January 9, 2017

Five Questions With Shara McCallum

Jamaican poet

1.   Why the title Madwoman and not Mad Woman?

The reason is that ‘Madwoman’ is a proper noun and is the name of the character that speaks, is sometimes addressed, or is at other times spoken of in third-person throughout the collection. While she reflects and refracts ideas of ‘mad women’ or ‘madwomen’ in literature, cultures, and myths across time and various places, she is a specific figure of my imagination with her own story. She experiences various forms of ‘madness’ (rage, grief, dislocation of the self) and, at her most extreme, veers toward being mad as rass as we would say in Jamaican English. I first wrote about this Madwoman in a couple of poems that appeared in my second book. I’d really not given her another thought until some years ago when she started speaking to me, and this time she was noticeably more unhinged. As I’ve said elsewhere I think, in some measure I wrote these poems to try to determine who she was and to try to get at the origins of her ‘madness.’

2.   Would it be fair to say that the various “madwomen” are really innocents who refuse to conform to a maladjusted society?

I think that would be too easy and let her (or the versions/avatars of the Madwoman throughout the book) off the hook. Who of us is every fully innocent? Even in childhood, I think we are all capable of acts of cruelty. Maybe rather than an ‘innocent’ I would say Madwoman is someone seeking to be a good person. But she also wants to cast off societal conventions, and being seen as good and being defiant of social norms are often in direct opposition, especially for women. I think the way Madwoman most wants to achieve goodness (rather than to be seen as good, as these are not the same things in my mind) is that she wants to be truthful and to never look away from what is difficult. She also wants to be generous and to try to see the good in others, even those who she feels have wronged her in some fashion. But these desires are set against the fact that below the surface in all of us lurks rage and sadness and fear, waiting to be potentially vented, and she knows this too. She also recognizes that even if one does not mean to hurt others and is therefore “innocent” in our aims, this does not always matter. How many times have each of us come up against the fact that if someone feels wounded by something we’ve said or done, then in their minds we are responsible for their injury regardless of what we intended? When we are in relationships with others, we are not in full possession of the definition of ourselves. To most of us, this is troubling to varying degrees at different times in our lives. Only narcissists seem able to completely dismiss others’ perceptions and truths and this is not a good thing. I think I may have veered away here from answering your original question but the link to some part of what you initially asked is this for me: in these poems Madwoman is struggling with her right to self-definition set against the way other individuals in her life and in society and culture writ large see her, or don’t in some instances see her at all.

3.   There seems to be a divide between the young “madwoman” and an older “madwoman.” Is there a real difference? And if so, what is the difference?

Yes, there are differences and a divide. The younger madwoman, in childhood, believes in magic and beauty and myth. The older madwoman, the adult version, wants to believe in these things, but often finds they break down in the face of what she has witnessed as truths of human nature and experience. The rupture in her is a kind of crisis of faith. There are several origins for this, but the ones she confronts most often in this collection are violence, death of loved ones, and other pivotal forms of loss.

4. Madwoman plays with identities, especially as they relate to memory and fiction. If this is true, does this playfulness arise from “problems distinguishing fact from fiction”?

In part, absolutely so, and this also speaks to the fallibility of memory. Thanks to advances in scientific understandings of the brain, we know now that memory is imagination as it is a kind of factual recall. The other reason for the ‘play of identity’ (and I like that phrase very much) has to do with what I spoke to earlier—the pull in the Madwoman between self-representation and the gaze of others and of the culture at large.

5. Catherine Clement in Opera, or the Undoing of Women claims, “Opera comes to me from the womb. They will tell you hysteria is a sickness…Do not believe it. Hysteria is a woman’s principal resource.” Do you agree with the sentiment and could a similar claim be made about your poetry?

In poems, I am often drawn to areas and moments in our lives where the self appears to come apart. In that regard, I could see ‘hysteria’ as a useful term for my poetry, though if applied with some caution. Obviously ‘hysteria’ is a loaded word and was, as Clement alludes, for a long time a medical diagnosis exclusively for women, used to dismiss and contain their bodies and minds. We still contend with the latent idea of women as ‘hysterical’ and thereby inferior to the ‘rational’ man, and this feeds into how we continue to view gender and treat women and men alike. In Madwoman, I am writing from the vantage point of a woman, or about a woman, who is often approaching the line between ‘madness’ as productive versus destructive. But there is a sizable variance between the kinds of ‘madness’ I address in this collection and actual mental illnesses. Clement’s statement is very provocative and I can see that she seeks to reclaim the term from its negative connotations and for metaphorical purposes in her usage. Still, my answer to your question is ‘yes’ with qualification: I would say ‘hysteria’ is a great source of power for the Madwoman, and these poems, when harnessed.

About Shara McCallum
Originally from Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of five books of poetry, published in the US and UK: Madwoman, The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems, This Strange Land, Song of Thieves, and The Water Between Us. Her poems have appeared in literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks in the US, UK and other parts of Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Israel and have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Dutch, and Turkish. Her personal essays appear regularly in print and online. Recognition for her writing includes a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry, and other awards. She is Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry and the Margaret Hollinshead Ley Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Bucknell University.

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