JAMAICAN born Shara McCallum is the 2021-22 Penn State Laureate, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English at Penn State University, and winner of the Silver Musgrave Medal of Jamaica and the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. The author of six collections, including the recently released, No Ruined Stone, Shara offers insight about this work.
No Ruined Stone
May 2018: for my grandmother
When the dead return
they will come to you in dream
and in waking, will be the bird
knocking, knocking against glass, seeking
a way in, will masquerade
as the wind, its voice made audible
by the tongues of leaves, greedily
lapping, as the waves’ self-made fugue
is a turning and returning, the dead
will not then nor ever again
desert you, their unrest
will be the coat cloaking you,
the farther you journey
from them the more
distance will maw in you,
time and place gulching
when the dead return to demand
and wanting and wanting
everything you have to give and nothing
will quench or unhunger them
as they take all you make as offering.
Then tell you to begin again.
OPA: What is this collection about?
No Ruined Stone is a collection of poetry. As a whole, the book is a novel-in-verse. It offers a speculative account of history, based on the real-life 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns. In 1786, Burns came very close to migrating to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation.
OPA: How did the title come about?
From a poem by the 20th-century Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid. In the poem, MacDiarmid says, “There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.” This quote serves also as an epigraph for the book.
OPA: How long have you been working on it and explain the journey, the highs and lows, and finally the triumph to completion?
The idea for this book took hold in 2015 when I first went to Scotland and, there, learned the story of Burns and Jamaica. I researched the book for nearly three years after that. So much time went into research with this book, I began to wonder if I’d ever write the thing itself or had bitten off more than I could chew. I’m a poet and was asking poetry to do the work of a novel. I wasn’t sure if I, as the writer, was up to this task. When I went back to Scotland in May 2018 for another extended stretch, that’s when the writing caught fire. I wrote a third of the book there in about 14 days.
OPA: Why is this collection important and why would it appeal to others? Do you have a specific audience in mind?
The book examines the legacy of slavery, race, passing, migration, exile, and memory. I hope Jamaicans and Scots would be interested in this interconnection and lesser-told story of our entangled histories. I live in the United States where the book will also be published, and I hope Americans will also be interested to hear a story in which reverberations of the past in the present are audible.
OPA: As a writer living under Covid 19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, how have these two very different social realities impacted you, your writing?
I may have answered the second part of this, obliquely, though I began writing this book before BLM became part of public consciousness. Like many black writers/people, my awareness of slavery and the continued impact of racism has a long memory. As for Covid, this last year and a half has strained my ability to write. But I did complete final rounds of revisions and edits with No Ruined Stone during this time. I also worked to finish my part of the work on another book (La historia es un cuarto/History is a Room, an anthology of my poems in Spanish, translated by Venezuelan poet Adalbar Salas Hernandez), which is coming out later this year too. The production stages of a book take time, as you know well Opal, but are an essential part of the writing life and I can’t complain.
OPA: What are you working on now, or what will be your next project?
Alongside poems, I’ve been writing personal essays for over the past twenty years. In 2020 I published two essays that are the foundation of a collection in process, Through a Glass, Darkly. The essay collection revisits several of the themes and narrative threads treated in my books of poems, though the discursivity and larger canvas of the essay formally shapes the material differently I think.
OPA: Can you share your writing process?
I generally draft new work in brief, concentrated periods of time, and then won’t write anything new again for months to a year. I prefer to revise on my own and don’t share writing in process with others very often, though I did when I was younger. I sometimes will sit on a poem or an essay for many years, wrestling with it until I feel I’ve seen all it wants to be.
OPA: What are your aspirations as a writer?
To keep writing and to be truthful.
OPA: Share a secret that we should know about you the writer-person.
I love watching sports. I also love superhero movies. Basically, these are modern-day myths and I love myth. These aren’t really a secret about me, but I share them because people tend not to associate either of these past times with poets & women.
No Ruined Stone
May 2018: to Robert Burns, after Calum Colvin’s “Portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid”
You saturate the sight
of those who come after, poets
and painters alike. Your words invade
my mind’s listening, manacle
my tongue when I try to speak
on all I backward cast my eye
and fear and canna see.
Who would I have been
to you, what stone
in the ruined house of the past?
In this world, I am unloosed, belonging
to no country, no tribe, no clan.
Not African. Not Scotland.
And you, voice that stalks
my waking and dreaming,
you more myth than man,
cannot unmake history.
So why am I here
resurrecting you to speak
when your silence gulfs centuries?
Why do I find myself
on your doorstep, knocking,
when I know the dead
will never answer?
No Ruined Stone (Alice James Books, US)
No Ruined Stone (Peepal Tree Press, UK)
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