Poet in the Mirror: Shara McCallum
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Shara McCallum— author of No Ruined Stone (available now from Alice James Books)— shares insight into writing through history, memory, and fear.
I can imagine this being a book that was difficult (but ultimately fruitful) to write. There are multiple characters, and thus narratives, to keep in mind. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing this book, in what order you wrote the poems, and its overall structure?
Thanks for this great writerly question about process and structure. This book was wildly different for me to write. You’ve pretty much nailed one of the main reasons, in noting that the book contains multiple characters and narratives. Because I had a fiction writer’s question guiding the book at the outset—“What would have happened had the poet Robert Burns gone to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation as he drew very close to doing in his real life?”—I came to approach writing the book at many turns, I think, like a novelist would. This wasn’t true of how I wrote individual poems—those were often driven by the engines of the lyric and dramatic, as much as narrative. But the thought process about and arrangement of the book was governed by the novel’s structure, whose forward momentum is often propelled by questions: What happened? And then what happened? As I was specifically working to tell a story that offers an alternate account of a real history, I had to do a good deal of research into the 18th and 19th centuries, Robert Burns’ life, the details of slavery and abolition in Jamaica and Scotland, etc. I spent several years in the research phase of writing the book, taking notes, scribbling ideas, sketching timelines and possible plot threads, and revising them when they didn’t line up with the narrative I was inventing or the recorded history. In No Ruined Stone, the timeline of recorded history runs alongside my interventions into the same. Working on the book’s structure was a kind of logical puzzle that I really enjoyed solving, ultimately through the writing. In terms of ordering poems, I don’t think I wrote them exactly in the order they appear but probably fairly close. I think this is linked to what I mentioned about the novel as structuring device, as well as to how I drafted this book: in concentrated fashion over a period of two or three years, at a couple weeks of writing intensely and drafting many poems each of these stretches, with then long breaks in between. I kept the manuscript in one file on my computer from the beginning and would add to it and keep revising the poems each time I came back. Working on a computer directly, rather than first in my notebook by hand, was itself a huge departure for me. The various parts of the process I’m describing here were all driven by my need to find a wider lens—even while the poems are in discrete moments in time and in the voices primarily of a fictive Burns and his imagined granddaughter—to keep in my view the whole of the history I was seeking to engage with and the story in turn I was telling.
I love that this book plays with narrative poetry, sequence poetry, even some epistolary poetry. What is one piece of craft advice that motivated you throughout the writing of this book? Alternatively, what is a piece of craft advice that you don’t practice yourself?
Thank you for that kind comment. I don’t know, though, that I’m about to answer your first question, exactly. I’d say I was less driven by craft advice I’ve heard and more by an idea about writing: that we can and should write what we don’t yet know how to write. In the years I spent thinking about and working on the book, many a time I would say to myself variations on: What the hell are you doing? What in God’s name possessed you to write this book again? Being fully aware I hadn’t written a book like this before and having these kinds of doubts ironically didn’t stop me. In fact, the uncertainty became a spur, goading me to see the project to its end. Writing No Ruined Stone was a kind of a dare I gave to myself. As to your second question: there are so many pieces of craft advice I should follow and don’t that it’s hard to choose! The first that leaps to mind is that you should write regularly and on a schedule. I’m pretty much a failure at that approach, though I think it’s excellent advice and serves many writers well. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be a ‘feast or famine’ sort of a writer.
The poem “Springbank” opens with the line “Place of memory now in ruin.” What is this book’s relationship to memory, or history, and the consideration of what could have been?
Maybe I touched on this a bit already in answering your first question about structure. The book is entirely about memory and history. I said this in another piece I just finished: that memory is a character in this book. Many of us are haunted by the ‘ruins’ of history, personal ones and collective ones we carry. The question for me is always what to do with that feeling of being pursued by the past, besides writing elegy after elegy (which I do plenty of, by the way!). One answer with this book was for me to engage again and directly with narratives of history that don’t tell the full story or that are deemed unknowable. By reconstructing fragments of the past and reanimating the dead, I’m seeking to make something whole, perhaps in me most of all. The narrative threads in this book are ones that underpin my own existence, yet in ways that at times make me feel I’m coming apart. I harnessed my own personal imagination to the ‘could have been’ you mention, as a way to have a conversation with all my dead who refuse to or cannot hear me. I know that retelling a story and recasting people and moments from the past can’t change what has already happened. But I believe it can alter and shape how in the present we see ourselves and others. In specific with this book: the silence, lies, and omissions we live with, in the narratives of slavery and colonialism still told, are ones I wanted to sound and try to redress.
Is there a question about No Ruined Stone you’ve been dying to answer, but no one’s asked it yet?
What great turnabout! I had to think about this for a while. I suppose the question I haven’t been asked yet is whether I was very afraid to write this book. The answer—for so many reasons—is yes. But since I’ve been pretty much afraid of every book I’ve written, and have paradoxically written and published it anyway, I assume that this is just how things go for me. I’ve considered that I might be ‘too sensitive’ (a distinct possibility), but I’d like to believe that writing is where I’m my bravest. When I’m writing, I’m somehow able to stand at the threshold of what, in life, I can’t always bear to say and see.
From Jamaica, and born to a Jamaican father and Venezuelan mother, Shara McCallum is the author of six books published in the US & UK, including No Ruined Stone. McCallum’s poems and essays have appeared in journals, anthologies, and textbooks throughout the US, Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and Israel. La historia es un cuarto/History is a Room, an anthology of poems selected from across her six books and translated into Spanish by Adalber Salas Hernández, was published in 2021 by Mantis Editores in Mexico. In addition to Spanish, her poems have been translated into Italian, French, Romanian, Turkish, and Dutch and have been set to music by composers Marta Gentilucci and Gity Razaz. Awards for her work include the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (for her previous book, Madwoman), a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, the Oran Robert Perry Burke Award for Nonfiction, and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize (for her first book, The Water Between Us). McCallum delivers readings, lectures, and workshops at universities and literary festivals in the US and internationally and has taught creative writing and literature at various universities. She is presently on the faculty of the Pacific Low-Residency MFA and is a Professor of English at Penn State University. McCallum was appointed the 2021-22 Penn State Laureate.
Saba Keramati is a Chinese-Iranian writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. A graduate of University of Michigan and UC Davis, her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and appears or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Vagabond City Lit, and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @sabzi_k.