Language as Migration: An Interview with Mark McMorris

by Grant Jenkins

Mark McMorris is associate professor of english at Georgetown University, where he has taught since 1997 and directs the University's Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. With both an M.A. in creating writing (poetry) and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Brown University, McMorris has authored four books of poetry: The Café at Light (Roof Books, 2004), The Blaze of the Poui (University of Georgia Press, 2003), The Black Reeds (University of Georgia Press, 1997), and Moth-Wings (Burning Deck, 1996). His scholarly work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies such as Contemporary LiteratureCalabashPaideumaTripwireXCP: Cross Cultural Poetics, and the Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies. With new poems to appear this spring in the Norton American Hybrid Anthology, McMorris’s next volume of poetry, Entrepôt, which he discusses here, is slated for publication in 2010 with Coffee House Press.

Grant Jenkins: I think I would like to start with some biography. Tell me about yourself, background facts.

Mark McMorris: I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and lived there through high school. My parents are still there, as well as my brother and sister. My father and mother both were civil servants. My father still is a civil servant. Really what my father did was cricket. He had a day job [laughs], but he was an international cricketer when he was younger. Played for the West Indies, the International Cricket team, through the mid-1960s and was also the captain of the Jamaican regional team. So, anyway, I am a Jamaican.

GJ: Why did you come to the United States?

MM: I came to go to college. I needed a change of pace.

GJ: Did you think you would stay, or did you imagine yourself going back to Jamaica?

MM: I never thought about it. It was a new experience, obviously. I’d been to the United States before, but being in New York and being in college was astonishingly jolting to me. I’d always been somebody who did math and science—I went to Columbia to do engineering—and I’d always hated literature. Can you imagine having to read Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy in Kingston? [laughs] It literally made no sense to me. But I had some really good teachers at Columbia. Living in New York, finding out about shows, learning about painting and philosophy ... I was completely drawn into that.

GJ: By the end of your college career, were you writing poetry?

MM: No, no. I was trying to every now and again. I lived in Paris for a summer on a grant and spent a lot of time in Shakespeare & Company, now on the Place San Michelle by Nortre Dame. If you stand at Shakespeare & Company and you look across the river, you can see the cathedral. Anyway, there’s a writer’s room that George Whitman from America created where there’s a first edition of Ulysses in the original Aegean blue cover, plus other rare books and a real good collection of poetry. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking and making notes in that room that summer.

GJ: When I first told you about my African American poets project, you said, “Wait a second, I am not African American, I was born in Jamaica.” How is your sense of yourself as Jamaican different from what you see as African American? How do you see that working for your writing?

MM: My intention is not to repudiate an African American identity but perhaps to resist how labels take hold, or to make it as slow a process as possible. That’s more my sense of it. To go back to the ’60s and the ’70s for a little bit, whether rightly or wrongly, I closely identified the making of poetry, music, dance, and art as culture-making in the service of nation-making. You can find writings that make that purpose for art quite explicit, by writers like Frantz Fanon. But not just Fanon, because Fanon himself is transmitting a link between something called “culture,” especially the verbal arts, and national identity that arguably goes all the way back to [Johann Gottfried] Herder in the 18th century. So, there’s a very old partnership between the core of a nation and its language. And Fanon makes that partnership into a weapon in the service of de-colonization. So for him, the writer, the playwright, the novelist, the poet seek a form of their work that will play a substantial part in midwifing the nation—political resistance in the service of nation-making. So the Caribbean is steeped in all this during the 1970s. This is the assumption behind what to value in poetry, what to value in the arts.

GJ: Do you see that as essentially different than what’s happening in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

MM: I think that production of identity is a resistance element, an aggressive element. Both a refusal and an affirmation and an assertion, and certainly, we in Jamaica were talking about black art. And the idea that there is a role for art in the civil rights revolution and in the successor to the civil rights revolution. This mindset believes there is an emancipatory role for art that doesn’t simply stop at liberation, but wants to make an identity or to install an image of identity, let’s say. The verb that one uses is really crucial. To “reveal” an identity is different than to “discover” or “make.” We know now that it’s constructed, but thirty years ago we’re talking essences, aren’t we? We are still thinking about essences. So art’s function is to make visible, legible, and audible the essence of an identity that is fundamentally hybrid and, importantly, African. That’s how I would understand the program of art for art, including poetry.

To me, I just hated that. [laughs] I hated poetry generally, especially the poetry that these guys would offer. Now mind you, I teach a course on African Diaspora folk poetry and poetics and it centers on the Caribbean, mainly the Caribbean, and I teach these guys that I grew up hearing and hating. [laughs] Anyway, culture and nation are partners, inextricable from each other. National culture and nation, they are reciprocities. That’s the Fanonian idea, and it animates artistic practice in Jamaica in the 1970s. When I started to try to write my own poems, I thought ... actually it is only quite recently that I have been able to understand the quandary that I was in. I suppose I need to find a way to talk about it. There is a thesis that Fredric Jameson famously advanced in the 1980s that, in its crude form, basically says that all third world literature is about nation, that identity is the fundamental literary problem in the third world. The writer’s identity is insecure because the nation’s identity is not secure. The nation doesn’t provide the third world writer with a secure identity, because the nation is colonized, it’s oppressed, it’s part of somebody else’s empire. You can argue that there are problems with that formulation, not the least of which is how can you make a claim that is so universally valid. Anyway, the nation as the horizon of an identity that you want to come into being as a fundamental absence of something that is compromised, something that needs to be rescued or made—these matters preoccupy the third world writer. It is seductive for a Marxist understanding of literary practice and production in the sense that it says that material culture determines literary output. And you know, as you start to say, yes, you know economically the third world is relative impoverished, relatively subject to the whims and dictates of other places and people and so on.

So to go back to this whole problem of writing for me: I think that is one of the messages that I absorbed to a point that it became very crippling. I think the way that I would put it is that I was preoccupied with that problem of how to make my writing serve the nation. I wouldn’t have put it that way fifteen years ago, because that’s just arrogant. You know, to somebody starting to write, you can’t begin the question that way. But when you read the critics and when they talk about Kamau Brathwaite or V. S. Naipaul or C. L. R. James or Derek Walcott, this is the message of the poetry. Apparently this is our common project, to create a West Indian tradition and to participate in it; it is a great thing and quite powerful thing, and it’s West Indian and West Indian and West Indian. And really and truly it’s not—I found it to be stultifying to have to think in those terms.

GJ: How do you think of it?

MM: [laughs] Maybe we can come at it from this direction: when I was in France, I read a lot of Wallace Stevens. I read a lot of French poetry. I read a lot of Yeats and Hart Crane. I was mesmerized. I didn’t have to try. I didn’t have to say to myself, “this reading is making me a better human being.” Or, “I am becoming more cultured and intellectually cultured by reading this poet.” Or, “I am so proud of my fellow West Indians that they can make fine, fine poems.” I could just luxuriate. I just loved that stuff. It has to do with the aesthetics of the work. Pound, I read a lot of Pound, Stevens, Hart Crane ... who else was I reading at the time? I loved Joyce.

GJ: Eliot? Stein?

MM: No Stein. I couldn’t understand Stein. I loved “The Four Quartets,” but really it was Stevens and Yeats I read a lot. And when I thought I would like to try my hand at poems, those were the writers that I thought I would try to follow. I was really interested in poetic form, rather than in the transmission of a particular lived environment. This lived environment didn’t interest me that much. Vernaculars are indices of lived environments. Then you also have images, and you have a way of having your thoughts unfold, which is one aspect of vernacular. Okay, you have your vernacular, you have your images, and you have the problem that the poem takes up and handles. All of those things tell you you are reading an American poem, a poem from the South, a poem from New Zealand, a poem from the Inuit, a poem from the Caribbean. None of those things interested me. Whatever the indices of a lived environment were, those did not interest me. What interested me was poetic form. The handling of language, or as Pound says, “the dance of the intellect” on words. That’s what I was interested in. Why it interested me is because I felt it. The things I was reading were very compelling. So, in terms of the relationship I have in my writing to the subject of nation-making, I was aware of the problem, tried to address it, and couldn’t. It was crippling and in the end I went elsewhere.

The greatest thing that ever happened to me was hearing Susan Howe read from Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. Now, New England is everywhere in her work, but what I got out of it was the articulation of sound forms in time. [laughs] That’s the part that got me so fired up, so excited. I am still living in the wake of that reading I heard in 1988. Palinurus Suite—that’s an early book of mine from Paradigm Press—was written shortly after I heard her give that reading. It’s very, very influenced by a certain attitude towards reference that you can find in her work. More so than some of the other writers we’ve been talking about. Lyn Hejinian is another person who completely blew me away when I read My Life. The way she handles the sequence of sentences. How she moves from one sentence to another. How the sentence becomes, how she makes a unit out of a sentence. That was completely eye opening for me. At least in terms of my conscious interests, these are the things that compelled me, as opposed to. . . you know, this is how we talk about it now, if I were going to make a neat story out of the inevitable mesh that all our lives are—the accidents, the half-truths, the errors, the meaninglessness—I would say something like this: that the liberation provided by language writing is a liberation from nation, a liberation from national culture, the fracturing of the strain, the effort to make that, to have it, to transmit it, to participate in it, to find the form of it, the poetic form of it. Language writing for me is a freeing of myself from a whole set of postcolonial problems that at the time I couldn’t articulate. I had to do a lot more reading to articulate it in the way that I am articulating it now.

GJ: Does that “freeing” allow you to return to a certain lexicon, to a certain set of places or problems like you do in The Blaze of the Poui or “Peninsula, Sea Brush,” to take up some of those figures again without that baggage? It’s not like you have left the Caribbean behind. It still informs your work, right?

MM: Absolutely. I didn’t realize how preoccupied I was; it took me a while to realize that. The Black Reeds was an initial attempt. At the time I was writing The Black Reeds I was also writing The Café at Light, which came out later from Roof. And that book has some Caribbean landscape in it and places. But it’s also European, North American. There is a landscape. But, I thought, I don’t want to be restricted to that. I don’t want to be fixed into place or pinned down in this way. To be located in terms of a set of already existing problems that poetry from the West Indies addresses and has addressed and that originate with certain writers. I want to be my own writer, but at the same time I also felt very strongly—you mention “Sea Brush”—I remember I wrote that when I went back to Jamaica after being away for a very, very long time, and it was one of these poems that just writes themselves. I heard some men pouring concrete and they were speaking and I got that idiom in my head. And, clearly, I am not working out of any formal tradition in Caribbean literature in that poem. If somebody says, this is writing that might be found in the company of Rosmarie Waldrop, I would much prefer to hear that. The point is that I didn’t know any Jamaican writers or West Indian writers. I wasn’t hanging out with them. I wasn’t in correspondence with them. I wasn’t particularly reading them. I went through a period where I stopped reading Derek Walcott altogether.

GJ: Are you still in that period?

MM: Well, I recently met him and gave a lecture on him when he was sitting in the audience. And we’re now in correspondence, and I am hoping he will come back to Georgetown next year. So, I find this to be very curious. But a writer like Derek Walcott, you cannot spend too much time with him. I’ve read him very, very closely. But if you want to write yourself, then you have to get away. You have to do something else. You cannot try to do what he does. Again, it took a body of writing as original—and I use that word with the full understanding of what I am saying—as what Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Susan Howe produced to dislodge that very, very deeply considered realism of genius, basically, that you have in Derek Walcott’s work. He invents the West Indies, to use Benedict Anderson’s sense of the word. Invents. This is my answer to Grenier’s “I hate speech”: I hate culture. [laughs] What I would say is this: form is paramount. Form is what distinguishes one genre from another and what distinguishes poetry from journalism. And maybe, one way of saying it is that the handling of form is where the effort is. That is where I put the effort, and that’s what I try to learn from these other writers that we’ve been talking about. And it’s possible that to learn, to be in the process of learning about the handling of form, it might be an advantage not at the same time to be trying to handle the problem of identity. I would think of the form/culture dichotomy for difference, along the lines that Pound thought of matter and form. Matter wobbling when you try to invent it for yourself versus not wobbling when you are translating. So that’s how I would think of it. Let’s go back to this false opposition, as you quite rightly point out, between identity and form. Identity isn’t always implicated in what one is writing; it’s that I am content to have identity go its own way, do its own thing, manifest itself however it wants, while concentrating on arrangement, sequence, pacing, accentuation, line length, sound cluster, consonants, those elements.

GJ: Are there any other formal procedures or operations that you have in mind consciously as you are writing your latest work?

MM: It is just about done, I think. But I am having a little trouble with the title. I am calling it “Entrepôt,” as a figure for a space of transition. A place for trans-shipment. From the French word that means “between.” It is a place that is in between other places. But I am thinking of the form of a poem as an entrepôt. This is my way of trying to come to terms, come to grips with Lyn Hejinian’s excellent exposition of open and closed form. That one form of open form could be an entrepôt that does not imply origins or destinations but only other entrepôts. That feels to me to be something like my experience, my own experience. That question of origin is a preliminary question, and after addressing it as a preliminary question, it changes from being preliminary to being one question in a whole set of questions. In the sense of the origin that ceases to be a source and instead becomes a transitional space, a transitional location. It is a very important question in Caribbean literature.

GJ: That brings us back to identity and nation.

MM: Yeah, Glissant is working on these problems. He is very good at that. You know, for thrashing through the difference between the rhizome and the root and what that means for world culture now in his Poetics of Relation. So, “Entrepôt” would be the title and a name for what I hope the poem would be doing formally. Language as migration, but not immigration. But I am interested in immigration, or course, and integration. English has that distinction; I don’t know if American has that distinction. "Im-" is out of, "in-" is into. In integration, migration, immigration, movements. A geography for historical and contemporary signs. Where past and present go into each other and constrain each other. At most a resting place, not a destination, not an origin. So these are some of the thoughts that I have in my mind, and we’ll see.

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