Arthur McMaster teaches creative writing and American Literature at Converse College. He holds academic degrees from Indiana University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Florida, where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing. His previous teaching experience was with the University of South Carolina, Spartanburg, where he taught creative writing and American Literature. He also teaches in the continuing education department at Furman University. His previous career with America’s national intelligence agencies informs and influences his writing. McMaster’s poetry has been nominated for several national prizes, including the James A. Hearst Prize, in 2005 and 2011, and the Pushcart Prize, in 2008. He is the author of three books of non-fiction and has two chapbooks: Awkwardness was selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission, Poetry Initiative, in 2009. The Spy Who Came Down with a Cold was published in 2011. His short fiction has appeared in such national journals and magazines as Zodiac Review, Main Street Rag, and the Wisconsin Review. His stage plays have been produced in Spartanburg, SC; in Tampa, FL; and in Williamsburg,VA. He is a contributing editor for Poets’ Quarterly. He and his wife Suzanne live in Greer, SC.
Geosi Gyasi: When did it all begin – your writing career?
Arthur McMaster: First of all, I want to thank you for asking me to do this interview. I think writers are nearly always keen to reach out to other writer and readers, and your blog work is a solid part of that vital connection to and with like-minded others. To your question: I began writing in middle-school, or junior high as we called it then ― back in the Dark Ages. During classes, I would now and again write down an idea that appealed to me and to which I thought maybe I would come back. I started writing poems after Army Language School, while I was overseas, in Germany ― 1964-65. They were no good, truly, but I didn’t really know anything about the craft. I only felt the need. After college, I published a few poems. That would be in the early 70s. My first short story was published in 1978, with a little magazine located out in Los Angeles. They have since gone out of business, but that small success got me into the game, I suppose.
Geosi Gyasi: I am not sure if William Carlos Williams counts as one of the poets you admire. If not so, which writers have had great influence on your writing?
Arthur McMaster: Yes, Dr. Williams was important to me for what he did to combine direct, narrative poetry with some connection to meter, and more specifically with the “sprung metric foot.” I don’t want to get, here, too much into what he took from the prior work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but he was interested in the rhythm or pace of a line of poetry and I am too. Frost was important to me when I was in college. I still love his work ― America’s quintessential nature poet, and I enjoy teaching his poetry. That said, it was James Wright who was the catalyst for me. When I read his work, taught by my friend and erstwhile teacher Philip Appleman, at IU, I was determined to write poems. I simply had to. My world was transformed by way of Wright’s work in Deep Imagery, and most especially so his poem “A Blessing.” WCW wants to be read aloud. Needs to be. His poems demand an aural expression. With James Wright, I get everything I need and arguably what the poet wants me to get from his work on the printed page. Other poets who have influenced my writing would be Donald Justice, Ted Roethke, W.S. Merwin, Stephen Dunn, my MFA teachers William Logan and Sidney Wade; also I have to thank Stuart Dischell, Thomas Lux, Greg Orr, Jane Hirschfield, and such so-called New Formalists as Dana Gioia, Molly Peacock, and Rachel Hadas. For non-American poets I would first come to the late, brilliant Wisalwa Szymborska and to Derek Walcott. Sorry, I know I am leaving out a few more whom I should recall. I think that Paul Simon is one of America’s best poets, to give that song writer his due.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you suppose as the best training for a writer?
Arthur McMaster: Get thee to a Writers’ Group! Share and critique with other dedicated writers: both fiction and poetry. Write first for the joy of that first creation. Then get to work on revision. Revise, revise, revise. I learned from several of the best that the poem is seldom finished with its first making. I go back then and take out any clutter. Compress. The best advise I ever got as a novice poet was “Say Less, Suggest More.” I often re-lineate a poem. I fiddle with the white space. Some poems are not content to be laid out syntactically. But only enjamb wisely and where you have to. Consider long and short lines. I have been writing in received form quite a lot lately. Villanelles, rhyming couplets, the tricky pantoum, etc. So, in that case, the structure of the poem is known. I got a lot of help from William Logan and Sidney Wade, at Florida, on rethinking ―on re-imagining the lines. But, as a practical guide, the best training is to work on discipline and to work with good poets. To paraphrase John Donne, no poet is an island.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a poet, playwright as well as an educator. How do you manage your time doing all three works?
Arthur McMaster: Funny, I asked Mark Jarman that very question about two years ago. Most writers are also educators, because few people writing literary fiction or poetry today make a living at doing only that. Anyway, two answers occur to me just now: sometimes a writer gets energy from teaching a class of particularly strong students― energy that can be stored or used in the short term on something creative. I had an excellent group of 19th Century American Lit students in one semester last year. They pushed me. That experience could, for some, be enervating. Or it might actually be a catalyst for advancing something one is working on. I am more often than not energized by the enthusiasm of bright young people. That’s why I teach. The other truth for me is: Write in one genre at a time. I cannot write decent fiction OR poetry when I am trying to do both. One for me is high Colorado; the other is the Maryland shore. I have not written a new play in years, though I will again. My focus is on poetry for now. When the muse visits, lock her in the house. When she is hiding, find a good book or two.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you prescribe as the best time to write?
Arthur McMaster: People have very different comfort zones during a 24-hour day. Nipper and Turkey, to riff on Herman Melville’s story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” I like mornings. I do my best “new stuff” early in the day. Well, not too early. I can revise at almost any time, frankly, but so often an inspiration comes to me as I awaken. In that fugue state of mind so much is possible. I scribble things down at night too, when I might otherwise be sleeping. Drives my wife nuts,
Geosi Gyasi: Growing up, were there any relatives who were writers?
Arthur McMaster: If you mean my forebears, no. There were none that I am aware of. Both my children were writers. Scott wrote for TV news for a few years and my daughter Kellie was a reporter, a journalist, after she graduated college. My dad could spin some yarns, I can tell you that!
Geosi Gyasi: How did the idea for “Need to Know” occur to you?
Arthur McMaster: I tell all about that spark in the preface to the book. One of the fellows I work with at Converse College, a European History prof, in fact, suggested that I do so. He said I should get in touch with my past as a foreign intelligence officer and special ops guy, now recreating myself as teacher and poet. That appealed to me. Truly, it was something done for family, for colleagues, and close friends, but the book has actually done pretty well in general distribution. I got a check in the mail from Amazon just the other day for royalties paid on the sales of “downloaded” books. And that was a nice surprise. My publisher did a terrific job to get the book out there. But marketing is tough.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever struggled completing a poem?
Arthur McMaster: Oh, absolutely. I struggle with every poem. As I said, the birth of a poem is a true joy, but the poem is incomplete, just as an human infant is incomplete upon arrival. The real work comes in “raising that child.” Jane Hirschfield told me that she has revised some poems as often as one hundred times, and I believe it. Maybe all that is needed are just small corrections, but the poem demands our complete attention and continues to need, shall we say, a measure of discipline. I actually like to revise.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to write plays?
Arthur McMaster: I have written five plays, I think. Six or seven if we count little 10-minute things. My very first was an homage to Sylvia Plath. I entered the script into a contest and it won first place in a Florida-wide competition, in 2000. That play (Prisms) was performed as a stage reading in Tampa and has not seen daylight or Klieg lights since. More recently, my play “The Guile of Lucy Strada, a fun take off on Aristophanes’ Lysistrada, was performed a couple of years ago in Williamsburg, VA, where I used to do a good bit of acting. I have a new play scheduled for production here in Greenville, actually in Taylors, SC, in April, 2015. Playwright work is very hard sledding, but there is such satisfaction in the completed job.
Geosi Gyasi: As a teacher of creative writing, what makes a good piece of writing?
Arthur McMaster: Let me answer that in terms of poetry only. I want to see something on the page that makes fresh use of language, something that shows me a truth I already knew, but had not seen in just that light. I love the work of George Bilgere, in Cleveland, for his ability to do just that. Trying to get student poets to take a chance can be difficult. A good poem must risk something. Forget love poems. No maudlin sentiment, please; show me passion cloaked in something wholly unexpected.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think American literature has come of age?
Arthur McMaster: Emerson set us on that path in 1837, didn’t he? We have had over one-hundred and seventy-some years to make it so. I think so, yes. Maybe we should have a poetry Ryder Cup: Amis versus Euros. I like our chances. As for fiction: we may now be experiencing in this new century another golden age — Ron Rash, Andre Dubus, T.C. Boyle, Kevin Wilson, Jill McCorkle, Charles Baxter, and Ellen Gilchrist, just for openers.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think of yourself as a writer in competition with other writers?
Arthur McMaster: I do not. We work together. We need to support and encourage, to applaud one another. Being a poet and or literary fiction writer today is to partake in, to celebrate, abundance. Leave competition to men and women in sports, or in business.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you writing now?
Arthur McMaster: I am trying to complete another poetry volume.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever share work-in-progress with other writers or friends?
Arthur McMaster: Again, I most certainly do. I am involved with one active poetry group here in Greenville and with two others, by e-mail, or social media.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think of literary critics when writing?
Arthur McMaster: No. They have a job to do and so do I. I respect the critics, but I also know that to a great extent they are not unlike editors. People like what they like because of what they themselves write. You will never get me to say anything one way of another about the merits of highly abstract poetry. I would never accept it for publication if I were an editor (again) because I do not understand it and don’t much care for it. We tend to reward what reaffirms our sense of “good.”
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever received a bad review for one of your books?
Arthur McMaster: Not that I recall. Most of such work people do goes largely unnoticed. I actually like to review a few books a year. I am drawn to the work of those poets who write pretty much in a voice like my own, or in a voice I would aspire to. Again, George Bilgere comes to mind, as does Laura Kasischke. I have recently found Brenda Shaughnessy. She is very good.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your book, “Musical Muse, Wives and Lover of the Great Composers”?
Arthur McMaster: That was my first important work of what is now called creative non-fiction. Published in 2005, I think. As a start, I wanted to understand how Mozart came to write such beautiful and romantic pieces such as his Piano Concerto #21. He must have had some inspiration, said I. Something, likely some woman, who sparked his genius. Much of Mozart’s work was indeed “muse-driven.” In my research I found over 200 examples of where a lover, or more often an ill-fated love, came to influence the work of thirty of the best known classical composers ― Bach to Wagner. I think the Beethoven chapter is my own favorite. He had eight women in his life, including the eponymous
Immortal Beloved, who was probably Antonie Brentano. I still pick up that book, now and again, to refresh my memory as to who seems to have been the spark for something by Berlioz, or Strauss. The book is out of print, but there seem to be plenty of them available on the second hand markets. Thank you for asking.