Interview with Sheila McMullin

By: Alicia Montellanos

SMWe are very excited to have had the opportunity to interview poet and feminist, Sheila McMullin. Sheila is the Managing Editor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, she writes the column “Spotlight On!” celebrating literary magazines that publish a diverse representation of writers. She works as an after-school creative writing and college prep instructor and volunteers at her local animal rescue. Find her, along with her publications and awards, online at her feminist and resource website: Make sure you follow her on Twitter @SheAPoem.

Sheila, you mentioned in an interview with The Fem that you “think any organization that intentionally builds creative confidence, celebrates, empowers the voices of young people is feminist, whether they self-identify or not.” Can you elaborate on that by giving us your definition of feminism and what it means to you? What makes a person feminist?

McMullin: First of all, thanks for mentioning The Fem, they are a great publication. It was an honor to do that interview, as it is this one!

My definition of feminism is fluid, more of an ideal of how to use political activism to empower people to be inclusive and kind. As I experience more and learn more of the lived experiences of others, my definition becomes broader, engaging with the ever-growing and changing complexity of identity. At the root of my feminism is kindness, though, a desire to be kind and encourage kindness, though at times we need our willful anger to fuel and inspire. My feminism is a desire to participate in creative communities that are built on a foundation of respect toward the nuances between us and affirming the inherent value in our various cultural, economic, educational, ability, sexual, familial backgrounds. My feminism believes that assumptions placed onto people are problematic at best, we all have boundaries that takes time to understand, and engaging in safe, open communication to build consensual relationships is foundational to respect.

Specifically on that quote you pulled, my main point is to associate the word feminism with beautiful, courageous things. Feminism is a loving to me. And if more people saw feminism as opportunity to be reflective and build strong interpersonal relationships they may have an opportunity to feel more loved too.

How can a professor incorporate feminism in the classroom and in class content? Can you give us an example of your own?

McMullin: Think intersectionally. Understand what microaggressions are and look like and learn how to address them in the classroom. Address, build, engage in consent narratives whether it’s in the literature being taught or the interpersonal relationships between classmates and teacher.

It’s important to note that discussions of and enacting feminism doesn’t have to begin at the college level. I taught first-year Comp and Intro to Lit as a TA during my MFA, and I’ve worked as a teacher, instructor, mentor in various educational institutions from English as a Foreign Language in China, after-school enrichment programs, in-class writing support in under-resourced and under-performing high schools, teacher development seminars, writing groups in housing projects for middle school girls, and the list goes on. No matter the age or education level of the learner, what I always try to create is intentional, collaborative spaces where we feel able to have open dialogues while also setting boundaries keeping safe spaces for people with traumas or privacy concerns in their lives. I encourage my students to ask a lot of questions and learn from collective experience to strengthen emotional intelligence. It could do a lot of us some real good to strengthen our emotional intelligence. In the classroom I value the ability to check assumptions and how we know what we know. It’s complex and necessary thinking that leads to intentional community building, which is a fundamental feminist practice.

Educating is a form of activism and I strongly recommend reading contemporary poets as well.

Do literary reviews, magazines, journals, etc. have a responsibility to check their content and make sure their selections present a diverse selection of writers? Does such a responsibility outweigh the limits it might place on organizations, and how might it be enforced or influenced?

McMullin: Any publishing venue that purports to publish “The Best” or the “Leading Voices Of,” yes, has the responsibility to check their content. “Best” implies a scouring, and if what that venue relies on for work is a singular, privileged demographic of people, it seems that they really haven’t scoured. You can look to the forthcoming Bettering American Poetry anthology for even more on this.

If we’re talking about the journals we count at VIDA, these are the gatekeeper publications that have influence over how one’s writing career is legitimized by the academy and literary business, which leads to jobs and further publication. Talking about using the academy as a litmus test for the legitimacy of writing is problematic in its own ways and deserves more attention than I’m giving here. But publishing work and providing platforms for authors has social implications and is part of an on-going cultural dialogue of what we chose to value and listen to.

While some may be classified with tastes more refined than others, “the best” is always subjective. It’s rooted in patriarchal and capitalist ideas that there is limited space and for a small group of people. “The best” is personal and often heavily influenced by that person’s individual and unique upbringing. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something to take into account when you’re a publisher.

Framing the conversation of intentionally including a diverse representation of writers within a publication as a potential limitation to that organization is problematic. Checking content is taking inventory which is a crucial aspect to any well managed group or org. I just don’t believe it when people suggest that taking inventory is a limitation or puts stresses on their resources. Knowing and understanding who you publish is the work. That is the job.

I’ve written about a few literary publications in my Spotlight On! column celebrating them for publishing exemplary work and including within their pages a diverse representation of writers. A pattern I have noticed between all of them is that they are transparent and have strong mission statements that specifically call for writing by women, people of color, non-binary individual, writers with disabilities, veterans, people outside of academia–the list continues. They are active in seeking writing that is not of their own experience, and from it we all learn more about ourselves. And that’s part of the point, at least for me and my writing and reading, learning more about myself through knowing others, becoming more empathetic and perfecting my ability to love. We don’t exist in a vacuum, we are always contributing, and there’s always opportunity.

You mentioned in an interview with Diane Raptosh, one of the reasons you go to poetry is for what you call lyric moments, or moments of “bravery training,” in which the reader gains a language that may become a resource to “inspire decency between human beings.” Do you think these moments are only personal or individual? Or, can poetry surpass these personal moments and impact a community?

McMullin: I believe these moments can do all of these simultaneously, or at different points in our lives, or be completely and entirely private. Language serves us and as a resource we are afforded opportunities to make change with it, within ourselves and in our communities.

What do you think poetry has or does that other types of writing don’t when it comes to social activism and social issues?

McMullin: So often poetry and social activism are coupled, I think, because of the immediacy of them both. They are both needed for specific purposes in our lives and charge us to change our surroundings, hopefully for more inclusion and better transparency. Amy King on Harriet Blog wrote an engaging piece on literary activism, which I highly recommend, thinking on this issue with several other poet activists.

You make several references to the moon in your writing. Your website is called MoonSpit, and you also have a poem named “Luna Communicate.” If you don’t mind sharing with us, what is the significance (symbolic or literal) of the moon?

McMullin: So many of us are filled with overwhelming fear that there will never be enough space for us to be affirmed in our experiences, fear because there is too much shit in our lives, on the news, in our social media. We are obsessive and because of this we feel like we have no options and are stuck in one way of being. Frequently that one way of being is in constant pain and anxiety. Forgive me for projecting if this absolutely does not apply to you, but I know I often move in a vague state of shame. Part of my personal bravery training works with this regret and shame. I’m learning to cut myself some slack, that being flawed and making mistakes is what makes us human. Learning and forgiving also makes us human. The moon is this embodied reminder. In the moon we witness progression and recession, that there are patterns to the universe. There are opportunities to begin and end, though those beginning don’t have to start at the same place and it doesn’t have to be the same ending every time. Through the moon we know that what is above us is connected to what is below–we can touch the tides and swim in water we need to care for and be baptized. I’m a triple Pisces, and I get dehydrated quickly. The moon is renewal and for someone like me, I take comfort there. I believe in universal intention and the moon helps me trust that miracles are happening all the time, it’s just that they don’t get as much attention, and people are loving on each other and animals and the plants. The moon reminds me that we can celebrate the incremental passage of time and imagine how many wonderful things have happened in between those phases. There’s a lot of energy there–it’s good to absorb.

Which have been the most influential books to your way of thinking and writing? What are you currently reading?

McMullin: As a young one I remember reading Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer and illustrated by Marvin Bieleck, Cat Wings by Urusla K. LeGuin, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and a pop-up book with a shy monster in a cave. I believe these all contributed to my poetic imagination in a strong way.

In my adult years The End of the Sentimental Journal by Sarah Vap, Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous, The Descent of Alette by Alice Notely, Sara, or the Existence of Fire by Sara Woods, Lydia’s Funeral Video by Sam Chance, Beauty is a Verb anthology, Be Here Now by Ram Dass, Aliceheimers: Alzheimer’s through the looking glass by Dana Walrath, The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World by John Francis, Green Angel by Alice Hoffman have all been influential to my way of thinking and writing. Currently, I’m reading Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs and The Pedestrians as well as the Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poems for the Next Generation anthology.

What are you currently working on? 

McMullin: I’m currently working on my first poetry collection titled daughterrariums, sending it out for publication. Several of the poems have been published in earlier forms of which you can check those out here. I’m always working on VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts biz, which you can check out here. At the beginning of December I had an essay published in Wordgathering on disability and comics that I am excited for and would love to give a shout-out to. As well I am working on two book projects forthcoming from Shout Mouse Press–one book is a Black Lives Matter-inspired novel-in-stories written by middle school girls living in NE D.C. and the second is a memoir project written by Ballou High School juniors and seniors in SE D.C.. These are powerful stories and they should definitely be on your radar!






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