Mia Leonin here reads “Madwoman’s Geography” and “From the Book of Mothers” by Shara McCallum. In the process of discussing these poems, we cover incredible ground. Are women permitted public rage? What is it in writing motherhood that is so challenging? Leonin touches on the risks of writing motherhood, the need to thrive in the wise wilderness of the unconscious, and what can only be referred to as McCallum’s songs.
Black: Why did you choose poems by Shara McCallum to share with us?
Leonin: I met Shara McCallum when she was an undergrad at the University of Miami. Although she was a gifted young writer, she was thinking of pursuing a career in musical theater. Clearly, she found a different path. She is now the author of five books of poetry.
However, two of the most distinctive elements I appreciate in her work are the construction of voice and the musicality of her diction and syntax. I think McCallum’s love of song, persona, and theater transferred remarkably to her poetry. I am a creative writing lecturer and have been surrounded by nineteen- and twenty-year-old undergraduates for the better part of twenty years, so I appreciate the trajectory of Shara’s passions into her career.
One may consider a career in musical theater as much of a pie-in-the-sky endeavor as poet; however, Shara possessed the desire and skills for voice, performance, and music and to this day they contribute to her unique qualities as a writer. Perhaps someone else may have integrated those passions into another profession. The point (and what I try to communicate to my students) is this: Shara reminds me that if we are in touch with those activities that enliven and embolden us, if we recognize what most gives us a sense of purpose, we will find a place for that purpose. Shara’s truth is a complex one of black and white; mother and daughter; American and immigrant. Her poetry holds these contradictions and more.
Mia Leonin reads “Madwoman’s Geography” by Shara McCallum
Black: And why these poems in particular?
Leonin: “From the Book of Mothers,” a poem from This Strange Land is one of my favorite poems. It explores the complexity of motherhood—moments of tenderness and whimsy, anger and trauma, life and death. Above all, it is a poem that sings. I was so excited to participate in this project because it was an excuse to read this particular poem out loud. The late poet Miller Willams called the poem “a meeting place between reader and writer.” This has always felt true to me—a poem is an act of co-creation between reader and writer. “From the Book of Mothers” takes Williams’ dictum one step further: it is a song that wants to be sung.
I also selected the poem “Madwoman’s Geography” from McCallum’s most recent book, Madwoman. A poetic descendant of Rita Dove, Louise Gluck, and Lucille Clifton, McCallum is a master of voice and persona. In “Madwoman’s Geography,” she creates a voice of feminine authority, agency, and transformation.
In my first life, I slid
into the length of a snake, then
sloughed scales for wings.
She takes us from Eve to Icarus in three short lines. Wow!
McCallum’s work underscores women’s life-long metamorphosis, stirring psychological and emotional depths without falling into sentimentality.
Black: Can you explore the concept of the long poem a little?
Leonin: I think the literary collage is at the essence of many long poems and that is definitely the case with McCallum’s “From the Book of Mothers.” Her use of collage reminds me of the quilt made by an anonymous woman from Alabama at the Smithsonian and referenced by Alice Walker in her essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.”
The collage is a symbol of the communal reservoir of “women’s work,” a feminine resourcefulness women have accessed for generations to create something beautiful from the mundane, the oppressive, and otherwise unbearable aspects of our daily lives. The women in McCallum’s poems contend with mental illness, neglect, abuse, and poverty. It’s no accident that McCallum employs the collage form to create a work that is vibrant, resonant, and beautiful in musicality and image. The collage aesthetic also affords McCallum the linguistic and cultural latitude to move from the Ganges to the Jamaican Patois of wutless, to numbers in Hebrew, and beyond. McCallum’s syntactic sense of the line is always tight. It’s as if she is writing the bountiful, wholehearted lustiness of Whitman and compressing it into the hymn-tight lines of Dickinson.
McCallum writes: “Pushed from the calabash stained by its pulp,/we were turned into little girls.” The sh in “push” and “calabash,” the alliteration and echo of “push” and “pulp”—these words in proximity churn towards a melodic syntax. The cumulative effect is orchestral and rich.
Mia Leonin reads “From the Book of Mothers” by Shara McCallum
Black: Likewise, maybe the concept of a “mother poem”?
Leonin: There is a double consciousness that comes with motherhood: one is propelled into the world of what is and what should be. That should may come from self, society, or both, but as my mother used to say of her mother’s punishments: “the thinnest branch makes the sharpest switch.” Our narrow definition of what is deemed acceptable or interesting to write about on the subject of motherhood cuts deep. We are expected to underscore the mama bear fierceness of mothers, the nurturing instinct of mothers, and the “instinctive” bond between mothers and children, but what of the loneliness, despair, and resentment? What of boredom and humor? What of fathers who mother? Right now, we are having a more public conversation about what it means for a woman to be angry and the double standard imposed upon women when it comes to expressing anger. We are not supposed to express feelings of outrage and most definitely not on behalf of ourselves.
To ignore women’s experiences is to ignore the power of those experiences and the power of women. The patriarchy is invested in that imbalance of power. It permeates our nation at every level from the top down. George W. Bush’s presidency gave us “No Child Left Behind” and a “Culture of Life” while waging a war that took hundreds of thousands of lives and ripped apart countless families in the Middle East and in the United States. Now, with our “grab ’em by the pussy” president, the already thinning veil has been ripped away. Donald Trump, our president and a man accused of multiple sexual assaults, ridicules Dr. Ford, a victim of sexual assault and lauds her alleged assailant, selecting him to serve on the highest court of the land.
There is a double consciousness that comes with motherhood: one is propelled into the world of what is and what should be. That should may come from self, society, or both, but as my mother used to say of her mother’s punishments: “the thinnest branch makes the sharpest switch.” Our narrow definition of what is deemed acceptable or interesting to write about on the subject of motherhood cuts deep. We are expected to underscore the mama bear fierceness of mothers, the nurturing instinct of mothers, and the “instinctive” bond between mothers and children, but what of the loneliness, despair, and resentment? What of boredom and humor? What of fathers who mother? Right now, we are having a more public conversation about what it means for a woman to be angry and the double standard imposed upon women when it comes to expressing anger. We are not supposed to express feelings of outrage and most definitely not on behalf of ourselves.
If you are a poet and a woman and you want to write about motherhood, you know you are taking a risk. People don’t want to know motherhood and parenthood deeply. We are in a country that loves to sound the trumpet of family, but denies children healthcare and parents maternity leave. It separates children from their parents at the border and seeks to interfere with a woman’s reproductive choices. McCallum doesn’t just write about motherhood. She writes about it as a changing state of being. She reminds us of the connections to one another, to life, and to death. Her fragmented stanzas and sections interweave movement, echo, and variations to haunting effect. This dramatic tension builds and recedes until the poem ends on a profoundly simple question:
If not this room, this life
then where, then when?
McCallum’s writing about motherhood—here and elsewhere in her work—reminds me: Here. Now. It gives me the courage to write.
Black: What are you working on now?
I’ll be honest. I’m working on living. I’m emerging from a period of great change—the end of a long marriage, the beginning of creating my own home, and the middle of mothering a teenager. I am a strong believer in the wise wilderness of the unconscious mind and so to begin writing, I need to avoid creating a particular project and just write.
Also, in the last few years, I have filled many notebooks and computer files with words that I think are more on the lyric essay end of the spectrum than they are poetry. In time, I will return to these notebooks and cull through them. In the meantime, to return to the wilderness, but well accompanied, I will begin a series of writing exercises that I call “Papelitos.”
Shara McCallum is a Jamaican-born poet and author of five poetry collections including the most recent, Madwoman (Alice James Books, 2017). McCallum received her MFA from the University of Maryland and her PhD from Binghamton University. McCallum is a Professor at Penn State University and the former director of the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University. McCallum was recently awarded the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for Poetry and has in the past has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Witter Byner Award from the Library of Congress, and other honors.
Mia Leonin is the author of four poetry collections: Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child (BkMk Press), Braid, Unraveling the Bed, andChance Born (Anhinga Press), and a memoir, Havana and Other Missing Fathers (University of Arizona Press). Leonin has been awarded fellowships from the State of Florida Department of Cultural Affairs for her poetry and creative nonfiction, two Money for Women grants by the Barbara Deming Fund, and she has been a fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts/Annenberg Institute on Theater and Musical Theater. Leonin has published poetry and creative nonfiction in New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Witness, North American Review, River Styx, Chelsea, and others. She received a special mention in the 2014 Pushcart Prize anthology.
Shara McCallum at the Kenyon Review
Shara McCallum’s Madwoman at Alice James Books
Mia Leonin’s Braid at Anhinga Press
Mia Leonin at The Blue Shift Journal
Mia Leonin’s Havana and Other Missing Fathers at UofA Press
Mia Leonin at Connotation Press