Monica McClure on “Tender Data”
The poems in Monica McClure’s first full-length book, Tender Data (Birds LLC, 2015), speak in a polytonal voice that constantly transmutes confessions into boasts and vulnerability into power. In this Revisionings, the author offers a glimpse of her holistic approach to the editing process:
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First of all, I must cast my credibility into doubt by saying that I have no memory of revising Tender Data, at least not in terms of line edits, creative breakthroughs, timelines, or agonizing, chain smoking all-nighters. I don’t even smoke anymore! Not that much, at least.
I remember living inside an extended utterance, knowing it was temporary, because, as with all projects that are supposed to conclude, the thrilling tinkering of the minutiae could only continue until it was time to hand it in. In other words, I experienced the revision process as a feeling, rather than an act. It was like living in a heavy cloud of adrenalized transience that was being held aloft by a mysterious gaseous combination of blood, gin, coffee, wine, and manic work-a-day ideas while I worked (in some way, I don’t remember!) to impose form on this ectoplasmic discharge of a poetry book. I was living in an actor’s trailer, preparing to perform The Debut Book. I worried about nothing but my lines, my hair, and what I wanted to express. A part of me wanted to have a little breakdown after it was a released for the sake of drama, and because I love writerly mythos. My editors, however, worried about everything. Just an hour ago, I had lunch with Sampson [Starkweather], who said they were concerned about putting the kind of voice I’d crafted out there, given that it was a bit reckless and overly feigned. Well, he didn’t put it that way, so I may be voicing my own fear here. He was great. He tiptoed around my fragile visions, careful not to bruise them.
The Playboy Mansion
At some point the thought: this isn’t a book of poetry. I said I wanted a photo centerfold that placed the female body at the center of its own language. In the eleventh hour, I was collaborating with a visual artist on complicated cyphers that coded my crudely drawn glyphs into a language, then threw away the key. Less than a week before going to print (I was writing the rambling prose portion up to the day.), I had written, “…use surfaces to create other surfaces instead of changing the conversation”, and that’s what Emily Raw and I were engaged in doing as I posed in my underwear on her gold leather couch with my own invented language shrouding my body. The men who loved me said, “I just want people to take you seriously.” I said I thought it was more interesting to dare people not to consider my art seriously, rather than formulate a book that men would be more likely to take seriously.
At some point, I hired an Irish journalist to stalk me online. In order to keep her Visa, she had to show that she was employed by a real organization in her field of study, though it was under-the-table service jobs that paid her bills and financed travel for her freelance writing. We had a few beers; I felt incredibly safe with her. I told her to comb through social media sites for my name and collect anything sordid. For a year, I’d been copy and pasting bizarre personal facebook messages into a poem called Tender Data. We tried them in layout; it looked bad and was probably illegal. This was a week or less before the manuscript was due.
The closest thing I have to discipline is an affinity for putting myself at the mercy of disciplining forces. My partner is far more regimented than I am. I can’t even sit upright long enough to type at a desk. Ben set me up on the floor of our studio apartment, surrounded by pillows and different beverages, and set the timer.
We called it “Study Hall,” and it began to remind me of some of the most creative times I spent in high school. In detention we were instructed to copy from the encyclopedia for an hour. At an aluminum table in the Science room under the gaze of a sad, strong-jawed JV football coach, without knowing there was a term for it, I’d indulge in wild word associations, using the entries as springboards for narrative fragments and the unpronounceable terms as fodder for lyrical revelry. I loved everything I wrote in there, and one day at the end of the hour I asked to take my papers home with me. The coach said I couldn’t, and, suspicious, he grabbed them out of my hand; he was just literate enough to recognize that I’d written my own sentences. Coach Jawline threw the notebook paper away and assigned me another day of detention. This is why I had to create a language constructionists could not understand.
One evening after work, I walked from my midtown office to my editor’s midtown office in the CUNY Grad Center. As I waited for him to get me from the lobby, I watched a video of a Russian theatre troupe performing a play that was violent, beautiful, and allegorical. The white room felt like time: sharp, shadowy, and ready to collapse. My friend Yevgeniy Fiks, a post-Soviet conceptual artist, had shown The Lenin Museum in the same gallery the month before. A friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years, who had been instrumental in making me a less selfish person, was there with his wonderful new wife and baby. This new show, with the strong, young stage performers, was called Specters of Communism.
My editor and I stuck notes in a pdf for 20 minutes before we needed some wine. We found two greenish white bottles in a conference room and got back to work. I didn’t want it to be over. The book felt like it was only beginning, and I realized that I’d have to write many many more to truly demonstrate how unreasonably I want to understand my life. The night ended with us having cocktails in a bar behind a diner inside a hotel, where Sampson told me about writing poems alone in a cabin, which is laughably romantic and sounds miserable to me, but was a good symbol of the continuity of these endeavors. I think, like Elena Ferrante, I have essentially one thing I want to say (not telling what it is) that will take very many books to express. I almost wrote “Life is revision,” but obviously I can’t write that. Instead, I’ll say that when I read from the spine for the first time, it felt a little Pentecostal, like I’d been given a new singing voice.
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Monica McClure is the author of the poetry collection, Tender Data (Birds, LLC). Her writing appears in Tin House, Jubilat, Fence, The Los Angeles Review, The Lit Review, Lambda Literary Review’s Spotlight Series, The Awl, Spork and elsewhere.