Tiegan Dakin: You’re the craft essay editor at Cleaver. Can you describe what a craft essay is? What separates the work you accept from the work you reject?
J.G. McClure: I think of craft essays as situated somewhere between critical studies and creative nonfiction. They’re personal essays that address, in some way, the craft of writing. There’s a lot of variety under that heading: we’ve published everything from poets’ reflections on their own work to editors’ descriptions of their processes to critical studies of particular writers. When we turn down a piece, it’s usually because the piece (although it may be very strong) leans too heavily toward one of the two poles—it’s either written in too esoteric of a critical style (we’re not looking for pieces that are only intelligible to English professors) or it reads as straight-up CNF, without a recognizable study of craft. Maybe it’s easiest to give some examples: Michael Ryan’s A Difficult Grace or Louise Glück’s Proofs and Theories are both excellent and well worth the read.
TD: What do you enjoy most about being an editor?
JGM: Definitely getting to read and promote poems and essays that I’m excited about sharing. Cleaver had never had a Craft Essay section before I joined the team, so getting to spearhead that launch was a lot of fun, and it’s given me the opportunity to read a lot of great work.
TD: What is your poetry collection, BETTER, about?
JGM: First off, a shameless plug. Publishers: BETTER is currently seeking a home—if you’re interested, please let me know! It’s already housebroken and gets along great with cats.
Now that that’s out of the way. There’s a narrative running through BETTER about two characters, an unnamed speaker and Ellie. They are—if there’s such a thing, and I have my doubts—what you’d call soulmates, but they also can’t be together without making each other intensely miserable. They’re like two drowning people each trying to save the other, or to save themselves using the other. That relationship provides the occasion for many of the poems, and it haunts the background of the whole collection.
But what I think the collection is really interested in is the (im)possibility of human connection. Romantic relationships cast our tragic separation from one another into the starkest relief. If there’s one person that you should be able to connect with, it’s the person that you love, right? And yet what actually happens is you find out that they’re perpetually apart from you. There’s this tiny gap between the two of you and it may as well be a chasm. Or it’s as if the Self is a thickly padded spacesuit—sure you can clumsily fumble around with moon-rocks, but you can never really touch them. Likewise you can never really understand someone else, connect with someone else.
But in practice, of course, we don’t believe that, we don’t accept that. Because if we did there would be no way to live with ourselves. So we carry on, always wanting so desperately to believe in something—and that’s the space that I think BETTER occupies, that space of want. There are poems about wanting to believe in love, in God, in the world, in art—but in all of them, want is the engine that keeps things moving.
TD: Which poets inspire you? Have they in any way influenced the way in which you write?
JGM: Oh, the poets I love have absolutely influenced the way I write. I’m of the opinion that influence is unavoidable. Anything you read is going to influence you in some way—whether you want to emulate it or react against it or what have you. So for me, the best way to avoid being too influenced by any one poet is to read many, many poets (and novelists, essayists, etc.). To dilute the influence, so to speak. And some of the poets who’ve deeply influenced me write in very different modes than I do.
For instance, I’d cite William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” as an early and deeply formative influence—but I don’t think readers of my work would likely think of Stafford’s poem, which I admire for its appearance of simplicity (although it’s actually deeply complex), its wrenching narrative, its imagery, and especially its opening up of a moral question with no possible right answer. Although I strive for all of those things in my own work, my style is quite different from Stafford’s. Similarly, I always come back to Jack Gilbert’s “Michiko Dead,” which I admire for its brilliant handling of the box-as-objective-correlative-for-grief, and I think it’s been a great influence, though my writing is very unlike Gilbert’s.
For a long time I wanted to be Alan Shapiro. Then Louise Glück. Then Richard Siken. The list goes on. One can, I think, fall in love with a book and become pulled into that style—you just have to work through it, and eventually find a way to take from a beloved poet those things that work for you and make them your own.
Reading Dobby Gibson’s It Becomes You was something of a turning point in my writing. I’d always taken on a serious affect, gravely dispensing my high-poetic sadness. But reading Gibson made me realize that poems can be very strange—even very funny—without losing anything of their seriousness. After getting into his work, I started to appreciate the weird more and more. Dean Young, Vasko Popa, Matthew Zapruder, Amy Gerstler—they all have a kind of unhinged energy which I admire.
I’ve also had the good fortune to work closely with some wonderful poets, who’ve had a huge influence on my work. Michael Ryan, Amy Gerstler, Michael McFee, and Alan Shapiro have all been mentors to me, and I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for me and my writing.
TD: What books could people find on your bookshelf?
JGM: My bookshelf is kind of all over the place. Most recently I’ve been spending time with Ocean Vuong’s brand new book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Otherwise you’ll find everything from terribly dense tomes on theory to world poetry anthologies to Amie Bender to Simon Hanselmann’s Megahex.
As far as poetry goes, here’s a wildly incomplete list of some poets I admire and whose books you’ll find on my shelves: Robert Hass, Thomas Lux, Kiki Petrosino, Jeffrey Schultz, Louise Glück, Traci K. Smith, Anne Carson, Russell Edson, Nick Flynn, Victoria Chang, Matt Rasmussen, Carrie Fountain, Allison Seay, James Tate, Dean Young. I could go on for hours, but I’ll stop there.
I read a lot and tend to forget exactly what I’ve read already, so some years ago I started keeping a list of books I’ve read and some notes about them. According to my list, my very recent bookshelf involves James Joyce, Norse mythology, David Richter’s The Critical Tradition, a lot of books on flash fiction (I’ve been branching out in my writing), Maggie Nelson, and Anne Carson.
TD: If you should meet one person- living or dead- who would it be?
JGM: I feel like one of the Romantics would be fun. Take Percy Shelley for instance. He tried and failed to conjure the devil, and he used to go around tossing his poems into the hoods of strangers’ coats so that when they tried to pull their hoods up, his poems would fall out and aha! they’d see his brilliance raining down upon their heads. Plus he was way ahead of his time on social issues. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with that guy? Just keep a silver bullet or garlic or whatever it is you use against the devil ready—just in case.
J.G. McClure holds an MFA from the University of California – Irvine. His work appears in Best New Poets 2015, Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, and The Pinch, among others. He is the Craft Essay Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor of Cleaver. Find links to work and contact info at jgmcclure.weebly.com.