An interview with Kathleen Graber

Rachel Mannheimer, issue 42

Kathleen Graber, a professor in the creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, grew up in Wildwood, New Jersey and earned her MFA at NYU. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Correspondence (Saturnalia Books, 2006) and The Eternal City (Princeton University Press, 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the William Carlos Williams Award. When we corresponded in April, she was just finishing a new manuscript.

The first time I encountered Graber’s work, it was like discovering the model for my ideal poem. This wasn’t exactly coincidence; I had sought out her books on the wise personal recommendation of Catherine Barnett. In turn, I started recommending them indiscriminately to everyone I met. Graber’s poems are the work of a singular mind. They would seem to show the poet’s thinking, the mechanism behind them—and yet, by the end, they have achieved a bewildering alchemy. How does she do it? It may be that they provide no model at all. Still, I was delighted when Graber agreed to take some time away from advising MFA theses to answer a few questions for Washington Square Review.

Washington Square Review: You completed your MFA here at NYU and published your first book fairly late in life. Was poetry part of your life before that, something private? Or was it indeed a later discovery? Can you speak a little about how you came to it, your early influences?

Kathleen Graber: I was a high-school and middle-school English teacher in southern New Jersey, and I had, at best, a pretty perfunctory knowledge of poetry—I was familiar with the greatest hits from the typical survey textbooks. I really knew nothing at all about contemporary poetry. When a colleague had a last minute emergency, she asked me to escort her students to the Dodge Poetry Festival. I sat in the audience and thought, “Huh. So that’s poetry. I want to learn to do that!”

I started out going to small writing workshops held in libraries or local centers for the arts and reading books on how to write poems. I happened to live in a rural area that was blessed with a really fabulous writing community that was led and held together by Peter Murphy, who was a teacher at Atlantic City High School at that time. Eventually, Stephen Dunn allowed me to sit in on his undergraduate workshops as a non-matriculated student. I sat in with him every semester for two years before I applied to NYU. I was initially on the waitlist. When someone declined, I miraculously got in!

I had been very inspired at the Dodge Festival by Mark Doty’s reading, and I still admire the beauty of his work as well as its emotional range and intellectual depth. I have been influenced (perhaps too obviously) by the work of Charles Wright, Larry Levis, and Linda Gregerson. But there are so many poets from whom I have learned and continue to learn.

Was your first book mostly written in the program?

Only six poems from my MFA thesis are in my first book. It took me a couple of years to really process all that I had learned during my time as a student.

And do you think being a bit older gave you a different perspective on the timeline of success, or a different relationship to poetic ambition?

Setting out, I did not have a great deal of ambition in the conventional sense. I really didn’t expect to ever publish a book when I entered the program. I wanted to teach basic writing at the community college near my hometown, and I thought that the MFA was a credential that might enable me to do that. I was thrilled when my first manuscript found a home, but I have to say that generally very little happens when a first collection comes into the world. At least very little happened when my first book came out. In hindsight, I believe that that broad space of time in which nothing was happening was actually a tremendous gift because it allowed me many years in which I was able to simply write poems with only some “ideal reader” in mind. I did not feel any pressure at all to concern myself with anything like “my poetic career.” It was honestly more than a little destabilizing to have had The Eternal City garner the attention that it did. I feel very fortunate, and I still find it surprising. Who would think that a collection of poems circling around the meditations of the ancient philosopher Marcus Aurelius would interest anyone?

As a teacher, how do you advise students anxious about building careers?

I advise my students to focus as much as possible simply on writing the best poem that they are capable of writing at that moment and to think in general about what their goals are aesthetically. Not goals in terms of external recognition but rather what are they hoping their poems will do, what effects do they intend for them to have on a reader. I encourage them to be aesthetically self-reflective while also being open to experimentation and mystery. I don’t encourage them to conceive of a collection or to view their thesis as a draft of a publishable manuscript. I like to say that at best they might walk away with a blueprint or a map.

My advisor, Meghan O’Rourke, has said something similar: that it’s perhaps ideal to leave the MFA with a sense of the work ahead of you. I’d love to hear more about your teaching—what have you learned from it, and from your students at VCU?

I have learned that there are so many ways to learn to write poetry! And so many kinds of surprising and successful poems! My students are very inspiring to me. In attempting to explain to them what I notice about their work, I am forced again and again to find language for aspects of writing and poetry that I have never had to articulate before. It is always a fresh start, as though each poem invites us to discover poetry anew, to come at the issues of craft in new ways, to fashion new ideas about what poems can do, and to find new ways of saying all of this. My students are always challenging my assumptions or revealing assumptions that I did not know I had. Looking at their work pushes my own aesthetic forward.

One thing I admire about your poems is the way they pull disparate texts or events into conversation, make them cohere and create a sense of order and meaning. And this is satisfying because that’s not how we usually experience the world! But I’m curious about your writing process, when and how this coherence happens. Do you tend to draw connections on the page, during the act of writing? Or, for the duration of the writing of a poem, are you more alert in the world, or in your reading, to what might fit into them?

Both. As I have become more practiced at associative thinking, or at least more comfortable with the feeling of being completely lost, more does seem to spontaneously occur to me in the moment of composition. I have become more willing in the act of the writing to “leap” from one thing to the next. Of course, in revision, it is sometimes necessary to set down some foundation or clues that make these leaps feel slightly more coherent.

A lot of this has been simply learning to trust the unconscious associative capacity of the mind when we allow it to relax into its productive wanderings, its broad capacity for recognizing how seemingly unrelated things correspond. Walter Benjamin was fascinated with the idea of the flâneur, the wanderer, and I like to think of that as one possible metaphor for how one kind of poiesis might occur. I also know that once I get a draft down on the page, it haunts me, and I do begin to see the world and other texts through its particular lens. That seems to enable me to stumble on connections I would not otherwise make. On the other hand, I half-believe that all things are related to all other things, and if we put any two or three random things side by side, we will find something to say about the energy that is generated merely by their proximity to one another.

I love that. And I wonder if it relates to your frequent use of epigraphs. You’re able to quote from so many sources within the poems themselves—how does the epigraph function differently?

I love the strategies that epigraphs provide. I see it as an opportunity for the poem to still somehow hold more! Often one of my drafts will feel as though it is full to bursting. The poem will simply collapse if I try to add another citation or thought or image. But… the epigraph, like one of those long titles from Richard Hugo or James Wright, can still do some additional work that is often meta-textual. I like best the epigraphs that seem to do some conceptual work. I like it when it is not immediately obvious why they are there.

Sometimes, of course, they are simply necessary in order to convey factual information that the poem could not digest and provide in any elegant way. That failure on the part of the poem to elegantly render or incorporate a fact is really simply the failure of the poet, but when I feel the reader needs information that I cannot convey sufficiently within the body of the poem, I know that I always have that little space below the title!  (And also the notes in the back of the book. Yikes.)

Both of your books contend with a great amount of loss. Can you speak to how grief and loss might shape a poem—or shape one’s thinking? How it might affect time in the poem?It is true that the poems are heavy with grief and loss. In fact, given my own experiences, I suspect that in the end for most of us—assuming we live long enough—grief will be one of our central emotional experiences. I have heard some poets say that they had to wait many years to be able to write a specific elegy or to have achieved enough distance from their sorrow to be able to contain it and represent it adequately in a poem. I certainly understand that. Grief (powerful emotion of any sort) is very difficult to shape, and it can overwhelm the delicate balance between a poem’s emotional valance, its narratives or image systems, and the work of the intellect.

It has always been important for me to find a way to present emotion in a way that feels fair or safe to the reader. It is also very important to me to represent my own sadness or suffering within a larger context which puts it in perspective. My grief is largely of the garden variety. Most of us will lose our parents, a sibling, a marriage. One has to be careful, I think, not to equate these existential probabilities with the unconscionable suffering that arises from the many brutalities humans continually perpetrate on one another globally. These precautions are simply part of my own set of personal aesthetic values; another poet might not feel this sort of obligation at all. I am not interested, however, in subjecting a reader to a gesture that might feel unaware of its own (can we call it unethical?) sentimentality or melodrama.

That said, sometimes it requires time to be able to see one’s own experiences and losses with the necessary perspective. I think about Jack Gilbert’s poems in The Great Fires. There are a few poems in which he, or the speaker, seems to be referring to himself in the third person, as “the man.” This is the case in “Michiko Dead,” for instance. That is a poem that I do not think could exist or succeed in the first person. Its emotional freight demands the distance that the shift in point of view provides.

Regarding “time”… I think that you may be asking about how or why a poet might move around in time in a poem that attempts to reckon with a profound loss. Shifting through time or moving across time allows the poet to stand very close to her grief in a moment while it also affords a clear means of escape from it if it begins to overwhelm the possibilities or limitations of craft. Moving in time also gives the poet access to other moments which might responsibly and authentically throw this particular grief or pain into perspective. In this way, a poet can locate the “now” of the poem in a future or a past from which the central emotional loss can then be approached obliquely—so that profound moments of loss can be rendered in a tense that signals to a reader a kind of emotional safety. The tense might then provide, at the very least, the appearance of some remove, some perspective, some evidence that the loss has been or will be navigated, processed, endured.

That’s a beautiful idea. Speaking of remove and perspective… While you were writing The Eternal City, you were the recipient of the Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship, a grant that allows for a full year of travel—with the stipulation that you cannot return to the U.S. during that time! The book has poems both home and abroad—what is the difference, do you think, between a “home poem” and an “abroad poem”? 

For me, “home poems” have more material immediately available to them—more texts, more familiar things. They are very much about that abundance of possessions and even about overtly trying to shed them. If there is a sense of dislocation in them, it is often an emotional or intellectual dislocation, though the first third of the book was written while I was on another fellowship at Princeton. Hence, again, in those poems, I think there may be a subtle sense of being geographically uprooted, though Princeton is hardly a foreign land. In the “abroad poems,” I think the landscapes are often foregrounded, as is the speaker’s sense of alienation. I would sometimes go days without speaking to anyone at all. It was a challenge to find books to read in English. This was before Kindle or other e-readers. Streaming services purchased in the US could not be used in Europe. In many spots I did not have Internet access at all, or only very limited access. Hence, I think those poems are extremely interior, progressively so.

This idea of “home poems” being about possessions connects, I think, to another interview in this issue, with Tommy Pico. His new book is called Junk. What would you say is the place of “junk” in poetry?

I happen to have a very complicated relationship to objects. I love junk. I really love weird old things of all sorts. If I did not really work to keep my acquisitive impulses in check, my home would be unbearably overcrowded with stuff. I really envy every natural minimalist out there!  So… traveling on the Lowell was quite psychologically challenging for me in a way that I did not expect. I felt bereft of things! I lived for a year out of one large suitcase. By the end, half of it was taken up by a few books, a frying pan, a good kitchen knife, a French press, a group of small “talismanic objects” I had accumulated for my desk (wherever that would be), as I came to realize that there are some things that really are essential and cannot be left to chance! I am a very domestic person. This was one of the discoveries of the Lowell. I also felt that this desire to hold things, to possess them, buy them, cherish them, to have some exclusive right to them, was an analog for imperialism, which is one of the themes not very far below the surface in that book.

The poems in The Eternal City are generally more narrative than in Correspondence. Has that narrative urge continued in your work? What are you working on now?

I am in the very final stages of completing (finally) a new collection of poems that I hope to submit for consideration in a week or two. That book is very unwieldy, I fear, as it covers a long stretch of time. I have actually been thinking quite consciously about the role of narrative devices or gestures in my poems. At some point while I was writing The Eternal City, it occurred to me that the more associative a poem becomes, the more urgently its reader may need a narrative thread. This thread— which can be as tiny as providing the reader with the situation in which the poem’s central thinking first came up—generously offers a reader a toehold, some sense of solid ground. My poems are sometimes called “essayistic.” The narrative is often in the poem in order to more clearly establish why the ideas or feelings in the poem are percolating and also why they might not be as esoteric as they seem. I hope that makes sense. The new collection has many long poems with narrative moments or aspects in them, but I am not certain that the overarching narrative of almost a decade is clear or necessary. That is the issue with which I am currently wrestling. I think that there are also some poems here that are far more lyrical and much stranger than anything I have written before. The dreamscape, or the imagined space, feels more important to this book.

That’s exactly what I was hoping you would say—that there might be a new book soon! And for the wait, I’ll ask—what have you read lately that you’ve loved, poetry or otherwise?

I actually teach a class in freshman composition to honors students, and we have been thinking a lot about photography. It has been so rewarding to revisit the seminal texts by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, which I love. I am also really excited by Teju Cole’s essays and his mixed-media book Blind Spot. I have been reading Geoff Dyer as well.

We have a reading prize at VCU that honors Larry Levis; it recognizes a first or second book published each year. I have the stack of this year’s finalists on my desk right now, and I am looking forward to reading those. Last year’s winner was Solmaz Sharif. I think Look is terrific. In recent years, we have given the award Rickey Laurentiis, Sandra Lim, and Roger Reeves. I want to praise their poems. I am always inspired by the writing of my colleagues, and I think David Wojahn’s most recent book, For the Scribe, is nothing less than extraordinary. I was so happy to see Frank Bidart’s collected poems honored with year. I have loved his poems for a long time. I had amazing classmates at NYU: Greg Pardlo and Ada Limón are only two of them. Woohoo!