FPP spoke with poet Marc McKee about the power of listening, the “money that goes into crafting a culture of victimization and criminalization”, and what his skateboarding youth in a small East Texas town taught him about community–plus so much more. Marc McKee will be reading on February 3rd at Shrine NYC.
RIGHT. What a great question. I’ve never really thought about it in these terms; actually, this particular question about community has never been posed to me. I grew up in a very small town in East Texas, and still and yet I did not think of myself as part of that community, most likely because I belonged to a religion that made itself distinct from the predominantly Protestant religions of the region. It seems like I would have formed my first senses of community around that religion, since it created a stark contrast between me and the other folk in my age group, but I think the first real sense of community I had developed out of being a skater. In a football crazy, small Texas town, to voluntarily immerse yourself in what was then a fringe subculture meant that community as I came to know it was at least in part a choice, and entailed a certain amount of difficulty. Something about that difficulty and the choice to embrace it, and to be loyal to and protective of other people who had made the same choice, means that my ongoing ideas about community are a necessarily intriguing and complex networks of relations that are always somehow about how we negotiate who we feel we authentically are, what we decide to do and how we decide to act based on that realization, and the struggle to embrace and support people who feel the same pulls, often for entirely different reasons.
As time goes on, I appreciate my blood kin more and more, but I’m also ever more astonished by the families we make in the world and the lengths we go to when it is important to cultivate those families, those made communities. At this point, it’s almost all aspiration, especially in the wake of the first 14 years of this century, to conceive and seek community. Our challenge is to embrace and internalize notions of family, kinship, and community that gentle the social we find us in now, which seems to be insanely irradiated with rabid and reactionary xenophobias. As a skater, I was trained to embrace my clique and reject or ridicule others, but I hope that as I’ve grown the fuck up, I realize more and more that the experience of being in a small somewhat maligned group (which I felt as a teenager, though time and relative maturity has granted me a clearer perspective) is supposed to be instructive and to invite you to NOT replicate those kinds of malignant behaviors. More and more it seems clear that our ongoing project needs to be centered on preserving and protecting a great multiplicity of communities so long as they serve each other in the greater fabric of a nation far too large to entertain any one narrow set of quasi-unifying beliefs. Talk, talk, talk: can we just all talk to each other?
When do you feel most “we”? When are you most troubled by “we”?
Most “we”? I feel like all these questions are for me, specifically, which sometimes makes them hard to answer. I suppose I feel most “we” when I’m helping in some way. I teach. I’ve taught creative writing, literature, film, and composition for essentially the last 15 years of my life. I feel the most “we” professionally/daytime when I’ve said something that students that now are about half my age feel as something that turns a corner or hits an exit ramp in their brain. Nighttime “we” feels are different; I like to be out at night when there’s time enough and I continue to nurse an idea that in the spaces that night allows for we can sometimes be parts of conversations that even if they start in mundane places can graduate into revelatory and soothing recognitions of relation. I don’t like the word “relatable” because I think it’s a cop-out, but I do love the word “relations,” because it implies an actual responsibility—“relatable” only means that you recognize someone else’s experience and you can think of yourself also having experiences. “Relations” to me implies a bond that further suggests responsibility.
I feel most “we” when there is a conversation, when it moves from being led to being an organic trade, a carousel of shared ideas and narratives like gifts whose energies achieve a kind of critical mass that feels more like creating than reciting ideas and positions. To paraphrase what Frank O’Hara says in “Personism: A Manifesto,” once you’ve gotten past the trappings of doing something and exist in the creative action of doing it, that is when refreshment arrives. So when I’m talking to friends, and we hit the point where we’ve left ego-affirming small talk behind and are into some authentically searching and creative conversation, I feel like I’m in the real energy of the “we” because I feel like we are starting to get somewhere, and it’s not just me talking to hear myself talk.
When I feel least “we” or most troubled by the “we”? I’m pretty sure that my gravest discomfort and shame at the “we” comes when I have to recognize being part of a larger community or group that is responsible en masse for the oppression, repression, or violent deconstruction of an Other “we.”
You often employ the first person plural voice in your poems. Tell us about this desire, and what it has meant for your work.
When I first started writing poems, I wrote in all lower-case: it was about 60-40 or 70-30 “it looks cool-it is a meaningful statement about what parts of language should be emphasized or important.” I always lower-cased the “I” of those first elementary and terrible efforts. I was disabused pretty quickly of that aesthetic, but I retained a instinctive, intuitive resistance to the “I” as a proper representation of the poet, or even of just the persona of the speaker. I think other poets do the “I” quite well, and winningly, and create poems that are not just absolutely earned but transcendently marvelous, but I’ve never trusted my own “I” unless it’s connected to a “you” or a “we.” Often, the speaker of my poems will move between the first, second, and first plural positions, and it will often be the result of a poem starting in a smallish, local place and aspiring to end up in a much bigger, fiercely inclusive place. Noticing this in my work has led me to embrace it and what I hope are the intuitive impulses behind it, which are to be eager to connect to or create communities, but also to indulge in pronouncements that are easier to contend with in the plural. For example: if I say “I,” you might be more apt to take my word for things just as you might comfort yourself by reminding yourself that it’s just one human’s perspective—after all, we exist in a culture which fetishizes to some degree people relaying their experiences. If on the other hand, I’m telling you how we feel, how we respond to tragedy, how we experience go-carts, then you may be more likely to be alert to your compulsion to agree AND your compulsion to disagree. For me that makes the experience of the poem richer: even if you think it’s rubbish for me to say “we,” you’ve got to have a reason, and that reason usually entails an attempt at empathy and a rejection (or acceptance) of the presumption of the first person plural. To elaborate on what this has meant for my work would be a nearly endless task—I’ll be doing right by my aesthetic desire if I just manage to keep exploring and evolving my relationship to these forms of expression and address.
Do you find there is a particular place that is recurring shadow, or soil, for your poems?
I feel like place most often in my work , is a negotiation between where I am physically and where I’ve been. The poems in What Apocalypse?, the chapbook that was my first collection, is suffused for me with the experience of living in Tucson, but also of having just left Houston. The poems in my first full-length book from Black Lawrence, Fuse, were written in the wake of moving from Bloomington (where I was first becoming a writer) and Houston, where I did my MFA. Bloomington left its mark, and Houston was such a giant experience that it couldn’t help but bleed through the poems. Bewilderness (also from Black Lawrence) was written in Houston and Tucson, with another round of places making themselves felt in my writing. Over all, though, I don’t think of there as being a particular place. My poems come from my contemporary local, and seek to fly off to wherever else I might want to go, as long as I can get a bunch of y’all to come with me.
Your writings reveal you to be a passionate teller, as well as questioner, of truth. What has the last year been like for you and your work, especially living in Missouri in the wake of the Mike Brown killing?
First of all, it’s an almost unreal compliment to assessed in this way: I am humbly grateful to be thought of like this. The past year has been very challenging, in terms of starting any work. Usually, I like the truths I can get at to be turned out of a lot a play in the language, a lot of puzzles I set up for myself, which I then labor to refine into adventurous conversation I try to buoy with jokes acutely turning into reminders of our short, sad, miraculous turns on this stage. The past year has been nauseatingly replete with reminders that my existential understanding is propped up by a complex of privileges that I need to interrogate and attempt to dismantle even as I’m trying to create new work. As a person, I need a lot of time to process difficult things before I feel I can talk about them with any degree of responsibility or wisdom. What that means essentially is that I need to just listen. As that happens, and when I can make poems, new knowledge and new understanding that I’ve internalized then necessarily seep into the work, and I hope give it deeper dimension, especially as it accesses images and information that current events yield. This past year has spurred incredibly important, responsible, and necessary social action. It has also shone a much brighter light on the fear and exhaustion of the black community around the country, and their entirely justifiable anger. My writing will be affected by this and it will convey this as I am able to: in the meantime, I can help by listening, I can help by asking people who are ready to act how I can help. It’s like a dire version of helping someone move house. Point me to the boxes, toward the unwieldy dresser, towards the piano or the perishables: there are things that I want to resist doing or saying from my particular position, but I can help load the truck.
Your new collection of poems is called Bewilderness. How was it to write these poems?
One interesting thing about all my collections is that the poems in them are quite old to me: most of the poems in, Fuse, were written between 1999 and 2003. The poems in Bewilderness were written between 2001 and 2006, which I think that explains a lot. The first person plural parts of Fuse were, perhaps, youthfully optimistic: expressions of a singular self trying to disabuse himself of the vanity and preciousness of the singular identity and trying to make poems that found and illuminated connections. My version of that is really inflected especially with poets of the New York School, and the poets that influenced them as well as the poets who expand on their kinds of experiments and methods.
Those methods didn’t really change with Bewilderness, but the time period is one I think we can all agree is not our finest hour as a nation. I wrote most of these poems in Houston and in Tucson and “finished” them in Columbia, MO, when I had experienced a number of different communities and friendships as well as lived through 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the Great Recession, and all of the other social, national, and international issues connected to those events as well as the ideological filters that redistributed truth in particular and intentional ways to confuse and mislead a public. So it’s a bit less optimistic in the practice of making connections, but still fiercely clinging to the hope that it’s within our power to recognize beauty and be spurred into making the world better. In fact, by the time I got to writing the title poem, I realized that I wanted it to become a vision of everything in the world disappearing, of everything being taken back and re-imagined before we returned a better world than the one we found. So, you know: joy and despair, fear and love, that’s what it was like.
Could the Bewilderness be described as a place? And if so, do we seek to stay or escape?
For me, writing it, Bewilderness, is where we were, and maybe still are. Yes, definitely, we are still in the Bewilderness. If you think of the amazing quantity of unreality we are implored to just accept, day to day, I think you have to come to the conclusion that we (and by “we” here I largely mean the West, and especially the United States) are in an incredibly advanced position from the standpoint of technologies, of gadgets and very nearly having much of the knowledge for the history of the world at our fingertips. The possibilities for making the world better are astonishing. Yet, if you’re paying attention, it’s hard not to see most people who occupy the most elite positions of power and wealth willfully ignoring the comparatively painless steps they could take to insure stronger, healthier, more equitable societies in their respective countries. Instead, a tremendous amount of money goes into crafting a culture of victimization or criminalization that divides and vexes the poor while mollifying the sense of entitlement for those not as affected by poverty. And don’t get me started about war. What I was hoping Bewilderness would do was reveal those insanities, to make them apparent and provoke resistance to them. So, for me, the Bewilderness is not necessarily something we seek to remain in or to flee from, but the unreality we must work to transform.
When it’s time to write, what brings you back to poetry?
Poetry. And music. And more poetry. And sometimes film, or television. There’s something about other genres that I feel can be useful cross-pollinators with writing, especially if there are moves, from editing in movies to new takes on language in television and music and so on and so forth, that I can figure out ways to translate into poetry. Dean Young is right: poetry really can be about anything.
What was your first knowledge of Harlem? What does Harlem mean to you now?
Given that I have an MFA in poetry and PhD and English and Creative Writing, my first thought is the towering, iconic writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, of course. My first knowledge of Harlem came from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was a senior in high school. The way that Alex Haley and Malcolm detail his experience of that environment from the time that he was “Detroit Red” through his evolution into Malcolm X was so vivid and compelling—it was really my first introduction to New York as a concept that was overwhelming to someone from very small towns, a hub of artistic and political energy where, you know, things actually happened. This only continued with my education, though my knowledge of Harlem is incomplete, and though I have been to NYC once before, I have yet to go to Harlem. It’s one more realm I’m excited to come to know better and develop an even greater appreciation for.
What urgent advice would you offer emerging poets?
Read everything, see everything, do everything you can do while first trying to do no harm, bring unlike things together, break like things down, discover what you need and what you can do without, take care, be reckless with the language, flee your darlings, return to your darlings, when all else fails cut 30%, and be kind, be kind, be kind.
Who are five artists everyone should know right now?
The first thing to leap to my mind are actually all artists that we lost too soon, so I’m going to honor that impulse: Jason Molina (musician: Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co., etc); Elliot Smith (subject of the forthcoming documentary Heaven Adores You), Frank Stanford (poet; The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, and other books), Jake Adam York (poet; Abide, Persons Unknown, and other books), and one of my gods, Tomaz Salamun (poet; There’s the Hand, There’s the Arid Chair; Book for My Brother; Feast; and other books).