Take Note: Shara McCallum On Poetry and Cultural Identity
On this episode of Take Note on WPSU, we talk with Shara McCallum. McCallum is an author, public speaker, and Penn State professor whose poems and essays have been published in journals, anthologies, and textbooks nationally and internationally.
Born in Jamaica to a Venezuelan mother and Jamaican father, McCallum is the author of six books, including her most recent "No Ruined Stone," released in August 2021.
She's the winner of numerous awards, including the prestigious silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica.
She was selected to be the 2021-22 Penn State Laureate. During her tenure as Laureate, McCallum will give readings and participate in other events throughout the state.
She is also the host of WPSU's new program Poetry Moment, a weekly show highlighting the work of Pennsylvania poets.
Here's that conversation:
Cheraine Stanford: Shara, thank you so much for joining us today.
Shara McCallum: Thanks for having me, Cheraine.
Cheraine Stanford: So I want to start with the role of the Penn State Laureate. The role of the Penn State Laureate is in part to bring more visibility to the arts and humanities. But what do you hope to accomplish during your time as Laureate?
Shara McCallum: Yeah, I think, in large measure, you've summed up what the purpose is. My hope is to demystify poetry a bit for people. So I'm really excited to be pairing with you all at WPSU for Poetry Moment. It's just a brief show, but I think it can do a lot with showcasing contemporary PA poets and showing that poetry is really accessible. That there are ways for people to be less intimidated. Presuming they're intimidated. So I think that's one of the benefits or the virtues of this. I'll be able to use it as a platform not just to speak about my own work as a practicing poet. But what I think the art can do and and how it engages us.
Cheraine Stanford: Does poetry have a bad rap? I mean, what you're saying about being inaccessible, I think people feel like you have to be really deep. Or you must be smart to access and understand poetry.
Shara McCallum: I think so. I think people have a misunderstanding of it in a way that is not quite unique to poetry, but it feels like for a lot of other art forms, people understand the popular forms. And so they may be a little bit less intimidated. What I'd say is just you know, poetry exists in Nursery Rhymes. It exists in contemporary music. Hip hop and rap are great examples of syncopated rhythm of rhyme. Really inventive uses of rhyme. So people are familiar with poetry. It's just when they encounter it often in school, the whole emphasis is on sort of explaining what the point is about. And because points speak indirectly to subjects, then I think that sets in people's minds "I don't get it, I'm not that smart." Or, you know, the poem is this kind of riddle, and it's not really a riddle to be solved. The example I often give to students is like, imagine if somebody said, "listen to a piece of music. Now go ahead and explain its musical structure. And let's just immediately move to music theory." Right? That sort of is how poetry seems sometimes to be approached for people. So I like to just say, "Listen to the poem, just think about what stays with you." It could be a word, could be a phrase could be an image. And that somewhat helps to make it not seem as this puzzle to be solved, or something that's kind of intellectually off putting for people.
Cheraine Stanford: Why do we need poetry? Why does the world need poetry?
Shara McCallum: That's a really great question. Need is a hard word. We need food, we need shelter, we need safety. But once those things are met, I think art is what helps us to make sense of our experience as human beings. There are incredible amounts of questions that go on answered still. Questions of identity, of history, of just from the first human that stepped out on the savanna in Africa and looked up at the sky, and said, "Who are we and why are we here?" I think that was the birth of poetry.
Cheraine Stanford: You and I actually have something in common. I was also born in Jamaica.
Shara McCallum: I know.
Cheraine Stanford: And I came to the US as a child also, but also with a deep and ongoing connection to the island. And I'm wondering if you can share for us a little bit about your childhood and how you were raised?
Shara McCallum: Sure. So Cheraine, and I won't put you on the spot and ask how old you are. But Jamaica of course, for people who migrate, is somewhat influenced by when in time you lived there. You know, because when people migrate, you almost freeze that moment in your country's history, and the language, and the food you bring with you. So my family migrated in the early 80's. And I was born in '72 Kingston and we migrated in kind of direct response to some of the economic and sort of civic pressures going on in the country at the time. So my childhood was, I suppose, somewhat unusual. My grandparents on both sides were really middle class Jamaicans. But my parents both became Rastas. They sort of defected in a way from that class position. And I was raised in the 12 tribes of Israel. So my childhood was really steeped in kind of a bifurcated world of class in Jamaica. Which, as a Jamaican, you know that that means you're growing up in almost entirely different universes sometimes. When I came to America, like it sounds like your experience, I had a 10-year break, where I never went back. So from about the age of nine until my early 20s, so more than a decade, a lot of the reasons for that were partly again, how my family left. They really felt like we fled it. And you know, that condition of exile, it does not always manifest as a political one. But it often is a psychological condition with immigrants. And that was the kind of way we entered Miami and America. It also is the case that my father who was Jamaican, died a couple of days after I left Jamaica. He actually committed suicide. And my parents stayed in Jamaica. So it's a complicated kind of migration. I came with my grandparents, not an altogether unusual one for Jamaicans really, but kind of complex to answer the question. So that's to say, you know, into that floods, a lot of questions when you arrive in a new country of who you are. Especially at that age. I was formed in Jamaica. I think of myself as a Jamaican entirely. And I also came of age in the United States. And so I think of myself as an American entirely too. To an extent, I'm imprecisely both places, but I've claimed both. And I would say, for me, it really was poetry that got me going back to Jamaica. And then through that, making connections that are now in the present tense, not just past tense connections to the country.
Cheraine Stanford: Yeah, I want to talk about that. Because I think having these different backgrounds, when you're an immigrant, it's hard to sometimes have a sense of belonging in any particular place. And I feel like I see that sometimes in your poetry. That you're sort of grappling with that. Am I right about you kind of doing that work?
Shara McCallum: Absolutely. For a lot of people, I mean, a poem is an investigation for me of what I cannot completely understand. If I really understand something, I would probably never write a poem about it. And I think that it speaks to what you hear in the poem. Absolutely, Cheraine. I'm attracted to those moments that are really difficult for me to settle on one response to.
Cheraine Stanford: Jamaica plays such a prominent role in your work. I take something like "Psalm for Kingston", for example. So some of those things, the dialect, the scenes from "Halfway Tree" are very specifically Jamaican. And I think I understood them in a particular way, because I'm Jamaican. But I'm curious about when you're writing, if you think about who might read it, or if you just write?
Shara McCallum: That's also great. These are such good questions. Thank you. And thanks for reading the work so carefully. Yeah, "Psalm for Kingston" is like my love letter to the country of my birth, basically. And in that moment in time I was speaking about, you know, Kingston in that 1970's, late 70s, period. I don't think very much about who is going to read the poems when I'm writing them. That's the truthful answer. But because I'm publishing the poem, obviously, in some way, I am aspiring to have readers. Otherwise, why bother? So I often think, you know, who am I writing to? Who am I writing to? And I don't want to sound hyperbolic, but I'm writing often to the dead, or to people who can't hear me. And I think that also is why I am so very, very much drawn to writing about Jamaica. It is because it is what I lost. It's really what poet Yehuda Amichai says, "What I will never see again, I must love forever." It's not that I can't go back, and I to go back to Jamaica. Nut the Jamaica that is of my mind and of my imagination is an inaccessible one to me other than through poetry, and memory.
Cheraine Stanford: I did want to maybe give a little more context, you talked about your parents, your parents being Rasta, and you give our audience a little bit about what that means?
Shara McCallum: The Rastas that I was part of was the 12 Tribes of Israel. There are so many different branches in Jamaica now, and even then. So this was a group of, as I said, kind of disaffected with the colonial and postcolonial politics of Jamaica, specifically around race and class and the injustices that slavery and colonialism left pretty extensive in the society. My parents were very convicted by that. My father of mixed race Jamaican identified as black, but light skinned Jamaican. My mother, a Venezuelan immigrant. So people are often confused, especially when they meet me and see me. You were raised in Rasta, like, you know, their imagination is not matching up with...I'm not delivering to them what they imagined as a rastafarian. You know, and so what I can say is that I was brought up wholly in a worldview in which the point of being here was to kind of as Rasta's would say "Chant down babylon." So the idea was that you were there in exile. And you were to try to speak to the injustices in the world that you saw around you and to make them better. So there's lots more to it, but I don't have time and we don't have time for like a religion. But it's a little bit of like black intellectual tradition, political, you know, treated with a lot of Messianic, Jewish and Christian influence.
Cheraine Stanford: I want to talk about your grandparents, what special role did your grandparents play in your life?
Shara McCallum: Oh, everything. You know, because my mother didn't come for a year. And my father died, really within days of our arrival. I felt they were the foundation for me and I lived in their house more than not after I came to the United States. So in Jamaica, not, I lived with my parents more than not there. Once we migrated here I was basically brought up principally by my grandparents. My mother did come to the US, and we saw her regularly. So there was not this break exactly. But she was not my primary caretaker. My grandmother and grandfather, my grandfather was her second husband. So not the Venezuelan. He was a Jamaican. And my grandmother being Trinidadian, but of British extraction. Really, I think I owe my not just my sort of life to them, but the complexity of my understanding of who I was, and my wrestling with that really began inside their house in a lot of ways. Once I was in America, it wasn't as if I was no longer in the Caribbean inside that house. And I'm sure that speaks to your experience to Jamaicans carry their history for a long time.
Cheraine Stanford: Well, one of my favorite poems of yours is "Ten Things You Might Like to Know About Madwoman." I think, because you reveal a lot about yourself. And there's also a vulnerability in it. I'm wondering if it's hard for you to share more of those personal parts of yourself in your writing?
Shara McCallum: You know, my older daughter's favorite poem. And it pleases me greatly. I love it every time somebody says they love that poem, because I say, "Oh, Rachel agrees with you." I think that point is written in third person for a reason. So my answer is going to be a poetic, formal answer to your really beautiful question about emotional vulnerability. There are a lot of things that are very, very difficult for me in life to talk about. But when I write, that's where I go toward. And so the forms of poetry and of language that I work with, they are for me the safety net. And the thing that allows me to get closer to saying things that are incredibly, still difficult for me to say, in real life. So it's a kind of paradox for a lot of writers, when I'm articulating. The exact thing you're afraid to say is, what when you go to the page, the structure of poetry gives you a way to face it.
Cheraine Stanford: And you mentioned it earlier that you did learn that your father died by suicide in that poem, you you talk about that.
Shara McCallum: Yeah.
Cheraine Stanford: You didn't find that out until you were much older.
Shara McCallum: Right.
Cheraine Stanford: Why do you think you continue to write about him and about his death?
Shara McCallum: I really write about my father because I think when you lose a parent in childhood, and it's not the case that it doesn't wound you whenever your parent exits this world. So I don't mean to like create a hierarchy of grief. But when you're not yet formed as a person, you lose a huge part of yourself when that person exits the world. And you don't have the comprehension of an adult to really have known them. So I have all these fragmented memories of my father. The fact that he and you mentioned this, I didn't know until I was 20 years old, that he had schizophrenia and committed suicide. We did not talk about those things in my family. And that seems, I think, for students to hear this, if anyone's listening or younger people, they can't believe that. Because how rapidly discourses around mental illness have changed means that they've grown up in a world in which these are words people speak. But they were utterable. And I think there are many, many reasons for that. And I'm not blaming my parents or my family. My mother and my aunt, my grandparents, none. They carried their own psychic wounds and this is how they dealt with it. And I think they tried to protect us. But the thing is when you take something from some people, and I'm one of them, that ironic truth is that then that's the thing, they want to have all the more. So there are a number of things with my father. For example, his racial identity. I was really encouraged. I write about this in my work as well to pass for White. I really rejected that. I wonder sometimes had I grown up in a different time, where multiracial was a category readily available to me. Or if my family hadn't made such a point to tell me, you have to hide this. If I would be as convicted as I am that I'm a black woman, despite looking white and going through the world that way. So those are things I ask. They're difficult things to ask because they get to some places that make people uncomfortable, myself included. But I feel the need to ask those difficult questions. And my dad is wrapped up in all of that.
Cheraine Stanford: A lot of pivotal things seem to have happened in your life at around that age 20. It's the first time you go back to Jamaica. And years after migrating, it's when you reconnect with poetry. Are all those things connected? What was what was happening at that time?
Shara McCallum: Absolutely. And I think it's weird. I'm going to age myself in decades, rather than specifically and say, you know, the first decade is sort of in Jamaica almost. And then there's that rupture that I described of migration and my father's death. My mother's absence. And then another decade transpires with essentially me, Cheraine, trying to like fit in. I'm sure this is an experience you identify with as many immigrants do. I tried for a really long time to feel quote, "normal." And to try to beat that. Until I just finally thought, "I can't do that." The truth is that I'm this sort of fractured person. And that's the thing I have to look at. And so that was my 20s, my early 20s. And that coincided, in fact, with becoming a poet.
Cheraine Stanford: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU, I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guest is poet and Penn State Laureate, Shara McCullum, I say you came back to poetry because I saw something where you shared...
Shara McCallum: Oh, yeah. [laughter]
Cheraine Stanford: At least the first poem, you think, your recorded poem that we have of yours that your Mom saved in a scrapbook? Do you remember it?
Shara McCallum: I do!
Cheraine Stanford: And can you do it?
Shara McCallum: I can. I think I may have said in that piece that you found, Cheraine, what incredible research you've done by the way. I think I've said that I'm still writing that point. And I think that's true. So it's "I wonder how high heaven is I try to fly up to the sky. But down I fall again, flop flop." So it has all the makings of everything I love about poetry. The question, the yearning, and sound and music in language. So an image. But yeah, I was always writing poetry and I was always hearing poetry. My mother, I have always credited her with this. My mother read me a chapter a day of the King James translation of the Hebrew Bible. And that is poetry. That that translation of Hebrew is incredibly poetic with its anaphora. And its dense use of metaphor. And what that was what I grew up hearing and stories, you know. There was television. I don't want to give readers this impression that Jamaica didn't have television. I didn't have television for the first 10 years. So my stories were transmitted orally or in books. So those kinds of things that I was just very lucky, I think, to be surrounded by those materials that stayed with me. And song, my father was a songwriter and singer,
Cheraine Stanford: I want to turn to your newest book, "No Ruined Stone," which creates an imagined history of what could have happened if famed Scottish poet, Robert Burns, had moved to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. I'm curious why this premise, this question, interested you enough to create a whole book of poetry around it?
Shara McCallum: It was a question that that found me and a book that really I never wanted to write. I really didn't want to write a book about slavery. I was really afraid to write that book. And I was justified in that fear. It's a very difficult subject for a writer to approach and for me personally, with the kind of history I have. Which is that on in my family tree undoubtedly people were implicated in slavery as well as being enslaved. And so it was when I was living in London, I went up to Scotland to give a reading. And I heard again, my surname is McCallum. It might be worth just noting again, I have very light eyes, light skin. I don't think I clarified that before. So whenever I walk around the world and see people see my surname for really my whole life, people are asking, "Where are you from? I hear a slight accent." And they always guess the UK, Cheraine. That's the most common place...and Scotland because of my name. And then I have to go into this long, complex history or I don't. I'm actually Jamaican, about Jamaica, about Scotland, etc. So when I landed there, and I was being asked it again. But then people saying to me, "oh, did you know about burns in Scotland, because you're also a poet, aren't you?" I was really struck that I didn't know that story. You know, that this really famous, influential poet in Scotland, but also just in romantic poetry, which I loved growing up. British romantic poetry. I had no idea that he came that close to working as an overseer on a plantation. So I guess that's it, you know, I just couldn't ignore it. And I wrote a book that challenged me formally as a poet, but also emotionally. And it really threw me into years of research before I felt brave enough to write the book.
Cheraine Stanford: There's something, I don't know if it's human nature, if it's our culture that wants people to fit kind of neatly into categories. And you're very hard person to put in any sort of category. And I'm wondering how your background, those varied identities, how you bring them to bear in your work?
Shara McCallum: Yeah, I mean, the way I explained it is I've got four continents and two generations, and four world religions. As well as the one I currently practice and how for decades, which is Judaism. So I was raised Rasta, informed by that, but I'm a Jew now, and informed by that. And this is confusing for people, right. And then my mother is also Venezuelan. So all of these things layered in are very difficult, as you pointed out, because people expect you to look and be a certain way. And listen, the truth is that more and more people are ending up like me in this world. And when I was growing up in the 1970s, and 80s, I did not feel that way. But I look around and I look at the young people, I've got my children. And I think Well, there's good, there's two of them because I don't know if there's any other genetic combination in the world. [Laughter] We need two, ya know. But now, I think there's so much more than two. And so I'm very hopeful for the future. Because you know, this may be It's not that I think that people have to accept globalization and all of its its discontents, right? There are things to critique. But one of them is to recognize that when people for example, say to immigrants, "You have to go back to where you come from." I always want to say like "which of the continents am I supposed to split myself into then in your imagination of how human beings are supposed to be?" So it's useful in that way, Cheraine. It's caused pain in my life, when I don't want to pretend otherwise. And I don't think I do. The poems and essays make that I'm sure abundantly clear. But in terms of trying to be hopeful about the future, what I hope is that there's a greater and greater recognition through the the writing that exposes People to People like me... that are ideas about identity needs to be adaptable.
Cheraine Stanford: Some of your poems you take on different personas, and wondering what that offers you as a poet?
Shara McCallum: So I started writing persona poems, dramatic monologues, basically...In which I'm clearly not the speaker of the poem, supposedly. And I did that from the earliest get go. And I don't think I could have understood at the time why I kept putting on that mask. But I do think the funny thing about a mask is that it allows you a kind of bravery. It's kind of acting, and it allows you to unmask a part of yourself in the process. And so there are so many subjects that is again, I must be just a big coward or "fraidy, fraidy" as we would say in Jamaica. But I still don't really like talking about them directly. But you know, if it's not Shara who's writing this poem, but it's Persephone talking about Hades, abduction, and rape of her and her mother's abandonment. Oh, I can be very brave. And so that's what persona has always given me. That's what's happening in the "Ruined Stone". I'm putting on the mask of Burns, ventriloquizing him, to try to get closer to understanding his character. And also funny enough, something about poets. So everyone is going to look at this book and think I'm Isabella. Everyone. And I understand that because there's a whole lot of Isabella in me and me in her. And hers was actually the first voice I heard. I didn't intend to write the book that happened. I thought it was all going to be Burns, and you know, all of his relations in Jamaica. And then this woman kept speaking to me, right? But the thing is that Burns is a poet. And so there's part of me in him too. Thinking about what do you sacrifice of your real life for your ideals? Or what are the ideals in the art that cannot be achieved or you do not achieve in your real life? I feel that's what the persona allows. That kind of greater bravery to face truths in the self that are very difficult and painful to directly address.
Cheraine Stanford: Shara, I'd love if you would close out our conversation with reading a poem.
Shara McCallum: I'm going to read the last poem in the book. The book is mostly in the voices of these other characters and figures, but the first two and the last two are decidedly in my voice. And so this is the last one "No Ruined Stone." It's the title of the book. And it has an epigraph from my grandmother, who you asked about. "May 2018, for my grandmother [inaudible name]. When the dead return they will come to you in dream and in waking, will be the bird knocking, knocking against glass, seeking a way in, will masquerade as the wind, its voice made audible by the tongues of leaves, greedily lapping, as the waves’ self-made fugue is a turning and returning, the dead will not then nor ever again desert you, their unrest will be the coat cloaking you, the farther you journey from them the more that distance will maw in you, time and place gulching when the dead return to demand accounting, wanting and wanting and wanting everything you have to give and nothing will quench or unhunger them as they take all you make as offering. Then tell you to begin again."
Cheraine Stanford: Shara, thank you so much for being with us today.
Shara McCallum: Thank you, Cheriane. It's been a true pleasure.
Cheraine Stanford: I've been speaking with Shara McCallum — author, public speaker and Penn State Professor — whose poems and essays have been published in journals, anthologies and textbooks, nationally and internationally. She's the author of six books, including her most recent "No Ruined Stone." She's also the 2021-22 Penn State Laureate and the host of WPSU's new program Poetry Moment, a weekly show highlighting the work of Pennsylvania poets.
I'm Cheraine Stanford, WPSU.