Cathy Linh Che: When reading through your poems, I felt some sense of family history in them, but the poems didn’t feel like direct storytelling. They felt slippery, though grounded in a kind of vernacular and an aura of desire (something akin to what I get when I read Tennessee Williams.) Could you talk a little more about the impetus of Mother’s Day and Notes Passing?
Monica McClure: I’m afraid there is personal history in these poems. When I first started writing these poems they were (and still are) juvenile attempts to make grief into art, a practice I used to feel queasy about from an ethical standpoint. Now I’m more concerned with the aesthetic failings of this kind of poetry. I was inclined to elevate a place, my hometown, with baroque description, and to make it complicit in a narrative.
The truth is, I don’t understand the place where I grew up the way I imagine Tennessee Williams, who was genuinely interested in the intrinsic life of places, probably did. And I don’t think good art takes this kind of mythologizing and metaphorizing of one’s life’s events as its formula. Oh well. Quite irrationally, I remember having a foreboding feeling as a child about this place, Luling, where my mother’s mother’s family settled a very long time ago, and I regarded that feeling as an explanation when I suffered a painful loss.
“Notes Passing” chronicles some of the drama that played out between a beloved (first love?) and myself shortly before he died when we were sixteen. A few years later, the main witness to that drama and a dear friend (lover?) died too. That’s when I started to feel like I would lose this story if I didn’t turn it into a kind of monument. There was also a letter, one with ominous closing words that I meant to deliver to Tom the day he unexpectedly died, but that mysteriously disappeared a few weeks after. So you see this whole story is so fraught with the metaphors, symbols, and sentiment of poetry as it’s traditionally contrived that I couldn’t resist writing about it like this: in an epistolary style, syllabic lines, and the vernacular. But really its impetus is the sense I had—especially after I lost another friend—that I was cursed and living in a cursed place, which is a convenient delusion that’s easier to accept than the pedestrian truism that bad shit happens to everybody.
Thanks for saying “aura of desire.” There was a lot of longing for the memory of the physical feeling of the deceased’s body that I hoped would show through because that’s one of the most interesting things about grieving to me—the sensuality of it.
Out of a similar inclination to elevate a banal, personal story in “Mother’s Day,” I versified stories I’d heard about my grandmother’s glamorous pretensions and the manifestations of self-loathing that led her to rejoice in the marriage of her daughters to white men. The stories are cute, which makes them more disturbing. One example is, she once sent her first white son-in-law on an errand downtown just so she could call the drugstore and ask, “Is my son-in-law there?” The aunt recounting this said it was her way of bragging (her word). When you think of it like that it feels like a cultural and historical effacement. And that’s not how I want to feel about being biracial at all! But it’s hard not to; to be both is to be neither.
I was also reading Martin Espada’s poems then, and felt like I could empower those who had lived their lives as disempowered people (In this case, women in a fiercely patriarchal culture) through poetic reification. I think I ended up doing the opposite: I made the concrete more abstract.
CLC: I have to admit, right before reading your submission, I’d just finished Mary Karr’s three memoirs, which are rooted in Texas. So, when I read your poems, I read Texas into them. Am I totally bonkers, or can I ask this: how does Texas show up in your writing, if at all?
MM: People compare me to her a lot. We’re both from the lower socioeconomic ranks of rural Texas. When I hear her talk I recognize the flash, sass, and I-will-have-the-last-word attitude of a Texas woman, and I like that. Like a lot of writers, I felt like an outsider at “home.” Now that I’ve been away for a long time, there’s a tendency to glorify it through exaggeration. Motifs of familiar mesquite trees, languid droughts, wild grass fires and mean, curly-haired cattle—they’re all symbolic of my ambivalent relationship to the state where I lived for most of my life.
Texas was created when U.S. settlers illegally invaded Mexico, killing and cheating its farmers to seize the land. And the campaign to exile and alienate and even kill Mexicans continues to this day, so to be Mexican-American in Texas is to be geographically too close to that historical trauma and—not to mention—a literal border war, to feel at ease. I mean, I don’t have to tell you all the reasons it’s shitty and why that might complicate my love for it. But, yes, I close my eyes when I’m hugging the walls of a poem I’m writing and see oil burbling around the base of a pumpjack. It sticks to me.
CLC: I know that you’re working on an anthology of poetry from biracial or multiracial poets. How/why did that project begin and where are you now in that process?
MM: The formidable Brenda Shaughnessy, who was my professor at NYU, held a roundtable discussion at Harvard in 2008 with the poets Monica de la Torre, Monica Ferrell, Paisley Rekdal, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil about hybrid ethnicities. She needed an assistant to help her transcribe the conversations and develop it into a publication, so we spent a year soliciting poems, stories, and essays from other biracial writers. The conversation spans Obama’s campaign and his entire first term, examining the way Americans perceive race, especially an ambiguous ethnicity, now that we’ve got a biracial president who is called our first African-American president. It’s crazy that we’ve only recently started to shift from thinking about and representing whiteness as the American norm to acknowledging the decades-old reality that we’re thoroughly miscegenated.
At the same time, this is the last moment to talk about this, I think. I’ve had trouble reconciling my identities, trouble with my lack of control over how my race is “read”, trouble with being a secret brown agent among the white, racist world, and Brenda and the other women have experienced more overt discrimination. But multiracial children growing up now might not even bother to call themselves that—or anything—but American. And good for them! At our AWP panel, a woman came up to me after I presented my essay about the apparent sexiness of the ethnically ambiguous person as portrayed by the media, and seemed pleased that we’d gotten to this point in the conversation. She said that when she was my age, to be biracial was just to have a family secret, not a real identity; it certainly didn’t appear in the Lana Del Rey video I was describing. The discrepancy of the experience of this identity across generations is just one of the fascinating parts of this ongoing discussion. We’re hoping to sign a contract with a publisher soon so everyone can read our rants! In the meantime, you can hear our panel on the AWP podcast series for a teaser: https://www.awpwriter.org/library/podcast_view/274
CLC: Are there any artists/writers you find especially compelling these days? Any recommends?
MM: Read the poet Dana Ward’s “The Crisis of Infinite Worlds” because it deals so viscerally with the struggle to know art’s worth in any context—art world or real world or otherworld. I loved Spring Breakers, and like anyone who’s read a little theory, wanted to go back to Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Of course, I watched the other Harmony Korine movies and felt like I was writhing through a pulsing, creative ectoplasm. Katherine Mansfield’s lush prose concerns itself with the libidinal relationship between objects, something that David Lynch takes to its logical conclusion in his films. I’m reading her biography now, excited by the way she longed in her diaries for sexual liberation and artistic realization in one breath. It think it feels like that when you’re young or in the 19th century. Everything that emits from Jenny Zhang’s mind is bread of life to me. Lara Glenum’s “Pop Corpse” raises (lowers?) the bar for subterranean writing. She dances you to a filthy, post-collapse deep sea rave with all the wisdom and way more flourish than Virgil leading Dante.
CLC: Are you working on any projects? Or, are you currently obsessed over anything these days?
MM: In what was maybe my first prolonged burst of inspiration I wrote a bunch of poems that are being published in a chapbook called Mood Swing, to be released by Snacks Press Inc. this July. I’m still going-obsessively-forward with that, and trying to finish up all these short stories that have everything but the endings. Do I need an ending? I’m obsessed with buying and wearing Mandate of Heaven’s clothes, and looking for a secret pleasure garden to wear them in.