The Action of Love: A Conversation with Charif Shanahan

Charif Shanahan and Morgan Parker. Photographs by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. I read Charif Shanahan’s Trace Evidence two ways: first as a new work by a friend, written through and about what I know to have been some of his most harrowing years, during which he recovered from a near-fatal bus accident in Morocco, and also as the second collection of a phenomenal early-career poet with a dangerously skilled command of craft. I read it as an intimate reader, and as a distant one, and both times, I experienced a sense of introduction. When we talked on Zoom, Charif told me the book “feels like a birth,” and that feeling of birth, or rebirth, permeates Trace Evidence, as a deepening and an extension of the questions in Shanahan’s first collection, and as an announcement of self and purpose that feels brand new. —Morgan Parker PARKER I love the last line of “Trace Evidence,” the book’s titular poem: “For us here now I will be the first of our line.” It’s such an exhilarating sentence. Can you tell me about that idea of deciding to be a beginning? SHANAHAN It is only we who get to tell others who we are, even when—and perhaps especially when—we are inside a system that empowers those around us to tell us who we are. Put another way, choice and agency are questions I’m thinking about in this book. I think the agency here, inside that pronouncement, is in moving deeply into what had already been waiting for me. One could call it an acceptance, but it required first a clearing of the fog such that I could see this reality and not exactly choose it, but choose to name it and step into it and inhabit it. One of the things you and I have talked about a lot is how layered my family story is as regards race. It wasn’t just white parent, Black parent; it wasn’t just light-skinned, dark-skinned; it wasn’t just American Blackness, non-American Blackness; it was all these things at once. That was part of what was so challenging while growing up. But it’s also the beauty of how my family holds race. For me to be able to say that it is beautiful is, I think, a mark of tremendous evolution and growth. PARKER There’s so much in your first book and in Trace Evidence about passing publicly—passing to white people and passing to Black people. But underlying that is the passing or not-passing that you have done in your family. Can you tell me a little more about those family dynamics? SHANAHAN Well, as you know, I was born to an Irish-American father and a Moroccan mother. In simplistic terms, we’re a mixed, Black-white family. However, for many reasons to do with the layers of empire in the North of Africa, my mother identities as an Arab, and not as African or Black, though she is perceived as both. And so my brothers and I—and I should speak for myself … I wasn’t exactly caught between “whiteness” and “Blackness,” growing up, but between whiteness and a Blackness that didn’t recognize itself as such. Many of the poems emerge from that dissonance, and I think it’s important to be vocal about that racialized experience, despite the privilege I possess. Privilege is where the narrative ends for a lot of people. People might say, “You’re light enough to pass, so what are you talking about?” But I want to put forward a narrative like that in Trace Evidence because racialized experience is so much more complicated than we seem to think. If you have a body, you are racialized. Everybody is having a racialized experience. There are trends within those experiences, of course. Primary narratives. And if Black people are being tried and killed in the street, that obviously needs our urgent examination and action. But I think we can most effectively reckon with race if as many narratives are on the table as possible. Take, for example, the racial violence I’ve experienced in my life. Folks might think, “Who’s going to profile you? What kind of violence are you experiencing?” But it’s a disservice to the complexity of the conversation to assume that violence is only, or even primarily, bodily, or that it comes only when race is optically perceived. PARKER So are we talking about racial individuality? The importance of the individual experience within what is usually regarded as collective, categorical experience? SHANAHAN Yes—and about how an individual’s pathology is shaped around race, not only in terms of implicit bias and the associations one is conditioned into believing, but also in terms of what one recognizes as belonging within a racial category in the first place. I was Zooming with a white mentor of mine whom I help with her poems—she’s a critic by training and is writing poems about her whiteness and very movingly working at decolonizing her mind, at more than seventy. It’s amazing to witness. I’m honored. It’s holy. I raised with her one day the fact that race has no basis in biological or scientific fact, even though it firstly is about the body and the way that the body presents. As I put language to this point, Morgan, I am acut

The Action of Love: A Conversation with Charif Shanahan

Charif Shanahan and Morgan Parker. Photographs by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

I read Charif Shanahan’s Trace Evidence two ways: first as a new work by a friend, written through and about what I know to have been some of his most harrowing years, during which he recovered from a near-fatal bus accident in Morocco, and also as the second collection of a phenomenal early-career poet with a dangerously skilled command of craft. I read it as an intimate reader, and as a distant one, and both times, I experienced a sense of introduction. When we talked on Zoom, Charif told me the book “feels like a birth,” and that feeling of birth, or rebirth, permeates Trace Evidence, as a deepening and an extension of the questions in Shanahan’s first collection, and as an announcement of self and purpose that feels brand new.

—Morgan Parker

PARKER

I love the last line of “Trace Evidence,” the book’s titular poem: “For us here now I will be the first of our line.” It’s such an exhilarating sentence. Can you tell me about that idea of deciding to be a beginning?

SHANAHAN

It is only we who get to tell others who we are, even when—and perhaps especially when—we are inside a system that empowers those around us to tell us who we are. Put another way, choice and agency are questions I’m thinking about in this book. I think the agency here, inside that pronouncement, is in moving deeply into what had already been waiting for me. One could call it an acceptance, but it required first a clearing of the fog such that I could see this reality and not exactly choose it, but choose to name it and step into it and inhabit it. One of the things you and I have talked about a lot is how layered my family story is as regards race. It wasn’t just white parent, Black parent; it wasn’t just light-skinned, dark-skinned; it wasn’t just American Blackness, non-American Blackness; it was all these things at once. That was part of what was so challenging while growing up. But it’s also the beauty of how my family holds race. For me to be able to say that it is beautiful is, I think, a mark of tremendous evolution and growth.

PARKER

There’s so much in your first book and in Trace Evidence about passing publicly—passing to white people and passing to Black people. But underlying that is the passing or not-passing that you have done in your family. Can you tell me a little more about those family dynamics?

SHANAHAN

Well, as you know, I was born to an Irish-American father and a Moroccan mother. In simplistic terms, we’re a mixed, Black-white family. However, for many reasons to do with the layers of empire in the North of Africa, my mother identities as an Arab, and not as African or Black, though she is perceived as both. And so my brothers and I—and I should speak for myself … I wasn’t exactly caught between “whiteness” and “Blackness,” growing up, but between whiteness and a Blackness that didn’t recognize itself as such. Many of the poems emerge from that dissonance, and I think it’s important to be vocal about that racialized experience, despite the privilege I possess. Privilege is where the narrative ends for a lot of people. People might say, “You’re light enough to pass, so what are you talking about?” But I want to put forward a narrative like that in Trace Evidence because racialized experience is so much more complicated than we seem to think. If you have a body, you are racialized. Everybody is having a racialized experience. There are trends within those experiences, of course. Primary narratives. And if Black people are being tried and killed in the street, that obviously needs our urgent examination and action. But I think we can most effectively reckon with race if as many narratives are on the table as possible. Take, for example, the racial violence I’ve experienced in my life. Folks might think, “Who’s going to profile you? What kind of violence are you experiencing?” But it’s a disservice to the complexity of the conversation to assume that violence is only, or even primarily, bodily, or that it comes only when race is optically perceived.

PARKER

So are we talking about racial individuality? The importance of the individual experience within what is usually regarded as collective, categorical experience?

SHANAHAN

Yes—and about how an individual’s pathology is shaped around race, not only in terms of implicit bias and the associations one is conditioned into believing, but also in terms of what one recognizes as belonging within a racial category in the first place. I was Zooming with a white mentor of mine whom I help with her poems—she’s a critic by training and is writing poems about her whiteness and very movingly working at decolonizing her mind, at more than seventy. It’s amazing to witness. I’m honored. It’s holy. I raised with her one day the fact that race has no basis in biological or scientific fact, even though it firstly is about the body and the way that the body presents. As I put language to this point, Morgan, I am acutely aware of you. While I think of us as two Black people, it’s also true that each of us is having very different racialized experiences, due not only to phenotype, but to other aspects of embodiment and selfhood, and I’m sensitive to the differences … But what I had wanted to explore with my mentor is the idea that we are taught to see in a way that is particular to our cultural context, such that it’s possible for somebody to look at me and say, “That is a Black man, period” and for somebody else to look at me and see something else. Of course, I am who I am, to myself, in every room I enter, so I have had to learn how to hold both mes at once—who I know myself to be and the self I become in another’s imagination.

PARKER

Can you tell me about how you use metaphor in this book? How do you think it connects with the content?

SHANAHAN

The way I think about metaphor, about figuration in general, is less about equation than about seeing how far apart the two things can be while still having a tether, still having some connective tissue. At its most compressed, narrative can function as metaphor. The opening poem, “Colonialism,” for example, comes from memory, and its narrative is unresolved. It ends with the mother’s question—“Elesh, mon fils? Why // Would you do that to me?—”—which might appear to be the exact question a mother would ask in that situation, but because the title demands that you read the scene in relationship to, or within, a colonial or a postcolonial context, the question deepens. The narrative becomes a metaphor, a conceit even.

PARKER

I would also point to the poem “In the Basement of Sears & Roebuck When for the First Time I Pulled My Hand from Her Hand and Fled,” where the metaphor doesn’t appear on the line level but on the poem level. It’s the narrative. The child running away from his mother and hiding, as that poem’s literal scene, is emblematic of the adult-child’s individuation around core identity questions—which I think has to do with how philosophical your poetic voice is. How does your intellectual self jut up against your experience, when you write a poem?

SHANAHAN

What I’m trying to do is identify, distill, and reimagine experiences that may represent a particular set of existential or social circumstances so as to foreground the speaker’s interiority in a way that is inseparable from those circumstances. And I’m writing as a way to work against our separateness, by demonstrating the effects of that separateness. I believe the lyric poem can take you to languagelessness—that, ideally, is where it would leave you—and that we can be unified in or even by that “silence.” The paradox of the lyric poem is that the medium is language or breath, but it takes you to a place that we can’t exactly language. I believe that in my bones.

PARKER

Is that state bodiless?

SHANAHAN

It’s egoless. In the encounter of the poem and the reader, who brings their own history and imagination to the text, a connection is formed. The reader plugs into an experience that is born out of a subjectivity that is not their own, which might be completely different from what they know. And yet, if the poem does its work and takes you to that place where you are without language but inside feeling, then there’s some kind of merging or bridging that’s happened. That feels important to me, both as a poet and as a reader of poetry. I look for poems that can give me, or take me to, that experience. It’s like that Anne Sexton poem that we’ve talked about …

PARKER

“The Truth the Dead Know”?

SHANAHAN

Yes! There’s a phrase—

PARKER

“Gone, I say!” I can’t believe I don’t have that tattooed yet.

SHANAHAN

That’s the next one. But there’s another line in that poem, “and when we touch …”

PARKER

“… we enter touch entirely.”

SHANAHAN

Exactly. That’s what happens, right? Or can. Entering your feeling, your experience—I am entering yours, and then we are there together as one somehow. And it’s brief, it’s fleeting. Then we walk away from the poem and return to our ego and our self and our life—to the dishes, or the emails. For me, this experience is powerful, but particularly because the subjects that I’m exploring exist to divide. The very function of race was to separate, to classify, to hierarchize in the service of capital—I don’t mean to be reductive, but it all depended on a compartmentalization of the species, right? So how can poems, especially poems that emerge from our separateness, manage to bring us back to that sense of connectivity and oneness? That they can and do seems miraculous to me.

PARKER

Do you see that as part of a purpose of not just your poems but your life?

SHANAHAN

I do believe that talking about these nuanced dimensions of race is part of my life purpose. At least that’s what I believe right now. I don’t mean to say that no one else is doing that, but it’s part of what I can do in this life, in this body. I’m working on a nonfiction book to extend the work that I’m doing in the poems, through prose, with hopes of reaching a wider audience.

Thinking about purpose, there’s a poem in the book, “Thirty-Fifth Year”—the one that starts, “Dread remains. I keep looking / for a thing I can’t name, though I try / ‘purpose,’ ‘meaning,’ ‘presence.’” Purpose is the first item on that list. What else are you going to do with all this but try to make it meaningful by making it known to people outside of your particular experience? I remember at one of the Cave Canem retreats—during my first year actually, when I was writing some of my first poems about these themes, which went into my first book—I read that poem “Clean Slate.”

PARKER

I was there. I remember sitting on the bench and feelings were occurring!

SHANAHAN

 Yes! And afterward Toi Derricotte came up to me by the food table. She looked at me plainly and said, “Baby, you were extraordinary.” And I was like, “Thank you, Toi. Oh my God, that means so much!” Then she gets real, Toi. She turns into the Oracle, takes my hand, leans in and says, “And what else are you going to do with all that pain, baby? What else are you going to do with all that pain?” And walked away. And I was so open and porous and unapologetic about my healing and where I was in my life that I fully received her words. Even as the work was never exclusively motivated by pain and isn’t at all anymore.

PARKER

Thinking about Toi and our Cave Canem brethren and sistren, a lot of what we shared was, “I already have this pain. Let me show it to you so that maybe you can see yours in a different kind of way.” And that, especially in the context of race in the U.S. and what it has done to us interpersonally, is all we can do. You know what I mean?

SHANAHAN

I do. I will never forget the opening circle that first time I was at the Cave Canem retreat with you. Everybody was going around, introducing themselves, and when you introduced yourself, you said, “I’m just trying to get out from under.” Twice. And that stayed with me because what you were saying—or what I heard—was, This poetry thing, this practice, is part of something larger, part of a healing that is pursued and expressed, holistically, in different avenues of my life. And this is just one piece.

PARKER

Generally, that is what it is—so let’s find the avenues in which to do that. No one can say more than me about how only therapy is therapy. I haven’t written a poem in a while, but I’m doubling up on the therapy. The idea of writing saving you as you’re going through something I don’t believe in at all. Even though Trace Evidence is such an accomplishment of so much physical and intellectual and spiritual struggle and pain, I don’t think that you would say that the writing of these poems was what got you through, would you?

SHANAHAN

No. You know what got me through? Love. And love is the thing I believe I’m trying to touch, walk us around, in my poems. Love in various expressions. Maternal love. Love of self. Love of community. Love of culture. Even country, potentially, in the case of the mother figure, who has fidelity to her country of origin. Love got me through that bus accident, the surgeries, the months of convalescence. It was astounding to see: the way that Black poets from the Cave Canem community all over the globe rallied around me; the way that my ex-partner, Nik, and his mom and friends in Zurich took turns visiting me in the hospital; the way that my buddy, Alan, flew his ass from Brooklyn to Zurich to hold my hand at the fucking hospital bed. That.

It’s easy to say these are poems of identity. But for me, what’s inside that—and it’s related to the lyric poem being able to bring us to one another—is that love is the cost. The cost of our separateness is the loss of love.

PARKER

It’s striking that all this was born out of incredible trauma.

SHANAHAN

Yes, the occasion of that rallying around me in love was my nearly dying. But tomorrow’s Monday, and what’s stopping us all from doing that for one another again? What is in the way? In-it-togetherness is a core value for me. And I think it extends from the ways I experienced a kind of psychological exile in early life, as if I were nowhere and no one. There’s that short poem in the first section of the book, called “Exile,” in which I write, “You think I take from you? I do not take from you, I am you.” I couldn’t believe that more powerfully or more deeply.

Let me just say one last thing about purpose as it relates to love. When I was on that bus and it lifted onto its two left wheels, and I thought I was at the end of my life … The first thought I had—and this is in the long poem “On the Overnight from Agadir”—the first thought I had was, “My work. I haven’t done my work.”

PARKER

No flash before your eyes?

SHANAHAN

None. I was like, wait, my contribution! And maybe that’s love. In the form of books, friendship, mentorship, partnership, ordinary empathy and compassion—all the forms it can take. There is something specific and particular that I have to do here and I haven’t done it yet.

PARKER

Maybe purpose, then, is the action of love?

SHANAHAN

I like that a lot.

Charif Shanahan is the author of two collections of poetry, most recently Trace Evidence. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, and a Fulbright Senior Scholarship to Morocco, he lives in Chicago, where he is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Northwestern University.

 

Morgan Parker is the author of the young adult novel Who Put This Song On? and the poetry collections Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, and Magical Negro, which won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award. Parker lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Shirley.