"I was inconsolable when I missed prom and had to pay a woman to pretend to be my mother so I could gain parental consent," Monica McClure writes in her poem, "Dead Souls." The poem is about an abortion, and addresses the topic matter-of-factly, rather than in sentimental or political terms. The narrator simply shares her story -- that of an underage teen not yet ready to be a parent -- and draws blunt conclusions about the state of medical care for women in similar situations.
McClure, who grew up in rural Texas and received an abstinence-only sex education, said her upbringing was "scary," especially when the conversation around abortion was complicated by views of rape akin to those held by former former congressman Todd Akin (R-Mo.) -- a proponent of distinguishing between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" rape. "The horror of it all continues to our current moment," she says.
McClure is one of a bevy of young women writers working against the established notion that poetry is a stodgy, predominantly male pursuit. The tone of her work is conversational -- even confessional. She says she aims to describe her own views in a relatable way by sharing experiences she's had, or potentially could've had. "I study women very closely," she said. "We study ourselves very closely."
Above, McClure reads "Dead Souls," a poem from her latest collection, Tender Data. Below, she discusses her work, and the problem with how we talk about abortion.
What led you to write this poem?
I started writing poems with an intentionally flippant treatment of abortion around that scary time before Obama’s second election when Todd Akin was talking about legitimate rape. I was still working on them when Hobby Lobby denied its employees birth control coverage and when Texas Senator Wendy Davis heroically opposed a Republican attack on women’s health clinics.
You know. The horror of it all continues to our current moment. Everyone likes to compare this right wing faux religious extremist push to medieval times, but I wonder if Medieval times were not better for women. Even though the feudal system was terrible in that it reduced the life of the serf to mere survival, essentially unpaid labor by men and women serfs on their little plot of land was shared, and within the peasant family and community structure men and women were considered equal based on the value of their different but mutually valuable skills. I’m not a Medievalist, but this is generally what the scholarship describes.
Women kept gardens and grew herbs that helped with reproductive health, and sex education involved the belief that a child could only be conceived if both partners orgasmed. During the slow transition to capitalism, the Catholic Church helped the powerful landowners conduct witch hunts so these secrets went way underground and were eventually lost to medicine.
I think it’s important to de-sentimentalize the debate (on both sides) about abortion and by extension birth control, since it seems like conservatives are pushing to define birth control as murder as well. It’s a fundamental human good for a civilization that depends on women in the workforce and as managers of households (which are micro-economies) and agents of their own sexuality have access to safe, medical abortions. If we claim to be a sexually egalitarian society, then duh.
I’d just re-read Mark Greif’s “On Repressive Sentimentalism,” which laments that progressives must use the same sentimentalizing tactics as right-wing extremists, characterizing abortion as a “tragic” but necessary evil. I wanted the bratty persona in these poems to embody what I saw as a right-wing media fabrication of the type of woman who gets abortions -- a witch for our times -- who is hyper-sexual, irresponsible, secular, vain, single, and selfish.
I also just wanted to talk about how scary it was for me to grow up with an abstinence-only education co-existing with rape culture in rural Texas.
The tone of this poem, and other poems of yours, is confessional. Why is that, and what effect do you hope that will achieve?
Using “I” challenges readers to parse out the persona from the author’s autobiographical “I," which is always an interesting tension to create. I also think of this “I” as being collective, because it describes experiences I’ve had or, if not, could have easily had. I study women very closely. We study ourselves very closely. The effect I was going for was relatability, I suppose.
You write bluntly about women's issues -- topics poetry has been shy about in the past. Which other poets do you think do this well?
Ariana Reines, Jenny Zhang, Ana Carrette, Jennifer Tamayo, Lara Glenum, Chelsea Hodson, Niina Pollari and Dodie Bellamy employ bluntness to great effect.
In this poems and others in your collection, you undulate between tragic and funny. How do these two opposing moods work together in your poems?
Comedy and tragedy are co-dependant. For me, those moods have a sublime and absurd connection that I’ve never understood to be oppositional in the same way other people have. I have lots of early memories of my family having drunk and joyful times at funerals and in the midst of other tragedies, so at a young age understood some emotional responses to be socially affected (the appropriate emotion) and that more private emotional responses were weird and double-sided.
Think about how at the end of a Greek tragedy, the gods come down and just fix everything only to mess them up again in another narrative. I’ve always thought that was funny. I think there’s a therapeutic relationship, too. We process the realities that make us feel powerless (sexism, racism, economic disenfranchisement, mortality) through humor, and this collection is very focused on power dynamics.
You've mentioned that you like to "lightly art direct" your readings. What role do you think outward appearance plays in poetry performance? And why did you choose to dress as you did for this particular performance?
I think fashion is a narrative. I think of what expectations an audience might have for a certain kind of performance and play with that. For many years, I was accustomed to poetry readings being somber events in which personalities recede in an effort to forefront the work. Women, especially, seemed worried about not being taken seriously if they looked too dressed up. Well, I thought about it at least. But those kinds of readings felt incomplete.
The myth of the artist, the politicized body of the performer (especially if she’s a woman), and the ways in which art is made by a body are part of the conversation, whether we’re explicit about it or not. For this particular performance, I thought the expectation would be for me to appear youthful, urban, and ultra-feminine so I went with something softer and more generic. I was thinking of angels, which aren’t human but are as anthropomorphized euphemisms for gentle, beautiful women in our culture. The poem is harsh on patriarchal religions and the outfit is soft like an angel. I like the contrast.