Shane McCrae’s chapbook of poetry, In Canaan, will be released November 1st !! Until then, see below for Shane’s love of Plath…
1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?
This whole “Safety Book” thing was hard for me: 1) because I consistently misspell “safety” (“saftey”); 2) because Madeline McDonnell and Zach Savich did such incredible jobs with their responses that my own brain meanderings were likely to be embarrassing and inadequate; 3) because I love so many books. But I can only assume that Madeline McDonnell and Zach Savich love a lot of books, too, and they got it done…
Ok, I’ll admit it—I just wrote the “so many books” thing to make myself sound smart. You know, so when you saw how bad mine was, you’d be all, “Aw, it’s not his fault. He loves so many books—he was probably too busy loving books to write or even think well.” I chose Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems; I did not spend a lot of time choosing.
Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems is the only anything I ever stole from a library. (Forgive me, Douglas McKay High School library staff?) It was Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” that got me writing in the first place, and even though I have on several different occasions (stupidly) felt like I’ve outgrown Plath’s poetry, her Collected Poems is the book I return to most often.
Why do I love this book? In the beginning, I loved it because I had a very shallow understanding of what poetry was, but a fairly broad understanding of what angst was (c’mon, I was 15), and Plath’s poems seemed, at the time, to be aware of, and to celebrate, my angst. Nowadays, I love it because so much of it is beautiful, because it is simultaneously hermetically personal and non-alienating, because in it are poems that are so angry as to offer no suggestion that resolution could ever be possible, and because in it are moments so calm that they almost seem to come from a world in which anger has never existed.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
I was in the library at Douglas McKay High School, in the strangely isolated (or so it seemed to me at the time) corner where the poetry was shelved. I spent a lot of confused hours in that corner, hopelessly staring at poems, dimly aware that they meant something to me, but incapable of extracting any meaning from them. In fact, my experience with poetry was confused in that way for years—I just couldn’t read it. Plath’s Collected Poems is the only book I loved then—before I could actually read it—that I still love today.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
ZOMG, did it ever! For one thing, I wrote like Plath for years. Now, I should say that I wrote “like” Plath in the same way that you sing and dance “like” Michael Jackson. And by “you,” I mean you, personally. My sense of what it was to be a writer was shaped by Plath’s sense of vocation—and more troublingly, my sense of what it was to be a wounded, angry person was shaped by Plath’s own sense, as far as I was aware of and could understand it, of herself. A few years after discovering Plath’s work, a few years after reading the first intelligent, delusional biography of Plath, Edward Butscher’s Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, I tried to kill myself with an overdose of sleeping pills, just as she had.
But Plath’s first suicide attempt failed, obviously, and so did mine, duh, and I am happy to say that I’ve been able to recover completely—so much so that I hardly understand what I was thinking back then. Although I’m sure I would have said something different had you asked me at the time, I think I was so desperate to be like Plath, and yet was so fundamentally unlike her (being a black male living at the very end of the 20th century and on the west coast), that I was willing to do anything to make some similarity between us.
Alright, that’s enough of that.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
From “Tulips,” this:
I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free—
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you[.]
Although I was a terrible, and self-tormented, high school student—when I dropped out, I had a 0.333 GPA—I did eventually go to college. And while I was in college, I began to fall in love with those lines. Initially, I was attracted to the anger in Plath’s work. As my own anger subsided, however (with that subsiding came the feeling, mentioned above, that I was outgrowing Plath’s work), I found myself increasingly drawn to the more peaceful moments in her work. And although “Tulips,” to me, seems largely to be about a frustrated desire for peacefulness, these lines nonetheless have such a calm sound (and Plath, I really believe, had one of the best ears of any 20th century American poet)—I often read them in isolation, even now, just to hear a bit of that sound. In “An Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote, awesomely:
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
And Plath’s lines are a great example of what Pope was talking about.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I will be sending a copy of this book to the Douglas McKay High School library—to atone for what I done.
Bio: Shane McCrae is the author of Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010), and two chapbooks, One Neither One (Octopus Books, 2009) and In Canaan (Rescue Press, 2010). His work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2010, The American Poetry Review, African American Review, Agni and others. He went to school at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Harvard Law, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa.