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McLean has made her mark

April 2, 2011
By Jim Tate - SMSU , Marshall Independent

If SMSU English Professor Susan McLean were a country music fan, her favorite song would likely be "How Do You Like Me Now?" by Toby Keith.

That's the question she could ask the University of Maryland faculty member who belittled her rhyme and meter poetry style when she was but a teenager. McLean had won a creative writing contest, and the prize was a weekend at Maryland, working with faculty members in various workshops. One of the professors was especially insensitive. "He thought free verse (poetry) was the only acceptable form," she recalled. "I found his comments distressing, ridiculing. I loved rhyme and meter. That's what I loved writing."

Later, while a student at Harvard, she applied to be in a poetry workshop, and was rejected.

Those two events prompted her to put down her poetry pen for years.

Fast forward some years later. Today, McLean is the author of two poetry books, has had her work featured by many publications/websites, and is a widely published translator of Latin poetry.

"How do you like me now?"

McLean grew up in Oxon Hill, Md., the oldest of five children in the Ed and Anna McLean family. She earned her undergraduate degree in English from Harvard, and received a master's and Ph.D. at Rutgers University.

She came to SMSU in 1988, and soon, picked up her poetry pen again. She's been at it ever since.

"It was with the encouragement of (former English Professor and poet) Phil Dacey," she said. "I mentioned to him I used to write in high school, but had stopped. He told me that if I started again, he would be glad to look at my poems. I had three I had written and had not shown anyone. That's how I got started again."

She prefers rhyme and meter, a disciplined form of poetry that relies on regular rhyme and rhyme to tell the story. But, she says, the poem must also say something. "No matter how well you grasp rhyme and meter, you have to have something interesting to say," she said.

McLean teaches rhyme and metrical poetry - "I don't teach free verse" - and has found her students have a lot to say. It gives her great satisfaction to nurture and encourage students who have a gift for poetry.

"I've always liked getting to know the students personally," she said. "I like the smaller class sizes, as opposed to large lecture classes. Teaching at SMSU has made that possible."

Her poetry books include Holding Patterns (2006, Finishing Line Press) and The Best Disguise (2009, University of Evansville Press).

Her "front burner project," as she calls it, is translating the work of the Latin poet Martial. "He wrote short, humorous poems, called epigrams, and I am translating them using rhyme and meter," she said. "He has over 1,500 poems, and I've done over 400 so far. I'm planning to get a book out soon. I hope to finish the manuscript this summer."

She has applied for a translation fellowship from the NEA, and should she get that, "I would probably take off a semester next year and expand the book," she said.

So far, McLean has published over 130 poetry translations, mainly from Latin. "It can be incredibly difficult when done in rhyme and meter," she said. "The words in one language may not have an English equivalent. Martial was writing in ancient Roman times, so with some of the concepts, you have to decide, how do I explain that so people get it?"

Her favorite poets include A.E. Stallings and Rhina Espaillat. "Both are very big influences on me," said McLean.

She finds her inspiration all around her. "I am not a nature poet," she said. "Just about everything you've ever experienced can have an influence on you. I've gotten inspiration from mishearing rock song lyrics, reading an article in a newspaper, from things happening in my life, things going on around me that I find interesting. The first poem I had published was called "Plane Geometry for Lovers."

Rhyme and meter poetry is not an easy genre. "You have to learn how to do it, and learning the techniques is not easy," she said. "You have to study and pick it up over time, and have an ear that hears meter."

She's gone days looking for the right word. "It may be a rhyme word, so you may have to change the rhyme if you can't find the right word," she said. "It adds special difficulties."

McLean joined an online workshop that put her in touch with "people with incredible knowledge, who knew all the rules. Once I knew the rules, it gave me a flexibility and awareness of the effects of the variations you can do within rhyme and meter."

McLean will read from her work at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, in the William Whipple Gallery on campus, part of the month-long Fine Arts Celebration at SMSU.

"How do you like me now?"



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