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‘When I was three I was kidnapped,” says Shane McCrae. This is something he has only lately come to understand. “It’s like living for 40 years as a murdered person, and then realising that you’re dead.”
It has taken the 45-year-old poet a lifetime to piece together his childhood from conflicting accounts, half-truths and suppressed memories of trauma. “A lot of it is mysterious to me. Some of it I’m still discovering, some details I just learned a few weeks ago.”
His is an extraordinary story, one that resonates with the themes of his seventh collection, Sometimes I Never Suffered. Tipped to win the £25,000 T S Eliot Prize tomorrow (see page 16), it features a sequence of sonnets in the voice of the little-known historical figure Jim Limber – a mixed-race boy abducted by the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis at the height of the US Civil War, and raised until the war ended as part of the Davis family. “Like Jim Limber, I was raised by white supremacists, and like Jim Limber I was kidnapped into that situation,” says McCrae. Unlike Limber, however, the poet was abducted by his own grandparents.
During a video call from his home in New York, in a light, calm voice McCrae tells me the story of his life. “I was born when my mother was 18 and my father was – it’s a little unclear, could’ve been 20, could’ve been 21 – in Portland, Oregon. The family lore is that I was stillborn, and revived.”
His white mother and black father were separated. “For the first three years of my life, I lived alternately with my mother and my father. When I was three years old my grandparents – my mother’s biological mother, and her adoptive father – convinced my father to let me go with them for a weekend.
“After the period that I was supposed to be with them expired, my father went to my grandparents’ house to find out what was going on – and the house was empty. There was no sign of where they had gone.
“He contacted my mother, she said she had no idea. It turns out that they had taken me to Austin, Texas. Either my mother knew [at the time] or didn’t know, I can’t say. But eventually she knew, and she was told by them that if she revealed my location to my father they would just disappear with me to Mexico – at least, that’s what they told me.”
Why did they run away with him? “Because they didn’t want me to be raised by a black person. They just didn’t want me to be black. They seemed to be very distressed by that. Now this s--- went back to my birth. My grandmother wrote on my birth certificate that I was white – she didn’t tell me this until I was, like, 15.”
But she couldn’t rewrite reality. “I always knew I was black – I was growing up in Texas around almost entirely white people, so I was treated very differently. I was called a lot of racist names, I didn’t have very many friends, I was physically attacked a lot.”
Though his grandmother was never physically abusive – unlike his violent grandfather – “she was a Nazi sympathiser, and so her way of shaping my view of the world, I think of as abusive”. In his poem “Remembering My White Grandmother Who Loved Me and Hated Everybody Like Me”, McCrae writes: “I/ Remember her teaching me how to hail/ Hitler us shouting in the living room”. Today, he sees his grandparents’ treatment of him as “brainwashing”.
“I don’t know how quickly it happened, but fairly quickly I’d sort of forgotten that I’d ever known my father, that I’d lived with him. I didn’t know what he looked like, I didn’t even know what his name was. My grandparents raised me to believe that my father didn’t want me at all, that he had repudiated me from before my birth. And they also told me all these fantastical stories about him – in one story he had gone to Brazil, had a new family, new children, and he didn’t want anything to do with me. Which wasn’t true.”
When McCrae was 16, having remembered his father’s name, he knocked on a stranger’s door and asked to use their phone book. He looked up his father and discovered that – though neither of them had known it – he was living in the very same town as McCrae: Salem, Oregon. They arranged to meet, and McCrae learnt that he had been lied to his entire life.
A year earlier, at 15, McCrae had another encounter that changed how he saw the world forever. Many of his childhood memories are hazy, but not this one. “The exact date was October 25 1990.” The revelation came where he least expected it: at school.
At that time, McCrae was “a complete burnout”, he tells me with a wry smile. “I had given up on life when I was about 10 years old.” He put no effort into homework, preferring skateboarding and rock music. A self-professed “anglophile”, he would also travel from Salem to Portland just to buy imported copies of Melody Maker and NME, avid for news about “Madchester” bands.
But on that day in October his teacher put on a film in class – and a character on screen recited lines from Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus.” “There’s that Emily Dickinson quote about how she knows she’s read a poem if she feels as if the top of her head has just been taken off. I felt like that. I was electrified, it was amazing to me. I wrote eight poems that day. They were tremendously bad.” But it was a start.
Within a year McCrae had decided that poetry “was what I wanted to do with my life, and nothing else I could do would matter” – although it took him another couple of years to realise that actually studying poetry might help him to achieve that dream.
“I dropped out at 18, my first child was born when I was also 18, and I got married when I was 19, two ex-wives ago,” to a woman he met on an internet chat room. When she started taking a college course, McCrae, then 22, was inspired to follow her example. He subsequently signed up at a local community college.
“Nobody in my family, that I knew, had gone to college. I didn’t know what it was like, it was a sort of mythical place.” He assumed “that everybody there would have read everything”, and so before even enrolling he did the same: he read everything. “The English canon in poetry is a thing you can do, it’s a very manageable thing.” He started with the Renaissance, devouring the complete works of Shakespeare, Spenser and Montaigne back-to-back. “I hadn’t read anything really till I was 18 – I read my first novel at 18. I always felt like I had a lot of ground to make up.”
It was the beginning of a remarkable academic career. He went on to study at Harvard Law School, and now teaches creative writing at Columbia. But he has considered taking a very different path. “If I weren’t a professor,” he says, “I would be a priest in a heartbeat.” Although as a teenager he was “devoutly atheist”, after a decade of “serious thinking” McCrae was baptised into the Episcopal church at 29.
When we speak, he is wearing a colourful T-shirt decorated with a giant illustration of a man’s head. Hang on, isn’t that… former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams? “My wife got it for me! He’s one of my intellectual heroes. He’s a good poet, it’s kind of shocking. He seems to be absurdly good at anything he does.”
Williams would surely raise a bushy eyebrow at McCrae’s theology in Sometimes I Never Suffered. Half of the book follows a figure called the Hastily Assembled Angel (“a terrible name for a character!” laughs McCrae) who has been kicked out of heaven. In the other half, Limber’s soul explores an afterlife just as affected by racism as the earth he left behind. McCrae may joke that the only thing “more old-fashioned than writing in pentameter is writing a narrative poem”, but his latest book does both, reviving dying traditions in poetry that feel thrillingly alive. “I think now more than half/ Of life is death,” he writes, “but I can’t die/ Enough for all the life I see.”