In Conversation with Jorie Graham
The Author of Fast Talks to Peter Mishler
For the next installment in our interview series with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler recently corresponded with Jorie Graham, renowned author of thirteen collections of poems. Graham has been widely translated, and has been the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize, the Forward Prize (UK), the International Nonino Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the LA Times Book Award. She lives in Massachusetts and teaches at Harvard University.
Peter Mishler: I’d like to ask you first about the fragmentation and inflection in your newest collection of poems, Fast. For example, the first line of the second poem in the collection, “Honeycomb,”: “Ode to Prism. Aria. Untitled. Wait. I wait. Have you found me yet. Here at my screen…” While I know these gestures are not exclusive to this new work, do they reveal something about the process of composing the poems for Fast, or about your exploration of voice in this collection?
Jorie Graham: “Honeycomb” was written after the Snowden revelations. As you point out, I have been trying to explore the dimensions—and possibilities—of the lyric voice for many years. For all the obvious historical reasons, my sense of what lyric subjectivity took for granted became uneasy in life-altering ways. It frayed. I think this happened to us across the culture. Obviously the technology which entered my life more than halfway into it permitted and invited a disassembly of a unique, coherent “self.” But it also fragilized my sense of my own—and others’—moral accountability.
PM: You’re suggesting one needs some modicum of actual selfhood to support moral accountability.
JG: Well you have to gauge truth somehow. Even if it’s an illusory rudder in the swell, you need to steady the craft in order to attempt the journey at all… And also you find you have this weird sensation your body gives you of your being a you. All sensations of your innermost you—however contingent you know it is, and can sense it to be—are still operating under a secret, almost inadmissible, opposing sensation that you have a rightful, trustworthy—even reliable—subjectivity. It’s a secret one keeps with one’s self. An illusion but an operative illusion. So although under most circumstances we do flow out in multiple directions away from our “inner I,” and although we do know how contingent, occasional, intersectional it is—how imaginary, constructed, mediated we have made the notion of any singular inwardness—we still can’t help but also experience the sensation of its integrity, because it is also a crucial aspect of being. Yes you may be a Baudrillardian simulacrum— (Have you found me yet. Here at my screen)—but you don’t mistake your singular selfhood when your diagnosis is handed to you, or when you are told by someone for the first time that you are loved, or when in labor your baby starts to crown…
JG: So, between these apparently contradictory truths, how do we anchor ourselves in any reality? The dizziness is overwhelming and has overwhelmed us. It has been made all the more possible by our casual divorcing of the actual, and this love-affair with the dematerialized, the virtual. It leads one to feel one’s compass has lost its needle not only in the moral realm, but also in the realm of the senses. And this doesn’t even take into account the degree to which one’s sense of one’s self as a person with “basic human rights” has been under siege, or even shattered, by conditions of civil war, involuntary migration, discrimination, racism, tyranny, displacement. Consider “illegal” personhood as an internalized sensation. What happens to one’s already fragile sensation of a core self when one becomes a refugee, a member of our global migration catastrophes. Aristotle said, in his Politics, that our natural state is to be political animals—otherwise we become outcasts. It follows that if the political dimension of our existence is eroded, crushed, or shattered by forms of abuse—of civil or ecological chaos—of the cruel global economic inequality that plagues and deforms human life on this planet—not to mention the karmic outcomes of our many genocides—that a large part of our sensation of who we are, what we are, will be injured. No, is constantly injured. Which brings us to the mess we are in. Mess is a kind word. A bedtime-story word for the actual nightmares that haunt us—
PM: So, a crisis which includes the crisis of subjectivity.
JG: Yes—look—even within what I was just saying—the pronouns skip from “I” to “you” to “one” to “we.” What is in there, gliding or skating or hovering between or behind those pronouns? Aside from the fact that no pronoun is an adequate representation of an inner I—why pronouns are “shifters”… I think of Beckett’s Not I—“the buzzing in the brain.” And yet in spite of this, to extend what I was just saying, one’s subjectivity is, first of all, below all this, a feeling—a kind of radical hope that one’s feeling/thinking is somehow solid, trustworthy, capable of transmitting truth of some kind about what is in here and out there. Which one desperately needs in order to find one’s way in the dark. Though some are intrigued by this dark and make good art out of that fascination—and especially sexy/scary philosophy. Like dark ecology. But if you are trying not to fall into some of those (however fascinating and enticing) voids, you need the feeling that your lived-life, your choices and beliefs and actions—even your powerlessness—are backed by the sensations your bodily experience affords you, and the truth-likeness it objectifies—or seems to objectify just enough to make you feel part of a community—of experience, of values, beliefs, fears shared by others. Anyway, even though it was already part of my poetic activity, for all these reasons I was experimenting in Fast ever more urgently with increasing polyvocality, fracturing and testing the lyric voice I had taken for granted from the start of my writing life.
PM: And after Snowden?
JG: After Snowden—(even though he just stands in for a much larger and pre-existing crisis)—the feeling of writing “for a reader”—be that reader one’s self, an imagined other, a muse, God, whatever poets have posited or imagined over the centuries—was perhaps, for me, almost unconsciously replaced by the feeling of “writing for the random overhearing forces.” That’s a huge shift. An address to someone or something not “hearing” but “overhearing”—an algorithm, an NSA scanner, a program such as Prism—is a very different kind of a conversation. Your voice changes. You internalize it of course. So you’re overhearing yourself as well as hearing yourself. It’s a vortex, but also a new kind of confessional. Only there is something very random and also indiscriminate—ruthless as well as deeply disinterested—which is your interlocutor. When John Stuart Mill wrote that “eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard,” he could probably never have imagined the digital eavesdropping of our moment. So yes. That.
PM: So your fascination with the fragment came from that? You have used it since your collection Swarm, but of course here it is more pronounced.
JG: The force, the system, we now interact with—what we know as “the world”—would fragment anything it interacts with. Paradoxically, you have to learn the fragment to speak with that world. To maintain integrity. Yes, you give in to the machinic, but then you take it into yourself and you force humanity, and personal singularity, back into it. It’s complicated. It’s partial. It’s a hybrid you make at best. But you have to fight to stay whole. More than ever. Physically, bodily, spiritually, morally. Also intellectually—but that’s the least important part of it.
PM: What are the risks of interacting with this technology as an artist? And I assume you mean social media?
JG: Well first of all, to be fair, these social media spaces have made it possible for all sorts of young poets to find readers in ways that simply would have been impossible before. I discover weekly, daily, brilliant voices in such spaces—and now teach their works—because of those platforms. These poets are often leading the most crucial conversations we are having in the wider cultural—political—arena. They exhibit daily the democratic vista of poets reading each other and inspiring each other. Also powerful is the vision of poetry as a field where poets are often incredibly generous about, and supportive of, each other’s work—which infuses these spaces with a spirit of inclusiveness which seems new to me—a grace. I have rarely seen such a flowering of very new poetry as there is at present. It is seriously thrilling. It feels like a whole new sound.
That said, this technology has effects far beyond what it enables for our poetry. We live in a capitalism so voracious and ruthless—and its genius is addiction—one has to be a little wary. Our “ever-improving” technology obviously is enticing—and useful. But we mustn’t overlook the degree to which it is also a way of surviving in a culture of overabundant labor, scarcity of opportunity, the collapse of work, the terror of the future which amplifies the present into the only habitable ground…
PM: You wonder then about the speed with which we’re able to communicate.
JG: I wonder about the speed. To my mind it’s to be engaged, scrutinized—and used—but also cautioned against. You have to write as if there is a deep future—and you are writing towards it as well as into the present. You have no choice. Also, we should perhaps heed the people now revealing their secrets to us in public mea culpas after this nightmare election—at Facebook for example—confessing how hard they worked over the years to make their technology capable of increasingly addictive dopamine-triggering loops—literally, physically, addictive. You have to wonder why the very people who design these technologies—from Facebook and Twitter to Snapchat, Instagram, so many others—admit to keeping that technology away from their children, even out of their own homes. I don’t think we should look completely away from its magical properties; we can’t anyway unless the systems fail—something we should perhaps consider more often, and seriously. But I do admire those emails that bounce back at me telling me someone is taking a sabbatical from email, or social media. They are often from writers I admire deeply. And they always seem transformed to me as a result. It’s a mystery. Everyone has to find her comfort zone—but also be wary of the comfort zone. Just look at that term. But here I am now talking to you keystroke by keystroke—feeling it to be just like life. Which we both know it is not. But it is the best way we have of approximating life. So, yes, I use my poems, and the process by which I write them, to try to get deeper into the sensation of materially living my life. That can involve “real time” composition methods. Such as the ones you quote. The fragments are interrupted by non-human listeners. Perhaps even some in myself. I speak into them. I force my possibly twilit species—my at-risk humanity—into the intermittent random surveillance running in cables along the seabed… I try to stain its icily indifferent capture. To leave a trace. Of human resistance.
PM: What is the strangest thing about the art of poetry that you’re sure of, that you know to be true?
JG: That some poems are given and some are struggled-for, and wrestled-with, down to the last syllable. I think this experience is true for many poets, over the ages. And the “given” one can be infuriating. Where did it come from? How dare it just show up and sit there? No matter how much you’d like to work on it, it just sits there, finished, untouchable. It’s obviously a very rare event. It’s baffling. That poem is not necessarily a better poem—it just arrives entire. In truth it’s a dead end. You don’t learn much from writing it. It’s a gift. The little that we get for free. As such, perhaps not really the kind of gift you want. But of course we are thirsty.
I have always told myself that all those poems sweaty with massive revision create a residue, which just lands on you as a “given” poem. But that’s just another bedtime story. To keep a different ghost away. The ghost of the total mystery which is poetry. Why does it show up, and disappear, as it wishes. Where does it come from—I feel composers have a better idea than we do. And, mostly, what are these hot tools, and what are they doing to me, using me, as I go on, believing I am using them. I am using them. But they are changing me. They are using me to get a poem written. Because, in my experience, the one way you know you have got a poem before you, and not just the account of a poem, is if you are not the same creature who sat down to struggle with that angel, that subject, that occasion. The silence you broke to utter the first syllable is not the same silence that closes back over after the last syllable. It’s just not. The silence—or what’s in the silence—has changed its nature. If one isn’t in it to be changed by the act of writing a poem I have no idea why in god’s name one would go on, year after year, struggling with these transcendentally indifferent powers to do this impossible thing.
PM: The most remarkable poem in Fast, for me, is “Double Helix,” its changes in scale, the braiding of both a macro- and microscopic scale and vision; an interplay of Whitmanian vastness and Williams-esque precision. Could you talk about this poem?
JG: Well, that was the hardest poem to get into the sequence of the book. I almost had to write the book around it to get it to have a right place. The changes in scale in it were exciting, but—to go back to my last answer—that was a poem I struggled with for years. A poem has to achieve the right air speed in order to carry freight, Frost says somewhere—or something like that. It has always seemed to me a remarkable formulation. Different freight requires different speeds. What a splendid description of how syntax and form interact to permit subject matter to happen. This is a poem where the speed keeps changing in order to carry naturalistic, futuristic, and meditative time frames. But at some point I became sure that child needed to be at the end—in that one-room schoolhouse in Selma—during the civil rights marches in 1965.
PM: The child from Bruce Davidson’s famous photograph “Child at Blackboard in a Schoolroom, Selma.” Can you say why?
JG: I had to figure out how to scale up and down in order to figure out where to place into consciousness the strong possibility that our planet will go into “runaway greenhouse,” and yet feel alongside that the beauty of a summer storm—however unnatural—the scholar, the meetings of emissaries from nation-states, nation-states (what an idea) up against the Schubert floating into the wind, the unsettling miracle of birds coming into this world in such a storm—the pre-storm acoustics (Schubert, snapping of clothesline in wind, the windy dresses on it, a thrush, a crow, flocks, insect-swarms)—the Cambrian explosion, eukaryotic cells, expanding nuclei, the inky speeches of the negotiators of the now-desperate nations—the flowerbeds, the solar system, the well-built porch—seeing all the effort in its built-nature… Where, really where, to put the singular human in this vast interlacing of changing scales? This is really our problem when it comes to trying to “think of the future” in relation to our lives lived “now.” How to place our singular lifespans into the scale in which this predicament needs to be thought—and felt.
PM: So the poem dives into its close noticing of the photograph, the child at the blackboard.
JG: Well I didn’t know where to go. I tried various things that didn’t work. For a long time. Then one day I looked up and saw, as I do every day, this astonishing photograph I have next to my desk—the child in the schoolhouse in that moment in 1965, alongside the great courage of the African American marchers outside. So when it came down to finding the human’s position in that poem, I suddenly realized that child was showing me. In the dimly lit schoolroom there is no one else but him. No teacher, no other students. The large sheet of paper called “Bulletin” is totally blank. The paper clockface is missing its hands. The chalkboard is blank. You can feel history swirling all around it, its violence, injustice, indifference, unending racism—the human heart so full of hatred. But also its unyielding hope and tenacious humanity—someone got this child to school, someone will not stop believing, will pass on the tools, pass on knowledge—some teacher—under any circumstances. My poem thus far had explored the potential end of everything as we know it—superstorms, runaway, microburst, hopeless deadlock among paralyzed humans… Then suddenly there before me the child was going up to the board again, picking up the piece of chalk, and—he must be 6—lifting his arm to make his attempt. The letters he writes will make a word, the words will make a world—excitement, mastery, achievement will have a location in which to live—right there in his heart and mind. The bulletin will get filled. The clock will get its awful hands. The door will be sprung open. Human history and human time will run their course again. Even if we are at an extreme social and ecological tipping point—only getting worse—for now, in this moment, in this soul, one more time, human aspiration can begin again. The end of the poem was totally unexpected. I recall the moment of writing those lines. They really took me by surprise.
So, yes, our story might likely be that we doomed ourselves. But hovering in each instant of life is life. Begin again. Awaken the mineral imagination. Write the word over the void.
PM: I wonder if one of these two ways of seeing, macro or micro, came more naturally to you as a younger poet, or if you’ve found one to be more challenging for you as a writer.
JG: Even though it does not seem that way—because my second book, Erosion, committed itself so forcefully to the short line—I wrote right from the start in alternating long and short lines. They are right there in my first book. Although I agree with your distinction—macro and micro scale—I would have to admit that it begins first, for me, at the level of music, and form. I find that expanding the line—accelerating the speed—allows me to then drop down onto the short phrases, or fragments, in ways that stress extra syllables, more than would otherwise have been possible. This creates a “coiled spring” effect which releases as it uncoils more speed into the next long line. I love this spring…
PM: Why do you love this effect?
JG: Well, expanding the terrain of the lyric, enlarging what the traditional lyric can hold without abandoning the lyric, has been somehow essential to me. And if you can create modulation, musical sweeps that carry turns, and nested thoughts, contradiction, opposing truths in one breath—well then you might begin to approximate a truth. Or whatever you want to call the momentary station I call a truth. Do I contradict myself, very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes, says Whitman—a line I always quote because of how succinctly and brilliantly it marries the sensation of our body/mind/soul/ inner complexity to the original, great, naïve, dream of democracy. It holds, in one experience, the crowd and the individual, the general truth and the particular resistant idiosyncratic detail—the long universalizations of music that persuade, and the muttered asides that caution. The general idea—its rush towards meaning—and the particular, the mute thing, with its stubborn refusal to yield whatever meaning is. The sublime and the (only apparently) useless… So, yes, there they are, those two stubborn teachers, each convinced of his large truth, each managing to carry in the marrow of his proof the dissolution of that truth. So a music that can do that—that at-once-ness—that yes and no—I have been exploring ways to roil that up, hold it suspended in time, for a long while now.
PM: Do you notice that you tend to observe at a larger or smaller level in your day-to-day life, or, when beginning new work, do you notice that you favor one scale over the other?
And further, in what way does Fast in its composition, or what you see in this book now that it is complete, uniquely approach the interaction of these two scales?
JG: Well, yes. The changes in scale I was trying to capture in that last answer were societal, phenomenological. They work to excavate—and perhaps create—the nature of consensual meaning, collective belief—what we can live in together even with radical difference of point of view. A shared reality. But at the level of the day-to-day, when my eye starts to ask my heart to find some language, I favor the infinitesimally small. I instinctively imagine the cells working at photosynthesis inside leaves when I look at any tree. I immediately try to feel the xylem, the flow beneath the bark, that hum—I swear I can almost hear it. When I was writing my first book, I decided I had to draw each tiny thing I tried to describe in order to train my eye to see, and in that sight find insight. Small, small—everything starts at the tiniest scale, and then syntax and intuition and desire build on that. And then, yes, it scales up. Form unfolds and turns occur. Action occurs. An experience is undertaken. The lens widens. Then something like meaning is intuited as if on the far side of the poem. Because whatever we understand as interpretable “meaning” is the last thing—there for me and others to uncover, discover, after the action—after the experience. “What is the author saying”—the killer question which, when asked by a teacher, all but assures the student will turn away from the poem—is not my primary concern. My job is to undergo, witness, record, feel, imagine, rise to the occasion of choices, open my mind, take risks, guess, experience, act. I look at the tiniest things and throw my lot in with chance. With luck the poem will indeed be the mind in the act of finding / what will suffice—to mangle Stevens. Sometimes it is.