Friday, September 18, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Lea Graham

Lea Graham’s first book of poems, Crushes, is forthcoming by No Tell Books in 2010. Her poems, solicited reviews, collaborations, translations and articles, have been published in journals such as Notre Dame Review, Sentence, Capilano Review, Shadow Train and American Letters & Commentary. Calendar Girls, her chapbook, was published in 2006 by above/ground press. She has a Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is Assistant Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She is a native of Northwest Arkansas.

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Well, one way the chapbook, Calendar Girls, changed my life was that it helped me get a full-time teaching job! More than that, though, it really did help me think about projects or threads that hold any kind of book together. So, in other words, it was kind of a precursor to my book that is about to come out next year, Crushes, (by No Tell Books) in that it helped me to do what I think of as walking the perimeter of an idea or set of concerns—something I associate with Emily Dickenson.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

There are days I’m still surprised that I am not a novelist or short story writer. Storytelling was such an important thing to be able to do when I was growing up in Arkansas (as Dennis Cooley recently wrote to me “as a good Protestant girl in one of those honky states”). It was like being a singer or being able to run farther and faster than anyone else. So I’m not really sure. I guess I really knew in college as I had a really good teacher in the poet, Wayne Zade. I remember running to his house one night in the rain to give him a poem I had written. His wife greeted me at the door, and I’m sure she thought I was mad, but she gave it to him. I went to a college that was in mid-Missouri so it’s not like this was seen as “stalker-ish” at the time, but I’m sure it wasn’t happening to him regularly that students were running to his house in a tear because of poetry. He was always gracious and encouraging with me. So sometimes I think it’s where and with whom you land and the nurturing that goes with it. I don’t know that I see myself as “confined to poetry,” but I will say that I do think that poetry as my primary genre has or will certainly mark everything else that I write.

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?
You know it works both ways. There are times that I think the best poems come out more or less whole. That’s not to say that I don’t edit or revise in part, but that the idea or the ambition of it has simmered long enough to be more or less fully realized so that I know what I’m after. However, that’s only true about a third of the time. I think time for me—as you know, having collaborated with me—is important. I’m a slow writer. I love note-taking everywhere I go and so lots of things come out of notes as well as the fact that I take notes on my poem drafts and will eventually dismantle them. Still, that’s real work and there’s a permission that has to happen first before I can move into what I really want for the poem.

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?
During graduate school I was certainly working on short pieces, but really since the chapbook, I’ve become the writer always working on some kind of collection.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I find readings to be strange because they call into conflict my public and private selves. I love meeting people and I think that I’m a born teacher—as I really enjoy teaching. Still, I’ve composed these poems in private, and while I send them off to my poet friends for feedback, I still am a little anxious about the way the language will be received. Part of this, too, is knowing that most audiences want what you read to them to somehow “be true.” There is oftentimes some expectation of autobiography that I’m always fretting over. Even if the events are true, it’s not the truth of “what happened” or where you were spiritually or mentally (or even more concrete things than those). There’s either “the lie that tells a truth” or just as often, “a truth that tells a lie.”

More importantly, however, I think that readings ask the writer/performer to do what seems near impossible to me: A good reading informs, entertains, and (at least for me) sends me into wanting to create something myself. That’s difficult to do for an audience who you may or, more likely, may not know. I hope that I inform and entertain. I also know it’s probably not only improbable to think that my language might be a vehicle that someone else could ride into their own art, but also arrogant. Still, I always try to talk to older or more experienced poets about how and why to give readings. The Maine poet, Wes McNair, once told me that a good reading has “an arc to it.” I try to figure out what I think that means every time I give a reading.
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?

Always for me the question of place is central. I still am trying to figure out how geography and all that goes along with it informs our language and music. Maybe this comes out of feeling like an “outsider” because of where I grew up—if that even exists anymore. I’m not sure. But even that I find so curious. How was it that my early associations of culture, art, and being a writer, in particular, were not with the place I was from? Place is so important, even if our notions of it are based out of misinformation or stereotypes. But besides all of that, as I travel around I still believe to a certain extent “change your geography, change your mind.”

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 don’t think of the “role of the writer” as monolithic or that there are any “should be’s” attached to it. I admire writers whose work is a confluence of questioning, celebratory, remembrance, etc. I do think that most artists are somehow on the periphery of the larger culture. It allows for a larger view, I suppose.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

The poet, Sherod Santos, told me when I was 22 years old that “if poetry was important to [me, that I would] get back to it.” I never forgot that all through my 20’s when I was working all kinds of jobs and writing poems on my own. I finally wrote him a few years ago to thank him for that advice because it had proven so true for me during all those years that my life seemed far from poetry in any public way. It turns out that the email I sent to him arrived after the last class he taught before retiring. So that advice seems to have somehow come full circle in its own grace.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I think getting into both creative and critical prose can be a kind of relief from poetry. Sometimes I need to live in language in a different way.

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 almost always write in the morning. I remember David Arnason telling me a few years ago when I was up in Winnipeg, “Save the best time for yourself.” I find that if I write in the morning, I have a kind of confidence about whatever else I’m doing that day. I try to write everyday—even if it’s just to do bits of revision on old poems. That doesn’t always happen, but it’s a goal of which I’m capable.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Well, I don’t like the way “inspiration” is used very much. Maybe it’s because I hear it as too much of an excuse (or lack of it) from my students, bless their hearts! What I do love about that word, however, is that it has to do with breath…what we breathe in and which goes back to place. As I’m running along the Hudson River this morning and breathing in the sweet grass and fishy stink of the river, that seems a kind of inspiration to write. But to really answer the question, I go to other poets, other texts, and art galleries to jumpstart myself. Other than that, I think smart conversations really help me. That’s why so many of my poems start out with something that someone tells me.

13 - What do you really want?

To learn to rock climb, to learn more languages, to experience another companero de alma, regular pilgrimages, and to laugh every day. In terms of writing, I just want to keep doing it. I want to keep being interested in the world and the writing, and to continue. I think getting better and having a sense of your own artistic power comes with practice and devotion. I am both practicing and devoted.

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?

All of the things you list influence me. Probably it’s visual art and nature that are the two most overt influences. I just got back from walking in Galicia and the beauty of that place is still hanging around my mind six weeks later. My brother, who is a scientist, believes that since we evolved within the natural world over such a long period of time, that there is something profoundly home-like for us when we go back into it. I don’t know how that plays out in scientific theories (I mean, I’m not really sure I feel more “at home” in the woods than I do down in Manhattan’s crowded Chinatown!), but I think there might be something to it. What I like while out in the natural world is the awareness of the simultaneity of being in your body and mind that I don’t get in my everyday life. I know my feet are hurting or that I’m thirsty; concurrently, I know I’m mulling over a memory or working out a thought. All of this stuff gets pulled into the work—alongside seeing artworks like Guernica for the first time, or each and every time I listen to Miles Davis version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” etc.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There’s just too many to name…but, I always love to go back to Frank O’Hara, Charles Wright and Denise Levertov. Another writer, who I sit with in wonder, is John Matthias. His work is so expansive, and learned and human.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Mostly, I just want to do more and better: more books, more genres, edit/publish, teach more, etc. Beyond that, travel for me is so important. I didn’t start really traveling until I was about 23 and I don’t plan on stopping. In fact, I think my travels have taken on a more adventurous turn recently, and I’d like to see where that takes me. And the writing.

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?

I can’t imagine not being a teacher, so I think that’s what I would have only been if I hadn’t started really writing. Still, there’s a part of me that thinks I would love to be a Classicist or a vineyard owner, or work for some NGO. I think anything that had something thoughtful and a dash romantic and meaningful about it would have appealed to me.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Maybe it’s because I had no opportunity to act or dance, and I couldn’t sing, play or paint so well? Or maybe it was because I wanted to enact what I was reading? I always tell my students that I grew up with the language and song of the Southern Baptist Church in my head, and perhaps I wanted to somehow replicate that without all of the dogmatism that seemed to go with it. Gosh, mostly I wanted to do something that didn’t depend on washing dishes or going to bed at a reasonable time.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently saw 500 Days of Summer. I’m not sure that it was great, but it was really interesting in its “reality vs. imagined projection.” Also, I just saw The Lives of Others which is a few years old, but helped me understand a bit of what artists endured in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall and think about the role of art in the world. I’m currently reading a book called Writers and Pilgrims by Donald Howard. It’s helping me to frame my own pilgrimage, understand those early travels to the Holy Land, and to think about how “travel itself is imaginative.”

20 - What are you currently working on?
Some poems that are too early to tell if they will be a book or not…. Also, I’m working on some scholarly pieces having to do with the Canadian (prairie) long poem and its intersection with Olson’s ideas of place. There are travel essays in the queue, and in particular one having to do with the Camino de Santiago Compostela.

1 comment:

Tom Degan said...

That's a book I'll be purchasing!


Tom Degan