Yemassee Interview: 5 Questions with T.J. McLemore

T.J. McLemore’s "Elegy as Recurring Dream, in Shifting Parts" appeared in Issue 23.2.

1. How would you describe your journey as a poet?

Stop and go. Unlikely, even. I grew up in rural east Texas and didn’t have my first formal encounter with a poem until I was a teenager. But I remember the mysterious pull of the Old Testament passages I heard as a kid in church. The rhythms and parallelisms of the Psalms and the books of the prophets, which I wouldn’t even have identified as poems back then, served as my earliest influence. I didn’t know what, but I heard something different and vital in that old language. In middle school I got a guitar because I wanted to play the grunge songs I was obsessed with, and a few years later I picked up the bass and started playing jazz. This engagement with musical and lyrical phrasing and improvisation got me thinking in lines—I was absolutely that kid who wrote Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam lyrics in my school notebooks—and made me hungry to find more words that made me feel something. Soon, my bandmates and I were seeking out poetry (since we weren’t reading much of it in school); the poems we passed around seemed to me like songs that had been distilled onto the page, and I was entranced. I started to string together small verses and songs of my own.

I entered college as a science major, thinking I’d go into medicine like my dad, or perhaps physics; for my pre-med focus, I took Latin as my language credit, and in these classes I discovered the Roman poets. I ended up taking whole courses on Virgil, Catullus, and Lucretius, and I soon changed my degree to a Bachelor of Arts. My junior year, I enrolled in a creative writing poetry class; unfortunately, the course wasn’t conducted as a workshop, really, just a series of discouragements. After this first encounter with an established writer, who more or less told me I had no potential as a poet, I didn’t put pen to paper for a couple of years. But as I went through a few different careers after college, I found myself writing again, mostly at night after drinks with friends. My impressions of the world increasingly came out in verse, and with increasing intensity. After a few years passed and I’d built up a small body of work, I applied to a few MFA programs. My MFA workshops at BU and my colleagues in Boston gave discipline and intent to my journey; I started thinking of myself as a poet in community with that small group of writers.

Now I’ve been teaching poetry for about five years, and I think my role as a teacher has complicated and enriched my relationship to my writing. I’m consistently humbled by my students: constantly they show me new things about this craft and remind me that (like Hemingway said) writing is a journey with no point of arrival.

2. What kind of poems/poets are you most drawn to?

I’m drawn to poems marked by tensions of contrast and contradiction: collisions of high and low diction and culture, the shrink and swell of lines and sentences, an engagement with and resistance to the reader. I’d compare this idea to the appeal of dynamics in live music: in both cases I take pleasure in being met by varying textures, quick shifts in volume and intensity, walls of noise giving way to simple melody. Right now I'm especially taken in by a poem that addresses its reader either directly or implicitly, putting its hand out and begging to be pulled onto the shore of the reader’s world and coaxed to life, to be known and talked to. But I’m also a sucker for the old prophetic mode, that kind of lyricism that treats the poem like a spell, turning utterance down each line back upon itself and its author hermetically, capturing the reader but always resisting a complete entry to the poem even as it shifts or shatters something close to home . . . The poems of Charles Wright, Louise Glück, and W. S. Merwin served as my first examples of this tension of welcome and resistance.

3. Has there been a particular something (idea/image/phrase/quote/obsession) knocking around in your head lately?

I’ve returned to these two pieces of language (and melody) repeatedly over the past year or so, thinking about what they suggest (at this late date) about memory, history, and our condition—always craving new styles, new experiences, new lands to explore—and I love taking them together:

“Bernal Díaz relates how, on seeing the jewelled cities of Mexico, the Conquistadores wondered if they had not stepped into the Book of Amadis or the fabric of a dream. His lines are sometimes quoted to support the assertion that history aspires to the symmetry of myth.” —Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia

“And I know she’s living there / And she loves me to this day— / I still don’t remember when / Or how I lost my way.” —Neil Young, “Cortez the Killer”

4. Can you talk about your poem “Elegy as Recurring Dream, in Shifting Parts” and how it came to be?

I got down the first draft of “Elegy as Recurring Dream” at my desk in Waco, Texas, immediately before I moved to Boston to start my MFA. The first draft was a single long stanza. It started as an invented dream sequence borrowing its initial premise from a garden of raised beds that my three roommates and I dug into the front yard of our rental house, right on the street, a few weeks before I sketched out the images that would become the beginning of the poem; we forgot to water the seedlings during an especially hot week, and the little plants shriveled up. As dreams condense, tangle, and rework our experiences, so I associatively made the leap between this actual urban garden and a family that, like mine, had been torn apart by some version of death, whether literal or symbolic. The images I found seemed especially apt in their fraught gestures of hope—the replanting of seeds, for instance, or the tender gestures of a possibly estranged or departed father—that would be futile, illogical, or impossible in the real world but that could of course make sense inside an elegiac dreamscape. I let the poem sit in draft form for many years, but eventually I revisited and subsequently recast the poem, sharpening both the conceit and the language into its current form.

5. If you could share one piece of advice with your fellow poets, what would it be?

I’d just repeat what I constantly have to rediscover: it’s the journey—the writing itself—that you really want, not the destination. It’s hard to remember this. I think we should mistrust allegiances to narrow trends, schools, titles, any need to craft a poem for some perceived audience or editorial taste. Keep making according to your own rules and constraints and let’s keep our heads up through this coming whatever. Craft something difficult, something beautiful: the world needs it.

T. J. McLemore is the Winner of the 2016 Richard Peterson Poetry Prize. McLemore's poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorse, The Massachusetts Review, Crab Orchard Review, Raleigh Review, The Greensboro Review, and others. McLemore earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2011, and currently lives in Fort Worth, Texas, where he teaches English and Creative Writing at TCU.