Wednesday, December 7, 2016
TtD supplement #67 : seven questions for Lea Graham
Lea Graham is the author of the chapbook, This End of the World: Notes to Robert Kroetsch (Apt. 9 Press, 2016), the poetry book, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011) and the chapbook, Calendar Girls (above /ground press, 2006). Her poems, translations, reviews and essays have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including American Letters & Commentary, Best American Poetry, Milk, and Southern Humanities Review. She curates a series on poetry and place called “Boo’s Hollow” for Atticus Review. She is Associate Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York when she is not on a bus in the Andes, hiking through Galicia or stuck in an airport somewhere. She is a native of Northwest Arkansas.
Her poem “Occasional” appears in the eleventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poem “Occasional.”
A: I wrote the poem back in 2012 after I was on a poetry tour for my first book, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell, 2011). I was travelling with the poet, Timothy Bradford (Nomads with Samsonite, BlazeVox, 2011), who lives in Oklahoma. Being from Arkansas and having gone to college in Missouri, we were able to put together a tri-state reading tour, so much of the poem has to do with that...what we saw, what we read to each other in the long hours in the car, what I was thinking about.
But even more than that, the poem is about my relationships with my own teachers and students. I have stayed in touch with and count as dear friends—even family—my former teachers, especially those in my undergraduate years. These are people who have known me since I was 18 years old and, despite my not being one of those perfect students, they seemed to always be interested in my mind and proud of what I went on to do in my work life (which wasn’t always as a college professor). I hope that I can pass on that great care and interest for my own students. Learning is such an amorphous thing. Who knows what will catch? Who knows when we/they will “get it”? Who knows when—and maybe this is the best of all—when what someone says, has us read, exposes us to something we didn’t know before will spark something that will send us all to an intellectual elsewhere? The patience that I was shown as a young person is something that I want to emulate in my own work as a teacher and something that I think daily about.
I would also just like to say that there are people included in the poem, like the prairie poet, dennis cooley, who I consider teachers, but who I never formally studied with. I feel very grateful to various people in my life who continue to teach me and keep interested, keep having faith in me.
Q: How does this piece compare with other work you’ve been producing over the past few years?
A: Well, I don’t usually publish occasional poems. I write them pretty often and am always amazed at how many I have, but they often seem to me “in passing” (which is interesting given that I’m working on a manuscript entitled, In Transit, right now). I have written a few epithalamiums for my dear friends’ weddings and then others for birthdays, but moreso, I tend to knead an idea or word or place or something for a long time. It’s what makes me a slow writer.
The last full manuscript I finished and which is short-listed for the Robert Kroetsch award as I write this, is about a hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts: the Hotel Vernon. It was built at the turn of the 20th century and was once an elegant place for politicians to do their back door deals. It slowly fell into dereliction through each decade of that century. I thought about it as a kind of metaphor for the U.S. and the history of our development and what we thought was important. The names of people, businesses, streets, etc., are only quasi-erased through time. The neighbourhood where the Vernon resides has been called “the Island,” “the Green Island” and now “the Canal District” (for the Blackstone Canal that runs under its streets nearby). So the names that are in that book: the Baker, the Warrior, Rafferty’s, Maurice the Pants Man and Rizuitti’s Goodnight Café, to name a few, are people and places that still give off an energy even after they have gone. But the main idea is that I thought for a long time about that place. I worked there. I did a lot of research in both reading and talking to people in the neighbourhood. I would sketch its space out. I kept the Keno (computerised betting) cards that anyone left. I took photos and read as much as I could about various aspects of the place—even down to its jukebox—a Rock-Ola! A Canadian company that made jukeboxes. This, I think, is a pretty different way of working than in the occasional.
Q: I’m curious as to why you resist the occasional poems, even as they insist on coming? I know more than a couple of poets over the years who have formed collections out of what began as occasional poems, whether George Bowering’s In The Flesh (McClelland & Stewart, 1974), Jay MillAr’s Other Poems (Nightwood Editions/blewointment, 2010) or even Jack Spicer’s “Book of Magazine Verse” (which first appeared as a whole in the posthumously-published The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, ed. Robin Blaser; Black Sparrow Press, 1975). Is this something you might consider for yours, or do you wish, for now at least, to remain focused on your book-length projects?
A: That’s a good question and one I haven’t considered so much. As I was writing out these previous answers, I began to think about why I tend to privilege the project-driven book over the occasional. But I think I have an answer: Occasional poems often come quick. For that reason, I don’t trust them. The “occasion” is really something driven by time, by the moment you get an assignment, a line in your head or some other cornerstone for the poem. I find that a bit harder to revise because I think that part of their energy is in the fact that it is inspired by that temporal particularity. I think with project-based poems you are dealing more head-on with the theory, the literary hoo-ha of it. I mean I was just talking about the palimpsestic nature of my Vernon Hotel book which of course, links it to back in the day when the scribes would scrape the animal skins to erase/partially erase whatever had been written to make way for what was being written in the present. (And yet, here we are back to the “occasional,” no?). Still, there seems to be a longevity to me about the project-based that is something in need of figuring out. Occasions seem to ask for a figuring out afterwards. But to revise them means are you going to rethink or edit out the energy of that moment you conceived of it, wrote it?
Honestly, though, I haven’t thought that deeply about it yet. I just taught some of Robert Kroetsch’s poems from Advice to My Friends. I love those poems for the way they include “his friends,” but swerve—mostly—away from any real advice. My students and I pondered this and we were suspended in the art, intelligence, but also warmth of those poems. I think those are occasional poems in some ways and I would love to do something like that which includes the energy of the moment, but goes beyond that.
Q: I have a recollection of Robert Creeley admitting that his entire career as a poet was in the composition of endless “occasionals” (of course I can’t recall where I read that). For an American poet, you’re quite open about your Canadian influences—Robert Kroetsch or Dennis Cooley—allowing them equal footing against mentors closer to home. Is your attraction to Canadian poetry tied to a specific handful of individual poets, or is there something unique you see in Canadian writing that attracts you?
A: There are so many ways to answer this. First, I met dennis cooley when I was teaching at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, gosh...back in 2006 or so, I think. My chair, SunHee Kim Gertz, had invited him to give a reading as they were colleagues during summers in Trieste. I didn’t know a thing about Canadian poetry and very little about Canada. I think I had that comically totalizing view of Canada (via some Robin Williams routine) of its citizens poised at the border and looking over the border shoulder and into the raucous party of the U.S. I am embarrassed about that now, of course, but also remember that I didn’t grow up near the U.S./Canadian border or in the northern parts of the U.S.—that has all come since I’ve been well into adulthood.
In any case, dennis cooley is so smart, self-deprecating charming and warmly welcoming that I had to reconsider my ignorance. He invited me to present—no persuaded me, nearly harangued me (but, again, charmingly) into presenting at the Prairie Conference in the next fall. He encouraged me to read and present on the poet, Andrew Suknaski, who dealt so much with dialect. That appealed to me as a Southerner, whose dialect has often been trivialised. Going to that conference was when I got to see how serious and down to earth the CanLit world was. People educated me about things and writers I had never heard of, but never made me feel bad about what I didn’t know. I thought then—and I think I still do now—that there is an unabashed intellectual and artistic community in Canada that doesn’t seem to be anxious about recognition like there is in the U.S. I think someone else could take up this argument and go further, but that has been my observations through the last ten years or so. In the U.S. there seems to still be the dream of “making it” (ha! what a great cliché) through creative writing.
I think that being from Arkansas, I have both a good sense of humour about place, but also a sense of the underdog in me. I think that maybe that’s a sense of the west, what you are up against, a sense of the isolated or rural. I grew up partially on my grandparents working farm in Greenland, Arkansas where I had an acute feeling of how isolated I was from the rest of the world (meaning: the world of books). But also, I had these young uncles and an aunt who worked in my grandfather’s dairy barn and chicken houses—and who were always playing jokes on me and my brothers and on each other. They used to leave messages to each other written in soap on the bathroom mirrors. There was a toolbox of arrowheads, fish hooks, grinding stones and Civil War cannon balls under the sink in the bathroom. I have written of that image over and over again. The sense of the humorous and fleeting, but of the tactile and enduring, too. When I read cooley and Kroetsch, it felt like I was reading at least a part of my own family, but in the most intellectual and tricky ways. And to be geographically connective about it, my maternal grandmother was from the Dakotas and later Montana. Her mother was from Norway and had been a homesteader. She—Dagmar Zacharias—is the only one of my great-grandparents who was from the old country—everyone else was “American.” In any case, my maternal grandmother met my grandfather when he was an itinerant worker from Northwest Arkansas during the Depression and had worked his way up to Billings, Montana where he worked part of the week in a bakery and another part in a dairy. The bakery was in a basement, but had a window onto the street where you could only see people’s legs. He picked out her legs of all the young nurses on their way to school. This family story (or maybe the way I tell it), doesn’t seem far from the Canadian narratives I’ve read.
Q: With a handful of chapbooks and a full-length poetry collection over the past decade-plus, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I think my obsession with place will continue and with a year like I had last year where I lived abroad in Italy and Ecuador, travelled in eight other countries besides and put everything I owned into storage my work will continue to think long about the specificities of geography and movement. As I said, my current poetry ms is called In Transit and it has to do with my own travels alongside the history of travel (so many interesting things I’ve learned so far!). Additionally, I have a book of travel essays, Curiosity Road, which is underway, and an older manuscript that I am slowly reworking that has to do with Arkansas and the intersections of histories, names and geography.
With that said, you have me now thinking about the occasional. What even constitutes an occasion? How long might that last? I love assignments so who knows?
Q: You’ve mentioned Cooley and Kroetsch: what other poets have helped shape the ways in which you approach writing?
A: Well, as you see in “Occasional,” Frank O’Hara is and has been a big influence in that he gives permission to include so much into a poem. But probably the biggest early influence was William Carlos Williams for his commitment to the American idiom. I think I share him as a kind of poetic genesis with a lot of Canadian writers, too. Dickinson was also there as an early influence and for the way in which she walks the perimeter of her focus (and maybe partially where I get the project-driven way of working).
It has been Michael Anania, my mentor and friend, who has probably influenced me most about being a project-driven poet. He had been a student of Charles Olson and so he thinks about place in that layered and complicated way. He is a poet you Canadians should know more about (!) as he is a westerner, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of a German immigrant and a first generation Calabrian-American. If I ever want to go beyond my own poles of thinking about a place, I talk to Michael. He always seems to know what kind of dirt is in that place or what was produced from the place or something about its waterways, music of a particular period or its architectural changes. He sees all of that intertwined with language.
Poets who gave me permissions for the political early on were Carolyn Forche, Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight and Thomas McGrath. I would certainly add Pablo Neruda to this as well as other Latin American poets: Nicolas Guillen, Ruben Dario and Gabriela Mistral, who I translated early on. These poets I think have helped me to think more about what it means to be American and an American poet—and by that, I want to stress the whole of the continent from Murchison Promontory in Nunavut to Cabo Froward in the Magallanes region of Chile. I know that the U.S. has in my own lifetime been in a position of power—something that has separated us from the rest of the continent, but I am often reminded in the reading and travelling I do, that this wasn’t always the case. In preparation for a class I was teaching, I learned that Port Au Prince had been the wealthiest port in all of the Americas at one point during the 18th century. Upon visiting Haiti about four years ago, it was very interesting to see not only what we expect (as we’ve seen images on the news) of the deep poverty, but also the way that the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) seemed like yesterday when you spoke to people or read the monuments and other markers. The pride and power of that enormous achievement still exists and is manifested in Kreyol, their language. So while this might not be answering your question about my “approach to writing,” I do think it answers it in terms of my approach to thinking about place and language.
I should finally add that the recently-passed Arkansas poet, C.D. Wright, gave me a very important permission to write—as she did for so many others. There is such a snobbery about place—still! While I live in upstate NY, I am often reminded of how hard it was to think that where I was from was a place where anyone would or could write from. In conversations about my home in Northwest Arkansas where much of my family still lives, I have been pitied, ridiculed and congratulated for getting out of there. Wright was unwavering in her connection to our home state and opened it up to show it for its interesting natures. Her early book, Tremble, was a very important book for me back when I was starting to seriously write.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I go through phases and will stay with a single author for awhile before moving on. That has been the case with Robert Kroetsch on and off since 2011. Another poet I always go back to and who helps me think about place is Thomas McGrath. I think his Letters to an Imaginary Friend to be one of the great 20th century long poems. Right now—and in preparation for my upcoming fall semester in Italy—I’m reading 20th century Italian poets (the anthology edited by Geoffrey Brock). Right now I’m on Salvatore Quasimodo and keep moving between the Italian (which I can only pick my way through, but love reading aloud using my half semester of Italian) and the translation in English by Charles Guenther. There is something about moving between languages that helps me go beyond thinking of words in a single dimension.
I always go back to C.D. Wright for her treatment of Arkansas, to Jack Gilbert’s Great Fires, to Sappho for the simplicity and leap, and to John Donne for all that he packed into a poem. Finally, I go back to Michael Anania’s work for the way he uses proper nouns and for his weave and shift of place and time.