AUTHOR JONATHAN MCCLURE ON THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY & THE VALUE OF ENGAGEMENT for emerging writersRead Now
Interview by Mai Sennaar
I started writing pretty late. It's a funny story. I needed a class to fill a requirement. I was an English major at the time. I was interested in writing, but it never really felt like something I could do. It was kind of like, 'be an Astronaut!' or whatever. [both laugh]
It was something that other people do. But I took the class. I thought I was terrible at the time, I thought I was going to fail but the professor totally blindsided me halfway through an office hours meeting when he was like, 'no, no. take the next class...' just kind of encouraging me to stay with it.
This was at UNC Chapel Hill. The way that the creative writing track works there is kind of like Survivor, after each level, the professors consult and decide whether or not you get voted off the island.
Jonathan: Yeah, it was a little terrifying. [both laugh]
Jonathan: I mean, I know now that if you want to stay in they're going to let you stay in but at the time, it was totally terrifying. Everybody who was there really wanted to be a part of it. It was kind of like doing MFA's in undergrad which was really cool. I don't think I would have gone on to do an actual MFA or even write at all if I hadn't fallen into that by accident.
Mai: There's something kind of enigmatic that happens when the artist discovers themselves. When did you start to feel a personal connection to your own work and creed as an artist?
Jonathan: I think it was a mix of things. When I was taking several classes in the major and spending a lot time with poetry.
I wanted to write something that would make people feel the way that I felt when I read the poems that I really loved. It took a long time to be able to do it that. But I think a lot of it was just becoming a good reader and wanting to recreate that.
I also enjoyed my academic work and there was a lot of research projects and things like that that appealed to me. But it never really felt essential somehow. I really wanted to feel like I was getting something important--I wasn't going to turn to essays about poetry--I was going to actually read poetry. I wanted to get to the source.
Mai: There's that age-old MFA or no MFA debate in the academic and professional writing world. Sometimes it's about prestige, honing the craft of writing or a perceived ability to increase access to the marketplace. What's your perspective?
Jonathan: I think you have to think about it in two ways. One, as you mentioned there's like a prestige element that is problematic. Every journal says like 'oh, we read for the work', but a lot of places aren't really going to take you seriously unless you have an MFA. That's not ideal and that's a problem.
In a totally practical way, I do think that sometimes it's helpful to have one. I don't think you need one. [In the sense that] 'no one can write a poem unless they have an MFA.' I mean, that's just clearly not true. But just like any other kind of education, like if I want to be a computer programmer--I can teach myself to do that, it's just going to be a lot harder than if I go to school for it and have somebody really work with me...I'm going to find it a lot easier.
So I think the MFA is valuable in that way. And I think it was really helpful to me to have that kind of structure.
Mai: You got to the point of accruing some publications under your name. As you know that's a tremendous threshold to cross for a lot of writers of fiction and poetry. How did you come to be published the first time and what would your advice be to writers who are having trouble getting published?
Jonathan: My very first one, I don't even remember it. I had a handful of publications in really tiny places when I was in college. [Publication] came on the heels of lots and lots of rejection. I would pick places that would only do simultaneous submissions and I would send the same poems to 100 places....[both laugh]. Once you get that first one--and it probably shouldn't be this way--the next [submission you send out] is taken so much more seriously. And so if you can just get that first one, it becomes so much easier, so much more quickly.
Some practical suggestions [are to subscribe to] a list-serve that will send out daily calls for submission, [joining] Poets & Writers, reading the Review Review, Duotrope. [So that a writer can see] where the types of work [that they write] are getting published.
Mai: So your first major publication was from your own submission? With no sort of representation?
Jonathan: [Yes] I don't think there's enough money in poetry for most agents to really take an interest.
Mai: How did your upbringing influence the kind of work that you do and are interested in?
Jonathan: I moved around a lot as a kid. My Dad wasn't in the military, but his Dad was. I was born in Missouri, I was in Oregon, North Carolina, California, all over the place which is good in that it teaches you to kind of adapt quickly and figure out how to fit into a new situation, but it's not so good in the sense that you never really feel like you have a home base.
Mai: That's actually a great foundation for a writer.
Jonathan: Yeah! I mean it's good and bad really [laughs]. You learn to relate to a lot of different people and not feel tethered to one place but it's kind of bad in the sense that I would look at friends I had who felt like they belonged and I never really felt that. I think in the sense of having a curiosity about the world but also distance from it, I think that really found its way into a lot of the poems that I write.
Mai: How have you built your network as a writer and how has that contributed to your success so far?
Jonathan: I think networking is really helpful. I've tried to really use the internet and those kinds of tools. It's so easy to connect with people.
Part of it has been--like I write a lot of book reviews for example. And I get book reviews published in journals that I never thought I could get into because they're such big journals. But everybody needs reviewers so it's super cool and it helps to increase visibility and stay plugged in. Things like that--really participating in the literary community. I go to readings. I try to connect with the people that I meet there. I'll volunteer for a literary magazine and meet people that way. I teach a lot of classes. It's the things that come with writing--that aren't necessarily actually writing.
Mai:...One of the gaps that I'm trying to fill through this work is to help emerging artists develop healthy business practices. For them to learn how to market themselves and thrive in the marketplace. What tools are you using to promote your latest work?
Jonathan: Social media mostly. I also made myself a website--which is free and really easy to do. When I publish anywhere, I make sure to include a note about the upcoming book with a link to my website. Word-of-mouth is also important. Personal connections. I've met a lot of writers and readers in the course of participating in the literary community. And have found people that know and like my work.
Mai: Could you speak a little bit about The Fire Lit and Nearing? What was the feeling you were trying to convey to your audience?
Jonathan: The collection kind of charts the course of this failing relationship between these two characters who love each other, want to be together but they're both just in a bad place. Spiritually, mentally...they just can't make it work. What that sort of stands in for is the idea of connection in general. We want so much to connect to people, but there's always going to be this distance that you can never quite cross. In some ways, that's most noticeable in a romantic relationship. That's it in terms of themes.
In terms of what I want the audience to feel, I think poetry has kind of gotten a bad name over the years. A lot of that is poetry's own doing. The people who are reading poetry are mostly poets and it becomes very insular with lots of inside references and jokes, [etc...] you know?
If I'm someone who doesn't know a lot about poetry and I pick up a poetry magazine. I'm likely to kind of be like...what?? And put it down.
One of the highest compliments I've gotten at readings is people coming up to me and saying, 'I don't really know poetry at all, but I really like your poem.' Which I love! I read a lot of poetry--I am you know--It's not like I'm rejecting the tradition of it or anything. But I want to write in a way that is emotionalluy accessible and direct in a lot of ways. You don't need to be a professor of poetry to understand what [my work] is talking about.
T.S. Elliot of all people, who in some ways is like the worst for that kind of super obscure, show-offy, academic stuff--he says somewhere in his writings about poetry--something to the effect of--'meaning is the bone the burglar throws to the dog while he ransacks the house.'
There's this other quote that comes to mind from another author, something like, 'without clarity, there can be no truth.'
I want to write poems where the reader knows what's going on. They don't feel like...'I don't get this'
And if you have that kind of, I think, more open and generous relationship with the reader where they don't feel like you're trying to trick them somehow, then I think the poem can do it's real work.
Jonathan McClure's debut poetry collection,
The Fire Lit & Nearing, will be released on May 15, 2018.