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Interview with Jorie Graham
Poetry Magazine
March 2008



[Discussed: "The Violinist at the Window, 1918" from Sea Change]


POETRY: Why do the lines look the way they do? Are the lines shaped like thoughts somehow? Is this often the case with your work?

JORIE GRAHAM: In these poems I am working with lines that acquire momentum as they move down the page, yet need to carry that momentum across shifting distances of breath and attention. They marry the long line of Whitman to the short line of Williams, two poets convinced that their extreme lines — very long, very short—were generative instruments for a music that would explore and enact the idea of, and sensation of, "the democratic experience." Of course these are poems being written at a time when much of what might have been imagined to be "a democracy" has failed. These Utopian poetics are being used to write a poetry that tries to take on board the imagination, and the sensation, of what it might be to have lost the world. The sensation of having no more time, of running out the human clock: what could be, on the face of it, more antithetical to Whitman's and Williams's notions of futurity — however filled with anxiety one often senses them to be (they were no fools). At any rate, I count the whole poem out, line by line, along a graduating accentual motion. Accentual music is more relative than accentual-syllabic music, as in it there is a great deal of prosodic sound (fixed or lexical stress) that is relative to, and drives off of, each preceding stress. Accentual stress — especially as used by Williams—allows for the stressing of words that seldom take stress — conjunctions, articles — in my case this includes word fragments, or syllables. I hope it's evident why the action of creating a structure that foregrounds those terms—the small indicators of connection, presence, the being-there-at-all of them—might seem crucial. As for lines as such — all lines, it seems to me, aim to create, carry and measure out voice. They generate tone and expectation. Above all, lines and their turns (at each ending) give the reader a place from which to hear the rising and descending modulation of the voice, which is of course modulation of thought and transformation — evolution — of emotion.

P: Can one "get" the poem without having seen the Matisse painting?

JG : Well, the long history of ekphrastic poetry assumes one can, as few such poems are ever printed with an image alongside. Some poets feel the represented image would distract from the poem. I would have loved to have the Matisse painting on the cover of my book, but the Centre Pompidou would not give permission. I have written poems based on paintings in every one of my ten books — from Piero della Francesca to Magritte to Rothko to Richter. At any rate, a painting is, in a poem, a painting run through an imagination and a spirit other than the painter's. It is not trying to describe the painting, it is trying to speak from it.

P: Is the voice in the poem that of the poet, the painter, the violinist? All, none?

JG: Good question. I'll let the reader decide. It certainly shifts, and the predicaments do overlap, now dissonantly, now harmonically.

P: Can you talk about your participation in the presentation of the poem on the page — how you make use of white space, margins, etc.?

JG: My role — participation? — is that I wrote the poem. Like all the others in this book, it is coaxial — to use a phrase coined by a recent reader. It is clear that the portion of the lines on the left-hand side of the central axis are essentially mathematically "identical" in length, in that they occupy the same number of character spaces. I think of the center as a place where the past and the future break from each other, but also where they are married and contend with each other. This is an important subject in the book as a whole. It is hard to extrapolate from a single poem — and "The Violinist" is also somewhat unique in the book. I also read the lines on the left as haikus of a sort — and feel one can read down the left-hand side and find another kind of poem there. Something one cannot do in the middle, nor on the right. These poems are also a series of exploded haikus. One will recognize in their opening, or occasioning, gestures — deep autumn, rising moon — some of the signature openings of haiku. I'd let the reader of the book think about how the form feels. How it works. And why the haiku might be relevant. As always I feel I am writing a book rather than a collection, so speaking about one poem out of context is hard. I might add that by having the indented lines create an internal margin, the poems are expressing the difficulty of taking any beginning-place for granted. It is our very capacity to begin again which is being both broken and renewed at this juncture of our history.