Introduction to the Madwoman: An Interview with Shara McCallum

AJB: In Madwoman, you write about the different stages of womanhood—from a young child in the beginning of the collection to a middle aged woman at the end. When does the Madwoman begin and is this madness an inevitable trait we gain as we grow?

SM: I suspect some forms of ‘madness’ are an inevitable byproduct of aging. As we go along in life, if we are fortunate to live long enough, we will all accumulate losses—of people we love to death or to the changing nature of relationships over time, or of parts of ourselves as we are forced to confront the fact that versions of who we thought we might be or a life we imagined we would live will simply not coming into being. The poems in the collection address various feelings of ‘madness’ roiling below the surface—among others, rage and sadness and dislocation of the self but also defiance, a wanting to say or actually saying ‘fuck you’ to societal norms and expectations. The vantage points through which I look closely at or dwell in these poems in anger, despair, fear, moments of coming unhinged, etc. are those of womanhood and girlhood and the stages in-between, as you note. But I am sure the gamut of emotions the Madwoman confronts exists in men and women alike, in anyone who has eyes to see and does not close them.

AJB:  In “Madwoman Apocrypha” the poem is set up as many voices, having different conversations, all at once; each voice asking or saying something different to the Madwoman. The word “Apocrypha” is a biblical term which references a series of sacred texts of unknown origin. How could this word define the poem?

SM: It speaks to it very well. But there’s another part of the definition of the word that is important to me to add to the mix. Apocryphal texts are those omitted from the ‘canon’ and are therefore not accepted as doctrine. Aspersions are often cast upon apocryphal narratives—due to their supposed lack of authenticity or truthfulness or sufficient evidence to back them up—in order to qualify and rationalize their exclusion.

AJB: Would you characterize this book as an ode to women? If so, is there a particular poem or line within that speaks to you the most?

SM: Yes, absolutely. I like that idea very much. I would add that this is a book that also wants to interrogate subjects such as memory, grief, violence, identity in myriad ways including being a woman but also being mixed-race and of dual-nationalities and an immigrant—subjects to which I’ve often returned in my writing because they are slippery and mercurial. The poem “Madwoman Aprocrypha” speaks most to me personally and perhaps also to the intersection of the book’s varied concerns. It was the hardest poem for me to write.

AJB: Your poem “Why a Madwoman Shouldn’t Read the News” is particularly relevant with the times we are in. What was your thought process when constructing this poem?

SM: I of course wrote that poem, as with many in this collection, prior to this recent election. It is uncanny now to see how it seems to speak directly to recent events. This is the way poems often work though. You think you are writing about one thing and then the poem morphs in later readings you train on it, or in the eyes of others, into something else. As far as my thought process with the poem, I wanted to use satire to unearth the anxiety and sheer panic I (and I think many of us) feel when trying to take in or make sense of the ‘news.’ I’m not sure how satirical the poem really ended up being. A good many of the examples are sadly, frighteningly, not exaggerations.

AJB: In terms of aging, generally speaking, we act as a sum of our experiences. Could you have written this same work ten years ago? What would the differences be?

SM: I can’t say what the differences are exactly but I know I could not have written this same book ten years ago. The book I could have written then is the one I did (This Strange Land). The river—whether it be a poem or an idea of who we are—may appear to be the same on the surface. But each time we step into it, it is a different river we enter.