John MacLean grew up in Queens, New York, but his wanderings began with a summer in the merchant marine, at age 16. A retired high school English teacher, he has traveled through four continents, graduated from Fordham, Oxford, and the University of South Carolina Law School, and worked as a mill hand, church sacristan, and assistant district attorney. These experiences have informed his poems, but more important were his experiences as a son, a husband and a father. His poems have appeared in The Avocet, Samsara, Blue Collar Review, Spitball and The Lyric, where he was awarded the Leslie Mellichamp Prize. The Long Way Home is his first collection. He is also the author of a book on teaching, If You Teach It, They Will Read, published by Rowman and Littlefield.
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in college. I began seriously writing poetry only in the last ten years, particularly as retirement gave me time to take stock of experiences.
Was there a teacher, or a poet you read, who sparked your interest in writing?
I was fortunate to have two encouraging teachers. In college, my likes were predictable: Yeats, Auden, Frost. In later years, I’ve found more connection with female poets like Gluck, Bishop, Olds, Rich, and Moore.
Why do you write poetry rather than another writing form, like personal essay?
I like poems rather than personal essays, because when I think of ideas and experiences I think in terms of images. For some people poems start with words, but for me poems start with a vivid picture.
Your poems “Dominican Republic, 1966” and “Veteran Hospital” discuss or depict war. What inspired you to write poetry about war or with political themes rather than something else?
I think of Dominican Republic or Veteran’s Hospital as more personal than political. The one is about an experience I was too young at the time to understand. The other is about the difficulty of connecting with people who have a shared experience which I can’t own. I think the only overtly political poems I’ve written are about the environment, as I grow more concerned about the world I’m leaving for my children.
What kind of poetry do you read?
Philosophical musings on their own don’t really speak to me. I’m willing to admit my own limitations, but I like poems that are dense with meaning without going out of their way to make me feel dense. My favorite poems are ones that capture an epiphany. Whether the poem is about history or nature or a current event, it’s about a person’s learning something in the moment.