Q&A with Jorie Graham
Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950, the daughter of a journalist and a sculptor. She was raised in Rome, Italy and educated in French schools. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris before attending New York University as an undergraduate, where she
studied filmmaking. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa.
Graham is the author of numerous collections of poetry, most recently Sea Change (Ecco, 2008), Never (2002), Swarm (2000), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
About her work, James Longenbach wrote in the New York Times: “For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption — intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic — rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems.”
Graham has also edited two anthologies, Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language (1996) and The Best American Poetry 1990.
Her many honors include a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
She has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. She served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.
I am wondering about the different mode of writing that The Errancy reflects, in comparison your earlier books, as well as to Swarm. Specifically, I’m wondering whether you chose to write those integrations — where you, to put it rather blandly and simply, warped other texts and made them your own — because you felt that writing the integrations offered you some kind of freedom that you couldn’t have otherwise. I suppose my general question would be this: What benefits (and disadvantages) did writing the integrations offer? I am especially intrigued by the movement implied between the writing of The Errancy and the writing of Swarm. Referring to the OED definition (as you note it in your notes) of ‘swarm’ as the founding of the self in a new community, I am compelled to think that moving to Cambridge partly prompted the book’s shift of mode; that shift of mode being a shift away from the integrations, away from abstract diction, and back into a mode seen in your previous work, such as Erosion. Could you comment on this shift, and perhaps speculate about what prompted / compelled / necessitated the shift? Thank you for your time. I truly appreciate it, as I know that you are an intensely busy individual.
Bonnie Emerick — Colorado; previously, Cleveland; previously, Cambridge
Thank you for your attentiveness. I’m not sure what you mean by “integrations”. Do you mean in Swarm, where I quote from translations from the Greek, Lear and others? Because if that is what you refer to, then, yes, “re”-integration, into a new life, not just of place but of circumstance. I am not sure I “warp” texts–when I quote I try to be faithful. And, too, I’m not sure I’m “trying to make them my own”–one of the reasons I attribute is to make sure their “otherness” is in place. They are, after all, the utterances engendered by other lives than mine, other pressures, virtues, sensibilities, and so need to be honored and handled as such. I don’t, at any rate, do much borrowing, and don’t believe in appropriation without attribution, although it can happen to any wide-reading poet by accident, and often does–surely to me as well.
At any rate, I used more quotation in Swarm than in any other book because it was a book, in a way, about that�Cambridge was, yes, a difficult and abrupt occasion for integration and reintegration, and, yes, my poems always reflect what is actually going on in my life at a level as profound as that–rather than, say, at an autobiographical level. Even though, clearly, to a reader such as yourself, those translations are transparent.
As for what necessitated the shift: it is abundantly clear, unfortunately, that my personal life underwent a transformation. A divorce after many years of marriage is like a death, no matter what the reasons. So perhaps what you are asking me regarding Swarm has less to do with a movement “away from abstract diction” and more with a need to go to ground, to rebuild a sense of a possible person that could inhabit the “I” of the poem. There is much in Swarm that revolves around the issue of who that “speaker” is, whom there is to address, what the nature of that address might be–levels of voice, levels of intimacy–who is “there”, who is one when one is “there” or “not there” for an other. Eurydice, Cordelia, Daphne, among others, come in for those reasons, perhaps? [I never feel myself to be the best reader of my own work, so I say this to you as a series of hypothetical propositions]. The book is filled with silences because the speaker is trying to listen. Dickinson presides because of her arguments with silence–with what exists in the silence, with the troubled suppressions of selfhood she struggled with both in her poems and in her life. Failure of love attached to failure of belief in a deity are very prominent in the series of poems Swarm alludes to and quotes from. Primarily 640:
I cannot live with You–
It would be Life–
And Life is over there–
Behind the Shelf
The Sexton keeps the Key to–
I could not die–with You–
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down–
And I–Could I stand by
And see You–freeze–
Without my right of Frost–
Nor could I rise–with You–
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’–
That New Grace
Glow plain–and foreign
On my homesick Eye–
Forgive me if I misquote, I don’t have the book at hand. The sense of being judged by a community, too, was very forceful in that book; the issue of what right behavior is for a “community”, how it might differ from the needs of the individual. Perhaps that is why the drama between heroine and chorus, or individual and community, is acted out in so many poems. Here the Greek models are used , as well as the passage, so crucial to me for its wisdom and tone, in the Dickinson, further down from where I left off quoting:
They’d judge Us–How–
For you–served Heaven–You know,
Or sought to–
I could not–
And so on. The despair at the end of that poem governed much of the book. But also much else–the idea of Law, the problem of the idea of Law, its nature–how its rises up finally out of the Furies in order to replace then as Athenian Justice–[why the Oresteia cycle figures]–
All of these came in to help me try to reconfigure a self, a life, in a new solitude, a new relationship, a new community, a broken relationship with the past, all the normal things these kinds of very sad life transitions inflict upon us, all of us. I also turned to my own past–my childhood in the city of Rome, and to the Roman Forum itself, which I had played in a great deal as a child, and which had not, strangely, ever figured in my imaginative life. So, now, it came forward as a place where fragments both did and did not recreate the missing foundational city, where the Imagination was asked to do that work of “recreation”. And that work did correspond to psychic work any human has to undergo at those junctures we call “crises” or “transformations”. Or “deaths”.
There is much more to this. Romantic ideas of “Rome” came into play for me, as I began to think about the Rome I grew up in and how it was imaginatively constructed by painters, philosophers, poets, cultural historians over the centuries. The early German Romantic–then the French and English–notions of the past, of the personal past, of childhood, of the self, the self constructed out of fragments [this last especially in the German thinking of the Atheneum]–of origin, and our relationship to the “underneaths” of origin, and the constructed “personhood” that accrues, sometimes precariously, over that origin–all of this flooded in as I began putting my life back together via the writing of these poems.
I should make very clear, at this point, though, that all this thinking “about” the poems–this way of trying to explain the conceptual underpinning to you, comes very much “after the fact” for me. I don’t actually “think” about any of this while I’m writing–or even while a book is putting itself together and emerging. I begin to see it all after the book is done–when asked about things. I obviously “think” about these matters–I read, I meditate on things that seem to send me in a direction that is emotionally useful at the moment of composition–I chose Eurydice rather than Orpheus, for example, in Swarm, for a reason I feel in my heart long before all the “reasons” for it–which are obvious in hindsight–occur to me. And so on. When I write from Daphne’s point of view it’s not out of a love of myth, or out of some theoretical take on her, or for any other reason than that I “feel” or am “trying to feel”, what it would be like to be so pursued, so trapped, so finally stilled. And whether there is any way to survive that. Whether I could be a tree–be stilled into another life form. What that all “means” comes later, much later, after the anger and loss and all the other emotions that are summoned have trawled through me, found voice, stained tone, made themselves felt in syntax, occasioned action of mind, turned the poem, shaped argument…
As for the evident stylistic difference between books–all of them: as Williams puts it, “a new rhythm is a new mind”: I don’t want to keep writing in a music I’ve exhausted because, even though “another book” might come of it, another motion of mind will not, another step in life experience will not. I’m in it to be changed. I’m in it for the life experience.
Errancy undertook a relationship to diction and fantasy I had not experienced before. Swarm came out of a complex feeling of being still on the receiving end of poetry (the mouth whispering over the ear of the speaker) but of not being able to fully bring that utterance–transmuted through the inwardness of the speaker–back out into the world shared with the listener, the reader. Thus the repeated images of mouth over the ear, whispering the poem, as notes, into it, and hand over the throat, impeding the notes from re-emerging as song.
What is your feeling regarding using white space as a key formal element of the (a) poem? Theoretically I find myself ok with it–why not consider it like rhyme, stanza-form, line-length–but also feel that unusual spacing of words tends to make for an interesting visual, but do little in-terms of a rhytyhm one would actually read, and often seems to take the place of using interesting words, really shaping a poem…a scattering of fragments over a page etc…
Adam Patterson — Kentucky
I tend to agree with you. Very much so, in fact. I’ve only really used white space once, in my book Swarm, and in those spaces I feel an emotive quality in the silence. I feel hesitation, delay, the “being-silenced”, a sense of not-knowing–even of having to “wait” for the next word. In other words they are dramatic, not visual. I tend to think , first of all, that ALL white space in and around a poem is silence, not paper. What precedes the poem, what follows it, and every line ending–even in a run-on–is pocked with a genuine silence. If the gap between stanzas is felt to be paper, for example, rather than silence, then there’s insufficient voicing, insufficient tone, emotion, reasons for speaking, need, desire, curiosity, and so on, driving the speech that precedes the space.
I love Keats, especially, in this regard. In his Odes the spaces between the stanzas are all genuine dramatic silences. Things HAPPEN in those stanza gaps. He thinks, he inhales or breathes and muses, he wonders where to go next in his motion of inquiry, he even drinks!
As for the small gaps between words in Swarm: I felt them to be silences, not paper. I feel I can count out how many beats there are in the gaps. I feel one should be able to. If the silence gets too “wide” it turns into paper and the effect is, indeed, visual not acoustic–which is another sensation altogether, with other implications and other ambitions.
Those are not mine. Even in Swarm, I am always writing in sentences. The sentences happen to contain silences. When I wrote that book I felt it was closest to Erosion, of all the books I had written. As my new book feels like the twin to End of Beauty–but we’ll have to see if I can ever get it done!
I don’t believe I have ever engaged in “the scattering of fragments over a page”. I truly hope none of the poems in Swarm feel like that. At any rate, that use of silence in the midst of the sentence corresponded to a certain life-situation which I described in the preceding answer. It was necessary to me, in that it was the only way for me to access certain emotions and to act upon them, to move off from them. It was particular to that work of spirit.
George Oppen wrote about the importance of the little words in poetry (the title This in Which, for example). I see similarities here to your early writing, particularly in “The Way Things Work”. What is it, do you think, that is so powerful in the less concrete aspects of our vocabulary?
Daniel — Cincinnati
I’m not sure “little” words are necessarily little, or less concrete. Words that denote physical relation, for example–“like”, “on”, “with”, “by”, “and”, “through”–even “the” and “its”–seem deeply involved with concretion, to me. They are involved, often, with how a thing is known in relation to, or by proximity to, an other thing. In context, in other words–which often seems the most concrete part of an experience–even though it relies, entirely, on object-relation for its being. Given the science of our day, it seems very evident that the nature of much that is concrete is relational, if not relative. So those little words–that are so often the crucial turning points of lines in Williams, Oppen, Creeley–words which I often use in positions of high accentual stress [such as line endings, turn-overs, or the first position on the left on a line that enjambs]–are hinges for me that not only hold the poem together, but crucial joints that add up to the “secret subject” of the poem–what the poem is truly after, rather than simply what it seems to be “about”.
How important do you think the poet is to the poem, beyond the fact that the he/she creates it? Do you believe a reader of poetry should consider the poet when reading a poem or do you think that once the poem has left the poet, it stands alone and ultimately belongs to the reader and the reader�s reaction
Katey — Dallas, TX
The latter. I love the quote attributed to Pound that “it really matters that great poems get written, and it doesn’t matter a damn who writes them”.
But I do believe in the sound of a human voice in a poem. And that voice does have to come from some accretion and construction of personhood–a mortal self–it’s not a technical device, a voice, it’s a moral stance, a decision to be accountable to your utterance, a belief in poetry as a form of, well, truth. Something more than entertainment. Something that needs to traverse a person’s “life” to find truthful speech. There has to be a musical, human bond between the poet and the reader. It involves enormous trust and intimacy. Also total indifference of course–but that is different, and important on spiritual grounds. People tend to forget how naked the enterprise is. It is not at all a theoretical act, to put pen to paper, to open yourself and speak. Then there is technique–also not unrelated to character. And so on.
As for the reader’s reaction. It is crucial, personal, and no one can interfere with it. It is a more useful experience for the reader, though, if they come to a poet knowing the full body of that poet’s work. They do not need to know about the life, the career, the other nonsense–positions on this or that. They would be better readers, though, if they knew the body of work. Kids who have only read John Ashbery’s two most recent books have no idea who is writing them or how to hear them, it seems to me. When they inform me of that fact I feel–after I say they should go back and read the first five or six books–that their “reaction” is more attitude, mood and opinion than it is understanding and felt critique.
It seems as though only a handful of poets from a generation are important even 100 years later, who from your generation do you see that is most likely to be remembered? Thank you and Smartish Pace.
Kris — DC
I hate rankings. And, too, I won’t be around to know–people in their own day tend to be, as history shows us, notoriously myopic. From the generation beyond my own, from whom I have a little distance, it is “clear” to me–whatever blindness that might entail–that Ashbery, Merrill, Ammons, James Wright, Creeley and O’Hara will stand. But what is American poetry without Ginsberg or Koch or Schuyler? Beyond there are Stein, Duncan, Oppen, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Bishop, Moore–in between Berryman, Jarrell and Cage. But there are also many who might resurface. HD holds little appeal for me. But Neidecker does. Plath less and less, but Rich more and more. There are also a whole group of poets–Phil Levine, Merwin, Hugo, Strand, Simic, Hecht, come to mind–about whom one will be able to see more once their work is done.
I love early Leslie Scalapino (That they were at the beach; Considering How exaggerated music is; Way), early Carson (Plainwater, Glass, Irony and God), early Gregg (the amazing Too Bright to See), early Sandra McPherson (Radiation, Elegies for the Hot Season, The Year of Our Birth). The Palmer of Notes for Echo Lake and At Passages, Jon Anderson (In Sepia, Death & Friends). Jane Miller’s first three or four books. Norman Dubie wrote incredible, unforgettable, images. James Tate has a way with sense data that never ceases to surprise me. Bidart holds firm, book after book. I loved Larry Levis’ work, and would have thought the work more uneven until I saw the Collected. Charles Wright has such a gorgeous ear. Susan Howe is just so damned perverse, I love it. Fanny Howe’s Selected really was a storm, when it hit. I am only leaving people out because this is one afternoon of a particular day. Richard Hugo is uneven but fearless. I love fearlessness. Ask me on another day and there will be different answers. There is one book of Penn Warren’s that I adore. Hecht’s The Hard Hours still amazes me. In fact, there are very few poets whose work doesn’t, someplace in its enterprise, stun me. Lord knows I couldn’t have written without Denis Johnson’s Incognito Lounge. Or McPherson or Scalapino or Hass. Hass is truly essential to our poetries–all of them–it seems to me. Perhaps he is one of those poets not sufficiently well “read”–albeit much loved–by his own moment. His is an extraordinarily nuanced and complex view regarding language, and the relationship of language to the body. The poems, from book to book, so stunning with re-incarnation. He might very well end up being one of the ones that endures of that generation, since you ask. Who knows?
My own generation is still forming so it is harder for me to see into it. And the one after–well, so very many are former students I love all of them, and am blind to faults–of course this after I was their so-called “teacher” and accountable to their faults!–there is a great deal of talent in that generation, it seems to me, and if they avoid short cuts many of them will go for the long run. It is a very long run.
I feel very little need to follow encampments. There is genuine work in all quarters, and very little time needs to pass before the ungenuine simply stays put on the shelves. Poets will read the poets they need to read. No anthology, or theory, or ideologically driven set of rules, will persuade them to read what doesn’t stimulate them; no obscurity descends on the poets other poets NEED. What happens in the larger world is a function of cultural forces, marketing, and very temporary forms of apparent luck. Also taste and need. This is a very diverse country–it is so huge. It needs, it deserves, so many different kinds of poetry. It seems such a sad waste of time how much territorial positioning needs to go on.
As soon as I push send I will remember all the poets I have simply not thought of in these minutes.
I do believe critics should find what they love and review it, rather than try to make their careers via splashy attacks. It is clear news venues prefer an attack–its sexier and sells. It is much harder to describe what one loves, and why. Much harder to make one’s intelligence evident by praising. But praising can’t get a young critic the kind of attention that a massive attack can, and the attack creates the illusion that it is a “critique”, and that the venue, and the reviewer are very seriously devoted to this medium, and want to keep it pure. I often think, poetry is like a mountain stream of water, leave it be and it re-purifies itself every hundred yards or so just by running through the pebbled river bed. Add all sorts of chemicals to “cleanse” it of its “pollution” and you don’t do much except make the chemical manufacturers rich�
Poets should perhaps fight this by taking up their pens and writing intelligent appraisals of work. Find something you love, say why, go deep into that “why”, make a potential reader feel it, be contagious. There’s nothing like passion about a poetry to make readers out of non-readers. But you have to tell the truth, to quote the master�Also, you have to “go deep” and, yes, be discriminating. Writing puff pieces for friends, or to support an aesthetic agenda has a long tradition, but it is not what I’m talking about. A level-headed, passionate, intelligent, balanced assessment is. And there are, don’t get me wrong, many young critics doing just that. But in the mainstream press–the glossies, the ones seeking a national audience–you tend to see (obviously there are exceptions) people attacking poetry. But then why should we expect anything different in poetry when our most basic news-gathering and disseminating in this country is rapidly approaching propaganda and fiction? (To put it politely)
I hope you have the time to do this. I’m sending this to you just in case you like reading different material. I know I do. This is a writing I did about my X. Thanks I called you, but you were not there, I thought of you today. The sweetest things go thru my mind, I thought of you today. I’m always asked, how are you doing, it sucks, I thought of you today. My dreams are of you and me working things out, I thought of you today. This is so stupid, I feel like I’ve lost everything, I thought of you today. Nothing seems right, your 3000 miles away, I thought of you today. I know this is old news with you. Me? I need you! I’m still thinking of you everyday. T.W.Carver
Hello Jorie — Mt. Juliet, Tennessee
Thank you. I’m afraid I don’t know what the question is. If it refers to Jim Galvin–he is an extraordinary poet, and his most recent book of poems, “X”, is magnificent, and about a great deal more than a failed marrriage.
How do you feel about younger poets who mix “avant Guarde” and “Mainstream” techniques? (The mongrols as some call them). Do you feel this is irresponsible? Should younger poets show more awareness of context, history etc.?
marcus slease — N. Ireland
In the long view, these techniques are the various voices of one body, of a people, in a language, in a moment of history. They have come out of political or theoretical thinking, yes, but they have been transmuted through persons, temperaments, talents, experiences. In the end it is the voice you hear–the style is the personhood–even if it wants to eschew personhood. That is what moves, persuades. That is, too, what makes a young poet want to be influenced by this poet rather than that. Even to take stylistic devices from this poet rather than that. You don’t find a poet reading a theoretical text that provides the underpinning for a poetry and saying, aha, yes, I want to write to fit that theory. But you do find poets hearing or reading a body of work and thinking, damn I’d like to try that–it sounds so good, it can DO so much, I love the ground it opens in my sense of what’s possible in a poem. Of course all poets need as much awareness of context as possible–but lord knows not just poetic or philosophical or theoretical context. As for whether it’s responsible? Influence is influence–it’s a contagion–it’s a form of love–stop it and you stop the flow of future poetry. A hundred years from now these differences will be footnotes, it will all look much more alike then it now seems. Or so I think.
Dear Ms Graham, I am a soon to be 41 year old w/ a huge box of creative nonfiction, poetry and a Macintosh to do final cut video on. I have recieved an MFA from Tufts but life changes and I am afraid of starting over in a new field as I once wwas a successful painter. I feel life important and I must speak up but where to start? I have tried some online mags but get rejected although did reciece third best poet on CAPE COD four years ago. What do you do when you feel like giving up? By the way your simplicity of word is sappic and everytime I read your work I see something different or new thanks for the ear.
Sue E. — Falmouth, Mass
You seem to me brave. I often feel like giving up. I don’t know why I don’t except that I have family I love and students to whom I feel accountable. I have hope that, in the end, it will all make sense–the over abundance, the scarcity, the apparent meaninglessness, the incredible urge to harm, the terror of others. And the envy–worst of all the emotions, and most hidden. I often think I can’t take another day. I don’t own a TV set for that reason, and only read the newspapers others leave behind in public places. I don’t know what else to say, except hang in there, we are all suffering, all of us, even though it might not seem so from the surface, even if from the surface it all looks easier in some other life�
Hi! I’ve been reading your poetry for about three years now and the more I read it the more I love it. Your poetry is so cerebral and philosophical and often deals with large philosophical issues. Do you ever try to write more “down to earth” poetry, poetry more about physical experience? I was also wondering if you, as a woman, feel pressured to write more overtly “feminist” poetry or poetry about the body? Thank you.
Letitia — Oklahoma
Well, yes, in my new book, due out next winter, I am writing so much closer to what you’re calling “down to earth” [I might have said “up to earth”!] that it feels scary to me to be publishing it! At least it feels more literally autobiographical–(all my poems have availed themselves of my life)–and so more bare. It still is asking the questions I have always asked–what you might be referring to as the philosophical base of the work–but just in a more integrated way, perhaps, a way that comes out of a more desperate time and is therefore more intimate and direct with the reader.
As for the issue of feminism. I write as a female mortal human in a certain moment in history. I write as a woman who has a child–the transmission from generation to generation, as well as the sense of transmission in general, dominates the new book–but also as a woman who feel that the earth is at very great risk. I don’t know that men and woman feel differently about the earth. I really don’t think so. Nor do I think men and women feel the “having of a body” differently, although the difference of what that body is cannot but affect their perception of reality. I say this a bit vaguely as I feel there are many more bodily “takes” on reality than the oversimplified male/female denotes. There are just, to my mind, many more degrees and shades of gendering than our classifications allow for�
You seem to have philosophical influences in your writing. Are you currently reading philosophy? Which philosopher do you think has been the biggest influence on your writing?
Warren — Lincoln Park, Chicago
I read philosophy in order to get a sense of how the questions are asked, and what the questions are that one needs to ask. So yes, I do read it. And did a great deal earlier on. But my writing is not really influenced by such reading–it comes much more directly out of life experience, the nature of language, and musical threads one follows as one tries to come to terms with intuitions generated by an encounter with the given world, with the sensation.
Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, Heidegger,
Lyotard, Agamben, Neitsche,
Virginia Woolf, Proust, Eliot, Beckett.
Of much greater influence has been the poetry of the past–in English and in other languages�
There was a major shift in the tone and theme of your work after your first three books. What precipitated this? Which do you believe you’ll be remembered for?
E. Evans — Columbia, SC
I gave a long interview to the Paris Review last Spring, and, without being rude, perhaps I could refer you to it, as I went over this question in interminable detail!
Usually people, though, ask about the shift after book 2 (Erosion)–as The End Of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness, and Materialism are kind of a trilogy–they certainly are formally more alike, say, than the next three (Errancy, Swarm, and Never) (each of which, in a way, looks back at a prior book–sort of like a shadow planet). My new book, Overlord, is the most “accessible” to date, whatever is meant by that (I don’t feel, that if one reads all of a poet’s work, any of it remains difficult for very long. It’s a language, it can be learned, then one is fluent in that poet. Dipping in at a poet’s eighth or ninth book and saying, wow, this person is really willfully obscure is sort of unfair, especially if the poet is one whose style evolves. One has to read the work from the start. This is true of all poets, it seems to me, even if it applies more to those whose ways of proceeding evolve book to book in more radical ways. But it is incredible to read anyone from the start: everything starts to make so much sense, such a great drama unfolds–a life!).
Poetry has some flavour, and an expression to touch our mind. When you are writing a poem what type preferences to be given to your expressions. Or the incident which touches your heart then you will paint the poem in your form.
B.V. Ramana Rao — India/Andhrapradesh
The dominant flavors?: amazement that there be anything at all, curiosity, fear.
In your earlier poems, I’m thinking of those in Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, some subjects you deal with consistently are finding your way/losing your way. Do you see this as a preoccupation with your speaker’s understanding herself in relation to the world&mdasha finite being in the midst of other finite beings, who exist and complete themselves without the speaker? The arc of the red ball in “Strangers” seems to exemplify this question.
Clara P. — St. Louis, MO
Yes, except for the fact that the one premise (that there is a world which exists and completes itself without our presence, as you put it) is now up against its destruction by “our presence”. Figuring out how to write poetry–how to have a “speaker” at all–in the face of that role, the role any speaker, if human, is asked, by history, at this moment, to own up to–[among other roles, of course, some still grand]–is no easy trick. In fact, from both an emotional and a philosophical point of view, at present, it’s driving me to distraction. And of course by the world I do not refer exclusively to the natural world–far from it–it is the world of those “others” towards whom we are culpable, which draws to the surface all sorts of questions with which it is very hard for lyric poetry to contend: the idea of the nation state, of monotheism, of religion at all, of history shaped by a sense of its ending�.and so on.
In a recent JHU panel discussion, fiction writer Tristan Davies asserted that he tended to “shop locally” when it came to choosing writers to read. His point was that there are great writers in every city, so why not support the local writers, as one would support the local art museums, sports teams, or symphony. What city do you consider “home,” and do you find yourself “shopping locally” for reading material?
Jean F. — Johns Hopkins
I live in Cambridge, so I might have to say I shop locally. But no, I don’t. I don’t even necessarily consider the present my “locale”. BUT, I do believe in the idea of a poetic community, very strongly, and I do spend a good deal of my life trying to help other writers get along–get into print, get jobs, and so on. The community of poetry is all local–all across the planet, still local. Or so it seems to me. Still, it seems very important to read the poets who share your landscape, your political and economic framework, your town or city, your weather. There’s a good deal to be learned there, about what you might be missing, or overlooking, for example. But you can’t do anything in poetry out of pity. The impulse can’t be born of ideology. Out of genuine need and curiosity, yes, it seems to me. I hope that makes sense. I guess I’d add, having reread my answer, that it seems equally urgent to read those poets with whom one seems to have absolutely nothing in common�.
Your poems are filled with color, almost as if you are painting them instead of writing them. Are there artistic avenues that you have explored other than poetry?
Tami Bentz — Brunswick, MD
Well yes, I confess, I draw. Still lives. I used to do it, early on, for every poem–or almost. In order to train myself to “see” the thing I was looking at and thought I “saw”. One has to find means to see what isn’t apparently “there”. Or the means to feel that one is “not seeing” even when one thinks one is. I believe that “unseeable thereness” (if I can call it that) is what one is looking for, in lyric. I also spend hours with a camera. Trying to frame a thing is incredibly taxing and interesting. And I did start out as a filmmaker–so I was trained in film-editing and cinematography. I learned, and continue to do so, from the Japanese poets how to use the “other” senses [not privileging, as is our habit, sight]. I look at visual art–especially painting–every free moment I have [not many!]. Most anywhere I travel to give a reading, I ask to visit the local museum–sometimes it happens and I get treats like the Cleveland Art Institute’s Picassos…Or the great Kiefer in Saint Louis.
Do you think you’re a better writer then the readers are readers? Or, put more simply, do you find significant misreadings of your work and does this concern you on any level?
Darren — Atlanta, GA
Yes, and no. It makes me sad. I wish people would read the complete work. There’s not that much of it. It would help it all make sense� Poetry can’t be grasped as quickly as most readers want to “seize” what they read today. More and more poetry is being written to satisfy that need for instant gratification, or, conversely, to elude the reader completely, in order to resist that need, on political grounds. I am most certainly not doing the later. And no one could accuse me of doing the former. Fast seizures are dangerous. Look at what digital cameras are doing to the mind of our crazed children in Iraq, or anywhere they have the means to produce the narcotizingly speedy thrills, or understandings–which make the terrified and bored human psyche feel “powerful” of course–whether it’s a weapon, a camera, or a reading glance–anywhere on this planet. It’s a moral catastrophe born of many things–technology is certainly one of the components.
What trends do you see in the new (next) generation of poets? In what significant way do they differ from the poets writing in the past 20 or 30 years? Maybe this is too broad a question, but maybe you see one or two things in the younger writers that you’d like to share. Thanks for considering my question.
Andrew — Baltimore, MD
Andrew: I think we are looking at one of the most incredibly fearless and talented group of poets in many generations. They tend not only to explain themselves a great deal, but to dislike others’ explanations of them–so I’m going to keep out of that. They are formally very inventive–very. They have a rigorous and accountable capacity for synthesis. They are struggling with “earnestness”, it seems to me, in a very moving way. The history of our very present moment is going to influence that conversation, I would imagine. They do not want to be relegated to the role of high-level entertainers, even high-level intellectual entertainers–they are way too smart and ambitious and can see that trick coming a mile off. I love their ambition for poetry. They seem newly generous towards each other, less “encamped” than their elders–perhaps they have seen what a waste of time that is, in spite of all the thinking that goes into drawing those boundaries–which also heartens me�.I am very curious to see what they do with the new America that is being thrust upon them–and us–With what it feels like now to be an “American” on this planet, to try to sing in American English. I send all readers back to James Wright’s “Ars Poetica” on that one, or Adrienne Rich. How do the inheritors of this great language, the language of Whitman and Dickinson, now use it to speak of the atrocities committed worldwide in its name. It seems like just a few minutes ago we were trying to “understand” and “theorize” Celan’s predicament, [regarding the use of a language stained by its use in the committing of atrocity] and yet here we are, already, it seems, horribly in it: now we are the test case for what inhumanity, barbarism and blindness do to a language.
I know some will say that one cannot compare the level of the atrocities committed in WWII to what is happening at present–but I am including not just homicide, and the murder of cultures, but ecocide, ecosuicide, the destruction of the future, the destruction of a place to which others than us had a right to aspire–I almost said respire. Many will say you cannot compare the murder of humans [and we are certainly getting that done] to the destruction of species, of so much life on earth. I do understand their beliefs. I do not share them.
And there is, even in the realm of the human, something which numbers can’t account for going on, to my mind. That child [that child of ours–because that could be anyone’s child gone mad–anyone’s]–that child holding that human person on a leash–there is something in that which involves a paradigm shift–a terrifying one–occasioned by technology. There is something to the “digital” or “instant” recording going on in those photos, which differs in profound ways from the prior “photographing” of atrocity [picnics at lynchings, say–god what a species we are]. There is grief and anger of a different kind, when the lapse of time which allows memory in–the delay–as in the “resurrection” of the photo in the developing process–when that delay is removed. There is an appall, a rage at a failed expectation [that the real and the represented somehow coincide][strange how this feeds into the sense of personal “atemporality” and a sense of personal unreality–felt as both a release and a despair]. A sense that one doesn’t really have a body, that others don’t really have a reality, a body. A rage at flesh and at time. Why is there such an epidemic of what doctors call–on both sides of the Atlantic–“self-harming” among teenagers? I see the movie of “The Passion” and the “movie” from Iraqi prisons at present as two faces of one event. I can’t go into this here at length, but we don’t need weapons any longer to kill off people, we are getting a kind of killing done now that doesn’t even necessitate dead bodies. It’s a very clean holocaust of spirit going on. So called “information technology” is a terrifying weapon.
At any rate: will the young poets shrink from the task, and write the poetry of entertainment, even a high level “intellectual” entertainment? I cannot imagine so. It is their future being stolen. Will the poets of my generation shrink–I know “boomers” get a bad rap these days, for their lunatic false consciousness–or whatever you want to call their earlier “hope”. They know something about resistance though–and they are learning to adapt to new forms of resistance developed by their children–[the Internet, and so on]�And as for their poetries, those I trust to do the work, as it were, I see them morphing in amazing ways at present. So: the young poets: fearless, yes, they had better be, and stay, fearless, much is asked of them. And the rest of us: I do believe we are doing our damn best to wake up and face up to the disaster at hand. If that means abandoning certain cherished modes of inquiry, certain aspects of our “poetics” in favor of a poetry that can “do work”–well, maybe we can find a way. I don’t know how else to believe in poetry if I can’t believe that engagement is possible. I do not need to be told this is a na�ve position. It is a na�ve position I believe needs to be held at this point. In full knowledge of what it means to hold one; of what is sacrificed–some of the aesthetic goodies–of what one can [only] hope to engage.
I didn’t really want to answer this question, Andrew. I’m glad you forced me to–I’m glad I tried. Thanks.
Something I’ve noticed reading your work is the great variety in its shape from the older poems to the newer. What is it about your subjects in more recent poems that require less conventional shapes?
Beth — Santa Barbara, CA
Beth, I don’t think I’d call them shapes. I work in form. There is an evolving of the formal work I do from book to book, as you say. I’m also not sure the most recent work is less committed to convention, formally. The meditations in NEVER tend to hark back to what they call “loco-descriptive meditations” in Romantic poetry [meaning by that mediations on place while the speaker is in motion–“loco” not as in “insane”–although why not?]�.The form, as well as the syntax, in NEVER was very much in service of an attempt to describe the nature of the border (and economy) between subjectivity [feeling, remembering, musing, etc.] and objectivity [the facts of the given world that can be described]. The shoreline, which is the setting for most of the book, the place from which we “source” or “spring” as it were, from an evolutionary standpoint, is also that shoreline in a person: thus the “nesting” punctuation, brackets and parenthesis trying to “hold” all sorts of differing activities–inner and outer–at once, in a “description” of the world as “we” know it, and try to live “in” it. A syntax of multi-tasking, if one wants to be glib about it! Thanks for asking that question.
During the writing and/or revision process do you read your work aloud to hear how it sounds? How important is sound to your work?
Meghan Miller —
All-important. And, yes, I read it aloud at every revision of every draft–to make even a one syllable change I have to “hear” my way all the way down the poem to that spot. There is–to follow off the previous question–no local spot in a poem. It’s all one music, you have to hear it from start to finish from any given point. It takes a hell of a lot of work to keep one’s ear attuned. I fail often.