My shovel // Sparkles like words: Anthony McCann Dig and Dialogue

Andrew James Weatherhead


“I can’t really imagine what anything’s like,” Anthony McCann writes in his most recent book of poems, I Heart Your Fate, available from Wave Books, “But at times I’m compelled to recall how I felt.”  These are just two of the weird, lyrical, and often very catchy lines in this book.  Elsewhere he stamps: “All this sun, my heart is a toad” and “In this forest milieu: an encounter with void” and “With my cocaine shovel / I dig up emotions // In the moon / My shovel // Sparkles like words.”

None of these lines are related––they occur in different poems and aren’t in service of some grand thematic summary it seems like I’m supposed to make in this intro––what I’m trying to impress is that, unlike any other poet I’ve read, Anthony McCann flips words and phrases to make them say incredibly bizarre and wonderful things while at the same time keeping them grounded in something eerily familiar. “I have come to tell you / of the greater unlocking, of a / type of licking, a type of / licking forth,” he writes.  “It wasn’t me that asked me to come here” is another one.

It’s difficult for me not to just quote the whole book here.  More lines, phrases, and whole poems from this book have been burned into my consciousness more than any other book I’ve read.  And I mean that.  I can’t stress enough how fun this book is to read and spend time with.

Excerpts can be found at H_NGM_N and at the Brooklyn Rail, and there are several recordings of Anthony reading available online on youtube, No Slander, The Kelly Writers House (U Penn), and NYU’s Creative Writing podcasts (scroll down to March 31st, 2011), which I highly recommend because he’s a great reader of his own work.

Our interview is below.  It was a pleasure and a thrill to talk with him.

Andrew James Weatherhead: Something that’s fascinating to me about your work is how you balance these seemingly outdated poetic techniques with a voice and affect that is undeniably modern.  I’m referring specifically to things like the capitalization of words for emphasis, the vaguely ballad-ic structure of the “I Heart Your Fate” section, instances of elevated diction, and even the subject matter and address of many of the poems––man in the face of nature––seems to hearken back to the Romantics (who are referenced by name as well).  I want to ask you how you balance or how you conceptualize these Romantic tendencies within a modern sensibility and context.  Do you feel as if the two are in any way oppositional to each other?

Anthony McCann: I don’t think about making poems in this way. I certainly don’t worry about what might constitute my sensibilities or what sensibilities might be at odds within me. I make no deliberate efforts to incorporate or exclude any type of speech while working on a poem nor do I really worry about what in the language of the poems is contemporary, or modern or antiquated. This is even true when I work in methods that might be said to approach collage. In working on a poem I’m just trying to get into some kind of mood or state or feeling that would also be the gathering tone of the poem. This allows me an immersion in the poem.

AM: That immersion then, ideally, allows me to feel I know where everything must go, to know when everything is said exactly as it is to be said; that I am following along in the poem as much as I am making it. I want to be in the poem. Once in that space of the poem whatever speech or manner of speaking I have encountered that wants entry to the poem must be allowed in. And if it “works” it stays. Since I have read some work of the past with an intense engagement, since much of that work has wildly affected me, and still resonates in me, it doesn’t seem strange to me that echoes of it be found in my poems. And as to why it should be that these poems still sound contemporary to you I would say it seems that it is inevitable that they should since we both live in what I think we can call the same world, or similar worlds at least. I tend to think that what you see as antiquated modes appear in the poems because they are being called up and then twisted about in response to a situation that is certainly contemporary. The experiences that my poems (for mysterious reasons of their own) emerge in response to happen in that world we share or in those proximate landscapes (cultural, linguistic, political, economic and otherwise) that we each inhabit even if some of the speech echoing about in me belongs to the past.

That said I don’t see the “contemporary” or “modern” as divided from the past by some kind of almost impermeable barrier. I think of the past as being something open to us, or something we open upon and something that opens upon us. It haunts us I mean, and we can’t avoid that haunting though maybe we can determine how active our engagement with our haunting will be. Think of Ginsberg in the supermarket with Whitman. Or Spicer and his letters to (and from!) García Lorca. Or think of the French Revolution and its relation to the forms of the Roman Republic. This haunting happens in the forms of language as well, perhaps especially so, no matter how conscious of it we are.

I think that there is less of the Romantics in I Heart Your Fate than there seems to be from the references to them in certain poems and the titles of a few poems. They are certainly in there but in looking back at these poems as in looking back at most poems I have written the older voice I personally most often recognize is Emily Dickinson’s.  In this book in particular I hear a lot more Kafka. (The poems of the middle section were composed in a manner at times related to collage if it can’t be called collage exactly, and refigured phrases of Kafka appear here and there, along with phrases of others. It occurs to me here, parenthetically, that “collage” might be a good one word answer to this question, but I don’t think it’s my answer.)

Finally I’d like to add that I don’t think the theme of humankind and its relationship to nature, or the question of what constitutes a human person and what constitutes nature and “our” human intertwining with or opening upon “it” belongs specifically or especially to Romanticism or to the past. Certainly all the very active forms of environmentalism and eco-politics, not to mention “eco-poetics,” in our world right now seem very modern, very contemporary, and would seem very integral or foundational to the “spirit of our times,” if one could presume to have access to such a thing, which I do not. That said, it does seem true that much of contemporary thought about the environment has a few roots in or is in dialogue with ideas present in what is labeled “Romanticism.”

AJW: So I did my research and read this interview you did with Matt Rohrer in which you said the “I Heart Your Fate” section was inspired in part by Lewis Warsh’s book The Origin of the World.  I got my hands on a copy of that book and I can see the resemblance––the self-contained lines, the shifting perspective––but another similarity I noticed was the length of composition of the works.  Warsh’s book, according to the back of it, took him nine years to write, while I’ve heard you say it took you a year and a half to write the 14 “I Heart Your Fate” poems.  Both of these time-frames strike me as long.  Did it feel like a long time to you?  Were you working on these poems exclusively?  Do you think you could talk about the composition of the “I Heart Your Fate” poems?

AM: I love The Origin of the World. I am so glad that my work led you to it. That is very gratifying. I think the title section of I Heart Your Fate can really be said to have begun in my desire to write poems like the ones in The Origin of the World. But I don’t write poems like that it seems. It seems I write poems like the ones in “I Heart Your Fate.” I have never heard Lewis Warsh talk about how he wrote that book but I have to assume that there was a certain amount of collage involved–writing lines, extracting lines and then rotating them about in relation to each other until each poem found its true body. I mean, that’s how I imagine those poems were made. But really I don’t know.  It is, however, essentially how I made the poems in the “I Heart Your Fate” series. I had big hard backed legal pads and I wrote down those independent single lines everywhere I could and whenever I could. I wrote line after line, I extracted lines from conversations and reading, I wrote new lines in response to the lines I had written or found. When it began to feel to me that a poem was gathering shape I would begin to make quatrains. In the process most of the lines I had written were discarded. Inevitably once I had my five quatrains I would still need to write a few more lines to finish the poem. Then it would be time to start generating lines for the next one. Often I would start that process with a few of my favorite lines discarded from the just-finished poem. I only worked on one poem at a time and they were the only poems I was working on during that time. It did feel like a long time and when the whole thing began I was quite alarmed. I just had to surrender to it.

AJW: Were you conscious of writing 14 of them, or was that coincidental?

AM: No. It just became clear at that point that it was over. I think that I thought at some point maybe I was supposed to make twenty of them because they were twenty lines long, but I don’t think that idea every really gathered any traction.  I was alarmed when those poems started because I could tell they were going to take over my life. And I was both relieved and sad when it became clear to me that they were done.

AJW: I have to ask about “In the Visitors’ Locker Room”––I’ve heard you, or recordings of you, read this poem on several different occasions and often you’ve introduced the poem as “a guided meditation”––do you think you could elaborate on what you mean by that?  Is it supposed to be a guided meditation for the reader or the writer?  I’m not sure I’ve ever done a guided meditation, besides hearing you read this poem (if that counts), so I’m unfamiliar with the experience and its goals/expectations.

AM: A guided meditation is a fairly common thing I think. It would be a meditation, usually with a fair number of people, led by someone who “guides” the others along through the entire meditation. The guiding can take the form of instructions in posture and in breathing as well as instructions on what to picture in your mind. I personally would like to be a person who meditates though I have done very little of it in my life. In my limited experience with guided meditations I have found that a very austere meditation which concentrates on giving instructions on say, breathing, and so forth has been the most useful for me. Guided meditations that have employed a great deal of perhaps clichéd visual imagery I have tended to find a little bit distracting and alienating. Anyway, that poem is not really a guided meditation. Obviously, I hope. But it certainly did unintentionally borrow from the form. By form I mean the “imagine this… now imagine that” structure.  Mostly I just think it’s funny to call it a guided meditation. It also puts a tiny halt in the reading and prepares people to listen and imagine. Which is what I would like them to do.

AJW: I want to ask about your use of titles––often they seem to point directly to the poem, as in “Field Work” or “Draga Barbara,” or “In the Visitor’s Locker Room,” but there are also those poems whose titles are more enigmatic, where the title seems to open up associations that the poem might not explicitly point to.  Usually, I’d say, these are poems with historical references in the titles, such as “Putin with Lynch” or “Letters of Claire and Trelawny” or “Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”  Do you think you could talk about how titles enter your poems?  Is the use of historical persons, characters, and places in titles a further manifestation of how history haunts us/you/the poem?

AM: The titles just arrive however they arrive and if they continue to seem to me to work then they stay. At a certain point changing the titles would be like changing one’s own name––and that’s a complicated procedure. The three poems you mentioned as having more enigmatic titles are ones that have some of the least enigmatic titles from my side of the poems. But my side of the poems is necessarily different from yours. And two of the titles you mention, “Field Work” and “In the Visitors’ Locker Room,” seem of the more enigmatic to me in this book. Though I do like both titles.

AM: (“Draga Barbara,” is straightforward indeed––though it also refers to a book that I love, a fun little book of poems called Draga Barbara, by Matthew Zapruder and Primož Cucnik.)  But back to “Putin with Lynch,” “Letters of Claire and Trelawny” and “Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”  As a title “Putin with Lynch” is borrowing from the methods of Slavoj Žižek who is, in turn, borrowing from Jacques Lacan.  I ended up feeling that the poem was partly engaged in imagining Vladimir Putin through the work of David Lynch.  I’ve noticed that because of this poem it’s been assumed I’m a big fan of Lynch, which I am not. Not that that’s important. I just think that certain of his techniques, especially in what I see as the stronger films (“Blue Velvet,” “Mulholland Drive”) have so pressed themselves into my imagination, and the imagination of many people all over the world, that they can be detached from the work. I can’t imagine a close up view of grass without Lynch intruding. (Maybe someone should write a “Whitman with Lynch” poem!)   The other two poems involve the persons mentioned in the titles, but without the help of Mr. Lynch.  “Letters of Claire and Trelawny” borrows lines from those persons and incidents from their lives, and “Samuel Taylor Coleridge” did, for me, transplant an imaginary Coleridge to California. So I don’t think the titles point directly to that haunting in your question, I think they point to the poems which are engaged with historical and contemporary persons and incidents in direct and indirect ways. Maybe those poems are more explicitly open than some to their particular hauntings, though I can see how that remains somewhat oblique.

AJW: I’d also like to ask about the title of the book.  Of course it doubles as the title of the middle section that we’ve been talking about, but it also makes an appearance, slightly altered, in the book’s final lines as “I heart / his terrible fate” where “his” refers to “Colón,” the Spanish name of Christopher Columbus.  So my question is: are these three instances of “fates being hearted” meant to be conflated?  Is the sentiment of “I heart / [Colón’s] terrible fate” supposed to cast something of a backwards shadow over the book and the book’s title?  Or am I reading too much into it?

AM: I certainly don’t believe that the book is unconcerned with the history and fate of the so-called NEW WORLD but I don’t think that I think of it the way you do here. I don’t think I experience a backwards shadow, for example. But maybe it’s there. When it first occurred to me I personally loved the phrase (‘I heart your fate’) for how direct and ambiguous it is, for its weird combination of love and distance that seems sometimes tender, sometimes harsh. Sometimes I think it points to a fully open kind of love and also to the limits of love, both of which would seem to open upon death. A friend of mine, who happens to be seven years old, put it this way, “I know what the title means, it means ‘I love your death.’” That’s not entirely how I think of it, but I don’t think I would say that he is wrong.