Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Interview with Jessica Grim

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Jessica Grim: I feel trapped and inarticulate approaching a question like this. who cares about biography? everyone? I didn’t read poetry until college, or very little. and then it was bad; I took a couple lit & “creative writing” courses at Humboldt State University in the early 80’s – Jorie Graham and James Galvin were teaching there and I took a course with Galvin. Oddly the passionate connection was from an end-of-career lit prof – I remember him looking out the window with these watery blue eyes, reciting pieces from memory by Shelley & Keats. I’m trying to think about exaltation. maybe that’s because I’m reading Fanny Howe right now. but wanting “discovery” to feel, have felt, exalted…. but guess what. because from here, at nearly 50, the exaltation attending discovery looks hopelessly young to me. I had embarrassingly juvenile experiences with poetry on into my twenties, at SF state (I’d transferred to a place with a “real” creative writing program) where I was taking a class w/Kathleen Fraser on women writers. it’s not that the poems I wrote were horrible certainly not more horrible than anyone else’s at my “level” -- so I guess that’s when – those classes at SF state – poetry began. the classes by the way included short story writing, which I distained based on no particularly good evidence and certainly on very little experience. I remember writing a story, ala Robbe-Grillet, about walking down a mountain road and coming to a deserted town and stepping behind a crumbled wall in a vacant lot and seeing a car drive slowly past. that was the action, the climax, a car moving slowly down the road of this deserted town. so thank god for poetry, right? there was a lot happening in sf at that time, 1984, 85, 86… a lot to take in, a lot to go to. I became involved with Michael Amnasan, and he was hovering around the fringes of the writing scene, forging difficult – which is to say always troubled, always problematic, ever unsettled – connections with some of the Language folks. but going to readings and talks. there were things that had already ended by the time I was starting to be aware of the scene – Perelman’s talks, the grand piano series… but still, there was a lot of vibrancy and intent swirling around. Mid-80’s San Francisco.

In terms of my practice now(adays) it begins infrequently, and rarely where I “left off” unfortunately. It’s rare for me to find the time & space to write, so I tend to start over again each time I write. But my son’s now 8, my partner’s cancer (the pivotal focus of the last year) is officially undetectable, and I’m starting to see the possibility of light in terms of the job I started just a few months ago (after many yrs as a reference librarian I made the move to collection development/mgmt). So maybe that’s all the past & present biography needed?

TB: Let me ask a bit differently, Jessica-- what gets you going? What makes you want to write?

JG: A quiet house, some peace, an awareness of what it is that constitutes – or approximates – equilibrium in my life. Sometimes a flare of anger or disgust or despair relating to situations or occurrences in the world; often times reading. Writing is required, back to the equilibrium thing… I realize I’ve approached the question(s) as if the responses are going to be about external motivators (is the weather right? the temperature? do I have the right cup of tea) which is unfortunately telling. I never have the right god damned cup of tea. Sometimes some okay writing happens anyway.

TB: It's a fact for most of us who write poetry that it all happens in the midst of life without much enablement. I know of no one early on saying to me, "Tom, your future is in literature. Go forth and inspire!" Quite the contrary. I have been disappointing relatives for over 50 years. I say this for comic relief, but also to make the point that this thing of ours (la cosa nostra, if you will) is a life decision which informs the way one sees the world and that it has consequences. What does it mean to you to be a poet? Is there some special responsibility involved?

JG: Once again I want to deflect the question and its suggestions. Too big, too grand, too claim-making. I mean really, a special responsibility? To what or whom, I wonder. But naturally these questions are not as absurd as they at first strike me as being. So assuming I decide to take the questions seriously – only fair, eh? – here’s the rub: I am uneasy thinking about such things right now in light of my “decreased output” as a poet in recent years, and my decreased (nearly to nil) engagement with writing community(ies). If I want to think about what it means to me to be a poet I’ve got first to recall that I am one (please excuse the melodrama). Let’s assume I can do that. Through writing I express – attempt to express – this existence I know. I express that existence because it is not enough to live it. It feels very small simply to live it in fact. Dailiness happens and the range of occurrences, thoughts, emotions, interaction attending – or making up – the dailiness is, well, compartmentalized and let’s face it often wholly mundane. Work life, family life, life with friends. Meaning is there of course but it all slides on through. The writing I do – the poems I write – do not create an entirely different meaning exactly, nor a meaning that is particularly imbued with a “higher” understanding of or approach to this existence I am in. But distinct I’d say, in some fairly dramatic ways, from the meaning created and lived in the dailiness. If the writing is working well there are connections that occur there that do not occur otherwise, at least not in my experience of daily life. And yet obviously those connections wholly refer to and are engaged with the mundane living I do. The pleasure I find in writing is the pleasure of the surprise, often, of creating something in the juxtaposition of words/phrases/sentences (even) and sounds that twists in just such a way. It’s a screened record, really. But one that feels “true”, to me. To how I think about the world and respond to it. This was the existence that I was in, that I created for myself as a human, with all the composite elements of what I was “handed” and what I made. It sits alongside. The responsibility is to myself – to create this parallel line which is my writing and which carries with it a response to my life’s days. I do think of a future reader in my son – which is probably pretty bankrupt. He may have very little interest (in some imagined future) in how his mother understood the world, or very little patience for getting to that through reading. Is that odd, I mean in the sense of unusual, I wonder, to write for my kid. In some measure. I suppose that looks a lot like responsibility of a kind too. The notion of consequences is interesting. I find myself thinking “if only” – if only I’d written to the detriment of something, against my -or anyone else in my lifes’ - better judgment. Hm.

TB: When I think of your writing I think of your preoccupations with physical location and with description. In your book Locale there’s a poem I’m fond of called “It/Ohio.” It begins so:

Because I’m afraid to fight

my heart ticks in my leg.

The poem is immediately anchored in a sense of bodily anticipation.

Would you talk a bit about how you came to write this poem and what was at stake for you in it?

JG: It was written in the first months I’d moved to Ohio (from SF, most immediately- but in any case I’d pretty much lived in urban circumstances up to that point). Amidst a fairly thick sense of alienation and a general condition of being stunned by this move I’d made. I was trying to negotiate with myself this thing I’d done -- packed my stuff and driven out in a truck, to take this job I’d applied for on something of a whim…

Ohio – what a great word! But here I was living in it. In a liberal arts college town that felt stiflingly conservative socially. Political progressives packaged up in nuclear families… and they all seemed to go to church! So landscape as escape. The flat, “uninteresting” landscape. Pretty much devoid of topographical noise, at least here in the NE of the state. Getting on my bicycle and riding out into the cornfields on these country roads was a kind of acting out, a bodily, as you suggest, reliance upon the power of landscape to ease my way. I was mourning in particular the sense of anonymity I’d always enjoyed. I was pretty pissed actually. I moved in August – it was hot, and it was humid, and there were cicadas. I could be interested in the physicality of these things; I could observe them, and judge them, and decide upon their narrowness… which was of course my rage at the narrowness of the humanity I’d smacked myself up against and annoyance at myself for having done that. I felt cowardly somehow, in the encounter. As if my inability to assert myself and my “singular” values, my inability to impress myself upon this community – instead sending myself out into its hot still loneliness… was a failure. But I could take something of all of this for myself, for my sensibility… I could cruise around on the roads dividing the acres of soy from the acres of corn… and notice some things about the sky and things about the bird and animal life… and then write those. When I’d only been in Ohio a few weeks I had one of those unsettling experiences that, because I had no equilibrium at all, became symbolic: I’d awakened in the middle of the night having to pee, and on my way to the bathroom in my still unfamiliar apartment walked right into the edge of a door – so had a kind of serious-looking black eye for a couple weeks. Domestic violence! Ohio smacked me! And this sense of distrust I felt from people around me – no one believes that people from places like New York or San Francisco willingly move to places like Oberlin – and they expect you to leave at any moment. So when you do things like buy a house or “settle down” with someone here – people get all relieved… “so you ARE staying!”. And after 16 yrs I’m one of the people who doesn’t trust that people from places like NY or SF will stay. I think I’ve strayed from “It/Ohio”. I wanted to put Ohio in its place. It was messing with me. And the love/hate relationship continues to thrive today.

TB: Heh. Tell me about it.

The list of innovative writers who left Ohio could go on and on. Hart Crane, Bob Perelman and Juliana Spahr most immediately come to mind.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of blogs, listservs and innovative writing in cyberspace, which has had something of a decentralizing effect in the poetry world(s).It’s now a little easier for innovative poets to operate from Ohio—or, say, Australia, than it once was.

You’ve so far resisted starting a blog. What are your thoughts about this new environment for writing?


At this point in the game becoming a more active participant in that environment as a poet doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me… even if it can, as you suggest, be a way of alleviating the “condition” of isolation which I sometimes whine about. I would rather use my limited writing time & energy in other ways. I find the blog scene interesting enough, and there are a handful of poetry blogs I skim with some regularity-- and projects like ubuweb, which pulls in such an incredible variety of fabulous content, really excite me. Another part for me is that I spend many hours of my work day up to the eyeballs in online communication of various kinds, no choice (and guess what! We have a library blog! And guess what! I feel guilt over not posting to it with enough frequency to make it dynamic and cool!). Another mouth to feed… I was thinking of a kids online “environment” my son & his friends were into a couple years back… kids “buy” a pet – some kind of cute fuzzy cartoon thing – and then they have to feed it, and if they let it languish, it gets all sick and weak. I don’t think it actually dies from neglect… but maybe it could? So, yeah… the intention is to continue my resistance. I kind of revel in the retro on this one. For the time being.

TB: What's at risk for you in a poem?

JG: Pretty much everything? What do I think about, hold important, how do I relate to the world I’m in, how do I pull it in, through language, to do something, anything… What am I capable of, really? It’s funny because when I get into the rare conversation about poetry with someone around here there’s this assumption, a given, that my work is inaccessible. I despise that conversation, yet never seem to have a great comeback. What’s accessibility got to do with squat, I mean I don’t want to talk about my work in terms of who “gets” it, of who it’s “gettable” to. And yet, yeah, just yesterday I had lunch with a poet in the creative writing program here and the topic of my doing a local reading came up… and her assumption was that I’d want to make sure to read with someone who was “more accessible” – so the audience, wouldn’t, what? Hate it? Hate me? But what’s funny of course is that I think of my work as being entirely direct, entirely transparent, and pretty ragged emotionally at times. Which is not to say it’s a walk in the park or something that’s going to lay out the linear stepping stones… but it’s as true to my experience of this life – right now right here where I am – as I can be. Everything is at stake for me then. At the same time that absolutely nothing is – it’s poetry after all.

TB: Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

JG:Stein's important to me always, in and out of time. And Duras and Leduc, the 20th century French women narrative obsessives. Not that you'd see that in or know that from my work. And of course the west coast folks, Hejinian, Scalapino, Silliman, actually, all really important to me in the 80's when I was first encountering Language stuff. Coolidge I loved. Mine, My Life, Tjanting. Forebears sounds so heavy though, let's just call it all influence. Niedecker, her wondrous brevity.

TB: Could you speak a bit to your process as a poet? How do you approach writing a poem?

JG: For the most part I write in bound notebooks, in which I put somewhat random date markers; I then return to the notebooks -- usually after an "aging" period of 6 mos to a year -- and transcribe into electronic form what I find of interest, or usable. The percentage of the work I find "usable" varies, but roughly 60-70% I'd say. Sometimes there are long dry spells -- both in terms of the actual writing, and in terms of what I find of interest in returning to the writing. And there are also pockets of material, where I'll transcribe many pages almost verbatim. I generally keep the line breaks and other spacing from the handwritten work. I find that the rhythm and pacing as I originally thought them are usually right. Then I have these files of quite rough material -- with "titles" like "trans 10/06-7/07". Sometimes there are discreet sections (a page, several pages) that are "natural" pieces, and I pull them out-- often there's theme involved... stuff written while in certain places or while thinking about certain things, or in response to particular events or circumstances, or around texts I'm reading. On occasion I also write a discreet poem to be that, or where there's no question in my mind that's what it is. Usually, again, longhand in the notebook. I'm not necessarily thrilled with my process -- it seems, well, inefficient -- but I'm resigned to it, and find something about its cumbersomeness comforting.

TB: Why does poetry matter to you?

JG: In terms of the writing it's a singular site for me for exploration, all manner of delving -- be it personal, political, social -- and all manner, by extension, of learning. This'll sound corny but I understand the world and what I'm doing in it better through writing than through any other act, or situation, or encounter. And the encounter with (experience of? consumption of?) the world of texts "out there" - what miniscule piece of it I'm able to find my way to - is and has been life changing. Of course, and always. Transformative texts, reifying texts, troubling texts. How can that "mattering" possibly by articulated? Inarticulate texts...

TB: Is there a text of yours you can point to that came to you as a kind of breakthrough? And if so, could you talk about its occasion and what it came to mean for you?

JG: "Fort Recovery" is a piece about the death - the suicide - of my mother. I don't recall exactly how long after her death it was that I wrote it, but it was a good 6 months at least. It's one of the pieces I mentioned earlier that, uncharacteristic of how I usually work, took on theme/event quite explicitly, and took on sentiment and emotion. It wasn't breakthrough in a radical sense but it reminded me that I did in fact still find useful a direct and emotionally raw "voice"... I wasn't going to bother with my usual critique and self-editing self-consciousness... she jumped off the (god damn as I always seem to say) Golden Gate Bridge, afterall, so who was I to create anything particularly subtle or nuanced out of that? It gave the event, for me, its due dramatic response. Not "healing" mind you, never that, god forbid; but an iteration of (my) agency attaching to an act - a fact - that still these years later haunts me, and can overwhelm.

TB: As a poet, what most concerns and preoccupies you now?

JG: The power & privilege of language - the privilege I reserve for the language of my writing and how that works. The world I'm depositing my kid into -- in broad strokes and then trying to move beyond the guilt and panic of it into something else... or figuring out if that's possible in writing. And how my privileging of language circles back into those very trenchant concerns. Reconnecting with friends & writers I've been out of touch with... I'm very recently back in touch with Melanie Neilson -- she and I co-edited Big Allis in the late 80's/early 90's -- and we've started a collaborative project - which makes me very happy. That's the nutshell. Oh, and keeping the balls in the air - it is not a glamorous preoccupation but it suffuses all.

TB: Thank you, Jessica.


Blogger Geofhuth said...

What a rollercoaster of an interview, filled with verve straight from the start, and totally engaging. But why? Because of what Jessica questioned the value of at the beginning. Biography.

I too find biography ancillary to any work of art--even if central to understanding the art. In the end, only the art matters. But it is clear that we learn more about works of art, and are sometimes attracted to them, by the biography attached to the person creating the art.

And Jessica's waterfall of words shows her as a woman of passion and a woman dealing with the onrushing wall of silence that threatens to crush us all, to silence our voices. Jessica calls it "dailiness," and that is the force, the force of real live, of simply living, leaving little time for the modest gains that a thing like poetry might bring us.

We all write, as Jessica reminds us, to learn what we think. And that is also why we read. Thanks for the read.


5:54 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

This is so good, Jessica and Tom!

I feel so much better now after learning that I'm not the only one who moved from Bay area to, ummm, "Eastern Ohio" here in the Finger Lakes of western New York
(where I grew up and have my family, whom I love dearly, but let's face it -- who in his/her right mind would ever move back here from almost two decades in California).

I'm also very appreciative hearing some of Jessica's response to questions of "BIO" and "Influence" and such, and her "deflections" ring true and authentic to the core, not only because they resonate with my own, but also because they are so gracefully and eloquently put (in contrast to the agravating tone I imagine that I wallow in were I to speak about the same things).

It's 2014 now and I'm 8 years late, but THAT IS the wonderful thing about writing being published and, for example, e-x-c-h-a-n-g-e-v-a-l-u-e-s, its giving others like me a no-time limit entry point. Very glad to have come across this!

9:51 AM  

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