PictureNon-Sensuous Similitude: An Interview with Kathleen Graber

Interview conducted by Robert Haines 

Kathleen Graber is the author of two collections of poetry, including The Eternal City which was a finalist for The National Book Award and The National Book Critics Circle Award, and the winner of The Library of Virginia Literary Award for Poetry. She is a recipient of fellowships from The Rona Jaffe Foundation, The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation.She has been a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and an Amy Lowell Travelling Scholar. She is the Director of Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. Recent poems have appeared in Best American Poetry (2012, 2014) and The Pushcart Anthology. New work is forthcoming in AGNI and The Literary Review.

The following interview was conducted over email during November and December of 2015

.Robert Haines: One thing I greatly admire about your work is its intertextuality. Each book is marked by your experiences as a reader and the responsibilities those experiences compel. Could you elaborate on the importance of reading to your process?

Kathleen Graber: Fortunately, my own life is fairly simple. Like everyone, I do, of course, have my share of sorrows and joys, but they are hardly extreme examples. For this reason, many of the events in my life are simply events of reading, encounters with texts. Sometimes when I do not know how to begin a poem or how to move forward a poem that has stalled on the page, I simply walk over to a bookshelf and open a book. I read until I catch myself thinking—until I catch my mind wrestling with the mind of someone else—and then I simply write down whatever thought it is that has popped into my head. This is, as you would guess, a pretty good way to begin; it is a less good way to make meaningful advancements. Though, because I believe that each person tends to have a somewhat predictable range of interests, it works out more often than one would think.

I find that reading not only helps me to generate my own thinking in response to texts, but that thinking about the experiences rendered in those texts helps me to place my own thoughts and my own experiences into meaningful contexts. This is true even, or especially, of the newspaper, for my own experiences (which understandably seem to me immense) are reduced considerably in their presumptive significances when placed beside global horrors and concerns. At the same time, I do not want to diminish the urgency of our daily lives, and that tension is often very productive. I am also a very, very slow reader, and I like to think that a part of that methodical pace is at times related to the real pleasure that I take in simply riding along the natural rhythms of the language and to the delight I take in the masterful execution of syntactical pacing. In this way, reading can also be a kind of ear training or retraining. Sometimes when I am tired of my own voice and, what seems to me, its predictable patterns, I intentionally read something I find to be outside my style in an effort to subtly insinuate something that feels different.

RH: One other primary concern of your work is collecting. This concern is evinced in the content—collectors appear: Cornell, Benjamin—as well as the ways in which the poems collect and gather their various vectors of discourse and thematic attention. Could you elaborate on the importance and nature of collecting for your work?

KG: I find the impulse to collect nearly irresistible. In The Eternal City, one of the concerns I hoped to explore was the relationship between the individual’s impulse to accumulate and the powerful political impulse toward empire. I think of Sontag saying of photography that it gives us a way to own the world. Walter Benjamin had a large postcard collection. Mine is much smaller. For my part, I have often only been able to resist the desire to collect the world by virtue of my limited finances and modest storage space.

But I am fascinated by collectors, and, frankly, I often think of certain kinds of lyric essays or some of the poems that I write as essentially curatorial. When I first saw a Joseph Cornell box, I realized that I was seeing a visual analog for the kind of poetry I aspired to write. It is very difficult to articulate exactly why the elements or ingredients in one of his boxes belong together, but they feel right. Sometimes it is a simple matter of shape and structure, but sometimes what is shared below the surface of the objects is also a kind of elusive connotation. Beyond their shared circular shapes, for instance, we probably would not think of the moon as a kind of soap bubble if Cornell did not invite that association by the arrangement of a star chart above a clay pipe, but once we conjure that idea, we may begin to recognize how, even as adults, the sight of an almost impossibly bright full moon still fills us with a childlike wonder that, like a soap bubble or a state of recaptured innocence, sadly cannot be sustained.

Benjamin called this connection between seemingly dislike things non-sensuous similitude, and that is the vein of inquiry that I try to work in my poems. It is not unrelated to psychoanalytic association, and Freud himself had an impressive collection of small antiquities. His approach is rooted in the metaphor of archaeology, the varied strata of experience. I think a contemporary neurologist might say that these vectors are actually synapses. To a certain extent, I may have an unusually ‘leapy’ mind by nature, but I have also tried to practice the kinds of horizontal thinking the poems sometimes enact.

RH: Could you say more about what you mean by “putting into practice the horizontal thinking the poems enact?” That is a very evocative idea.

KG: I think that a certain kind of inattention can be productive sometimes. That is a heavily qualified claim, right? I certainly do not want a surgeon’s mind wandering during a delicate procedure, and, similarly, I think that there are absolutely circumstances in which the only logical option is to roll up one’s sleeves and dig as deeply as possible into a relatively narrow domain of interest. This is the way many scholars work, for instance. But I have found that I will often catch myself thinking or remembering things that surprise me. I actually hear myself asking, “Why am I thinking about this? What train of thought landed me in this ghost town?” And rather than merely shrugging that question off, I have tried to develop a practice of actually attempting to answer it. I attempt to reconnect the dots between the series of impressions and thoughts.

When my mind wanders while I am reading or meditating, I don’t see that as a frustrating weakness but as an opportunity to observe what it is that is actually preoccupying me or to see what it is that the material at hand has called up for me either emotionally or intellectually. I have learned to trust that there is often a meaningful pathway between what I had been reading or thinking a moment ago and what I am suddenly seemingly incongruously thinking now. It is not random, though it may seem to be: there is rather a horizon line along which I am psychologically drifting. There are deep currents that are moving the mind in that direction, and the work of the poem is sometimes to articulate or at least to ponder those often hidden currents.

RH: We’ve mentioned Benjamin and Cornell, Freud and Sontag. What about poets? Who are the poets, both living and gone, who most nourish your work right now?

KG: I was most deeply influenced when I first started writing poems by Charles Wright and Larry Levis, and I think a reader can see those influences without a whole lot of effort! Levis became a master of the kind of horizontal thinking about which we have been talking, and Charles Wright was the first poet I read who I could see overtly thinking within his poems. There is a deep metaphysical preoccupation to his work. For similar reasons, I have always loved Robert Hass’s poems. I think that David Wojahn, my colleague at VCU, is similarly masterful in both his craft, which is meticulous, and his intellectual exploration. My first teacher was Stephen Dunn, and though his poems appear more contained, they are actually quite shifty in terms of the way they advance their thinking. Levis’s poems are far looser than the poems of any of the others. I love the movement from image to image, idea to idea in the poems of Terrance Hayes, Bob Hicok, Matthew Zapruder. I love the rigor of Linda Gregerson’s poems. But I also deeply admire poets whose work is really different from my own. I love Kevin Young’s poems, which are so smart in the ways they seek to marry joy, or even whimsy, with gravity and sorrow. I love the poems of Jack Gilbert and Jean Valentine.

RH: Recently, the literary world has become increasingly concerned with the politics of race and gender and, correspondingly, with equality of representation in literary magazines. How visible has this shift been to you? Has it impacted your writing or reading in a significant way?

KG: I am shamefully, or maybe fortunately, outside of the loop regarding the buzz of the literary world. You seem to be asking, however, about an issue that is one of the central issues facing the nation now. We are discovering that too much of the progress some of us may have thought that we had made with regard to equality was illusory, and we certainly live in a world that is polarized by fear and hate rather than united by empathy and compassion. I feel that American poetry is proving itself to be a body, a community, a chorus, in which many diverse voices can and do already exist, and this is, of course, what we want. It is the only healthy path forward for us as human beings and the only healthy path for our art. I don’t know any poet who would not praise the expansion of the modes of aesthetic expression as well as the expansion of the urgent experiences being expressed. I haven’t found that my poems are changing in response to this issue in particular. I do find that this current moment on Earth feels more insistent to me in many ways than it did when I was writing the poems that are now in The Eternal City, and, in that way, the pressing concerns of the here and now are more evident in the new poems than they were in the earlier poems.

RH: Alongside one’s response to such insistence and urgency, there is also the unfortunate pressure—especially in academia—to advance one’s career as a writer. How does one maintain perspective when trying to balance the (seemingly) competing demands of (1) one’s craft and (2) the imperative to capitalize on one’s craft? Any advice for those who find this balancing act troubling?

KG: I think that it is very hard to strike a balance, and I say that as a person who is actually neither interested in nor any good at either self-promotion or networking. The issue is that it is surprisingly costly to live even modestly. I know that for me the desire to become financially secure enough to write without worry has at times ironically resulted in a life in which I did not actually have any time to write at all! And, of course, it is the case that if one has an academic job, there is always an expectation of a certain level of continued literary production. I think that for the most part the writers I know would continue to write regardless, but even the word ‘production’ can sometimes seem like a slippery slope. I wish I had good advice. I wish that I could take the advice I sometimes give! I have heard myself say