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Nothing Mystical About It: An Interview with Jorie Graham
Interviewed by Hila Ratzabi
from Lumina, the literary magazine of the Graduate Writing Program of Sarah Lawrence College
One could say there was "nothing mystical" about the day I interviewed Jorie Graham—munching on chocolate chip cookies, being shepherded from the library in Slonim House to a back room of an office, switching off cell phones, fumbling with the tape recorder. As I listen to the sound of cookies crumbling on the tape, of muffled laughter, of doors opening and closing, I realize the mundane world had to creep in, to create balance in the room, as if noise and sugar were the necessary elements that would help to pluck the airy words and land them in the tape recorder. But if the interview went way over time, it wasn't because of the cookies.
Jorie Graham, who started as a film student at NYU, switched to poetry when she walked by a classroom and overheard someone reciting T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Yet her attettion to matters of visual and temporal representation carried over from film into poetry. Graham's methods have evolved, throughout her ten books of poetry, constantly finding new ways of enacting perception, of representing the encounter between the outer and inner worlds. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, whose most recent book, Overlord, was published in 2005, discusses time, narrative, revision, silence, humor, the illusion of representation, the mind's activity, and yes, the soul. But there's nothing mystical about it.
HR: You started out studying film before you came to poetry. You mentioned in your talk today about the concept of "real time" in film. Can you talk more about that and how this idea influences your conception of poetry?
JG: I was referring to those moments in certain films by Tarkovsky, or Godard, for instance—although the use of real time in film exists from its inception—moments where the edited sequencing of the physical reality of the film's narrative is made to "break down" by the filmmaker, and the scene that ensues uses—is literally made of—the same minutes in the life of the actors as in the life of the viewers. Editing ceases and we have a piece of narrative that takes, say, ten minutes to happen actually take those ten minutes. This is rare in film—although one has the impression that is always going on. But these huge, slow chunks of real-time footage often are used under circumstances where some kind of spiritual (or other) awakening is being called for, and some ritual action to ensure that salvific awakening is being undertaken. It requires a sacrifice of some kind. The greatest sacrifice one can undergo, of course, is to give up one's real, ones only, time—the time of ones life—in its full (uncompressed) dilation. There are many ways in which this activity of co-extensive carnality "means" or "arrives at meaning" in the work that engages in it. The illusion of communal participation—or identical contemporaneous presence— erases one of the powers of temporality (distance for representation) and enhances another of its powers (sensation of lost/lived time) which introduces the possibility of ritual action. This can be felt at work in certain theatrical events, circus events, paintings, via different means. Even "en plein air" composition, used by Impressionist painters, partakes of the same desire: to transform the act of re-presentation into an act of presentation. It forces the poem closer to being an action, further from being the report of an action. It puts the poet in a position of greater accountability, unpredictability—of being the protagonist other poem more than the narrator of it—"no surprise for die writer, no surprise for the reader," says Frost. A poem, to slightly mangle Stevens, as an act of mind in the process of finding what will suffice. Most actions born of genuine "process" turn, modulate, choose, swerve, arrive at momentary stays, temporary truths, in a manner that is surprising. Surprise allows for, or insists upon, new moral and emotional ways from point a to point b. New ways to survive. A break from rote to places where the soul finds its wellsprings—not originality so much as a recognition that origin is still accessible if one breaks what Beckett and Proust both refer to as "habit." You have to be absolutely incarnate—in mortal time, in a condition which is literally mortal; representation is a position from which you might "know" you are mortal, but you are not in the crush of actual minutes that are taking, as they pass through you—(or you through them)—your future minutes from you. That is a condition it takes some technical artifice—which involves stripping away the protection of representational time and putting oneself in real time—to get one's self, to force one's soul, into. For me, that is a condition, a predicament, which compels—as Coleridge would have it—the whole soul of man into activity. It brings you to life. You will have noted this is eucharistic in a sense. So be it. It is a substantial metaphor. I feel free to use it in a non-religious sense.
HR: Many of the poems in Overlord, particularly the prayer poems, have the feeling of automatic writing, in the sense that the poems sound like a literal transcription of a racing mind, that continually doubles back on itself, corrects itself, admits uncertainty. For example, in certain poems there are deliberate gaps embedded in the text in the form of a fill-in-the-blank or x and y variables, or ending a stanza or poem in mid-sentence, etc. I understood this as a representation of the reality of the mind, which is filled with gaps and blips, and so the poem is a mimesis of the activity of the mind (reminiscent of the Stevens' act of the mind you were just referencing.) Can you talk more about this process and its limitations?
: Well, these poems are, as you suggest, the result of a headlong compositional method—which they describe—but they are also the outcome of massive revision. So they give the illusion of what you have described, but I wouldn't believe in results achieved exclusively by that method, that "literal transcription." Some of the advantages of that compositional method I alluded to a few minutes ago. And its at the level of composition that I believe in "real-time" work. Then there's the work that goes into trying to make it into a formal work— without, in the case of these poems, losing that sense of dictation received faster than the soul can take it, of a vessel breaking, of a human soul stretched thinner by history, and asked to take more on board, than it is wired to handle. History and human action and language itself having exceeded the capacities of its creatures to carry them—let alone to take action that can interact with those pressures, affect them, effect change, create active conditions for hope, escape destruction. The limitations? Well, these are only one kind of experience. Other forms allow for other experiences. Some of our greatest poems are written from radically different viewpoints. Narrative poems with a non-protagonist narrator abound. They are no less vivid and compelling. I am just describing a point of view, from which I have composed, which has been of assistance to me, to get at what I have been seeking. And even then, only in some poems, in some books, in some aspects of my style.
HR: Do you plan the shape your books will take in advance?
JG: No. I spend about a year, after I "have" most of the poems I'm keeping for a book, looking for the structure I feel inherent in them— the structure or narrative or force field. This then involves rewriting some poems towards the whole book*s "struggle" or "undertaking." Then it involves usually one more poem. There is one poem in each book that I know I wrote to come to terms, in some way, with the book as a whole once it came into view. Not to fill a lack. But to add a color—an edge of inquiry—a facet—a turn—that only the book once whole suggests. Poems change in context. I love that feeling, when a book's shape is coming into view, of questions emerging I had not imagined being part of the story, extra questions that need to be asked. It feels like a turn in life experience. I write poems for many reasons, as we all do. But one of them is certainly the deep surprise the shape of the book occasions—the other life lived within the life I thought I was living. Or so it feels.
HR: Where do poems come from for you? Is it more an act of will or reception?
JG: A mixture of both—although it would seem, in what I've been saying, that the reception is greater, the conditions created to generate a state of reception are themselves the source of some artifice and will. So you create a cage that will summon a bird, just as you are summoning that bird to bring into view the unbounded. If I try to answer this question without that prompt, though, I might say I have no idea, really. Poems come from opening up a channel in ones self in order to be in the position to make a poem? Or, rather, they begin in the sounds, the phrasings, the intimations that might then lead to an encounter with a situation or subject—an encounter out of which a poem might arise, an encounter the result of which is a poem. Readiness and openness are harder than ever to achieve, in this culture, at present. Part of the problem is simply the scarcity of opportunities for inwardness. How many people do I see in any ten-minute period with something streaming into their ears—the voices of others—on the phone, on some music track, or I-pod, or whatever—the Blackberry's messages, the SMS messages, the ubiquitous TV on in any public space. These are filling not so much a vacancy or void, but rather a passionately full open space which, by being so easily transgressed and usurped, is being made to fee/like a vacancy. If you treat it like it's empty, it's empty. It's very hard to stop and hear into that silence—and yet there is no poetry without that leaning into it. "I know that He exists,/ Somewhere—in Silence," Dickinson reminds us. Then she says—amazing—: "He has hid his rare life/From our gross eyes." You not only can hear into it, if you attend in a "negatively capable" (to use Keats' phrase) state, you should be able to see into the invisible/inaudible/intangible. It might be hiding from you—it has that agency—but you, apparently, have the capacity to see it. One of the reasons our great poets come to naturally use all their senses—not just the privileged eyesight—is that the "subject"—(whatever it is you might engage in the world which requires the act of poetry to be summoned, glimpsed)—is made of all the capacities we have: acoustic, visual, olfactory, tactile—that is what is meant, to me, by the imaginary. To get to that state of receptivity is an acute practice. I have no magic methods by which to reach it—by which to get to an open state—although I have managed to do it from time to time. I am just now coming out of a four-year silence, so I can assure you I know how hard it is. This has nothing mystical about it—although the terms I use seem to tend that way. It might be simple brain chemistry at work. Distraction and getting rid of distraction. Habit and then the breaking open past habit. The self-protective self-closures of habit we are all so drawn to—(the French "habitude" is a strangely fuller term)—well, who wouldn't let one's self or soul down into those sleepy regions, into a kind of hibernation, in reaction to this world of simultaneous oversaturation and total scarcity. Too much sugar handed out to you when you're in a desert and need water. And it's mostly virtual sugar! In fact, on the most literal level, the preparation for the water-wars this planet is readying itself to fight—the terrible changes in weather (drought or flood)—are the outer manifestation of what we have done to our psyches. I wouldn't even begin to call it a symbolic manifestation! At any rate, I have been able to help some young poets to an understanding of this practice. It has been one of the great joys of my life— and in a way a justification for it. It is of course a different practice for everyone, and leads to good work in no particular preordained aesthetic style. It just helps one understand the relationship between one's character and one's compositional method. That there is a. relationship. That one can learn to have experience, rather than appear to have it, or avoid it inadvertently. One can avoid living one's life—we do it all the time. One can go around experience instead of through it—who wouldn't rather, at some level? As James Wright—a beloved poet of mine—says: "To die a good death means to live one's life. I don't say a good life. I say a life." One quick way to think of this is to look at this very page. If you look at the white spaces before you and feel they are made of paper, maybe you need to think again. In a poem—in any speech act, but most deeply in a poem—the white space is silence. Silence is composed of, or inhabited by, some fundamental coloration for every poet—in other words, what's in that silence. Or that of which the silence is the emissary. For one it might be God, for another history, for another chance or fate or numbers or the nature of language itself. The no of the beloved. The no of God. The no of significance. I would say nature, for example, inhabits the silences of Rilke's poems. History those of Milosz. Time those of Dickinson—time as in Death's voice. This leads to very varied poetic strategies enabling different poets to break into that silence, to have a dialogue, or to attempt a dialogue, with what is felt to be in it. Some of those strategies involve narrative, some involve fragmentation, some a priori (inherited) formal patterns—every style is the record of the most honest means by which a poet has attempted to feel her way into that unsaid realm, to take its measure, to take on some of its power, to try to get what's in it to "hear" the human sound, or plea, or description.... But this is a huge subject. It takes me years of poem-by-poem encounters to make sense of it for myself, and, again and again, for my students.
HR: Poetry, historically, has often been linked to prophecy and magic. The goal in many religious and mystical traditions (through meditation, chanting, contemplation, etc.) is to empty the mind and unify with the deity, but poetry seems to embrace infinite complexity and multiplicity. What do you think is the goal of poetry in terms of the experience that happens in the mind of the reader?
JG: It is a good way of thinking, to imagine the mind might be emptied. The sensation of a mind's activity (its fullness)—that aspect of it Keats calls "irritable reaching after fact and reason," or that Indian mythologies sometimes call the "drunken monkey," or that Berryman terms the "thinky death"—is very strong in us. It is quick—too quick—the mind, and tries to takes precedence over sense at every occasion. The knowledge that it can be stilled, that an other part of one's sensibility can be made able to linger longer in uncertainty, and feel, sense, intuit, associate, analogize sensorially rather than conceptually—all of this is a great practice for real reading. From such a condition, such a negative capability, one can allow the matter of the poem—its activity, place, action, imagery, indwelling occasion—room to act upon one before one acts upon it. The outcome, the poem, is remarkably fuller for being given the dilation during which complexity—even paradox, contradiction—can be absorbed without being too easily or rapidly resolved. I was about to say "avoided," or shut down. Lingering is essential—loitering as Whitman calls it—for allowing the paradoxical complexities to be fully entertained and given voice. We tend, often, to undertake what I call a "power grab" against our subject or occasion, in order not to confront what in it might be able to change us, what might contradict us—that original "us," that notion of what we are, or believe we are, that set out to write the poem to begin with. One has—at a certain point—to learn to get out of the way of the poem that is using one to write itself. This might be seen as an operative illusion. In fact, though, in writing, it feels very real. At least to me. It takes all the technical skill one can muster to figure out how to get out of the way of the poem.
HR: Can you discuss your editorial process? Have you written complete poems that required little to no editing, in one sitting? How many drafts do you go through? JG: I have never kept a first draft. The amount of revision, is, well, extensive! Sometimes it feels a bit insane. I find it very hard to let go. At a certain point you have to abandon the poem, though. You cannot treat poems as if they are fragile, though you also have to learn to recognize when you have gone past the poem. It's like over-kneading bread. At a certain point the air—the voice—begins to leach out of the poem. I always keep all drafts because one can develop one part of the poem while killing off another. Near the end I lay them all out to see what got lost along the way in the process of revision. I have often retrieved things from first drafts at that late stage.
HR: In a recent article in Poetry, Tony Hoagland discusses the divide in contemporary poetry between narrative and associative or dissociative styles. He uses terms such as "elusive" and "elliptical" to describe the latter style and states: "The speedy conceptuality which characterizes contemporary poetry prefers the dance of multiple perspectives to sustained participation... It would prefer to remain skeptical, and in that sense, too, one might say that it prefers knowing to feeling." I think that by "knowing" he meant abstraction. To me, your poetry traverses the divide between knowing and feeling: intellectually, your poetry contains a multiplicity of entry points into meaning; and simultaneously it is deeply felt and true to the subjective experience, even as it calls into question the presumptions of subjectivity. Can you speak to this supposed divide between knowing and feeling in poetry? What is the relationship between abstraction and the senses in poetry?
JG: I tend to agree with his analysis, as you present it. I think all my answers thus far have been addressing these issues, and enacting my relationship to this very border—of thinking and feeling—an artificial border as we all know. There is no knowing without feeling. As Keats reminds us, all our ideas are tested on the pulse of our senses. There is no other way to know which ones, of the many great-sounding ideas one might have, might be "true." I put that in quotes because it's also a compromise. But as Frost says, "there are roughly zones," and in that rough, no-man's land between thought and sensation lies "feeling." I think of feeling as born out of sense data, but inching closer, in the end, to thought.
HR: What do you think about the trend in contemporary poetry to be funny?
JG: Well there's funny and Funny, if you will. There's the poem of the moment which seems to be built for TV—out of stand-up timing— and which feels like it builds to its laugh-track. In other words, a pithy, poignant, present-related form of entertainment. And there's nothing wrong with entertainment. And then there's Jim Tate, for example, who comes out of Beckett. Where the wisdom is so intense, you laugh and then you panic at the truth you've just laughed your way into. The difference is quite great between these two kinds of humor. But on the surface—at a reading—you might feel they resemble each other because everyone is laughing. But there's a feeling after a poem of Tate's, or Knott's, which feels close to the sensation of the uncanny. Tate is also a genius of the parable, and the allegorical tale. These poems are very far from poems courting the first-available laugh. In the laugh-track poem you do not feel an under-tow, a suction of the tragic, once you have stopped laughing. You just feel relieved of those feelings and ready for the next entertainment. I was recently at a reading ofTate's where I felt—and all those I spoke to afterwards felt—at the end of the greatest poems, something like "oh my God is that who we are." Of course we were weeping with laughter at first. In fact the kind of poem that I'm calling tragic is also funnier, because the humor is existential not narrative in its essence, although the poems are often narrative in their strategy. It is also a question of at whose expense we feel the humor to be. And how to remain complex enough in that regard. Again, when the poems turn outward, and then back inward, holding up a mirror to us—well then, the laughter is about something else.
HR: What would you say to young poets who are hesitant towards, or intimidated by, poetry that can be considered non-narrative?
JG: I'd ask them exactly where, in their experience of life, life manifests itself as primarily narrative? In dream? In day dream? In the inchoate inner thinking and feeling we walk around with all day? In the socalled "events of the day," in so-called "history"? Narrative is such a complex and oftentimes artificial construct. A way of stilling things, in the manner I discussed earlier. Of course things do happen! There is the horrifying cause and the even more terrifying effect! We do drop our bombs. We do create hell and then there it is, our hell. In poetry, Tate's poems, since I was just discussing them, depend on the uncanny slippages and the intolerable gripping-down of unalterable—usually unbearable—effect once came has been set in motion. Consequence in narrative is illuminating, often morally instructive, moving, and surprising. But to privilege linear, temporal constructs over all other ones is to refuse to represent, as I began by saying, way too much of ordinary human experience. Everybody dreams. Leaping and associative progress is natural to the way time passes in everyone's life. We are just taught to distrust those sensations of time as "irrational." This is a much larger cultural issue. There is much power in the hands of the creators of the narratives, and the master narratives, by which we "recognize" our lives. So I'd say, yes, be intimidated, if you are, by non-narrative poetry. Experience is intimidating. But don't be distrustful—choose to trust it, go along for the ride, see if it reminds you of anything.