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Shara McCallum: - On Finding Home and Avoiding Narcissism

Shara McCallum and Kei Miller at the 2012 Bocas Literary Festival

Poetry is often intensely personal business, an intimate dissection of the heart and mind. Yet for Shara McCallum, poetry requires more than the personal. To focus only on the personal, she says, will result in a narcissistic, myopic vision. So McCallum’s poetry explores the personal through her family and their story but it also explores where her family’s narrative intersects with that of her homeland, Jamaica.

“I’m interested in exploring how we are, who we are and why we are,” McCallum explains.  McCallum currently lives in Pennsylvania. She teaches and directs the Centre for Poetry, Bucknell University and has been a Cave Canem Fellow and a Walter E. Dakin Fellow. She migrated to the United States to live with her grandparents during her formative years, after spending her early childhood in Jamaica. This act of migration and living as a migrant has been very important to her quest to explore the self.

“When you’re an immigrant you’re always asking yourself ‘who am I?’” she says.

McCallum’s grandparents lived in Miami and she explains that as that city is a community of immigrants she was used to fielding the question of where she was from. “I think people meant it in a way of where your roots are, where your ancestry is,” she says.

She notes that along with her parents, who are Rastafari, and numerous other factors she did not have the option of merely assimilating and becoming American. “I never wanted to completely lose touch with being Jamaican,” she says. However, being away does mean that some of the connections will be lost and so now she is in the process of reconnecting with the island, which she describes as a continuous process.
Shara McCallum reading at the Calabash International Poetry Festival 2012
As a part of that connection which she is seeking to rebuild, McCallum is also interested in helping to create a writing community in Jamaica, which she believes would go a far way in stimulating writers who have remained at home on the island. She admits, that it was the writing community that she found which helped her to navigate the writing life.

“If I had not had the support I do not believe I would have had the courage to go it alone,” she says.

Her writing influences are many, and the first she names is Kwame Dawes. Dawes, one of the founders of the Calabash International Literary festival, is also a Jamaica writer living in the United States. McCallum was among the writers who appeared at this year’s festival. “He is an incredibly nurturing spirit to us living and writing in the States,” she says of Dawes. It is evident that her admiration runs deep.

McCallum also names Lorna Goodison, Evan Boland, Lucille Clifton and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott amongst those influences. “You can’t be a Caribbean writer and not reckon with Walcott whether you like him or not she says.” As these influences highlight, McCallum is versed in the male canon, and recognizes the primacy of place held by the male voice in poetry.

“With poetry you are entering into masculine territory,” she says. So a part of what she contends with is exploring how a woman’s voice enters poetry. “Ultimately women’s voices speak to me,” she says.

Writing was however not the first form of artistic expression which McCallum explored. Instead, she came to the arts through music and dance. She explains that although she appreciates and enjoys the expressiveness of music and dance, poetry became the main vehicle that allowed her to make sense of the world. “Poetry is a uniquely powerful tool for me for making sense,” she says.

Yet McCallum reveals that she began her MFA in creative writing as something of a lark. The result however has been far from laughable. McCallum has produced four collections of poetry The Water Between Us, Song of Thieves, This Strange Land and The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems. Her work has been widely anthologized and has appeared across the breadth of the globe.

McCallum explained that in her early days of writing she questioned what she had to offer the rich body of literature that already existed. When she turned 22 years-old however, she became convinced that she had something relevant to say.

“I think what really compelled me was that moment when I said, ‘I have something to say’” she says. “I don’t know how good I can be, but I have something to say.”