MAUREEN N. MCLANE with Alex Duebenby Alex Dueben
Mz N: the serial: A Poem-in-Episodes
by Maureen N. McLane
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
Over the course of her career, Maureen N. McLane has published three books of poetry and three books of nonfiction. Her 2014 collection, This Blue, was a finalist for the National Book Award, but it was her previous book, My Poets, which first brought her to a much wider readership. The book was a very personal analysis of poets who have meant a great deal to McLane, from Chaucer to H.D. to William Carlos Williams to Louise Glück. My Poets was part criticism, part autobiography, and McLane remarked that this interest in hybrid forms is part of what inspired her new book of poetry, Mz N: the serial: A Poem-in-Episodes.
The poems are episodes in the life of a character, Mz N, which captures many essential elements of late-20th-century life, and uses the form to present them in new ways—transforming them into something simultaneously familiar and new. It manages to be queer and nonconformist, while there is also a universality to it. The poems are about being a student and falling in love; the terrors of therapy and falling in love. It both embraces and mocks poetic conventions—and in the end even recants the entire book. Long stretches of the book were strange, while others were beautifully composed moments and emotions that I had experienced. Mz N was nothing like me, but felt so familiar that I found myself reading passages to a friend over the phone.
Mz N can be described as a synthesis of genres, or as indicating McLane’s continuing efforts to craft new hybrid forms, but what’s most interesting about the book is how McLane beautifully lays bare a soul as it grows up and grows old and changes.
Alex Dueben (Rail): As you note on the title page of the book, Mz N: the serial: A Poem-in-Episodes is “not/a novel, not/a memoir, not/a lyric.” So what is it?
Maureen N. McLane: It might be a thing more emergent in negation than otherwise. Having those phrases, those glosses, on the inside cover page was a slight provocation and a kind of heads-up. I guess when describing the book one could resort to the now clichéd but still useful category of hybrid. Mz N partakes of certain elements of different genres, but isn’t reducible to them. If you want another definition, I give one as a subtitle: A Poem-in-Episodes. Obviously, that is not a thing you’d find in a manual of genres. I’m evading your question somewhat intentionally. [Laughter.]
Rail: Where did the idea for this begin?
McLane: I guess I would point back to a short sequence I wrote sometime around 2005 featuring this character-device “Mz N.” That poem or sequence—called “From Mz N: the serial”—appeared in my first book of poems, Same Life, which came out in 2008. I had had this idea, this prompt of a figure through whom I could explore some things in a more narrative key. I was happy with this sequence and included it in my first book, and I thought that was it.
Really, I think what turned me back towards the Mz N figure was in part the experience of writing My Poets—a work of memoir/criticism published in 2012. That project stretched me into more narrative modes, into a more sustained hybrid autobiographical critical mode. That was a compelling and in some ways exhausting project. [Laughter.] I think the experience of writing that book, unbeknownst to me at the time, created a space for the Mz N character to re-emerge as something to work with and through. I started writing various episodes. I’d long been interested in the distinction the philosopher Galen Strawson makes between “episodic” and “narrative” senses of self. The episode that begins the book, “Mz N Contemporary,” was written a couple years ago, at the Blue Mountain Center in the Western Adirondacks: by that point I had realized that this was a project. As with My Poets, I had to discover the structure in the doing of it. There were these episodic nodes emerging, and then I faced questions of structure and variety and how to make this sustainable and not exhausting to a reader, not too mono-rhythmic or mono-tonal. It raised all kinds of interesting questions and opportunities. And all the while I was writing more conventionally short poems. I began to feel that the “Mz N” mode was a discrete mode separate from the other things I was writing.
Rail: How did you decide on the name “Mz N” for your main character?
McLane: I can’t fully reconstruct my thinking in 2005, but I can say that I became increasingly engaged by the device of a character, in which a third-person element could free up certain things in a long work instead of everything being mediated through a notional first-person perspective. As far as the components of the name: the “Mz” was a swerve from the more standard “Ms,” which is itself a formerly political, maritally neutral honorific for adult women. I liked the deformation and mock-formality of “Mz.”
“N” is many things. N is a variable. N can connote anonymity. N is also my own middle initial. I’m very interested in heteronyms and pseudonyms. I have read and admired Fernando Pessoa’s work for a long time. He wrote under several heteronyms and developed distinct biographies and different styles for each. Clearly that’s not precisely what I’m doing here; but sometimes I think all my work is a form of writing pseudonymously under my own name. The “Mz N” figure gave me a kind of latitude for play, for reflection, for meditation, for diffraction, for exploring what it is to pivot from a first-person to a third-person perspective. It allowed me to treat the character as a character and not simply as a persona. It broke open the lyric “I” while keeping its resonances available.
Rail: I kept thinking of the book as a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman in verse.
McLane: That sounds great to me. [Laughter.] I think you’re speaking exactly to things that were probably implicit models or inspirations. You don’t always know what’s behind work, but certainly behind this book is a long dwelling on autobiographical poems—from Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” to John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” to Anne Carson’s “Glass Essay.” There’s an explicit nod to Wordsworth in the episode titled, “Mz N Growth of a Poet’s Mind”—that was an alternate title of Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem “The Prelude.” In a way Mz N is profoundly anti-Wordsworthian—there’s sex in it and it’s queer. [Laughter.] As to the bildungsroman and the forms we have available to us to narrate selves or development, that’s something I and many others are interested in and have been for a long time. Mz N: the serial became a way to both pursue that and interrogate it.
Rail: When you realized that this was a project, did that mean that there were ideas and concerns that you wanted to address, or did those arise as you were working on it?
McLane: Slightly more the latter, but at some point I had a list of—not themes exactly but nodes—points of constellation—particularly charged events or encounters or bits of speech. “Mz N Evil,” for example, reanimates a classroom scene and an exchange with a teacher. I had a list of a few core things to explore, like meeting a person who would be a lover or moments of religious education or sexual education. I found myself toggling between episodes that were more narrative and others that were more meditative; and some incarnated themselves almost as songs.
Let’s put it this way: there was no book proposal for Mz N: the serial. There was no one- page abstract for myself or for an editor. It was done in the doing and, as it evolved, it gathered toward itself, with an almost gravitational pull, things I wanted to address or sound out, but it’s not like I sat down and said, “now I will write the story of X.” That is completely antipathetic to my own compositional habits. Elements of chance and contingent reading and experience often entered the work. The actual time of composition entered the work. Now at a certain point I did know that I wanted to write an envoi. I knew I wanted to write for example about the experience of therapy, about certain sexual and philosophical conundrums. But just as in our lives things are enmeshed, so too in this book. So it’s not like I have an episode that’s “about” religion and another episode that’s “about” reading poetry. Different things come at you as a simultaneity in this book.
Rail: There were poems like “Highschool Boyfriend” which stuck out in the first part.
McLane: In what sense?
Rail: In the sense that you’re dealing with what feels like ordinary experience to the point of being cliché, and how do you express and convey what it meant without making it sound yawning and clichéd—which is how we feel about these things as soon as we turn, say, nineteen. [Laughter.]
McLane: Even the phrase “High School Boyfriend” is a sociological cliché—and yet we all live out sociological clichés. Someone might be a divorced mother of two. One might be an angry, white male Trump voter. One might be an egghead-intellectual. I feel at any moment any of us from a certain vantage are dwelling in a land that we might consider cliché. I want to own that. To each of us our experience is utterly irreducible, however much it’s also generic. This is something I have felt most keenly through poetry. Other people feel it most keenly through pop music, which you can say is the great art of shareable cliché. I’ve been really interested in the rehabilitation of cliché. Somebody like Wordsworth was, and a lot of contemporary poets are, too. What does it mean to dwell in them, to try to give them their original charge, rather than assuming they are only flattening categories? On the one hand, Mz N involved me in the quite generic material of a late 20th-century middle-class American, white girlhood, and on the other hand, everyone’s experience is irreducible. One can write in many keys. Not everything has to be readily available. Not everything has to be immediately transparent. I’m interested in that tension between the ostensibly clichéd and the supposedly esoteric.
Rail: How does one write about the ordinary and the relatable but still convey the newness of what it means to people?
McLane: I have to say, for me the question of the relatable is so not my question. Obviously, any writer hopes for a readership—even if it’s with God! [Laughter.] To write at all is to make a wager on a shareable something. Whether that’s going to find a mass audience or whether it’s going to find an audience of a few, you can’t always decide or control. Obviously if you’re writing poetry like Geoffrey Hill, who just died, you’re not going to have a big American audience, but you might have a very discerning audience. “Fit audience though few,” as Milton said. If you write a more conventionally accessible poetry, you might have a bigger audience and reach more people, if that’s what you’re aiming for. I am totally agnostic about that. I feel like there are good poets in all those categories. I myself have no expectation that my things would ever have a huge audience. I don’t write to that. On the other hand, I’m not willfully obscure. But I certainly don’t spend time thinking about relatability. I think that’s a death knell. At least for me it would be.
I have to say, I am impressed by work that aspires to anonymity. I spent some of my life working on medieval and ancient English and Scottish traditional ballads whose authors we don’t know. They get handed down. They’re filled with clichés, with formulas, and they draw on the general currency of sum experience. There’s something deeply humanly impressive about that. I think some poets move towards that, and I really admire the people who do that, whose work can become part of the common tongue. Today that would mostly likely be pop stars or people really good at Twitter, but I think it’s an admirable thing—if not always my thing—that sense of working from the dignity of the shareable and the ordinary without a kind of mindless, vulgar populism.
Rail: “Highschool Boyfriend” also moves beyond cliché because it is part of something bigger, this larger story of a life and those experiences that shape it.
McLane: I think—or hope!—you’re right. Thank you.
Rail: “Goodbye Hello,” which opens the second part of the book, is beautiful and chilling: the way you portray this creeping feeling of getting older and starting to feel it.
McLane: That’s really interesting to hear. It launches the second section and is a sort of “farewell to youth”—or “farewell to unreflective youth”—poem.
Rail: The second part of the book is heavier, the way that the second act of a play or musical is darker and more complex than the first act.
McLane: [Laughter.] That’s really interesting. I’ll have to think about that. I like that first act/second act analogy. There are certainly more deaths in the second half.
Rail: Were you always conscious of the book having an arc, where even if it’s not that each poem chronologically follows the previous one, there is a general arc?
McLane: I was definitely conscious that I was setting up a loose developmental chronology, as you said, with aspects of a bildungsroman—that paradigm, the development from childhood to adulthood. Yet the book is filled with eddies and interludes and is not in some lockstep chronological sequence: it truly is episodic that way. Things that are obviously adolescent experience like “Highschool Boyfriend” come earlier than episodes about, say, possibly having a child. There’s a lot of temporal pivoting within some episodes, but yes I was thinking about an arc that was meaningful. A big structural decision was having “Mz N Contemporary” be the proem, to have that come first as a kind of overview and overture.
Rail: I think you could rearrange probably half of the book, which would work chronologically but the arc and the internal sense of things dictated that “Abyme” had to be followed by “Love Lies Sleeping” and they had to come after “Therapy.”
McLane: [Laughter.] I like that!
Rail: Yes, both literally and in terms of the book! [Laughter.]
McLane: You’re 100 percent right. Though the book takes up certain facets of my actual lived life, it certainly does not map precisely onto it—nor is it all comprehensive. It’s a made thing, not a transcription of “experience,” whatever that is.
Rail: You have poems like “Abyme” and “Love Lies Sleeping/Moon,” which mock some of the conventions of romantic poetry, and then you have a poem like “Meadow” which embraces many of them. Were you trying to have you cake and eat it, too?
McLane: Doesn’t everybody? One of my muses is ambivalence. I think that conventions are both enormously appealing and enabling, but also potentially mind-deadening. Both are true. They can stimulate and they can constrain. I feel very passionate about the emotional and intellectual opportunities afforded by contrariness.
Rail: For you it was about this character’s intellectual growth and her sexual awakening and her falling in love and all these other elements together.
McLane: From the beginning. The very first seed of it, that first sequence “From Mz N: the serial,” was already weaving the intellectual, literary, sexual, poetic. All of these things were simultaneously activated in that sequence, and that’s also the way I have experienced intensities in my life. I don’t feel like there’s sexuality over there, and oh, there’s lyric over here, and politics are over there. Not that everything is the same thing, but we live in sentient bodies and we take things in in a lot of different keys and moods. I wanted to write a poetry that honors that and incarnates that.
Rail: We have to talk about your poem “Palinode.” Maybe you should explain what that is.
McLane: A palinode is a poem in which the poet recants her work. It has a long tradition. I think I first came across it through translations of Stesichorus, a poet who wrote about Helen of Troy. If I’m remembering this correctly, he wrote an account blaming Helen for the Trojan War—the usual masculinist story—and then he later writes a recantation in which Helen did not go to Troy, she went to Egypt, and is thus entirely blameless regarding the origins of the Trojan War. I first encountered that whole story, of Stesichorus, Helen, and his recantation, through the poet H.D.—the great modernist Hilda Doolittle. She has a book-length poem called Helen in Egypt and was inspired by this ancient text.
So I was familiar with this notion of a palinode in which a poet rethinks and even recants her work. For me, in Mz N, it was a way to distill the kinds of misgivings I can have—and others can have—about the place of lyric and the place of song in a world that we know is violent, complicated, vexed. The book was rounding to a point dealing with certain kinds of love conventions, arriving at an erotic interlude toward the end, and I wanted to put some pressure on that. I wanted to acknowledge that, for me, there’s always a space for rethinking. It’s not obvious what the work of poetry is or could be. It’s acknowledging that there’s a whole history of questioning who can afford to write the song of love, who can afford to sing the song of love, who’s given time and leisure to write poetry, to make things more freely than many of us who are bound by poverty or by circumstance not to make freely. A lot of my own, and others’, embedded thoughts surfaced in that poem, and it was important to me.
Rail: Have you found that people are treating the book and the character as a character? Or are they reading it as a disguised memoir?
McLane: A little of both. I’m always so happy when people say, “Oh, I love that Mz N.” I love the idea of them responding to it as this character they’re interested in. People who actually know me sometimes might say something like, “I didn’t know that.” [Laughter.] Or they might be intrigued to see something they thought they knew about or went through with me presented in a totally different way. In terms of readers who are not close to me, any first-person poetry invites that kind of intentional or biographical reading. Most people know there’s a difference between what Louise Glück calls “the actual” and “the true.”
Rail: Your first book of poetry came out in 2008 and by that point you’d received your Ph.D., you were teaching, you’d published two scholarly books. Were you always writing poetry?
McLane: Yes, I was writing poems all along. There’s a difference between being a poet and being published, which probably too few people recognize. It’s also very difficult to keep that space open when there’s so much pressure to publish, to get that social visibility in the world. I’m hugely grateful to FSG and to every editor who published my poems, from whoever it was who published a truly horrible poem in the Harvard Advocate in 1989, to Paul Muldoon and Cathy Park Hong and Adam Fitzgerald, and everyone else who has published my work in the past year or so.
Rail: I ask because you didn’t publish late by historical standards, but do you think that affected your work or how you worked? I ask this in part as one who is over thirty and has yet to publish a book.
McLane: What I’m saying is, you are totally fine! Just keep the faith, man!
McLane: I was totally focused on publication—just like everybody else—but I also didn’t want that to infect my writing. I have a whole other set of manuscripts. I have a manuscript I sent off years ago which, frankly, I think is a perfectly good manuscript, though not as good as the first book of mine that appeared. I sent that off for ten years to those endless poetry contests. I was getting published a bit in different journals, but it was really important to me to try to withstand disappointment. I felt, and feel, the writing of poems as an occasion of freedom. When you’re in that experience of getting rejections, one does not feel freedom. One feels rejection. But I feel that so much in life is about seeming to have your shit together, presenting yourself to colleagues or authorities or students or fellow workers or whomever you’re dealing with, and for me poetry was—and remains—a place of freedom of thought. It was very important to me to keep it that way as much as possible. Think of Blake! Dickinson!
That’s why I am frankly endlessly appalled by people who foreground poetry as a business, poetry as a hustle. I just find it so antipathetic. That’s my temperament. I know that of course poetry is a business, but I also feel like, go to law school or get an MBA. [Laughter.] I have many very complicated thoughts on this, but a lot of them were about self-preservation. I was no retiring violet. I was no Emily Dickinson. Not that she was a retiring violet! It was a complicated road for me as a poet. I think it’s important to say that to younger poets. They want permission to write privately and to just circulate things to a few friends. They should do that and really take heart. If they have great stuff that’s not getting published, they should keep sending it out. I was lucky to have a some very close friends and a partner who supported not only my work, but my sense of my work. I also was not about measuring myself at every moment against the contemporary. I think that’s a metric that’s pretty limited. Life is short, art long.