Published: April 7th, 2015
Sjohnna McCray is an American poet whose first book of poetry, Rapture, earned him the prestigious 2015 Walt Whitman Award presented by The Academy of American Poets and selected by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith. He writes and teaches at Savannah State College.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
McCray: I think it starts with making time to just be quiet. I try to listen, pay attention to and process what’s been going on around me. I try to keep an open mind because inspiration can be found anywhere, at any time.
Howl: How do you edit your poetry?
McCray: By reading it aloud over and over again. For me, it starts with sound. How do the words sound together? Is it smooth or do I keep stumbling? Later, I start to edit for line breaks, movement and clarity. Try to give the poem time to make itself apparent.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding poets?
McCray: Find a poet you love and keep them as a touchstone. I would tell a budding poet that it takes skill, commitment and love to work at whittling down words into a poem. Read, read, read and let your imagination go where it needs to go to write the truth.
Howl: Your first book of poetry, Rapture, has just won the esteemed Walt Whitman Award which comes with it a publishing by Graywolf Press, $5,000, and a six-week residency at the Civitalla Ranieri Center in Italy. What has the experience been like for you?
McCray: It has been a great experience. The Academy of American Poets, Tracy K. Smith and Graywolf Press have been so kind and helpful. It’s my first book so I find the whole process kind of fascinating—from talking about the cover, to editing the book, to the press release for the award—it’s all fascinating.
Howl: What was it like having Tracy K. Smith - a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet we’ve interviewed earlier this year - select your work for the Walt Whitman Award?
McCray: Not to be a downer, but it was like having someone save your life. Unless you are an absolute genius, sometimes being a writer is about endurance. There’s a lot of rejection but you continue working because you love it and really can’t do anything else. It’s very humbling to have someone with such a fantastic mind like Tracy K. Smith read your work and think that it has value.
Howl: Why do you feel poetry is your creative medium of choice?
McCray: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio which is a very racially conservative city. I was an intensely quiet and shy kid but there was something about writing that accessed some other part of my personality. I went to a performing arts high school. I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t act but after reading Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin—I knew that I could sing like that. I could write poems that might sing.
Howl: Who are some of your inspirations?
McCray: Early on, I think it was James Baldwin. As a black teenager, I loved the rhythm of the pulpit in his writing. It was as if that cadence was in my blood. Later on, it was the drama of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski. In college, I found two touchstones: Philip Levine and Robert Kinsley. I carried their books everywhere in my backpack.
Howl: As this is a high school publication, what are your thoughts on the value of the literary arts in high school?
McCray: I’m one of those people who believe an arts education saves lives. I went to SCPA (the School for Creative and Performing Arts) in Cincinnati. I was a chubby, freckled and awkward mutant and writing gave me an identity. I found power in words. Instead of feeling alienated because I was “black in a white world,” I felt immersed in the world, in everything, because of writing. The arts, the literary arts, are invaluable. Writing has the ability to connect all types of people.
Howl: What’s next for Sjohnna McCray?
McCray: I’m working on essays. It’s mostly memoir and silly pieces that I hope might resonate with readers. I’m a huge fan of David Sedaris.