Interview with Wesley McNair On Personal Poems, Teaching Poetry, and Life as Maine Poet Laureate
The following interview with Wesley McNair was conducted by Timothy Gillis on September 24, 2014. McNair is the author of 20 books, including, My Brother Running, which connects his brother’s fatal heart attack with the explosion of the Challenger shuttle, and The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry, which delves into the personal hardships he endured: his father abandoning the family on a Christmas eve, an abusive stepfather, and the difficulties of raising his own family while finding his poetic voice. In addition to his poetry, he has also edited seven anthologies, three of which celebrate the renaissance in Maine writing in the last 20 years.
McNair’s latest work, The Lost Child: Ozark Poems, was inspired by the impending death of his mother. His grief and the need to reconcile with her led him to a series of poems about her homeplace in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. He writes in The Words I Chose that his mother “caused me much pain and suffering in my childhood and youth,” adding that she was nonetheless “an ally in my development as a writer,” who typed up his early poems and stories and saved them all.
The current poet laureate of Maine, McNair is now finishing up the fourth year of his five-year term. In one of his first official acts, he got rid of the term “Poetry Tea” that had been used for the annual poetry celebration at the Blaine House, disliking the elitist image the term conveyed. “It didn’t really match my general goal of bringing poetry to the people,” he says.
McNair lives in Mercer, Maine and has a camp on Drury Pond in Temple, where he creates in his writing cabin, accompanied by his dogs Gus and Rosie, “who crash while I write early in the morning.” After a mid-morning breakfast, McNair swims with the dogs, thinking about the poem he’s been working on. “That’s where the poem gets its second life,” he said. “It comes back into my mind during the rhythm of our swim, and I try to puzzle out where I am in it and where I might go next. The idea is to find a source of anticipation that will carry me into my next writing session. Whether I go in that new direction or not isn’t so important as the feeling of hope I have for the poem.”
McNair has twice been invited by the Library of Congress to read his poetry and has received prizes from Poetry and Poetry Northwest magazines, the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Rockefeller Fellowships, and two grants in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2006, he was selected for a $50,000 United States Artist Fellowship.
TG: Tell us about your new work, The Lost Child: Ozark Poems, and where these poems originate.
WM: Let me talk first about the book’s extended middle section, the largest part of the book, in which I describe the people in my mother’s homeplace of the Ozarks. Some of the poems in that section come totally from my imagination, but in many other ones, I blend what really happened with what could have happened and what should have happened, as one tends to do in poetry. To put it another way, I mix real life with the sort of lying that leads to a deeper truth. For instance, I use my mother’s real name, Ruth, in the section, not because everything she does actually took place, but because I catch the contours of her life and attitude and personality. The same approach applies to the Ozark family in the book — that is, they are fictional, but at the same time, they resemble my mother’s actual family and share their story. Her family lived on a hardscrabble farm in the poverty and the hardship of the Dust Bowl period during the Depression. That life was especially hard on the kids, especially the older ones, who worked from dawn to dusk right along with their parents. They were kids who had no chance to be kids — who lost their childhood. As the oldest child, my mother probably had it the worst. Have a look at Ruth in the book’s title poem, who calls herself “the lost child,” and you’ll see just under her comic surface the sadder woman I’m speaking of.
Reprint of, “The Lost Child,” follows the interview.
TG: I found the poems very powerful, and I appreciated the non-fictional bookends of part I and part III — the first part describing your mother’s time in the acute care hospital, and the third part describing her death and the spreading of her ashes in the Ozarks. In part I, “When She Wouldn’t,” Ruth is in her hospital room surrounded by family members, who are trying to talk her into going into a nursing home. Did writing about that real-life event lead you to write the rest of the book?
WM: You’re absolutely right. That poem is crucial to the book because it starts the cycle of grief that inspired all the poems of the middle section. I don’t say in the poem exactly what led my mother to be hospitalized but it had to do with stubbing her big toe. My mother had no circulation in her right leg, so when she stubbed her toe and the wound began to fester, she didn’t feel it happening. Of course, she never told anyone about the problem, either, toughing it out the way she and her siblings learned to do. But eventually she had to be admitted at an acute care center, and by then the infection was life threatening, and we didn’t know if she’d ever come out. That was when the three remaining elderly siblings, the ones in my poem, came from Missouri to be with her.
TG: So the poems of part II came out of your encounter with them?
WM: Exactly. As we talked together about what to do with my mother, what the next step would be, the air was thick with emotion. I bonded with them in a way I didn’t predict. So in the ensuing June, I went to a family reunion in the Ozarks, and when I got back to Maine I began to write poems derived from that visit with my Missouri relatives, in what I see now as an attempt to reach out to my mother. My mother was a difficult person, and I felt the need through these poems to understand her in a different way before she died. When I was maybe two-thirds of the way through the book, she did die. At that point, I wrote also to remember her. So you see the book has a background in grief and reconciliation. Now that the collection is finished, I have to say I’m still a little stunned by it — I think because it took me so deep into the feeling life, which is the heart of poetry.
TG: It’s impressive that you were able to put your feelings into words, especially in the midst of all you must have been going through in this period. The character Harlan Wesley Sykes, “the preacher, who started this clan in Mount Zion” — is that a sly self-reference in the sense that you created these characters by writing this book?
WM: That’s very insightful of you, Tim. As you probably noticed, I refer to myself elsewhere in the book as well. In a couple of poems I write of Ruth’s second or middle son, though I never name that son. And I have to add that I think of myself as a lost child, too. As the two final poems in part III show, I had my own struggles growing up.
TG: In some of the poems in part II, I felt you were not only describing the region of the Ozarks, but America itself. Was this by intention?
WM: As I wrote, I began to think about Colin Woodard’s book, American Nations, which shows how national politics are influenced by regional culture. And I thought especially about the Appalachian migration and its influence. According to Woodard, that migration covered an enormous area of the United States, spreading westward across the top section of the Deep South, through West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and Kentucky and Tennessee all the way to Missouri and Oklahoma and Arkansas and north Texas. So when you’re writing about the Ozarks and the values and attitudes of its people, you’re also writing about the values of a significant part of this country — maybe even about the real America.
TG: What would you say some of these values are?
WM: Anti-government politics, fundamentalist religion, the insistence on a traditional family, the linking of patriotism with the military. The Lost Child includes all of these things, which are both regional and American, even though they might make us Puritan New Englanders wring our hands. It was exciting for me as a New England poet to work with materials like these. Robert Frost once spoke of the freedom of your material, and the freedom I felt was the chance to deal with this other America. But I never really lose my New England self in The Lost Child — what I would call the ironic self. So when I write about that patriarchal figure you mention, John Wesley Sykes, in the poem “The American Flag Cake,” my intentions are ironical. As you know, he’s the one who’s accepted by the Sykeses as their moral guide, the evidence that they’re a chosen people. And yet the contrary evidence of their selfishness and vulgarity is plain for any reader to see.
TG: But you identify with them in some way. In The Lost Child, you seem to create characters that could be held up to criticism or praise in equal measure.
WM: I like that way of seeing it, Tim. On the one hand, I’m discovering myself as a hillbilly, and accepting the people I write about as my people, but on the other hand, as a New Englander, I’m standing back and observing them. Which is why you sense those two impulses you speak of. Working on the poems of the middle section, I sometimes felt that I was embedded in the Ozarks, participating, yet reporting — which explains the ironic edge some of the poems have. But I think that in the end readers of The Lost Child, like you, won’t have trouble finding my sympathy for them — and a sense they have an importance that transcends their limitations.
TG: Many of the poems are not specifically about your mother, but she’s often present, in some way.
WM: True. As you’d expect from a book that was inspired by my grief for her and my need to reconcile with her, my mother is woven all through the book, either through poems that feature her, or poems that include her, or poems that are haunted by the book’s main theme, which is my gradual rediscovery of her as I create the book. So the poem called “Gratitude” shows an older man rediscovering his mother — a stand-in, in his way, for me.
TG: You’ve taught poetry writing for years, and you’ve written a lot of essays about writing poetry. What has your experience shown you about how poets develop?
WM: I’m not exactly the one to ask, because I have an old-fashioned notion about this. My model comes from my relationship with the older poet, Donald Hall, who read my poems and liked them, confirming my choice to become a poet. It’s a model I’d describe as the laying on of hands, one experienced poet welcoming a beginner into this special society. I don’t deny there are other ways of becoming a poet. Poets develop in lots of ways. The prevailing method today is the MFA program, which imitates the older model I’m talking about, the permission to make poems given by the professor who assesses the results in a workshop. That system works, and it has produced some good poets. On the other hand, it is now a full-scale industry that depends on grading and the academy and the banks, and I don’t entirely trust it. Still, that whole issue is moot, because before I retired, I always taught undergraduates, most of whom would never become poets at all. So I was free to pursue a broader mission — that is, to explore poetry as a means of expressing the truth as they knew it.
TG: Could you say more about that exploration and poetry’s truth?
WM: As Hayden Carruth once put it, any American kid who’s reached college age knows that we live in a culture where language is used by the advertisers and the politicians to lie. Poetry, of course, wants nothing to do with that language. At the University of Maine at Farmington, where I did most of my college teaching, in rooms where the furniture didn’t always match, I sometimes felt I was in the catacombs of the culture, and we had gathered together to have a conversation about this new and revolutionary use of words that poetry made possible.