Writing in Safety, We Don’t Have to Hide: An Interview with Charif Shanahan

charif shanahan

At what point in your life did you begin writing? At what point in your writing life did you decide to get an MFA? 

I began writing as a boy, perhaps at nine or ten, and I recall that my earliest writing efforts were stories, not poems, which I did not begin writing until high school. In college, I encountered an inspirational mentor in the poet Linda Gregg, who is the reason I’m still writing poems today, and although MFAs were on my radar from that time on, I did not seriously consider pursuing one until I was already moving into my late twenties. I felt, strongly, that before beginning to write in earnest, I needed to spend time exploring the planet and, thus, myself.

Was getting the degree in New York a conscious choice? What impact do you think the city has had on your writing and career so far? 

I’m actually from New York–I was born and raised in the Kingsbridge area of the Bronx, where my parents still live—so it was a homecoming, after my time abroad, to pursue my MFA here. As I considered which MFA program to attend, my then-partner—who is Swiss and with whom I’d been living between Zurich and Milan—and I decided that we would take a stab at living on my home turf, after several years on his.

I don’t know that I know what impact the city has had on my writing, but I do appreciate the wealth of readings and salons that takes place here. What they say is true–you literally have five literary options a night, should you be looking. . . And I suppose being in New York has also helped my career, seeing that it’s the home of the PSA and loads of other cultural institutions and arts organizations with whom we collaborate.

Were you ever interested in pursuing a career in academia? Why or why not? 

Yes. In fact, when I applied to MFA programs, I also applied to PhD programs in Comparative Literature, which I had studied in college and in grad school the first time I went. Although I had offers to attend both types of programs, I fortunately realized that I was, finally, more interested in writing poems than in writing about them. I accepted NYU’s offer. I love to teach, though, and hope, eventually, to begin incorporating adjunct instruction into my professional responsibilities.

I should say, too, that I don’t strictly consider MFA programs part of “academia”, even if the programs exist within university infrastructure and some incorporate academic coursework into their curricula. For me, “academia” conjures up the ivory tower, a place that is historically misogynistic, racist, conservative, traditional, deliberately obtuse and so on, and most MFA programs, though predominantly white, are not most of those things. While those characteristics have certain become less prevalent in academia, I think the chief distinction, for me, between “MFA land” and “academia,” at least within literary studies, is the latter’s focus, by definition, on academic, rather than creative, inquiry—its focus on criticism, rather than creation.

When did you become Programs Director of the Poetry Society of America? What new skills or habits did the job entail for you? 

I started with the PSA in the fall of 2012, as Programs Associate, and became Programs Director six months later, in March of 2013. Part of the reason I enjoy my work as much as I do is that it allows me to call on and develop many different skills: there’s the chief artistic component of curating the season, of envisioning program shape, focus, topic, and so on; handling all the publicity for the events, which is so important, especially for our events in New York, where there are loads of competing programs any night of the week; reading all the work that comes into the office in order to discover new talent or keep up with long-loved poets; nurturing existing relationships with the cultural institutions and the universities with which we collaborate; identifying opportunities for new partnerships and cultivating those relationships; corresponding and developing professional relationships with poets; and, finally, the administrative side of booking flights, ordering books, and many other (of the more boring) details that need to be sorted before a program can actually happen.

A fair amount of your job involves planning events with writers and having public conversations with them. Do you draw themes and questions for events/ discussions from your own experience writing and observing the world? Can you give some examples of how you’ve done this? 

I try to approach my public conversations with writers as a reader and not as “Programs Director of the PSA”—whatever that might mean. When I’m preparing for the interviews, I read all the work the poet has written very closely, and the questions that emerge naturally for me as a reader, I find, are likely also to interest the audience of readers at the event. I try to cover the aesthetic choices as much as I discuss the preoccupations of the poet, the thematic content of her work. At a recent New Salon event, co-sponsored by NYU’s Creative Writing Program, I had the honor of interviewing Claudia Rankine shortly after the publication of Citizen. The book is so urgent in its exploration of race and the impossibility of real intimacy when, as Claudia said that night, “one body is thrown out because of race”—there is so much at stake within it, for all of us—that I almost wanted to talk with Claudia exclusively about the issues the book is borne out of, rather than the book itself.  Of course, Claudia was there as an artist, and we were there to talk about the book as an aesthetic object, which we did (though I couldn’t help but include one non-poetry question at the end). . .

Many of the other folks who work at PSA are also poets. What’s it like to go to work every day with other writers? 

It’s been a joy to work with Brett, the Deputy Director and PSA die-hard nearing his 15th year with the organization, and Elsbeth, our Development Director who recently left the organization for a new gig, both of them poets. I believe we’ve shared over the last couple of years a kind of gratitude that we’ve been able to pay our bills by working to support an art that has already long sustained us in other ways—spiritually and intellectually, namely.

Our Executive Director Alice Quinn is not herself a poet, but I’ve probably not encountered a person more deeply passionate and utterly brilliant in speaking and thinking about poems. She’d likely blush to hear it, but she has taught me a tremendous amount, not only about arts administration, or even about poetry, but about being a thoughtful and generous person in this world. I’m grateful for that, too.

How do you construct a balance between your work at PSA and your own writing? 

I don’t! Ok, that’s not entirely true, but for me, it’s hard. I think that because my work is in poetry, I – perhaps, ironically – have fewer resources to give to my own writing. I remember that when I worked in the corporate world right after college—in financial services and consulting of all places—I felt closer to poetry than I do, at times, now. There’s something about being immersed in the poetry world that depletes resources that might otherwise be preserved for your art.

On the flip side, my work at the PSA organically complements and encourages my writing pursuits: it shapes and facilitates my reading by giving me access to hundreds of galleys that come into the office a year; has me thinking and in conversation about poetry, more or less all the time; and allows me to develop relationships with poets all over the country. This latter benefit has been soul-sustaining.

You’ve lived in and written about many places outside of New York: Switzerland, Italy, the UK, and Morocco, to name a few. Do you ever imagine that living as a writer might be different in a different country, and if so, where and how? 

Of course, it’s different! As writers we have a wealth of great luxuries in this country. We have access to education, firstly, to libraries and bookstores. There are hundreds of MFA programs and innumerable writing workshops and salons. We have vibrant communities of writers and artists in cities from coast-to-coast that can sustain us artistically and personally. Our political climate, though of course messy and complicated and in need of serious action and attention on so many fronts, at the very least allows us to speak when we’re moved to do so. I was inspired by Poetry Magazine‘s recent issue last year on Eliza Griswold’s translations of the short poems, or “landays,” of Afghan women who are not allowed to create art. Under the stifling oppression of a misgynistic culture, these women memorize shorts poems about topics they’re taught to recognize as taboo, like their sexual desire, female self-possession, familial or political rage, war, separation, and so on. One young girl was forbidden to write poems and set herself on fire in protest. In the United States, the conditions are such that we can have something called a “career poet,” which many writers strive to be; the women in Afghanistan compose to be free.

What about your MFA experience are you most grateful for? What could you have done without? 

As I mention, my time at NYU was also marked by return to my city of origin after some time away. In addition to acclimating to student life and also seeking ways to support myself while a student, I also found myself re-adjusting culturally, which I hadn’t anticipated having to do. While abroad, I was always the ‘American’ guy first, and as such, never lost of sight of my Americanness. However, I came to see that I had, in fact, lost fluency in my own culture and genuinely had to re-callibrate upon my re-entry into it. None of this is NYU-specific, of course.

In terms of the program, I felt grateful, naturally, for the opportunity to study with such a world-class faculty, specifically Sharon Olds, whose example inspires me endlessly; Catherine Barnett, who is the most generous teacher I’ve encountered anywhere; and Yusef Komunyakaa, with whom I took my first ever poetry workshop as a wide-eyed freshman in college who’d just been profoundly touched by Magic City. (Yusef also advised my MFA thesis, as it happens, and thus bookended my time as a student of poetry—at least, formally, as I’ll of course be a student of poetry for the rest of my life). I also met, through NYU, a handful of friends whose influence would sustain and challenge me in ways I couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

You’re also a Cave Canem fellow. What distinctions do you draw between the support you’ve received through CC and through NYU? How have the programs impacted your writing or your identity as a writer differently? 

Cave Canem is a holy place. Truly. The power of creating a space that nurtures Blackness in a country that decries it is profound. Safety—true safety—is almost never available to us as humans, much less as Black ones. The kind of writing that can occur within a space of safety is, I believe, the most urgent we are capable of doing, because it emerges from our deepest, most essential selves, which are typically shackled by living in the world in which we live. These are the parts of our selves that we forget are there, or are busy protecting from quotidian lunacies, thereby making them inaccessible. In safety, we don’t have to hide.

My time at CC has changed me, and I’ve certainly never been more embraced. As a mixed-race, light-skinned Black man, my experience of blackness has been particularly complicated (whose isn’t?), marked chiefly by estrangement. CC gave me the permission to move into and take full ownership of my Blackness, to recognize that the distance I had been made to feel from Blackness was simply another possible outcome of being Black in this world, another violence, another creative way in which the world can negate us.

Who are some writers working outside of academia you particularly admire? 

Of poets not teaching in MFA programs, as adjuncts or tenured faculty, I particularly admire Richard Siken, whose Crush everyone, of course, knows and loves and who worked for a while as a social worker; Jack Gilbert, no longer with us, sadly, who rarely taught during his life, similar to Stanley Kunitz, whom I also admire. I don’t think Olena Kalytiak Davis teaches [ed: Davis works as a lawyer]; And Her Soul Out of Nothing is a favorite of mine. There must be others.

What advice would you give to writers thinking about getting an MFA? 

Know why you’d do it and weigh the costs. Be brutally honest with yourself about both.

*

Charif studied poetry at Princeton University, Dartmouth College, and New York University, where he earned his MFA. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a semi-finalist for the “Discovery”/ Boston Review Poetry Prize, his poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Republic, A Public Space, Prairie Schooner, Barrow Street, Circumference, The Manhattanville Review, and elsewhere. A Cave Canem fellow, he is Programs Director of the Poetry Society of America and poetry editor of Psychology Tomorrow Magazine.

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