Q&A with Featured Poet Lisa McCool-Grime

lisas-pic3You have a background in slam, and yet you pursued the academic route, earning an M.F.A. last December. Have you found it difficult (or necessary) to reconcile two aesthetics that are often at loggerheads?

For awhile I found it difficult to reconcile my attachment to the democratic philosophy behind slam and the aesthetic directions my own poetry took as I pursued my M.F.A. Like slam’s founder Marc Smith, I really believe in the idea that art should be accessible; the spoken word movement and, more specifically, slam tends to put the pressure in this sentence on the word “art.” This means that what we create as artists must fit a predefined notion of “accessible”. Conversations with the poet Dennis Phillips really opened my eyes to the ways in which this approach can belittle the public I am trying to reach by underestimating people’s ability to think critically.

I would like my art at its core to be a statement of faith: faith in my own artistic impulses and faith in the capacity of humans to honor expressed creativity. It’s true we can’t ignore that the public is often NOT accessing poetry: Whitman is sitting undusted on public library shelves and Audre Lorde isn’t even on the shelves. However, I now believe that a commitment to accessible art should not mean limiting what art can be. It should mean broadening our approaches to creating access.

It seems you have lived in some rather disparate places in terms of climate, community and character. To what degree have you found that the poetry you produce varies with your surroundings?

North Carolina‘s summer humidity keeps the air so close to the skin, I always felt near smothered in love. And then the North Dakota winter came along and robbed me of even God’s love. I have been living in California now for a year and there are parts of me that haven’t begun to thaw. The impact of the weather on my emotional life is at least something I can articulate. I don’t how long it will be before I can wrap my brain around the bizarre and mind-opening experience of living on a military base those five North Dakotan years. And I have no idea if I’ll ever be able to articulate how any of this specifically impacts my writing although I’m certain it does.

On the small level of craft, I can say this: when I lived in North Carolina, I was very involved in the spoken word community. North Dakota, on the other hand, had no spoken word community so I turned to the internet. I took online classes and participated in online forums. I had been very comfortable in NC on the stage, but felt very awkward on the page and those five years in ND remedied this problem because white space was nearly my only space to perform.

Is there a general template for how a poem comes to you, or is each one different? Do you attempt to invoke the Muse or do you prepare/await her arrival?

I’ve been amazed at how willing the Muse is to squeeze into a new mother’s chaotic schedule. There’s no time to sit around waiting for her arrival. But I do keep a toolbox full of exercises/invocations to speed the transition from the blank page to the first draft. So in a very general sense, most of my poems begin in a similar way.

In the revision phase, my poems tend to go one of two directions. In the first, the exercise/form that began the poem turns out to be essential to the poem, so I revise the poem around the original constraint. In the second, the original exercise turns out to be just a jumping off point and is abandoned in future drafts. This latter type of poem really does have to sit around waiting for the Muse of Revision, and can take years before I feel the rough edges are smoothed out.

Speaking of being a new mother, how has motherhood changed your approach to poetry? That is, beyond the logistics involved in fulfilling the incessant demands of a big-eyed moocher?

Ha–Big-eyed moocher for sure. I’ve turned more to Oulipian-type projects that are based primarily on constraint: I articulate some “rule” that the language must follow as it emerges. Especially in the first six months, I couldn’t possibly dedicate myself to a poem that needed a large space of continuous time to come into being. I needed projects that could be dropped and then picked back up, that could be brought into being five-minutes at a time. So I started working with anagram and doing a lot of exercises based on imitating other writers.

It’s hard not to notice underlying social and generational issues in your writing. How conscious are you of pushing back against societal notions when you write? If you are conscious of it, do you view such engagement as part of the writer’s responsibility, or is it a personal choice?

Social and generational issues deeply concern me, so they appear in my work whether I am conscious of it or not. As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve become better at incorporating these issues consciously without putting politics in the driver’s seat of my creative process. I would like everyone, not just writers, to think deeply about social and generational issues, but I have no opinion about how that thought process should specifically manifest in another person’s artwork.

This does not mean that I think creative writing should be protected from critical readings. A poem might use a stale rhyme scheme or rely on an unexamined stereotype. Both are failures of the imagination and should be subject to criticism. At the same time, a poem can contain a flaw without failing as a work of art. It is part of the writer’s job to risk failure. It is the reader’s job to bring a nuanced reading to the carefully crafted work, embracing what is worthy of embrace and engaging what is flawed in the hope of creating a path that can transcend those flaws.

How far are you willing to go for the poem? What’s the most you’ve dared for the word?

I wish that my relationship to my poetry was all skinny dipping and swashbuckling, but it primarily centers on humility. So I’ve often gone from upright to prostrate, which can feel like a great distance, but it doesn’t make a very colorful story.

Any new projects you’re working on? And when will we be able to buy your first book?

Yes, I’m working in two primary directions: one, I’m adding to/arranging a work-in-progress manuscript titled Wallflower Women and Other Shade Loving Types. Lately, that’s meant developing a series around a character named the Estranged Wife and a peek into generating another series around characters named Horseface, Bigmouth, Dollbaby…

And two, collaborative projects: “Turning on the Domestic” (with a number of poets and non-poets alike), which plays anagrammatically with words related to the domestic sphere, and “Odes of Opposition” (with my long-time writing pal, Nancy Flynn), which creates word-for-word/phrase-for-phrase opposites of poems by established poets. There’s also a back burner, but I’ll leave it at that.

I’ve never juggled this many projects before. I suppose that’s another way I get around the problem of needing my Muse to work on-call. If I sit down and feel uninspired by the Estranged Wife, well, then I don’t waste anytime moving on to the anagrams.

As far as a book goes: I wish I knew. My goal is to have Wallflower Women all ready by the end of 2010. If I succeed, I’ll consider that my first full-length book, but I have no idea when/if you’ll ever be able to buy it. document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);

3 comments for “Q&A with Featured Poet Lisa McCool-Grime

  1. November 20, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    I really enjoyed this interview. I love Lisa’s respect for a variety of poetic voices 🙂

  2. November 21, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for this interview. As someone who has been in both worlds, I can relate to Lisa’s experiences with slam and academic poetry realms and trying to reconcile the aesthetics of the two. And as someone who has only lived in one place, I appreciated the perspective of how environment impacts the emotions and, in turn, the creative work.

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