An Interview with Greg Williamson
By Jessica Yoo
Jessica Yoo: How did you come up with form of Double Exposures?
Greg Williamson: When I’d first written a few Double Exposures, I was reminded by a friend that I’d floated an idea like it back in school. I liked the notion of having this text on the page that interleaves and changes depending on how you look at it. But I never thought of an unhokey way of doing it. One day, years later, I was thinking about the effects of this photographic double exposure, and I thought I’d give it a shot. I figured it ought to be about 3x5, and I wanted the third, combined reading to bring the other two together into a complexified, and generally darker, coexistence.
JY: What should poets keep in mind when attempting this form?
GW: Quite a few people have written enviably good ones. The hardest part is maintaining the accuracy of the grammar, syntax, punctuation, and so forth when the two parts join in the middle, what I thought of as the estuary, what someone else called the zipper.
JY: The subject matter of some of your poems seems to be inspired by everyday observations or occurrences like in your poems “Snow” and Outbound.” Other times, by universal facts of life such as in “Annual Returns.” How do you find inspiration in the everyday?
GW: Generally, I’m just happy to find something I may have something to say about. But in A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck, a big part of the conceit is its faux encyclopedianess, so I was more on the lookout than usual for certain kinds of “entries”: rain, snow, wind, the kitchen sink.
JY: Do you evaluate a poem differently when reading a student’s work as opposed to reading a published work for pleasure?
GW: Yes and no. I don’t know that I “evaluate” them differently, but rather approach them differently, if that’s the right word. As a writing coach, you look for ways to make your players better. If you’re watching game film of others, you may watch with awe or insight or skepticism, but it’s not your job to coach em, if you even could.
JY: What poems do you feel represent your best work?
GW: I’ll let someone else answer that.
JY: You’ve been quoted in a past interview that James Merrill has had the biggest impact on your poetry and your own development as a poet. What about his poetry has specifically affected your own writing?
GW: I don’t remember saying that exactly. I never met James Merrill. Other teachers and writers had a bigger and more direct influence on me, but perhaps I “inherited?” if I did (I wanted to), some of his stylistic and aesthetic affinities, if only as a poor, red headed stepchild.
JY: Who are other teachers and writers who had a major impact on you? And how did they influence your writing and teaching?
GW: Well, that list is really very long. Teachers who were very important to me were Mark Jarman, Wyatt Prunty, John Irwin, Peter Sacks, Charles Martin, John Hollander, and Anthony Hecht. But there are so many other friends who helped along the way, ya know?
JY: When you first came to Johns Hopkins for graduate school, what were you expecting? How were those expectations met?
GW: I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know about writing programs, or Johns Hopkins, or Baltimore. (I thought it was on the ocean.) What I found was amazing: fantastic, encouraging professors and truly talented, supportive classmates. It’s pretty likely that if I hadn’t come to this school at that time I’d still be framing houses.
JY: What do you mean by “framing houses”? If writing poetry hadn’t worked out, what would you see yourself doing?
GW: I was working for Davenport Construction in Nashville, Tennessee. I came home from work one day, and my brother had left me a note that said, “Somebody named John Hopkins called.” I called back and said, “Is this Mr. Hopkins?”
JY: How rewarding is it to see your former students published?
GW: I get super excited for them. And proud of them. As far as rewarded, well, to quote Roy Williams, “Great players make bad coaches look good.”
JY: How often do you write?
GW: I can go way too long without writing at all, but when I have time and am really working on something, I stick to it pretty good, maybe just shy of obsessively.
JY: Do you feel you lose or gain anything by having long breaks in between writing sessions?
GW: It’s better to keep writing. It can be difficult to get whatever mojo you thought you had back. How’s that for a sentence?
JY: Do you ever take breaks due to writer’s block? And if so, is there anything in particular that helps?
GW: I don’t really have writer’s block. I have making a living block. And that really does get in the way sometimes.
Jessica Yoo is a Smartish Pace intern and junior at Johns Hopkins University double majoring in writing seminars and English, and minoring in psychology. In the summer of 2009, she interned at Anderson Literary Management. Since September 2009, she works part-time as a work-study student in the Acquisitions department of the Johns Hopkins University Press.