Interview with Maureen N. McLane, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
MAUREEN N. McLANE
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
SL: How does it feel to be nominated for the National Book Award?
MM: It feels great!
It's a huge honor, and a special one to be a Finalist alongside poets whose work I've long admired.
SL: Your earlier book, My Poets, expertly combines literary criticism and memoir; how does allusion and/or quotation work in your poems?
MM: I suppose allusion and quotation work in many different ways in my poems–sometimes things are invoked explicitly, as goads or hooks (a line, say, from Wallace Stevens in the poem "Terran Life," or an echo of Burns in the poem "Best Laid"); sometimes they're just part of the weave in the poem, as they are in my mind. It's not necessarily a willed or conscious thing, in the poems, more a surfacing or a channeling of material, a being-possessed by phrases or lines, as if they were viral and I the mere host–though sometimes, say, in an epigraph or in a flagrantly quoted phrase, there's a kind of sampling and re-mixing logic at work. Giving a spin to something, warping it, flipping it and reversing it. And anything could potentially be quoted–a pop lyric, a meme, an ad, not just a poem. Some chapters and poems in My Poets were built largely out of quotation (e.g. the two centos--a form devoted to stitching together quotations). Some sections of My Poets are highly citational; and that's become true in some of my newer poems--this elected citational logic. This likely arises out of my ongoing sense that our "minds" are composite, that what moves through us makes us, and what gets stuck in us also makes us, and makes poems, works, lives.
SL: I admire the ways in which certain poems in This Blue can expertly shift tonal registers and give way to new planes of expression; can you talk a little bit about this?
MM: I'm glad you liked this! Well, I am a "both/and" kind of person, and I like things that are both severely restricted and perfected in one key, and I also like things that modulate, subtly or wildly–in music, poetry, life. Too much of something in one key, or in a single inflection, can make me long for a shift; monotone is just that. Some romantic odes are fabulously weird and shifty, and I've sat a long time with them; and I've always liked mixed modes and a capacity to shift gears in art, and within works.
SL: One of the first things I noticed in this collection was your use of a short, very musical line; how did you come to use that line?
MM: Hmmm I'm not sure exactly how I came to it, except through the writing itself, and perhaps through absorbing over the years poets like Williams, Creeley, Niedecker. Some of Stevens. Haiku. I’m an amateur musician, and time spent with madrigals, motets, and ballads may inflect the line too. I like Carlyle’s definition of poetry as “musical thought.” I've long toggled between shorter and longer lines and forms, and this book distilled something perhaps more pared and intensified than in previous books, though in This Blue there is a long-lined loping essayistic poem ("Terran Life") in the center. I'm interested in speed, velocity, intensities, and how a poem might conduct these, and how too a work might invite you to slow down, might reward several layers of attention. The quicksilver shifts enabled in shorter lines, as they bend around and against syntax and tease the ear: that really pleases me.
SL: “OK Fern” ends with the bracing lines: “Tell me what to do // with my life.” How do you view the relationship between poems and the experienced world?
MM: Poems when internalized are the experienced world!–or maybe I should say that some poems have helped me to experience the world. “Literature is a phase of life," Marianne Moore says, but life is also a phase of literature, or poetry. I often think of Alice Notley's line, "Experience is a hoax." And then of course there is Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo," its ending: "You must change your life," as it's typically translated. Boy, that can knock you down: you must change your life!
For me poetry is in a complex feedback loop with living. Poems can pre-interpret experience–or re-interpret it. I suppose it’s worth saying that poems can falsify experience too–can come to seem false, outworn, pat, foreclosed, foreclosing. This Blue often registers an interface between living and thinking, or living-as-thinking, which for me is very close to an impulse toward poetry. Poems–writing or reading them–are modes of paying attention. They can be many other things too, but that is how they have often functioned for me.
Sandra Lim is the author of The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014), selected by Louise Glück for the 2013 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and a previous collection of poetry, Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006). The recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Getty Research Institute, she is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.