“Through the open window”: A Conversation on Race and Poetry with Laura McCullough

Interview by Jennifer van Alstyne

Jennifer van Alstyne: I’d like to start by discussing your recent book from University of Georgia Press, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (2015), a discussion so prevalent today with the publication of Claudia Rankine’s The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (Fence Books, 2015). In your introduction you write, “This project seeks to honor the complexities, especially when borders seem to be permeable, porous, crossed and recrossed, or each contributor’s lived experience alongside the intellectual exfoliations of other contributors.” How would you say your book fits into the wider discussion of race and identity?

Laura McCullough: I’m glad you mentioned Claudia Rankine in your first question for a few reasons, one having to do with the raison d’être of A Sense of Regard, and also because there is a terrific essay in the anthology on Claudia Rankine’s work, “Refusal of the Mask in Claudia Rankine’s Post-9/11 Poetics,” by Joanna Penn Cooper. A snippet can be read of it here on the blog I have been running about the anthology.

I began this project after the AWP during which Claudia Rankine spoke publicly about her sense of racism in Tony Hoagland’s work. A public firestorm about the poem in question, the poet’s larger body of work, and indeed of the poet, a white male himself, was ignited. Many, many poets were discussing this, many entrenched in a view, myself included. Much of the debate was heated, reactionary, but much was also thoughtful and reasoned. Nothing, however, broke into clear lines, not by race or age or aesthetic, and over a few months of conversations online and off, I began to be more curious about the reasons people felt what they felt than I was about the specifics of the Rankine/Hoagland issue. It seemed to me they, and the debate about them, were simply the sign post to deep and widespread concerns, and that we were all, to paraphrase a well known quote by Martin Espada, a country of people screaming to be heard, yet no one was listening. And I wanted to listen. I knew what I thought, but I wanted to understand other people’s views, concerns, experiences; in short, I wanted my “sense of regard” to be shifted from one perspective to another.

Yet it was clear there were many perspectives, and it went well beyond the issue of one poet’s work, one poet’s public declamations. In fact, both Tony and Claudia are incredibly important and influential poets. What I wanted was to make a space for other poets to talk about what mattered to them about the confluence of race and poetry: their own experiences, concerns about aesthetics and poetics, interest in and scholarship on poets whose work or whose lives exfoliate or illustrate some issue related to race, and more. In short, I wanted to create a space in which poets and scholars could offer their thinking in a non-reactionary way and in which others would seriously listen and consider. In other words, where people could be heard, but also where the thinking, the statements, the writing would sidle up next to other writing dealing with other facets of the large umbrella of race and poetry; and in the confluence, perhaps reveal some aspects of the complexity, and maybe, if lucky, also engender some empathy in the reading.

That is how it came to be. As for how it “fits into the wider discussion of race and identity,” I don’t know. I hope others might tell me that as it enters the world, as students read it, as people sit with the 35 or so writers and try to “hear” them, but I do know this: I privilege poetry and art over the racial aspect. Race is a slippery thing, as I learned in the early days of this project. Race and ethnicity, race and class, race and gender, race and sexuality, race and generational cohort, race and region, country of origin, etc.—I could go on, but you get my meaning—is quite complicated by many other identity variables, and so early on I made several major decisions:

  1. That poetry would be the central core of the project.
  2. That race would be the key identity marker that would be explored, with some flexibility in considerations of other identity markers.
  3. That the project would not be just about the African American and Caucasian American issues (which startled many, because for some people, the idea of race means that; however, there are many races and ethnicities).
  4. There would be both lyric and scholarly essays to speak to as wide an audience as possible.
  5. That I would work hard, but not in an overzealous manner, to include contributors from a diverse range of races and ethnicities and genders and sexualities, and seek to have the subjects about which they wrote represent a diversity, as well, and, finally, that I would seek to include some essays where the contributors wrote against their own identity markers in some fashion. To this end, I made several assessments at multiple junctures in the process, along with the University of Georgia Press, to break down the numbers and review them. The project is a fair slice including First Peoples Poets, Pan-Asian poets, African American, Arab, Jewish, Caucasian (of a variety of ethnicities), even a Romanian by country of birth writing about Roma gypsies. There are contributors from different classes, different regions of the country, some writing about their own lives, some writing about specific poets or poetic concerns.

What I know for myself is that there is a great deal of intelligence and grace in the essays I curated, and that each of these writers taught me something, and it’s clear that many of them, in the writing, and in the sometimes really exhaustive revision and editing process we went through to wrest these essays into confluence in a manageably-sized project (at one point, there were over 500 pages of essays!), that many of these writers bravely looked into themselves to ask questions in front of all of us. Sometimes, often even, no answers are provided. This is a book about speaking, not about directing. It is a thoughtful, contemplative book, not strident or didactic.

Today, less then a year after Ferguson, which happened after this book went into the production stage and could not be changed, and with so much that has happened regarding race and the exposing of the foundational racism in so many of our public para-military organizations, I question whether the quietude of this project would be that way if we were assembling the essays now. But Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is doing great and necessary work in the world. It makes you think; it may make you angry; it may make you act in some way. Important for some. For others, what they need is to have empathy awakened, not anger. They need to understand things from outside their own experience. They need, in my view, their sense of regard changed, widened, to become more empathetic. May, with grace, this project and these writers who were good enough to be involved, do something toward that.

JvA: I’m also curious as to how you went about selecting the variety of essays for this anthology, which range from personal to critical to what we at Something On Paper call “investigation.”

LM: I am a poet, not a scholar, though I have done some scholarship. My husband, the poet Michael Broek, has both a PhD in American Literature and an MFA in poetry. Between living with a scholar-poet and having already curated and edited another anthology (The Room and the World: Essays on Stephen Dunn), I knew that poets are not always good scholars and scholars are often, well, full of academic scaffolding that can be very off-putting. To be more candid: scholars are often blown up with critical theory to the point of opaqueness, and poets often feel deeply, but have no idea where their deeply held feelings and ideas fall in the history of ideas or in relation to literary critical thought (both of which I teach, passably, and from a poet’s perspective). They are different kinds of mind; they are often exclusionary. I wanted to make both manners of thinking, and hybrids of both (perhaps what you mean by “investigation”), vibrate next to each other. They are different modes of “regard.”

Tim Liu, Matthew Lippman, and Camille Dungy, for example, contributed essays with thoughtful self-disclosure. Others, like Joanna Penn Cooper, Mihaela Moscaliuc, and Major Jackson, contributed more research-driven essays. The key word there is “essay,” as opposed to academic paper. All of these essays are accessible to a broad audience. The organization by four sections can be a way of considering groups of essays together, but there are other ways to assign essays to be read, as I am beginning to hear from professors and instructors who are telling me they will use the anthology in composition classes as well as in creative writing classes.

JvA: As a professor, editor, and writer, how does race intersect on those axes? I know you wrote a cento for the poetry demonstration at Washington Square back in November. And, while your book is a collection of various points of view and observations on the subject of race, I’d like to hear a bit about how the discussion plays out in your life and in these various roles. This is a very large question.

LM: I suppose I could answer this on its face: speak of inclusive curriculum, of student populations, of ways race has shown up in my poems, but would that really be what you are interested in hearing? Maybe the real question is, How do I experience race? How does it show up in my life? Why does race matter enough to me that I even did this anthology? Also huge questions. Maybe I conceived of this anthology, so as not to address them? I am being cheeky.

Both my parents are white, Irish and Irish Italian, and grew up pretty poor in Jersey City, New Jersey. My dad spent a good number of years in an orphanage. For me, race is connected with class, both in terms of economics and values. My parents moved us to the central Jersey suburbs when I was a kid, a white neighborhood on a dirt street. My father had an orphan from Newark, an African American boy named Raymond, come live with us one summer. There were murmurings on my working class, largely second or third generation, immigrant street. But Raymond, to us kids, was just a kid. Nothing remarkable about him. We all played kick the can. Olly olly oxen free. Rode bikes. But then he went back to the orphanage. I wasn’t aware that I was at the top of the working class or at the bottom of the lower middle class, but I knew Raymond was going home to an orphanage while I had my own room in the little Cape Cod we lived in.

When my father ran a Free Hurricane Carter letter-writing campaign in my neighborhood, I understood it was about injustice. When people argued about my father, who was moving up in UPS then to a supervisory position, promoting a Black driver, or when that man and his family came to the parties my parents had, some lauding my father, others damning him, what I knew is that my father stood for people, for doing what was right. I knew he listened to people, even those he disagreed with.

When Tony O., a white Italian friend of my dad’s, spewed racist and homophobic language at a family barbeque one year, and we kids begged my dad to never invite him again, my dad said, “If I stop being his friend, then he will only have friends who think like he does.”

My high school was largely divided into three groups: generic white, Jewish, and Black. I had friends in all three groups. The divisions that were more troubling to me were: band and chorus vs. the jocks vs. the geeks vs. the druggies. And several subdivisions. And it was clear who had money, and who had a little, and who had none at all.

Sometimes, when I am asked about race, I wonder: am I supposed to do an assessment of my life such as I did for the anthology? How many friends have I had who were non-white? What race or ethnicities were they? How many lovers who were non-white? Neighbors? How about doctors? What race and ethnicities of the various services we all use: real estate agents? Dentists? Lawyers? When I start to think like that, it gets offensive real quick. Can I tell you who I have loved? Who has delighted me? Who taught me something in life? Who has mattered? There’s a variety of people on the list, but thinking that way reduces those people, all of them, to one identity marker of who they were/are.

Fragments:

  1. Two of my children are adopted transnationally. During the adoption process, I was asked by the social worker: “Will you begin to cultivate more relationships with Asians?”
  2. Once, someone said to me about a man I was dating, “Oh, it is so great you love him even though he is black.”
  3. After 9/11, I was at an ice cream store with my kids. A man got online behind me, a Sikh, distinctive because of his head cloth and his beard. Some teen boys began to call him a terrorist. To jeer. This was right when the bumper sticker, Terrorist Hunting Permit, began to show up on thousands of cars in Jersey.
  4. The fundamentalist Jewish community in Lakewood often asks my college to send professors to teach their students. No women, please.
  5. At least twice a year, I am asked, by someone from the Midwest or the South, “Are you Jewish? You just look so, well, you look like this woman I met once from New York.”
  6. People ask me, “Are your children really brother and sister?” and “Do your children speak English?”
  7. Someone gave me a sign from 1915: Help Wanted, No Irish Need Apply.
  8. Recently, I was the Florida Book Circuit Tour poet. In every section of the state I was in, someone told me about the section that was worse, where the real low class people really lived.
  9. I think if I continue with this list, I will write all day. Things Rankine calls micro-aggressions. I think I want to delete everything I have written.
  10. Last week, on a plane coming back from a reading, a young black man was walking down the aisle toward me and we caught eyes. He was the age of my older sons. I thought, how beautiful, but his eyes, though connecting honestly, were full of something, and when he sat in the seat one row behind me, he cried out in pain. I turned. His body was seized in mid folding, one hand gripping the armrest, the other the back of the seat. Are you okay? His face showed he was not, the muscles tight and twisted. I think I pulled something. He was tall and thin. The Delta plane was ridiculously small. Others were waiting. I held his hand. Asked him to breathe with me. To try and let the breathing come into his body deeply, relax the muscles. The fear in his eyes, the sense of crisis, was palpable, but he did breathe with me, and I rubbed the back of his hand in rhythm with the breathing. Finally, he sighed. Something in his body had let go, and he eased into the seat.
  11. My youngest son asked me this week, “Am I Asian?”
  12. My oldest son told me, “When guidos in Atlantic City call people chinks or dotheads, I tell them to shut up; they’re talking about my brother and sister.”
  13. My daughter, with long straight brown black hair, tells me, “I wish I had curly hair and freckles like you.”
  14. My Japanese American doctor who is also my neighbor saved my life by suggesting a particular genetic test. Recently, he asked me, “When we first moved into the neighborhood, and you brought over a welcome basket, did you do that because I am Asian?”
  15. At an AWP party, a smiling woman asks me, “So, you’re Jewish?” I say, “No, I’m Scots-Irish.” She turns and walks away before I can finish that sentence.
  16. In England ice-skating: I fall down. A man helps me up. “Oh, you English have been so kind to me.” “I’m Irish, not English.” He lets go of my elbow.
  17. In Taipei, at a dinner, I ask something about the Taiwanese Indigenous art movement, and a man says, “There is no Taiwanese. This is China.” I apologize for offending the Chinese. He says, “I don’t care. I am Japanese anyway.”
  18. At a dinner with several women, one says, “You know men; my husband can’t be trusted not to wet himself if I don’t get home to clean up and get everything sorted before bed.”
  19. A neighbor posts on our hometown FB page: What do you do when your maid breaks something?
  20. I have to stop this now. I don’t know what to say. I want to say everything.
  21. Once, while working with a Middle Eastern student on his paper, he said, “How can I take advice from a lowly woman? It is disgusting.”
  22. When I was fourteen, walking home from school, a man pulled up in a car next to me. “I love a red head wearing a white dress,” he said, “Are you red all over?” He held a rose out to me at arms length. I bowed my face, chin to chest, letting my wild hair fall over it, arms across my heart. My books against my bones like armor.

JvA: Garret Hongo’s personal essay “America Singing: An Address to the Newly Arrived Peoples,” discusses an insecurity when talking about his personal heritage because “no one was intrinsically interested in [his] obsessions, [his] passions.” I think this is true for many minority writers today, especially when their “obsessions” and identity intersect, not necessarily a lack of interest but rather anxiety towards possible or even probable negative response.

LM: That’s a terrific essay, and I was thrilled Garrett allowed it to be reprinted and to open the anthology, which I think it does magnificently. To your question, however, I would say that no one is “intrinsically interested” in any of our obsessions or passions, not just those of minority writers. Maybe I would also say we are all minorities in that we are artist/writers, and very few care about that. It is our job as writers/artists to write so clearly and specifically that we transmute the particulars of our lives in such a way as to transcend those particulars. If we get behind the particulars, below them, deepen into all aspects of our humanity, not just certain aspects, we create something everyone can enter. As Garrett Hongo did in his essay, as all the contributors to the anthology did.

JvA: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the artist/audience relationship in regard to race, and how do we as writers and critics enter this discussion in an era of both volatility and political correctness?

LM: I’m not sure I understand the question. First, it might help to say that I don’t think writers and artists have to do anything. The primary obligation of the writer/artist is to make art, to see the world and render it as they are driven to and capable of. Speaking truth to power, however, is as crucial now as when that phrase first came into parlance. And it is rapidly becoming no longer acceptable that the American literary scene somehow eschews the political, marginalizes it even. All of our lives are political, and we are not just under attack by race. If art won’t speak against transglobal plutocracy, what will?

JvA: You have a new poetry book out, Jersey Mercy (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Tell me a little about this collection, themes, influences, etc.

LM: One of my concerns has to do with class, and this book is the companion to an earlier book, Panic (Alice James Books), but those poems were all in third person, not a single one in first person. I wanted to explore my own class complicity, meaning to have a first person speaker who lives, works, loves here. The poems are all located in a very small section of the Jersey Shore—Eatontown, Long Branch, Asbury Park—and they also address Hurricane Sandy and the music scene here. After many years of bemoaning that I am a Jersey Girl, I decided to embrace it. 

JvA: What project(s) are you currently working on?

LM: I have a manuscript of poems about class and economics, especially viral capitalism, science, molecular gastronomy, and suicide called Molecularity & the Science of Light that is making the rounds now. It’s hit finalist twice, but maybe no one likes this book. I may just have to scrap it. I recently completed a novel, Glass & Sleep, which is a reimagining of Maugham’s The Painted Veil, co-located in Atlantic City and Taipei, also about class, race, appropriation, transglobal uber-rich nightlife, and about awakening consciousness. Finally, I am working on a collection of essays about class, thrift stores, and intimacy; working title: My Life in Other People’s Clothes. This one is exciting me a lot. Maybe I’ll get something right.

A Choralling: Beyond Shame        Cento
Public Gathering of Poets, NYC, 12/20/14

What do we know of love’s
austere offices? Or in what dark
it can best be proved? Lean
your brown face down here and let me
look at you. Let us all be
from somewhere. Let us
tell each other everything
we can. [Before you] explode.
[Before we all have to.]
Poetry as a matter
of life not just language, and I do
not sing to entertain you.                             Through
the open window comes a breath
of air, the walls reveal
no terrifying cracks                          through
which nowhere might extinguish you.
If we really want to be full
and generous in spirit, we
really have no choice but to
trust at some level. The journey
is [our] home, [this place, this time
through which we pass, and] I
come home wanting to touch
everyone [who asks
for forgiveness and raise
my face to receive
my own.]

Robert Hayden
Evaan Boland
Tony Hoagland
Bob Hicok
Langhston Hughes
Lucille Clifton
Jericho Brown
Wislawa Symborksa
Rita Dove
Muriel Rukyser
Stephen Dunn
And me