Jamaican poet shares intricate work with Geneseo community

centuries, perhaps because it is the most honest form of literature, cutting to the heart with as few words as possible. A poet exchanges the literal truth for a more genuine, emotional truth. 

This emotional truth is especially clear in Shara McCallum’s poetry book Madwoman, which explores the many facets of her life as a woman, a mother, a Jamaican and a black person with white passing privilege. The Geneseo Literary Forum invited McCallum to lead an intimate and enthralling reading from her book on Tuesday Feb. 27 in the Doty Tower Room. 

McCallum immigrated to the United States with her grandparents from Jamaica as a child. Her father died around that same time from what McCallum learned much later was suicide. These elements of her life and culture have long captivated her creative attention.

Death is an important theme in Madwoman, especially represented through the effects the death of her grandparents had on McCallum. 

In the poem “Elegy,” McCallum writes, “I am sure of little but death is like an ill-fitted suit / that can be worn longer than we’d imagine.” 

Hearing her speak these words out loud, one can feel the weight of death and grief in almost every poem.

Madness obviously factors into this collection as well. McCallum is captivated by “the voice of poetry,” as she calls it.

In this collection, the voice is an angry woman. Many of the poems are about the slandered women in myth and religion. Poems like “Madwoman as Rasta Medusa” seek to reclaim and uplift the women dismissed in society as “mad” or villainous. 

When it comes to diction, McCallum alternates between Standard English and Patois, the dialect of English spoken in Jamaica. The poems in Patois, while not necessarily lighter in theme, have a familiar almost conversational feeling to them, likely because they are inspired by McCallum’s grandmother. 

When asked how she decided which poems to put in which dialect, McCallum said that it seemed rather innate to each poem and she had never consciously “translated” her work. 

This fluent use of Patois is also a window into another theme of McCallum’s work, her culture and the unique way she must navigate it. She is painfully cognizant of the careful way she must interact with the world as a black woman who passes as a white. 

On the positive side of this awareness, however, she also feels she has a duty to elevate other voices in her community. During her reading, McCallum takes time to emphasize things about the background of her poems personal self, like the fact that “Shara” means “poetry” or “song” in Hebrew. 

She interjects her readings with blurbs about her experience, her 14-year-old daughter or her husband. The personal way McCallum shares in life is similar to the way she shares in her work.

After her readings, McCallum took the time to answer some questions from students. Many writers in the audience, they asked poignant questions about the craft. 

When asked how she stands against the weight of critical reception and editorial commentary, McCallum cheekily pointed out that since she writes poetry, she’s concious of the fact that nobody wants to read her work, and therefore she doesn’t worry much. The audience was reverent and receptive during the reading, and many stayed behind to buy a copy of Madwoman and talk with McCallum. 

One attendant, English major freshman Lydia Gleason, was deeply moved by McCallum’s work. 

“I am hoping to apply to the creative writing poetry course and it gives me hope to see a speaker like Shara McCallum,” Gleason said. “Her poetry was beautiful ... the idea that Madwoman is a random person, is McCallum, is all of us, is extremely true. She is something that connects us all.”

The Geneseo Literary Forum will host another poet, TC Tolbert, on April 6 in the Doty Tower Room at 5 p.m.