A Poet of Hungers: A Conversation with Maureen N. McLane

October 3, 2021   •   By Rebecca Ariel Porte

MAUREEN N. MCLANE’S More Anon: Selected Poems (FSG) is just out. From Same Life to Some Say, the book features selections from her first five books of poetry. The title — More Anon looks forward to things yet to come, though the collection looks back at the poet’s career so far. A volume of selected poems is often an excellent introduction to the flavor of a poet’s work: its thematic interests, its formal strategies, its sensibility, its pleasures and pains. And for returning readers, it can be a bird’s-eye view of a body of work, a chance to observe its continuities and to look for its changes over time. A bird’s-eye view of More Anon would yield lines from Sappho or Sidney or Wordsworth or H.D. as they flickered uneasily over a field or a thread of river. There would be melting glaciers; bedrooms open to the stars; Hockney blues; improbable night clubs and other geographical detritus of this kind. Three of McLane’s constants are wit, erudition (she is also a scholar of Romanticism), and eros. As for what changes, this is poetry as peregrination: poetry that finds more and more things to convert into poetry. A world entirely converted to poetry might, in fact, be unendurable, but McLane’s poetry, leavened with humor and music, resists this dire possibility. It is a relief to say her materials are unlikely to run out anon.


In the following conversation, conducted through a Google Doc over a few weeks of the hottest July on record, McLane reflects on how More Anon came to be, geologic metaphors, how to think about influence, hunger, humor, erotic and poetic intensities, the yields of anonymity, seriality, narrative and episodic selves, music, hybridity, and much else.


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REBECCA ARIEL PORTE: Maureen! We’re talking by correspondence but I’m going to pretend we’re sitting across from one another at an impeccably picturesque seaside bistro — the kind with a striped awning and Adolf Loos chairs. The food is decidedly peccable, with the exception of the cheese plate, but there’s plenty of whatever you like to drink and the green of the water makes up for everything. And I am very glad to see you. Firstly, congratulations on More Anon, which is, by the way, a very warm and witty title for a warm and witty volume of selected poems. There’s so much I want to ask you about it! But maybe I ought to begin in the shallows: how did this collection come to be, and what was it like to return to your first five (!) books of poetry to put it together?


MAUREEN N. MCLANE: Rebecca! What a delight and let’s pretend indeed.


Consummate pretenders, an aspiration worthy of poetry. “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” But is it like that, really?


So, to your first question: More Anon arose from an invitation from my editor at FSG, Jonathan Galassi. I’d put together a selected poems for Penguin UK a few years ago, and Jonathan proposed a selected as a good and fresh thing to do in the US; this became a new occasion for rereading, resifting, reshaping. This gave me a chance, too, to think of longer arcs, of a reading experience that might reward (so I hope) either reading straight through or dipping in and out of the book.


And to your further question — is it like that, really? Ars longa, vita brevis? Or as you put it, “short lives, long crafts”: yes. I’ve often torqued a line from the biologist Richard Dawkins, whom I otherwise would never cite, which goes something like this — “a hen is just an egg’s way of making another egg.” From a certain angle, a poet is poetry’s way of making more poetry. To move, if not always make, the song — as the classicist Gregory Nagy writes of medieval jongleurs. Your pluralization of craft as crafts is something I also respond to: there are so many astonishing vibrations and poetries to learn from, and that points to the mysterious alchemy of study, appetite, and contingency.


Appetite! Straight to the stomach of things, as per usual, which is to say their heart. To me, your poems are nothing if not various. For example, they know from hunger in at least three senses: 1) the hunger of longing, broadly writ (the way you write about eros and sweetbitter human loves, envies, angers), 2) intellectual hunger (the way you write about not understanding or wanting to understand or wanting not to want to understand), and 3) sensuous hunger (the way you write about sex, about a variety of cherries, and through form, certain musical, metrical qualities, combined with your preference for a short, enjambed line that makes many of your poems resemble, visually, at least, a sort of speeding Doric column, music as liquid architecture [Goethe]). Does any of this seem right? I also want to ask about hunger in two specific places, firstly, in the envoi that opens this book, which begins with a wicked nod to Chaucer and, if I’m not mistaken, Emily Dickinson:


Go litel myn book

and blow her head off


[…]

make her regret everything about her life

            that doesn’t include me


Do you think of yourself as a poet of hungers? And, since an envoi can be either a dedication or an address to a reader at the end of a poem (More Anon has both kinds) what kind is this particular envoi?


I love this taxonomy of hungers, and it brings forward many aspects of the book. “A poet of hungers,” these as hunger poems: I’m willing to go with that, especially with your glossing and parsing. It seems ampler and subtler than saying, here are poems of “desire,” whatever that might be: Lacking? Wanting? Seeking? Longing? “Kindly inclining” (Chaucer again)? Psyche/Eros? Movements of the appetitive soul? I won’t go down a psychoanalytic or philosophic wormhole here … I think too there are some poems, or at least moments within poems, of provisional satisfaction, or poems which allow for that — tricky, because that can tip into self-satisfaction. Ack. And Ick. I think of Marianne Moore, “satisfaction is a lowly / thing, how pure a thing is joy.” Hungers are more complex perhaps than either satisfaction or joy. You’re making me wonder too whether hungers can be retrospective as well as prospective: the envoi you quote contains that kind of affective and temporal whiplash and aims to transmit it, yes, Dickinsonianly (and there are so many brilliant envois one can riff on and from: Chaucer’s, Pound’s, troubadours’). In More Anon, this envoi is the first poem of the book, whereas in my first book it was the last poem, a more “properly” situated sending off of the book. Here, it’s a tuning up, a grace-note gone somewhat ballistic: a way of resending out these poems and tones, re-sounding erotic and poetic intensities. It’s, if not a coming full circle, a way of spiraling onward and forward: go litel myn book, again, and differently.


Yes, if a return, then a return to difference. I’ve often gone back to a poem of yours called “Core Samples,” which is like a series of episodes from someone’s erotic personal history. The idea of a core sample — a cylinder of sediment drawn from the earth or a human bone for diagnostic purposes, is an eloquent conceit. It reveals a depth picture of sampled material (much like a Selected Poems). How do you understand core sampling these days?


“Core Samples”: a conceit, for sure. And yes, offering the lineaments of an erotic personal history: that sense of sampled distillation is what these poems aimed at, when grouped. During the time I was writing some of them, I had been reading Elaine Feinstein’s translations of Marina Tsvetaeva. Reading them unloosed something, or unleashed something — the incredible relational tensions held within taut stanzas struck me as syntonic, and stimulated and licensed a response. And also reading Horace’s Odes. This cluster of poems emerged over time as a set of “core samples” — with crucial moments, flaring conjunctures, signal relationships distilled into gestures, moments, attitudes. I’ve often found myself resorting to geological metaphors when thinking of changes in or aspects of my (and others’) lives. Just yesterday I was telling someone that such-and-such a period was when various tectonic plates were shifting in me … All those geological and archaeological metaphors and images in Freud … thinking of oneself and of relationships via figure, not narrative: this is pretty native to me: but I digress.


So do I — perhaps we go back to hunger? “Hungers are more complex perhaps than either satisfaction or joy.” Yes, that has your true mettle about it. I think that’s just it — and maybe why I’m inclined, where you are concerned, to think about hunger as being a bit different from desire. The former is too often reduced to mere appetite (which is, itself, formidable), the latter to what is absent, wanting. Thinking of a bit from Barthes I often go back to, that our theory elevates desire and denigrates pleasure, maybe because we often conceive of desire as lack and pleasure as what we already have, though Barthes doesn’t quite say this. It seems to me that a poetry of hunger knows very well that it has something — and that it can make something of what it has, even when all it has, properly speaking, is desire. How’s that for a bombe glacée of sophistry?


I’m seeing Tsvetaeva and Horace all over More Anon, now that you mention them — Tsvetaeva’s tender ironies (she merely attempts jealousy) and briolette-cut images, Horace’s charm, his dedication to the formal demands of the occasional (“jewels five-words long, that on the stretched forefinger of all Time…,” Tennyson says). You’ve written extensively about your poetic influences — I’m thinking of the essays in My Poets, particularly — but if it’s not too horrid or pedestrian or repetitive, I am curious to know if and how those influences have changed over and time and — to borrow that versatile geological metaphor — how the tectonic plates of your poetics have shifted (if they have) since, say, the publication of Same Life.


Impossible for you to be pedestrian! Except maybe in Robert Burns’s sense of poetry being “a darling walk for my mind.” Hmmm shifting influences — well, I suppose one doesn’t always know or own one’s influences, though I have been rather flagrantly unembarrassed about meditating on some of them, or at least on provisional elective affinities, e.g., in My Poets: some of which were contingent, or idiosyncratically metabolized, some of which (Shelley, Wordsworth, ancient Greek lyric) will likely exert their complex pull until my end. I’ll confess that I sometimes find people’s announcement of their influences — which I have certainly often done — to be a kind of strenuous branding, which can make me ill. On the other hand, thinking about what moves and moves through one as a writer, a poet, a composer: this fascinates me. Also what gets stuck, pebbles in the gut or shoe. I’m also interested in negative influences: things that provoke, appall, repel one, and inspire a kind of counter-making.


Negative influences! Always. 


Inside me contend

Delight at the apple tree in blossom

And horror at the house-painter’s speeches.

But only the second

Drives me to my desk.


 Says Brecht.


KPOW! Well, it’s interesting, and charged, what drives one to (or away from) one’s desk. Thinking of your question about shifts in poetics over time: one shift in poetic orientation I might point to involves what I learned from and through anonymous balladry, and a mode of poetics that is committed to (re)making en route, not insistent on originating. I’ve always felt myself to be, in part, a resonating chamber — a somatics materialized in singing, and also for me in reading, and in writing. I also became more interested in sustaining longer forms: sequences in the first book became seeds for later kindred ones (poems called “Songs of a Season,” poems after Sappho, Mz N: the serial). Seriality, narrativity: these came forward for me, after a long time feeling averse to, or hapless before, “plot” as pre-scripted, emplotment. Mz N: the serial testifies to that. Yet I remain attracted to the Barthesian “instant,” the “minimal act of writing that is notation,” to the poem or work that is barely artifactualized and yet there. I am fond of philosopher Galen Strawson’s distinction between “narrative” and “episodic” types of people/selves, and am decidedly one of the latter (as are, in his view, most poets).


And a longtime polemical eclecticism has led me to some writerly occasions I wouldn’t have imagined even a few years ago: asking friends to commission me to write them a poem (as a birthday gift to myself); thinking about what a future through-composed work might be. My Poets arose in part out of a desire for what Baudelaire called a more poetical prose, and lately I’ve found myself working in a more explicitly poème en prose modality. (On the conceptual serial prose-poem modality: I know we are both great admirers of Donna Stonecipher. I also love MC Hyland’s The End.) I remember somewhere reading something Eileen Myles said about claiming their ambition, and how difficult that was for them (partly inflected by their working-class background, as well as gender): I found this very moving. Also wonderful, a gauntlet brilliantly thrown down and taken up: Robyn Schiff’s recent remarks in The Yale Review on her work in progress, Information Desk: An Epic:


I intentionally set out to go long. It was a little feminist joke to self about what a man of my age and ambition would do next: obviously, write an epic. I think the word “epic” is grandiose, hilarious, arrogant, and self-important. When I stopped laughing inside, I took a deep breath, and said, “Okay, it’s on.”


As you can see, I’ve modulated from influences to ambitions.


Wouldn’t have it any other way — and I much prefer this more generous way of thinking about influences — not as branding strategy but as the materials that move through you. So tempting to ask about your debts to these poets and theorists you name, with whom you are in agon or in Widerruf, as someone once said about Celan … but I’ll duck the pressure of the brand myself to get to your welcome change of scene: ambition. 


I’m curious about the idea of a through-composed work — an oratorio, an opera? I know music is significant for you, that you play at least one instrument and that Judah Adashi has set a text of yours (“For You,” which has been performed by Caroline Shaw). So many of your poems have a distinctively musical imagination, sometimes because they’re playing with rhyme and meter and other formally prosodic devices, often because of the way your poems think about sonic tension and release. “Some Say,” for example, though I know it’s not actually a persona poem, reminds me of a thought experiment in which Sappho is a writer of spiky pop songs:


Some say beauty

is hanging there at a dank bar

with pretty and sublime

those sad bitches left behind

by the horsemen 


Something about the spondaic dánk bár, which brings the line to a caesura — a halt — so that “pretty” and “sublime” really do seem like hapless hangers-on, orbiting “beauty,” divided from her by a full line. There’s something about the slant rhyme between “sublime” and “behind” (sublimity and bathos being one another’s fundament if you buy Pope). I wonder what your version of a song cycle or a concept album would be like.


Well, you’re telepathic, in that one title I’ve long kept in mind is Liederbuch, Songbook, which indexes one wing of an ongoing aspiration or ambition. Years ago, I listened to a lot of lieder cycles and learned some songs from Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin and Schumann’s Dichterliebe. The notion of a lyric cycle is enormously attractive to me. Can one be ambitious to write in supposedly lesser forms, or toward a minor literature? Must ambition always aim for the large, the big, the supposedly central? Obviously these questions have long been queered, decolonialized, and subjected to all kinds of critical scrutiny.


Mz N: the serial was a kind of through-composed work, but I have been thinking in recent years of more sustained musical collaborations. I’m interested in mixed modes — Dante’s prosimetrum, Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, William Carlos Williams’s vertiginous Spring and All, Lisa Robertson’s work, Srikanth Reddy’s remarkable Underworld Lit, your own Paradise project (if one may call it that without strain), a terrific manuscript I just read by Maggie Millner called Couplets, Katie Peterson’s torqued fable Life in a Field, with photographs by Young Suh. And then to see how artists and composers like Meredith Monk or Du Yun or Young Jean Lee make work: it’s dizzying and inspiring, even if my own work has tended to be more solo and less transmedial.


And what ambitions feel most pressing to you to claim, just now, for your own poetry?


Hmm … In terms of the horizons or ambitions for my own work, this may involve reconceiving or further pluralizing what I take “my” “own” “work” to be. Sitting in uncertainties is uncomfortable but for me necessary. And I often begin — or realize in retrospect that I have begun — things in fits of unconsciousness, tricking myself into commitments and prospects I wouldn’t have been able to see or embrace head on. An obliquity. A divagation toward.


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Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.