Monica McClure is a writer and curator based in NYC. Described by Craig Teicher for NPR as “the poster girl for a new generation of poets,” Monica’s writing has been featured in The Awl, Huffington Post, The Believer, The Stranger, and elsewhere. She has performed at the Museum of Modern Art, Silent Barn, Dixon Place Theatre, and the &Now conference at California Institute of the Arts. Publisher’s Weekly awarded her poetry collection, Tender Data, a starred review. Currently, Monica is a creative director for LAMM, a design collective that creates experiential content for fashion, beauty, and other e-commerce brands.
Hi, Monica! I’m so excited to discuss your work today. I’m obsessed with Tender Data—your collection is simply fabulous.
I first want to talk fashion. Within this context of women’s issues, race issues, and gender and sexuality discourse that the collection presents, there’s also fashion: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week (“Luxe Interiority”), W Magazine (“Luxe Interiority”), “red cowgirl boots / and dragging a feather boa on the ground (“Girls Room),” belly rings because “The bellybutton was the / erogenous zone of the early 2000s” (“Chiflada”), etc. Can you talk about this intersection of fashion and poetry? In your collection, fashion brings out what is unapologetically woman and what is unapologetically sexual—what is the truth. Fashion also brings out the speaker’s persona—the speaker’s chiflada. What do you think about all this?
Dorothy, omg, the sentence “I first want to talk fashion” actually made me smile. I grinned so big. In this room by myself. Fashion is a poet’s best friend. Brands are readymade symbols. Plus, describing material adds viscerality to a poem that makes the whole body respond. We all know what it’s like to wear clothes. Even a reader who doesn’t care about fashion knows what it’s like to live in a fashion obsessed culture. Our references might be different. For example, I was thinking of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” video when I wrote that line about belly-buttons. But someone else might think of the belly ring trend. Those dare-to-dangle butterflies. See what I did there? I wrote advertising copy. Because that’s what I do for a living! And i’m interested in how poetry became the language of consumer desire. Advertising is the art of concise, suggestive language and imagery.
To answer your question, in Tender Data I was exploring different experiences of passing—racial passing, class passing—and references to fashion culture served that purpose. Cultural capital is the only ticket poor people have, and mastering it is a matter of survival. For me, at least. I like what you said about fashion bringing out a truth. Even if it’s a lie, a story you curated about yourself, it reveals a desire to tell that story. It raises questions.
More specifically, in “Epic to Lyric,” the speaker states, “You can adorn yourself with euphemisms / but underneath there is an unrepresentable truth / All you want is to express yourself / through fashion / like a canary racking itself / against a barn.” Then there’s the lines, “Psychology makes me truly a woman / What subject could invent / itself and presume / to be monitored in this aridity.” I love the discussion that opens up here regarding poetic truth and persona. How do you define poetic truth? And how do you define your poetic persona?
Some of this is sarcastic. I’m throwing some suspect theories out. Such as the idea that fashion is about self expression, or that self expression is possible, or that there’s a stable self, or that if you succeed in figuring out your drives and externalizing your inner life, you’re set free. Thus, the canary racking itself. A pretty image. But violent. Like fashion images often are, because they reflect violent things that men want to do to a woman’s body. That line about psychology comes from thinking about the ways analysis has bolstered gender essentialism. Think about how that whiny baby Jordan Peterson is using Jung right now. And the line about surveillance is a reference to the inner male spectator that John Berger identified. I have a really overactive inner male spectator. Every time I’ve tried to escape the male gaze, I’ve found it’s harder to escape my own male gaze—which is sharper because it’s had to be smarter. Again, to survive. So I like to fantasize about emptiness, aridity, the possibility of true self invention in the absence of influence.
Poetic truth is intuitive. If it feels true, it is. It feels true when it’s based in sincere curiosity. People sometimes see my work as overly affected. But I really do write what I think. And my thinking is often paradoxical. I don’t trust people who are certain of things. I don’t trust people who begin their sentences with the word “no” instead of a nod or a “yes” to show that they can accommodate more ways of seeing, even if it doesn’t feel true to them. But I think if you’re a poet, you’re paying attention. And that makes your reflection true.
There is a lot of posturing in this book. But that posturing is meant to expose itself. I think I would define my poetic persona as a voice that sounds absurd but is actually sincere. A lot of denial and acting goes into living in this world. I wanted my persona to draw attention to that.
When I read this stanza in “Tender Data,” I literally screamed: “I may straddle the two Os / in the Hollywood sign / and jump.” Then there’s your Foucault reference in “Luxe Interiority”: “Michel Foucault says / there is no such thing as outside / But that’s exactly / where I need this thing to be.” It seems that with all this “tender data,” even when we’re outside, say by the Hollywood sign, we don’t really feel like we’re “outside.” Could you talk more about this and perhaps expand on the definition of “Tender Data,” which defines the collection?