On Wednesday night the Barnes and Noble in Storrs Center hosted Shane McCrae, a talented award-winning poet who currently teaches at Columbia University. He read numerous works to the audience, while also hosting a Q&A that gave background on himself and how he turned into the brilliant person he is today.
At 16-years old, McCrae decided he was going to be a writer. After reading about a professor who didn’t attend college, he decided “If I am a good writer, than nothing else would matter.” He concluded that writing was the only path he wanted to take and the only thing he would do during his free time. He would “either have a life derived from this thing (writing), or wouldn’t have a life at all.”
During his presentation, McCrae read several poems about a boy named Jim Limberg, a mixed race child who was adopted by President Jefferson Davis during the Civil War. Jim says, “But sometimes I’ll see negros running through a field in the dark and not say what I saw… I never lived so good as to when I lived with them and especially daddy Jeff who kept me fed and wearing those nice clothes.”
McCrae uses Jim as a lense to shed light upon the injustices that freed slaves endured and the social differences between the North and South. He explains how much easier it was to write in third person and that “history works a lot like form works, it provides you materials.” By writing about a specific event, it allowed McCrae to have structure and details before even beginning to write.
“People keep doing the same things they’ve always done, so you can write about history and still write about what’s happening right now pretty easily,” McCrae said. McCrae’s poetry isn’t simply poetic and beautiful, but also has important social commentary imbedded throughout.
McCrae touched upon personal anecdotes that shaped his writing towards the end of the presentation, one being his decision not to use punctuation. He wrote poems how he felt they were supposed to be written for his whole life until he met Dr. Greenwald one day at Harvard. Greenwald “was kind enough” to tell him all of his poems were bad. McCrae recounts having no idea how to fix his dull writing problem, until one day while watching “Seinfeld.” After watching a character on the show do the opposite of everything he had done and become successful, McCrae decided to do the same.
After changing his syntax and adopting no punctuation at all, he began to notice how much more comfortable he felt writing. His confidence rose, he enjoyed it more and as a result wrote much more. His professor told him, “It’s really hard to write without punctuation.” That only motivated McCrae to prove him wrong. Despite prominent people in society doubting his abilities and encouraging him to stick to the poetic norm, McCrae became most successful, both in his works and well-being, when he was incorporating everything but the norm into his writings.
McCrae’s presentation was raw and real. The audience was able to enjoy personal readings of his beautiful poetry, while also listening to how his personal experiences throughout his young adulthood shaped him into the lover of poetry he is today.
Despite being a high school dropout and becoming a father at the age of 18, McCrae went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts at Linfield College, a Master of Arts at the University of Iowa, a Master of Fine Arts at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Juris Doctor at Harvard Law School.
Jordana Castelli is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.