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- Interview with Jorie Graham :: Earthlines
The Art of Poetry No. 85
Interviewed by Thomas Gardner
THE PARIS REVIEW No. 165, Spring 2003
Jorie Graham has published eight books of poems since 1980: Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Erosion, The End of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness, Materialism, The Errancy, Swarm, and Never. Her selected poems, The Dream of the Unified Field, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. She has also edited Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language and The Best American Poetry 1990, contributing a much-cited introduction to that volume. A mainstay of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop from 1983-1998, she is currently Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, succeeding Seamus Heaney, and the first woman to hold that position. One of the oldest chairs at Harvard, the professorship permits her, by contract, to tether a cow in Harvard Yard.
Graham was born in 1950 in New York City, then taken by her mother back to the south of France at three months. Her parents, the painter and sculptor Beverly Pepper and the journalist Curtis (Bill) Pepper, moved to the town of Positano in Italy when she was two and then, by the time she started school, to Rome. There she attended the first Montessori School, and then the Lycée Chateaubriand, receiving her baccalaureate near her seventeenth birthday. Graham moved to France to pursue studies at the Sorbonne but left after the student uprisings of 1968.
Back in the United States, essentially for the first time, she attended New York University and Columbia, initially working in film, and was employed briefly by NBC news. Following graduation, she moved to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., then back to Los Angeles, leaving the West Coast to attend Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, from which she graduated in 1983. She has one daughter, with the poet James Galvin, and lives now in Cambridge with her husband, the poet scholar Peter Sacks.
This interview took place over the course of a weekend in Cambridge, February 2002, in a number of venues. We began holed up in Graham’s office in Harvard’s Barker Center, on Quincy Street, talking about Emily Dickinson for another project. Her mind still on a series of student conferences she had just completed, she told a story about being so distracted the previous day that she had thrown twenty-three dollars in the trash along with her uneaten lunch, showing me a secretary’s note – “Jorie, you’ve thrown away money!” – as she moved piles of papers out of the way so we could open Johnson’s Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson between us.
Photos and postcards line her desk and worktable: the Roman Forum, her mother cutting stone in her studio with a chisel, four Annunciations, her daughter, Emily, at various ages, an engraving of Beatrice and Dante, an aquatint of Lady Macbeth, photos of her parents’ house in Umbria. A poem by Seamus Heaney and a note from James Tate are taped to one wall. Three shelves hold book by ex-students; another is crammed with manuscripts by current students, all in various stages of revision. There were piles of unopened mail. Graham showed me the cover for her soon-to-be released book, Never, then a fragment of a highly varnished seventeenth-century painting on wood which seemed to show Cain and Abel struggling.
As the evening settled, the building quieted and the sounds of traffic filtered in through the window at her back. The pone rang once and, after a flurry of appointment setting, Graham returned to the sentence she had broken off, remarking, “It’s just how my brain works.” to my raised eyebrow. We spent most of the evening talking about Swarm, to my mind the book where her conversation with Dickinson becomes most acute, Dickinson leading her to touch on many of the subjects displayed around us in the room – the Forum, the role of silence in James Tate’s poetry – then headed off to meet Peter for dinner at an Indian restaurant.
We picked up the next day with Never. We met on the street and ducked into the C’est Bon Café, a few steps down from the sidewalk. Coffee, bagels, six or seven closely spaced tables. Graham wrapped herself in her black coat as the door at her back opened and closed. We opened the galleys of Never. The café filled, emptied. Voices, then no voices, then voices again. The coat, almost unconsciously tracking the opened door, was pulled off and on all morning.
Never’s dense, layered sentences, drawing the reader out then back, are in many ways the culmination of a focus on syntax that has stretched across all of Graham’s books – syntax, she writes, as it “absorbs, encodes, reveals, transmits, reenacts,” being the means by which “the perceiving mind, and the imagining restlessness, is, in language, imprinted, stained by the world, made to take the force of it in.” One hears the same restless absorption in the sentences which follow.
INTERVIEWERI’d like to begin with “The Taken-Down God,” one of that last group of extraordinary poems in your most recent book, Never.
JORIE GRAHAMAll right.
INTERVIEWERFirst of all, the speaker is sitting during Easter Saturday in a small chapel, somewhere in Italy, where a life-size puppet-like Christ has been taken down from the cross and placed in a velvet-lined coffin covered by a wedding veil.
INTERVIEWERShe is struggling with the very act of “writing about,” or “taking down” the experience. It seems like an inexplicable wrongness – a trespass of the profane on the sacred. She actually seems appalled at the sound her pen makes on paper in the midst of all those forms of worship – some people praying, some crying, some just watching...
GRAHAM...children running around, some people kissing the veil, and all the rest – old, young, blind...
INTERVIEWERThe crucial act in the poem, it seems to me, is when she ends up summoning the assistance of the reader. It gets rather urgent. As if she can’t do it alone – can’t bear the situation, can’t undertake the act of witness – alone. She uses the word here repeatedly to summon the reader. Finally even pleading with him or her to help her hang Christ back up.
GRAHAMYes. “Here” and “now” – exactly. The terms that summon presence. In the literal sense, as well as the spiritual. Although we usually use the word to mean the presence of the greater-than-human, in that book in particular it’s the presence of others – the attempt to rebuild the shattered community of the “we.” It’s a very small space, that chapel. And the “we” we have got to live in – politically, environmentally, spiritually – is a very sacred space. Because we have to act in unison in it – or ... Well, it’s dire.
INTERVIEWERHere’s a part of what you write:
Weren’t we here? Wasn’t I
in here? And you here too? We have “written” – can’t you feel it
in your hands [this pen for instance, this scratchy weightlessness] or in your
eyes [the incense filling up this church] or mind [“at the summit of the tiny
hilltop town”] – haven’t our eyes the empty cross before them now: here:
in this [real time] between us [if you will do the work]:
Was this an actual experience?
GRAHAMOf course. That’s the whole point. Yes, I went there, as I had seen the ritual before, because – I don’t know – I was feeling very low. I was in the middle of a very sad divorce... I didn’t go there intending to write about it, I was just walking through the piazza, feeling a sense of profound exclusion from everything, and saw the little doorway I knew well and thought, Why not, maybe it can help to just go there. Once inside I got that feeling of “I should write this down.” The feeling of “this is interesting” – which already felt like a wrong – very wrong – sensation to be allowing into one’s soul. As if just letting one’s mind “go to work” under these circumstances – rather than one’s heart of body – was already the failing of some spiritual test. I remember so vividly trying not to make noise, or a fuss, getting my notebook and pen out of my bag (people will tell you I don’t go to the grocery store without them, it’s kind of a craziness). Once I had pen in hand, once I heard the silence – because it took the noise of my pen scratching that paper to make me really “hear” the silence – which is an amazingly loud noise once you hear it (as is the sound of pen on paper) – I had this terrible sensation of exclusion, and of usury, trespass, sacrilege. A real revulsion and deep upset. Why was I writing a poem? Why did I need another damned poem? Why did I need to use their very real event? I went outside and started to cry. It was quite a little crisis. I’m not sure I even understand it now. But I couldn’t leave. For a while I sat on the very edge of the outside steps – so as not to block access for all those others arriving – thinking, I can recall the details, and still get it from here. But I couldn’t. r not what I wanted, or needed, from the event. I had never felt the hunger to “see it all” so fiercely before. And how occluded it – whatever there was to “see” – was from me. As if there were something in there – something invisible – that only a tracking of the actual details could lead me to. Something only exposure to the actual physical matter, via the act of description – that terrifying act we so take for granted – could get me to. Of course, as I say this now, I can feel it all again, and how much the word hunger leads me directly to the fact that it was a desire filled with the desire-for-belief, as well, for that Presence. But at the time, I just wanted to be “let in” to the community – it was a place twelve by twenty feet – the barrow with the Christ and wedding veil took up almost a third of the space – the rest was the altar with the emptied-out wall and cross above it. It could feel them all staring at me. I recognized some, and they recognized me – as it is a town my family has lived in for most of my life. I thought they were truly upset by my actions, but I felt I couldn’t help it. I stood a while then took one of the few little chairs, when one opened up. Most of the people were standing. After a while I had the amazing sensation that nothing anyone did could get in their way. I felt simultaneously like a thief – even down to the chair I remember taking – and something utterly invisible to them.
INTERVIEWYou felt acceptance?
GRAHAMNot quite acceptance, just – well, like the painters who painted themselves in to their frescoes, just “not there” to the real actors of the event. And I wanted to be let in to that feeling. That feeling of not-needing. I guess it’s grace, or “unknowing” – but at the time I thought of Keats’s notion of negative capability. Mostly I kept trying to record and not think, as I felt that thinking – or some activity of the mind – was something I was supposed to be learning to shit down. Of course it only came more awake.
INTERVIEWERDid you know immediately you had this amazing poem?
GRAHAMNo. In fact, I had to fly back to the U.S. unexpectedly a short while later, and found myself alone in Cambridge in the middle of the summer. I thought Never was finished – in fact it was already delivered to the publisher. But I called Frank Bidart, and (he’s a guide on the path if there ever was one) he’s the one who said, when I told him about the event, “You have to write that, you just have to write that.” So I took the time of that solitude – which was great, and full of fear – my daughter was very ill – to work the notes up into the final poem. Peter, still in Italy, spent the time walking from Todi to Assisi and back – which took him many days. So I felt that pilgrimage-walk of his somehow behind the poem – that spine of days. It was a very silent time.
INTERVIEWERSo the book originally ended with the prior section?
GRAHAMYes, the version going to press ended on “By the Way.”
INTERVIEWERHow about the other long poem in that final section, High Tide,” about your encounter with the homeless woman?
GRAHAMAfter “The Taken-Down God” presented itself, I knew the book was open again. As when painters say, “Then the canvas had to be wet all-over again” once they touch it anywhere... I went back to my notebook and found the notes on that encounter with the homeless woman. I had to return to Italy then, so I ended up writing “High Tide” there – holding the book up. But my publisher is used to that.
INTERVIEWERThere’s one more – “Relay Station.”
GRAHAMYes, I needed something to stop the book – it suddenly seemed to start to open up too much. I began writing in the new form of those two poems – with the speeding-up at the end via the couplets – and I had to stop. I did try one poem from notes taken during the moments leading to, and during, Timothy McVeigh’s execution, which I tracked (you know how they told the exact actions that were going to take place on which exact minutes) – but it was over. The book clicked shut – a feeling one just learns to recognize.
INTERVIEWERWhat happened to the McVeigh poem?
GRAHAMI have the notes. When the execution took place, I ran around like a madwoman looking for a church to just be in at that instant. Of course they were all shut. Except one, the only one in town in which all the candles – hundreds of them – are plastic and electric. It enraged me, so I just yanked all the plugs from their sockets...
INTERVIEWERYou did? And what about “Relay Station”?
GRAHAMThat was written for the end, to end it. In a restaurant in Civitavecchia waiting for the ferry over to Sardinia. Faxed in from some hotel. I can’t believe what my publisher, Dan Halpern, puts up with. But he’s legendary fro trusting his poets. We’ve worked together a long time, so he knows when we “know,” and when we’re just messing around. In this case, even though he had very much loved the prior ending, he knew I was right. The whole book had to be physically redesigned, though, to accommodate the longer line-length of these new poems – they take up about twenty pages.
INTERVIEWERWhy does the work in Never focus so intently on the reader, and the roe you call him or her to take on?
GRAHAMI’ve been focusing on the reader for a long time now. And on the emotions out of which the desire to see stems. I want to implicate the reader, obviously, in that desire. That’s what a poem does. That’s especially what the sensorial activity of a poem – shared by poet and reader – does, or hopes to do. What images are for: to unify the experience of reader and writer.
INTERVIEWERIn Never, though, that collaboration seems to get more urgent.
GRAHAMWell, yes, because the issues of community are now more pressing. I mean this on a global scale. It’s more troubled. The very world is endangered. Just as that church was a very small space, so, too, we seem to have very little time.
INTERVIEWERYou point to this in your notes to the book, when you write that “while Darwin was concluding On the Origin of Species, the rate of extinction [for species] is believed to have been one every five years. Today, the rate of extinction is estimated at one every nine minutes.” You add, “Throughout the writing of this book, I was haunted by the sensation of that nine-minute span – which might amount to the time it takes to read any poem here before you.”
GRAHAMYes – tat’s how much I am aiming for the participation of the reader in these acts of descriptions – which really involve questions of how much of the world can we bear-in via sense perception and its rendering in language, how much is bearable, what do we do with its unbearable nature. Can we look into the very act of description to find where our instinct for destruction sets in? Where are its seeds? In the words themselves, in the mind’s capacity to figure, elaborate, imagine? Will a communal action – via a writer’s and reader’s meeting on the page – create a tenable “we”? Can that “we” combat our capacity for destruction and self-destruction?
INTERVIEWERStrange that the communal action you ask for in that poem is the re-handing of the Christ onto the cross.
GRAHAMMaybe not so strange... I often teach a painting of Caravaggio’s, Supper at Emmaus. Christ is sitting before us in an alcove against the “back wall” of the painting. We face into a dinner table covered with things for the meal. We are quite sure that the edge of this table is identical with the absolute front of the canvas. But then one undergoes a troubling sensation. The basket of fruit, the edge of the wicker basket, sticks out into our “actual” space, our here and now. The host suddenly recognizes the stranger at his table as Christ and throws open his arms, like this [gesture]. His left hand comes out, beyond the border – further than the sacramental grapes in their wicker – out here into the same air that you (and I) are breathing in the National Gallery. At the same time, his right hand penetrates the crucial illusionistic space, the alcove in which Christ sits. What he does, by going like this, is enact what it is to be “taken” by surprise, to be, suddenly in that spiritual place where the otherness of the world, of possibility, “turns” one’s soul – taking one off the path of mere “ongoingness” onto the other path of “journey.” At any rate, the host’s gesture connects that immortal-because-imaginary space Christ occupies, with the moral one of the gallery in which I am standing breathing my minutes – ad you suddenly realize Caravaggio has activated what I call the “sensation of real time”: the time of the painting’s represented action has crossed over into the time in which my only days are taking place. So you cannot read the painting without being inside the terms of the painting, which are these graduating degrees of temporality: mortal time, immortal time, represented time, actual time, the “time” of process. The activity of the painting is to do that. The host is crucified in this position – a position the artist is also in – saying, “You reader and you subject (God, Christ), I have put you two together. It’s my job. That’s what the meal is. That’s what we eat.”
INTERVIEWERAnd that’s the “real time” Never calls us to?
GRAHAMYes. Among other things. There’s a moment in Tarkovsky’s movie Nostalgia, which really shaped my sense of how the real-time effect works in art. Do you want me to go into that?
GRAHAMWell, it’s a movie about the end of the world. Global warming has occurred; waters have risen; ground floors of many public buildings are slightly flooded and so on. It’s been going on for a bit, people seem to have adjusted. We’re somewhere in northern Italy. A Russian tourist in a bad relationship has come to the place. A final nuclear or climatic catastrophe is looming and seems unavoidable. There is nothing one can do to change the course of events. At a hotel where the man is staying there is an enormously wide Italianate fountain which emits curative sulfur fumes: a pilgrimage destination of sorts. Windy fumes come off the water – isn’t it boring to the reader, to describe a film?
INTERVIEWERNo, go on.
GRAHAMSo, a Hermes-like messenger tells the man something like, “If you can carry a lit candle across this water and touch the wall at the other end without the candle going out, the world will be saved.” Tarkovsky always does this: he introduces a thing that you – in order for the plot to work – have to believe in, but a thing there is no rational way to believe in. Very much like Emily Dickinson’s apparition of light in 812. Then the messenger disappears. He’s just a drunk and wanders off. We all have a choice as to what to make of homeless people’s passing remarks. The tourist just decides why not, which is the decision you have to make to make art, the decision of art. We call it (in the reader, although it’s equally crucial in the poet) “the suspension of disbelief,” the luminous what if? So one night he goes out there with a candle and tries to “cross” the sulfur surface. What happens next changed my life, or at least my life as an artist. The filmmaker, having made a traditional movie up to that point, in which representational time is different from actual time (days go by and only four minutes go by on screen), opens the camera and does not interrupt the shot again from the minute his character tries to cross that water. He tries three times. He goes halfway across. The candle is blown out by the fumes. He goes back and tries again. He slogs – the water is knee high – all the way back. You can imagine how slow this is on screen. A director will normally cut this and make it look as though it were continuous. Tarkovsky does not interrupt the reel. Finally, the third time, the character makes it – touches the far wall.
This kind of iconic action can’t take place except in real time. That was a great revelation to me. Tarkovsky knew it had to take the same, say, thirteen minutes of my life in the movie theater, as it took in the character’s, or actor’s, or Tarkovsky’s life to do it. One can call it the now – real time. It’s the hole that opens in the film – no longer a representation, but a presentation, a carrying. It’s what makes the action salvific. So it was, yes, that kind of experience, in Caravaggio and Tarkovsky and Williams and others, that began to make me want to try a book that moved in and out of that temporal atmosphere.
INTERVIEWERHow did this affect your process of composition?
GRAHAMThose descriptions in Never take place, physically, en plein air. I’m actually on the beach in drafting them – “porting” it rather than reporting it, if you will. I’ve also spent a good deal of my life thinking about that action in Elizabeth Bishop’s revisionary descriptions. The issue of how far she is from the event, whether she is thinking back on the event or not, became very essential to me. Metaphysically.
INTERVIEWERNow you see it shifting in front of you –
GRAHAMIn front of me – water and gulls on the beach in a certain moment of sunset, say – and I look up and describe the thing – then I look up and it has changed, and I change the word – I look up again and the “something” has changed again – I put them (gulls, motion, color, shadow) down in the next position, next incarnation. So it actually in an attempt to change the power ratio of witness to the world, to give the world – the subject – more power. To get one’s self to where one is open to being “corrected” by the given... Also an attempt to enact the time in which it takes to see the thing, the time in which that seen thing is living and constantly changing, the time it takes to “take” those actions down, the time in which my language is occurring, your reading is occurring, - to make of all that a piece. The mutability of the external meeting the mutability of the internal.
GRAHAMYes. The things that come to mind, as they say, while one is already thinking. Things from consciousness, self-consciousness, memory, random thought, from an aside. Or multiple things noticed at once. Multiple things happening at once. The punctuation involves an attempt to nest everything into the here. So that these poems become rather large exfoliations of what I would take to be an instant of time.
INTERVIEWERThis new focus on the extreme present tense, and “real time” strikes me as especially poignant given that your formative years were lived in some very trans-temporal places – Rome, Paris. Then New York, Washington, Iowa, Wyoming. How do these places, and the sense of place itself, impact your work?
GRAHAMWell, I grew up in Rome, yes. It was the sixties.
INTERVIEWERCould you describe that – what remains an influence?
GRAHAMAmong other things, it was an era marked by the great presence of Hollywood at Cinecitta, the movie studio in Rome, and the many breakthrough Italian movies. But to me, it was adolescence. I was worried about school, friends, getting through the lycée’s philosophy concentration. I wanted to be popular – wasn’t; my memories, intermingled with passionate readings of Stendhal, Marx and Engels, Merleau-Ponty, were – are still – of the glances not returned across the courtyard outside school, of loneliness and being unable to imagine a world where it would ever be otherwise. And “first love” and “first falling in love with thinking” happening at once.
INTERVIEWERBut it was still the Rome of the Dolce Vita?
GRAHAMIt was that Rome too, yes, but, as to any teenager, it was bus routes and ways to sneak out of the house. They might have been fountains by Bernini, but to me they were places I remember sitting on at three in the morning where someone took my hand. It was just a place to grow up. No doubt the easy sunny glamour of it was everywhere – the intermingling of so many worlds, film, politics, art history, the Vatican – but it was the growing up I recall. It’s in many of my poems in Region of Unlikeness, for example, where memories of the time and those feelings began to flood back, perhaps because my daughter, Emily, was beginning to approach the age of the protagonist in most of the poems in that book.
INTERVIEWERSo it does end up impinging on the subject matter in the poems?
GRAHAMWell, in the same way the double self-portraits in The End of Beauty were written out of literally being “double” while pregnant – being a person housing another, truly other, person – another soul than one’s own, another body, another destiny, a different heart.
INTERVIEWERThis was in Iowa City?
GRAHAMYes. The early years in Iowa City. Getting up at night to feed her, put her back down, and then going to my typewriter with the terrible postpartum fear that I would never write again, not truly or deeply, and then feeling the black windowpanes holding the sleeping town and all its dreamers. It was as if I could feel all the dreams floating over the bodies in all the rooms in that town – and that silence full of dream beginning to pull that book out of me, beckoning, allowing me back into the ancient stream via dream and myth and listening while others slept. A roving consciousness over a sleeping world. That’s what Iowa was like, for me, in those years. It was not merely “not-Washington,” or “not-Rome.” It was the unimaginably mysterious life of mothering.
INTERVIEWERYou began teaching at Iowa?
GRAHAMYes. I had taught elsewhere, but at Iowa I began learning to be the teacher I became. I made some mistakes. But I loved teaching.
INTERVIEWERWhat kind of mistakes?
GRAHAMI overprepared? I thought I should have an answer for everything? Because their questions were always so amazing. But after a while it all began to click. A moment came when I knew, looking into their faces, that I was handling things crucial to life. In teaching, and in parenting, I knew I was “in life,” not in some stratum that floated above or around it. I was also trying to learn how to be a citizen of a place – which America makes you feel, especially in a small town with endless opportunities to feel and enact your sense of democratic participation – school boards, voter-registration campaigns. A place where everyone is your neighbor, sharing gardening or parenting tips while waiting for the school bus, talking about what to do to save the downtown from the new mall – worrying about drought, or flooding, on behalf of the farmers all around us, worrying about the health of the town trees – and so on – something you would never feel in a place like Rome which blissfully would never know you existed or had ever existed.
INTERVIEWERDid you start to think of Rome differently then?
GRAHAMRome was history, a huge current that would come to bear on me as if “from a distance” in what felt like the far-removed hamlet of Iowa City, and the relative lack of recorded history of America. I guess I wouldn’t have been able to take on the feeling of History (because it’s not he “idea of it” – it’s the feeling of it that guides you) had I not found myself removed to the much simpler, more grounded life of two very different land-ad-weather-driven communities – Iowa and Wyoming. In Iowa I still felt very attached as a citizen – a mother scribbling notes on drafts as I waited in the car to get whatever group of kids I was responsible for to their next activity – and God knows I wrote a couple of books sitting in the car waiting for this or that lesson to be done: sports, math, music, Latin.
INTERVIEWERWhat about in Wyoming?
GRAHAMIn Wyoming I felt myself to be much more at the other end of the ghosting I felt in Rome, where I was yet another human soul added to the massive pile of soul-debris. In Wyoming I felt like a ghost in geologic time. I do think those two poles, geologic time and historical time, played a great role in my life and my creative life. Having the chance to live deeply in, and be deeply formed by both of them, was not only a blessing, it was an initiation.
INTERVIEWERI can see many places where the image of Wyoming comes in – the title poem of Region for instance.
GRAHAMIn Wyoming, vast expanses of space on which few or no people have ever set foot tend to correct any assumptions you might make about the importance of the human on this planet. The destructiveness of the human, yes, not the importance. There’s nothing like geologic time to keep you in your place, and just leave “place” in your soul.
INTERVIEWERYou were in an amazing place – no one but the homesteader had lived there before you. Was it hard to live there?
GRAHAMNot hard, but challenging. Or at least for the first years. Jim [Galvin] slowly built a log house to encase the cabin. There is still an outhouse, though. Still no electric light. You still have to go to the woodpile, pick a good log and split enough thin pieces, then enough medium-size pieces, to get a fire started in the firebox in the woodstove, then wait the half hour or so for water in the kettle to boil, to make your first cup of coffee. There’s still the feeling that if someone drives up, you see them from far away, and you wonder who on earth that could be because either they’re lost or they’re heading for you, and either prospect seems a bit worrisome – that’s how used to solitude you become.
My describing it is flimsy though – as Jim’s book The Meadow does it such great and moving justice. But justice seems an operative word, as being “just” with the place, at rights with it – how much wood you take, how much water you use, how long the cattle graze on a given pasture and so on – is very much at the front of your soul in such a place – and I was very formed by that, for well over twenty years. There’s also the feeling you get, as soon as you begin to walk out into wilderness, that you don’t figure, can’t figure, your consciousness having no access to the place, to its “existence.” And that the issues of justice, the causes and effects of history, just vanish, and a whole other story is being told and you are truly out of the picture. Except of course if you want to destroy it, which is remarkably easy, remarkably. Remarkably instinctive, too. Did I learn from that? How could I not?
INTERVIEWERIn Region – but in many other instances as well – Rome seems to emerge as foundational.
GRAHAMIt was. Such a remove was capable of being a lens – a telescope really – not just a balm. And though I didn’t really discover the Rome you and I are speaking about until I took an architecture 101 class in my first year in college – and thought, Lord, there’s the Tempietto di Bramante, it’s the place just up from the house where I used to walk the dogs! – I did absorb the sense of history that bears down so crucially on everything there. And the sense of living in a particular point in that history – the one my parents were living in, the one Rome was going through under the guise of the Dolce Vita – was utterly pulverized by my sense of the dimensions of prior times, lives, and actions that swelled up through that city, whatever else might have been going on in the present – whatever celebrated guests might be downstairs. I remember most vividly a game I played: I sat above the “current humans” in the room below and loved to imagine the eighteenth-century house beneath “this” house and its people, the Renaissance house and its people, the Medieval house and its people – all the while trying to summon the whole city around the house – sights, sounds, smells, events, domestic acts – what I had read in history books, what I had translated from Latin, what I had seen in frescoes, paintings. Then down to the Roman one – even at this point the actual dwelling I was sitting in didn’t fail me. Then the pre-Roman, and so on, back to the forests – my mind wandering up north to the great forests and the northern tribes, then over my left shoulder to Greece – the Aegean Sea, the battles, the gods, Apollo – all the myths would flood in over the landscape which resembled in no way the country our lycée’s spring vacation trip had taken us to see. Those myths had a very firm grip on my, as did the Odyssey, later the Iliad. All this mixed up with the poems of Ronsard and du Bellay – remember it was Rome, but through a French lens – and my ballet teacher who had “escaped from Leningrad,” we were told, and taught us in what are now the museums of the Dora Pamphili – and most especially the huge marble statue of the reclining Apollo on the landing above the ballet class which we would run up the wide flight of stairs to, sweaty, after class, a gaggle of girls in black leotards, and lie on to cool off – he was so cold! Lying on his back (a privileged spot as there was much of it and one could be comfortable and cool off very well) looking up at the coffered ceiling, or at all the other gods and goddesses holding still all round us there – I didn’t think, I am in Rome! I will look back on this and think, What a miracle. Maybe I felt, I am alive. Maybe. I didn’t really know the United States existed much at all yet – except for watching its tourists and actors. And going “elsewhere” wasn’t something I ever imagined doing, so being “there” was the condition I was in.
INTERVIEWERAnd later on?
GRAHAMLater on, after going to France to the Sorbonne in 1968, my experience of “politics” – a very close-up understanding of things, in comparison to that sweeping sensation of history – began to take hold as a dominant paradigm for reality. I began to open my consciousness more towards other forms of the present, more defined by ideas than by sensation, imagination, myth, story – a version of anyone’s departure from childhood. Mine, perhaps, allowed for that magical mental traveling which being in an ancient city permitted. But I did play that same game much later – nursing Emily in Iowa City, for example, in the middle of the night – trawling down to the Civil War town beneath the present one in which I was sitting – laying out its roads in my head, its houses, its sounds – then the first settlements, then, vaguely, some sense of the native communities, right there, right under the house (I would think) – and then? Well, then prairie, then something that felt like a floor past which I couldn’t go, then “the continent,” nothing, something that stumped me because I couldn’t keep going downward imaginatively. That’s how I knew I was in America! You go down a bit and then it seems to “stop”!
INTERVIEWERWasn’t that a shock? To come to an end?
GRAHAMIt all has to do with how you feel about that “stopping” – whether that feeling gives you a sense of freedom from the weight of history; or whether you feel unguided. Whether you feel an insufficiency of ghosts – whether you miss the vertiginous underneath... I know one thing: you feel your present tense, your singular life, to be a relatively much more important thing – a proportionally much larger thing – in the “new” world. And yet how quickly the mind gets stopped if you are doing this imaginative exercise in Wyoming! Strip away this nice enclosed room you’ve placed on this bedrock prairie and what do you have? Some homesteader, some roaming herds and their hunters – then silence, then some age when all you are sitting on, or looking out at, was ocean.
INTERVIEWERYou mentioned being in Paris, in 1968, at the Sorbonne. Why did you decide to come back to America – or was it “back” at all? Had you even been here before? Were you English-speaking?
GRAHAMNo. English was my third language, after Italian and French. I had visited, once, as a ten year old, for a month-long visit, before my mother took me on a seven-month trip around the world – to Cambodia, Nepal, China, Japan, India, and so on. But I was born in the U.S., then taken back to the south of France after a few months. I came back because – oh it’s such a long story. At the Sorbonne, at the Nanterre Campus, where I was studying sociology with Henri Lefebvre, and where Daniel Cohn-Bendit was my classmate and our primary organizer, a student rebellion began which, as workers and union joined the student movement, caused the city of Paris to shit down for almost a month, and, eventually caused the government to fall. The authorities, after a while, grew rather irritated, and all foreign students – especially those who were repeatedly being rounded up and arrested – most especially Americans and Germans – were asked to leave. They believed – Berkeley, Columbia were just exploding – that the foment came from outside dissident movements. At any rate, I came to the U.S.
INTERVIEWERTo N.Y.U. – where you studied, among other things, film-making. Can you talk about those years?
GRAHAMIt’s such a long story... But I should acknowledge my teachers. The great Haig Manoogian, in film. And M.L. Rosenthal, who turned me towards poetry. As film utilizes an almost universal language – the image – working in it was a good transition for a not-yet-fluent speaker of English. And the sense of the possible universality of the image has stayed with me. As well as the editing techniques – on a Moviola in those days: all those hours of holding the celluloid sequence of frames up to the light, and deciding where to cut the moving image off and splice it to the next image, itself the beginning of an altogether different point of view, or place.
INTERVIEWERDid Rosenthal ever read your early work?
GRAHAMOh no. Besides, I didn’t have any. I had only written some poems in French at that point. But I learned English from him, in a sense, or from his habit of reading huge quantities of poetry aloud, class after class. For the first months I just basically sat and listened to him read the greatest poems in the language. He had a great booming voice I can still hear. Only after those great actions of spirit were in my ear – and mouth – did I “study” them. I was lucky in that respect.
INTERVIEWERThen you married Bill Graham and moved to Washington... The Washington Post’s Washington, and Nixon’s. You were close up to the events revolving around Watergate, if I am not mistaken. Do you want to talk about those years, those events?
GRAHAMNot really. It’s been so well covered elsewhere.
INTERVIEWERWell, but for you, was that experience more like Europe, in terms of the weight, or sense, of temporality?
GRAHAMLiving in Washington – bracketed between Rome and Paris on the one hand, and Iowa and Wyoming on the other – involved a deepening of my sense of the power singular individuals in a so-called democracy have to shape, very momentarily, the desires of the human society they, to a certain measure, control. The years in Washington, in particular, allowed me to see how fragile the instinct to do the right – or generous, thing – is, what forces it is up against, how unmonolithic those forces are, how much they are, instead, a composite of human fears, human blindness, well-intentioned moral clumsiness. That was scary. But I was privileged, there in those historic moments, to witness, up close, a few rare souls act with truly astonishing bravery. And there’s no doubt that watching a “rough draft of history” weave itself out of small daily acts affected my work.
INTERVIEWERWas it new, or a reinforcement of an earlier sense of seeing history drafted? Your father was also in journalism, no?
GRAHAMI grew up in a household where art and the news intermingled daily – as my mother is a sculptor and my father was the primarily a journalist. Until I was about nine, the Rome bureau of Newsweek was in the two rooms next to my bedroom. Painters, filmmakers, war photographers, novelists, socialites, philosophers, politicians, rock stars, prelates, starlets – the whole mess of it – floated through our house. In those days the Rome bureau was responsible for pretty much anything in the world south of Paris. News stories came through from Africa, the Middle East – places I had never heard of. My father was always off to cover this or that war. My first typewriter was one he gave me – an Olivetti portable with a bullet hole in it – that had been on the backs of Jeeps through the Sinai with him. Those were days when journalists “cabled” back stories – so I was often “on call” when the office was empty at night and my parents were out, for the phone calls from “Italcable.” I took down long query memos from the editors in New York. I often wonder if that isn’t where my love of the mystery of words originated. AS the operator was Italian and the cable in English, I would be dictated the log cable letter by letter. To avoid confusion the cable company had devised a system – all journalists working in Italy still know it – assigning a city name to each letter. So the first word in: “Please explain further why prime minister says in your para three...” would be: “Palermo, Livorno, Empoli, Ancona, Savona, Empoli STOP Empoli,” and so on, as I reconverted each city back to a mere letter. As a child I loved finding those cities on the map, and grouping them up to form a language neither I not the operator really understood, but which we handled – a wondrous fabric of ancient cities (I knew many of them from the Latin world) all serving to make “news stories” for the mysterious place called “America.”
INTERVIEWERMany think of you as Italian or French, and take your trilingual upbringing to bear on your work – your concerns, your syntax. Would you agree?
GRAHAMMaybe in the syntax? I don’t know. I have for almost thirty years now spoken primarily in English. Recently, I have gone back to thinking in French a bit. Who knows?
At some point, when I was a bit older, I realized I came from people who were Russian, Lithuanian, and Austrian on one side of my family and, on the other, from people who held one of the first land grants in Virginia. In other words, I came from people who were put in ovens and from people who kept slaves. And I realized that there was nothing, truly nothing, one human being isn’t willing to do to another – that, for all of the so-called progress of the story we call history, the barbaric gleams right under the surface of all human skin.
INTERVIEWERWould you say that’s one of your essential subjects?
GRAHAMWell, it certainly involves and affects my understanding of what poetry can, must, and will always do for us: it complicates us, it doesn’t “soothe”; it helps us to our paradoxical natures, it doesn’t simplify us. We do contain multitudes.
INTERVIEWERHow do you see your earlier work now?
GRAHAMOne of the things I see, starting with Erosion, is the very strong pull to make a syntactical net – as in “in a net I seek to hold the wind” – to discover an idea, unpack it, and the arrive at a conclusion. In Erosion there are often statements at the ends of poems. I ask questions, negotiate with something, arrive at conclusions. You can “explain” the arguments of the poems in Erosion. I guess that kind of argument-building really relies on a relationship with the reader that invokes a communal narrative but presumes its absence. It’s trying to draw in listeners. That started to break down in The End of Beauty, but the breakdown culminates in The Errancy.
INTERVIEWERYour readers loved being drawn in like that.
GRAHAMYes. I loved that too! And I’m not giving that up. It’s just that in Never, I wanted to create an energy field that would be able to carry sensation over to the reader without the reader having to intervene too early on with what you call “thought.” In other words, I wanted the reader to look and feel and see and then, obviously, think – but very late in the particular process of these poems.
INTERVIEWERWhat happened between Erosion and Never that led you to this latest approach?
GRAHAMIt’s hard to act as if all this was “intentional.” But in The End of Beauty, and Region, I tried to break down much of the logical reasoning. There’s an attempt to link stories that seem disparate, so that the reader is looking for whatever may be holding these stories together – that being the secrete subject of the poem. There are between Erosion and The End of Beauty a book’s worth of Erosion poems that I never published.
GRAHAMAs William Carlos Williams says, A new rhythm is a new mind. It’s not as if I can change my way of writing just because I finish a book. So I kept writing out of that Erosion rhythm. And even if they were about other subjects and came to other conclusions, the rhythm was the same rhythm, so they weren’t “new poems.”
INTERVIEWERStill slow, careful.
GRAHAMSlowed by a rhythm that carries in it assumptions about the world, about how you enter into the world or represent it. A certain set of conclusions are built into the music: conclusions or beliefs regarding how far you can go, or where there is to go, or how one lands. I knew I was onto a new book – which would turn into The End of Beauty – when I started writing poems that had a different music, and would therefore take me to a different way of inquiring. It began, as I mentioned earlier, when I was pregnant. The first poem I wrote was “Self-Portrait as Both Parties.” It ends with Orpheus and Eurydice, partly because my daughter was inside a dark place and I was outside in a lit place, and I was the one singing. After a while, this idea took on a life of its own, but that’s where it originated.
INTERVIEWERHow about the long lines you began to use in that book?
GRAHAMThe long line, I think, has something to do with the fact that, at three or four in the morning, after I put her back to sleep I’d end up at my desk... Sitting and looking out the window in the middle of the night one feels – maybe one can only really have that feeling in a small town – one is the only person awake. Obviously, there must have been some other woman up feeding her baby, or some insomniac, or people making love. But the illusion, the operative illusion for me, was that I was the only waking consciousness in this enormously open psychic field. Obviously, all that room to push out into, late at night, and the sense of “no one listening” (which turns, quite easily, into no God listening), allowed my line to extend.
INTERVIEWERWhat did that do to your desire to persuade the reader?
GRAHAMThere was very little attempt to persuade the reader. There’s still anxiety regarding the reader – but it’s dramatized and the poems live with that anxiety. The dialogue is inside the self, with the self, and then, because of the nature of the silence, with everyone, somehow, in their unifying sleep. It’s as if we’re in a kind of Purgatory – nobody’s listening with their rational intellect – but they are all dreaming. It was great joy to feel one was being allowed to make one’s poem be the waking dream that participates in the dreams of all the others. Thus myth.
GRAHAMWhen you’re using many sentence-length lines, what becomes useful is parsing out key stresses at turning points – where the line breaks, and where it resumes. Deciding which terms are going to be in stressed positions, how each one is going to “back up,” as it were, all preceding stress-points, makes for a very relativistic prosody, but one that can be very precise in spite of the length of the phrasings. Obviously once you’re approximating a prose situation, a great many unstressed words come about. And the trick is to get the right words stressed of necessity by a reader in order to key the emotion down the page. It was hard to write.
INTERVIEWERI know that you write in large artist notebooks, and by hand, in your first drafts. Could you describe that process a bit?
GRAHAMWhole notebooks are filled with the first drafts of poems. Then I tend to circle the parts I’m going to keep, and transcribe those onto large legal pads – or into another notebook. I tend to work in ink – I don’t much like the feel of pencil. Then, at some point, I type it up. There’s usually a point where I run the whole poem through some kind of a metrical grid – regularizing everything – so I can feel my variations from baseline. I usually compare – often, I must admit, with some bewilderment – the draft with the more “regular” music to the developing one with more “variant” music, and try to feel what is gained and what is lost in each case. That’s a stage which really throws my back, sometimes with a great deal of despair, I must say, onto those acoustic instincts and choices we end up calling a person’s “poetics” – as I can always feel all sorts of implications in differing musical motions – implications – transmissible sensations – that feel much more than “aesthetic” to me.
GRAHAMMoral? There’s a place where it’s not a “meter-making argument,” but an “argument-making meter, or music.” I had to train myself to get as far away from the poem as possible, as a reader, in order to “hear” what the implications of a stress here, rather than there, are. The modulations in voice (and therefore sensation and thought) of a sudden turn, a speeding up, for example – where pitch rises without my having intended it, so it makes it too hard for any subsequent piece to rise above that – oh, it’s endless, really. But those sorts of things. Sometimes I use different colored pens to track it – the pitch, especially, the modulation of tone. Not to mention the nightmare of parsing out all the stress points – upon which the whole structure depends.
INTERVIEWERSo you revise a great deal?
GRAHAMI’d say I spend ninety percent of my time in revision. It’s a craziness. There are sometimes maybe thirty variants of the lineation of a stanza. Getting “far enough away” to grow the new set of ears required to hear the poem outside of the “way you intended it to sound” – to hear what it will really sound like (and in other words mean and feel) to a stranger is quite a trick. Sometimes it means just putting the thing away and not reading it for a long time. Long enough for its intended music to fade from memory. Then you can read it “clean” to hear if you have anything resembling the music you thought you had. But you have to be right on top of it in that first “clean” read, because it takes no time at all for you to be working with a muddy text, one full of what you think is there, which you can’t sort out from what is there. That’s why keeping all the drafts and keeping tem present at once is important to me.
INTERVIEWERHow do you keep track?
GRAHAMI xerox, and cut and paste, different versions of stanzas into drafts. It helps me because I can see where the page has another page on it, so I have a sense of where the problem is. It’s sort of like a logjam sometimes, where it builds up. So you can see where the river is not “flowing” well, if you will, where the flow-through is clogging, where “the rhythm is not expressive.” Sometimes one part of a page can get very thick with overlapping versions glued on.
INTERVIEWERWhen did you start using a computer?
GRAHAMAt the time of the first poems of Region of Unlikeness. But I still use it like a fancy typewriter.
INTERVIEWERWhich poems in those earlier books have ended up mattering most to you?
GRAHAMSome poems in each book that become the poems I follow to the next book.
INTERIEWER“Imperialism” does that for Region of Unlikeness?
GRAHAMYes, “Imperialism” and “What the End is For.” Those two really come back as the formal guide to the next book. In Region, I became consumed with the second indented line. Also, in a way, I wrote Region to get something between me and The End of Beauty. I wanted to get out from under it. It’s really nice when people like a book, but you feel “Christ, does that mean that’s what I have to write now?” I had to undertake a great deal more of that kind of writing to get out from under it – another large group of unpublished self-portraits. But then I wrote “Fission.” I was now the mother of a child starting school and so becoming more of a societal creature, going to school-board meetings, fighting for advanced math programs, for the teaching of foreign languages – trying hard to think through others’ reasons against those things as well. It was an amazing introduction to America. All of a sudden, I felt I was a “citizen” for the first time. I’m not sure I had felt like a citizen of anything, really, until then. Which is probably why the first poem that I kept for that book, “Fission,” involved the assassination of a president. In fact, many social contracts are explored in that book.
INTERVIEWERAnd the feeling of the shroud coming round one, at the end of the poem?
GRAHAMI was probably feeling much less liberated than the person writing The End of Beauty – now more shrouded in obligation, in a civic sense – a sense of responsibility, but also a sense of having to be an active participant in a democracy that seemed to me already to be a fiction of a certain kind that was fraying and in which artificial desire was going to be the most destructive agent. These are not things I was thinking about, but when I look back on the book now I can see this. Of course, this is just to speak autobiographically. There are all sorts of other lenses through which to see the books. Say, the poets or the aesthetic issues or the philosophical ideas with which I was wrestling.
INTERVIEWERCan you recreate some of that? A few of the voices are quite obvious – Stevens, Bishop, Berryman, Ashbery perhaps, Eliot. Any different voices? Styles?
GRAHAMYeats. I went back to the many “Yeats notebooks” I kept in my twenties – notebooks full of responses, analyses of poems’ actions, structures, and forms. Mostly their actions – what we call “turns.” I went back to those then. But also, of course, all the reading one does for the new courses one chooses to teach. Moore, Duncan, Oppen, Stein. Olson came into view then, more prominently. O’Hara and Cage. I fell in love with Merrill – I think I disfigured a few of his books with notes. Then Ammons. And a whole long stretch with Vaughan, Traherne and Herbert. Then the Hopkins encounter – sort of like one’s Keats encounter. One is never again set free. It’s more like a surrender. The white flag is up! And all the other, non English-language, poetries, from Neruda, Lorca, Hernandez, to Blas de Otero, Trakl, and Transtromer. Then the discovery of Holderlin, then Mandelstam, then Celan, Milosz. One goes crazy. No wonder we don’t read enough of our contemporaries. I haven’t mentioned all the poets who brought us these non-English poems – Merwin, Bly, Wright, Hass, and their own poetries. These lists are a bit absurd, in the end, as one is never not “at it.” Then there’s all the reading one does that is not poetry – the philosophy, the fiction, and the painters one encounters. Manet was crucial to me. And Rembrandt and Goya (for their surfaces). Obviously Pollock, and Johns (for his use of motion in stillness – and earnest tones in what might appear to be ironic situations). Picasso, Bacon – for his Sophoclean use of dramatic action – as well as his ability to structure sequences – for the many ways he compels the inclusion of the viewer into the image, for the way he slows action in the drama to a place which is not stillness, is blurry with stillness but is not “stopped” – and all his glorious thinking about process and why one bothers to do this crazy thing at all. And then all the filmmakers. One just looks and looks and thinks and reads. It’s the same for all artists. And these are just the souls that come to mind this minute of this afternoon.
INTERVIEWERIn Region – after using works of art, then myth, in the previous books – you turn to autobiography. The poems were all your own stories, at that point. Why was that?
GRAHAMPerhaps because once you’re a parent, you enter into a completely different relationship to time. History becomes dominant, and then, perhaps, personal history becomes dominant. You are suddenly at that point where facts – both the facts that your child is learning, and “the facts” “of your life” your child wants to know, needs to know – become important. You become a bit of story that needs to be told.
INTERVIEWERThe lines in these poems are shorter. Why?
GRAHAMMany things made the line shorter. Once you begin talking from the position of being a social creature, you go back to the line in which social discourse takes place, the pentameter. It’s a more exterior line, which, since Shakespeare, we associate with people speaking to one another. On either side of it stand more unspeakable lines – longer lines for the visionary, shorter and more symmetrical ones for song, spell, hymn, and shorter yet for the barely utterable, the shriek, the epitaph.
INTERVIEWERAnd the second line?
GRAHAMThe indented line became a very useful place to negotiate and control the music of the poem. I was still very interested in the sentence, in the kinds of energies the sentence awakens – desire for closure, desire for suspension of closure, desire for simultaneity in a stream of temporal action that defies simultaneity. I guess I still am. For example, what happens along the way of the sentence that you’re in the process of undertaking, the thing you can’t put alongside but that has to actually happen in the sentence as a “dependent” phrase? If you’re telling the story of your life, in a way, or if you’ve gone back to autobiography or history, you’re in a place where sentence-making is connected to time, as opposed to those epiphanic escapes from time which would employ a different kind of syntax – in Erosion for example.
INTERVIEWERSo, the indented line...?
GRAHAMThe indented line allows you to modulate the sentence and keep it capable of carrying so much without collapsing. It’s all a matter of freight carried to speed of carriage, to mangle Frost’s quote. It gave me a kind of lift – and three musical units: the full line; a shorter fragmentary line that condenses stresses on very few words – often words that would never carry a stress – prepositions, articles, conjunctions – words which, if stressed, truly alter the nature of what the actual inquiry of the poem is; and the “landing” – the oftentimes single word on the left margin, which takes the strongest stress of all. Those “landing words” gave me a kind of propulsion that made a rather long poem continue to feel like a containable lyric utterance. I wanted to pack a lot into the lyric, but not go beyond its bounds. Some have written that I wanted to expand what the lyric could do. I just want the hugeness of experience – which includes philosophical discursiveness – to move at a rate of speed that kept it (because all within one unity of experience) emotional. Also, often, questions became the way the poems propelled themselves forward.
INTERVIEWERAnd that does what to the reader?
GRAHAMIt brings the reader in as a listener to a confession? A poem is a private story, after all, no matter how apparently public. The reader is always overhearing a confession.
INTERVIEWERDo you mean literal confession? Or literary?
GRAHAMLiteral – going back to Augustine? Which is, of course, not unrelated to what Lowell and Berryman did with it... In Rome, it’s very hot in the summer, and if they let you out to play, one of the best places to play hide-and-seek is in a church. my friends and I did that all the time. I was a very good hider. It would take forever to find me. And so I would watch. I would watch all the saints on the walls, in the frescoes: they tended to look like people who were in the market on Fridays. I’d watch people come in, very devoutly, all in black and sit in a very uncomfortable position for a very long time – not moving, praying, and weeping. I’d watch priests hurry by in their white cassocks with a kind of business-like air. I’d see angry transactions between priests. I’d see people come in and confess and leave again, strangely eager. I’d watch tourists come in and look: I’d watch them see or not see – a very interesting thing to become attuned to in others – in the gaze, the tone, the manner of speech. I’d watch lovers. There are a awful lot of different lives that a constantly used church contains. Not even funerals or weddings took place without some other stream of simultaneously contradictory emotion – art-historical, or touristic, curiosity – flowing amidst or alongside. That was formative – the secular and the sacred interesting in one spatial zone. And the reader or listener in Region was very much someone to whom I was not exactly confessing in particular, but who was there eavesdropping on my life in some related manner.
INTERVIEWERYou’ve said The Errancy was composed directly onto a computer in first draft – or some of it. Do you think it had an effect on the work?
GRAHAMYes, but not as much as the fact that my life began falling apart. The Errancy is, I think, a diction-driven book. It is, too, many younger readers’ favorite book. I understand why – conflicting kinds of diction present in the same milieu of the poem, conflicting kinds of attitudes, which, I guess, is what we call postmodern. So, you end up feeling earnest and ironic in the same poem. I didn’t write them that way, but they sound that way because of their experiments with diction. I’ve often wondered why diction became such a prominent feature of the enterprise in that book.
INTERVIEWERAnd you would say?
GRAHAMI don’t know. I could “say” all sorts of things! But actually, I thought it was going to be a book of short lyric poems. It was going to be playful and light, and I was going to let go of history, myth, all those other structures of knowledge to which prior books adhered. I thought it was going to be a kind of romp.
INTERVIEWERAnd what happened?
GRAHAMI don’t know, I was increasingly interested in the baroque – so the variant points of view in it – lovers in their rooms, angels hovering somewhere midair, above, the “narrator” somehow “outside” that box, yet able to penetrate it. I was reading a lot of Lyotard. Also, I had an experience which I came to think triggered the book. I was visiting a large university for an occasion where a scholar was giving a lecture on several people’s work, including my own. I was asked to be there and give a reading. I didn’t want to hear the lecture on my own work – it would make me crazy – s I wet into a neighboring classroom, one just over from the lecture hall and (this is not to offend anybody) I felt like a dead person. I felt really dead.
INTERVIEWEREven without being in the room?
GRAHAMI was something being talked about. Can you understand this? So I went out onto a porch, just beyond that room, and saw a moth moving hysterically into a lamp, burning itself more and more. The image was self-accusatory, in all the obvious ways. I went inside the classroom and wrote the draft of “Studies in Secrecy,: which is very much a moth being attracted to a lamp, although it’s erotic. After that, I wrote all the Aubades. But sitting in that classroom... I couldn’t hear anything being said, I could just hear the rumble of the event. It was very disorienting, but this disorientation eventually led to the baroque structure of that book. The conflicting yet simultaneous multiple vantage points. And the guardian angel idea.
INTERVIEWERThere’s a kind of separation from yourself there.
GRAHAMI was starting to see a psychoanalyst for the first time in a long time – since my early twenties – and I had a memory of being asked to arrange and rearrange flowers as a child. My job was to take dead flowers out and move live flowers around, from room to room. It came to be emblematic for creating stage sets in which other lives would take place. And actually, the very first movie that I made in film school has as its plot a party going on downstairs and the character in the movie going upstairs, to a room “above,” where all the coats were left on the bed, and having an encounter with someone else who had also come in to look for their coat. The sense of all those bodies downstairs and all the coats upstairs probably came through into “The Guardian Angel of the Little Utopia” with the party going on and the person upstairs being responsible for arranging and rearranging. I don’t know whether I should say this, but I think that probably happens in a household where things aren’t working and you’re trying to keep things stable all the time by constantly arranging and re-arranging everything.
INTERVIEWERIt’s often been noted that you change your focus – if not really your style, as it might seem on the surface of things – more than most poets from book to book. Why is that?
GRAHAMThe need to explore new terrain? Life changes? All the positive reasons are probably clear to me. Less clear, and more troubling, is the relationship of all this exploration of the “now” to the terrifying need for the “new” – all this living-in-the-present-moment, this limited terrain left us to quest in as the slower temporality journeying requires is eliminated. All this narrowing to a now in which there’s only room for effect, not enough room for cause, if you will – and so no duration in which to experience personal accountability. There’s precious little room.
INTERVIEWERThe shortened attention span you talk about?
GRAHAMYes. The sexy, highly exportable, American shortened attention span. Shorten it enough and there’s just no room for accountability. Henry James says somewhere that the problem with this country is that, not only does it have so little history, but the little that it has it is constantly erasing. James Merrill got it perfectly: “As usual in New York, everything is torn down / Before you have had time to care for it.” He calls it, “The sickness of our time” and adds, “You would think the simple fact of having lasted / Threatened our cities like mysterious fires.”
INTERVIEWERIs your use of description, in some measure, an exploration of this?
GRAHAMHow does one separate the acts of human will from those very acts of observation the poems undertake? There’s moral entanglement there. Is there a way of taking in the world that is not manipulative? All of that containing, and attempted carrying, seems like a salvational gesture. But what if it’s too late? What if the only thing left for us to do is to lift our hands off altogether, rather than even trying to use our hands with “good will.” I’m not really sure... It’s a hard place to write past, if you understand what I mean. Writing is a hands-on operation. Writing, thinking, feeling, all hands on. How do you write to do less damage? How do you write to let the world get away from us?
INTERVIEWERIt’s difficult because poems are so desperate to touch... This must affect your life at levels other than the poetic – or the spiritual?
GRAHAMI think what we’re witnessing in this world, the coup that has actually been enacted at the psychic as well as the political level in this country, is a coup upon the reality status of events and of people and therefore on nature itself. We have managed to divorce people from their capacity for sensation, and from the way in which sensation would lead to the heart and to conscience, fear, compassion, moral outrage and action. Many among u seem to be so numb no they seek only distraction. The media provide it.
INTERVIEWERSo what does poetry do in the face of that?
GRAHAMPoetry tries to break through, to make reality feel real? At the beginning of Never, I have a quote from Keats: “How can I believe in that? Surely it cannot be?” He can’t believe the scenery of the Lake District is real, it’s so unbelievably filled with presence. If then it was more than foreground, now it’s backdrop. The state of emergency is this: this not-even-feeling-it-is-there, the not-even-feeling-others-are-real.
INTERVIEWERAnd so the acute lingering on sense data in this book – as well as in so much previous work?
GRAHAMI don’t think you can actually be human if you don’t know you have a body. You can’t have compassion, which is a physical experience at its root. You can’t imagine an other, let alone the point of view of an other. You can’t have a moral vocabulary in other words. And I don’t think you can know you have a body if you don’t know that the body is in a place. If you know the body is in a place, then you have a chance of knowing presence is possible, that the sensation of presence is the ambassador of something else.
INTERVIEWERDo you feel you ask a good deal of the reader in Never?
GRAHAMI do worry considerably about a reader’s patience – how much mental or emotional space they have in their life in this crushingly full world to give to the reading of a poem. Many of today’s readers prefer fast poems with stated conclusions, partly because they can fit them into their day. Who can blame them? They have precious little time. They want the Cliff Notes to the overwhelmingly huge novel. Of course, it is poetry’s job to try to provide the very opposite – to recomplicate the oversimplified thing. This doesn’t require going on at length – lord knows some of the more complex acts of human awareness occur in Basho. At any rate, it’s not hard to see where the shortened attention span has gotten us, the desire for speed, for the quick rush or take or fix...
INTERVIEWERSome of that is the impact of technology.
GRAHAMYes, don’t you think? For example when you have a split TV screen giving you main news (images), secondary news in text (often war facts), weather, stock reports, and even an “update” in the corner, on sports, how is a person – let alone one in a democracy and therefore responsible for clear-headed choice – supposed to feel any of the information she’s gathering? One is reduced to simply scanning the information for its factual content. The emotive content, unless reported to one or rhetorically painted onto it, is gone from the experience. It seems almost in the way. And yet it’s in the overtones of the facts, in the emotive overtones, that much of the real information lies. None of this can be separated out from contemporary poetics. The “multitasking” asked of us by the CNN screen is precisely geared to dissociating our sensibilities. It forces us to “not feel” in the very act of “collecting information.” But what value does information unstained by emotive content have, except a fundamental genius for manipulating dissociated human soul? Why, you can frighten them to the point of inhumanity. You can get them to close their eyes and let you commit murder in their name.
INTERVIEWERIs there some way poetry can combat that?
GRAHAMIf you were to ask me now what poems need to be doing in our era, I would be right back there with Eliot insisting that fighting the dissociation of feeling from thinking is still our priority, as working artists. Especially as artists writing in America, in American, in a language polluted to the brim with “political” or “economic” speech – by military fake-speech, sales-speech. How are we to speak, let alone sing, in the language of the culture that is terrifying the whole globe?
INTERVIEWERSo how would you respond now to Auden’s comment that “poetry makes nothing happen?”
I’d say poetry wants to be contagious, to be a contagion. Its syntax wants to pass something on to an other in the way that you can, for example, pass laughter on. It’s different from being persuasive and making an argument. That’s why great poems have so few arguments in them. They don’t want to make the reader “agree.” They don’t want to move through the head that way. They want to go from body to body. Built in is the belief that such community – could one even say ceremony – might “save” the world.