Sjohnna McCray won the 2015 Walt Whitman Award and his book Rapture was published by Graywolf Press. He studied at Ohio University and earned an MFA from the University of Virginia where he was a Hoyns Fellow. McCray also received an MA in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.
“Truth of the Gesture,” an Interview with Sjohnna Mccray
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Izzy Montoya. Of the process he said, “Sjhonna’s answers are as beautiful and illuminating as his poems. I was excited to talk with Sjohnna because of the novel approaches he took to some of poetics’ oldest themes.” In this interview, Mccray discusses the influence of his education and childhood on his work, as well as winning the Walt Whitman Award.
Superstition Review: First of all, congratulations. Rapture is your first published book and it received the 2015 Walt Whitman Award.
Sjohnna McCray: Thank you and thank you to Tracy K. Smith for selecting the manuscript.
SR: I wanted to ask if receiving such a prestigious award has changed the way you see yourself as a writer? Do you show up to your desk with with higher expectations for yourself than you did in the past? How have your expectations changed?
SM: Well, it shouldn’t but it does. I have spent most of my life trying to tell these stories and publish this book in various forms. So, most of my life I have been a writer in my heart while working as a security guard, janitor, grocery store cashier, hotel front desk attendant, administrative assistant and English teacher. I was more closeted about being a poet than I was about being gay! But when the book came out, it was as if some great pressure was lifted off my shoulders. I could officially call myself a “writer”. It’s a thrilling time because I want to know what poems come next. I don’t feel chained by my own history, if that makes sense. I wouldn’t say I have higher expectations. My goal remains the same—to tell the truth of a moment, idea or gesture. I would say there are so many great new poets trying different things and that inspires me and encourages me to think in new ways.
SR: The title poem, “Rapture," begins with a focus on longing. I wanted to ask why “Rapture” became the title for both the poem and the collection. What connotations of the word are you most interested in exploring in the text?
SM: Initially, the sections in the title poem, “Rapture” were individual pieces. It wasn’t until I started tinkering with the arrangement of all the poems that I realized those poems belonged together. In the back of my mind, I was thinking of a conversation with a friend of mine. I told her I wanted to write a middle-aged love poem full of bellies and compromise. So many gay poems document the lustiness of youth. In a way, I wanted to say that surviving youth can lead to a place of true companionship and that is rapture. At first, I was hesitant to call the collection “Rapture” because of the religious connotations of the word. However, I liked the similarities of this sex act and this religious act being sort of a physical and spiritual dissolve, an end point. The difference being judgement. In one act, you are so engrossed in another that you forgive all. In the other act, you face the ultimate judgement.
SR: The title poem is also the last poem in the collection. At what point did you realize you wanted to end with this poem? In what ways do you feel the collection would be different if you began with this poem?
SM: It took me a while to figure out the order of the poems. I resisted the poems telling a straightforward narrative. Again, it wasn’t until I started tinkering for the fiftieth time that the order became apparent.It was like the poems said, “Just do it, stupid.” The book really does read like a “coming of age” autobiography. In my case, the volume needed to start with the father.
One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Bedtime Story #1.” What I liked so much about it was the way it unapologetically presented the relationship between the father and mother characters; “the unassuming black and the Korean whore/ in the middle of the Vietnam war.” What do you feel is the importance or value in telling these types of stories? How has knowing this story affected your life?
SM: I think modern poets cringe at the idea of poetry being confessional or cathartic. But I think the poems allowed me to exert some control over a rather chaotic existence full of secrets and suppression. It wasn’t until I started writing the poems about my mother that I could objectively think about the details of her life. Not mine, hers. I have more empathy for my mother in the poems than I ever did in real life. I can see her now. Presenting these stories in poems is like freeing a whole lot of ghosts.
I don’t know if this makes sense but you hope that someone reading your poems, encountering the heaviness of your life, is somehow made lighter in their own. Certainly, I hope that a young gay man or woman is comforted by reading these poems and knowing that a likeminded spirit is out there. Actually, I hope the poems in the book are comforting to anyone who doesn’t fit into the 1950’s American narrative of normal. I mean, my mother was a severe schizophrenic, manic depressive prostitute and my father drank too much. I was bi-racial before being “multicultural” was widely accepted. It took me a long time to embrace such oddity—hopefully, the poems will make some other odd person feel more at ease.
The poem “Comfort Woman” begins:
This is something my mother knew: to fuck
a man without a metaphor, without
even the slightest hint of a story,
is to be at the center of two deaths.
Later, the poem “Smoke & Mirrors” ends:
... she’ll have to explain to her mother
the excavation of her heart
along with breasts & hips. No longer the shy girl,
she relishes both lives: above and below.
Can you speak a little more to this duality of life & death?
I think a major theme in this book is the idea that love can be both threatening and satisfying. You’ve managed to explore this in many ways. I wanted to ask how this theme manifested in this collection. Did you force yourself to approach this idea differently in each poem, or did you find your content wandering organically back to this idea?
SM: I’m not very bright so it takes me longer to revise and find thematic connections than most. I tend to want to let poems arrive organically. Usually, the poems sprout from one line or from fragments that are figured out like a puzzle. In modern life, being constantly connected via technology, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find that time where the mind is allowed to be still and wander. Sometimes, the best lines come while driving. Watch out for that tree!
When I was an undergrad, my best friend used to say I was obsessed with love. The idea of being in love was constantly on my mind because I felt so lonely. I tried being heterosexual but that was like wearing a size small when you really are a large. It didn’t fit. I’ve read comic books most of my life and I felt like a mutant from the X-men: bi-racial, fat and freckled. My mutant ability was being obnoxiously sensitive. Poetry helped me control my powers. So, this idea of love is present in the book but as I grew my ideas of love did too. In my experience, love is like those misshapen vegetables grocery stores throw away. It can be ugly and odd shaped but valuable to those who need it. My parents had this kind of love. In the middle of the Vietnam War, they craved and needed one another.
SR: There are a few poems in this collection that take on a child’s voice. Why write from a child’s perspective? How do you feel this changes the way your audience reads a poem?
SM: I think when I use a child’s voice it’s because the details of what I’m presenting are going to be taken in or accepted in a different way by the reader. I’m playing with the idea of innocence and discovery. In the poem, "Peeping Toms," the narrator and his cousins are spying on a woman undressing. This poem is about a real event and we were actually looking at my mother. That takes the creep factor up to 10. When I was revising this poem, all I could think about was Robert Hass’ poem about his mother’s nipples. In another poem, "Puberty in a Jar," the narrator talks about his first boy-boy crush. It’s a feeling that is present but not defined—so it seems more pure. Using a child’s voice allows me to describe things with a sense of wonder that an analytical adult voice couldn’t do.
SR: I’d like to add that we have a fun coincidence here. You and Patricia Murphy went to high school together and now you have both published your first book in the past year or so. Since an interview with Patricia will also appear in our 18th issue, I wanted to ask you if you noticed any similarities between your two collections. If so, do you feel that has anything to do with your shared early education? Could you talk about the influence of those early teachers?
SM: With some collections, a reader can use easy words like love or adore but Patricia’s poetry has a harrowing quality that is like looking into a mirror for me. It’s like the narrator of her poems is a magician and an escape artist. Both our mothers suffered from mental illness, therefore both of their children suffered from the effects of mental illness. We were not confidants in high school but I remember her being so supportive of me as a writer. I suspect she gives that gift to her students as well. At SCPA (The School for Creative and Performing Arts), I think we had teachers and mentors that helped us navigate being teenagers with the idea of seriously pursuing a life in the arts. An arts education gave me a sense of purpose and the ability to open myself up to things outside of my small existence. At one point, I realized all of those tragedies that had happened to me or were happening to me was going to be my art.
For me, it started with all of those wonderful books in English class. Every novel was discussed in such delicious detail and my little hungry mind was just gobbling it up. I was never very analytical but my emotional thinking, my empathy for characters was off the charts. I was just destroyed by Ethan Frome, The Dollmaker, and The Old Man and the Sea. There was something about the hard luck of the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath that I understood. Of Mice and Men made me cry. My creative writing teacher gave me books by Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Later, I made my way to Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. My poetry was overwrought and visceral but I loved playing with words. More formal training and thinking would come in college. I would find my way to Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, and James Wright!
Finally, it’s tradition to ask, what does your writing space look like?
SM: My writing space is a hot mess. I tend to think in piles. So, it may look like a disaster area but I know where everything is. My decorating style is like a Pedro Almodovar film—I like lots of color. I have pictures of friends on top of a file cabinet and a bureau with red doors that I fill with keepsakes and knick-knacks. It houses an autographed copy of Citizen!! It also has the Bible and the American flag I received at my father’s funeral. I use a red plastic dish rack for papers and the silverware holder for pens and pencils. On my desk, is a red lamp, a framed rejection letter from the New Yorker, a tiny, red dinosaur from one of my students from Bronx Science in New York and a knitted change purse in the shape of a whale that I used to keep Marlboro Lights in when I smoked. I quit in 2011. In front of my desk, I bought this carpet from Ikea that looks like a multitude of blue circles. I could never get it to work on the floor, so I decided to hang it on the wall. Now, I pin postcards and important memos in each circle. Behind my desk, is a red metal and glass book shelf that houses the printer, books I need to read and a silver, giant letter “S” that my husband bought me when he was bored and shopping at Home Goods. There is also a framed cover of my book that all of my high school English and creative writing teachers signed and sent to me. There are at least two burnt out writing candles in the room.
SR: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.
SM: Thank you, for reading Rapture and asking such interesting questions!