Maureen McLane. Photo courtesy of Joanna Eldredge Morrissey.
Maureen McLane’s poetry is deceptively good-natured. It draws you in with its smooth, meditative rhythms and genial mood only to veer into hidden channels of ambivalence, cynicism, acute sadness, and occasional hostility. Reading McLane is like having a conversation with an old friend and being suddenly reminded that she has whole continents of experience you’ll never visit, judgments (including against you) you’ll never hear, and difficulties in which you’ll never share. In that sense, her work is an ongoing investigation of subjectivity: it plays with voice and tone, perspective, and persona to create an emotional world that is at once intimately recognizable and treacherous, strange. Always in dialogue with a richly conceived literary history—and with figures like Dickinson, O’Hara, the Romantics, and especially Sappho—the poems speak of a human nature at once less variable and more dynamic than we might have guessed, especially when it comes to the vagaries of desire both erotic and intellectual.
With the release of More Anon, a collection of poems from her first five books of poetry, McLane takes us on a sort of tour of her world, a well-ordered place where things (metrical forms, marriages) nonetheless go frequently awry. Her restless lyricism travels through bedrooms and classrooms, forest paths and quiet cars, searching, perhaps, for a stillness that doesn’t feel like paralysis, and never quite finding it. I spoke to McLane over email about her relationship to genre, “rhetorical IEDs,” and what it means to write in a queer poetic tradition. Her responses were generous, learned, and—like her poetry and her own criticism, of which she’s produced several books, including the acclaimed literary memoir My Poets—evidence of an omnivorous sensibility that finds almost everything interesting and takes nothing for granted.
This collection is called More Anon, and I know this is often how you sign emails or bring an end to text conversations. This seems fitting to me since I’ve always thought of your poetry as marked by a certain kind of conviviality: intimate but not overexposed, it’s very much alive to its place in a social world. With More Anon, we could say you’ve invited some poems to the party and not others. Can you talk a little bit about the principle of selection you used to choose which poems would be included here?
I like thinking of the book as a kind of convivial party. Not that there aren’t a few funereal notes, too. I didn’t feel like a bouncer, say, excluding various poems, more like an anthologist, hoping to give a sense of the marrow and range of each book while not overwhelming a reader. I wasn’t crazily ruthless, but More Anon includes about half of the work in my first five books of poetry, so there was a lot of winnowing. I knew I wanted to preserve some major sequences; that I wanted to keep the poems “after Sappho” in each of the books; that I wanted to feature some long poems and some of the super-short ones. I wanted to preserve the mix of song, invective, essayistic, and meditative modes. Some poems end up being synecdoches for absent others in a way. And I wanted this book to feel like a provisional whole, a new thing; it begins and ends with an envoi—a short poem or stanza that concludes a work and sends it into the world. I looked at a few Selecteds I liked—one truly excellent one is Paul Muldoon’s: brilliantly pared, five poems each from twelve books. I decided too that I preferred a Selected to a New and Selected. As for new things, let’s hope: more
I’m glad you mentioned the envois. The one that opens the book is startlingly hostile—“Go litel myn book / and blow her head off / make her retch and weep / and ache in the gut”—and for all their conviviality your poems often erupt into these moments of sudden antipathy or aggression. How important is tone to you as a formal category or device?
Well, I’m all for songs, ditties, envois that serve as slaps in the face as much as tender caresses. And I didn’t think of that envoi as startlingly hostile, but that may be ridiculous on my part—it’s a poem as rhetorical IED! But it’s also a poem that wants to make you feel “as if the top of [your] head were taken off” (viz. Emily Dickinson). I don’t know if “tone” per se is consciously important to me, though I do respond to poetries in a variety of keys: invective, curse, praise poem, meditative lyric, conceptual puzzle, verse essay . . . and I have wanted to have an array of tones and modes in my books, or rather, I wanted to put together books that exemplified that possibility: invective is not exclusive of praise, curse can give way to song, etc. The troubadours were great at those mixes, and some of early Pound is hilariously aggressive (let’s not get into later Pound). Some poets seem to gravitate natively to a kind of monotone (if I can use that term nonpejoratively), and some beautiful books come forth in that one key, as it were. Fanny Howe’s O’Clock is one, or you might think of books by, say, Jack Gilbert, or Linda Gregg, or Jane Kenyon. Or Wordsworth, in his inexorably pedestrian Wordsworthiness. Then there can be the kind of full-frontal careening wildness of work by Anne Waldman, or in another key, by Ariana Reines. I have been struck too by something the filmmaker and visual artist Shelly Silver said, that she is increasingly interested in making art that has within it a hard swerve.
And as for antipathy, aggression: it’s all energy, and it can all be a good muse, if not the only. I think about some of this musically too—attack, sustain, decay, harmonics.
What I hear you saying is that tone is important to you insofar as it signals or belongs to certain generic registers—the anger in invective, the tenderness of an ode—and that you’re interested in modes before moods. But I don’t know—that seems a little sly, LOL! Lines like “The effort your life / requires exhausts me. / I am not kidding” are, for example, quite mean, and there are a lot of moments in the Mz N series where impatience or disdain for certain kinds of cant and cynicism (“It is contemporary / to ironize the contemporary / but in a light way”) break through. These moments don’t seem keyed to any particular genre. They seem rather like outbreaks of a very specific personality—literate, shrewd, self-effacing, maybe a little irritable but also humane—within a more general formal structure.
Hmm, okay—what to say? Would you call Archilochus mean? Pound? Martial? Catullus? Maybe. I think of an essay by Tony Hoagland, “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People.” Not something I aspire to, but also not something I abjure, at least in writing. I’m certainly interested in moods—some years ago it occurred to me that I could call a book, after Wordsworth, Moods of My Own Mind. Though I’m also interested in rhetoricity, tone in that sense, stance, attitudinal turn—the aside, the kiss-off, etc. But, yes, I think you’re right that various moments particularly in Mz N: the serial—hooked to a persona, a character—seem more upsurges of personality than otherwise. That was part of the pleasure of working in that mode, sustaining the figure of autobiography, in the third person. I both do and don’t agree with the Allen Grossman view that behind a poem is a person, or at least the category of “person.”
Especially with regard to Mz N, in which, as you say, there’s an autobiographical conceit, and voice, that doesn’t necessarily gel with the idea of a historical individual. Who is Mz N, or what, and why?
Ah: Who, what, why is Mz N? Years ago I was very taken with Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito
poems—they are wonderful, opening up a space for philosophical, psychological, alternately tender and astringent reflection, for critique, commentary, anecdote, fable. And Berryman’s Dream Songs might have also given me some ideas about personae—though I have no split speakers or minstrelsy (!!!). And then there’s old Wordsworth, who in The Prelude seems to proceed somewhat interminably “in his own voice.” But all of these are figures of rhetoric, of poetic occasion: autobiography as defacement, or re-facing. Maybe Mz N allowed me to claim in poetry some aspects of what others have been doing in so-called autofiction. Then, too, I’ve often thought I write pseudonymously under my own name. You’ve just been writing on Pessoa, so I’d be interested to know what you think happens under the category or function of “the name,” fictional or not. How names are for some writers enabling engines, generative matrices, for others perhaps loose rubrics, filing systems.
What you say about writing pseudonymously under your own name reminds me of a line from Barbara Browning’s novel The Gift—when the narrator says, “My body is an extension of my body.”
That is amazing. And it reminds me to read Browning! And now I’m wondering if I think my poems, or anyone’s, are extensions of my body. Certainly I think of language that way.
You and Browning, in addition to being colleagues at NYU, have also both been honored with Lambda Literary Awards—her for her novel The Correspondence Artist, you for Same Life and Some Say, which were finalists for the Publishing Triangle Audre Lorde Award. Both the Audre Lorde award and the Lambda Award are earmarked for something called “lesbian poetry,” and I’m curious, based on what you’ve said about pseudonymity, autobiography, and genre, what you think of that as a description of your work. In other words, what is lesbian poetry and do you write it?
Ah . . . what is lesbian poetry? I have no ready answers beyond some of the obvious sociological and historical ones. I don’t programmatically set out to write (or to avoid writing) lesbian poetry, or women’s poetry (what is women’s poetry?), but it’s definitely plausible to read my work through those grids. And I do see myself as writing in a queer tradition, however that may be defined and inflected.
I just stumbled upon an essay by Mary Jacobus from some years ago—“Is There a Woman in This Text?”—and maybe you’re asking me, “Is there a lesbian in this text?” Now, this may be going very old-school—that essay is from the eighties, before (imagine that) Judith Butler—but I still carry a torch for certain modalities of feminist psychoanalytic criticism. Jacobus wrote there, “The French insistence on écriture féminine—on woman as a writing-effect instead of an origin—asserts not the sexuality of the text but the textuality of sex.” Maybe it’s useful to think (at least sometimes) of texts producing, or at least inflecting, sexuality and gender, rather than the reverse. Jacobus ends the essay by saying the question should be “not ‘Is there a woman in this text?’ but rather: ‘Is there a text in this woman?’” There are a lot of texts in this woman, for sure. Certainly I responded to poets like Sappho, H.D., and Elizabeth Bishop, before I was fully aware they (or I) were queer; reading offered me a kind of queer echolocation. So yes, I feel enormously indebted to, and enabled by, a queer tradition—though I think more in terms of elective affinities rather than genealogies. The Venn diagram of writers and artists I have variously resonated with includes the poets I mentioned, and Virginia Woolf, Frank O’Hara, Gertrude Stein, Patrick Califia, Gayle Rubin, Eve Sedgwick, and the choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. Lorde’s Zami made a big impression on me in the nineties, as did Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems and her essays, and Olga Broumas’s Beginning with O; later on Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle; more recently Meredith Monk’s work. We’ve talked before about how we both hugely admire Eileen Myles’s work. And of course now there’s a massive efflorescence of queer/gay/trans work, with all the contended and emerging vibrations of those terms. I just read a manuscript by Maggie Millner, Couplets, which is a knockout, a brilliant erotic coming-out fever dream of controlled yet wild intensities: I can’t wait for people to read it.
It’s striking that various queer genealogies and artists enable thought across the board: you, for example, drawing on Derek Jarman’s diaries and gardening in your recent book The Calamity Form, when you pivot between Romantic-era gardens and concerns and more recent ones.
Derek Jarman described his use of the monochromatic palette in his experimental film Blue as an “effective liberation from personality” even though Blue itself, which is about Jarman dying from AIDS-related illness and going partially blind, is about as personal a work of art as you can imagine. It seems like the name “Mz N” does similar work for you, allowing a certain décalage or peeling-away of “Maureen McLane” from the page even as the Mz N poems dare us to consider them as anything other than autobiography. “Autofiction” doesn’t seem to quite cover the sort of careful drama at play here.
Now we might have to pause this exchange so I can go watch Blue—though I don’t know if I can quite bear it right now. These central works, these intensities, I have to prepare for, or make room for. But yes—“Mz N” isn’t even a stable (or unstable) “persona.” Your thoughts remind me, too, of Borges’s “Borges and I,” and Frank Bidart’s riposte, “Borges and I,” where the Möbius strip of name, purported “self,” abolished and abolishing “I,” and written/(over)writing “I,” unspools in strange and profound ways.
At what point in your life as a poet did you begin to feel interested in staging a separation between those elements: name, self, the “I” behind and the “I” on the page? My guess would be—since I’m not a poet—that most people begin writing poetry because they want to revel in their own subjectivity and make it available to others. I mean, that’s not why Alexander Pope started writing poetry, I don’t think, but Pope was writing at a time before the category of “poetry” more or less collapsed into the category of “lyric,” and before “lyric” was a synonym for intimate self-expression and the assumption of a one-to-one correspondence between the mind of the poet and the mind of the poem.
I don’t know that I was drawn to writing, or reading, poetry as a reveling in subjectivity per se, or my own subjectivity; my dim memories have me writing things first in response to other poems, and sometimes in “others’” voices. I was as interested in an escape from the prison house of subjectivity as in an embrace of it. I remember sharing some work when I was in college with an informal writing group—we submitted things anonymously, and people were taken aback to realize that the drafted (mediocre) poems I shared had all in fact been written by me. I think some of those readers thought this was a problem or deficit; I don’t know that it was. I first responded to poetry the way I responded to music, not the way I responded to, say, autobiography or memoir or biography. A rhythmic pulse and a sense of somatic presence—these were things that compelled me, and which I wanted, in an inchoate sense, to channel or register. Sentience and intensities, not subjectivity, were primary attractants. Not that “my own experience” wasn’t and isn’t a wellspring, but as Alice Notley writes, “Experience is a hoax.” You mention Pope: that sense of poetry as open to argufying, essaying, has also been a great spur. And regarding that coordination we often assume between the mind of the poet and the mind of the poem, as you put it: I often do write as if assuming this, but it seems to me quite unsteady, and more emergent than given. Like many writers (not all), I often do not know my own mind till I’ve written, and the ratios between “self,” “name,” and differently constituted “I’s” seem to be a shifting complex. Think of H.D., after Sappho: “I know not what to do: / my mind is divided.” More profoundly, the question of sharability you raise is central; I tried to write about that in My Poets, about “our desire to commune, to hear and be heard, to make the chaos of inner feeling not only sentient but sharable.” To bring the murk of inner corporeal urgencies into enunciation. That is only one wing of what poetries can do, have done. In terms of my own writing life, writing My Poets opened the door for a return to the Mz N wager, so to speak, to narrativity and to figures of autobiography. The “my” in “my poets” was and is something to experiment with.
I’m glad you mentioned My Poets. Needless to say, that book, in its marriage of literary criticism with autobiography, but also in its willingness to treat “autobiography” as a mode of writing that might be figurative rather than simple, straightforward self-description, was a huge influence on me when I was writing my book Keats’s Odes. But I also find myself talking to other people about that book a lot. It seemed, for its readers, really to open up a novel approach to criticism at a time when so many scholars feel exhausted by the ways of writing—dry, hectoring, anhedonic—that have become standard in the academy. Do you have any plans to do more in that vein?
I think “figurative autobiography” is an excellent phrase for a core aspect of some really dynamic work—not least Keats’s Odes. I just started Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond and that might be another kind of example. Langdon Hammer’s recent LARB essay “Shadows Walking: With Wallace Stevens in New Haven,” beautifully weaves in a lot. Then, to turn elsewhere, one thinks of Chris Kraus, and some of Anne Carson’s work, or we might go back to Jarman. As for a prose modality, or a critical mode, that stays open to other dimensions—including the autobiographical, the explicitly rhythmical, the divagational—I’ve gone toward that in a few recent talks and presentations. Whether I’ll continue more in this vein, or more precisely in the vein of My Poets, well, we shall see: more anon!
Anahid Nersessian is a literary critic and professor of English at UCLA. Her latest book is Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse.
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