Midwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with poet Sjohnna McCray about his collection Rapture, dreaming of being a dance DJ, being raised by a Vietnam vet, and more.
Megan Valley: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Sjohnna McCray: I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s not a big city and it’s not a small town. I grew up in different working class neighborhoods: Colerain Township, Evanston, Pleasant Ridge, and Walnut Hills. I remember things like pawn shops, chicken joints, Oktoberfest, bootleg cabs, The Cincinnati Kool Jazz Festival, and local chili parlors. Cincinnati was diverse enough that when I went to college in Appalachia (Ohio University in Athens, Ohio) that I felt “urban.”
MV: Your debut poetry collection, Rapture, was selected by Tracy K. Smith as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. What part of the collection are you most proud of?
SM: I’m certainly not the first, but I like the work being done in the latter half of the book. It tries to portray some intimate and middle-age aspects of being gay. More interior and less physical. Although, there is a poem dedicated to glory holes comparing a man climaxing to Athena springing from Zeus’ head. So, there’s that…
MV: What authors have been the most influential to your own writing?
SM: There are so many! It changes from week to week. I think of the poets that were given to me by professors when I was an undergrad. I would cling to these poets and carry them in my bag or check out all of their books from the library. I’ll just name a few: James Wright, Robert Kinsley, Sharon Olds, Robert Hass, and Louise Gluck. I loved how cerebrally easy Lucille Clifton’s poem read but how each word and line break was doing maximum work. One could probably say my entire early writing life was influenced by Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”. Also, the poet Tom Andrews introduced me to Rita Dove. I remember going to the Little Professor Bookstore and standing in the aisles and reading “Grace Notes”. I probably couldn’t afford it so I would come back every other day to read little bits of it.
MV: In Rapture, you explore your father’s experiences in Vietnam. How does that backdrop work with how you bluntly present human bodies in all their imperfection?
SM: Blunt is a good word. What I know of war is filtered through my father’s experience — through his body. He would probably say, “John, it was so f—ked up over there.” And yet, he met my mother and probably had the best sex of his life. There were so many physical and internal conflicts. He was drafted and served his country but when he came home Vietnam Vets were not considered heroes. He told me of instances where soldiers were spit on. The war changed the way he related to the world. Also, he was black and there were still civil rights battles. I suppose being raised by such a damaged person made me see things in a more lyrical way. It’s like being raised by a tragedian.
MV: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
SM: I actually love teaching and creating safe spaces for dialogue. It’s a skill to create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts and opinions. Listening to students, I think, keeps me young. I love when they begin to discover ideas for themselves. The “ah-hah” moments in class are golden.
However, in my secret heart, I’d love to be a globetrotting, electronica, dance DJ. The kind who spins records with no shirt on, a big gold chain, a Kangol hat, and Adidas track pants! I’m working on my Brawny paper towel, hipster, lumberjack beard.
MV: While your poems stand on their own, the way they’re presented in Rapture follows a chronological narrative. Was that always the intention when you began working on the collection?
SM: No. The book took several different shapes before it settled into a more chronological narrative. I was shortsighted and wanted to be dramatically lyrical and arrange the book like a mix tape moving from one poem to another based on mood. Finally, I had a moment of clarity and my revision brain told me what to do.
MV: In your essay “The Marble Queens,” you recount your time as an undergraduate when your professor, Henri Cole, said your poem seemed to be the work of a “flowery, pretentious decorator.” Now, with a highly regarded collection under your belt, how do you hope your readers characterize you?
SM: Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine. I told her, I felt like we were living in a highly charged political time and writers were doing some serious work and heavy lifting. I didn’t feel like one of these poets. My poetry is kind of like meatloaf or comfort food. I hope my readers feel the way I have always felt reading poetry; it’s comforting to know another human being is out there being empathetic to the world. Documenting existence. Being thoughtful.
MV: What’s next for you?
SM: I’m finding that tackling a second book of poems may be more challenging than the first volume. I have a book of memoir-like essays that I need to finish. It talks about growing up with a severely schizophrenic mother and being closeted and gay in the Midwest.
Sjohnna McCray was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was educated at Ohio University and received his MFA from the University of Virginia where he was a Hoyns Fellow. He has a master’s degree in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. McCray was the winner of the 2015 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. He lives and teaches in Savannah, Georgia.