J.G. McClure holds an MFA from the University of California – Irvine. His poems and prose appear widely, including in Best New Poets, Gettysburg Review, and Birmingham Poetry Review. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, he is the author of The Fire Lit & Nearing (Indolent Books 2018). See more at jgmcclure.com.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When I first started writing, I felt the need—probably a common one among sophomore English majors—to be a Serious Poet. Well, when I first started writing I just sort of flailed around with no idea what I was doing. But shortly thereafter: Serious Poet. As such, I would only write Serious Poems, which would be read seriously by Serious Readers. Eventually, thank god, I realized how boring this was for everyone involved, and started getting interested in the zany, the weird, the funny in poetry. I realized that these things could be serious, as in poets like Dean Young, Thomas Lux, or Amy Gerstler. Suddenly writing the poems was fun again. Reading them too, I hope.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I needed a class to fill a requirement in college. The fiction workshop was full, but the poetry workshop had one seat open, so I took it. I’d never read a contemporary poem and hadn’t the slightest idea what I was getting myself into. But hey, how hard can it be, right? Hard. Go figure.
I was pretty sure I was going to fail the class, and maybe have to flee the state, because of how bad my poems were. So when I had my mandatory midterm conference with the professor, Michael McFee, I was bracing for that crushing but not unexpected blow to my ego. Instead he encouraged me to apply for the next level of workshops. In retrospect I’m pretty sure the poems were still terrible, but I guess he must’ve seen how much I wanted them to be good and how much I was willing to work at it.
I had no idea how lucky I was – UNC had brilliant poets on staff, and I’d stumbled into the middle of their workshops. I ended up going through the whole program and spending my senior year working on a book-length manuscript with Alan Shapiro, another wonderful and wonderfully inspiring poet-professor. That was my first attempt at a book, and it’s still on a shelf somewhere deep in the bowels of Davis Library, if you’re ever in the neighborhood.
Anyway, through the course of the three years I spent doing poem things in college, I fell increasingly in love with poetry, and now here we are!
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It’s pretty much always been a feast-or-famine thing for me. Either I’m writing all the time and fired up about it, or I can’t make myself write a single line. Even during my most productive periods to date, there were still stretches of a week or three where I had nothing. As far as the revision process, that also varies wildly. I tend to revise as I go, so it’s hard to get a count of how many revisions any given piece has gone through. Some of my favorite poems were written in a day or two, and changed little from first to final drafts. Another favorite I remember spending months on before I finally got it to work.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Short pieces that add up – I didn’t realize that my book was a book until I started putting the pieces of it together.
I wish I could give credit where it’s due, but I’ve forgotten the source of what I’m about to talk about. Anyway, the idea was that writers shouldn’t worry too much about what the unifying themes of their oeuvre are, because the writer is the unifying theme. Your obsessions are your obsessions, and they’re going to be there whether you like it or not. I very much doubt that Whitman set down one day and said “I am going to write about 1) grass 2) death 3) sex and 4) AMERICA.” (Well, maybe that last one). But the point is, he didn’t have to—he just wrote about what interested him, and thematic unity took care of itself.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings! But I’m not sure I’d say they’re part of my creative process. They’re kind of a separate thing—after the poem is done, then I can read it, but I’m not really thinking about that as I write.
As I said, though, I like doing readings a lot. Writing is a mostly solitary activity, and it can be easy to feel like you’re the only person who cares about it. Even when your poems get published, you never really know if anyone is reading them. Doing readings helps connect you to others and remind you of why you’re writing at all.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
This is a tricky one, I think. There’s a quote from Robert Frost’s prose that I agree with:
For ourselves, we should hate to be read for any theory upon which we might be supposed to write. We doubted any poem could persist for any theory upon which it might have been written. Take the theory that poetry in our language could be treated as quantitative, for example. Poems had been written in spite of it. And poems are all that matter. The utmost of ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of…
But you have to be careful here, because it’s not as if theory can be removed from the equation. Isn’t all good writing a way of testing out certain theories about ourselves and the world we live in? What’s Frost writing about in “The Road Not Taken” if not a theory about personal choice as narrative illusion? What’s he writing about in “Design” if not a theory about the absence or indifference of God in a cruel universe?
Maybe this seems like equivocation. I can imagine a reader saying, “The question’s not talking about theories, it’s talking about Theory.” Fair enough. But whether your obsession is with the Problem of Evil or with the problems of a Lacan or a Derrida, if the poems are going to be any good you have to come at them with the same urgency. Take a book like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, or her The Art of Cruelty. Or something like Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. These are books that deal with very technical literary-critical (Nelson) and linguistic (Carson) topics, but they do so in a way that even a dabbler like me feels deeply the importance of getting it right.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Another tricky one. On one hand, I know that infinitely more people will see, say, that video of the dramatic chipmunk turning its head than will ever see anything I write. (And in fairness, I’ve watched that chipmunk a lot myself).
But on the other hand, I think that the writer has the same role they’ve always had: to remember, to record, to challenge, to tell us what it’s like for others to be alive, to let us know we’re not alone. And if anything, poetry is more important than ever as a place in which we can think about the big existential questions and find some sense of meaning which no longer seems to exist in the world at large.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven’t really done this a whole lot. Indolent Books, who published The Fire Lit & Nearing, is big on letting authors make their own artistic choices. If they like the book they take it as-is; if they don’t, they don’t.
For individual pieces in journals, I’ve had editors suggest changes, sometimes dramatic ones. Most of the time, I’ve agreed with them, and the changes made the work better. The few times I haven’t, I explained why I disagreed, and they let it stand. Maybe I’ve just been lucky to have especially hands-off editors.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I can’t think of one specific piece of advice. But on a more holistic level, I think that studying at UC-Irvine for my MFA and having workshops with Michael Ryan on one hand and Amy Gerstler on the other was really important to my work and how it shifted over time. Michael is more old-school, interested in traditional forms, and a believer in Frost’s views on poetry (he’s the person I got that Frost quote from above). Amy is more interested in experimental forms, hybrid forms, the weird and the wacky (she introduced me to Russell Edson’s work, for instance). Learning from both of them did a lot to shape how I think about what poetry can do as it works within and against poetic traditions. If I were to try to translate that into a useful piece of advice, it would be “Read widely and learn all you can from very different poets.”
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’m still trying to figure this one out. Between my day job and my side gig as an online writing teacher, it’s hard to find regular time for my own work. Somehow it still gets done—I recently finished translating a book of poems from Spanish, which will be published soonish—but there’s little routine to it.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It can be a number of different things. Sometimes just walking around looking for something to write about (my poem “At Mason Park…” was one of these), sometimes scouring the internet for weird facts (my poem “Ars Poetica”), sometimes riffing on work that I admire (“Café Terrace at Night”).
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My first house had this really musty basement. For some reason, I dug that smell (I was a weird kid). To this day, any somewhat-musty basement reminds me of that particular Missouri basement. I have no idea why this is the strongest scent-related memory of home, or of anything else, I can think of. It was just a cool-smelling basement, I guess.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Absolutely! I think it’s important for writers to read as widely as possible. Otherwise, it’s just writers writing about writing for writers who read the same writers when they write. Most people don’t have a vast knowledge of poetry, so if you’re going to write something that’s interesting to people outside of po-biz, you’ve got to engage with as many other aspects of the world as you can. One writer I admire for this is Albert Goldbarth. He’s a poet but I mostly know his essays, which can manage to move from talking about the history of the microscope or of pulp sci-fi novels to talking about his neighbors’ messy divorce in a way that feels totally natural. Of course these things belong together, how did I not see it before?
In my own book, I have poems inspired by entomology, spaceflight, visual art, a (real) former concert hall now stuffed with junk pianos which also happens to be underground, 80s B movies with Kurt Russell, multiverse theories, and yes, books too.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Way, way too many to list. But I think the two books that have had the most direct effect on my life might be the textbooks we used in the first poetry class I took: Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and the Penguin Pocket Anthology of Poetry. From Oliver I got the sense of why poetry matters, how difficult and vital it is. From the Penguin I got my first real introduction to contemporary poetry, set alongside a sampling of older work going back to pre-Shakespearean anonymous ballads. The two of them together made me want to be a poet.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Lately I’ve gotten really interested in short fiction. I’ve written and published flash fiction before, but that still feels almost like a form of writing poetry to me. I’m interested in trying out traditionally sized short stories.
Outside of writing: at my work, there’s a Shiba Inu who hangs out in the office across the hall. I want to pet it. I want to pet it so much.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Right up till the end of my senior year of college, my intention was to go to law school. I’d taken the LSAT and everything. But something like two weeks before the last applications were due, I realized I wanted to do an MFA instead. So, I switched gears at the last minute (much to the annoyance of my recommendation-letter-writers, I’m sure).
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think I was always looking for a creative outlet, without realizing I was doing it. In middle school I drew (very badly), in high school I played the guitar (somewhat less badly). But I always hated the “creative” assignments in school. I would’ve much rather just written the essay or taken the quiz or whatever. Still, once I started writing and workshopping poems, I realized that’s what I’d been missing.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m awful at remembering things. I keep a spreadsheet of books that I’ve read, with columns for genre, author, rating, and notes, because otherwise I have no idea what I’ve already read. The last great book I read was Madeline Miller’s Circe. My spreadsheet doesn’t have films on it, so I don’t know about that one. Come to think of it, I should make a tab for films.
19 - What are you currently working on?
As I mentioned before I’ve gotten interested in short fiction. I haven’t really started writing it yet, but I’ve been reading a lot of stories and books on craft. In any piece of writing, it’s hard for me to start if I have no idea what I’m doing. If I have some sense of what I’m doing, I can start, even though the thing I think I’m doing is almost never what I end up actually doing by the end.
Aside from my own writing, I teach several online writing workshops. My essay workshop just wrapped up, and I’m starting my Intro to Poetry one soon.