Shane McCrae Interview
Free Acts of Love
AW: What is the function of aesthetic violence?
SM: I think that varies from artist to artist, and from piece to piece. With the poems I’m writing on Margaret Garner—she was a woman who lived as a slave in the decades before the Civil War, who tried to escape slavery with her husband and children, and who, when her owner caught up with her, killed one of her daughters and tried to kill her other children in order to prevent them from being returned to slavery—I use violence in order to suggest the atmosphere of constant violence in which slaves lived their lives. To that end, I want the violence to distort the poems, particularly the parts of the poems that aren’t themselves violent. Although, obviously, I can’t know or approximate what it was like to live as a slave, I can hint at what it might have been like to see much of life through violence. What I hope for these poems is that they will work against the seemingly always resurgent romanticizing of the antebellum South, so, for me, at least, for now, the function of aesthetic violence is political.
AW: I’m interested in this idea of distortion—the way violence distorts peace as a reminder of the tendency to distort even the not-so-distant past, in order to refuse a looking that is not total, or comprehensive. The imagination has tremendous power to access compassion and otherwise invoke experiences that are not originally ours, but how do you manage and relate to your own distortion of the story, being safely viewed through hindsight’s 20/20 lens into the past?
SM: From the beginning, I’ve wanted to be as true to the bare, historical facts of Margaret Garner’s story as I can, and I’ve actually gone through a lot of anxious internal back-and-forth every time I’ve had to invent in order to make the poems work. The big, documented facts, I won’t change. But I know I can’t get certain aspects of the story right. The best I can do is try to take that 20/20 hindsight into account, and I’ve found it helpful, in that regard, to read slave narratives—not the longer, famous narratives, but the shorter ones that were collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930’s. Some of these express perspectives on slavery that I find deeply disturbing—not because the narratives are full of horrors (although, of course, a lot of them are), but because these narratives express a nostalgia for slavery, and some even mourn its end. Even if that nostalgia is itself the consequence of distortions, the idea that such a nostalgia could be felt by former slaves is all the corrective I can handle. Still—I think being open to such disturbances is part of trying to be a writer.
AW: Wow, that’s really psychologically revealing of human nature, isn’t it? To suffer what I assume could only be a fear of change so urgently compelling that even a brutal and unjustly controlled known would seem preferable to confrontation with an unknown future. Even slavery. In which case, violence—or the reminder of it in literature might serve, as you say politically, to jar us free from an illusory or incomplete version of reality, against that tendency to romanticize the past or cling to the familiar. Any act of change is violent—an upturning of the crust that coats the field, a disturbance. It might even be a measure—the degree to which each emergent demands of the paradigm realignment. Acceptance of the upset inherent in the process requires or nets bravery. Was Margaret Garner brave?
SM: Margaret Garner was brave, I think, yes. But I’m not sure it was bravery that gave her the strength to do what, in the end, she felt she had to do—at the very least, it wasn’t bravery alone. Bravery would have been useful in the first few hours of her attempted escape—but at the very end, when she knew she could not escape, and was about to kill her daughter, I think bravery alone would have been inadequate. And I don’t think it was despair that drove her, either. Instead, I think it was hope—I think, for her, killing her children was a hopeful act (contemporary accounts note her joy after her infant daughter, Priscilla, was drowned—very probably by Margaret—as she and her family were being shipped back to slavery). She could see that, although she could not escape a life of terrible suffering, she could help her children escape. It was one of her very few free acts of love.
AW: What a beautiful observation!—to draw together the dynamic, perhaps even the impetus, between courage and hope. Your use of violence to distort the poems parallels neatly the distortion of Garner’s role as mother by slavery. I can understand why you would resist any attempt to romanticize it by holding readers tight to the reality that she lost her daughter. I can think of no better reason to commemorate history in poetry—than to expand our ability to conceive of the past not as it can or should be, but in full acceptance. Only eyes wide enough to encompass its brutality, not dissolving it, can look forward, healing it.