Comic book heroes, the New Testament, rap musicians, and Greek mythology might not seem to have much in common. Well, unless you’re Jason McCall. References to each of those topics feature heavily in Jason’s work, mixing together in the same poems, verses that combine the personal and profound and pop. His poems contain a serious wit, too, that first laughs and then points a finger as it speaks the truth.
The speaker in “Job Description for Potential Hero Applicants,” for example, details a hero’s role as “temp work,” saying one can never know when normal folks will stop giving “our offerings to the gods or build a computer / that will surely go rogue and threaten humanity.” Then after describing what the hero faces, the poem hits you with this:
we will give you a pat on the back
with the same hand we reserve for garbage
men and janitors. We don’t value you enough
to offer you a stable position, but don’t give up.
Besides featuring a killer break, this couple of couplets elevates the poem. The lines raise it from a neat idea, a job listing for a superhero, to a commentary on what it is to be human, to struggle, to have much asked of you and receive little-to-no appreciation in return. This may sound impossible to us normals, but Jason has a superpower for bringing it all together.
Jason earned an MFA from the University of Miami, wrote four books of poetry — Silver, I Can Explain, Dear Hero, and the forthcoming Two-Face God— and co-edited the recent anthology It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop with P.J. Williams. The Alabama native is an assistant professor at the University of North Alabama. He was kind enough to talk to us about his writing, the good and the bad.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Jason McCall: The worst thing I’ve ever written was a cowboys and Indians short story I wrote my senior year of undergrad. It was about a some weary gunslinger who came into town at just the right time to help the town rescue some hostages from a band of rogue Indians. It was full of bad clichés. The weary cowboy sat by the fire and thought about all the literal and metaphorical blood on his hands. Of course, the cowboy had to be accompanied by a bumbling pacifist from the town who only agreed to help because his daughter was one of the kidnapped people. It was bad. I was 22, suffering from senioritis, and on my way to grad school for poetry.
However, I don’t consider it the worst thing I’ve written for those reasons. It was the worst thing I’ve written because I got lazy.
In the big action scene, the cowboy shoots all the Indians and never misses a shot. I wrote that he had two six shooters and took down all 12 Indians with 12 shots. The problem is that six shooters normally had five bullets in them. I knew this from looking it up, but I ignored it when I was writing because I figured my audience wouldn’t notice. When it was time to workshop my story in class, my professor noticed.
I was guilty of two types of laziness. I was lazy because I underestimated my audience’s knowledge, and I was lazy because I didn’t bother to fully implement my research into my work. I remember that short story whenever I think I’m using a Trojan War reference or DC Comics reference or pro wrestling reference that might be too obscure for an audience. Audiences are willing to do the work if we’re willing to do the work as artists.
That’s a pretty varied list of references — though Dear Hero, mixes disparate references, at one point dubbing John the Baptist a sidekick and hype man. Do you ever worry that you’re making readers do too much work when the references are so different?
JM: For me, when it comes to references, I think of them as entry points for the poem. Every reader will approach a poem with a different set of eyes, experiences, and biases. For some people, form acts as an entry point. For other people, tone works as an entry point.
As I’ve worked as a writer, if I’m fighting with references in a poem or a collection, I often think about the Trojan War. Homer’s Iliad is my favorite book/poem/narrative ever. Every book I ever publish will have a Hector reference somewhere in there. But the Trojan War starts in so many different places. It starts when gods find out Thetis’ son will be better than his father. It starts with the judgment of Paris. It starts with Cassandra’s nightmares. You can follow any of these threads and enjoy the story. It’s hard to draw a clear timeline to show the beginning and ending of the Trojan War, but that never stopped me from enjoying it.
I also think about comedy when it comes to references. I’m a huge fan of Mike Judge’s shows (King of the Hill, Silicon Valley, Beavis and Butthead, etc.). Most of the great jokes in his work have multiple reference points/levels. There might be a joke about politics that’s also a joke about graduate school that’s also a joke about the Dallas Cowboys. Grad students will laugh for one reason. People who know politics will laugh for another reason. People who know about the Dallas Cowboys will laugh for another reason.
In the poem that you mentioned above, I thought about John the Baptist as sidekick and everything it means to be a sidekick. The sidekick doesn’t overshadow the star. That’s true for most world religions. That’s true for most music groups. Even if a reader isn’t religious, even if a reader hasn’t listened to Public Enemy or Notorious B.I.G. (that would be shame, though), a reader can approach the poem knowing what a sidekick represents and enter the poem from there.
Speaking of Public Enemy and Notorious B.I.G., you recently edited a book of poems about hiphop. Can you talk about that project and the challenges you faced as an editor (compared to putting together a collection of poems as the sole author)?
JM: I can definitely speak about the project. Most importantly, I’m happy to see that the book, It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop, is available now.
I started thinking about the book in 2013. Part of my inspiration came from the fact that I was between writing projects and wanted to work on something while I developed ideas for my next collection, which ended up being the forthcoming Two-Face God. I’ve been extremely lucky as a writer, and I wanted to find a way to contribute to the writer community, so I thought editing a project could be one way to help showcase the work of great writers.
I decided to focus on poetry inspired by hip-hop because of Amiri Baraka, actually. One of Baraka’s last articles was a damning review of Angles of Ascent, Norton’s recent anthology of African-American poetry. One of Baraka’s main criticism was that it didn’t acknowledge the influence of hip-hop. When I read the review and read the anthology, I figured that they didn’t give much room to hip-hop because there was another anthology out there dedicated to looking at hip-hop’s influence on poetry. I was wrong, though. There were a number of anthologies that looked at hip-hop as poetry/literature, but I couldn’t find one that focused on poetry influenced by hip-hop or responding to hip-hop.
There are a number of blues and jazz poetry anthologies, and I thought hip-hop deserved its own anthology. As I say in the introduction to It Was Written, hip-hop has been the most invasive cultural force of the last 40 years or so. Hip-hop is the T-1000 from Terminator 2. It can mold itself to anything. It can sneak into the tiniest crack. It’s damn near indestructible. And during the last 40 years, as hip-hop has become a stronger and stronger part of popular culture, poetry has become a more distant part of popular culture. I’m hoping the anthology can help people relate to poetry through the lens of hip-hop and relate to hip-hop through the lens of poetry.
For It Was Written, collaboration was the biggest joy of the project and also the biggest challenge. It was great and it is still great to see how many great writers were generous enough to trust us with their work. Jericho Brown, Allison Joseph, Adrian Matejka, Douglass Kearney, Tara Betts, Sarah Blake, Talin Tahajian, Johnathan Moody. I have to stop listing people because I just want to copy and paste the table of contents. We have over 50 great poets who shared their work, process notes about their work, and writing prompts to help readers interact with their work.
I know we didn’t get every single poet who uses hip-hop in their poetry. Every anthology is either a lazy failure or an ambitious failure; that’s probably the biggest thing I learned from the project. We didn’t get them all, but we got over fifty damn good poets. The generosity of these poets has made me make sure that I’m finding more ways and new ways to be generous to artists and the arts community.
Over fifty damn good poets are in the book, but there are a lot of poems/poets we wanted to take but couldn’t for one reason or another. That’s the down side of the project, the challenge of collaboration. Collaboration can be great. I’m thankful for every person who helped make It Was Written a real thing. However, collaboration can hurt. Learning when to be generous and when stringent. Learning that taking one poem means rejecting another poem that might be just as good. Learning how to work with artists and publishers. I grew a lot from making It Was Written.
I was lucky to co-edit the book with P.J. Williams, but when I asked a couple of other people to join us in co-editing the book, they said no. They said anthologies were too much work for them at the time. I thought they were just looking for a nice way to reject my idea, but they were being honest. It was hard. I thought I was going to be able to round up some dope poems, throw my name on the back as the editor, find a cool cover, and be done with it in a year or two. I was dumb. I was wrong.
It took four years to make the project, and it might take me a while to consider doing it again because of the energy it took to make it to the finish line.
So when will people be able to get your new book, and what can they expect from it?
The new book is Two-Face God, and it should be out this fall. People can expect a lot of Montgomery, Alabama. I started thinking about this book a few years ago when I received a notice on Facebook about my 10 year high school reunion. Thinking about what high school meant to me made think about what Montgomery, Alabama, means to me.
Montgomery is one of the most important cities on Earth. The city seal calls Montgomery the birthplace of both the Confederacy and the Civil Rights movement. Montgomery matters because of the blood and anger and hope and slavery that covered the streets of Montgomery, but it also matters to me because I had my first kisses and first fights on some of those same streets.
The book is really about the intersection of personal an communal memory. The title comes from the Roman god Janus. He was the god of beginnings and endings, so he was depicted in art with two faces, one for the past and one for the future. And obviously, a two-faced person is a liar, and every form of history, personal or communal, is a lie. In Two-Face God, I’m working through those lies I tell myself every time I think about Montgomery, working though the lies we all tell to try to make sense of why history made us into what and who we are.