Friday, May 27, 2016

Gillian McCain (GSAS '90) reflects on NYU and her Artistic Passions

We recently chatted with Gillian McCain, author of two poetry books, Tilt and Religion, co-author (with Legs McNeil) of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and co-editor of Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose (also with Legs McNeil). She is also a collector and exhibitor of found photography. She spoke about her time at NYU and her eclectic artistic pursuits.
Gillian McCain
Photo Credit: Annie Watts

Do you have a favorite NYU memory?

My friend Eric Swenson and I organized a reading by Gregory Corso at the Loeb Student Center—we got a thousand people there! It was crazy. It was free, but it was still crazy. We made flyers and went to the park all the time and gave them out. We were hanging out at this rare bookstore in the West Village, and that’s where we met Gregory Corso and the some of the other Beat writers; so they told some of their friends, and it was advertised well at NYU. They were paying Corso a thousand bucks, which was pretty significant at the time. It was an exciting event. And all the friends I made are still my best friends. I met my friend Chris Simunek first day of Expository Writing class—and he is still my one of my best friends. Up until recently he was the editor at High Times. I remember I’d hang out in Washington Square Park a lot and I remember there was this girl about my age, Corene LeMaitre, she just goes: “Nice boots.” And I go: “I like your boots, too.” And she is still a friend of mine. She ended up writing a novel for HarperCollins. So everyone did pretty well. A lot of people I have lost touch with, but I should look them up on Facebook.
Gillian McCain: her story continues

You were Program Coordinator for three years at The Poetry Project. What was it like working there as a writer yourself?

It was great. They only hire writers! I loved working there—that was my dream job. I officially started working on Please Kill Me with Legs in 1994. I was burned out on The Poetry Project, and my mom just died, and they asked me to do the Newsletter which was really time consuming, and so I was freelancing for about a year. But the fun thing I did [at The Poetry Project] was I hosted and programmed a weekly Friday Night series, that I am still proud of, and continues to this day.

How did that venture come about?

I had some ideas, and I think in large part that was why I was hired. There was one event before I worked there, and it was all these poets standing in front of the church and they were reading from Frank O’Hara’s Second Avenue. I loved that event, and Ed Friedman [the director of the Poetry Project] was like, “Why don’t you organize more events like that?” The Poetry Project has so much clout that everyone takes your call!

Have you always been interested in doing non-fiction work?

Always. The book Edie was a big influence on me, and that was an oral history. That was about New York, the Warhol scene, and the counter culture, and it was a big influence on why I wanted to move here. I was always interested in oral history. I read a lot of non-fiction. I hadn’t interviewed yet, but I wanted to, and when I started I had a knack for it. You tend to like things you are good at.

Where do your ideas for your work come from? 

I definitely get a lot of ideas for poetry from non-fiction. I haven’t written around my found photos, but it would be a fun thing to do because I find so many stories in them. We framed them in little frames for this exhibition and it was a small gallery, so they were just on white walls [with] no names underneath them. The first bunch I got was at the Pasadena Flea Market. I mainly get them at flea markets and eBay. First I was interested in that really vivid color of the 60s, the Kodak ones. They are just so pretty. I thought I would put them on cards or something, but then I went for lunch and I was looking at them and realized this woman was in a bunch of them, and then I went back [to the flea market] and asked if they had any more of this woman. And [the seller told me] she was a small-scale TV star. There is one where she is sitting there with her mother, and you can just tell they hate each other. That’s how I got into it. And then I started seeing tintypes, and I’ve always been into Polaroids, so it was fun to explore different forms.

And your poetry?

I mainly do prose poems. I was very inspired by the New York School of Poetry around St. Marks Church. It was great to work [at The Poetry Project] because I got to meet all of the poets and that was really exciting. I studied with the poet Larry Fagin for about ten years, and he was a great editor and teacher. And I worked on a long, long poem, and it just got published at this website called Folder. I’ve worked on that for years. But then I’ll go a year without writing poetry. I usually take notes because I overhear a lot of things. And that poem in Folder I’m expanding into a book. It’s just hard to nail down because I have so many drafts and I can’t even figure them out on my computer. Have you ever read that book, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg? It’s just about writing every day and making your hand move and not stopping. And that is how I got my early poems really—just write and not stop, and then go back and see a lot of themes. I’ve got so much going on right now, who has time to write? We have this 20th anniversary edition of Please Kill Me coming out in August. It was 20 years ago we put that out! [Grove Press] was very generous and wanted to do this 20th anniversary, but it was so much work! It took sixth months to do copy editing, new photos, a new afterword. But it was worth it. Another thing that took a lot of time, we took the archives—the interviews we did for Please Kill Me, and we did a show for radio, so it’s two one-hour shows kind of covering punk. So we are the narrators, but we have the actual people speaking from the interviews from our tapes. So we had to figure out which ones had enough sound quality. It was hard. We have a huge archive.

Where did the interest come from to do Please Kill Me? How did you and Legs McNeil accomplish a book like that?

I had older brothers and sisters and just from age six on I was by the stereo with the headphones, and when you are little you go by the photos on the album covers. And I got captivated. I loved the music and it was a big part of the reason I wanted to move to New York. But I got here in ’87, so I missed it. So it was great to be able to do the book; it felt like I kind of lived it. Legs knew a lot of people, and there were people I knew from The Poetry Project, and there was always someone that after you talk to them, [they were] like you have to call so-and-so. It was pre-internet so we weren’t finding anyone on Facebook. It was a different world. It was by phone. It was pre-email. Almost everyone was in New York. We did a lot [of interviews] in Ann Arbor. But we were lucky, almost everyone was here.

What is the interest in being the observer rather than telling your own narrative in your work?

I don’t know if it has anything to do with growing up in a small town in New Brunswick, Canada. I grew up in a town with 700 people. When I was at NYU, I did more confessional poetry. But then I started studying with Larry [Fagin] and he was like, you’ve got to go in a new direction. It was different. [Before] it was more about romances and breakups, and moving to New York. I was imitating New York School poems; you imitate things and it becomes yours. With Larry I got more into abstract stuff, and I didn’t want to write about myself anymore.

Are you working on anything else?

I’ve been posting all my poetry book covers on Facebook. I wanted to put my poetry collection in storage; sometimes you need to look at different things! I’ve posted about 300 book covers. A lot are limited editions. There used to be so many great used book stores in New York. You’d be able to get books like these for 50 cents. People on Facebook are really getting into it, so I was thinking of maybe doing a book, because these are hard to find—poetry books from the 60s and 70s, especially from the New York School. I might do a blurb book to see how it looks. And we’ve got our website,, and I’ve been writing fashion pieces for the website, and people have suggested I do a book on those. So I’ve got a couple of things to do.

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