FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
SHANE MCCRAE: When I was fifteen years old, quite by accident I heard the following lines from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
Those lines struck me as the gothest thing I had ever heard, and, being aspirationally a goth at the time, I immediately tried to imitate them, writing my first eight poems that day. The first of these poems, of course, was called ‘Death Is an Art’. ‘And the artist is me’ was how it ended. Forgive me, but I kept writing poems.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
SM: Not knowing any better, I began to feel I was a poet when I was sixteen—at least, I felt I didn’t want to be anything else, other than a professional skateboarder (I had already, albeit temporarily, given up on becoming a goth). For the next five years, in the midst of which I dropped out of high school, and my first daughter was born, I studied on my own, reading at first just a few poets—Plath, Pastan, Eliot. I got more intentional about reading about four years in, after I decided to go to college. Then I started reading everything I could, hoping that by doing so I might begin to become familiar with the English-language literary tradition, and thereby improve as a poet, which meant I spent that time, and have spent the years that followed, falling in love with poems, again and again and again.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
SM: So many of my favorite contemporary poets are UK poets! Being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes means I have been given an honor well beyond my deserving, but being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes also means I will have the unspeakable joy of seeing my name listed alongside the names of contemporaries whom I greatly admire, and I will have an excuse to send them fan letters.
FP: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
SM: The book appeared before me when I wasn’t looking for it. One day, as I was tinkering with a few unfinished poems, I realized I might have enough poems I liked that I could start putting them together with an eye toward making a pamphlet manuscript. Soon, I realized I had a full-length manuscript made of two long-ish halves that were unlike each other and in conversation with each other, and then I spent days, then weeks, then months figuring out how to arrange the poems in the halves, and the halves themselves, so they would best make sense together. The poems I wrote about and for people I know and love—my wife, my children, Lucie Brock-Broido—are, for me, the most important poems in the book.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
SM: Geoffrey Hill’s bloody-minded intelligence helps me to keep going, though I can’t keep up with it. Gwendolyn Brooks’ perfect music and perfect rightness strike me afresh each time I read her work. John Keats’ lyricism—I know that’s the most boring thing I could say about Keats, but there it is—is just so hugely beautiful, and so impossible for him to restrain, that I find it exciting even when he kind of wrecks a poem with it (*cough* ‘Endymion’ *cough* *cough*). Victoria Chang’s poems surprise me constantly, and each book seems better than the one before it. Sophie Collins’ Who Is Mary Sue is one of the best books I’ve read in years. The technique on display in Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems I cannot praise highly enough. Sasha Dugdale’s hard-edged empathy! What else in poetry is like it? These are a fraction of the poets I admire most, but if I don’t stop myself now I’ll go on forever.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
SM: My gosh, I hope more poems.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
SM: Read. Read everything. Read poets who came before you at least as frequently and with at least as much attentiveness as you read your peers. Read even—especially!—poetry you don’t feel you understand, and allow yourself not to understand it. Allow even not understanding to be joyful.