Thursday, March 6, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Aaron McCollough

Aaron McCollough’s third book of poems, Little Ease, was published by Ahsahta Press in September of 2006. His previous books include Double Venus (Salt, 2003) and Welkin (Ahsahta, 2002). McCollough just completed his PhD in English Language and Literature. His dissertation, Mixed Motions: Protestant Struggles and the Proper Place of Feeling, 1550-1660, focuses on the interplay between indeterminacies in Protestant religious psychology and the early modern poetics of subjectivity. McCollough is the co-editor of Some of These Days: Gullah Community on South Carolina’s Waccamaw Neck as Collected by Genevieve W. Chandler, which will be released by the University of South Carolina Press in 2008. His fourth book of poems, No Grave Can Hold My Body Down is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press. He also edits an online poetry journal called GutCult (

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Ultimately, I’d say it changed my life in subtle ways. At first, I was very excited about the fact that it was happening at all, of course. Living with a book being out there over a number of years is different, however, and I’ve come to appreciate that set of pleasures and concerns in a way I wouldn’t have been able to predict. Basically, in the short view, publishing a book helped me continue to establish an already strong sense I had that I really could do work in poetry: that I was what I was trying to be. In the longer view, the first book has continued to be something I’ve had to live with, measure myself against, etc. I imagine it could have been a different book, for example, and I would in turn have evolved as a different writer over the course of the books that followed.

2 - How long have you lived in Michigan, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

Every time I think about it I’m surprised that I’ve been in Michigan for almost eight years. There’s every reason to believe I’ll be here for eight more. I find it hard not to be impressed by the geography of any place, and Michigan is no different. It may be that geography isn’t exactly the word in this case, but something like “landscape” can be overwhelming in this place. Michigan is a place that the last few American economic booms forgot. As such, there is a squalor to the landscape that I identify with. The landscape of my youth was similar. The mountains of Tennessee are beautiful geographically, but in the seventies and eighties, Tennessee was still out of step with the spectacle of prosperousness. Then (as now in Michigan) it looked and felt like it was on the brink of collapse. That feels right to me. That’s where I belong. Race and gender are not foregrounded in my work usually, but they are always on my mind and questions about them do get attention there. When they play a role in the fashioning of soul-as-self and self-as-soul, race and gender become most interesting to me.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

My process oscillates. I’d say I’ve come to be a person who “writes books,” but that wasn’t true of my first book, and other projects have started in more-or-less discrete ways. I pretty much do whatever presents itself to be done.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I wish readings had a bigger place in my world, but they don’t really play a big role. I believe in giving readings for all kinds of reasons, but I’m also an introvert. So, I wouldn’t say it plays a role in my process one way or another. I think it is important, but it also kind of freaks me out.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I’ve always been interested in continental philosophy, and in recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in greek philosophy, reformation theology, and radical democratic political theories. The questions I find most engaging concern relations between materialism and metaphysics. Dividing them has never made sense to me, but trying to talk about or even think about how they work together is very hard. Nevertheless, the classic lyric questions about self and time are still questions about materialist/metaphysical cruxes. If space and time are continuous aspects of one thing (space-time), then it is worth interrogating other aspects of our engagement with that thing for similar marks of binding. Soul-self, or spirit-flesh, etc. Like me, most poets (I think) come from a position on the left and write to an audience on the left. In essence, the right has found a fit between materialism and metaphysics. We on the left are incessantly being squeezed with political pressure in the guise of Christian morality. I’m interested (as a poet and a person) in finding better responses to that pressure and that style of thought.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

My experience with editors has been very positive. I certainly wouldn’t call it difficult. I don’t know if I’d say it is essential, but then I’m not sure if I understand that part of the question. Essential in regard to what? Does working with an editor enable me creatively? Not really. Does it enable me to get my work into print? Yes. I’ve always had congenial editors, so maybe I’ve just been lucky. I have a powerful aversion to being bullied, so I can certainly imagine circumstances where working with an editor could be uncomfortable for me, but my work with editors has always felt necessary in the way that working together in good faith is always necessary to a good outcome.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

I wouldn’t say easier, exactly, but I would say less nerve-wracking. Early on I felt I had a lot to prove to myself. That was motivating, of course, but it also generated lots of anxiety. The challenges have shifted for me a bit in the last couple of years. These days, I’m more concerned with keeping my focus sharp and seeing my way into new projects with enthusiasm that used to appear almost ex nihilo out of fear or ambition. Still, that doesn’t mean the process is harder now. It’s just different. I prefer the set of working problems I’m currently stuck with to those that came before.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Interesting you should ask that. I hate pears intensely. I’m not sure when I last ate one, but it was probably accidental (as part of a fruit cup or something). There is a graininess to the texture of pear meat that I find all wrong in fruit. Also, the skin feels artificial to me. I think pears are a conspiracy.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Don’t shit where you eat. Also, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Somewhere in between those two lies the only feasible way.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to reviews/critical work)? What do you see as the appeal?

I recently finished a dissertation in Renaissance literature. Going into that project, I was pretty concerned that the critical work was going to sap my energy and enthusiasm for writing poetry. Lots of people warned me that this would happen, and I can still see how that is possible. For me, however, the two types of work have really fed one another. When they are not talking to each other, each offers a bit of a break from special frustrations of the other.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I come in and out of writing routines, I guess. I go on obsessive tears where I write every day for weeks, for one thing (which is kind of a sub-routine). Otherwise, I find that specific projects dictate their own writing processes, which I then follow pretty rigorously. A typical day begins with my getting up and going to campus to teach or (on days I don’t teach) getting up, going to the couch, and reading for a couple hours. If I’m in the middle of a project, I tend to go back and forth between reading and writing. The first few hours of consciousness tend to be most productive for me in any case.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I have favorites like George Herbert, George Oppen, Donald Revell, Ezra Pound, Michael Palmer, The Psalms, Charles Olson, Susan Howe. But more often, when hoping for inspiration, I think I look in places I haven’t been before. Much of the time, I’m trying to avoid pastiching my favorite writers, so I need to cut their influence with something new.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

With Little Ease, I was conscious from a fairly early point that I was writing according to a principle Jed Rasula has called “experiment as the argument of the book.” Welkin and Double Venus included extended serial work, but it wasn’t until the third book that I felt able to open the aperture to encompass the whole thing. Lately, I’ve been working on opening that same aperture even further, beyond the binding of one book.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

For a long time I wrote and recorded songs in my basement. I’d like to be doing that now, but doing it has proved a casualty of trying to balance my writing life with my scholarly work. I think that songs and songwriting have had a pretty major influence on the way I think about putting words together. Certainly, sound in and of itself means a lot to me: that is, I trust sound as a signifier, and recorded music (thinking about and feeling how the layers come together and interact) plays a significant role in driving that for me.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

The Bible (esp. St. Paul and Psalms), Augustine, Deleuze and Guattari, William James, Foucault, Arendt, Herbert, Céline, Sebald, Milton, Charles Olson, Hejinian, Susan Howe, John Calvin, Celan, Deborah Shuger, Gail Kern-Paster, Lacan, Marx, Zizek, Michael Schoenfeldt, Keats, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Thoreau, Whitman, Mandelstam, Oppen, Pound, Denis Johnson, Donne’s Sermons, John Bunyan.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Become a father.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I would probably try some sort of counseling. Maybe some form of pastoral counseling. Despite being an introvert, I really like people. My mother runs a mental health clinic in rural Georgia, and I think she does noble work. It is a slow, gradual attempt to improve individual lives, but it is a practical approach. Teaching, of course, has some potential for doing this, also, but the level of need is very different.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I never felt like I was much good at anything else. I could do other things, I’m sure, but without much confidence. I certainly have doubts as a writer, but basically I feel (and have pretty much always felt) called to write in the old vocational sense. It made/makes sense for me in a way that nothing else does. That writing (or at least the kind of writing I do) is not profitable in any way is unfortunate but basically irrelevant to me.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I recently read a book about Greek tragedy by Ruth Padel called In and Out of the Mind. I thought that was amazing. Last great movie I saw was Videodrome, which I had never seen before. Another recent one that I loved was The Holy Mountain.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished a manuscript called Rough Soul, which comprises short lyrics, mainly. That book is very elegiac. I’m in the preliminary stages of another project on fury, conscience, pollution, and cleansing that grows out of my interest (as pretty much everything I write does) in the materiality, or objective substance, of emotional, cognitive, and spiritual states.

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