• A Conversation with Michael Shewmaker

    Esther Lin


    A church is made of men.

    Amid the sermons, I paged through the only entertainment available in our Pentecostal church’s rows of folding chairs. At nine years old, I knew the Old Testament was bloodier than the gospels of Christ, so I kept to the first half of my children’s paperback Bible. Eventually I came to this opening: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.”

      My church was in Queens, New York, where pink graffiti lit the handball courts and our public school served free lunch over the summer. But, inside the church, the land of Uz bordered the lake of fire. Olive trees fruited in Galilee and Christ was crucified on a hill once a year. I didn’t know what eschew meant, but I grasped the context: God and Satan wager over the faith of “the wealthiest man in the east.” Wily Satan maintains that if God plucked away all of Job’s prosperity, Job would curse God. With aplomb that reminded me of Zeus—the other mythology on which I tested my English—God sends fire and armies to raze the home of the chosen man.

      I didn’t know I was undocumented in those days. But I had an inkling, from the panic that bubbled beneath my parents’ arguments, that in my home something was wrong. Something we did deserved punishment. While I lived in a city that provided aid, I lived in the land of Uz, too.

      Three of Job’s friends are convinced he’s committed terrible crimes too; after all, only crime begets punishment. And here is the crux: Why do the innocent suffer? At the end of the book, God does respond to Job and the reader. “Hast thou an arm like God? . . . Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?”

      Job admits aloud, “therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.”

      There it is, divine justice for the mortal: we are too small and limited to understand the way of the universe. But Job is neither a Christian, a Protestant, nor an American. A Christian has Christ to intervene on his behalf. The Protestant and the American have the option of rebellion. One can almost see the evolution of hope in the lineage of the American Protestant: his ancestors created Christ to assist in the face of a mysterious God, and when Christ fails to save him from a predicament, he chooses revolution. There is no doubt that revolution flows in the veins of the American immigrant, too, who hardens his heart to leave his homeland. How, then, would an American Protestant Job respond to God? What is his complaint? What is the sound of his verse?

      Written by Michael Shewmaker over the course of eight years, Leviathan (Louisiana State University Press 2023) is his second book. His first, Penumbra (Ohio University Press 2017), is strikingly different in tone and scope. Shaded and stately, the earlier collection resembles a fallen mansion; each poem is an orderly, if abandoned, room. There is a melancholy and cool reserve to each. Yet there is little that is cool about Leviathan. It begins:

    Looking out across the county . . . you’d find, among the rusted solitudes of sunset, at the end of a winding gravel drive, a ranch-style house with gabled roof casting its shadow on the lawn. In it lies a man, bedridden. Watched by his three closest friends, he can’t sleep. A man who only weeks ago was loved and envied by the folks who know him, and the few who don’t, a man they used to call the wealthiest in Kilgore, Texas, the man they simply know as J—, J— Joiner.

      J— is an oil-rich Texan born for the football field. Here in Kilgore, there are swamps and robber barons and copperhead snakes. Culturally, I “should” feel no connection to him. J— Joiner’s life is nearly as different from my own as the biblical Job’s. Yet as I read, I feel the thrum of kinship. I too was raised with the belief that Christ who would save me from punishment. J— too endures the speeches of neighbors who are convinced we are at fault. J— and I are fellow citizens in the land of Uz.

      And in the turn that I, as fellow citizen, should have anticipated, it becomes clear that J— would never fold in the face of God. Indeed his rhetoric leaps like a clear flame. In the collection’s final section, God, titled the Unnamable, speaks, just as he does at the end of the Book of Job, in a show of might. Uncowed, J— later responds to each of the Unnamable’s questions, here set in italics:

        Whose voice is this that questions me?
            Only the voice you gave me. Where were you?
        Beneath your will. I’ll question you.
            Have I been heard?Please, teach me. How could I?
        But would my servant let me? No.
            You doubt me even when I answer? Yes.

    Angry, punitive, insofar as a mortal can punish God, J— might nearly levitate from his sickbed.

    Esther Lin: Michael, can you speak to what drove you to characterize J— in this way? What does his anger reflect for you?

    Michael Shewmaker: Thank you, Esther. I hope it reflects a few things, but I especially wanted his anger to be reactive against the sort of complacency I often witnessed in the Christian spaces I grew up in, particularly when a believer was speaking to someone else who was suffering. I know you know exactly what I mean. The old “take it on faith” argument: “I’m sorry you’re hurting, but God is good and He’s still on the throne.” It always bothered me. I couldn’t have articulated why then, but it obviously discounts the other person’s suffering and promotes an extremely lazy approach to faith. I think J— believes that any God worth their salt won’t be threatened by questions, even the hardest ones. (If J— is as complacent as Job, then there’s no reason to write Leviathan.) I wanted him to embody that. Doubt is an important part of any responsible practice of faith. Why are so many Christians still afraid to acknowledge it? I hope that’s one of the big questions J— is asking.

    EL: Perhaps the most conflicted figure in Leviathan is one the reader doesn’t meet: Demery Dawkins, a football player from the high school days. He’s a “freshman, / a little ladylike, who tried to play / defensive back for half a season,” whom young J— tried to comfort after the younger boy is tortured by the “relentless” seniors. For me, Demery is the beginning of J—’s emerging doubt and capacity for mercy. Can you talk about Demery and how he figures into this conversation? How did he first appear to you in the crafting of the poem?

    MS: I wish this wasn’t true, but I saw that locker room scene with my own eyes. Demery is based loosely on someone I knew in high school. He was queer and closeted (as best he could be, at least, and these were the years surrounding Matthew Shepard’s death). When I seriously consider suffering and how it was most visible to me back then, I think of him and what he endured. Later in the poem, J— says that men like Demery “seem the most / like Christ to me.” Christians, especially Baptists, like to remind us that one way we can identify with Christ is through the cross—through suffering. In other words, our own suffering brings us closer to Christ. It’s an old argument and one that J— would’ve heard often. (He hears it from Ellis in the poem.) The great irony here, of course, is that Christians are often the source of suffering for others. Those relentless seniors were in the pews on Sundays. I know.

      And this isn’t unrelated to that complacency I just mentioned. I think the Christian church needs to ask a lot of important questions of itself. In the churches I was raised in, there was always the perception that the evil in the world was an outside force. We were the do-gooders holding up the walls against that evil. But, when you consider the history of our country, the world, even, some of the worst evils began within the walls of the church and were eventually endorsed by it. Until we acknowledge that, it’s hard for me to imagine an honest way forward. So, yeah, for J—, Demery is how he sees some of these contradictions intimately in his own life.

    EL: For the most part, you’ve retained the Book of Job’s symposium structure: debate among Job and his friends, a concluding conversation with God. One of the feats of this poem is that the characters feel both contemporary and mythic within the landscape of East Texas. Christ feels almost as real as J— and Ellis, William, and Dalton. When you began relocating the biblical text to the gritty contemporary world, what was crucial for you to retain, and what was crucial that you alter?

    MS: It was important to me to keep the general structure of the original. I love the back-and-forth of it all, and I also like that it can be read in a single sitting. I wanted to mirror that for sure. The earliest drafts of the poem were more like translations than anything else (or bad adaptations of a translation); I literally went verse to verse asking myself how this would sound if it happened in the world I was raised in. It didn’t take long to realize that a massive difference between my world and Job’s was the figure of Christ. I became obsessed with this difference. Job was a precursor to Christ and, so, didn’t have him as a presence to lean on during his suffering. What if he would’ve, though?

      That’s when J— was really born for me. J— wasn’t Job. How could he be? It sounds silly to say out loud, but that’s when the poem became a poem. From then on, whether I conformed to or subverted the original text depended almost entirely on maintaining the integrity of J—’s character. And, of course, that desire branched out to all the other characters too. So, while it was language and theological concerns that attracted me initially to the page, the poem quickly became more and more about the people and stories I grew up with and around. When I think about it this way, so many of the decisions about what to retain and what to alter seem like they were being made for me.

    EL: You shift the Book of Job’s symposium structure to the genre of drama. As in, the poem transforms from an intellectual dispute to a play involving characters who have desire, agency, and speak of the events that shape them. Drama allows for one of my favorite moments in Leviathan: J— addresses Ellis, the friend who urges J— to repent for the sins J— has surely committed. J— speaks of a dream in which an unknown figure hunts him in the woods:

                    Their aim
            is godly. The first shot is only meant
          to bring me down. And every time,
            at that first hint of pain, all my desire
          for living, all my wants and wishes—
            to make love to Callie in the morning,
          to catch a game with Clint and Austin,
            to hear Samantha laugh at a bad joke
          I’d practiced half the afternoon—
            all this reduces to a whimper: Kill
          me quickly . . . Please don’t let me suffer.

            And I wake up.

              Ellis—please kill me quickly
          You’re my pursuer in the woods.

    Here, J— swerves from merely describing a dream to asking Ellis to kill him. This passage strikes me as a Shakespearian one: with extended metaphor, one character persuades another to commit violence; that an immoral act (murder) may service a greater morality (mercy). Do you believe this shift from symposium, as is the Book of Job, to drama was inevitable, or did you make a deliberate choice?

    MS: Well, it was inevitable for me. I grew up around fantastic storytellers. I’ve always been interested in poetry that toes the line between song and story. We often talk about lyric and narrative modes as if they don’t exist on the same spectrum. I’ve actually heard people say they think Shakespeare was an amazing dramatist, but not much of a poet. I took them to mean they like his plays more than his poems, which is fine, but to suggest that poetry doesn’t live in those plays seems very strange to me. It almost suggests that one can’t be a poet unless they’re working strictly in the lyric mode.

      So, the dramatic shift in Leviathan allowed me to bring more story into the poem. I’ve said this elsewhere, but, if I’m being honest, in the original everyone but Job reads like cardboard cutouts to me, like awkwardly arranged props. I wanted to breathe some life into them (the old flaw: Imago Dei). One way to do that, of course, is with story. It allows for moments like the one you mention above. When I think back to the early drafts of the poem, though, I’m not sure how deliberate that move was; it just felt like the natural thing to do to help the poem become what I believed it wanted to be.

      There’s probably also something to be said about form here. I had the hardest time early on figuring out what sort of shape could move most convincingly between song and story. When poets think of story, they often think of blank verse. When they think of song, ballad stanzas would be at the top of a lot of lists. How could I get the best of both? That’s how I ended up with alternating lines of unrhymed tetrameter and pentameter. Some formalists will balk at that combination because those meters haven’t necessarily paired well historically—but it was exactly what Leviathan needed to get me closest to the music of my home, to the stories that were (are) told there.

    EL: The unrhymed pentameter / tetrameter feels precisely right—in being off-balanced like the ballad’s tetrameter / trimeter—and rhetorical enough to venture into argument. I’d like to request that LSU release an audiobook to accompany Leviathan!

      And that’s the other association I have with these two kinds of verse: that the ballad stanza and blank verse both cheerfully accommodate mythology. As a child, I promptly understood Job. The pleasure and accessibility of his story are in part due to its mythic language. And mythology brings me to the folk song. J— could be the con man in a song like Emmylou Harris’s “Jerusalem Tomorrow” or the rich man in Bob Dyan’s “The Lonesome Ballad of Hattie Carroll.”

      Were there other traditions that you leaned on, as you wrote? Were you thinking of the song of an American antihero—not as villainous as William Zantzinger, but not quite the ramblin’, gamblin’ man?

    MS: I’d love to record an audiobook version. I think a lot of poetry publishers still aren’t taking audiobooks as seriously as they should be. I don’t know enough about the production side of things to have a sense about how costly it is, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve overheard people say they wish they could listen to a collection they love as an audiobook. It seems like a lost opportunity for everyone—readers, publishers, and poets, especially when it comes to books where poets privilege sound.

      I leaned on so many traditions while writing Leviathan that it would be impossible to go into detail here. I’m the sort of writer that really believes in feeding whatever my obsessions are, especially those related to whatever I’m currently working on. How I go about feeding myself, though, is so random and depends a lot on my mood; one week it might be movies, the next, poetry—or paintings, or a novel, music, plays, or a series, games, sculptures, or short stories, you name it. Ideally, it all informs the writing.

      I do love a good folk song, though, especially a murder ballad. (I listened to a lot of Townes Van Zandt while working on the book.) And the songs you mentioned were definitely present in the home I was raised in. (I wouldn’t call my family very literary, but there was always good music in the house.) Though it makes a lot of sense to me now, I don’t know that I ever thought of J—as occupying that same sort of mythic space, but I certainly started to think of him as an antihero at some point, specifically through a Christian lens. The late turn in the poem hinges on that.

    EL: I’m a little nervous to ask you this question, because it’s so personal and loaded. Do you consider yourself a Christian, if not a Christian poet? I imagine writing this must have, in some way, ignited your own faith.

    MS: I know, I know. It’s a hard question to ask or answer comfortably, but I don’t mind at all. On most days, I’d probably answer yes—but, in my experience, faith (like so many other things people want to treat as binaries) is fluid and lives on a spectrum. I tend to teeter somewhere between a doubting Christian and a hopeful agnostic. But, every once in a while, I wake up feeling like a hopeful Christian—or, on a bad day, a doubting agnostic. For me, this is an important part of learning to accept the difference between belief and truth. Belief is a choice that you might hope is true, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true. Most Christians I talk to have a hard time separating the two. I get it. It’s a lot easier to act like there’s no difference. The problem is, though, there’s a steep price for not acknowledging that difference. It will isolate you. It forces you to pretend like you have no doubts, and that can make you feel alone in even the most crowded of churches. This is one of the ways I imagine J— as an antihero; he refuses to bury his doubts.

      And, yes, you’re absolutely right. The act of writing itself demands many different types of faith. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about form as a sort of faith. All form in art, more or less, is a balancing of constraints—and all artists work under constraints. (Even the choice, or non-choice, to write a poem in a particular language is a constraint.) Some writers prefer more constraints, some less. Regardless, though, those constraints put the poet into negotiations with the poem; they ask the poet to trust—to believe—that the poem might have something more interesting to say than what the poet had initially imagined. What is that if not faith? Whatever good writing there is in Leviathan, it’s because I chose to take that faith seriously. I know it will sound ridiculous to some, but the poet is rarely—if ever—smarter than the poem.

    EL: Speak of Imago Dei! Yes, I see what you mean. The poet has to trust in the form, especially if it’s as fundamental as the line break, to work a kind of magic for them. I’m going to ask you the last hard question now—is Leviathan a bulwark against nonbelief? Do you think that poetry helps you sustain a faith that is perhaps less complicated than a faith in God?

    MS: At some point in any responsible Christian’s walk, they’ll ask the question: “How could God let this happen?” (The responsible atheist’s version isn’t all that different: “Could there possibly be a God that would let this happen?”) It’s inevitable if they’re paying attention. A lot of how we live depends on how we answer our version of that question and the questions that follow.

      So, yes, faith, or a lack of it, informs the way we connect with everything: poetry, God, people, et cetera. But it works in all directions. In other words, a faith in poetic form can teach me something about a faith in God (to maybe trust that there’s something worth reaching for), but a faith in God can also teach me something about a faith in poetic form (the finger pointing at the moon isn’t the moon). I’m honestly not sure which is more complicated. For me, though, these complications are part of what makes faith beautiful, even when mine is at its weakest.

    Esther Lin is the author of The Ghost Wife (Poetry Society of America, 2018). Her book Cold Thief Place is the winner of the 2023 Alice James Award, forthcoming in March 2025. A co-organizer of Undocupoets, her work has been supported by Cité Internationale, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Stanford University, the Poetry Society of America, and Poets House, among other organizations. She lives in Seattle.

    Michael Shewmaker is the author of Penumbra (2017) and Leviathan (2023). Born in Texarkana, Texas, he is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner fellow. His recent poems appear in Best American Poetry, Ploughshares, Southern Review, and elsewhere. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Emily.

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