Interview: Leslie McGrath

An Interview with Leslie McGrath

By Lisa C. Taylor 

Leslie McGrath is a poet and literary interviewer. Winner of the 2004 Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry, she is the author of Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage (2009), a poetry collection, and two chapbooks, Toward Anguish (2007) and By the Windpipe (2014.) Jaded Ibis Press published McGrath’s satiric novella in verse, Out From the Pleiades in December 2014. She teaches creative writing and literature at Central Connecticut State University and is series editor of The Tenth Gate, a poetry imprint of The Word Works press (Washington, DC.).

Leslie McGrath: An Anniversary
 (Newtown, CT December 14, 2012)

Cue the half-mast flags sagging
eleven listless days before Christmas
and the entreaties to return to our senses.

It takes nearly a month, an advent calendar
of griefs, to pay homage to each of our twenty-six.

And in other towns, other states, other guns
other massacres…

The age of murder is upon us.
What is there to do but straighten our shoulders
and dip our heads for this moment of silence
efficiently, indifferently, like a cat
washing blood from her face.

This poem first appeared in Vox Populi, 2016


LCT: Do you think writers have a responsibility to serve as witnesses to history as the above poem would suggest? 

LM: Yes, I do. I think it’s our purpose rather than our responsibility—to feel it on an experiential level and interpret it on a literary level. My role is to be a conduit into history.

LCT: What gave you the idea for the hybrid collection, Out from the Pleiades?

LM: I had a residency at Vermont Studio Center following the 2009 publication of Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage. I applied in nonfiction because I wanted to write a memoir about my depression and childhood abuse. While I was there, I encountered a young writer who was also there to write a memoir. Her parents were 1960s radicals in Berkeley. She told me I reminded her of her father who was a therapist. She also said she didn’t like me. The word bully is not strong enough to describe what happened next. She intimidated me, separated me from the other writers, and even frightened me. She would wait for me in the dark and get other writers involved and they would follow me. I had a work fellowship in the kitchen and she would make fun of me as I served the food. After dinner, when I had to wipe down the tables, she harassed me. I put aside my memoir and started to write poems. At the end of the month, I had about 25 pages of poetry about her. I put it away for a while but then I realized I had a story. How could a young woman raised by liberals with all their good intentions become a sadist? How could they raise a child who got off on hurting others? I did about a year’s worth of research on how people became bullies, discovering the girls manifest it differently from boys. They tend to use verbal abuse, and ostracize their victims. I invented my character from this real person and I called her Mina. I made up siblings for her. The book details how she became a bully. I believe in admitting ones’ own culpability whenever I write about social justice. I had an incident in my own youth where I joined in making fun of an unattractive girl who bit her nails. Over Christmas break, a whole group of us saved our nail clippings to give to her as a “snack”. But she died, along with the rest of her family in a plane crash over Christmas.  I’ve never forgotten my own aggression toward her. Incorporating it into the novella was a step toward accepting that I am as capable of cruelty as the next person.

LCT: You have written about gun violence and racial tension. As a writer, what is your vision for addressing the huge problems facing our country today? 

LM:  I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a white woman of privilege in Connecticut. I think the best thing I can do is to be honest about my own reactions. Being white doesn’t protect me against feelings of terror, disgust, and hopelessness. Writing about it makes me feel less helpless. When someone reads one of my poems and identifies with it, it makes me feel a little more hopeful.

LCT: I noticed you serve on the advisory committee for The Sunken Garden and you’re on the board for the press, Word Works. You formerly served on the board for the James Merrill House, and you continue as series editor for Tenth Gate. How do these activities reflect your view on writers’ involvement in the broader community as a form of activism? 

LM: Being involved in these activities is a way for me to be most effective. In the 4 years I worked with the James Merrill house residency, I focused on shortening the residency to a month and I encouraged women and people of color to apply. I was on the selection committee for a while. At Word Works, I noticed how many mid-career poets lose their publishers. The American literary trend is to reward the young emerging writer. I felt there should be a prize only for mid-career poets. The president of Word Works, Nancy White dared me to follow through.  I created Tenth Gate prize in honor of Jane Hirshfield whose poetry and essay collections, Nine Gates and Ten Windows have been essential to me. This prize is for poets who have at least three books. I look for a book that could not have been written as a first or second book, and there’s a wealth of them. American poetry is very rich. 

LCT: Can you recommend a poet that you think people should know about?

LM: Melissa Green who is in her mid-sixties and whose voice is like no one else writing today. Her poems are erudite, wildly beautiful, and can be very dark. Both Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky championed her work. Crippling depression has circumscribed her life and it’s gotten difficult for her to write. I admire her a great deal and am proud to be a friend. She is a writer’s poet.

LCT: I know you teach writing at Central Connecticut State University. How does the teaching of creative writing help or hinder your own work?

LM: One thing I had to get used to when I began teaching eight years ago was the diversity. There are lots of city students and recent immigrants. Many are first generation college students and English-as-a-second language students. I have two or three ESL students each semester. It helped me to become more empathetic. Empathy is key to understanding your own perspective and limitations. One thing I tell my students each semester is: I teach you how to write, not what to write. My writing is based on my own obsessions. I want to give voice to those who have been marginalized, particularly the mentally ill. There is such a stigma of mental illness in our culture. I am also a feminist. Honestly I never thought I would get to be this age and have to worry about whether safe and legal abortion will continue in the United States.

LCT: What is a topic for a poem you want to write but have thus far been unable to write?

LM: I want to write a poem to my mother but I have not been able to get there. It’s been hard to create a piece of art about something so difficult. The subject requires a great deal of emotional restraint and I’m not there yet.

LCT: Anything else about your writing or activism that you’d like to share with Wordpeace readers?

 LM: My literary activism is my way of getting agency in the world. It makes me feel less helpless. I think I’m old enough to understand that I’m not going to be a great change agent in the world but that doesn’t let me off the hook for living kindly and honestly. Activism is a kind of courage and courage is really important—especially at this time in American history.