Poet Of The Week

Shane McCrae

     February 19–25, 2018

Shane McCrae is the author of five books of poetry: In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), shortlisted for the National Book Award; The Animal Too Big to Kill (Persea Books, 2015), winner of the 2014 Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award; Forgiveness Forgiveness (Factory Hollow Press, 2014); Blood (Noemi Press, 2013); and Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011). He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, an NEA fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Columbia University. McCrae will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series on Friday, February 23, at 100 Bogart with Lynn Melnick and Natalie Eilbert.

Jim Limber Knows He Will Not Be Reunited with His Mother After the War

But if it’s two Americas it’s four

And if it’s four it’s millions ’cause it’s one

For every Negro every white man one

For every shade of man between      and for

Every woman one      and maybe more

For every Negress one and two and none

For every Negress      and all at the same

Time      ain’t no number for how much Amer-

ica my momma got      when she was running

Away from it America she was

At the same time was running to it      Yankees

Frown when they ask me where my momma is

I bet even she don’t know      where she ran to

’Cause it was America she ran to


Tell us about the making of this poem.

I started working on this poem about two years ago, probably—I can’t be sure. But after writing the first eight and a half lines, I got stuck. And then I finished the book in which I would have published it, since the poem was to have been a part of a sequence I was writing, and so I abandoned the poem. However, just recently I was digging through my pile of unfinished poems, looking for a beginning that might take me somewhere, and even though I knew the context in which this poem might have appeared was sealed off, still I felt some energy in the lines, and much to my surprise finished the poem fairly quickly. Jim Limber keeps calling to me, and I begin to feel I can’t have finished answering.

What are you working on right now?

I don’t know. Like always, I’m trying to write poems whenever I can. And I am, though I’m at the very far end of the process, putting the final touches on my next book, The Gilded Auction Block, which FSG will publish in the fall.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me would feature time with my family, but would also include time spent reading, time spent playing video games, and time attending to my responsibilities as a teacher.

What brought you to New York?

Inexplicably, I was asked to join the creative writing faculty at Columbia.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

My family and I live in Morningside Heights—we moved there from Oberlin, Ohio, last August—and we love it. And we recognize how privileged we are to live where we live—our street, and really our whole area, is very quiet, very chill, and yet there are always people out and about. There are three bookstores within two blocks of our apartment, and there are nice restaurants nearby. And we’re within walking distance of a Chuck E. Cheese, which is a really fantastic thing. Also, obviously, there are a lot of students near where we live.

How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you go to? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

Oh, I don’t know the names of the neighborhoods or anything like that—I’m not that advanced as a New Yorker. I go to Brooklyn about once a week, and usually I go to shop at Unnameable Books, which is wonderful. My impression is that Brooklyn is a fairly various place, geographically speaking—though I might have that impression because I haven’t seen much of it, and maybe when one has more of it in one’s mind, it seems less various.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

A poetry community, to me, really is just a group of friends—but some of those friends I haven’t met yet. I have found a poetry community here, unexpectedly—partly, it is my fellow faculty members at Columbia, whom I love; partly, it is the poets I only knew on Facebook before coming to New York, whom I also love; and partly, it is those poets I encounter on social media every day. I’m not very good at being social, and so I’m surprised to find a poetry community anywhere, but since coming to New York, I feel my poetry community has grown.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Hart Crane lived in Brooklyn, right? Embarrassingly, I’m not so good at knowing where people live. But J. Hope Stein has been and is important to me, and Tina Cane has been and is important to me, and Tina Chang has been and is important to me, and Claire Donato has been and is important to me, and Timothy Donnelly has been and is important to me, and Anaïs Duplan has been and is important to me, and Aracelis Girmay has been and is important to me, and Cathy Park Hong has been and is important to me, and Simone Kearney has been and is important to me, and Amy King has been and is important to me, and David Tomas Martinez has been and is important to me, and Lynn Melnick has been and is important to me, and Danez Smith has been and is important to me, and this is an incomplete list because I don’t know who qualifies as a Brooklyn poet.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Lex Runciman, who was my teacher at Linfield College, was my primary poetry mentor as an undergraduate (although Regina Psaki at the University of Oregon was so so important to me as well, and helped me to not feel like such a weird goober for loving medieval literature, and also taught me how to know which translations of Dante I would want to read). Lex helped me to be a better person as a poet, I hope, and he helped me to make sense of the things I loved as a writer and as a reader, and he taught me how to think about them. Jorie Graham was my most significant mentor as a graduate student, and she helped me to be a more generous reader. If I’ve become a better writer since graduate school, I owe it largely to her.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Well, I suppose the last two poems that stood out to me were Frank Bidart’s “The Ghost” and Anaïs Duplan’s “Ode to the Happy Negro Hugging the Flag in Robert Colescott’s ‘George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,’” which hit BACK-TO-BACK on Poem-a-Day near the end of January. I love these poems for different reasons. I love “The Ghost” because I think it arrives, devastatingly, at a truth I had not recognized before. And I love “Ode to the Happy Negro Hugging the Flag in Robert Colescott’s ‘George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware’” for its fantastic title and for its more fantastic music and language play.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Oh my gosh basically anything by Faulkner.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

Although I would like to think of myself as a person who reads one to four books at a time, each to its end, the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve become someone who dips in and out of, like, ten books at once. This is a bummer, because I don’t ever feel like I get anything done anymore. However, on the positive tip, it does leave me open to discovering new things—I can always make room for a new book—and so I have been discovering things at random more frequently lately. I prefer physical books, though I have many digital texts, and I am an underliner rather than a note-taker.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Hmm. I’ve thought about writing a sestina for years, but I’m not sure I could manage it—the form seems too long. But gosh Elizabeth Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast” is basically perfect, isn’t it?

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I prefer to write at home—I don’t like to do so in public because I feel like I’m putting myself on display—but I’m happy to write at the office I share at Columbia, and at certain big-enough-to-make-one-anonymous spaces on campus, and really I’ll write anywhere I need to. I like to read wherever and whenever I can.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Unnameable Books, because it has a wonderful selection and highlights small presses. I haven’t lived in New York long enough to know many Brooklyn spaces.

Why Brooklyn?

Setting aside a two-day trip to Times Square, during which I was too dazed and excited to absorb anything, Brooklyn was the first part of New York City I ever visited, and it was during that first visit to Brooklyn that I realized I could, were the opportunity ever to arise, live in New York—I had never even sort of thought that before.