Sarah Gridley is the author of three books of poetry: Weather Eye Open (2005) and Green is the Orator (2010), both published by the University of California Press, and Loom (2013), published by Omnidawn. She is an assistant professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Weather Eye Open, my first book of poems, was published in 2005, when I was 37. Pragmatically speaking, my first book changed my life by opening the door to an academic career. Goethe is said to have cautioned, “Be careful what you wish for in youth, because you will get it in middle life.” I am grateful for the opportunities that came with the book, but it is good to remember that (and speculate how) things might have turned out otherwise. If you let it, academia can seal you up in its own strange wordy world. I have always been drawn to other forms of work, mostly physical ones, and farming and gardening in particular. Currently I am satisfying a need to be more in the material world by taking a ceramics class (inspired by the writings of M.C. Richards, for whom clay and poetry were mutually explicating mediums).
I hope my work is evolving in the direction of greater openness, silence, and simplicity, but I know I have a long way yet to go. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called my work in Green is the Orator “always a bit of a challenge” and a recent PW reviewer of Loom said my language can be “showy” and “labored.” These assessments sting, which says they are probably hitting a mark, if not the mark. When I was working on my MFA thesis, one of my advisors wrote on the draft, “You don’t have to flash your trash so much, Gridley.” This is a really good point. Just because you can make what Dan Chiasson (in One Kind of Everything) helpfully calls filigreed language, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. That said, Dylan Thomas was my first love in poetry, and it is hard to expel the Celtic filigrees he put in my heart and lungs and ears. I just looked, and filigree comes from filum (thread) + granum (seed). A filigree is a grain-thread. This is another thing that maybe makes my language feel difficult: I took Latin for six years and am enamored of the idea Thoreau has of its tawny grammar (he pirates this from Spanish, grammatica parda) In this vision of language, words are not tools but living transplants, re-grounded in the page “with earth adhering to their roots.” I write poetry this way, with this desire for linguistic dirt. Does that make my work difficult? Maybe, but I’d prefer to think it makes it solemn, in the sense of ceremonial. Like any word ending in “mn”—hymn, damn, autumn, column, limn—the word solemn is a little spooky. The silent presence of the “n,” visible though inaudible, is a shade from another language, not alive, exactly, in English, but not quite vanished, either. Words are, as Emerson says, fossil poetry.
After the so-called “linguistic turn,” we are no longer supposed to think of language this way, as having anything natural (or essential) about it. Language is convention, arbitrary convention. Meaning slips kaleidoscopically through shifting signs. But as process theologian Catherine Keller suggests, we can appreciate and even process the intervention of postructuralist thought without having to abandon the idea of ground, without sealing ourselves up in text. In what she calls “eartheology,” ground is understood as something other than foundation or essence. Ground is understood as ground, i.e., as dirt, the “black, organic stuff of soil that gives birth to all life,” whose molecular structure exhibits “fractal self-similarity with no self-sameness.” “At every scale,” she writes in Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, “life is the story of complex emergence within a ground shot through with quantum indeterminacies and chaotic nonlinearities, composed of cosmic instabilities braided into tensely persistent orders…These orders can be called open-system stabilities.” That sounds difficult, but also exciting to me, and real to me. Ann Lauterbach recently published a wonderful book called The Given and the Chosen. In it she says that form emerges as a third term between Eros and Thanatos. I believe in a very earthy sense of composition and decomposition. I believe in worms, snakes, dragons, and other chthonic helpers.
I do not set out to make difficult poems but that is often the label attached to my work. People can get aggravated—even enraged—by poetry that is perceived to be purposively difficult. One reviewer on Amazon is very enraged by Green is the Orator: “This collection of poems, probably considered "difficult" by the author, is mostly the gibberish that seems to be in vogue in academic poetry circles… I know my academic friends will say good poetry doesn't have to have clear, concise meaning or even beautiful language if it's ‘experimental.’ To this I reply ‘Emperor Ashbery and his acolytes have no clothes.’” I am sorry to get someone so agitated and defensive about poetry. I do not imagine John Ashbery sets out to make people angry, either. Though I do not identify myself with Ashbery, or consider myself his “acolyte,” I do enjoy his work. As my colleague, Michael Clune, brilliantly argues in “’Whatever Charms is Alien: John Ashbery’s Everything,’” the poet’s effort is not to alienate, but to bring the alien into familiar orbits. Whether you like that effort or not, it is not done to pain or alienate anyone. It is experimental, yes, in the sense that it is trying to see what language can do and be. Can language bring the alien home? I admire someone who can work on that question. I guess I work on that question, too, but where “alien” takes on a theological orientation.
Difficulty is certainly not my intended effect. That said, I do not sit down to make poems for effects, good or bad. I do not make poems for approval. I sit down to make them as methods of inquiry and acts of awareness. At present I still have a skipping-stone brain, but I hope as I age and concentrate I will have more of a big gray boulder brain.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry was there in first words, first memories, first books. I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. I loved the sound of blueberries hitting the pail in Blueberries for Sal. I would come home from a school vocabulary lesson repeating the word lugubrious ad nauseam. Certain words were like tootsie rolls, taking up all of my sensory attention.
Poet Donald Hall invents three mythic characters, or tutelary spirits, to account for the psychic origins of our pleasure in poetic form: Goatfoot (a muscle pleasure, a delight in beats); Milktongue (a mouth pleasure, a pleasure in vowels and consonants); and Twinbird (the pleasure of match-mismatch, rhyme, image, metaphor). These characters were a vivid part of my childhood from as early as I can remember.
As a child I loved fiction, too, and nonfiction. I remember being very attached to a nonfiction book about an otter called Ring of Bright Water. I remember reading books chosen randomly from my parents’ or my grandmothers’ bookshelves. I came from a verbally rich home that encouraged me to read peripatetically. Early on, I don’t think there was any conscious discrimination among genres. And I think my love of poetry is still very much caught up in, cross-pollinated by, my love of fiction and nonfiction. I resist purist attitudes toward genre. Blessed are the flexible for they shall not get bent out of shape.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I am a slow writer, and a compulsive re-drafter. I keep a notebook whose entries then become starting points for translation. It’s transcription (from handwriting to computer typing), but it’s also translation. There is an interesting translation process that takes place between notebook-thinking and poem-thinking. I like that span, because it keeps the open-ended, the en plein air, in touch with the finding and making of form.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I am never working on a book from the beginning. I think that approach would be a disaster for me. Books are bullies. To let a book into the playground of a poem would be like asking for a black eye. The poem as a mode of inquiry, which is the only kind of poem I am able to write, would run for the hills if the book’s shadow cast itself across the playground. After a certain number of poems are written, after they have started to play together, as it were, then the book is allowed in. Then the book has lost its power to bully.
As to where the poems begins? In silence. In disequilibrium. In curiosity. In wonder. In praise. In superstition. In faith. In disbelief. In accusation. In solemnity. In improvisation. To quote Dylan Thomas:
I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: "I'd be a damn' fool if I didn't!" These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damn' fool if they weren't.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Because I myself prefer to meet poems on the page, in a space of solitude and with the opportunity for re-reading, spacing out, annotating, walking around, drinking ginger ale, sitting down, copying out, reading aloud, etc., I feel ambivalent about reading my poetry in a public setting where people are pretty much compelled to keep seated and pretend uninterrupted attention. For me, public readings feel like a certain kind of punishment fitting a certain kind of crime. The crime would be making material of introversion. The punishment would be requiring extroversion from an introvert.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I have a lot of theoretical concerns behind my writing, some of which may have already leaked out here in preceding answers. Besides literature, the two fields I raid regularly for theoretical frameworks are philosophy and religion. Theorists like Levinas and Bataille, who theorized often in the intersection of these fields, interest me a lot. William James is a persistent influence on my work. And feminist theory, particularly of an ecofeminist stripe, is hugely important to me. The current questions have to be ecological. I can’t see how they can be otherwise. They have to be political, whether you conceive of political in macro or micro forms.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think that depends on the writer. I think we need writers who can be public activists, who have the ability to be polemical without degrading poetry to propaganda, and I think we need writers whose gestures are not so explicitly political, who work to make language as humane as it is has the capacity to be, even in its smallest gestures.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love working with editors. It is such a privilege to have someone look at your work with such care and skill. I’ve had the good fortune to work closely with both Cal Bedient and Rusty Morrison, both of whom taught me things about my work I wasn’t prepared to see on my own. I love collaboration in general, and to my mind, working with an editor comes under that rubric.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“If you start something, finish it.” This is a piece of advice the man I love repeatedly gives to me when he sees me flitting from one activity to another and completing none of them. He is a stonemason. In his trade, this advice has obvious importance, and in mine line of work (what he calls “my trade”), it has importance, too. I think this is part of what I’m after when I talked earlier about skipping stone brain evolving into big gray boulder brain. I want to work on the virtues of slowness, quietness, and stick-to-it-ness.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Not easy! As my skipping stone brain metaphor suggests, I do not identify with discursive thinking. I am trying to be better about that, while also keeping in mind that maybe my mind is not made for that. I very much admire the discipline of my scholarly colleagues. Scholarly thinking and writing is an art form, too. Very recently I turned in a 20-page term paper for a Religious Studies course I took while on pre-tenure leave. It is always a great learning experience to write in critical prose as opposed to poetry. A spirit of inquiry energizes both forms of writing, but in channeling that energy they make different kinds of turns and gestures. I think it was Charles Olson who said poems should be more like essays and essays should be more like poems. An essay is a different animal, though, than critical prose. What I value and admire about scholars, which I hope will school the kind of poetry I write in the future, is the skepticism they exercise on their projects. They are always asking what they are contributing in relation to what has come before. They are always stepping into the conversation carefully, never with the assumption that they have free reign to blah blah blah. I like and admire this sense of the word, discipline. It reminds me of Quaker meeting.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I do not fit the model of a scheduled writer. My typical day begins with coffee (in spring and summer) and with tea (in fall and winter). After that, it’s fairly up in the air.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Walking is the great adventure, the first mediation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility. Out walking, one notices where there is food. And there are firsthand true stories of ‘Your ass is somebody else’s meal’—a blunt way of saying interdependence, interconnection, ‘ecology,’ on the level of what counts, also a teaching of mindfulness and preparedness.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I love this question! It reminds me of reading Remembrance of Things Past as an undergraduate. I think it is in The Road to Combray where Proust says something about “the lingering scent of invisible lilacs.” Maybe because of this passage and Whitman’s poem, lilacs betoken nostalgia for me. But nostalgia is different than home. Nostalgia is a home-pang, pain associated with a home that cannot be fully reclaimed. But I am at home right now and my home itself smells like daffodils. Spring is the season when I feel most at home, and daffodils communicate the mounting energy of spring with funny subtlety. They remind me of something James Dickey wrote, “Wild hope can always spring from tended strength.” Home should be a place of tended strength, and the daffodil, a bulb flower, feels like an emblem for that.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I think most of my books come from outside books. There is in fact an outside the text. There are classes in clay, there are paintings by Samuel Palmer, there are dinners with elders, there is mowing the grass, there is holding a cat who has just been lying in the sun, there are the voices of Sam Cooke, and Mama Cass, and Buddy Holly, there is mixing mortar, there is visiting a baby girl born last month on Shakespeare’s birthday, there are chives coming up, and conversations to be had. All of these things come into my work. Work, as Dylan Thomas suggests above, is an act of praise. The world is full of horrors and blessings. Work is a response to both, but it is a necessary cleaving, for me, to the thanksgiving side. What I call the Starbuck side. And I don’t mean a latte. I mean Starbuck in Moby Dick.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Build a tree house and sit in it.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, I have known occupations other than writing. I have worked on a produce farm, in an apple orchard, on the landscaping staff of a seaside hotel in Maine, in an insurance company, in a bakery and in a library. My occupations have been various. That’s what’s a little disorienting about being an academic at times.
If I could go back and do something else, I would go back and be an arborist. A really good tree doctor.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Some combination of accident and perseverance and capability and word-obsession and luck. I write when I get the chance. I do not think of myself in light of the identity we call “writer.” I do not assume it as a consistent or durable status. Every day I either write, or I don’t. Maybe I will go outside and rake leaves or plant something. Maybe I will make some time to talk with a friend who is having a problem. Maybe I will volunteer at a local park.
I do not put all my faith in writing. I have a lot of anxieties and skepticism about it, particularly when I attend writing conferences. When I stand back from writing it can too often seem like an occupation soaked in vanity, self-absorption, self-promotion, etc.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Film: Poetry (in Korean, 시)
20 - What are you currently working on?
A retaining wall. A religious studies term paper (just finished!). A sweater for my nephew. Ceramics. A vegetable garden. Piecing my first quilt. Being healthy. Being kind. Saying no when it is necessary. Patience. Poetry. Saying thank you. Starting things and finishing them.