Q. When was the collection published?
A. Just released: 2019.
Q. What was the inspiration behind this collection of works?
A. One of my daughters had a cast of imaginary friends when she was little. While most of these friends were described in great detail, she would only invoke the character of "Konkababy" as a shadowy, complicated, foreboding figure. My wife and I couldn't get her to expound much on Konkababy, but the character seemed to carry a lot of psychic weight. On a whim, I tried writing a poem about this character. After finishing it, I realized that this character I'd come to know a little better through this new poem was actually present in a bunch of other poems I'd been working on for a couple years at that point. When I reworked those poems to more directly include Konkababy, it just unlocked a well of material that I kept exploring over several years.
Q. Describe what readers will find as they explore your recently published poetry collection, Konkababy?
A. It's so difficult for artists to predict what others will find in their work. Every reader brings their own experiences and perceptions to a poem. And these poems are the product of several years of revision, containing layers of meaning, rhythm, and different poetic forms. When I have to introduce poems that I'm reading in public, I often have to decide to focus on one or two brief aspects because there's so much there that's been intentionally woven into them over time. So, I would expect readers to take different things away from these poems. With that said, my 10-year-old daughter recently asked me to describe the book to her and the best general description I could provide was that this collection is trying to push the limits of reality, exploring what's called the "Nother world" in several poems—the place just beyond the limits of language and imagination, but which this age seems to deeply ache for...a world beyond wounds and limitations of the modern world. I would love it if readers connected with that sentiment as it runs through the poems in this collection.
Q. How long have you been working on this project?
A. I began writing the poems in Konkababy in 2010, my last year of living in a small town in southeast Ohio, where I was a graduate student and then instructor at Ohio University. In 2011, I moved with my family to New Orleans, where I began teaching at a high school and incorporating many of the themes that are likely to arise in New Orleans into my poems, especially those of environmental and societal collapse, alongside the music of many of my favorite musicians of the Atlantic world.
Q. How does Konkababy differ (or how is it the same) as your other published work Milksop Codicil?
A. Milksop Codicil, a shorter chapbook that came out in 2017, contains earlier versions of some of the poems in Konkababy and explores many of the core themes in Konkababy as they existed in earlier forms. Contemporary poetry collections are typically published through contests. So, I was very fortunate to have Milksop Codicil recognized by the Hudson Valley Writers' Center two years ago as the winner of the Sanger-Steward Chapbook Competition. The editorial process they put me through to bring that small chapbook to completion was mind-blowing. I learned so much from the skilled feedback of their editorial team, and it helped strengthen what became this full-length collection, Konkababy.
Q. Is there one piece which is your favorite?
A. Unlike most of the poems I've ever written, "Snow Globe Explosions" came to me in a flash as I was pulling into a grocery store parking lot in Ohio. I scribbled down almost the entire poem in one go before doing my grocery shopping. It was pure magic, a very rare feeling in my writing process! About a year later, the poem was published and then subsequently nominated for the Pushcart Prize. That was during a transitional period for me, walking away from a life teaching at the university level. The success of that poem was a signal to me that I wasn't losing my mind by dedicating myself to writing poetry and teaching high school English. All of these associations with this poem give it a special place in my heart.
Q. Any general thoughts on the publication of this collection?
A. It's a beautiful relief. When I finished my PhD in 2010 and then immediately decided that what I most wanted in my intellectual life was to write poetry, not write about poetry, it seemed in some ways that I was jumping off a cliff into the unknown, out of university life into a life that I needed to start from scratch with few qualifications or networks. So, as I reinvented myself as a high school teacher and administrator, I've also been going about this process of making a life as a poet out of thin air. I've been lucky to receive strong signals of validation along the way, from different publications and awards, to seeing my chapbook come out a couple years ago, and now this full-length collection. It's profoundly validating and truly magical to experience this life as a poet amidst so many other changes.
Q. Can we include a sample of what readers will see if they purchase the book?
A. Sure. Here's a link to the original 2013 publication of "Snow Globe Explosions."
Also, here's a link to the YouTube video of me reading the poem "Scrap Atlantic" when it was published in Milksop Codicil. Q. In the "About the Author" section on the Africa World Press website where the book is listed for sale, you list "university instructor, drywaller, building painter, high school teacher, marina worker, tutor, fruit packer, grocery stocker, snow shoveler, cherry picker, and a teacher trainer among your many occupations. This is interesting...and very diverse! What prompted you to share this look into your work history?
I think my motivation for listing all of those previous jobs in my bio was simply to acknowledge that I'm a growing, changing human being, and that poetry isn't only the pastime of people in an ivory tower. I'm so happy to have grown into a division head, but some of my most beautiful moments have been listening to a story told by another construction worker, learning to dig a stump out of the ground from a farm worker who doesn't speak English, or sharing a pack of boiled peanuts with strangers at a dusty bus stop in rural South Africa. The lessons learned in attempting to master the specialized language of different professions and to communicate across vast divides in language and life experience have been as formative in my development as a poet, person, and educator as any university classes I've taken. I also think that, if there's any lesson that transcends most world religions, it's that many truths can be derived from living a humble life. I don't want to glorify living hand-to-mouth, but stripping away some of the pride and complacency that can come with material comforts may reveal enduring truths about the human condition that are worth writing about.
Q. What draws you to poetry?
A. I grew up in a family of musicians. And while I played music, too, I always knew that I was much more of a poet than a guitar player. But music and poetry never felt very different to me. There's rhythm, melody, story-telling, and when a poem, like a song, works, it just works. It was only when I came across a description of poetry as “a genre of music” by the late, great poet Amiri Baraka, that this sensibility came into more clarity for me, and I stopped feeling an unnecessary divide between my musical upbringing and my poetry writing. For me, seeing poetry as a genre of music is all the explanation I need to understand how poetry works. In that sense, what keeps drawing me to poetry is the same thing that draws people to sing in the shower...I'm just finding ways to channel the magic of existence through words.
This also relates to advice I'd give any reader or writer of poetry: don't try to wrap your mind around a poem all at once. Enjoy the language for its own sake— its rhythm and musicality, the inventiveness of its forms, certain images that stand out. Give it time and space to grow on you...from there, the depth of a poem will begin to emerge, whether you're reading it or writing it. I think people approach music this way already, but somehow need to be given permission to relate to literature with the same joy and openness. For me, the revelations that come from such a playful approach are what make poetry worthwhile.
Q. Do you plan on future projects?
A. I always have multiple projects going at once, most of them poetic but not exclusively. As I've completed the final editorial work for Konkababy, I've also been working with editors of an anthology that's republishing an old essay of mine on South African literature—an essay that's twice been anthologized before, but which needs new work each time it's picked up again for a new book. I also have three other substantial poetry collections underway, all of which are pretty far along but will probably take some years to complete, given that I don't get to spend much time on them with small children at home and a very busy life as a division head. But I'm content with my writing process. As new poems or scraps of poems emerge, I include them in the right collection and just keep working away in that fashion.
Congratulations, Dr. MacDonald!