An Interview with
Jennifer Maritza McCauley

Jennifer Maritza McCauley is most recently the author of SCAR ON/SCAR OFF, a searing collection of poetry published by Stalking Horse Press in Santa Fe, New Mexico. McCauley is a graduate of Florida International University’s MFA program, a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri, and a recipient of many writing awards and grants, including a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts.
 
At the 2018 AWP Conference in Tampa, Florida, Ms. McCauley took time out of her schedule to chat with Manzano Mountain Review about her writing process, hybrid writing forms, and how the personal and political informed her astounding new collection.
 


Justin Bendell: SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is a book of poetry, and I think of you as a prose writer, that's how I know you. However, I felt like, as I was reading this, that your writing has a signature. When I am reading it, the way the language happens, the way you fuse words, the tone, and the shape, I see it in your prose and I see it in your poetry. In terms of process, how did this collection take shape? Did you come to it knowing you were going to dive in and write a collection of poetry, did some of it start as prose, where did it start and how did it become what it is?
 
Jennifer M. McCauley: I played around a bit before I decided on the book’s final form. I wasn’t sure SCAR ON/SCAR OFF would, properly, be called a poetry collection; I still think of it as a poetry/prose or hybrid collection. I like the poetry label, though, because it tells readers that every piece in the book is a poem. This sort of reading raises questions as to what poetry is, isn’t and can be. The reader’s prior experiences with poetry may lead to a variety of different interpretations of the text. That’s cool with me.  
 
I didn’t have a plan to write a poetry (or hybrid) collection originally, but I’ve always loved poetry. I was a UTA for the poet Lynn Emmanuel as an undergraduate and started out in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, but I switched over to fiction. Like you said, I was mostly focusing on long-form prose when I was in my MFA. After I finished my MFA thesis, a historical novel I wrote at FIU [Florida International University], I assumed I’d go on to write short stories again. I couldn’t. After the novel was done, I hit a point where I just needed a break from writing long narratives.

When I get stuck in a writing rut, I usually immerse myself in reading outside my genre. So when I’m writing fiction or essays, I read a poetry collection. After I started my PhD, I gravitated toward shorter works and poetry again, and was inspired by Jean Toomer, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Gloria Anzaldua, writers whose work, identity, and scholarship reside in hybrid spaces. Also, because of the political climate and where I was in my life, the subjects on my heart weren’t working in the novel or short story form anymore. It would take too long to get to the point(s) or to topics I wanted to explore. It felt more organic to write in prose poems, flash fiction, and poetry at that time.  I can’t tell you exactly why.
 
To answer the second part of your question, the first piece I wrote for the book was "Summer Love, On Sidewalks," which was published as a prose poem. A few more poems (many didn’t make it into the book) followed. SCAR ON/SCAR OFF started to slowly emerge, in my head, as a cohesive project, when I started writing more personal stuff.

I wrote the narrative poem "Loriella is Dead" and “Brother Invisible” on a Megabus from New York to Pittsburgh. I went back and edited the poems, and as I kept writing new pieces I realized I was writing a collection about black femininity, Afro-Latinidad, and personal and communal responses to political tensions. Plus, I started realizing the effectiveness of telling some of my own story. In fiction, I’d tackle subjects that mattered to me through characters who were nothing like me. I'd been mentoring teenage girls, and I’d talk abstractly about touchier material like race, sexism, abuse, isolation and loneliness.

They were so open about their lives, and I’d think “Oh, this has happened to me, or I get that,” but I was hesitant to get too specific. I don’t remember when it happened, but I became more forthright. When I dug into my life, got vulnerable, and stopped being so abstract, I connected much faster to the kids and they told me as much. I realized my writing was also going through that transformation; I was loosening up, getting reactions I hadn’t gotten before, and realizing the power of stories and poems all over again.

SCAR ON/SCAR OFF didn't begin, in its earliest stages, as a collection but emerged as one, once I started hitting the more sensitive material. I started looking for thematic through-lines in the work I’d produced and wanted to produce. Then, the collection took shape. I’m thankful to James Reich too, for taking on the project; he’s great with making sure writers keep their original vision.
 
JB: Writing personal stuff can be incredibly difficult, and I've been avoiding it my whole life, but if you can actually crack the code like you did with the poem that triggered you to start thinking about this stuff, then it's dangerous and awesome because there's now a fountain of material to work from. But you did mention prose not working in that time and place because so much shit was happening in your life. You moved to Missouri right after Ferguson and right when the football boycotts were happening in Columbia, so in the sense this was an epicenter of Black Lives Matter politics and racial justice activity. Did that contribute to the fire that permeates the collection?
 
JM: It did. And I’m sure a lot of that passion was built up over the years too. A lot of the material I’d been working on was developed before or during my MFA (I wrote “We Are Always At Somebody’s Party,” “An End,” “Summer Love On, Sidewalks” and “Baby Dolls before I went to MO, for example.) My family and I dealt with racism in the North growing up, and there’s certainly racism and sexism in Miami (where I lived before I moved to Missouri), but I came to Missouri during a tumultuous time, for the country and the state. Ferguson, the student protests at Mizzou, Black Lives Matter and the presidential election, all brought race to the forefont in a way I hadn’t experienced since I was kid. I love Missouri for so many different reasons, but I'm not ignorant to the darker sides of the state.

My dad is from St. Louis, he grew up during segregation and integrated a white school, and some of the racial divides that were present when he was growing up obviously haven’t disappeared. But as were my experiences in the North, just because Missouri was in the papers for these events, it doesn’t mean systemic injustices, police misconduct, and racism doesn’t happen in other states. You can find racism and sexism in any state in the country, in every city, in overt, systemic and micro-aggressive ways. So yes, being in MO after Ferguson, and during the protests and the election years played a part, and a lot of my passions over the years, outside of MO, also contributed to that energy. It was rooted in trying to figure out how to dissect race, gender, cultural displacement, from being called offensive slurs in the North, South and Midwest, from seeing abuses against women, and from moving around and watching the same problems I grew up with re-emerge.

There’s a lot of good in Columbia, MO, for sure. The community has been incredibly supportive and I’m thankful for my friends, the department, and professors. I love working on lit journals, the local art scene; I feel artistically inspired here. There was a shift, though, from Miami to Missouri, where Miami’s melting pot culture disappeared. It was a strange mix of events all happening at once in MO. Writing these pieces was my way of tackling built up concerns and making sense of my new environment.
 
JB: Miami is one kind of America, and then, you came to another kind of America and you're like, this still exists.
 
JM: Yeah, exactly. You can find racism and sexism everywhere, absolutely in Miami. In the Midwest, and in Missouri, though, you are dealing with a border state mentality, with black-white tensions that trace back to Dred Scott v. Sanford, to the Civil War. I was getting into a lot of uncomfortable discussions with folks who, I realized pretty fast, had no interest in seeing the side of protestors, or the historical basis of these raw spots for POC. It was just “black people are always complaining, playing the victim.”
 
JB: Why should you have to be in the position to constantly be defending people when it seems like a common sense thing.
 
JM: When you’re in one of those “why are black people always complaining, slavery is over” conversations that go nowhere or someone is just slinging a slur to you in a parking lot, you have a few options. You can let it go. Shut up, if they press for a response. Or if you don't let it go, and you address the situation, you've made folks pissed, and they expect you to apologize for making them uncomfortable about saying something that was offensive to you. That whole process, doing that over again, is exhausting. In many ways, I’m glad for these experiences, because I’m pushed as a creative writer and a person. And so many of the communities I belong to were on fire for social justice, in MO and otherwise. Friends were passionate and inspiring, young activists were courageous and kind.
 
JB: I can imagine the work you've been doing on your historical fiction novel, which is tied to slavery era America, speaks in interesting ways to contemporary racial injustice, at a time when everything's heightened. Does that inform you, connecting the dots between the times, and how very little has changed?
 
JM: Absolutely. American history is still in a re-evaluation process, still figuring out how to include non-Anglo-centric narratives in a traditionally Anglo-centric story. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me, says grand U.S. narratives or “American stories” weren’t written for POC, they were stories in which POC were “props” or “strictly [seen] as stock characters.” He says, “[Black people were] invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative…” If the American narrative is only made to accommodate one group of people, and to cast marginalized folks (women, LGBTQ, the disabled, POC, anyone who lives in the intersections of any of these groups) to the sidelines, we haven’t made progress. Things are changing, but with every major structural or systemic change (or perceived change) you get pushback and fear. You get folks in power preying on this fear of change. That fear led to the walking back of ex-slave and freedmen rights during the Reconstruction Era, the passing of Jim Crow laws, the death of great African-American leaders, our present racial tensions,.

There is a poem in SCAR ON/SCAR OFF called "Nothing Ain’t History” that uses the backroads of Southern Louisiana as a jumping off point to talk about hauntings in our history. The idea behind it, is that the history we’d like to forget is still alive; the ghosts still live in our country’s busy and quiet spaces. I’ve been to Louisiana several times, and I absolutely love New Orleans and Baton Rouge; the culture is wonderful. But at the same time, it’s impossible to ignore its past. Many plantations are still up for tours, some are used for weddings. The ugly side of our history isn’t an abstract idea, we have real markers that remind us what happened. Evergreen still has its slave cabins intact. You can still stand in Congo Square. There are still statues honoring Southerners who massacred ex-slaves and agents from the Freedmen’s Bureau. I met folks who slanted plantation stories to praise slave masters, who insisted slaves didn’t have it all that bad, at least they were clothed and fed.

So anyway, for marginalized folks, you can enter spaces where you can’t shake the darker histories of this country, where you can technically be “safe,” but you’ll never feel a full sense of comfort. You know that you weren’t meant to be part of the American narrative, and now here you are, trying to find a way in. I remain hopeful, that’s my modus operandi. I’m constantly inspired by the love and support coming from so many folks. But our work isn’t done.
 
JB: The immediacy. The book feels immediate. It feels right now. It's alive.
 
JM: It was written at a time in which my whole body and heart needed to write that thing. I haven't had that experience much in my life. I needed to write what I did, immediately, that’s why, no matter what ends up happening to the book, I’m happy I wrote it. I almost didn’t. My friend, the late Monica Hand, had read some of my poems and was like "Why aren't you showing people your poetry? Why aren't you giving poetry readings? Why aren't you part of our poetry community?" She set up readings for me in Columbia, and invited me into her circle, and that meant a lot. A few weeks before she passed, I was telling her about this book and was saying, “Well, I have a bunch of poems, short essays. And I’m thinking about putting them all together.” And I asked for her advice, and she encouraged me to embrace the hybridity of the work, to include essays and poems. Having that kind of validation and somebody who could see what I was doing made me bold.

And I had other folks here like T’Keyah Thomas, an activist and poet, who encouraged me to write poetry back then. And the journals who published my poems, the folks who supported the pieces on social media, I was thankful for that energy.
 
JB: It's amazing how one person can say one thing, that can influence you into new directions. It happens so often in writing communities, mentors, mentees, and all that. It's so easy to discourage people, but it's just as easy to encourage them and get them to do amazing things—the power of language and the power of committing to each other.
 
In my experience, when I'm trying to write about stuff that's immediate, or stuff that's political and highly charged, I find it difficult to get the tone right, to not let the anger emerge and dominate. I hate polemic writing, writing that reeks of propaganda, so trying to strike that balance is really tricky. You manage to do that. This book is righteously angry but [the anger] is offset by love. You somehow found a way to get that tonal balance, and I don't know how you did it. [Laughter.] How did you do it? How are you able to contain these dueling emotions and strike that chord where it feels immediate, fresh, angry, all those things, but also love and community oriented, ultimately positive even though there is not much positivity in the material itself. It doesn't read as a totally negative work, or even negative at all, in a funny way.  It's like magic.
 
JM: Thank you so much. That's cool you interpreted it like that. I don't like polemical writing either and I didn’t want to write a book of political sermons. I’m a believer in the image and the moment. This is true for poetry and prose for me---concentrating on the image itself can be just as complicated as the message, the image or moment can go beyond the message. You can unpack so much from a moment or series of moments that hits the political, the personal, the uncomfortable, all at once. It was important for me to create a work that was, on the surface, accessible. I wanted readers to generally be aware of what was going on in every piece on the first read. But I also didn’t want readers to say “Oh, okay this poem is only about this…” In some of the pieces I was a bit more direct, but I tried to curb that directness by playing with the voice of the speaker. I like trying out voices, that’s the wonderful thing about poetry; the speaker is the speaker. It doesn’t always have to be confessional or your purest real-life voice.
 
JB: It's like your surrogate.
 
JM: Yeah. And creating a hybrid work, including multiple styles and forms helped me get away from being polemically-minded, or just making the book feel one-note. I think if every single poem was "When They Say Stop Speaking Ghetto" it wouldn’t have been the book I wanted it to be. I also didn’t want to only write narrative poems. I wasn’t imagining a book of essays. I wanted a mix of the performative, the narrative, the experimental, the lyrical. But the story-teller in me is still there; I still think about how to hit narrative notes.
 
JB: That makes sense. It sounds good on paper, but it's hard to actualize, so I commend you.
 
There are a million more things I could ask you but I'm not going to beat this to death, so . . . what's next? What are you working on? What are you excited about? What can we expect in the next couple years?
 
JM: Right now, I'm focusing on my composition essays and oral exams in my PhD program. I’m creatively in a place where I’m working on projects but I’m not holding myself to a deadline. Since I finished a few long projects, I’m just experimenting now, letting that process unfold naturally.
 
Ideally, I’d like to write another hybrid book. Since this book wasn’t meant to be in chronological order, I want to challenge myself to approach the form in a different way. I wanted [SCAR ON/SCAR OFF] to have a bit of dissonance, and the time jumps were intentional. I might try something new, though, in the next work.
 
JB: It's "I, We, Us."
 
JM: Right. In “I” and “Us” particularly, I tried to make it clear which pieces were part of my story (with reoccurring place-holders, names, and settings) and in “We” there are more persona pieces and prose poems that are focused on the problems and power of the “We,” encouraging the reader to become that “we.” (And if the “I,” “Us,” and “We” bleed together that’s part of the point.) The next hybrid project won’t have that structure, though. I also plan to return to long-form prose. I have a short story collection that I’m finishing. I'd like to write another novel at some point, but that’s down the line. I keep busy.
 
JB: Plenty of works in progress.
 
JM: Haha, hopefully. I’m restless. And got to finish the degree!
 
JB: Well, thank you for spending time with us, Jen.
 
JM: Thank you so much for inviting me. I appreciate it.
    

Jennifer Maritza McCauley teaches at the University of Missouri, where she is working on her PhD in creative writing. She is also Contest Editor at The Missouri Review and poetry editor at Origins Literary Journal. She has received awards from Best of the Net and the Academy of American Poets, and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, CantoMundo, and Kimbilio. Her work appears in PleiadesColumbia Journal, Passages North, Jabberwock Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her poetry-prose collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is now available from Stalking Horse Press.