maureen McLane pages at Amazon, Powells
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