An Interview with Nick McRae
I first met Nick McRae at a cocktail party I hosted on a spring night in Lubbock, Texas. I was too busy filling glasses to make the acquaintance of everyone under our big sky, so I really don’t know if I said to Nick more than “come on in.” But now, a year later, I remember his presence more than anyone’s. “Sincerity cannot be faked,” my first writing teacher used to say — that night I watched the crowd mingle in and out of each other’s company just so they could come closer to Nick’s corner. It can be startling, wonderfully so, to come upon someone with whom you can sit and talk without agenda. Nick’s reputation for talent and literary citizenry often precedes him, but I’ll tell you, it’s Nick’s sincerity that keeps me searching for his next project, his next poem. Below you’ll find our recent conversation about his newly published anthology, Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets (Sundress Publications, 2013), a collection he originated and edited because, frankly, Nick’s a Quaker poet, and that can be a lonely station. I’ve been glad to see the recent turn in which poets who practice faith feel less, what? — ashamed? — about building their lives on both intelligence and belief. Christian Wiman, Ilya Kaminsky, Malachi Black come immediately to mind. It feels good, doesn’t it? — this willingness to write from a complex mind, rather than being ironically alive.
Rebecca Gayle Howell: I’d like to begin by asking you to describe how the idea for this anthology came to you.
Nick McRae: I think the idea occurred to me because I was looking around for something like it but couldn’t seem to find it. I had been attending Quaker meetings and exploring Quaker spirituality for a few years, and I had begun to seek out Quaker poets that might inform my own work. Besides John Greenleaf Whittier, who lived and died more than a century ago, I couldn’t seem to find any or at least very many poets who were publicly known as Quakers.
There were a handful of books featuring contemporary Quaker art and writing around the internet, all of which had been published by Quaker presses and aimed at Quaker audiences, but what I was looking for — poets who were Quaker and were engaged in the wider literary community — was shockingly hard to find. It seemed like a void that, at least for me, needed to be filled.
RGH: Why was it personally important to you to find these poets?
NM: I wanted to find other contemporary Quaker poets because I had a strong desire to be part of a community. It’s maybe part of the same impulse that led me to join the Religious Society of Friends in the first place. I was looking for a community in which I could explore spiritual questions — questions of Quaker faith, culture, and practice — openly and honestly among people who were doing the same thing. I wanted to see how other poets were thinking about, talking about, and writing about the experience of being a Quaker today, and how that experience might come through around the edges of their work even when they weren’t directly addressing it.
RGH: Were you raised in the Christian tradition? When did you first understand the Quaker way was your way? And why?
NM: I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, which is a conservative evangelical Christian denomination. Church was always an important part of my life, and from childhood it was my plan to one day become a preacher. As I grew older, though, that plan changed as I changed. Eventually, I found that I no longer believed all of the same things that the Church of the Nazarene thought that I should, and those I did believe, I believed in a very different way.
I began to feel dishonest — like I was lying to the people I had loved all my life, pretending to be something that I just wasn’t anymore. For a while I ducked out of the public spiritual life entirely. I wasn’t sure, with all my new found, “fuzzy liberal” ideas, that I belonged in Christian culture at all anymore, and if I did, I didn’t know where. And that’s when I discovered the Quakers. In a book, of all places. I was reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I came across the chapters about the Quaker family that takes in the runaway slaves. I was intrigued by Stowe’s portrait of them, and turned to the internet to find out if Quakers really even existed anymore. I found they not only existed, but that by some miracle there was even a Quaker group in my little college town of Carrollton, Georgia. I went to visit one Sunday (or First Day, as Quakers say), and that was it.
RGH: I asked a poet friend the other day what he thought of when he heard the phrase “Quaker poetry,” and he said, “Old fashioned.” You mentioned earlier the desire to know living writers of faith with whom you could relate, but did you also see this anthology invoking an idiom too long ignored?
NM: That’s funny! But not surprising. Quakers are still remembered in the cultural imagination as the folks who dressed in century-old fashions and spoke, with their “thees” and “thous,” like someone from the Bible. That was a true enough image of Quakers a century ago, and in some places maybe as recently as half a century ago, but today most Quakers (but not all, I should say) dress and speak in contemporary fashion. We do bring out the occasional “Thank thee, Friend” for emphasis on special occasions, of course! But to answer your question about today’s Quaker poetry, I can say with a fair degree of confidence, having read thousands of poems in editing this anthology, that Quaker poets tend to use a contemporary idiom in their work.
RGH: Tell me more about your experience editing this anthology. I’d like to hear your description of what you saw coming in and what you chose to publish — what traits set apart Quaker poetry, other than the fact that people of faith are writing it?
NM: It was a long road, though I imagine that’s true for most anthologies. This project was particularly challenging for the same reason that I found it necessary: Quaker poets today are few, far between, and not particularly visible out in the literary world. An editor putting together an anthology of, say, aubades has as their potential contributors every poet who was ever written an aubade, which is likely most of the poets living today. Not so with Quaker poetry. There are less than half a million Quakers in the world today. Only about a third of them speak English as a first language, and only a tiny fraction of those Quakers who speak English are poets. I had to go out and find those few poets among the seven billion other people in the world. I don’t want to exaggerate the difficulty of finding Quaker poets or the effort I expended on it, but it wasn’t an easy task. Over two years of searching, I found a few hundred and managed to publish around fifty. I’m certain there are many more wonderful Quaker poets whose work never found me and who never found my call for submissions.
My vision was for this anthology to be a book that spoke to more than Quakers; one that could be read and appreciated by anyone engaged in the contemporary literary community regardless of their spiritual orientation. As such, I ultimately selected to publish those poems I felt would best serve that end, even though I had to turn away many wonderful and sincere poems that would fall probably into the category of devotional literature.
In the end, I received and read probably a couple thousand poems of every style and subject matter you could imagine. Prayer poems, poems about the experience of worship in the Quaker Meeting, and anti-war poems were especially abundant among the submissions, which makes sense given the concerns of many Quakers I know personally. While this is not by any means unique to Quaker poetry, probably the most distinctly Quaker aspect of the poems I chose to include in the anthology is the pervasiveness of light and silence. Light and silence are absolutely central to Quaker thought, worship, and language, so looking back over the poems in Gathered, I’m not surprised to see them resurface in poem after poem.
RGH: Right. That’s what struck me as I read the collection — the mix. Poets who had eyes gazing heavenward, even as they also kept their feet on the ground. A quiet and clear seeing pervades the work. You mention in your foreword that you found in the Quaker faith a similar core as in poetry. You write, “[T]hat sense of ... being forced out of myself and bonded to something — a word, a tradition, a community — that was more and greater and more meaningful than my own subjectivity.” Of course, Quakers have a long and rather extraordinary legacy of social justice work. But I think you mean something more common here?
NM: I think so, yes. It may sound corny, but I really do believe — and I think this isn’t uncommon — that when we read poetry we are granted access to another person’s subjectivity, and when we offer our own poems to be read we are offering others a window into our subjectivity.
This is not to say one is “gazing into someone’s soul” when one reads poetry, but that we’re seeing something — a memory, a dream, a description of the world, a new grammar — that is created in language in a way only that person would have done it. To me, that's kind of incredible, and sometimes, when the vision is sharp and clean enough, it can reshape us somehow, even in a small way. And that’s huge.
I think the same can be said about spiritual community when it’s done right, whatever “right” means.
RGH: “A description of the world.” That leads me to your just-published chapbook, Mountain Redemption, which won the 2011 Black River Prize. The poems in this thin but robust volume sing as much about faith as they do about homeplace. You’re from Georgia, right? Can you speak to how your homeplace influences your work as a poet?
NM: For me, growing up on a farm in Georgia as part of a very religious family, Southern culture and Christian culture were so tightly woven together that it’s hard for me to separate which ideas or traditions came from which. I know this is not true of everyone’s experience in the South, but for me as a child it really was a conceptual monolith. I think that’s part of the reason I write so much about my place of origin. The idea of home is already a powerful and imposing presence in the minds of those who have one, and I think the same can be said of ideas about faith for those who value and practice faith. For me, they are so much the same idea that writing about one usually means writing about the other, at least on some level. Together, they inhabit such a large part of my imagination that I can’t write for long without running into a church, a barn, a line from the Bible, or a yarn I once heard around the dinner table. If I hadn’t grown up in a country church in Georgia surrounded by backwoods mythology and the incantatory rhythms of the King James Bible, I really don’t think I would be a poet today.
RGH: You have had such special mentors — Andrew Hudgins and Henri Cole among them. But I’ve come to believe it’s the work that is our teacher. How did the anthology influence your own voice? Did you find the community you hoped to?
NM: I think one of the most important things I learned from the poems in this anthology is that there really are so very many different ways to talk about, think about, worry about, sing about, and write about being a person of faith in the world. I begin to see faith in so many more places, and in so many more of my own poems, even, having better learned not just how to write faith, but how to see it. And I have definitely found the community I was looking for, or rather, I feel I’m just beginning to find it.
Since I started working on the project, I’ve made a lot of discoveries. I’ve met a lot of new and exciting poets. Some poet friends I’d known for a while, I found, were also Quakers, though we had never recognized each other as such. But perhaps the most wonderful and unexpected result of my work on this project has been that occasionally someone — another Christian poet, a poet of a different faith, even a poet for whom spirituality is not a central concern — will write to me or otherwise approach me and thank me for starting the conversation. I don’t think I deserve any thanks for it — I know I don’t, in fact — because the conversation has been going on for a long time already and I’m just joining in, but I’m grateful if the work I’ve done has made even one person feel included in a community or given even one person the opportunity to feel safe talking and asking questions about faith in a literary world where that type of talk isn’t always welcome. I feel lucky to be a part of it.