We’re honored to have had the chance to chat with the talented emerging poet Michael McFee, author of over ten poetry collections and numerous essays, editor of multiple anthologies, with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation—here’s what he has to say about his journey of becoming poet.
What’s your relationship to rejection? What was the best one you received? The worst?
MM: I always expect to be rejected. Getting a rejection is like not winning the lottery: it’s nothing personal, shrug it off, regroup and move on and put the poems back in the mail somewhere else. The coolest rejections I ever got were from kayak magazine, back in the 1980s, surreal pseudo-Victorian collages saying No in hilarious ways—I’ve written about them in my essay “The Slip,” in my book The Napkin Manuscripts, which also discusses rejection (and acceptance!) in general. The wisest rejection note was from Donald Hall, who said “I like the writing more than I like the poems as wholes,” concluding with this comment about one particular poem: “I have the notion that if you kept it around for a year or two, and kept staring at it, it might get a bit shorter and also better.” The worst rejection? I’m happy to say I don’t remember.
When did you start calling yourself a poet and why?
MM: I’m not sure. It took a while. I hate self-conscious artiness, and calling oneself a poet can sound mighty pretentious. I probably started owning the “poet” label once I published some poems in good magazines, or after my first books of poetry. I still don’t self-identify as such to strangers—I start with “teacher” and then maybe “writer,” saving “poet” for last, if I say it at all. I’m proud of being a writer, but I know that most people would find such a profession quite peculiar and privileged. As I begin my essay “Guilty,” in my most recent book, Appointed Rounds: “How do you deal with the guilt of being a writer, when you’re a lapsed Southern Baptist from the working class, and when your wife leaves for the office every weekday before 8 a.m.?”
What was the journey of getting your first book Plain Air published?
MM: It was a long journey of rejection, in fact. I submitted that manuscript three dozen times; each time it was rejected, I dropped weaker poems and added stronger ones, until it landed at the University Presses of Florida—they’d published a poet I admired, and I wrote them asking if I could send my collection for them to consider. Back in 1982, lacking a support network (I hadn’t done an MFA), I just did everything on my own. But I didn’t mind. I persisted for the same reason that I kept writing: because I couldn’t not do it. As my colleague Doris Betts once told me, when I asked why some of her former students had succeeded and others hadn’t: You have to have some measure of talent, a creative spark or ability, but the writers that succeed are the ones who persevere, who don’t give up, who continue to write and submit no matter what the editor du jour might say.
How do you climb out of a dry spell of writing?
MM: My dry spells are almost always caused by simply not having time to write, due to my job and other things (many of them pleasant) that, like anybody else, I must attend to. While I’m not writing, I’m still taking notes for poems, and stacking them up on my desk; once I can get back to making poetry, I go through my scribbles and see what might yield fruit. If what I’m writing feels flat or uninspired, I’ll get away from the desk and do something intensely physical, or listen to music, or read poets whose diction or imagery can recharge my creative batteries.
What’s part of your job as a poet that would surprise most people?
MM: I’m not really sure—it’s hard to surprise people these days—but the part that surprised and pleased me was: It’s fun to do research for poems. Decades ago, I wanted to write a poem about possums, so I read several full-length books on them, which gave me a lot of weird facts to include. It’s much easier now to look stuff up online (I admit, Wikipedia has helped me with info now and then), though what you find there can be kind of superficial. It’s so satisfying to learn new things that provide fresh angles on familiar material. Isn’t that what poetry does?
What was your darkest moment as a poet?
MM: Probably several employment disappointments, when I was young and ambitious and thought I deserved a poetry-teaching position that went to somebody else. But I’m actually grateful that things turned out the way they did: I didn’t get a full-time job with benefits till I was over forty years old, which meant I was out in the “real world” doing whatever I could find to do, to make money and provide for my family: librarian, yard man, arts administrator, free-lance (i.e., seriously underpaid) journalist, jobs that I mostly enjoyed. To have a career as a poet is the opposite of darkness: what luck, to be a grown American man who has been able to keep writing poems, for so long. Have there been dark passages during my poetic journey? Of course, as with any human journey. But mostly it’s been a phototropic pilgrimage, toward light and delight.