Lilac Painted Walls and Black Fabric: A Conversation with Monica McClure
Interview by Jay Winston Ritchie

(Excerpted)

Jay Winston Ritchie: When did you start writing poetry?

Monica MM:: I always wrote poetry…I remember covering my lilac-painted walls one day with black fabric and writing very disparate poems on the walls. One was an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that was about the death of a friend, and not accepting that death. I loved the brazenness of it. It goes: “You have gone to feed the roses so elegant and curled but I do not approve.” I can’t remember the title. I liked that because I had just lost my friend, sometimes boyfriend, love interest, someone who I loved very much, when we were sixteen.

JWR: So you saw your own experience in the poem.

MM: I saw my own experience in that poem. Then I found e.e. cummings. I must have had a collection of modern American poetry somewhere in the house. We had books like that. I really liked “anyone lived in a pretty how town” so I wrote that on the wall. Tacked up my paintings and stuff. But before then I had been really into Percy Bysshe Shelley and I memorized parts of “Ozymandias”. Gerard Manley Hopkins. You know, I was that kind of a kid. I was nerdy but also a cheerleader.

JWR: Nerdy cheerleader. I don’t even know if that’s a stereotype.

MM: I don’t know. I don’t think so. Though there was that girl in One Tree Hill who was a cheerleader who was kind of weird. I was like her but actually very weird.

JWR: Do you think that support from older people, specifically parents and teachers, is an essential thing for young people? In order to feel talented and motivated?

MM: Absolutely. Too much of it is bad, too, because it contributes to this sense that you already have when you’re a tortured writer that you’re really special. I think at times I had a lot of that, because where I grew up the public school system was really bad. There was not a lot of literacy. I think some people graduated from my high school not really knowing how to read. And so by comparison, because both my parents had gone to college, which was rare in that community, I was a really good writer and a  really precocious student. I already had this sense of feeling really special and people would always praise me. That helped for sure, but it also maybe spoiled me a little bit and I didn’t push myself to actually become a great writer.

JWR: How old is the oldest poem in the book? How far back does it stretch?

MM: Not that old really. It happened really fast. Mood Swing is in here, most of it, and I started writing that the same year it was published. It came out in like six months, this very big, very playful burst of energy. They’re very easy to write, those poems, because once I’d…it was a very contagious voice once I had figured out this – because they’re persona poems, really – once I had figured out this highly stylized, highly synthetic tone that I wanted to write in, it just felt like, OK, now I can start plugging in the ideas, the themes, the concepts that are really dear to me that I had been trying to write about in grad school but had felt very limited by the way I was supposed to be writing them. Mala happened pretty fast too, all of those – well they’re long poems so there aren’t a lot of poems, there are four, now five – those also happened the same year they were published as a chapbook. The oldest poem is from 2012, probably.

JWR: One of the themes in this book, which I’m clued into through your internet presence as well, is an appreciation and knowledge of fashion. How does fashion play into Tender Data?

MM: I don’t know if I’m that knowledgeable about fashion anymore. It’s now just more of a love of fashion, and an appreciation for how personal style is empowering, how street style is influential. Couture has been so market-driven for so long that I’m not really inspired by it anymore, the big fashion houses. I mean I am, I love Comme des Garcons and John Galliano as much as the next person. I guess I’m more interested in street style and how when the styles trickle down they get worn in unexpected ways that then find their way back up to the runways. That cycle is fascinating to me. I think of the Tumblr girls a few years ago who are writing Chanel on their t-shirts with Sharpies and you started seeing Chanel imitating them.

JWR: Everyone seems to think that Tender Data has a lot of humour, but no one can really pin it down. On the Asian American Writers’ Workshop website you and Jenny Zhang talk about the search for decolonized jokes. Is humour a useful tool for dismantling oppressive power structures? Is it a coping mechanism?

MM: I think it’s both. I think a lot about how to beat the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to the punch, by anticipating their jokes that would belittle me as a woman, as a person of colour, and so I think there’s power in saying it first. It also belies that power though, too, to be in the position where you have to laugh, or you have to make a joke, if you think about how so much pain gets turned into humour. Dave Chappelle is a good example of someone who does that.

JWR: I always think of Richard Pryor.

MM: Love him. It’s tricky. When you’re in a stand-up audience, you’re very much captive to the performer. You have two choices: you laugh, you don’t laugh. I think people are very excited by that feeling of powerlessness, but it can be bad. There’s nothing like that feeling of being suddenly the butt of the joke and looking around and seeing everybody laughing at this really racist, sexist joke and just feeling totally powerless. When you’re writing it’s easy to be as loud as you want because you don’t have to deal with the consequences of it there, on the spot.

JWR: Until somebody brings it up later.

MM: Right, until you’re doing an interview.

JWR: The book ends with “Novelistic Discourse”, which is a long prose poem.

MM: Yeah, and nobody wants to talk about this.

JWR: Really?

MM: No one has written about it or asked me about it yet.

JWR: It’s the most exciting part of the book for me. How did your approach to writing “Novelistic Discourse” differ from the rest of the poems?

MM: I started reading The Dialogic Imagination again, by Mikhail Bakhtin, and I had been wanting to write something that was truly polyglot for a long time, something that would use all this material I had been saving for essays or short stories, things that might find a more expansive form. It’s sort of screenplay-ish. The experience of writing it was very manic. To unpack it a little bit, there’s some thoughts on religion, humanism, the ironization of my own Marxist politics. I feel like talking about the themes is maybe not useful here.

JWR: Can you read it?

MM: “A little girl with my last name fell into a dream. Be a ramp to your sisters. All the stores were closed the next morning and we went out, you and she and I, into a circular Google, where each woman’s question was the other’s top hit. I’ve known a country without commerce, ghosts feeding on cured meat. It’s all about the libidinal relationship between objects, you know, like Katherine Mansfield, David Lynch. To a disappointing lover dripping syrup from my jaw to the white, white petals of male intellect, I say this: I watched Barack Obama get elected a second time. He could be the child of ASAP Rocky and Lana Del Rey, and he is. Angels made love with humans and made giants that made him, but all of them drowned in a great flood.”

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Vallum’s summer  intern, Jay Winston Ritchie talked with McClure over Skype about her beginnings, her writing process, and the use of humour in her highly-acclaimed first collection.

JAY WINSTON RITCHIE is the author of poetry chapbook How to Appear
Perfectly Indifferent While Crying on the Inside (Metatron, 2014) and the
short story collection Something You Were, Might Have Been, or Have Come
To Represent
 (Insomniac, 2014). His work has appeared in The Puritan, Spork,
Vallum, Glittermob, Matrix, Joyland, and other places. He is Assistant Editor for
Metatron.

MONICA MCCLURE is a poet and performer living in New York City. She has
published two chapbooks, Mood Swing (Snack Press, 2013) and Mala (Poor Claudia, 2014). Her first book of poetry, Tender Data (Birds LLC, 2015).

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