Behind the Words: Fred Shaw

Posted by on Jan 7, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Fred Shaw

Fred Shaw’s poem “Bully” deals with the causes and effects of cruelty. An honest and trenchant look into the mind and experience of a speaker who preys on the weak “as if it were a rite of passage,” Shaw’s poem appeared in the third Issue of Spry. He was kind enough to offer some insight into the poem’s origins as well as his writing process, the literary scene in Pittsburgh, and what honesty in poetry looks like to him. 

Marcus Whalbring: One thing I think about as I’m reading through “Bully” and your other poems in your book Scraping Away is the relationship between poetry and personal memory. The voice of these poems suggests the speaker is, in fact, you, interacting with your own memories, what some people might refer to as confessional. Is that an accurate assumption?

Fred Shaw: I don’t necessarily denote my work as Confessional, though it definitely has elements of that genre. Honesty is what I strive for through accuracy of imagery and setting, getting the details right.  Confessionalism seems to be linked to sin, and, for the most part, my conscience is pretty clean.

You’ve mentioned that one thing that inspired “Bully” was Tony Hoagland’s “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People,” which talks about, among other things, the impact of “meanness” in poetry. Can you talk a little about how this essay influenced the poem and what the process of writing it was like? 

Saddened to hear of his passing a few years back, I feel honored to have studied with Hoagland as an undergraduate and did a deep dive into his book Donkey Gospel as a student in Jan Beatty’s senior seminar at Pitt.  I came to greatly enjoy his voice and perspective in those poems and others that would follow. I was working on my first chapbook, Argot, during a trip to close down my cabin in upstate PA and found myself losing focus.  Whenever that happens, I turn to reading and that essay got me thinking that my speakers were always too “nice” and needed to bear their fangs a bit, show a different side.  So often, as a writer, I found myself presenting speakers that were troubled though kind at heart.  In “Bully,” I thought I’d embrace that label and began thinking about the negative impact I’ve made on others.  Those are the things I think we try to forget and for me, that’s one of those “difficult things” I’ve been encouraged to write about by various professors in my past.

So this poem began by your wanting to write in a particular tone. What are your other strategies for finding your way into a poem? How do you begin?

As a poet who leans on narrative (but is also aware of line breaks and sound), I tend to think in scenes when it comes to writing, making it as particular and imagistic as I can recall.  The first decent (meaning I got some positive feedback in class) poem I wrote at 19 as an undergraduate was an “I remember….” poem and it seemed to open up a way of thinking that plays to those strengths.  The rest of it is distilling the language down, giving it a sense of compression in the lines, making each word count.

You said you strive for writing that’s honest. Can you explain what an honest poem looks like? Are there particular poets/poems you admire exemplifying this kind of honesty? What other qualities do you admire in poems you read? 

Not sure what it might look like, but I think it might make a reader cringe and have something of a physical reaction to it, positive or negative. (My older sister, referenced in “Bully,” told me she hated it when I passed it along to her.) In an “honest” poem, there’s no holding back from a societal perspective of poetry that seems to paint it as something that needs to be polite and play nice. Ai’s “Child Beater” has that effect on my students.  Terrance Hayes’ “Talk” also does that, I think.  Jan Beatty’s work is very “honest” in how it deals with so many of her topics and themes.  Those are just a few.  Language is important, for both its compelling sounds and the ways it connects with readers.  Robert Gibb uses some amazing turns of phrase in his work that is both painterly visual and hard-hitting.  I like Ted Kooser’s approach that poetry should be something his Aunt can appreciate, making it approachable for the reader.

Are there any voices that similarly inspire you outside of poetry? Fiction, film, music, visual art, etc.? 

Reading short stories and memoir seem to be what I’m drawn most to reading the last few years, though I read much poetry in several journals.  Films by the Coen Bros.  Jazz, especially Mingus and Monk. Peers of mine like local Pittsburgh poets Kris Collins, Bob Walicki and John Stupp are always producing work that I admire and remind me to get back to the keyboard.

Could you talk a little about the role Pittsburgh has played in your poems, and how Pittsburgh has impacted your life and work? How would you describe the literary community there?

Local writer Dave Newman summed up the city nicely in his novel Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children: “Pittsburgh is a postcard that the rest of the country never sees because no one here has the time to send it, because in Pittsburgh we work all the time,” Newman writes. “The teachers wait tables. The bartenders teach school … because here it is required that you must do to be.” Pittsburgh being the place I know best, has made me fiercely loyal to it, so much so that I once nearly came to blows when someone referred to it as “Shittsburgh” in a Seattle bar. I was surprised by my reaction, but it reminded me that place and setting shape us in many ways.  After reading WC Williams Paterson poems, and the Orkney poet George McKay Brown’s work in grad school, I found both seemed to be seeking the universal in their particular corners of the world.  I liked that idea, a familiar landscape, as a starting point for some of my work. As for the Pittsburgh literary community, it is robust, with readings happening nearly every day of the week–in fact, Pittsburgh punches well above its weight with the amount of quality poetry from here being published both locally and nationally. To paraphrase a corny T-shirt–“It’s a drinking town with a literary problem”

You said you wrote your first “decent” poem at 19. How long had you been writing poetry at that point? What inspired you to begin writing? What is it about poetry that specifically draws you in as a writer and reader of it?

“Decent” is a pretty subjective thing–my sophomore creative writing professor, Belle Waring, gave me a few nice comments on something I wrote for her class.  I think that’s all the push I needed to change my major and get a degree in writing as chemistry classes were not going well.  I had been fooling around with some lines, mostly surreal abstractions that were my best attempts at becoming Jim Morrison, The Door’s lead singer who I had listened to since I was a kid, my older sisters having most of their albums.  Typing those first poems on a manual typewriter was so great feeling–physically and emotionally– that I wanted to keep chasing.  Having parents that emphasized reading of any type was influential, as well, though my father’s reaction to my first attempts were understandably less than enthusiastic.  Poetry drew me in by its language, compression, and brevity, but also by its narrative aspects.  I initially wanted to write fiction but failed miserably. However, some of the narrative poems that I’d read in Ed Ochester and Peter Oresick’s anthology, The Pittsburgh Book of Contemporary Poetry, caught my attention and became the angle I pursued in my own poetry.

What advice would you give to other poets who are just starting out as far as reading, writing, literary community?

For my students, I have them read whatever speaks to them from the poetry anthologies I use for class as a way of seeing what styles they’re into.  From there, I hope that a natural curiosity develops, and they seek out poets whose voice and subject matter they identify with in some way.  While students don’t seem to be reader’s the way I was they’re pretty savvy about finding and knowing what they like.  Having them read full-length collections like Jeffrey McDaniel’s The Endarkenment or Jan Beatty’s Jackknife seems to be revelatory for those who haven’t approached poetry in a book-length kind of way.  As far as literary community, I figure they’ll find their tribes as they progress.

What are you working on currently? 

I have several book reviews in the works, and some unfinished poems I need to attend to as the life of an adjunct professor in the gig economy can make it difficult to carve out the time I feel the work deserves.  Summer is never as productive a time as I hope it to be, but I’m grateful for those moments of finding clarity and focus. I work pretty slowly and have come to understand my revision process much better over the years.  I’m less afraid to “kill my darlings,” as the saying goes.

Marcus Whalbring lives in Indiana with his wife and children where he’s a school teacher. A graduate of the MFA program at Miami University in Oxford Ohio, his poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in The Cortland Review, Spry, High Shelf, Underwood, and the Oakland Review, among others.