March 16–22, 2020
Nathan McClain is the author of Scale (Four Way Books, 2017). He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Frost Place and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, McClain has poems and prose recently published or forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Poem-a-Day, the Common, West Branch Wired and Far Villages: Welcome Essays for New and Beginner Poets (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). He teaches at Hampshire College.
Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot
to cradle. Caught
in the act of concentration,
you see it, chiseled there,
his bronze body curled into
mark, not pulling,
rather, about to pull,
the thorn finally out.
Nothing original here.
Marble, quartz—the old
masters have, for ages now,
sculpted this scene—you’ve seen
it—and here you
Again the little boy.
Again his insistent
grief. So what
some exhibits in the museum
have already gone
dark? So what
others have moved on
to new rooms? Left
with your notepad
and pen. And what
have you learned from
standing here so long
examining pain? No
matter how ancient.
has it done you?
The thorn, thrumming
still. He almost
has it now. So close.
Step back, the guard
warns, his one job
to enforce the distance
necessary, which might be called
—Originally published in the Rumpus, April 2018.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
It’s an ekphrastic poem based upon Antico’s Spinario, from which the poem also takes its title. I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the periphery of that visit was heartbreak, disappointment and the like. The sculpture was among the smallest expressions of pain I’d ever seen. I held it in my gaze a long time.
What are you working on right now?
New poems, as I can. A few essays, craft and lyric. I aim to complete a draft of my second collection of poems (as yet untitled) by the end of the year—fingers crossed.
What’s a good day for you?
Hmmm … a day in which I can heighten my own awareness of the world around me, live in language and take time to language experience. That may not necessarily result in the drafting or revising of a poem. Reading or rereading a book or interview, listening to an engaging podcast. Going on a hike with my partner. Grilled cheese. Bourbon. A movie, maybe.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
The writing life, largely. I had recently completed my MFA, was still living in Los Angeles, but had difficulty, to my mind, as an emerging poet, finding a solid foothold in the field there. I was convinced I could find better opportunities as a writer in New York, which was true. More reading opportunities, more hustle. It helped also that I was courting someone, or thought I was. Really, the city was seducing me.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
Over the five and a half years I lived in New York, I lived in a number of neighborhoods. I was off and on at my then-partner’s apartment in Williamsburg. One of my favorite places to frequent there was (and is, whenever I’m in the area) Barcade. The TMNT arcade game? The Simpsons? Gold.
Afterwards I lived in Bay Ridge for a couple years. It was inexpensive for a bit more space, but no one ever visits you there—the R train was too slow and inconsistent! Bay Ridge had one of the best cobblers I’ve ever employed, though. The last neighborhood I lived in before moving to Amherst was Crown Heights, which had its charm but, like Williamsburg, highlighted gentrification. There was a men’s shelter across the street from where I lived. But new apartment buildings were being erected less than a block away. There was Bagel Pub and Silver Rice but also homeless men, or men performing their community service work, stabbing trash on the sidewalk with a pole. It was difficult to negotiate those facts. It still is.
Where I lived in Los Angeles (Culver City) wasn’t terribly different, though there was often greater separation in Culver City from LA’s major homeless population. Out of sight, we say … ?
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Before I decided to finally move to Brooklyn, when I was visiting, I rented a space in Flatbush for a week. I had just finished dinner with a friend and was walking back to my Airbnb when I was stopped by the police. Asked where I was headed and why I was out walking. I didn’t know what stop-and-frisk was then, but I knew I was interrogated, without question, because I was black. I grew up in a small town. That hadn’t been my experience, even when I lived in Los Angeles. I moved here anyway. I didn’t know how bad circumstances were, or how bad they would become.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
A poetry community has been, and continues to be, deeply important to me and my development as a writer and literary citizen, though “community” is not synonymous with neighborhood, to my mind. In Brooklyn, there was a great sense of literary community and citizenship, to be sure, and I maintain many wonderful friends there, but that community could also feel fragmented or segmented at times—who read where, and who supported whom. One of the best readings, and certainly my favorite, among those I participated in while promoting my debut collection was at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, which was curated and hosted by the incredibly charismatic and talented Angel Nafis. I read with poets Safia Elhillo, Aziza Barnes and Rodney Jones. That reading was so wonderful largely because of how various the poets and poems were, and I believe that to be one of the gifts of the poetry community, when it’s at its best—that it offers engagement and stimulation for every kind of reader or person.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Nicole Sealey and John Murillo have been incredibly important Brooklyn poets to me, not only because of their wonderful poems, but they have both been instrumental in opening opportunity after opportunity for my growth, development, the advancement of my writing life and career. They’re also quite the power poetry couple to aspire to.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I was introduced to many of my poetry mentors, some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to study with, some of whom I have only read, as I completed undergrad and waded through graduate school.
But before that, my community college creative writing professor Greg Gilbert introduced me to my first living poets (I grew up in a small town, in the Joshua Tree area, and didn’t realize poets were still alive and writing) and encouraged my writing despite it being pretty awful, and Minnesota poet Steve Mueske greatly mentored me from afar; believe it or not, he and I have still never met in person, but he and others in a small online community read and workshopped my poems for years.
Stephen Yenser, my thesis advisor at UCLA who introduced me to Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill and taught me a deeper appreciation for the Metaphysical poets, encouraged me to apply to the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson, where I would go on to complete graduate school. Poet C. Dale Young influenced me in many ways, among them how to think about a poem’s structure and to embrace the relationship between the life and work with regard to making metaphor, utilizing image, and the strength of paying attention. Poet and critic Stephen Dobyns taught me how to properly acknowledge the reader at every stage of a poem’s construction and revision. Poet Jennifer Grotz taught me how to be a more cogent and thorough prose writer, and poet and editor Martha Rhodes taught me how to uncover poems within my poems, how to effectively revise and how to think about not only the manuscript but the individual poem’s relationship to it and poems around it. They all continue to teach me. I am ever grateful for them and for the poets, writers and thinkers they have introduced.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Tommye Blount’s Fantasia for the Man in Blue and John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. Easy. Both from Four Way Books. They are both beautiful and complicated and filled with pain and sorrow and masterfully crafted. They invite continued rereading, deep consideration, and should be taught as widely as possible.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve wanted to read Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida for a number of years and simply have never done so. It’s such a slim book, too. I should be ashamed. I am ashamed. Also Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. A disgrace, I know. I’m sure there are more titles, other embarrassments to name.
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?
I have a somewhat conventional reading process; as you describe, I tend to read one book at a time, and yes, cover to cover, at least for my initial read of collection. I am very much a planner and tend to appreciate pattern and routine, though I don’t always plan my next read in advance.
I’m a physical-book person. It’s just a different experience than reading a book digitally, though I’ve heard many praise their Kindles. Publishing is such a funny business. Regarding notes, I go back and forth as to when I physically take them and when I don’t, though I do think they’re important as I read and consider a text, and I don’t mind writing in my books either.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Maybe try a sonnet crown, or even a half-crown? They’re so intricate and entwined and offer so many opportunities for tonal modulation or juxtaposition. I don’t know that they would be traditional or conventional sonnets, though.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I enjoy reading at coffee houses and bookstores, perhaps because they seem to invite one to settle in, relax, and treat them as though they were a kind of home—but one with freshly baked scones, croissants and an oddly familiar acoustic guitar cover. Writing I sometimes find slightly more difficult in public spaces, though it’s challenging, impossible really, to work in the same space as a bed, which made living in Brooklyn its own peculiar struggle. I like to feel as though I’m going to my work, even if only mentally, even if my desk is tetrised into a small living room / dining room / foyer.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I worked in Brooklyn Heights for several years. One of my favorite places to work and frequent was a restaurant called Colonie. I bartended there, floor-managed and eventually general-managed. If you don’t know it, go there, immediately. The same restaurant group owns a nearby spot called Pips, and Gran Electrica in DUMBO. All super delicious and fun. I’ve already mentioned Barcade. Also, because I’m a bit of a nerd, the Brooklyn Strategist, an excellent spot for board-gamers in Park Slope, is a favorite. There are a lot, especially as I was inundated in the food and beverage industry. Grand Army Bar. The Long Island Bar. Ramona. Floyd. The list goes on and on and on …
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the sea, the steady ebb of the river, the boats,
And what I must imagine bobbed out further than you expected, incapable of being held, or held together,
For every good stone gleams of the wreck, wood planks, and me as good as I might look, missing the ripped sail of you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
Because no one asked for another poem about my father
Or a man who resembles him, who is this—punching a leather glove
As though to break it, or break it in, in my seat? Punching to the beat of a Biggie
Smalls’s track—maybe “Ten Crack Commandments”—overhead. And whose Cracker Jack
Box, tipped over, spilled, have I just kicked, as though this man’s face, just as open
And empty as my father’s, who is dead, dead as the lights some man is tasked to kill at Dodger
Stadium once we have accepted our loss, though those nights in Brooklyn
Would have us believe the light goes on forever, all hum and throb
And glow, the way aftermath can almost glow, at a certain distance from sin.
Because there’s no sleep ’til then, right?