“Make the Ordinary Extraordinary”: Interview with Colleen J. McElroy
“There are words that need to get out,” poet Colleen J. McElroy told Sampsonia Way in order to explain how poetry helps us survive.
In this interview she describes a lifetime collecting words and sounds—as a child hidden under the table eavesdropping on adults, as a dancer responding to music, as a speech pathologist working with impaired patients, and as a folklorist recording storytellers from all over the world.
Eventually, all those sounds built up and needed a place to go. They poured out in poems packed with the rhythms of jump rope games, the hum of her native St. Louis, and the stories of African-American women struggling and surviving.
She is the author of nine collections of poems, most recently Sleeping with the Moon, which won the 2008/PEN Oakland Award. She has also written several nonfiction works, including Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar. Her awards include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and a Fulbright Creative Writing Fellowship.
In June, Cave Canem, an organization for African-American poets, held its annual retreat at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus and joined City of Asylum/Pittsburgh for a free reading on Pittsburgh’s North Side. This is the final interview in a series of interviews with the poets who participated in that event.
You were an English professor for 35 years at the University of Washington before teaching at Cave Canem. How is Cave Canem different than a writing workshop in a university setting?
In a university you have a closed system where students must to do their work within a specified time period and show how good they are at doing it for a grade. They have less chance to experiment because so much is at stake. Cave Canem, on the other hand, is like a lab. You go into the laboratory and experiment to see if something works. Because they are outside the academic box, Cave Canem fellows can find freedom of expression.
Do you think that MFA programs discourage experimentation?
The MFA program has set the stage for a certain kind of writer. That’s the nature of the beast. You go into an MFA program, work with certain writers, and leave with some of the qualities of your professors. It’s not bad but it doesn’t necessarily show you the full spectrum.
How would you describe your education as a writer?
I didn’t attend an MFA program. I started writing when I was 35, so I had a couple of pre-careers. One was as a speech pathologist working with neurologically impaired patients. A lot of what I did was to tell stories in order to elicit speech from them. I would find out something about their background, and then I would set up dolls you could move around and try to elicit words.
My first poems were stories. Narratives mainly about where I grew up, home stories. Also, I’m a folklorist and I’ve been all over the world collecting oral tradition poems and stories, and that influences my work greatly. I’ve had different influences, folklore, speech pathology, dance…
How has being a dancer influenced your writing?
Dance allows me to hear the rhythm. You can’t intellectualize the rhythm of dance. Your body has to be involved. Very often I’m moving as a write a poem and can work up a sweat in the same way as I would if I were dancing. I can’t dance anymore, but I hear it. I hear that rhythm. Some people meditate. I listen to music. Music puts me in another space so that my imagination can take over.
I love this idea of you dancing as you write. Can you describe your composition process?
I hear something and I take notes. Then I go to the computer and copy what I’ve taken notes on. It might be four lines, it might be 15 lines. I start to read it and I start to move. I might spend all morning with those lines to see what else might happen. When I first started, I would record what I’d done and listen to it while I was putting away the dishes, or when my kids were small, ironing. I would hear what that rhythm was doing. Today, I heard the word “match” in a poem and I closed my eyes suddenly I heard “match” and “itch” and “switch.” It just threaded through the poem.
It sounds almost instinctual.
Much of what I wrote in my first collection was about my childhood. I said to someone, “I never write rhymed poems,” and they picked up my first book and said, “So what’s this?”
It was a poem about my cousins with a rhymed pattern that comes from jump rope songs, from nursery rhymes, and from ads on the radio. I can still remember, “Old Dutch Cleanser’s got it, no other cleanser’s got it.” You inhale sounds like air and you don’t even know it’s there until suddenly it pops forward. I grew up during the time of radio and you’d have to imagine because there was no video. You had to imagine the picture.
In your work, it often seems like the emotional information is contained in the sound of the words. In other words, the rhythm, the rhymes, and the alliteration work together to tell the reader how the speaker is feeling.
Oh yes. The pacing in the poem, the number of breath pauses. It’s a balance of silence and sound. Once you get that rhythmical quality in it, it becomes very hypnotic.
How do you teach that in a workshop?
Part of what I’m teaching is how to listen. The poet reads the poem and then someone else reads it, but the poet has to turn over the page so they can only hear it.
That helps them not to be fixed on the visual. We’re a very visual culture, but we need smells, sounds, tastes. You walk into a space and you think, “Have I been here before?” And it’s not because you see the space so much as there are other clues that tell you, warn you, that you’ve been here before. We call it different things like déjà vu, second sight, but it’s because the primitive sensory system is ignited. Today, I smelled the rain before I saw it and this particular smell of rain in Western Pennsylvania is different from the smell of rain in Seattle.
It seems like the sound of words is more important than the ideas the words convey.
Words aren’t simply words. They represent something. As I would say, take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. The words may be ordinary words. I was in Mali at the cliff dwellings in the Bandiagara escarpment. That is where the first astronomers lived. I wrote a poem that begins, “From the cliffs of Bandiagara the sky is full of stars/ Some are falling, some are not.” There’s nothing extraordinary about that, except that when you hear it the rhythm is there.
You’ve also worked as a folklorist and have collected folktales in many different languages. How has that contributed to your understanding of the importance of sound in storytelling?
Sometimes when I’m listening to a folktale I’m recording, even though I don’t know the language, I can tell when the story gets to that archetypal point where the protagonist has to go through three trials. You can always hear it even though you don’t know the language.
When I was in Japan for the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, I met with a poet who had survived the bomb. We were talking through a translator, and then suddenly I noticed that the translator wasn’t doing anything and I said, “What’s going on?” And she said, “You guys don’t need me.” We had gone past words. There are some things that you don’t need a translator for; the understanding of two souls that happens below the surface of language.
Do you think that your role as a poet is similar to your role as a folklorist?
In a way it is. The stories that I investigate are stories that bridge the space between the ancestors and now. I have told many students they need to go home to collect those stories from their elders because those people will not be here forever. No story is trivial. Some of the students are hesitant because they don’t know how to ask. And I said, “Well just go up to an elder and say, Can you tell me about…?” And also understand that sometimes they are not quite as clear as they might be, which means you have to ask more than one person.
Is that something you did as a young person?
My mother had a large family and I would hide under the table and listen. I was an only child and spent a lot of time by myself thinking. I’ve spent all this time with stuff bottled inside, ideas in my head. I had lots of stuff to get out, lots of words to get out, and I wanted to see how I would use those words. I love words. I love language. I love how it feels when say it. I love how it sounds.
I also read reference books. I haven’t been doing so recently,because I have an illness that keeps me on chemo so my attention span is shorter these days. I used to just read anything, everything. Read the dictionary, the dictionary of culture, the dictionary of architecture, just read, read, read.
I love books. I love the physicality of the book, the smell of a new book, the history of an old book. I just love the idea of the book, even though there are new ways to make a book and I haven’t tried that yet. I sometimes wonder where all those books will go if I’m not using them. They’ll be electrical impulses somewhere.
Read Elizabeth’s bio.