April 23, 2019KR Conversations

Shane McCrae

Photo of Shane McCraeShane McCrae’s most recent books are The Gilded Auction Block (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018) and In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), which won the 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Prize for Poetry, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the William Carlos Williams Award, and was nominated for the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. He has received a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Award, and a fellowship from the NEA. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City. His poem “Jim Limber in Heaven Writes His Name in Water” can be found here. It appears along with another poem in the Mar/Apr 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Jim Limber in Heaven Writes His Name in Water”?

Often, a poem will start with what I think of as a knot of language, and over the course of the poem I’ll work to untie that knot. Sometimes the knot is obvious—the language will seem to be both tripping over and twisting around itself—and sometimes the knot won’t be apparent at all. “Jim Limber in Heaven Writes His Name in Water” started with a knot that I don’t think is apparent: “You walk through Heaven anywhere to any- / where.” The knot is in “anywhere to anywhere” to begin with, but also in the syntax of the first six lines. That language itself was the impetus for writing the poem.

“Jim Limber in Heaven Writes His Name in Water” introduces a heaven that still experiences some earthly difficulties, made apparent when you write: “they got the sun in Heaven still / And folks get hot sometimes” What is the relationship between this perhaps imperfect heaven and the life of Jim Limber? Is this in any way in which this heaven that is specific to him?

I don’t think that particular Heaven is specific to Jim Limber, and I also don’t think there’s any significant relationship between that Heaven and Jim Limber’s life—other than the obvious chronological and spatial relationships, that is. “Jim Limber in Heaven Writes His Name in Water” comes from a sequence called “Variations on Jim Limber Goes to Heaven,” the basic idea of which is that each universe in the multiverse gets its own Heaven. Technically, each Jim Limber in the sequence is different from the other Jim Limbers in the sequence—I wanted to create a sequence without sequence, but only succeeded partially, if I succeeded at all.

How has your writing changed since you started out?

For about a year after I started writing poems, all my poems were sixteen lines long, and rhymed a,b,c,b (and maybe one or two rhymed a,b,a,b). At the time, I had almost no idea what poems were supposed to look or sound like—I had read Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends over and over as a child, and during that first year I read a few poems by Sylvia Plath, Celestine Frost, and Linda Pastan. But I didn’t understand what I was reading at all, so I didn’t understand writing at all. Nowadays, though I still don’t understand anything, for the most part I don’t write rhyming poems that are sixteen lines long—now they’re fourteen lines long.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?

Hmm. Probably my family relationships. But if I were to set my family relationships to one side, because what could compete with family relationships for influences upon writing, then I would say my writing is most influenced by the music I listen to. In fact, my first two books were written to evoke, to some extent, particular genres of music. Mule was written to correspond to shoegaze/dream pop (yes, I know—that’s really two genres), and Blood was written to correspond to black metal. And I still find myself trying to reproduce in poems certain gestures I hear in music.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I’ve finished my next book, which concludes the semi-epic poem I started with “Purgatory: A Memoir / A Son and a Father of Sons” in In the Language of My Captor, and continued with “The Hell Poem” in The Gilded Auction Block. “Variations on Jim Limber Goes to Heaven” is part of that book, along with another sequence featuring a character named “The Hastily Assembled Angel.” Hopefully if/when folks read the three parts together they will think the whole is OK?