Forthcoming: Previously Owned, Four Way Books, 2022
Beginnings: What prompted this book? What were you thinking about, how is it the same or different from previous work? How long did you work on it, how did the pandemic affect the process of writing it?
NATHAN MCCLAIN: It’s interesting to think back on this now, but I can say the first poems I wrote that felt connected were the “Alternate” sequence, which emerged from my experience serving as an alternate juror. I didn’t know how they might fit into a larger collection, unless that collection was primarily concerned with criminal justice. There was a certain confluence of events that brought the narrative arc of the collection into greater focus—I’d moved to take a teaching position in Western Massachusetts, and a number of states began passing anti-abortion laws as my wife and I, a mixed race couple, were trying for a baby.
Living in the northeast, in a beautiful, often idyllic, forested landscape, caused me to think on my upbringing in the lower desert of Southern California, but also about the privilege of the pastoral mode and what it meant to me, how to negotiate it, as a Black poet. The book’s structure and construction, however, finally clicked into place as I jotted a single Post-It note in my manila folder—which is still there, by the way—regarding those anti-abortion laws that read: “Even if my child were legally mandated to be brought to full term, that, in no way, guarantees them a life.” It still deeply informs the book, which I worked on for about seven or so years, at times more “productive” than others.
As far as the pandemic and how it affected my process, I tend to draft slowly as is, but perhaps it was easier to draft and revise as well because so much of the collection was already in place? I don’t know... I don’t know. It’s a different book from Scale, to be sure. I think the voice in the poems is, if that’s possible, even more contemplative, meditative. The poems take up far more space, in some cases. And the scope of the world and my own worldview has expanded, I think.
What was your favorite thing about writing it? What gave you the most satisfaction, what was energizing or enlivening about it?
NM: Perhaps my favorite thing about “writing it” is less about the actual composition of the poems (or book) than it is the revision of the work, which is where I think so much of the actual writing occurs (the act of drafting more about the generating the materials to make the poem), and arrangement of the collection. I enjoy figuring out the puzzle of a poem or book. I will admit, however, that, after publishing a first book, I have to trick myself, when drafting or revising poems, not to automatically think of them as part of some larger project or collection—which might easily trip me up and distract from the experience of simply writing or revising, of being present with the poem rather than trying to predict its place somewhere in the future.
Writing long poems brought a lot of pleasure and satisfaction. The “Alternate” sequence was also quite energizing as each subsequent poem demanded a different approach and deployment of craft than the last.
Was there a section or poem or part of the book that you felt doubtful about including? What made it so? How did you come to the decision you did?
NM: Hmmm... actually, yes, there was a poem I was hesitant to include—a poem called “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In part, the poem felt overly didactic to me, and I generally tend towards a more understated, suggestive and, hopefully, resonant poem. This poem also employs the n-word, which isn’t something I’ve done in any other poem but felt appropriate and necessary to heighten the poem’s rhetorical shifts and further complicate its argument.
However, the poem was interested in many of the subjects the collection, at large, explores—issues of race, culpability, the pastoral tradition, American history—so, it felt like a necessary addition to provide the book with an even more nuanced and complicated speaker. And I believe, or at least hope, it does.
What are some lines, phrases or images from the book that stay with you, either because they capture something that feels very true, or they came to you in a way that felt whole and generative, or some other reason?
NM: I can think of a few! In “Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot,” which opens the collection, there is the question posed to the speaker, “And what // have you learned from / standing here so long / examining pain?”
Similar to Scale, this collection does a lot of looking—and one of its central questions, to my mind, is does a certain amount of attention or scrutiny at all change the thing under observation?
“The World is Full” closes with the clause “...that my love was good // for something,” which I had originally written past and only rediscovered as I revised. The movement of the poem towards the final lines absolutely surprised and floored me. I felt a similar surprise with the image that closes “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” that of inventing the farm upstate as a manner of avoiding death, or at having to explain a pet’s death to a child.
These are just a few! I’ve deeply appreciated all the ways this collection has surprised or challenged me, and I hope the experience for readers will, likewise, be filled with discovery and revelation.
Can you share a few other art forms / works / books / experiences that influenced you in the writing of this book? Do you think these influences will be visible to your readers? Would you like them to be?
NM: A couple of the experiences that contributed to the writing of this book—jury duty, living in the northeast—I mention in an earlier response, so I won’t rehash them here, however, there were several art forms and books that contributed to the writing of this book. Sculpture and ekphrasis is probably the most prominent, but the poems are also richly informed by party games, road tripping, the movies Die Hard and Inception, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s The Orchard, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again, and John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, to name a few.
I don’t know that any of these influences will be particularly visible or noticeable, and I don’t necessarily need them to be. What’s more important, I think, is the understanding that we all write as branches on our own particular lineages, our literary family trees, and not in some vacuum. And that our family trees continue to grow and expand, and that we’re contributing to a much longer, important, and enduring literary conversation.
NATHAN MCCLAIN is the author of Previously Owned (2022) and Scale (2017), both from Four Way Books, a recipient of fellowships from The Frost Place, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a graduate of the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson. A Cave Canem fellow, his poems and prose have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Guesthouse, The Common, Poetry Northwest, Zocalo Public Square, and Green Mountains Review, among others. He teaches at Hampshire College and serves as poetry editor of the Massachusetts Review.