An Interview with Jason McCall

Jason McCall reads his poetry on stage
Jason McCall

Jason McCall, English Instructor and poet, is the author of several books including Silver (Main Street Rag), I Can Explain (Finishing Line Press), and Dear Hero, (Winner of the 2012 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry prize). He received his Bachelors at The University of Alabama and holds an MFA from the University of Miami. With a background in classics and an interest in comics, hip-hop, and fantasy, McCall thinks of poetry as story telling. He uses candid language and mythology to address subjects such as American life, humanity’s flaws, the powerful, and the powerless.

How many years have you been teaching at Alabama?

This is my sixth year teaching at UA.

What classes do you teach? What class topic has been your favorite to teach and why?

I teach composition, literature, and creative writing. My favorite class so far has been an advanced creative writing class based on ekphrasis (writing inspired by art). The course was great because our final project involved collaboration with a visual art class on campus. It was great to see the students from different disciplines working together to create art outside of a traditional class setting.

How has being back at Alabama influenced your work?

Being back in Alabama has made me own up to who I am as a writer and a person, really. Being back in Alabama has helped me focus on my own upbringing. I’ve studied abroad. I’ve been lucky enough to have multiple books published, but really, I’m just a guy from Montgomery who was lucky enough to take a creative writing class in ninth grade. While my work still features superheroes and mythology, I’m giving more attention to my hometown and home state now. Alabama is a part of me.

Do you find that teaching students has changed or helped your writing?

Yes, definitely. I challenge my students to try different forms and look at work from different perspectives. However, a couple of years ago, I realized I wasn’t challenging myself in the same way, so I’ve started working in different genres. I’ve started reading new authors. If I’m asking my students to push themselves, then I should do the same.

What poets inspire you?

Homer is my favorite poet but picking him feels like cheating. I grew up on Carl Dennis and Terrance Hayes. Those were the first contemporary poets that I really latched on to. Recently, I’ve become a big fan of Adrien Matejka and Allison Joseph.

How do you begin a poem? What is your writing process?

I usually start by scribbling in my notepad. My first draft is always handwritten. I don’t always finish the poem on the first draft. Sometimes, I have an ending in mind. Sometimes, I just need to see the words on paper. After writing the first draft, I’ll type it on the computer to see if the poem has potential. Many, many of my poems have no potential at all.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Currently, I am in the process of completing “Two-Face God,” my third full-length manuscript. This collection will use the myths of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, and the history of the Southeastern United States to discuss the complexities of personal and communal memories. Along with this manuscript, I am also in the process of co-editing It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop. Minor Arcana Press will publish this anthology in 2016, and it will be one the first anthologies to showcase how poets have incorporated the values and ideas of hip-hop into their works. This anthology has a diverse list of award-winning contributors, and it will serve as both a teaching tool and a resource for students and writers.

What is your favorite theme to explore in your poetry?

I’m mostly a storyteller. My work mostly focuses on how narratives are repeated or remixed throughout different time periods. For example, my most recent project, the chapbook Mother, Less Child (winner of the 2013 Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Prize), connects the recent deaths of Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Darius Simmons, Jordan Davis, and Trayvon Martin to the deaths of young men in history and folklore—such as the Ethiopian prince Memnon and Jesus Christ—and the relationships between these men and their mothers. My undergraduate degree focused on Greek and Roman civilization, so I can’t help but notice when old stories come up again and again.

What are you reading now?

I’m currently rereading Invisible Man and reading Todd Kaneko’s collection of poetry, The Dead Wrestler Elegies.