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Artist Interview

Nathan McClain

April 12, 2019



In the poem "Casabianca", Elizabeth Bishop writes, "Love's the boy stood on the burning deck/ trying to recite `The boy stood on/  the burning deck.' Love's the son/ stood stammering elocution/ while the poor ship in flames went down." She ends the poem with "And love's the burning boy." Nathan McClain poetry reads as if it written from the vantage of that burning deck, that boy, that love. He writes “the whole mess”—messes made by families, across landscapes, through history. And he doesn’t shy away from any of the details. In this adherence to the particulars of “how reckless we’d been, how much we’d ruined”, he shows us the whole human: what we’ve done, what’s been done to us, and those moments, when the only thing left standing is love. Nathan McClain is the author of Scale (Four Way Books, 2017), and is currently a visiting assistant professor of creative writing and African American literary arts at Hampshire College. He will be reading at Ode on Friday, April 12th, 6-8pm, alongside poets Leslie Marie Aguilar, Arda Collins, and Dora Malech.

An ode and an elegy meet on the sidewalk. How do they greet each other?
You say “meet,” but I feel like they more likely literally run into each other, which, I suppose, is a kind of meeting. The ode is turning a bright green apple in its hands, utterly captured, and the elegy is saying goodbye to everything it passes: the flitting bird, the budding tree, its reflection in the café glass, its cold coffee.

Poem that changed your life or poem you wish you’d written:
I wish I’d written “No Kingdom,” by Carl Phillips. It’s a poem I return to again and again; it’s a poem I teach regularly. I love how simplistic the event and diction are, though the tonal complexity, its modulations, are staggering, how the ordinary is transformed and deepened through image, how the poem shifts to a certain resignation, or ambiguity, how quiet the poem remains.

April has been called “the cruelest month”. What would you call it?
April can be cruel, it’s true, but it’s also a month devoted to writing and sharing and reading poems, too! How could I be mad at that or see that as cruel?! I will say I have never finished a NaPoWriMo, not quite, so maybe April is a kind of disappointment?

Give us a writing prompt:
One of my favorite poems, one I teach constantly, is Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Bight” (if you don’t know it, you should absolutely read it). With that in mind, meticulously describe a landscape or scene, rich with details. There should be an underlying narrative, though that narrative should only be communicated through image, or figurative language. How the writer details and frames the world should define the emotional stakes and narrative cues for a reader.

The question “does poetry matter” can be an annoying one, so we won’t ask you that. BUT, if poetry was actual physical matter, what would it feel/smell/taste like?
Hmmm… actual matter? Poetry would feel, at turns, like wind-blown grass or animal fur, smell like the whole roasted chicken, but in the cartoons, a character floating on the aroma into the kitchen. Poetry would probably taste like the red hot jawbreakers from my childhood.

By what quotes/lines/provocations/inspirations/affirmations do you live (or aspire to)?
When I lived in Brooklyn, I used to walk by an American Apparel on my way to work. I tracked each stage of its closure—the shelves stripped down, becoming barer, the sales becoming more and more desperate. At some point, long after the clothing, the furniture, the employees, were gone, someone taped to the pale brick wall: “please allow me to be tender with you, / please allow yourself to be tender with me.” If there’s a provocation to which I aspire to live, I feel as though it would be that.

What books are on your nightstand or docket?
Well, that’s changed, or at least increased, because of AWP recently. Of the 20 or so books (far too many to lug around) I bought, I’m particularly excited for Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Keetje Kuipers’ All Its Charms, Geffrey Davis’ Night Angler, Jessica Jacobs’ Take Me With You, Wherever You’re Going, Sam Ross’ Company, and so many others. I had a good haul at AWP.

What does your poetry wear to a party?
Maybe a wool cardigan with leather elbow patches? Skinny jeans? Tennis shoes? Keeping it classy, staying casual.

Go-to morning song:
Hmm. I don’t generally listen to music early on, but I’ll say that I recently rewatched the second volume of Guardians of the Galaxy, and I loved watching baby Groot dance to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”. It was adorable.

What’s the most recent line you’ve written:
“I lost my voice,” which I believe will be the title of a new poem. I frequently teach my students that it doesn’t take a great event to begin a poem; I actually did lose my voice recently after having a cold. I’ve lost my voice before. I don’t think I would have thought about writing a poem about it if it wasn’t writing other poems that feel related to the subject matter.