Interview with Chirlane McCray: New York City’s first lady talks about her poetry and new blog, #FLONYC

Chirlane McCray
New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, spoke about poetry and her new blog at City Hall.
Credit: Bess Adler, Metro

Activist, mother and close adviser to Mayor Bill de Blasio, first lady Chirlane McCray is many things. But at #FLONYC, a Tumblr launched shortly after McCray was named chairwoman of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City last month, she will return to one of her early passions: poetry. Through the new multimedia blog, McCray hopes her poems shed light on the city’s untold stories and help her connect with New Yorkers.

Metro spoke with McCray about #FLONYC, poetry and the power of words.

When did you start writing poetry and why?

I love books; I love the word. So when I was in high school and going through a tough time, struggling to find my way, as all teenagers do, it just seemed really natural to just start writing about it. And the way I wrote, it came out in poetry. I don’t know how to describe what the process was, but that just was the form or format that was most comfortable for me. It’s a way to kind of channel your emotions, but you have to be very concise.

Do you have a poetry style that you favor?

I haven’t written poetry for so long that I don’t really know what my style is. … I’m getting back into it. But I like my poetry to be accessible. … I see it as a vehicle to communicate to everyday people about things that are very complicated and emotional and just hard to understand. I like to boil things down to their essence, and I feel like that’s what a poem is.

Do you practice reading your poems aloud?

You write, but you also read out loud to see how it will sound. … People talk about “eye candy” — I want it to be “ear candy.”

Have you ever practiced with Mayor de Blasio?

No. That’s a good idea though. He’s so busy. Chiara and Dante are very interested.

Do they write poetry too?

They do. They do not share a lot with me, but they both are writers, they’re both very good writers and they both have written poetry. … I think writing’s so important. If you can write … it’s kind of like a ticket to the world.

Have you ever written a poem for Mayor de Blasio?

I think I wrote one. … But Bill wrote poems for me.

Really?

He did write me a poem. I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you what it was about.

Was it good?

It was! I was very pleased. It was very sweet.

Other than the mayor, do you have a favorite poet?

There’s so many, it would be unfair for me to single one out. But when I was young … Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, E. B. White — all those poets, I read. I don’t have a favorite.

Recent poems on the blog have more of a social justice angle to them — is that what you think you’ll focus on going forward?

I do want to do more of that, but I would also like to write poems just about New York, reflecting the faces and places where I hope to travel.

With all your other responsibilities, how will you find the time to write?

I don’t know. I don’t have a formula. It takes time, so I have to make the time. And that will be challenge. But it’s important to me, so I’m just going to make the time.

Do you go through drafts?

Yes. Every now and then, something comes out and it’s like, “Oh, that’s perfect, that’s the way I like it.” But more often than not, it’s like, six, seven, eight, who knows how many drafts. I constantly rewrite.

You said you modeled the blog off Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” column.

She was so inspiring. What she did, the fact that she used her column to write about the issues of the day, just really blew me away, reading the examples that I saw. I knew that I wanted to do something like that because I am a writer. That’s how I express myself. But I feel like the printed word in 2014 is not enough. I’m a huge fan of photos, I’m a huge fan of videos, and I thought, why can’t we combine those things?

Looking ahead, do you think you’ll ever host an open mic or poetry slam?

Something like that — I don’t know what we’d call it. But yes, of course, we’d love to do something for writers. … I want to encourage the young people, especially, in the city to write because … it’s important to read, but if you can write about what you’ve read, or write about your experiences, it’s really another step further to being able to communicate with other people in the world.

Should New Yorkers expect personal poetry on the blog? 

It’s not something you plan. It just happens. I’m just going to do my best to keep communicating, hope I move people so that we can serve the people of New York City the best way that we can.

 

From McCray’s “I Used to Think”:

(A poem de Blasio said was one of the things that made him fall in love with her.)

I used to think
I can’t be a poet
because a poem is being everything you can be
in one moment,
speaking with lightning protest
unveiling a fiery intellect
or letting the words drift feather-soft
into the ears of strangers
who will suddenly understand
my beautiful and tortured soul.
But, I’ve spent my life as a Black girl
a nappy-headed, no-haired,
fat-lipped,
big-bottomed Black girl
and the poem will surely come out wrong
like me.

(Published in “Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology,” 1983)

Follow Anna Sanders on Twitter @AnnaESanders



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