Truth Not as a Set of Answers but a Field of Openings

Charif Shanahan, author of the collection "Trace Evidence," on poetry's relationship with therapy and interrogating the instability of his family's racial experience

A person stands near a field on a beach
Photo by John Forson via Unsplash

From trees and mortality to colonialism and FaceTime sex, Charif Shanahan’s Trace Evidence investigates a restless range of subjects with a truth-finding precision that would be breathtaking for a single poem but is present here across an entire collection.

What unites this book is the question of how to speak when one’s personhood or subjectivity is assumed to be nothing and nowhere—when one can’t be plotted on the neat graph of normative racial categories. Further, how does one provide an account of oneself when both account and self are either supposed blank spaces or forever in flux? These concerns are as much about the events of a life as they are about the language that one can use to describe life, which includes a passionately searching inner life. As Shanahan puts it in the book’s centerpiece, a long poem about surviving a bus crash in his mother’s birth country of Morocco: 

“Where does the inquiry begin  Does it begin in my particular body

In my particular mind  Does it begin centuries before me

Does it begin in my mother  Does it begin in all these places  At once”

Trace Evidence is an inquiry-driven book, unafraid to sit with ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns. Truth here is not a set of answers but a field of openings. It felt very fitting that my journey with this book continued in the form of asking its author some of the questions that reading and rereading sparked for me.

Charif Shanahan and I corresponded over email, discussing the collection’s themes, forms, surprises. Oh, and love. There’s a lot of love in this book, by which I mean a recurring subject across poems and also the depth of care in the crafting of each line.

Chen Chen: As someone who also writes a good (obsessive!) deal about his mother—or his perpetually complicated relationship with his mother—I’m curious about your approach to writing about this particular figure, this central dynamic, and how that approach has evolved over time. What keeps you going back to the maternal (and by extension, “the motherland”) and how do you keep pushing in terms of your craft and inquiry?

Charif Shanahan: As a subject, what makes my maternal lineage (and “the motherland”) of interest to me are the complex questions of identity that I have inherited through that line of my family. The layered imperial histories of North Africa mean that race maps onto my family in ways that challenge and/or disrupt the system, which makes it a fertile subject for poems. The instability of my family’s racial experience, not only in terms of mixed-race embodiment, but across national and cultural boundaries, is constitutive of my self-concept and interpersonal possibility; however, what has kept me going back to the subject is my belief that work that would appear to be about a particular relationship is, in fact, about something larger and relevant to all of us. 

An easy (and finally wrong) argument about the treatment of the mother figure in my work is that she is objectified. That argument is wrong to me because simplistic: if the mother is objectified, it is not by the speaker, but by the systems of the world in which these individuals live. And, ironically, I find that individuals who have argued (as some have to me) that I am objectifying my mother are, in a way, objectifying me: that I be an accommodating little mixed-race child, quiet about the issues of central import to his life. Of course, in offering this advice (and it is often offered as “advice”), the person must believe that these issues I explore in my work aren’t relevant to them, too—or that I’m only writing these poems for myself. 

There is unavoidable overlap in a mother’s and her child’s stories; as I say in one poem—“As though my story is not inside / her story, as though when she hides, / she does not hide my face with hers.” The point at which the mother’s story ends and the speaker’s begins is in agency, in choice, in deciding that what the shared materials of their inheritance meant to her need not mean the same thing to him. The overlap of their stories, put another way, doesn’t foreclose agency and choice for the speaker, even as the system of race (white supremacy) might suggest otherwise. 

To that point of systems—and certain readers nod vigorously and say of course, in response to what I am about to offer, while others are skeptical—I genuinely do not think of myself as “writing poems about my mother.” I am writing poems about systems, about the structures in which we live that would generate, in the first place, such an interpersonal possibility as the one that exists between the speaker and the mother figure in this book. It’s less about them, and more about how they could come to exist in this world at all and what that means for all of us. 

All that said, I do think with Trace Evidence something for me has closed thematically. I remain interested in human divisiveness, the unnameable or unnamed dimensions of human existence, and am continuing to write about those subjects, but through different thematic vehicles. 

CC: I’m struck by all the times therapy and therapists show up in these poems. I’m thinking, for instance, about “Countertransference,” “Psychotherapy,” and that part of “On the Overnight from Agadir” where two therapists are “fired” by the speaker. While I agree with poets who argue that poetry is not the same as therapy, I do find some aspects of the reading and writing of it to be therapeutic, and I appreciate therapy as a layered subject in poems. What are your thoughts on poetry’s relationship to therapy and why was it important to you to write from or through experiences with therapists?

CS: I’ll take the second part of that question first, since my answer is shorter: in this book, I wanted to show that there was no space—no matter how intimate or sacred—that was untouched by race, racialization, and racism, that even in the therapy a speaker might seek for race-based trauma, a speaker might face further race-based trauma (as in “Countertransference”). Relatedly, the pursuit of therapy is, for the speaker, actually a disempowerment, a relinquishing of control, an opening himself up to further violence or erasure, when he had already possessed the clarity he needed.

For the rest, I’m with you in the belief that writing and reading poetry can have therapeutic value. I also think it’s obvious—and, respectfully, an argument barely worth making—that poetry and therapy are not the same thing. Of course, they aren’t!

A more interesting question to me is why we assume that a poetics of emotional transparency is being written as therapy, rather than as art—and why that assumption is almost always made when arguing against the value of a certain kind of poem. Emotional transparency is an aesthetic quality, not a personal compulsion. We choose it, as makers, even if unconsciously at first, in the way we choose line length and figuration, this word over that one. I also personally see no aesthetic distinction between an emotional transparency of boredom, or even joy, and one of pain or grief. It’s not the emotion itself that dictates the aesthetic, but the means by which the poem treats the emotion. 

To me, it’s an interpretive and imaginative failure—and wholly ungenerous—to assume that someone’s poem about [insert traumatic subject] is motivated by a misguided effort to pursue their therapy on the page. Maybe the poem is an offering. Maybe the narrative events of the poem emerged from the poet’s imagination, not their lived experiences. Maybe it’s because they’ve done their therapy in therapy that they can write the poem at all.

Also, do folks not experience or pursue joy in therapy? I do. I celebrate my beloveds, my gifts, my victories, my dreams. It isn’t all pain all the time: that doesn’t sound very therapeutic to me! For me, therapy, like poetry, must hold space for the full spectrum of human emotion. The difference between the art forms—and I do believe that therapy is an art form—is in their function, their objective, and while those objectives are different, the acts themselves can still be mutually beneficial. If writing poetry can have therapeutic value, I think it follows that being in therapy can have poetic value. In my own life, that value has been expressed as an elevation in consciousness that gave me access to new subject matter and material, and as an empowerment that, ironically, made writing poems about traumatic subjects possible in the first place.

CC: “Inner Children” is one of my favorite poems in this collection—I’m so moved and surprised by how you’ve braided together this narrative of walking in Asilah, Morocco with ruminations on the mother’s past in that country and also “FaceTime sex” with a former boyfriend. How did these threads come together as one poem? What does it mean for you to situate land, family, and race alongside queerness and contemporary forms of communication?

CS: Well, this poem, like so many of mine, began as a chunk of language that I threw down into a word document after that trip to Morocco. (Chronologically, it was after the accident, though it appears before it in the book.) When I sat with the language, it struck me that the eventual poem’s questions orbited around three figures—the speaker, the boyfriend and the mother—in three places—contemporary Morocco, the Morocco of the mother’s early life, and the elsewhere of the boyfriend—and that kind of triangulation gave life to the tercet form, as I began shaping the language into a poem. The language, as it first emerged from me, was mostly about the adult-child speaker and his quest in Morocco, which naturally gave way to the portions of the poem that are of memory and about the mother’s early life. The boyfriend was present only tangentially in the initial gesture. However, in considering the shape and texture of that trip, I came to understand that the speaker’s relationship was a necessary portion of the poem, almost as a mirror or an expression of the “out of reach” content of the other thread. So—land, family, race, and queerness were already merged, in the speaker’s consciousness, in a way that it took me some time to see and eventually tease out of the conscious material. 

As for the contemporary forms of communication—Facebook and FaceTime—a younger Charif might have resisted including them in a poem, but one process of maturation I’ve experienced as a poet is letting more of the world—the actual world—into the poems, in liberation not only of myself as their maker, but of the poems themselves.  

CC: I love “Little Red Lighthouse,” a longer poem that comes later in the collection. I love the recurring images of rooms (domestic spaces), forests, and the breath—how these images allow you to examine time as both a human construct (a “fiction’) and a social reality the speaker must navigate. In this way, time shares qualities with race, and indeed, at the end of the poem, there’s a scene in which the speaker asks a teacher, “If at the onset of this nation / Race and class were merged… // Does it follow then / You have time if you can breathe?” Could you talk about why the poem ends with this scene? And why it ends abruptly, seemingly mid-sentence, after “You try your hand at speaking / About it all and it goes well for a while / Until it doesn’t and it ends suddenly and you”? I’m wondering, as well, about the poem’s form—this crown of sonnets in which last lines become first lines—and what that may have to do with writing about time in relation to racialization?

CS: Your questions are gorgeous, Chen! Thank you for your brilliance and for your thoughtfulness.

It’s an interpretive and imaginative failure to assume that someone’s poem is motivated by a misguided effort to pursue their therapy on the page.

I turned to the crown form somewhere in the drafting of this poem, because it provided a propulsive energy to the making and also would link each step in the meditation in a way that felt germane to the poem’s subjects, as the hinge lines performed a repetition of time marked by a continuity and a modification at once. However, because the speaker in the poem struggles with asserting his being—with being in the first place, even before asserting it—it began to feel untrue, thematically and spiritually, to dismount and execute a formally perfect landing. So, even as I had drafted so many lines and stanzas for the crown that “completing” it was a formal possibility, somewhere along the way, I knew that the crown would do more work by being broken. I also knew that not completing the crown, conventionally, could invite a cynical reading of the poem—that I couldn’t finish it, rather than choosing to break the form–but what was best for the poem itself won out, as it should have. (Additionally, there are stand-alone sonnets elsewhere in the third section of the book that are also “broken,” though differently than the crown, which became a nearly thematized formal gesture underpinning the ars poetica.)

The question remained, though, of where and how to exit the crown. The specter of race is all over the poem, given its placement in the book, but race and systemic classification are not mentioned until the final section. When they are mentioned, it comes in the form of a question that no one can answer, which felt like an ideal non-closure on which to end the poem. 

CC: At the end of “Thirty-Fifth Year,” the speaker recalls a “dear older friend” reminding him, “You are actually very good at joy.” This recollection comes after a series of existential dreads, daily anxieties, and mundane distractions. I was startled by this ending, the way I’m sometimes startled, completely taken aback, by the appearance of true joy. Was that the effect you were going for? Where does joy come from, according to this poem or to your writing more generally?

CS: For me, grappling with extremely difficult subjects, emotionally, socially, philosophically, I experience joy in the act of finding the language that articulates and enacts the questions that have occasioned the poems in the first place. Even when the poems are at their heaviest, my spirit—truly—is at its lightest. For me, writing a painful line is a joy, if it’s a true line. 

Joy comes from lots of places that have nothing to do with poetry, too, of course. Deep, abiding friendship, travel, food, music, kinship, love, my boo.

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