Charif Shanahan on Making the Unseen Seen through Poetry
The Poet on His New Collection Trace Evidence
Lit Hub is excited to feature another entry in a new series from Poets.org: “enjambments,” a monthly interview series with new and established poets. This month, they spoke to Charif Shanahan, the author of Trace Evidence (Tin House, 2023) and Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and for the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Shanahan is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Northwestern University, where he teaches poetry in the undergraduate and Litowitz MFA+MA graduate creative writing programs.
Poets.org: One of Trace Evidence’s thematic concerns is the “root” of things. This word is explored through several of its possible definitions: root as in the part of a plant; root as in family, ethnic, or cultural origins; and root as in a morpheme of a word. How does the relationship between the various uses of a word affect your approach to a poem?
Charif Shanahan: One of my interests in the book is to call into question what we believe we see, what we believe we know—racially, relationally—and one way the book does that is by deploying words (or morphemes) that have multiple and even contradictory meanings, as we do. For example, in an early poem in the collection “[‘Mulatto’ :: ‘Quadroon’]”, a speaker attempts to describe living from a subject position that it is both “apart” and “a part”—an existential contradiction that appears impossible to inhabit, or to hold psychically, though language holds it in two syllables.
That this variability, this capacity exists within language is not what leads me to the making of a poem, necessarily, but is a tool I worked with while shaping the poems into a collection. What we hear on the level of the line, or phrase, in the above example, I try to make present otherwise: as echoes or touchstones across the book, which has a unifying or cohering effect, as in the various “roots” within the book and other images, titles, or turns of phrase.
Poets.org: “On the Overnight from Agadir” is the centerfold poem and a multifaceted work. Organized across stanzas and pages, it contains multiple voices and differing line-lengths, the longer of which impart a prosaic, speech-like quality. How did you go about structuring this piece? What is its relationship with the rest of the collection, and could you discuss the significance, as well as the relationship (a body) injury has to overarching themes found in this book?
Charif Shanahan: In the fall of 2015, I left my job and apartment in New York to take a Fulbright in Morocco, to research my family genealogy and literary and visual representations of Blackness in the Maghreb. A few months into my time there, I was on an overnight bus that crashed: I was badly hurt and medevacked to Zurich, where I had three surgeries over the two months that I was in the hospital.
In the weeks and months after the accident, I turned to language (not poetry) as a tool to metabolize what I was experiencing, filling journal after journal, but poetry—or the idea of making a poem out of that experience—was nowhere near my consciousness or interest. I was focused on survival, naturally, and thinking purely emotionally, spiritually.
When I arrived in California about ten months later, I returned to the language inside those notebooks and began thinking aesthetically. I had no interest in simply telling the story of what had happened; if I was going to make a poem out of that material at all, I wanted it to be elliptical, associative, polyvocal, so as to enact an experience marked by shock and simultaneity, disorientation and danger, mystery and intimacy, self-evasions and self-betrayals—an experience burdened by the layers of meaning (and history) that generated it—wherein if narrative existed, it was so condensed that it operated nearly as metaphor.
All the voices, the images, the snippets of memories, the narrative present, conversations with beloveds, the self-address, the speculation about what it all could mean—all of it was inside those notebooks, accruing into a kind of excess (emotional, spiritual, situational, philosophical) that I understood to be essential to however I eventually shaped and revised that language. But there is, of course, finely wrought excess, on one hand, and a mess on the page, on the other, so I endeavored to distill the excess so as to make it most legible, most knowable, even as (or especially as) its nature resisted sense, logic, comprehensibility.
There was enough material, too, to constitute a book-length poem, easily, though I came to see that while the poem could have been longer, it didn’t need to be. The version of the poem in Trace Evidence, I think, holds the complexity and the enormity of the experience, with as little loss as possible, without an excess of language that would diminish the aesthetic excess.
I’d prefer not to be proscriptive about the relationship of the long poem to the first and third sections of the book, but I can offer something a brilliant poet friend of mine, Margaret Ross, said about just that: “It’s not that the first and the third sections flank the second as often happens with a tryptic. It’s almost as if those sections are in orbit of the long poem, as if you’ve generated a constellation somehow, wherein the first and third sections are the moons of the second.” That conceptualization really resonated with me, felt true.
The last piece of your question—about bodily injury and how that relates to the themes and concerns of the book—reminds me of a line from the poem when Ladybug tells the protagonist, “You thought you were going to Morocco… You were going to the body.” A central question inside the protagonist’s journey is to do with home—what or where it is, if it even exists—and that journey takes the protagonist back to his childhood bedroom, where his life started, and to the embodied here and now, which had always already been available to him. What that means is another way of asking your question, I think, and I hope the poem will invite readers to meditate on the many answers to that question.
Poets.org: The poems in this collection encompass a spiritual loneliness and an inner struggle to be seen, such as in the poem “While I Wash My Face I Ask Impossible Questions of Myself and Those Who Love Me” wherein the speaker is standing in front of the mirror with a series of existential questions. Is it possible for the poet, after holding pain, to “articulate clarity” as the poem asks?
Charif Shanahan: I believe that it is, though that “clarity” doesn’t come in the form one might expect or desire. Part of what compels me about lyric poetry, as a reader and maker, is its ability to touch and transmit that which cannot be said in language: the ineffable, the numinous, God, [Federico García] Lorca’s duende, universe, ether, spirit—whatever you call it. There is a mystery inside that encounter, when contact is made by our bodies and minds with this ineffable thing.
But that mystery is the clarity: the experience that the poem is, cuts through the noise of the world, of our own minds, human fears and joys, our wonders and boredoms, and carries us to a moment of concentrated, distilled presence (of any affective nature—painful or otherwise), a state of being that exists outside of language, in silence, though it is language that brought us to it. That, for me, is the paradox and the gift of the lyric poem. That ineffable state of being, we are unable to inhabit, it seems, for more than a few moments, so we return to our lives, to the dishes, to the emails.
But the real return, I believe, has already happened inside the poem—a return to the state of spiritual oneness into which each of us is born, before we are portioned out of that oneness into a self, named, countried [sic], languaged [sic], gendered, racialized, and so on.
Poets.org: Often, poetry has been thought of as a way of seeing things, or capturing them so as to illuminate their essences, hence Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of the poet as “the Namer.” Likewise, throughout Trace Evidence, the concepts of race, phenotype, heritage, ethnicity, and identity are at issue. How did you approach the problem of naming in Trace Evidence, whether of the self, of others, or of the self by others? How does this poetics account for, or react to, the problem of race?
Charif Shanahan: In my poems, I am of course interested in seeing and rendering anew and in illuminating “the essence of things,” though I have found that within the social world (race and nation, primarily), naming can often obfuscate the essence, making it less legible, less knowable.
In a primary and primal way, beneath constructed social divisions, even beneath individual personality or temperament, I believe that the essence of one of us is the essence of all of us. Of course, I don’t mean to say that we are not different from one another; I mean to say that the ways in which we are the same seem to matter more, because they are so easily forgotten or rarely remembered. At times, our sameness even strikes me as more innate than our difference: our differences have the meanings we have attached to them, whereas our sameness is a given, default, preverbal condition.
So while a thing is more readily identifiable for its name, I believe that that thing might also be occluded by it—that a shared essence might be diminished by the containment inherent to a name (whether the one naming or named experiences the name as containment). Even innocuous separateness is separateness.
And so part of my interest as an artist, and in this book, is to return us to ourselves, to the wisdom inherent in our being, that I am you and You are I and They are we and so on, beneath the naming, the compartmentalizations, the divisions. In this way, the “problem of naming” was less an obstacle to navigate in the making of the poems than it was the very font of the poems in the first place.
As specifically regards race, the poems account for both the fiction and the lived realities of it, emphasizing the instability of racial constructs over time and space, across national and cultural contexts, not as a means of dismissing race, but of complicating it, of demonstrating what the consequences of that instability, or slipperiness, might be for, say, the child of an African-born, Arab-identified mother, who is racialized as Black in her country of immigration while not identifying as such. This emphasis on the instability of racial constructs doesn’t make their consequences unreal (on the contrary!), but it does show us the cracks, which, modifying Rumi, is how the light gets in.
Poets.org: What are you currently reading?
Charif Shanahan: I tend to read multiple books at a time, across genres, because I feel more nurtured and challenged by the resonances across distinct and apparently unrelated books. Currently, I am rereading bell hooks’s all about love and Chouki El Hamel’s Black Morocco, and savoring two recent books of poetry: Vievee Francis’s The Shared World and Monica Youn’s From From.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
Charif Shanahan: What an impossible question! Poets.org played a huge part in my having come to poetry at all. In high school, I’d spend hours on the website looking for and reading poems that would inspire and teach me more than what I was being given to read at school.
Off hand, here are a few (of more than I could count!) that I love: Robert Hayden’s “[American Journal]”; Linda Gregg’s “We Manage Most When We Manage Small”; Marie Howe’s “Magdalene—The Seven Devils”; Spencer Reece’s “Homosexuality”; one of Lawrence Joseph’s most important poems was taken down recently, I think because of the expletive in its title, but that poem was extremely important for me to find in my early twenties. Oh, and one that was recently included in Patricia Smith’s Poem-a-Day month [February] of Black sonnets: Evie Shockley’s “black love.”
“enjambments”, a monthly interview series produced by the Academy of American Poets, will highlight an emerging or established poet who has recently published a poetry collection. Each interview, along with poems from the poet’s new book, and a reading by the poet, will be published on Poets.org and shared in the Academy’s weekly newsletter.