Conversation with Shara McCallum

Through a series of letters, conducted over email from June 12 to July 20, 2018, we discussed Shara McCallum’s most recent publication, Madwoman. While the interview has been edited for clarity and concision, we allowed the exchange to develop naturally, like a conversation would, in the belief that the exchange would illuminate both how one poet approaches the craft and shaping of a collection, and how poets read and learn from each other’s work.


Blas Falconer: As I read Madwoman, I couldn’t help but think of allusions to specific texts in the literary canon. Wide Sargasso Sea and, of course, Jane Eyre came to mind immediately, and it made me wonder if and how the poems in Madwoman were responding to or in dialogue with those and other books.

Helena Mesa:  Yes! I also see the recurring figure of the “madwoman” as mythological, so she’s pulled from these canonical texts in order to see her—or consider her—in a new light.

BF:  Shara, I’m wondering if you turned to any poems or books or literary figures as models or even mentors for this project?

Shara McCallum

Shara McCallum: I was aware of the usual literary references (Rhys, Bronte, Mistral, etc.) but I didn’t draw on those specifically. I actually have never read Bronte’s Jane Eyre, having come to Wide Sargasso Sea first and, perhaps, choosing to keep that version of Antoinette/Bertha undisturbed. So while I didn’t have any particular model in mind, I was trying to engage with this cultural figuration of woman in relation to parts of my own experience, mythological figures we tend to read as “mad,” and historical or “real” women who have stood outside of the dominant culture’s modes for what a woman should be and how she ought to behave. I wrote many of the poems that turned into this book to try to answer some questions for myself: What are the various sources of Madwoman’s ruptures of self? Who is this Madwoman, again in relation to my autobiographical self as much as to the selves of other women I have known personally or through storytelling (literature, myth, history)? Where does she end and I begin, and vice versa?

HM: I’m compelled by what you describe as the “ruptures of self” and your exploration of where the Madwoman “end[s] and [you] begin.” As you crafted the poems, how did you strike that balance between the allusions and the biographical? What considerations did you have? And, what poems or poets did you turn to, to help you marry the personal with the mythological?

BF: Is there a poem in the book that serves in your mind as an ideal example of this marriage between yourself and myth, and if so, what makes it stand out?

SM: Thanks for these tough but good questions. I’m not sure I was conscious of the balance you mention or exactly what I was considering. In many cases, the biographical components were mixed-up with the myths so I was, in a sense, channeling the women when writing, or in their stories I was able to find archetypes/analogues/expressions of my own experiences or those of other women I know. This seems always to be my relationship to myth in poems: I can’t tell if the frame of the myth allows the creation of a persona that means to mask or unmask me. I think it’s likely both.

With “Madwoman as Rasta Medusa,” for example, I was raised Rastafarian and so that part of my own history informed why I heard this voice speaking to me and at some point decided it must be Medusa, and why, in my incarnation, she is a mixed-race/black woman Dread.

Madwoman as Rasta Medusa

I-woman go turn all a Babylon to stone.
I-woman is the Deliverer and the Truth.
Look pon I and feel yu inside calcify.
Look pon I and witness the chasm,
the abyss of yuself rupture. Look pon I
and know what bring destruction.
Yu say I-woman is monstrosity
but yu is gravalicious ways
mek I come the way I come.
Is yu belief everyone exist fi satisfy
yu wanton wantonness.
Yu think, all these years gone,
I-woman a come here fi revenge.
Wo-yo—but is wrong again yu wrong.
I-woman is the Reckoning and Judgment Day.
This face, etch with wretchedness,
these dreads, writhing and hissing
misery, is not the Terror.
I woman is what birth from yu Terror.

The story of how Medusa became a Gorgon is tied up in my personal history and the history of so many, many women I’ve known: She was turned into this “monster” as punishment by Athena after being raped in Athena’s temple by Poseidon. I’ve told this story at a number of readings and prefaced it by asking how many people know why Medusa was turned into a Gorgon. My survey is anecdotal, but only one or two people at most in each audience have known the answer. For how long then have we been blaming women for being assaulted and quite literally seen them as monstrous in the aftermath of a rape, all while erasing that part of their story? That’s what the poem and particular myth point toward for me. My rage and Medusa’s are necessarily entwined. Even one of the earliest persona/myth poems I wrote, in the voice of Persephone, dealt with my history of assault as a child and my relationship to my mother, at the same time as it recast Penelope’s abduction as a rape to deepen the reasons for her fraught relationship to her mother in the myth. I wrote that poem when the three of us were together at University of Maryland, by the way. So I know I’ve been trying to work out these very things you’re both noticing for a long time now.

In terms of poets who have provided models in their poems, for handling the personal and mythic at the same time, that’s much easier to answer: Louise Glück, Marlene NourbeSe Philip, Lucille Clifton, Eavan Boland, Rita Dove. Just to name a few.

BF: Is there a poem that was particularly challenging in creating this marriage between yourself and myth?

SM: The poem that was most challenging in the book for me to write on many levels, including its attempt to reckon with the self and myth-making, was “Madwoman Apocrypha.” The recurring figure in the poem is my grandmother, who I had made into a mythic figure many times in poems before. But that was when she’d still been alive. “Madwoman Apocrypha” is on one level about what sense I was trying to make of things after she died. It is an elegy for the part of me, the self, that ceased to exist once she left the world as much as it is a poem of grieving and mourning. I think that’s the nature of elegies, though. As with all funeral rites, they are, I suspect, mainly for the living who have to survive.

HM: You write, “‘Madwoman Apocrypha’ is on one level about what sense I was trying to make of things after she died. It is an elegy for the part of me, the self, that ceased to exist once she left the world as much as it is a poem of grieving and mourning.” This is so fascinating and rings profoundly true, this sense of identity and place or others. Also, embedded in this quote is the subject of the self and the elegy.

SM: I think many poets are driven by our obsessions. Two of my thorns are the concept of the self and the concept of loss. Loss of self for me is bound up in the elegiac mode, which is a way of seeing, rather than a formal conceit in my mind. This manner of looking at ephemera and experience is the way I have seen the world from before I became a poet, for as far back as I can remember myself, as a self. The poet Yehuda Amichai says, “What I will never see again, I must love forever.” That is my notion of the elegiac—to sound grief and yet try in that voicing of grief to hold on to some measure of what is lost. The self we are—the construct of a person or soul, not flesh and sinew and bone—is always under duress of being lost. This has happened to me and to everyone I’ve loved as a function of forces imposed on us—things like migration or of social identities and roles we are given and accept and play—or of the very fact of life, time itself that keeps ticking, the inevitable march toward death, including the various selves we are that get extinguished in various ways as we age. This is what I meant when I said that “Madwoman Apocrypha” was an elegy for myself in a way, as much as for my grandmother who had actually died. When she left this world, the part of me that she brought into being—the person, the self I was in my interactions with her—ceased to exist as well. That “Shara” had no more place or reasons in the world to find habitation. That’s the idea or rather the feeling I was trying hard to sound in the poem, and it’s a hard one to explain exactly, but I know it’s one many of us experience in the aftermath of losing someone very close to us.

BF: Another fascinating topic that might fall under the subject of self and loss is the phenomenon of “passing,” in this case, others assuming your identity and race despite your embrace of and testifying to your personal history.

SM: I am mixed-race: my mother is a white Venezuelan, my father was a light-skinned black Jamaican. I look white to many people, though not to all, and identify myself racially as black. I’ve found who I am to be confusing or even unsettling to some people. This is especially the case for those unfamiliar with the concept of “passing,” which is one small part of America’s racial history but reflective of the whole in its own way, epitomising the stringent taxonomy of slavery, the caste system it imposed and which is still trying to be maintained. Testifying to my personal history of race is also my way of engaging with this larger History, the one with a capital “H.” It is also a way for me to examine the fault lines between how we each see ourselves versus how we are seen by others. Race and being raced is something I experience on a daily basis, so I think and write about it a lot. In poems and essays, as in my interactions with people in life, I try to look at the paradoxes and complexities of the subject, as straightforwardly and truthfully as I can. This is difficult to do, and I don’t always feel up to the challenge. Yet I keep coming back. The places where I’ve wanted to run from, or feared where the discussion of race would lead me, are precisely those where I’ve needed to dwell. Again and again. In both the book of essays and new book of poems I’m writing at present, race is maybe the dominant subject. I think it’s no coincidence I’m writing these books at this particular moment in US history. The last two years have shown all of us who have eyes to see how much of a Hydra the belief in white supremacy is.

BF: Shara, this notion of how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others reminds me of what you said earlier about persona poems “masking and unmasking” the writer. I see this so clearly in “Madwoman as Rasta Medusa,” where you conflate Rasta and Medusa, the personal and the myth or archetype.

HM: Yes, and one way that you seem to weave the personal into the archetypal is through language, through your use of Jamaican Patois or Jamaican Creole. (What term is most fitting here, Shara?) For example, lines such as

I-woman go turn all a Babylon to stone.
I-woman is the Deliverer and the Truth.
Look pon I feel and feel yu inside calcify.
Look pon I and witness the chasm


This face, etch with wretchedness,
these dreads, writhing and hissing
misery, is not the Terror.
I woman is what birth from yu Terror.

Can you address your use of Patois/Creole in “Madwoman as Rasta Medusa” (or in another poem)? And how dialect helps you conflate the self with the archetype?

SM: I’ve written poems in Patwa (Jamaican’s tend to use that word and Anglicise/make phonetic the spelling) since I began writing and, yes, it often seems that those poems tend to be dramatic monologues, though not always. Because Patwa is a vernacular language, it’s connected more immediately (rather than in the more distant past as standard forms of a language are) to orality. For me personally, Patwa is the language I heard only, as opposed to heard and read, growing up. As a child in Jamaica, I would have heard it spoken everywhere. Once we came to America, it was a language I principally heard inside my house. Much later on, when I began writing poems in my early twenties, I came to find poems by other Jamaican and Caribbean writers that engage literary uses of creole, but I don’t think that’s the primary foundation for my use as a poet of what Kamau Brathwaite calls “nation language.” I’m sure that seeing other writers write in creoles of English influenced me and gave me “permission” to do so, but when I write in Patwa I always go back to the things I heard members of my family saying in quotidian moments, those words and phrases that carried whole worlds of attitude and tone and meaning I can’t convey in standard English. It makes sense to me for many reasons that I might move toward Patwa to help capture character and persona since those are so dependent on attitude and tone—all things the dramatic monologue puts forth more so than, say, the lyric or narrative modes do.

But this knowledge I’m suggesting I have about my use of Patwa stands outside of the actual making of poems. The truth of how I draft and hear poems (whether in Patwa or standard English or the range between those) is that language arrives in my mind’s ear, and I try to shape and hone the voice of the speaker I hear and situation she finds herself in (it’s almost always a woman talking to me). Whoever is speaking to me, I write poems to figure out who s/he is and what s/he wants.

Going back to the question about Patwa, it’s worth noting perhaps that I’ve not ever “translated” a poem from standard English to Patwa or vice versa. When I heard the opening line of the poem in question, I knew the speaker was a Rasta immediately because that’s how she spoke. Only a Rasta would use that particular construction with the “I.” And because she used not only Jamaican English but Rastafarian English, I suspect that’s why she spoke in such apocalyptic terms. Growing up as a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, as I did for the first part of my life, I remember a great deal of emphasis being placed on the coming Armageddon. The Rastas I knew and the culture of storytelling and song I was steeped in was that of prophecy. We were modern-day prophets, there to preach to “Babylon” of their vices and evil and to chant those down.

I think that’s why I shaped the poem the way I did—that personal and cultural history informing my choices—but as the poem was drafted in lightning fashion, as is typical for me, what I’m saying now is a construction of possible motivations, based on my tendency to read my present through my past. So when I say a poem is intuitive and mysterious in how it’s made, I believe that entirely. But I also believe that it comes out of the total history of us as people, who are the makers of poems, and of our history of making all the poems we’ve ever made and of reading all the poems we’ve ever read.

HM: So interesting. I love your description of your writing process as “intuitive and mysterious,” and how writing is informed not only by our own personal history, but also “our history of making all the poems we’ve ever made and of reading all the poems we’ve ever read.” I can see the personal or intuitive and your poetic scholarship in both your discussion of craft and within the poems themselves.

BF:  This idea also struck me as poignant, and “all the poems we’ve ever read” in particular, Shara, makes me think of your use of traditional form in Madwoman. Several poems are written in or influenced by traditional forms—pantoum, ghazal, anaphora, and especially the sonnet—often deviating from the “rules” much in the same way that your poems deviate from the traditional narratives associated with mythology, i.e., “Rasta Medusa.” Can you address your intuitive writing process and your use of traditional form? How or why are you drawn to a particular form and why do you deviate from it? Perhaps you could look at one specific poem to consider this.

SM: With traditional forms, I’m drawn to the organic features and the history of the form’s usages, more than adhering strictly to its prescriptive demands as you’ve noted, Blas. For example, with the repeating forms like the pantoum or my use of anaphora more loosely, I find the obsessive quality and the musicality of echoing lines or phrases carry the poem. With the sonnet, I like the idea of the volta/turn and the argument you have to construct and then counter in such a small space (14 lines). The ghazal is almost the antithesis of the sonnet. The sonnet is linear and proceeds through continuity or building of thought. It depends on order and pacing. The ghazal’s couplets are self-contained and discontinuous. While they circle around an idea or gesture toward that idea through the refrains they employ, the couplets in a ghazal should be able to be moved around—all but the first one, which establishes its refrains and obsessions, and the last one that has the writer call him/herself out in some way through the address.

I particularly enjoy working with forms like the sonnet and ghazal that seem to be shadows of one another. I think of the elegy and the ode (which are forms that are driven by subject rather than structure) as similar and talked about this recently in a short piece about Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” a poem I’ve long loved and thought about quite a bit. That poem, as with many formal poems in my mind, enact their opposite. Inside Keats’ ode is the elegy.

It’s easy for me to ruminate on my attachments to form, but the harder part of the question to answer is why I choose to write in a particular form when I do. I think therein lies the observation you both made about intuition versus craft. I believe in both entirely and both guide the process, though perhaps at different stages. I don’t usually know what the form of a poem is until I begin writing—I don’t often set out, for example, by saying “I’m going to write a sonnet today.” But early on, often in the process of writing the first draft, something will suggest to me the form the poem means to be. It’s hard to say what exactly makes me recognise a specific form inside a string of language, but I suspect it’s very likely coming out of my past reading of other poets who’ve written in that particular form as well as my own prior practice with the form—that history of reading and writing poems that’s in the making of a poem I mentioned before and which you picked up on, Blas, is so internalised as perhaps to feel “intuitive” when in fact it’s a kind of memory. For example, I don’t count lines while I’m drafting a poem, but the poems that end up as sonnets often take a turn around the 8th-10th line and end around the 14th line. The fact that this is the shape the poem moves toward is what tells me the poem should be a sonnet. The pacing and lineation are, thus, a kind of muscle memory. I do revise poems repeatedly, so once I consciously decide the poem should be a sonnet, to keep with this example, I revise line breaks and rewrite whole parts keeping the form in play with the choices I’m making. Still, I go back to the fact that in the first pass, in drafting, writing is happening fast and on some other register—so I have to think in looking back that the form is in me by the time I use it.

This is true for the most part, I’d say, but there are always exceptions. I said I don’t usually sit down deliberately with the idea of writing in a particular form. But I know there are times when I have done just that. Case in point: the ghazal “Now I’m a Mother.”

Now I’m a Mother

What does the world look like? Sublime? you ask, now I’m a mother.
Sometimes. But, the thing is, I also suck limes now I’m a mother.

Watch me whirl, a spinning top, kaleidoscopic universe of hurry.
Always in a flurry, I’m anxiety’s mime now I’m a mother.

Everything I’ve said and done has come back to bite me in the ass.
Humility’s what I’m learning—time after time—now I’m a mother.

You hear the same lament on talk shows, in self-help books, at water coolers:
I was too blind/young/foolish to see. I was in my prime. Now I’m a mother.

My friend expounds: Each of you are remote, a theory based on his own mother.
I can’t help wondering—is loneliness my crime now I’m a mother?

In the end, I couldn’t help keep up the charade: my child figured out I was no God.
What a relief! It was exhausting, perfection’s climb. Now I’m a mother.

Nothing about it is sublime? you try again. Younger version of me, take heart:
of course there are days that chime a perfect rhyme now I’m a mother.

My real name’s Dispenser-of-Band-Aids but call me Earth, if you would rather.
It’s all the same to me. Even Shara is just a pseudonym now I’m a mother.

The phrase that is the title and poem’s refrain came to my mind ahead of time—I walked around with it for a while before I thought, “Oh, that’s a good refrain for a ghazal.” And then I wrote the poem deliberately working to have that snippet of language have as many resonances as it could carry inside of the repeating couplets.

BF & HM: We want to ask you for a writing prompt that has been inspired by one or more of the subjects that we’ve discussed here (or even, a writing prompt that speaks to working on a series of poems/larger project).

SM: There are so very many excellent exercises/prompts out there that contemporary writers, especially, have devised and readily offer up to each other in workshops, craft books, textbooks, online, etc. Attempting any received form (traditional or newly invented—or one you yourself set the strictures for) is an exercise that’s also endlessly repeatable. So rather than offering up a specific exercise, per se, I’ll instead speak of a longer term habit that has kept me in good stead over the course of my writing life. I read a lot and also believe in keeping a notebook, in which I record language—that which I find through reading (snippets of language from other writers/writing that I feel particularly drawn to write down) or lines and phrases I hear in my mind’s ear, often in response to something I’ve read. I like to scribble these phrases and lines in a notebook for a long time and just let them sit there, do nothing with them. And then after some time of allowing these to accumulate—usually months but sometimes things lay dormant for years—I’ll go back through my jottings to build poems. Often I will collage disparate snatches of language. The poem “Madwoman Apocrypha,” for example, was built in this collaging fashion. Between the time I first write something down and when I later return to it, I will often forget whatever it was I was thinking at the time or “meant”—so the language feels new to me, as if I’ve discovered some secret message my mind has left for me to decode. Keeping a notebook—it’s as if I’m leaving breadcrumbs for myself.

“Madwoman as Rasta Medusa” and “Now I’m a Mother” ©2017 by Shara McCallum, from her collection Madwoman, Alice James Books. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Shara McCallum

From Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of five books of poetry, published in the US and UK, most recently Madwoman (2017), which won the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature Poetry Prize. Her work has been widely published in the US, the Caribbean, and Europe, has been translated into several languages, and has received such recognition as a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress and an NEA Poetry Fellowship. From 2003-17 she directed the Stadler Center for Poetry and is now a Liberal Arts Professor of English at Penn State University.