Featured Poet Interview: Greg Grummer
A: Your poetry is difficult to define for the average critic. How would you define or describe your approach to poetry?
G: I read a lot of French Surrealists in my thirties, and I think that’s a jumping off point for me. I’m not a surrealist, myself, in the classic sense, in that I don’t use the standard surrealist practices to attempt to derail the conscious mind in favor of the unconscious mind. I don’t think that’s necessary. But I do try to not to take the first thing the conscious mind has to offer. Often, a line will come to me that has all the necessary ingredients in it. “I need desperately to be born again.” That line, with the slight oddness supplied by the desperation, is promising. I thought it, but I didn’t summon it. It just came to me. I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t really care. Perhaps the unconscious. But I’m not sure I believe in the unconscious. Anyway, I’m not going to talk, in the poem, about the standard Christian born again experience. But I’m going to work that territory. The line has a lot of psychic energy for me, and just having it in my head is provocative. So the first stage is to hold that line, and then see what comes. After I’ve written for a while, and the energy flags, then I go back and see what I’ve got. I revise quickly, maybe get the energy back again, and write some more. And then I let it sit for a while. A week, a month, a day. It all depends. Then I cut, add, turn the lens on the whole poem to see if there are directions I missed, etc. The process could take years, and then the poem sits in my computer, often for the rest of its life. So, technically, that’s my approach. Many people might not consider what I write poetry, as I have no ability to incorporate alliteration, rhyme, meter, any of the musical techniques that many feel constitute poetry, into my writing. A lot of the poetry I enjoy is translated, so the music is lost. What appeals to me is the thinking in the poem. How the mind works.
A: You mentioned other people’s definition of poetry. What defines poetry to you? If it’s not form and alliteration and meter, then what is it to Greg Grummer?
G: Not many people are going to like this definition, but…poetry is what is produced by poets. So, if a poet does something, and considers it a poem, by my definition it’s a poem. That seems to be the marketplace definition as well, although I don’t think many, including poets, publishers, and marketers of poetry, would put it like that. That then begs another question, like…who’s a poet. Well, hmmm. Poets generally read a lot of poetry, and love at least some poetry. Poets generally write poetry. So, if you’ve got someone who reads lots of poetry and loves poetry and is writing poetry, there’s an excellent chance you’ll have a poet. Nothing mystical about being a poet. And just because you’re a poet that doesn’t mean you’re writing good poetry. But if you hang around enough poets socially, on a day to day basis, and you yourself are a poet, you start to notice other things in common. So, I believe some people are just poets. Whether they were born that way or they turned themselves into poets at some point, I don’t know. I’ve noticed that some people are just plumbers, and some people are just real estate agents, etc. How did that happen? I don’t know. People are hesitant to label themselves poets, as if this is conferring something special on themselves. I don’t think that’s the case either. I’ve run into poets that aren’t necessarily special. But they are poets. It’s just a job.
A: What makes a good reader of poetry, in your opinion?
G: What makes a good reader of poetry? Well, I haven’t thought at all about that. I’ve thought about audience, but I haven’t thought of them as good or bad. Some people just love poetry, for whatever reason. So if they have a love for it, I’d consider them good readers of it. If they read it just because they think it’s something they should do, but it doesn’t do anything for them, I guess I might think of them as bad readers. But I doubt there are many people who fall into that category.
A: I’m sure some of our readers are not aware of the fact that you are our first featured poet to have a poetry award named after him. I understand that the Greg Grummer Poetry Award, given for years by Phoebe Journal, is named in your honor. How does one get a poetry award named in their honor?
G: Well, a good friend of mine, Jeff McDaniel, was editing Phoebe, the George Mason poetry and fiction publication. He wanted to have a poetry contest. I don’t know where he came up with the money for it, but he was an excellent editor. He made things happen. The opposite of me, I think. At any rate, he named the poetry competition The Greg Grummer Award. It made my mom really happy. It caused one of my comp students to think I was dead, as these awards are often named after departed folk. He saw me walking on campus one afternoon, about a year after the award had been established, and came up to me pale and excited. He said he read about the award, and thought I was dead. And here I was. My first and last resurrection. It’s the thing that probably gets me the most attention in the poetry world. I don’t fully know why my friend did it. I never really asked him. That’s interesting. I wonder why I never asked.
A: Aside from poetry, do you have any other projects you’re working on?
G: The only other project is my son Jack, which isn’t really my project, but I help him out on it when I can. He’s 7.5, and most of the stuff in him comes from his mom’s side of the family, so I’m hardly an expert on him. But every now and then I see something, a way I can be helpful, and so I interject myself into his scene. He’s working towards that time when, as he put it, he can, at the age of 18 “skeedaddle down the road.” I want his skeedaddling to be successful. This, presently, is more consuming then poetry, and, as I said, it’s not even my project.
A: Many of your titles are nearly poems unto themselves. How important are poem titles to you?
G: Yes, titles that are poems unto themselves is the most hopeful way I could look at them. Titles can do a lot of work. They can also lead you astray. It’s hard not to go with an excellent title, even if it’s misleading or just plain wrong. And that phenomenon can turn art into artifice quickly. But an excellent title can pull a poem back from the brink of insularity and open it up for a much wider audience. Titles have been extremely important to me. They have taught me what I’m talking about, on many occasions. I had written a whole series of poems that meant something to me, for instance, that seemed to be in my voice, about me, but that were filled with an inexplicable anger. On a personal level I could understand where the anger was coming from, but I wrote in such a way that an audience reading the poems wouldn’t have a clue. Then I started titling the poems “Cain this….” and “Cain that…” The characterization just seemed to work. And then I went through all the stuff I had lying around and found I had written some Eve poems, and some Adam poems, and even, some Abel poems. Had I set out to write in those personas, I would have been lost. I wouldn’t have known how to start. But, writing the poems before discovering their personas was perfect. It helped me to understand myself, and what I was writing about. Hopefully, it would help an audience gain access to material that was oblique, unobvious. This is also how I became very interested in Jung, if not an actual Jungian. With a strong title, a writer can be take some liberties in the body of the poem that might not otherwise be very satisfying. Of course, that sort of thing can take over. I spent years relabeling poems, giving them this persona and that persona. The last big run I had was in the political arena. I have poems about and in the voice of many of the last two decade’s notable political figures. It all made so much sense to me, when I looked at my work through that lens. It cut the insularity of my poems. But now, looking back, I wonder if it started to get too easy. The technique was starting to become a “technique,” a default mode, or, okay, let’s just say it, a cliché. I think that’s about run its course. Now, I have to come up with some other tunnel in.
A: Obviously the fall of Communism is a major theme in your work (at least in your titles). What role does politics play in your poetry?
G: Politics. I can get really emotional about politics. The left/right divide, and the heat generated on both sides, is something I think about. I don’t get it. It’s like two poles of a magnet. An ineluctable unattraction. I listen to a conservative commentator on the radio, or on TV, and my day is ruined. I could hear, what, maybe one or two sentences, and I’d be arguing in my head for the rest of the day. Exhausting myself. Getting my blood pressure up. The “me” that is in charge of all the others just looks at this “me,” the political reactionary “me”, and shakes his head. I don’t get it. It’s visceral. It’s in my dna. I don’t recall asking to be this way. So of course this has entered my poetry. I have a whole book of poems on the Fall Of Communism. I had a strange reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall. While of course it opened things up for a lot of people, well…I don’t know how to say this in a way that won’t be offensive, but, I was immediately nostalgic, in the soul-injured sense of the word, for the dialectic, for the struggle between capitalism and communism that the wall, and the soviet bloc symbolized. Obviously, there was great evil going on “behind” the iron curtain. I can’t adequately or sympathetically explain my reaction. That’s why I wrote a whole book about it, and still, I haven’t really “explained” it. And obviously the struggle between capitalism and some other alternative isn’t over. So, go figure my reaction. I have another book, or something that hangs together, at any rate, that I referred to earlier. A group of poems featuring poems about, and dramatic monologues by, many of the key political figures of the last two decades. Henry Kissinger, George Bush Jr., Hillary and Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, on and on. Again, the poems weren’t originally written with these personas in mind. The material came, and later I attached the personas to the poems when that helped the poetry “make sense.” I read poetry from Eastern Europe, and the sensibility seems familiar. I think I understand the tensions and issues underlying the genesis of the work. Maybe I’m kidding myself. How could I know if I’m right or not? But, if you want to understand my thinking about myself, that’s a helpful piece of information. I’m the kind of guy who flatters himself with the thought that he’s Eastern European in sentiment. I imagine that there’s this Eastern European poet somewhere, and I’ve discovered his work, and I’ve translated it and offered it as my own. That would explain my lack of consideration of meter, rhythm, assonance and consonance that is often difficult to move from one language to another. It’s a story that gives me comfort.
A: At what age, or at what point in your life, did you realize that you had been, as you put it, born a poet?
G: Well, I’m not sure I was born this way, but that’s possible. I think I was 24 or 25 when I took a poetry class. I’d wanted to take a fiction class, but it was full, so I took poetry instead. I thought a background in poetry would be good for writing fiction. Halfway through the class it was all over for me. I had no defenses against the poetry I was exposed to in the class. Doug Flaherty, the poet teaching the class, brought in these recordings of poets reading their work. James Dickey and Ann Sexton were two I remember specifically. Around this time someone slipped “The Red Wheelbarrow” into something I was drinking, and I could never make it back to who I was before. Perhaps I would have been a successful fiction writer. That would be funny. But, as the years have passed, I’ve begun to understand why I’m a poet and not something else. It has as much to do with my flaws as a person as my strengths. My inability to focus for long periods on a single project. My tendency to leap from one idea to another. If there’s any chance for these tendencies to be strengths as well as weaknesses, it’s in poetry. That’s not to say that a poem, since it’s short, is an easy thing to do quickly. But the idea of a poem doesn’t defeat me, like the idea of a novel, or even a short story, might.
A: A common critique of poetry is that it is far removed from the ordinary lives of most individuals in our society. Has has/does poetry, yours and that of others, impact your daily life?
G: I think that’s a critique rendered by someone who has mistaken “how people do poetry” with “poetry” itself. Poetry is, has always been, and probably always be, alive and well, moving freely among the folk, entering into and out of them with abandon. If certain people practicing poetry haven’t had as wide or powerful a reach as poetry itself, well, that’s not surprising. None of us are as great as the thing we’re participating in. We all have a relationship with poetry, but we, ourselves, are not poetry. So, yes, many of us have done poetry that’s not very accessible. I think there are quite a few reasons for that. One reason is that many of us are infected with the drive to produce something new, unique, to advance the forward progress of art itself. I think it has something to do with the ur-stories of the early part of the 20th century. The narrative of the artists who had breakthroughs their contemporaries couldn’t understand, that would only be understood years later. Many of us want to be a continuation of that story. The lesson we learned from the story is that it’s good to be “cutting edge.” That’s where the glory is. We don’t want to be the stodgy member of the academy who will be mocked by history for his or her obtuseness. That’s a powerful narrative, a seductive carrot. And yet it’s also exhausting. To constantly be new, on the forefront. Evenutally, one gets pushed out beyond what’s actually digestible, useful, and relevant. One becomes an embodiment of newness. If you’ve ever tried to talk to a baby, another embodiment of newness, you see that the flow of communication back and forth is strange. If you didn’t love your child because it’s your child, how much time would you spend talking to it? I think that’s where a lot of artists’ relationships have gotten to with respect to their audience. Their audience just can’t understand what they’re saying. And the artist isn’t their child, so after a few moments of ga ga goo goo, the audience wanders away to a football game, a department store, their iPod, a video game, something that actually gives them pleasure. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll notice that poetry is in all those things as well. So, what to do? Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s fine that what many consider “poetry” is losing more and more of its audience. If, as an individual poet, you actually care about the size of your audience, well, there are things you can do. Either those things come to you naturally, or you have to learn how to do them, or just let the audience go. But whatever your choice is, it will have no effect on poetry itself. Poetry is like any other force of nature. It affects you a lot more than you affect it. Poetry, mine especially, has impacted my daily life. Other people’s poetry has impacted my daily life as well. Poetry gets into me and shakes things up, causes these small revolutions in me. After a while the dust settles and I go back to who I was, but changed just a little bit. I’m basically an addict. And poetry is addicting. I like that feeling of being in revolt, of being mixed up. I settle back down, but then I want that feeling again. Poetry gives me a very special feeling I can’t get anywhere else. Being entered by The Red Wheelbarrow was like being entered by a drug. Who was it who said “You’ll know it’s poetry if it blows the top of your head off?” Well, for me and for many others, that’s not a metaphor, that’s a description.
A: Who are some of your favorite poets to read, and why? What do you look for in poetry as a reader?
G: My favorite poet is Cesar Vallejo. He has this unbelievable capacity for negative capability. At least, that’s how I read him. He can hold anger, despair, bitterness inside himself, and not give into it. Although he did die at a young age from a revolt from within. So possibly, if you want a romantic interpretation of that, the conflicts he contained destroyed him. And he’s so funny. I read him and I laugh, even though he’s talking about the saddest things. He speaks his poems as if he were talking to you, and it’s such enlightened talk. He speaks of the Spanish civil war and its horrors, and there’s no judgment. What has happened in Spain has to have made him angry, but the anger isn’t there. Just the sadness and the enlightened view of the human project. He’s expansive in the way Whitman is expansive. Whitman’s expansiveness is in conflating the I into the we and then back again. As Whitman conflates the I into the we, the we feels itself embraced and loved. Whitman teaches us to love ourselves. Vallejo teaches how to speak that love even under terrible circumstances. Of course, I’m reading him in translation. So, who knows who I’m really attracted to? But if you read Vallejo I think you’ll conclude, like me, that it would be hard to plant your voice on top of his, as a translator, and come out the other side with anything. It may just be a conceit on my part, but I believe I’m getting the real “him.” If such a thing exists. There are lots of other poets…Shakespeare, or course, the poet-killer. The good James Tate, but not the bad James Tate. Charles Simic, Whitman, Dickenson, Sexton, Plath, Jeff McDaniel, Cindy Goff, Evan Oakley, Edmond Jabes. I could call out specific poets on the TCP website that have had a great impact on me, but I’m not sure how to do that politically. And then there’s all the countless poets whose names I’ve forgotten that I encounter in periodicals and magazines. Before I went broke a couple years ago I had numerous subscriptions to mainstream periodicals like Poetry, American Poetry Review, etc. There are many excellent on-line poetry sites like TCP, and Now Culture. I’m pretty mainstream in my tastes. The more experimental stuff, although interesting, doesn’t engage my emotions, and so… I guess I look for engagement when I read poetry. I want to feel something as much as I want to think about something. Ideally, a good poem will do both. It will provoke me to feel and to think. When I’ve consumed it, I’ll feel like a better, smarter, more emotionally rich person. Or one of those things. Something. I have to feel like the poetry has moved me from here to somewhere else. As I’m infested with Platonism, I keep wanting to say that good poetry will move me “forward” or “ahead” or some such thing. But being an ant Platonist, I don’t really believe in looking at things that way–hierarchically. And yet I can’t help myself. A good poem makes me a better citizen. There, I’ve said it. Sorry all my brothers and sisters in the struggle against Plato. I know I’ve failed you, and myself.
A: Well Greg, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. Do you have any final thoughts to share before I present you with your honorary cup of celebratory featured poet hemlock?
G: Ah, over so soon. Guess I’ll have to go back to haranguing my wife. I am going to be in a book published by Pam O’Shaughnessy in an anthology put together by Pam in the next month or so. The name of the anthology hasn’t been finalized yet but will include Steve Parker, Beth Pittenger, Pam O’Shaughnessy, J.R. Pearson, Dave Mehler, William Fairbrother and myself. We each have about 40 pages in the book. I think it will be available from Amazon. Most certainly more info will be posted somewhere on TCP when all the details are finalized.
Thanks again for your questions Adam. It was a pleasure talking with you.
– interview by Adam Hughes