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 wor