FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
JORIE GRAHAM: When I was studying film in my twenties. It was just about 50 years ago—right after May 1968 in which I was involved. It was a very political and activist time. I was especially attracted to film editing, sound editing, and cinematography—which is where I thought the “politics” of the medium were visible or implicated. In fact it is where I learned that there is no border which is not shared between the political, the aesthetic and the formal. That beauty is political, and meaning is. The students in my class were a very talented group—all my classmates went on to make terrific films—so it was very stimulating. I was deeply drawn to the sensation, and meaning, and swiftness of the cinematic “image” and to what happened to it in the process of editing, where radical adjacencies appear to create new meanings. Many other events took place in my life, but I fell in love with that practice, the knowledge it yielded, and saw how I could undertake it without all the equipment and superstructure via the form of poems. I also happened to discover Blake, the TS Eliot of Prufrock and The Wasteland at the same time as I was studying Russian and French film techniques.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
JG: I’m not sure one ever “feels” one’s self a poet. One is a poet when one is writing a poem. Then one is someone who waits—in “negative capability” as Keats would have it. When I began writing poems I did it in secret, a private conversation with voices long gone—though of course strangely not “gone” at all. Still whispering, crying out, thinking aloud. When my work was first published it seemed to me incredibly unsettling that total strangers would be able to access my deepest inner life. I recall watching someone read an early book of mine at a certain distance from me in a public place and feeling totally uncovered, revealed. Thinking “why would I expose myself like that, why would I show so much”. It’s a strange feeling. One writes poetry for one’s self but also on behalf of others. One is a witness on behalf of others, for others. So it is always a hard economy, and remains one throughout one’s writing life. Or so I feel.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
JG: After being awarded it for my collection, PLACE, it’s immensely gratifying to be told an utterly new poem is worthy. It guides me in the making of an as yet unknown book. For the very reasons I gave above. A very private act of spirit and mind has reached-out to others and somehow spoken to them. Moved them in some way. It’s astonishing really. It’s what all our craft is in service of, of course, that being able to be profoundly in experience and yet able to make an action, a poem, that another, a stranger, would be able to traverse as well—arriving one hopes at the same wonder, or intimation, or at some approximation of it. That in black ink my love may still shine bright says Shakespeare. He really means it. Look at that image. The ink hasn’t even dried yet. That’s why it shines. He hasn’t even blotted it yet, and you are already hearing it. He feels it and you feel it. It’s a direct transmission. That’s the ambition and beauty of this art form.
FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
JG: The poem tries to take on board—emotionally—the situation we find ourselves in as a species, on a planet which is heading towards a potentially unsurvivable future. It imagines thinking back on a moment in this world as we still know it—reaching into the tree to pick the fruit—(obviously an act with mythic overtones)—and then thinking back on that moment from a “deep” future moment in which such an action, such blossoming and such fruiting, which we take for granted, are almost gone from human memory. It tries to understand what happens to that idea—that feeling—we think of as “history”. I have 14 collections of poetry, including PLACE, the book which won the Forward Prize. This poem is from a new book not yet fully conceived or completed.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
JG: A R Ammons and Wallace Stevens are very important to me, along with Gerald Manley Hopkins, Marianne Moore and TS Eliot. Among contemporary younger poets—in the US, Robyn Schiff, Timothy Donnelly, Brenda Shaughnessey, D A Powell, Carl Phillips, Forrest Gander, Anne Boyer and, in the UK, Alice Oswald, Keston Sutherland, Sean Bonney, Sarah Howe, Hannah Sullivan, Denise Riley, Sinéad Morrissey….it’s really such a rich field in the UK right now I would have to list so many names. There are interesting poets in other parts of the Anglophone world as well—in New Zealand for example. And young US new poets such as Danez Smith, Layli Long Soldier.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
JG: to keep believing in the future as well as the future of literature. To try to write poems which guide me towards that faith, and yet also poems which take the present moment on board without flinching and without total despair. I don’t believe we should hide from, or sweeten, the truth just because it’s discouraging. Poetry is an art form built to discover, unravel, examine and tackle hard truth. I actually think all truth is hard. A tall order, I know, but poetry is a powerful tool.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
JG: Read deeply in the history of what has been written in the English Language, and in its poetry, if you plan to use that astonishing language to think, feel and imagine in a poetic form which would resist the action of time.