Section: Arts

McCrae inspires audience with dark and engaging work

McCrae inspires audience with dark and engaging work

Cora Markowitz, Collegian

By Lauren Katz

Students and professors braved the pouring rain this past Tuesday to venture to Finn House and hear Shane McCrae read poems from a few of his published books, including Blood, Forgiveness Forgiveness, The Animal Too Big to Kill, and even some excerpts from his in-progress epic entitled “The Hell Poem.”

The Kenyon Review invited McCrae on a suggestion from Visiting Assistant Professor of English Andy Grace, but the choice soon bloomed into a possibility for further learning.

It was a great suggestion,” Associate Editor for the Kenyon Review Natalie Shapero said. “Not only because Shane is a very talented poet with ambitious and broad-ranging projects, but because we’ve published him before and so interested associates can find his work in our archives.

McCrae draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including slaves in history, his own personal experience and Dante’s Inferno. McCrae began the event with the warning that “tonight’s reading is going to be a bit of a bummer,” which set up the dark but humorous tone for the evening.  

“We really look for writers whose work is complex, engaging, and bold,” Shapero said, and McCrae seems to fit into that description perfectly.

McCrae began with excerpts from Blood, which explored the stories of real slaves from history, including Margaret Garner. The audience learned from McCrae’s introduction that Garner’s master raped her repeatedly, and that she had four of his children. After a failed escape attempt, Garner tried to murder them so that they could avoid a life of slavery. McCrae’s poems that followed the introduction explored her possible motives and the emotions that accompanied these choices.

The truly striking aspect of the work was McCrae’s language and voice. He explained that, during Blood, he became interested in “pushing black dialect to extremes, so extreme it was a little bit grotesque,” which he shared through lines such as, “I was 16 when Thomas was born, but no n— [full word redacted] was ever a child,” in the poem “Children,” and “I had to cut the head all the way off,” in the poem entitled “Mercy.”

“I tried to inhabit [Garner’s voice] the best I could,” McCrae said. Based on the emotion he exhibited through the poetry, he seemed to accomplish his goal, both in the historical poems of Blood, and the more contemporary themes in Forgiveness Forgiveness.

His excerpts from The Animal Too Big to Kill stemmed from personal experience. McCrae’s introduction helped the audience understand the significance of the words. As successful as McCrae might be today, he had a difficult journey to get there.

He described himself as “half black and half white,” and talked about how growing up in a primarily white neighborhood with his white grandparents made identifying with his peers a challenge. In light of this context, poems such as “My Boyhood with White Supremacists” and “Wondering Year” began to take on more importance.

McCrae encourages others to find their passion as he did in poetry. He was 15 when he discovered writing. He had a difficult time in school, and had trouble finding a subject that he enjoyed.

“I failed every grade from sixth grade up,” McCrae said.

One day, however, he was watching an after-school special involving a boy who read some Sylvia Plath while in a state of depression. From that moment forward, McCrae’s attitude changed.

“I loved the goth emo-ness of it,” McCrae said. “I wrote like eight poems that day … but what they all had in common was that I enjoyed what I was doing.”

By his senior year of high school, McCrae knew that he would be a poet. After attending community college, he went on to become an Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate and a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellow at University of Iowa in English.

To aspiring poets, McCrae offers two pieces of advice: “Be absurdly single-minded, but also stay dedicated.”

The audience laughed in response, but his advice teaches an important lesson to students: With the right amount of work, anything is possible.    

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