WORDS / ALEX GLADDEN
PHOTO / KAT WILSON
Pink light bathes the woman in the photograph. She lounges in the tub—the soapy water rising to her waist. Her back faces the audience, and her naked skin gleams.
The image hung on the wall behind Shannon McGill and on the cover of her book Naked. McGill is the woman in the photograph. But she sat, this time fully clothed, turned toward her listeners, reading aloud her poem of the same name.
“No one’s ever made me feel this beautiful naked yet you’ve only seen me fully clothed,” she said, reading the poem’s last line.
The crowd gathered there for her. Friends, fellow poets, artists. All had braved the cold November night for McGill, to hear her read from her new and only book.
“Me putting these words on the paper allowed me to live,” McGill said.
Naked is a collection of McGill’s poetry, short stories and journal entries. These words propelled her through her grief of losing one of her twins, Teddy, who was stillborn.
“Heartbreak is losing something that comes from your own body, and you don’t know why it did,” McGill said.
She started writing to keep from having panic attacks.
“It’s all therapy,” McGill said.
Shortly after the twins were born, she divorced her husband of nine years. McGill said it’s been in the aftermath of this that she’s been able to become the person she’s always wanted to be. She’s now a senior at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, majoring in writing and rhetoric. She aspires to be a creative writing teacher and plans to graduate in December 2020.
“She kind of unlocked a version of herself,” said Natalie Alexander, who has known McGill since they were teenagers.
As long as Alexander can remember, McGill has written. McGill said she started writing when she was 10 years old after seeing the movie Heathers and deciding to journal like Winona Rider’s character did in the film.
McGill’s work shows a journey from her early journal entries to her most recent writing—her later compositions showing a willingness to be raw and vulnerable, said Cammie Sublette, one of McGill’s professors. “Overall it’s about love and pain and loss as well as art and healing.”
Heather Crawford is a student at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith with McGill. Crawford said it was amazing “to see it go from just our initial crying in our journals together to now these are actual poems and this is actual structure.”
McGill plans to write her next book about her relationship with her two brothers. The preliminary title for the book is “Middle Sister,” she said.
“My next book, I can’t wait to do it,” McGill said.
McGill said she makes sure to write every day. She doesn’t have a specific time that she writes, but McGill said she has a constant inner monologue and starts to write when the itch hits her.
“If the voice is super loud, luckily I have pens and journals all over the house,” McGill said.
McGill began creating a podcast “Outloud With Shannon,” after a man won a Halloween contest at a Fort Smith bar dressed as a member of the Klu Klux Klan. McGill—who is black and has two biracial children, Blake and Tyler—said the event made her feel like an outsider in her own city.
“It’s easier to talk about a dead baby than it is to talk about racism. We have a fucking problem,” McGill said.
Since that first podcast, she’s had musicians play concerts and poets read their work on the show. McGill also has a blog by the same name. Last summer, a friend suggested McGill write a book, sparking the idea for Naked. When she began to explore the idea, she realized how much poetry she’d written. It was all this that led to Naked. It was everything. It was Teddy’s death and Tyler and Blake’s lives. It was divorce and triumph. Joy and pain. Everything led her to this night.
The audience burst into applause when McGill read her last line, but they carried on into the night—a boy with dreads half singing his poetry, the audience giving shouts of encouragement when he faltered, a girl reciting an ode to her lover, him blushing when she calls his name. All baring their souls. All stripping themselves naked.