Hello All. David Gruber has just launched his blog this month. If you're tapped into the blog world, add his page! Below is the interview he did with Gregory Lawless, who has contributed several wonderful interviews to our website. Please enjoy!
Last year the poet Gregory Lawless grilled me ruthlessly about my first book, an experience from which it took me some time to recover. I recently had a chance to read Gregory's own book, I Thought I Was New Here, published in 2009 by BlazeVOX Books, and thought to return the favor. However, Gregory lives near Boston, well beyond my reach, so this exchange was conducted over email, and he seems to have handled my interrogation with aplomb. I doubt he even broke a sweat.
DG: I think that the thing which most struck me about your collection was the way so many of the poems revolve around themes of damage and death – particularly in a poem like “Field Trip To The Museum Featuring Your Death In A Glass Display Case” – where death, decay, injury, heartbreak are offered to the reader as startling, unexpected experiences. I think this tension between the damage that we accumulate in our lives and our simultaneous inability to think of ourselves as anything but new and whole, is movingly framed by the ironic juxtaposition between the poems and the title of the collection, I Thought I Was New Here. How do you think irony, and particularly the poetic method of exploring irony through juxtaposition, helps us think about death and injury? How is it that a poem can render something (like death) both terrifying but beautiful, ancient but new?
GL: David, I don’t want to die...so death is on my mind quite a bit. Plus, I’m a hypochondriac, which means that I’m used to inventing/imaging scenarios in which my health is suddenly corrupted by the rapid onset of some exotic and irrevocable disease. Thus, I’m used to thinking of my imagination as a nemesis: a source of chimerical catastrophe against which I summon all of my conscious energy in order to keep panic at bay. The very act of writing is a stay against this kind of loss of control. The poem you mentioned above (you can read it here) is a response to the frustrations of representing the formlessness of death: it’s a not-thing, or an un-thing, so writing about it, in a way, is out of the question. The poem, then, looks for the next best thing; it uses a conceit in order to explore an abstraction, and that ushers in the space for irony. The poem is plain-faced, declarative, comprised mostly of short impersonal bursts of speech, perhaps as a result of awe or simply the typical boredom of school fieldtrips. It’s hard to tell whether the ‘speaker’ is over- or underwhelmed, and that ambiguity is central to the poem. (If we could tell how the speaker felt about it, we’d quickly lose interest.) He speaks but is effectively silent (no inflection, almost no tone) throughout. But he is privy to an impossible privilege. None of us ever get to take such a fieldtrip where we look at it from a safe vantage point. Which is too bad, really, because money for this kind of thing should be in the public-school budget somewhere…
I think Dickinson knew that talking about death, or Death, in her case, is always a joke. He, for example, is the polite carriage driver who goes out of his way to pick up everyone, no matter how far off the main road they happen to live. Ha, ha. Or else death, most solemn of solemns, the great occasion and meaning-giver, the awful but exalted process by which we come to terms with our lives, accomplishments, sins, etc, is foiled by the buzzing of the fly. It is an awesome comedy, trying to sum it up, pretending that death awaits our pronouncements, and Dickinson makes fun of us for wanting death to behave. I’m no Dickinson but I appreciate the perspective. Her ironies are edifying because they’re in no way reassuring. She puts up roadblocks all over the place, sensing and then stifling our most simplistic intellectual and emotional impulses. And it’s this stifling of predictable and therefore worthless emotions that provide the beauty you were asking about. In her company, we’re thrilled because we’re thinking about death in a new way, which means, ultimately, that we’re thinking about death but simultaneously experiencing the rush of discovery, tamping down terror and enjoying the bewilderment for once.
By writing poetry, I can try to set up a few roadblocks of my own, to reassert formal control over debilitating and fruitless feelings, and this rectifies, to a degree, my adversarial relationship with my unconscious…but who doesn’t have one of those? It’s like feeding the guard dog a bit of steak to keep it from chewing on me.
DG: In your poem “The President’s Dreams,” you create an interesting tension between the real-world power wielded by political figures (in this case, someone very like former President Bush) and the act of thought that is writing a poem (and also thinking through real questions about the world, which you touch on in the lines “What do you think? / I say to my students, / Is there only toppling?”). This poem asks us to really think about the ability [of] poetry to comment on the political world that we live in, and yet you seem to leave us with a fairly stark choice between heart and mind: “Having both… / You’ll never survive.” What, if anything, do you think poetry can contribute to our understanding of how we as humans, as citizens, organize ourselves and our relation to political power? Does poetry have a role to play in the world or must we really choose between heart and mind?
GL: Sometimes having both makes survival unlikely. During traumatic experience, one or the other, the heart or the mind, wants to flee…that is, you either have to pretend that a bad thing isn’t happening or acknowledge it and try to steel yourself against damage. Throughout the endless Bush years, I was afraid of newspapers. I was also afraid, to a degree, of ‘my fellow citizens,’ who usually wanted to do things I didn’t want to do. The world was full of enemies then, abstract but omnipresent. Our allegiance, our emotional commitment to the American War on Terror and so on, was solicited but not our curiosity about policy implications or even the nature of our enemies themselves. You had to choose, heart or mind. I griped and complained but silently believed that I was outnumbered. The poet is always outnumbered and the poem is a device that gives this predicament dignity. “Dreams” was the first overtly political poem I wrote and it’s filled with images of paralysis. The speaker, me, I guess, plays the role of the doltish professor trying to warm his students up to the exigencies of their historical moment through leading questions. But he’s also urging himself forward, trying to think his way out of heartbreak. I felt like that. I didn’t know what to do. Everybody loved the guy for a while and this proved, I thought, that I would never get what I wanted. None of the sane and rational arguments us lefties were making mattered a hoot. Many poets turned inward, sought solace in ironies, poked fun, threw up their hands, pitied themselves, alluded to the world instead of confronting it. The hyper-educated, P.C. Clintonian 90s were over. So very.
All this despite the fact that just a few years ago everyone in New York was reading Auden’s “September 1, 1939…” and saying “we must love one another or die.” Auden later repudiated this beautiful poem, and it’s no wonder. It’s not a spell, it’s not a prayer, or a philosophical life jacket; it’s a command, an ultimatum, and, truly, I think, a death sentence, since we know the odds. At any rate, such beatific admonitions didn’t last for us, we were shortly bombing Baghdad to rubble and the war was on TV again.
Modern nations do not seek their origins in poetry. But poets can give voice to how society distorts the individual, makes the individual impossible, or at least improbable. Poetry evidences the nagging, unlikely survival of the imagination, which implies that the deep integrity of the individual has also survived…unless the imagination serves up only nightmares, gives in to the “pressures of reality” altogether, and simply manifests collapse. Either way, poetry says I’m broken or I’m breaking and this is how. It says I love Northeastern Pennsylvania and it’s not fair that I have to do that. The insanity of loving the deteriorating polis, the stricken township, the ravaged borough, all that. That’s the best we can do.
Frederic Jameson said that all third-world literature is allegory because there’s little to no individual psychological nuance with such terrors. A generic nightmare prevails. American poets do not, by any means, face the same monolithic assault on the soul that Chinese poets, for example, would have faced during the Cultural Revolution, but we increasingly have the same things on our mind: climate change, crises in nuclear security, terrorism, interminable wars and so on. There is a period style emerging now that focuses on disaster. But this poetry of disaster “makes nothing happen”; we write it for our own benefit, or for the sake of poetic history, or for the history of sanity itself, if there will be such a thing in the future…
DG: This book is full of fantastic places – heaven, what appears to be a Soviet spacecraft junkyard, abandoned cities and post-human landscapes – but one real place that appears often in the poems is Scranton, Pennsylvania. These scenes remind me a bit of Whitman, and also of Thoreau, commenting in Walden on his world as transformed by the railroad. But in your case, why does Scranton form so central a location? And following on a bit from the previous question, what, if anything, can poetry offer to us to illuminate or transform our relationships with our world in this post-industrial period?
GL: Scranton is a magnificent place. I’m not being sarcastic although history, speaking through me, is. Scranton’s heyday was over a long time ago: coal, rail, etc. It feels like a long time ago there. Still. And its magnificence is attributable to slow but devout dilapidation.
I grew up roughly seven miles from Scranton. It’s not my hometown but a kind of eidetic horizon. I went there to shop, eat, visit family, go to basketball games, work, etc. It was hard to imagine driving in a different direction when I was a kid. My view of the place, I should point out, though, is less historical than intensely and selfishly impressionistic.
I just got back from my new adopted home in Factoryville, PA, where my parents have lived now for seven years. Factoryville, about thirty minutes north of Scranton, is a quaint but sometimes-dingy town that trails off into sparsely populated country. These two places, the small post-industrial city with gothic historical colorings and dire politics and the small, rustic outlier filled with pick-up trucks and camouflaged rifles, color all my thoughts of origins. I’m surprised how often I have to think of these places, these landscapes, now that I’m free of them. It makes me wonder if I will have to wait another ten or twenty years to think about, or even see, Boston at all. I’m surprised because staying in Northeastern PA was impossible, and yet, in the most important way imaginable, in my imagination, I haven’t left. For writers, this is an old story, but it’s still personally alarming, to be nagged endlessly by these memories and concerns.
Ultimately, Scranton provided me with a model for looking at the rest of the world. You mentioned the Soviet junkyards from “The Minsk”; well, those places are spiritually affiliated with the historically jumbled experience of time and place in Scranton. One of the city’s chief landmarks is a junkyard. It used to have twice as many people as it has today, so it’s like a big, baggy suit on a starving man. Plenty of room for ghosts.
I’ve been talking recently with the poet Peter Ramos about our taste for futurama—we like poems about spaceships. And even those space poems in this book, like “Rocket,” “Elsewhere” and “The Minsk” suggest that all human settlements, even those we might build light years from home, are destined for decay. Even if we did manage to ‘colonize space’, inhabit other worlds, sci-fi stuff like that, I think we’d just create more rust-belt towns out there. Obviously, I think this, in part, because of where I’m from. And, heaven, too, or the afterlife in general, which you mentioned above, is really just an elaboration of what I know. Maybe the hereafter is a just as I’ve written it in one of the poems in this book: a kind of rustic Valhalla where my uncle will get to shoot the same deer an infinite number of times and where neither the deer nor the man will tire of this theater. You see, all of these fantastic places are fantastic in one essential way: they remind me of home.
DG: A short question about form: There is a fairly even distribution in this book between poems that are broken into short stanzas and those which are presented as a single unbroken stanza. What qualities determine for you whether a poem as one or the other of these types? Do they represent different stages of your career as a poet?
GL: In general, the narrative, descriptive poems require the space of conversational speech, a quasi-iambic line or something approximating it, because they respond soberly and consciously to the world at hand and need ample, relatively uniform space in which to do so. Those poems, in other words, need sentences as much as lines, and the longer lines and unbroken stanzas facilitate this way of speaking…I tend to use a stichic form for poems that try to assemble thoughts and experiences into coherent narratives or arguments, to keep everything welded together. The short-lined poems with brief, hacked-apart stanzas, usually give voice to more emotionally violent or hallucinatory experiences—the form, in this case, is like a rusty, misshapen vent for the unconscious. The latter poems are less about seeing, I guess, than seeing through, a derangement of the senses, where the speakers are reminded of or disturbed by similarities of various phenomena, black memories, bleak visions, etc.
The contrast might be a little jarring, but at a certain point in the writing of this book, I realized that I shouldn’t quarantine one group of poems from the other, and I decided that they represented, for the time being, the polarities of my writing-personality. I wrote in both forms simultaneously and continue to do so now. Maybe this is a good thing. I love the coexistence of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s violently dissimilar but somehow complimentary aesthetics in Lyrical Ballads. When I read “…Mariner” and then go on to read “Idiot Boy” or something else by Wordsworth, I do not feel a sense of dislocation. So I hope that the poems in I Thought I Was New Here in some way achieve their own crude harmonies.
DG: Another question about form, but this time about the prose poems that appear throughout the book. There seems to me to be a number of different things that you do in the prose or prose-like poems in this book, such as shifting the focus of poem away from the internal experience of the speaker and toward the narration of events, so that the poem is focused on the interaction between speaker and external world. Do you find that traditional verse structures are not conducive to this kind of narration? If not, why not? I also found the prose piece “Joyce” to be one of the most interesting and moving pieces in the book, but at the same time it throws all the other poems in the book into a different light by being in some ways more traditionally narrative, while still sharing some thematic concerns with language. Can you comment a bit on the relationship between “Joyce” and the rest of the book?
GL: The prose poems provided a means of inclusion, permissiveness. I needed a messy, chaotic form that seemed, or could seem, uncivilized because a lot of the poems in the book, whether about Scranton or the apocalypse (the same thing?), are about surviving a punishing, belittling landscape, and then wondering whether or not such survival is worth it. In order to capture the tedium and disunity and bewilderment of that kind of experience—poems of survival and endurance—I, personally, needed prose. Prose poems seem to go on forever, at least for me. When I look at them on the page I can’t image ever getting to the end of them. I almost never feel that way about novels, incidentally, even those I don’t finish for one reason or another. So I knew prose was my man. And I also sensed that writing in prose would let me introduce new ideas, new angles of voice, and even sketch out some characters and predicaments that would have been impossible to portray in the kind of short lines I had been working with just before. Plus, lineation implies a kind of omniscience qua form; prose doesn’t. With the prose poem it’s as though the author is saying that the experience described herein is beyond his control. He can’t mimic it or mock it with form.
I was also reading a lot of memoir and personal essays at the time I started writing these. I had just reread Thoreau’s Walden and some Emerson too. It’s easy to forget how essential divagation was to those two, albeit in different ways, because of their aphoristic force. They seem so, well, certain, even pedantic at times, but I love them most when they’re getting carried away, or getting lost. Thoreau’s travelogues cultivate a sense of epiphanic happenstance that makes observation seem like adventure. A sentence about a cranberry bog can look as vibrant and jarring as the flight from Troy in Virgil. I needed that, or I needed to take a shot at that kind of writing. For me, the prose poem suggests an abnegation of control but also a different kind of formal embrace because it connotes the state of nature. The prose poem is most suitable for representing collapse, I’d argue, since it appears formally dumbstruck, incapable of doing anything but giving way to raw material. Almost all of my prose poems are like that, looking past civilization toward shattered communities and environments.
Except “Joyce.” This is a poem that I’ve long kept to myself. I didn’t submit it to many journals since I didn’t know what it was, but here it is, at the heart of the book. In short, it tells the story, from the perspective of a nameless father of a little girl, Joyce, his daughter, who appears to voluntarily keep silent until she’s five years old. Then she talks, one day, for no apparent reason, just like a normal kid, and thereafter seems creepily smart. Really smart kids are great and all, but they also suggest that their parents are on the verge of losing control. You can’t sway them with myths and white lies and they don’t need you to explain their math problems to them. They might laugh off all of your religious and metaphysical conclusions because they have a better idea about how things work. They make your choice to become a parent seem suspect, as though you weren’t initially qualified for such an awesome task. Joyce makes the father and speaker of this poem feel this way. He wants to control her because he wants to control his own fears, but can’t. Joyce is out of his hands at the sad young age of twelve and she hints, at the end of the poem, that she might even renew her early-life vow of silence. Why? The father doesn’t know. She is a mysterious, even angelic presence in his life, full of terrible and sublime inscrutability. He simply prays their divine peace won’t crack. And such is parenthood, I guess. I’m not a father now but I’m afraid of the terrible and wonderful responsibilities of being a dad. I’m also afraid that my poems will enter the world and betray me somehow. I’m afraid that they’ll dry up or go away. “Joyce” is the poem through which I contemplate both my ensuing career as a father and the potential collapse of my art, the trembling of it all. Everything else, by comparison, is small potatoes.
DG: I had a professor in graduate school who was fond of saying “each poem teaches us how to read it.” I think that’s an idea both intriguing and probably true, but I also think that each poem, or collection of poems, is an attempt to teach us how to read the history of poetry as a genre – what movements, forms, techniques, themes, writers, etc., have had a lasting impact on how we in the present moment understand what a poem is and what it can be or do. So I’m wondering what your take on this is – if you were to give I Thought I Was New Here to a new reader of poetry, what or who would that reader be better able to appreciate in poetry of the past than they had been before?
GL: If I argue for anything in contemporary American poetry, it is for diversity, experimentation, embracing our freedom as artists. We, as early 21st century poets, have tremendous freedoms: we live in the aftermath of great experimental poetries, including everything from free verse itself to Dada to Language Poetry; we write in the digital age, which means that we can achieve, with a little know-how, a broad, even a global audience through the use of electronic poetry; and we can use thousands of years of poetic history as our basis for seemingly endless formal adventure. But so many books of poetry today squander that opportunity, especially first books. People believe that they have to commit themselves to a style, a register of diction, an aesthetic; they have to write ruthlessly focused books—competent books, perhaps, but without a single great poem in them—in order to win contests, it was suggested to me not long ago, and this troubles me. I think poets should open up new territories for themselves, and they should use the resources of their historical moment to write like they’re new here all the time. Great books should feature an anthology of selves, an array of poets for readers to consider, even if they all stem from the same authorial imagination. No, don’t spread yourself too thin, but feel free to be Pope one moment and Blake the next if that’s what you need to do to survive.
I heard an interview with Ben Yagoda not too long ago in which he discussed what someone else called “stick lit” in memoir. That is, when an author spends a year doing this, that or the other thing (my year as a blind dog trainer, or my year reading every Portuguese cookbook on Earth, etc…) and, poof, drums up a book about it. A lot of poetry books these days flirt with being a kind of stick lit as well; people write with a sales pitch in mind. I think it’s vital to avoid this. I hope my book, clumsy and untutored as it is, at least evidences a willingness to change its mind and patterns of utterance from time to time, to use the storehouse of influence and tradition as a means to do a variety of things.
That said, there are limits to my ego. The book, if anything, offers a kind a self-deprecating, sad-funny bushel of poems about trying to learn, adapt, improve and start over while always failing to do so. It doesn’t offer a tutorial on poetic history beyond what I’ve described above. Great poets see words as histories and use them appropriately: Dereck Walcott, for example. My book is filled with words, and only occasionally histories, but I’m working on that.
Regarding influence, I love Above the River, James Wright’s collected poems. There are beautiful late New Critic poems, neo-surreal poems, translations, and prose poems; and then those wonderful poems from the 60s and early 70s when he was using all of his resources to do his best work. As a volume of collected poems, it shows exactly what great poets should do with their careers: experiment, hone, start over, contradict, lapse and go forward anew. Maybe people should try to write their collected poems with every book they publish? I also love Merwinn’s first eleven books of poems, anything by C.K. Williams, Dean Young, Robert Hass, Carl Phillips, Mary Ruefle, Bob Hicok, James Galvin, Ashbery, Lesle Lewis, Sarah Manguso, Matthew Rohrer, Matthew Zapruder, Srikanth Reddy and a million others. Among the Modernists Crane, Frost, Stevens, Yeats, Moore and Eliot do more for me than Pound or Williams. I’m also influenced by my friends, or I should say I’m challenged into writing by them: Zach Savich, David Blair, Kristin Hatch, Brad Leining, Dereck Clemons, yourself and many more. When I think about them and their poems, and you and your poems, I don’t feel so lonely. So as long as this kind of discourse is taking shape, the two of us, whoever we are, trading questions, answers and silences, I feel as though history, at least personal history, is being made.
DG: One of the ways I have gotten to know you has been through your own blog, ithoughtiwasnewhere.blogspot.com (where, of course, you interviewed me in 2009). Yours is, to me at least, a pretty unusual blog inasmuch as it does not really focus on your own responses to readings and events, but provides a forum for other poets in the form of space to publish poems an[d do] interviews with you. I’d be interested in knowing a bit about what the experience of blogging has meant to you, both in terms of what you have gained from interviewing and giving space to other poets and the ideas behind this approach to blogging. And also, turning back on you a question you asked me, what is the value of the online poetry community?
GL: I love interview shows: Charlie Rose (even though he’s losing his mind), Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, and This American Life, and so I thought that I’d enjoy doing a sort of mid-brow interview series for (primarily) young and under-exposed writers that could be both promotional and thought provoking—and animated and smart but not drenched in the eunuchoid language of academia. In order to do that I needed to use very smart people and showcase myself as little as possible. A lot my stuff is either posted or linked on the blog, but most people click their way to ITIWNH (not that there are all that many of them) because of my featured poets and interview subjects. As a self-promotion site, ITIWNH is a big failure, but I couldn’t be happier for it. The blog wouldn’t be much of anything if it were only about me.
So blogging has meant working hard and listening. And it has combined two of the great loves of my life: me and other people. Regarding the greatest love of my life, my wife, Jen, designed the blog and helps me do all but the most modest functions of maintaining such a site.
Regarding the online community bit, chiefly I think it allows us to avoid the pitfalls of regionalism. I’ve seen poetry in certain towns grow tepid and sluggish because of a lack of hybrid vigor. Many of the poets featured on my blog demonstrate startlingly different temperaments and aesthetics than my own. And I learn from these people. I live and work in the Boston area and this fact, of course, shows itself in some of the interviews and encounters I have presented online. But one thing leads to another. My roommate from Iowa floats the name of a poet he’s read, and I send this person an email requesting an interview, and he’s nice enough to do it. Suddenly my group of friends, my community, has tended modestly in new directions. And I’m better for it.
Online poetry, in general, is various to the point of chaos. But, for poets, there’s very little to regret. I know some people are quietly displeased with the erosion of influence with storied print journals, but not me. Places like nth position, La Petite Zine, Drunken Boat, Glitter Pony, Octopus, H_NGM_N, Thermos, Diagram and many others have changed poetry for the better because they’ve combined new sensibilities with a new medium. Are there a few too many of these places to keep track of? Sure. But I can’t get away from good poetry these days. And that is a blessing.
DG: Finally, and with thanks for your participation, what’s next for your writing? What continuities and/or changes will we see in your future publications?
GL: Many thanks to you, too, David, for your wonderful questions. These days, I’m me all over again, all continuity I’m afraid. I’m finishing up my second MS called Exchange of Territory, for the time being anyway, and it seems like I’m fine-tuning all of my major concerns from I Thought I Was New Here. If I took the best poems from both collections, they’d make one decent book. But, oh well. I’m having fun, writing in the kind of solitude needed for growth and sustenance.
I’ve noticed recently that my poems, in general, are full of hellos and goodbyes. I’m like an amnesiac in a way, or an awkward visitor from Parts Unknown, who never knows when he’s supposed to strike up or wrap up a conversation, who’s always trying to start over with the blessing of salutation even when it’s not entirely appropriate to do so. My apologies, your Earth customs confuse and alarm me! That’s part of the riddle of trying to be new here, I suppose, upholding the belief that personal and artistic reinvention is possible despite the all the fatalistic and contrary evidence that abounds. You know what I mean, David? Keep breathing, keep pushing the rock up the hill, and hope that friends, loved ones and editors keep taking your call…