Death Cults and Hopeful Gestures in “Sometimes I Never Suffered”

An interview with Shane McCrae about his newest collection of poetry, "Sometimes I Never Suffered."

When I finished Shane McCrae’s newest book of poetry, Sometimes I Never Suffered, I immediately missed his two main characters: the Hastily Assembled Angel and Jim Limber. The former is a detached but sincere fictional guide through a reimagined and repurposed Old Testament. The latter, the adopted Black son of Jefferson Davis, asks the reader cutting questions about how society and American Christianity construct notions of Heaven. Both characters speak with raw emotion and power, and I wanted them to keep giving me insights about the world, even from beyond the page. 

I talked with McCrae about craft, cults, history, faith, and hope.

Michael Pittard

The small forward/preface explains that it is the third part of a larger cycle that started in In the Language of My Captor and is continued in The Gilded Auction Block’s “The Hell Poem.” This cycle seems to be autobiographical throughout, even as the POV, speakers, and personas change in each of the three parts. How do you see the development of your speakers over the course of each part? How did the series come together over three books? Did the overall goal of the cycle change, or was it fairly constant?

Shane McCrae

At the end of A Fire in Every World, which is also the end of Sometimes I Never Suffered, the peace which passeth all understanding is figured as a perfect failure to overcome God, a defeat by being and the possibilities of being. The speakers of the poem are trapped, as most of us are increasingly trapped, in a death cult — in “Purgatory: A Memoir / A Son and a Father of Sons,” the speakers, in this piece both children, fall into the death cult, and by the end of the piece have realized where they are, and that it is a kind of hell; in “The Hell Poem,” the speakers—an anonymous, damned, adult human, and a robot bird psychopomp — are located in actual hell, which the bird recognizes as hellish, whereas the human tries to adapt to and accept it, because that’s the sort of thing humans in hell often (thank God not always) do; and in Sometimes I Never Suffered, one speaker is an angel sent to Earth to monitor human civilization, and the other speaker is numerous versions of Jim Limber, who appeared as a child in “Purgatory: A Memoir / A Son and a Father of Sons,” and who has now died and gone to Heaven (I say “numerous versions” because the book assumes a multiverse, and so Jim Limber is multiple Jim Limbers in multiple Heavens), and each confronts the trauma of the collision of Earth and Heaven, by which event the death cult, in its first form, was created. At the end of Sometimes I Never Suffered, which is also the end of A Fire in Every World, each of the speakers in the book has had a vision of life beyond the power of death.

The design of A Fire in Every World came to me slowly, more or less as the poem was written, but I had a broad understanding of what I wanted to say fairly early on, and then the challenge was to keep the part of my brain that knew what I wanted to write about separate from the part of my brain that was going to do the actual writing, because the latter part requires as full a sense of discovery as possible. I would say only the section of the poem that is explicitly memoir — the prose bits of “Purgatory: A Memoir / A Son and a Father of Sons” — is autobiographical.

Michael Pittard

This idea of falling into a death cult seems especially relevant in this moment as many people are faced with confronting death these days. The question of how and when to talk about death and how to talk about life always seems to fall to the poets. What do you think the arc of A Fire in Every World says while in the midst of a global pandemic and nationwide protests? Is there a hopeful gesture in each speaker getting a vision of life beyond the power of death?

Shane McCrae

The visions of life beyond the power of death are meant to be hopeful gestures, at least — but the speaker of the memoir (I mean, me, I guess) and the speakers in “The Hell Poem” don’t get similar visions, so the hope is confined to a very small part of the poem. Americans, broadly speaking, have been trapped in a death cult for a long time now, and, in this context, current events only make the god we are forced to worship more apparent. Hopefully, the arc of the poem suggests the god can be overcome, though I don’t think the poem provides a map for overcoming.

Michael Pittard

Do you think using historical figures — dead figures — in your poems such as Jim Limber and Jefferson Davis help to reveal that death cult that surrounds us still today? And at a craft level, how do you balance the historical and the spiritual? In your writing process generally, do you normally begin with the facts of what is known (or unknown) from historical records or with the larger questions and truths of the project?

Shane McCrae

I think using historical figures can have a therapeutic effect — it can help to recognize that the moment through which one is struggling to live is not utterly unique in history. If others have made it, I can make it. And I think using historical figures also, somewhat paradoxically, can serve to highlight the present moment by making it seem more, well, momentous — when the present moment is seen as a continuation of a long struggle, it can seem more historically significant. One inhabits history with a dual consciousness: One recognizes how shocking, even unprecedented, within the context of one’s life, the present moment is, and yet has difficulty — at least, I have difficulty — recognizing the present moment as profoundly historically significant. The use of historical figures can help one unify one’s consciousness.

Usually, I begin with the bare minimum of necessary facts. I try to avoid error if I’m writing about an historical person’s lived experience. But I try to sustain as much gray area in my own mind as possible — I try to sustain unknowing parallel to knowing — so as to allow myself to invent within the parameters of what I know. In this way, writing into the life of a historical figure is a lot like writing in a received form. One knows what one can’t do if one wants to write a sestina (which I’ve never successfully done), just as one knows what one can’t do if one wants to be historically accurate.

As for balancing the historical and the spiritual: I don’t know. I don’t consider the two separate enough to require balancing — each operates through the other.

Michael Pittard

I think that’s an apt comparison. You can choose to follow the past accurately (whatever that may mean) or not, just as you can choose to follow all the rules of a received form or not. And form is a key component of how your poems work. For example, you make use of caesura and word repetition across virtually all of your recent books, especially in Sometimes I Never Suffered. Poems from both the perspective of the Hastily Assembled Angel and Jim Limber have these choices present. I’m curious about how you approach maintaining this element of craft, which I think is part of your overall style, while at the same time making new & distinct voices for your personas.

Shane McCrae

Those particular usages are like any other conventions, and so speech patterns can be fitted into them. All poems operate according to pre-existing conventions. At first, I worried the particular conventions I found myself employing — repetition, caesurae, the lack of conventional punctuation — would limit my expressive range, and eventually bore readers (though at the time I didn’t think I would ever have readers beyond the members of whatever workshops I attended), but eventually I realized they are as flexible as any other conventions. Repetition, in fact, highlights variation. So in order to have freedom to write in different voices, etc., within the conventions I have chosen, I have to become skilled at employing those conventions, which is the same challenge faced by everyone who writes.

Michael Pittard

Is there one poem from Sometimes I Never Suffered that stands out to you the most? If so, what calls you back to that poem in particular? Was there anything different in your experience writing that one compared to the others?

Shane McCrae

Well, my favorite poem in the book is either “Jim Limber Tells What He Knows About Heaven” or “Jim Limber Burning Where No Fire Is.” The former came to me quickly and inexorably, and, unusually, I felt satisfied at the end of it. The latter I wrote well after the book was “finished.” In fact, I wrote it so late in the process I thought it couldn’t be included in the book. But the day I wrote it, I read it at a reading, and for whatever reason people seemed to like it, so I asked Jonathan Galassi whether I could, in fact, include it, and he said yes.

Michael Pittard

You mentioned earlier that some of your poems are meant as hopeful gestures. Outside of poetry, where do you find hope? How do you remain hopeful during challenging times?

Shane McCrae

My faith gives me hope. My children and my partner, Melissa, give me hope. That I have been allowed to love poetry and to write it, or at least to try to write it, gives me hope. Activism toward justice gives me hope. Black Lives Matter gives me hope.

Michael Pittard

Lastly, you’ve just come to the end of a long poem cycle, one that took three books to complete. Where do you see your work going next?

Shane McCrae

I’m trying to figure out how to use commas, and periods, and question marks, and even one exclamation mark. The use of conventional punctuation in poems presents me with options I didn’t have before, and I’m excited to explore those. And I’m working on a memoir. Prose! I’m using all the punctuation marks in that.

Sometimes I Never Suffered
By Shane McCrae
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published August 4, 2020

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