AN INTERVIEW WITH MAUREEN N. MCLANE
Maureen N. McLane is the author of World Enough (2010), and Same Life: poems (2008), This Blue (2014),
a finalist for the National Book Award; and My Poets (2012)—an experimental hybrid of memoir and
criticism—which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award in autobiography. A
professor of English at NYU, McLane’s most recent poetry collections are Mz N: a serial (2016) and
Some Say (2017).
Poetry Editor Emeritus, Jessica Marion Modi, interviewed McLane about her recent publications,
reading as a writer, 21st century silence, and the solar eclipse.
1. In My Poets (and other interviews) you talk about the importance of the impasse while reading
certain poetry, "of that threshold where one hovers, not getting it, but wanting to get it," and
how that impasse compels you to keep going as a writer/reader/teacher/human and, eventually,
return to a poem again and again. Over which poems have you found yourself hovering lately?
Well, I’ve been hovering in past weeks over Jean Toomer’s Cane, a book I hadn’t read till recently
and hope soon to teach. It is an amazing hybrid work from 1923, classified as a novel, a marvel of
modernist experiment and ethnopoetic imagination. Its first section has a complex weave of bits
of song, spirituals, and prose narrative. My NYU colleague Sonya Posmentier recommended Cane
to me and that sealed it.
In recent days I’ve been re-reading—for the first time in decades—some of T. S. Eliot’s work
(I often have “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” on syllabi, but hadn’t read much else in ages):
he can definitely induce a frequent and not unpleasurable sense of hovering, not getting it but
wanting to get it. I’m in Gloucester right now, at the newly opened T. S. Eliot House, and to read
“The Dry Salvages” (from Four Quartets) here—so close to those actual rocks off the Cape Ann coast,
with the sea sounds and swell and fishing boats nearby—is to have another sensuous and direct
point of entry into that poem. I was also struck by how fresh his first book feels—registering not so
much as a historical artifact as a wonderful, if often distressed and distressing, new wind. The second
book has some appalling moments mixed in with great things.
I’ve also been reading for the first time Keston Sutherland’s Odes, a spectacular case of
simultaneously mesmerizing and rebarbative work. I’ve got Susan Howe’s Debths on the
docket: a master who has created the taste, or at least the reading procedures, by which she is
enjoyed—and so many now enjoy her brilliance. This fall I’ll be teaching a seminar on Lyric
Discontents, and this gives me the great opportunity to re-read some romantic odes, Williams’
Spring and All, Lisa Robertson’s The Weather, Rankine’s Citizen, among other things. It’s one
of the great gifts of teaching, this chance to re-read in community. I’m always newly surprised
by these works, even ones I thought I knew well. I believe it’s Coleridge who says something
like, “it’s not the poem we have read but the poem to which we return, with the greatest pleasure,
which claims the name of essential poetry.” And then there’s another, perhaps related,
phenomenon by which things come back to us, or at least to me, as part of our own inner archive
or subtle inner body—fragments, lines, passages from work, that spontaneously surface and
anchor (and give echo to) moments, spots of time. Wordsworth and Stevens are two poets who
have a high ear-worm density for me—poets of recurrence for me, in me . . .
2. I understand that you were and are greatly influenced by Elizabeth Bishop. If you and she
could meet, what would you talk about?
If we could meet: hmmm. I never ask myself this question!—a variation maybe on the NYTimes
“who would you want at your literary dinner party” question—but it’s a good one. I would say,
perhaps punting here, that I don’t quite know what we would talk about—I would definitely be a
bit nervous, because Bishop doesn’t seem like she would be the easiest person in company, and I
would want to see if she led with anything, she being a famously well-mannered and shy person
(as well as a sharp and canny observer of people and their foibles). Wouldn’t want to scare her
off! Or to presume! Though one senses that she was far more robust than all the protestations of
shyness might suggest. I’d like to ask her about Brazil, translation, Carolos Drummond de
Andrade, what did she think of Clarice Lispector, of Mary McCarthy’s The Group; I’d ask if she
would want to go swimming. I wouldn’t offer her a drink.
I don’t know if I’m greatly influenced by Bishop; certainly reading her (poems, letters, prose)
was a central experience of my undergraduate education. And she, along with Wordsworth and
Shelley and Stevens and some others, is a poet whose lines spontaneously recur to me, recurring
me. I’ve sometimes stolen (or is it adapted?) her rhymes, of which there aren’t a ton. “At the
Fishhouses” is one of the great poems and sits in my heart with Wordsworth’s “Immortality
Ode” and “Tintern.” I also think “Crusoe in England” one of the absolute best, so terribly and
delicately sad; and “Shampoo” is a radiant delight; and I like some of those early knotty
poems—“The Imaginary Iceberg,” “The Map.” Some things of hers I just don’t like, and that is
fine. One wouldn’t want a diet of only Bishop.
3. Where do you write and what objects usually surround you?
I write in many places, not one place—I keep notebooks, mixed-up things with jottings,
notes, lists, phrases, and sometimes actual emergent poem drafts. I tend not to write consciously,
or under the aegis of will, as it were, but in fits and starts, and in re-reading notebooks I comb
out threads into something I hope might be more substantial. I’m more a when do you write than
a where do you write person, perhaps: I “write” a lot in summers and vacations, or rather I revisit
jottings to see what might be alive. I’ll occasionally jot things on post-it notes or dictate them
into my phone. And here I am talking about poems, or jottings en route to poems; I write a fair
amount of prose during the year in response to various deadlines and invitations and inner
prompts, and I write endless emails and comments on papers and that sort of thing, of course.
But for me poetry has to have its own freedom of emergence. (I do write some occasional poems
though, I realize—for friends’ birthdays.) I write longhand in notebooks; I go over things every
once in a while, scribble further in the margins and so on, make various notes to self. A lot of
things happen subconsciously, in that river flowing just below the darting mind. It might be
years before I type something up to see if it might hold its own toward a poem.
But this ongoing kind of notational writing I have done in many places—on trains, in cafés,
in my office, in a study. I just saw a comment by Donald Futers, editor and writer, drawing on
the philosopher Walter Kaufmann, that writing is slow thinking, or thinking in slow motion: that
seemed exactly right to me, in terms of my experience of writing in notebooks—it’s almost as
though a somatic-mental switch flips, into a kind of zone of voluptuous thinking. The sensuality
of thinking is underrated. For real immersion and concentration I have to be in a quiet place, or a
place where I can easily convert sound into white noise. W. C. Williams has some lines in Paterson
I find very resonant:
The writing is nothing, the being
in a position to write (that’s
where they get you) is nine tenths
of the difficulty.
Being in a position to write in this sense means being in a mentally free or less pressured zone,
an exploratory mode with a pen in hand, happy “just” to note things: about this I’ve found
Barthes’ Preparation for the Novel, his remarks on haiku, extremely syntonic.
When drafts seem to be acquiring more heft or structure as an actual “project” (sic), I can
then shift gears and hope to specifically, deliberately set aside time for further writing, editing,
thinking. I’ve been lucky to have a series of residencies over the years, and a large amount of
writerly distillation and advancing has happened during those times.
4. The title page of Mz N: the serial lists the genre as: “(not/a novel) / (not/ a memoir) / (not/a
lyric).” How did this (non)definition come about? What came first as you wrote, the nots or
the known genres?
Ha! That is a real chicken/egg question. The subtitles came after the book, so to speak, but the
concerns and negations and hybridities they point to are in various ways baked into Mz N, in the
opening Proem and in other brief reflections on poetics. And these are categories I think with and
through and against in my teaching as well as writing. It was more a cheerful provocation than
5. Tell us something that gets lost in translation:
6. I wonder if you could speak about your relationship to sound and silence. In your most
recent book, Some Say, I detected an undertone of longing for a different soundscape, or
perhaps a nostalgia for the soundscape of bygone days. For instance, the poem “What Can I
Help You With?” asks:
meant the sun
on birds signing,
But at the same time, there seems to be a sense that old sounds and words still linger today.
The same poem answers:
Oh but I do.
They taught me
to hear them
those old dead ones
who are only dead
as old stars
Further still, some poems probe 21st century cacophony that is, perhaps, louder than other
centuries’, with traffic congestion and our various electronic devices. I’m thinking “Real
Time,” ll. 25-26:
A world of many ringtones
one La Marseillaise.
And yet, the 21st century might also be more silent, as blocking out noise becomes a survival tool, as
one poem hints. I’m thinking of “Headphones,” ll. 22-25:
One deafens to live
till you’re deafened to all.
I’m canceling all the noise
my earthened ears bring me.
Maybe silence – whether deep in nature or elsewhere – feels more silent than it ever has now
that our cities are louder than they’ve ever been.
Can you speak about longing for past/other soundscapes or silence, in Some Say or
What lovely and sustained attention to these motifs in the poems, and to our contemporary
predicament. I can definitely experience an intense need for quiet, if not silence. This
becomes an almost painful craving at times. I like living in New York but can find it
acoustically exhausting. And I like to have my ears open when I’m out and about, not
submerged in headphones (a kind of counter to my poem!). I’m extremely sensitive to sound
and interested in its waves and pressures, sound as the environment we swim in.
As the US showed at Abu Ghraib, music, sound, can easily be weaponized. (There’s a lot
more to say about this, obviously...)
I think of Mahmoud Darwish and Paul Valery, both of whom wrote something like, “a
rhythm seizes me.” That is what I often feel when reading or listening to something exciting,
or when I feel that some pulse or phrase that might launch a poem is emergent.
I find sound patterns highly contagious, strong styles too; part of this aligns with my
background as an amateur musician.
I don’t think I have a longing so much for past soundscapes as for kinds of soundscapes,
some of which one might find or imagine to be in the past. Nostalgia isn’t my main jam, or a
jam at all: but any of us is a vector through which many times pass. I love hearing the dawn
chorus of birds in early summer; I like the punctual whistles of doormen for cabs in New
York. But I am a big fan of John Cage, and his lectures, and his re-framings of noise,
I often think of Whitman: “Now I will do nothing but listen.”
More broadly, in response to the broader stakes of your thoughts and questions: one tries to
be alert to the difference between accurately registering horrible things and avoiding a
perversely satisfying apocalypticism, or catastrophism.
7. What sounds, or combination of sounds, do you find yourself writing most often in your
Again, a question I’ve never quite put to myself: thank you. It's more perhaps that sounds find
me. Bird sounds, city sounds, the timbre of a voice, the characteristic speed and pulse of a poet
or novelist. I also have strong aversions to certain vocal conventions, e.g. on most radio. In my
own work, I go in and out of certain rhymey phases—a friend characterized Some Say (my new
book) as a kind of song book. I’m also interested in what Frost called ‘sentence sounds,’ the feel
of discursive unfolding, long verse paragraphs, intellection, argument; and sometimes extremely
complex stanza shapes are just wow—that special intricate sonic architecture. Years ago I was a
church organist; probably some residual feel for fugues and hymns and for sonatas lurks, but I’m
likely more oriented now to an unfolding that doesn’t know its structure in advance. I often
respond first to sonic patterns in any work, prior to any reckoning with ostensible semantic
8. Keeping in mind the story about Marcel Proust’s that, as an adult, he dipped a Madeleine
into a cup of tisane, and the act of doing so triggered a profound state of involuntary
memory of his childhood that eventually became the seven-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu,
or Remembrance of Things Past, please complete the following sentence:
The Madeleine is to Marcel Proust as the _______ is to Maureen McLane.
I partly want to resist this wonderful question a bit because the Proustian logic of a notionally
reconstructed childhood unfolding via involuntary memory is one that doesn’t resonate for me
personally, though it does resonate for me in and via Proust. (This is part of a longer
conversation perhaps about the difference between what the philosopher Galen Strawson calls
“narrative” vs “episodic” types: I’m definitely the latter.) But even as I resist I can think of this:
The Madeleine is to Marcel Proust as the smell of Adirondack pine is to Maureen McLane.
or: boxes of powdered milk.
or: the scent of lemon Pledge.
or: a Jordache jean logo on a back pocket
or: the ominous doleful strains of Pink Floyd’s The Wall; or the cheery synth bounce of ABBA.
9. The book Some Say ends with this poem:
I don’t trust myself
not to look
What are your plans for the August 2017 solar eclipse?
We’ve got our special NASA-sanctioned eclipse-watching glasses! I’ll be in far upstate NY,
hoping to look. But a photographer friend regrets to inform me that we are likely to see nothing:
he himself is heading to Charleston.