FEATURE | April 1, 2003

An Email Conversation with Richard McCann

In late March, 2003, Richard McCann discussed, informally and via email, some of his current work with Blackbird editor Mary Flinn. Their conversation centered primarily on the personal in poetry, and on the personal in writing in general.

Preface, Mary Flinn

In late March, 2003, Richard McCann was kind enough to take some time from a busy evening to discuss, informally and via email, some of his current work. (As a side note, I should mention that Richard and I have known each other since 1975, when we were both associated with a Richmond weekly newspaper, The Richmond Mercury, and that we also share many friends from our separate times at Hollins College.) To frame the discussion, I had sent him a few points to ponder that might in some ways direct his thoughts. These points were:

Many, shall we say, general readers will see the "I" voice in a poem and believe that the author of the poem is speaking direct truth about his or her own life. Also much current criticism of art these days seems to emphasize the importance of the artist's personal experience and to a degree, therefore, underplays any shaping or transforming of experience. (Our old friend Mr. George Garrett, among others, could argue that all experience is transformed in memory and that thusly the personal is as tricky as any story that is told.) Since you use your own life fairly openly in your work, what is the process for you of making use of that life? Has this process been in part dictated by circumstance, for instance by the fact of the tremendous losses of the AIDS epidemic and your own health?

Also, in a recent New York Review of Books, James Fenton quotes Georg Lichtenberg* in an essay on books about illness:

"My body is that part of the world which my thoughts are able to change. Even imaginary illnesses can become real ones. In the rest of the world my hypotheses cannot disturb the order of things."


"During my nervous illness I very often found that that which usually offended only my moral feeling now overflowed into the physical. When Dieterich said one day: God strike me dead! I felt so ill I had to forbid him my room for a time."

Have you looked at any of the literature of illness? How is your memoir shaping itself (are you being Proust or Kafka or Woolf? or mostly Mr. McCann?), or what are your models, and what do you want to accomplish?


Mary Flinn: As we address the personal in poetry, or in writing in general, why don't we start with a brief explanation of the circumstances of the poems in Blackbird. How would you introduce these poems if you were reading them?

Richard McCann: Of "Book of Hours," I would note that it's a short poem in a sequence of short poems, all of which are "at the bedside," as it were, and all of which, I think, investigate the ways in which we hope language will help us—though, I suspect, in the end, it can't help as one hopes: not so much is restored through language as one might hope for; language doesn't restore the missing Other, I mean. Of "Letter from the Ground Floor," I don't know what I'd say, frankly, except that I love the sound of voices talking, and that poem is very much a voice speaking aloud, with confusion and energy, a bit of mania, a bit of sadness. It's really a little lonely poem, I think—I wrote it one afternoon at MacDowell, while taking a break from writing prose, and realizing I'd spent so much time alone at MacDowell, in a live-in studio, I'd more or less screwed my chances as a person with Social Successes. I think in some ways that poem is a letter to my friend Tony, because I thought he might laugh a little, if he read it.

MF: This information can segue (if we try) to language and the choice of a voice or narrator. How closely does the "I" in your work conform to you, how much is it a created persona?

RMc: This is quite a fascinating and complicated question, I think, in that it in some ways assumes that the "I" who is "in life" (as opposed to art) has a particular shape of its own, something I don't quite imagine to be true: I mean, the "I" we regard as real is certainly as fictive as the "I" who speaks a poem, in that it, too, is a projection of a part of the self. I don't think of myself, however, as creating a persona, not in the usual sense of that term; but I do feel that in my work I am sometimes reaching after an "I" who is me but who, at the same time, is someone I won't completely recognize. I feel I'm always trying to stretch my voice, that is, to be larger than what I usually consider it—and "I"—to be. In the sequence of short poems I mentioned, I see myself as speaking as me—it's me!—but at the same time, I'm trying to include a part of me I usually leave out, a self that's a bit harsh toward its own romanticism.

To answer the question more simply and directly: Even in fiction, I'm aware that the voice of the narration, which is 99% of the time, in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, a first-person narration, belongs to someone who sounds like some version of me.

MF: With this slipperiness in mind, what would you say to the reader who wants to trust the flesh and blood person at the other end of the poem? Particularly if they feel that the "facts" confer on them a kind of intimacy with the writer?

RMc: I've just finished re-reading Lauren Slater's quite brilliant and exasperating Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, in which she never discloses to what degree she has epilepsy or Munchausen's Syndrome, and to what degree these are being used in the "memoir" as metaphors. I love this book, with its insistence that the only shape she'll trust in a memoir is one that feels hooked, as it were, like a question mark; but at the same time, I get quite irritated at times, and find myself wanting the certainty—the stark certainty—of knowing what the facts are, as if facts themselves were certainties.

But what would I myself say to such a person (as I myself happen to be)? I'd say that I, too, have a hunger for facts, a hunger that draws me to nonfiction (and to what Henry Taylor has jokingly called "creative non-poetry," too); and, at the same time, that I think it's always wise to remember that "facts" are really uncertainties, too, in many cases, since the writer's work—just like the work of a person living life, and looking at it while he lives it—is largely interpretive, and thus more about narrative truth than historical truth. When things are called "nonfiction"—and I think a reader often assumes poetry to be nonfiction, not just nonfiction prose—they seem to establish a contract with the reader, a contract whose essential features, we often seem to believe, are sincerity and earnestness. But can anyone—I'm thinking of a writer writing about himself, for instance—really know himself well enough, with enough certainty, to provide the depth of sincere truth we often find ourselves wanting?

I want to say a word more, Mary, about that last question. In my own case, in nonfiction, I try very hard to work with what I regard as "the facts"—though I'm also aware that in attempting to deliver the essence of what happened, I'm sometimes altering Exactly-What-Happened, especially by sometimes altering the time sequence—not so much by making things up from whole cloth.

I think sometimes of what was my mother's highest praise for whatever book she just finished: "It's all true!" Though she said it equally of novels by Dostoevski and Danielle Steele, as well as of biographies of Rose Kennedy.

MF: How wonderfully put.

As you have come to write your own memoir, and thinking back to the essay review in the New York Review of Books, which mentions the place where the author chooses to stand in creating a work about illness, a stand that enables the author both to report and to project a meaning (for instance, the reviewer states that for Alphonse Daudet, who was suffering horribly, a certain disinterested observing voice enables him to be heroic in what he has withstood rather than monstrous in what he is describing), how are you finding ways to solve the problem, in the narrative sense, of giving information and giving more than facts?

RMc: I'm not sure, Mary, if this answers the question. But in writing of cadaveric organ transplantation—of having a part of the body of a dead person placed inside you, so you may live (and, moreover, live with the knowledge that a part of someone who has died is now inside of you)—the facts themselves are, I think, at once astonishing and metaphorical. At least I experience them this way, and the job, therefore, is to write of the facts in such a way as to provide a sense of their mythic proportion. Sometimes I think the facts themselves are enough, told starkly—it's hard, for instance, not to write about transplantation, just what happens, plainly that, without invoking Lazarus and Frankenstein. And, of course, writing about the self, and the self's experiences, is the act of trying to apprehend the self as someone who is placed outside the self who's writing: one tries to re-enter a scene, and to see it as both an onlooker and participant. That man in the sickbed, the one who is me, what is he feeling? What does he touch when he wakes?

MF: Yes, I think that's what I'm getting at, and a bit of what we have talking about. That the true "I" to a degree remains a disinterested observer, while just plain old "me" had the experience that "I" is trying to remember or describe.

The review also mentioned John Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel, which strikes me as something I would like to find and read. Have you found any models for your memoir, and perhaps you should briefly mention the circumstance that has prompted the memoir.

RMc: The memoir I'm working on—which I'm calling The Resurrectionist, the name given in the 19th century to the grave-robbers who stole corpses to sell to physicians and anatomists—has its basis in the liver transplant surgery I had in May 1996, after 15 months of waiting for a "donor organ." This is the event from which a series of narratives—the collection—radiates. I've been working on this in smaller units—personal essays, if you will—in part because I seem to have a mind incapable of Large Things—such as novels, which Jamaican fiction writer Thomas Glave refers to as "the other 'N' word"—and in part because I want each one to have the sort of lyrical compression I've admired in numerous works, most specifically Peter Handke's A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, one of my very favorite books, just reissued by New York Review of Books Classics.

As to other models? Illness memoirs, of course, comprise a genre, at least by now—and I'm very aware, as I work on these essays, that I don't want mine to have the shape that many take—viz. an illness narrative, focusing on onset, diagnosis, surgical intervention, etc. etc., a form I distrust enormously, first because it tends to replicate the form a patient grows to hate most—the doctor's case history—and second, because in my case, transplantation has not been a cure; it has given my existing, ongoing disease a new liver to feast upon and devour, as it were. So I'm very wary of the language of transplantation, and the language of many memoirs, which is often the language of Salvation and Resurrection and The Miracle That Occurred, as Witnessed by Himself. Hence, my use of the title The Resurrectionist, something that I hope contains but also complicates the idea of resurrection.

In my work, I've been quite strongly influenced by medical ethics, most particularly the remarkable pioneering work of Professor Renee C. Fox, and, to a lesser but still great degree, William May's The Patient's Ordeal, one of the few works of medical ethics that looks at ethical crises from the patient's, as opposed to doctor's, point of view. I've also been strongly influenced, in my thinking, by Arthur Frank's The Wounded Storyteller, a study of illness narratives.

I'd like to end by saying that I recently sent my agent the collection of stories I've been working on for many years, entitled Mother of Sorrows, and although we've decided I need to add one more story, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. So next year—sabbatical—I hope to work solely on The Resurrectionist.

* "Turgenev's Banana," by James Fenton, New York Review of Books, Volume L, Number 2, February 13, 2003. This essay reviewed: On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf, with an introduction by Hermione Lee, Paris Press; In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet, edited and translated from the French by Julian Barnes, Knopf; Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel by John Donne, with a preface by Andrew Motion, Vintage Spiritual Classics; A Memorial of the Last Days on Earth of Emily Gosse by Her Husband Philip Henry Gosse, FRS, in Areté, Issue Seven, Winter 2001.