from the Fall 2007 issue
The Frank Enthusiast:
An Interview with Linda Gregerson
Celebrated poet and scholar Linda Gregerson is the author of four books of poems and two books of criticism. Her 2002 book, Waterborne, received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; her most recent, Magnetic North, was published earlier this year by Houghton Mifflin. Her other honors include Poetry’s Levinson Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches American poetry and Renaissance literature at the University of Michigan, where she is a member of the MFA in Creative Writing faculty.
This interview was conducted by Sara Hoover and Michaelean Ferguson and edited by Lee Griffith as part of the 2006/2007 River City Writers Series at the University of Memphis.
River City Writers Series: As an editor at The Atlantic Monthly for six years, you read 60,000 yearly submissions. How did it inform your own work?
Linda Gregerson: I don’t know that it had direct influence on the way I write, but it certainly was a fabulous experience of reading. A poem came in once that contained something I longed to steal. I thought it was not successful overall, but it ended spectacularly. The speaker was making a concession at the end of an argument and said something like, “Okay, he wasn’t very interesting, I’ll give you that. I gave you that before.” And I thought, Goddamn, that is just a fantastic ending! “I’ll give you that. I gave you that before.” That’s a dynamite ending to a poem I have to spend the rest of my life evading because it would be too shameless to steal it.
It was astonishing that The Atlantic was willing to pay anyone at all (although it was not a princely sum) to go through that much of a slush pile. I mean, there is not a magazine in America that couldn’t get by on solicitations alone. The Atlantic published maybe twenty-four poems a year. The odds were long. Of course, there were poems that were written by established people that had to be passed on to the editor. Then there were poems that didn’t have to be passed on and were of a quality that allowed them to be read quickly. And there were these wonderful poems in between: compelling submissions by people we’d never heard of, whose poems we got to lavish time on and got to respond to with letters of encouragement and editorial suggestions. I was able to develop a sense of the spectrum of American poetry—what was being worked on—and that was wonderful.
RCWS: Of your writing you’ve said: “It is important to start with different kinds of promptings because the yield, the shape that follows, will tend to vary with the launch.” Could you give an example of how that has happened in one of your poems?
Linda Gregerson: “Father Mercy, Mother Tongue” begins with this pronouncement by Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, a governor of Texas in the 1920’s. She was a force for a great deal of progressive development, but on the matter of language in the schools she pronounced, “If the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ, it is good enough for the schoolchildren of Texas.” There is nothing I could say that wouldn’t be unspeakably drab by comparison, so I looked for a way to get the poem playful and rakish enough. I had to triangulate it, to invent speakers who could respond with words worthier than mine. I needed to let other voices in. I thought, What would Randy Newman say? To me, he is the artist who most wonderfully accommodates material like that. So I lied. I wrote, “Which is why, said the man at the piano, I / will always love America: the pure / products / of the Reformation go a little crazy here.” And doing this turned me to a terrain where I really do love America, and love it as deeply for what we get wrong as for what we get right.
I liked the governor’s language not because I could condescend to the speaker and the set of attitudes behind her statement. No, the self-congratulatory gesture of, Look how ridiculous someone else is, is an immensely inert one, and it does not make for good poetry. It doesn’t make for good thinking. It doesn’t make for good human life. So I wanted to use the language for the comedy and raucousness, and the incitement, but then also to find a place where I could write a love letter to this country.
RCWS: Your Waterborne poem “The Day-Breaking If Not the Full Sun Shining on the Progresse of the Gospel in New-England” concerns John Eliot’s pamphlets about the Algonquians. Your scholarly work also covers that same topic. How do your scholarly work and your poetry inform each other?
Gregerson: When I came upon these magnificent passages in Eliot’s pamphlet, I was deeply torn as to whether I was going to move in here and do some analytical work or just steal this stuff for poetry. It was a great cognitive breakthrough for me when I thought, I’ll do both. I’ll use it twice. These materials were promotional pamphlets published in London during the mid-seventeenth century Interregnum that were trying to drum up support for a mission to the Algonquian Indians in Massachusetts. By way of evidence for the progress already made, minister John Eliot would transcribe what he said were questions that the Indians had asked in the course of his teaching. These pamphlets have spectacular titles like “The Day-Breaking If Not the Full Sun Shining on the Progresse of the Gospel in New-England.” And the questions are amazing because they sound like nothing so much as a radical critique of Christianity. They sound trenchant in their skepticism, yet Eliot was using them as evidence of his progress in the spiritual conversion of the Indians.
The scholarly work and the poetry work are foundationally different things, but one is a methodological escape from the other. It’s good and necessary for my scholarship to siphon off other kinds of thinking and associational work that would burden it—work that would make it too belletristic, too idiosyncratic, too self–indulgent. Similarly, there is a kind of discursive consistency, argumentation, and linearity of thought with which I should not burden the poems, and I can siphon those off into the scholarly project. So they serve one another as much by what they don’t have in common as by the fact that I’m stealing from the same source material.
There’s also a lot of refreshment for me in being able to do the commute. I get excited about material that exceeds my capacity to manage it. I love the texture of Eliot’s language as well as his preposterously difficult project. He’s trying to convert to a text-based religion a population of people who have no written language or tradition of the text. Those things are so compelling that I want to somehow contemplate them from as many different directions as I can.
RCWS: In the past, you’ve mentioned how interesting it is to learn from Milton’s use of syntax and his use of precise detail and observation. Could you talk about that and what one might learn from Milton in terms of imitation and avoidance?
Gregerson: The point about syntax is not remotely to recommend direct imitation, which would be a very foolish and self-destructive way to go, but simply to note and study the sparkling, tonic rigor of Milton’s sentence making. And the negotiated tension between lineation and units of syntax, which I think is the way lyric poems for the most part proceed. There is a negotiated concordance and oftentimes an opposition between syntax and poetic line. And the variety, it’s just exhilarating! There’s also the rich, devout subservience to material reality that is registered in Paradise Lost, especially those portions set in Eden. For example, there’s the description of the sixth day of creation when Raphael is talking about the earth whelping the lion who’s leaping out of the earth with his front paws and dragging his hindquarters after, and the stag, with its magisterial antlers coming up full-blown out of the earth.
In Milton’s context, doing justice to the creation has a very specific theological place and it was understood quite explicitly as an act of praise. In Milton’s time the faithful thought that, though God is not available to us face to face, he has left in his stead two books: the book of scripture and the book of creation, the book of nature. That no longer operates as an officially held doctrine for much of the secular world, but I think one needn’t subscribe to doctrine of any particular order to feel that there is something we owe to the world we’ve been given and in which we are transients. Those of us who are writers can turn that act of attention into the assignment of transcription.
RCWS: What are some other differences between contemporary poetry and Renaissance-era poetry?
Gregerson: A huge difference between Renaissance and contemporary poetry involves the circumstances in which it is written. Universities were not a source of patronage or shelter for poets in the Renaissance. People of learning and leisure wrote sonnets or translated Psalms; courtiers were expected to be able to pen a poem of praise. But poetry was practiced alongside dozens of other life activities: Sidney was trying to angle his ways into foreign policy-making; Shakespeare was sharing responsibility for a professional acting company; Raleigh was sailing halfway round the world to found a colony. The reciprocal infiltration of different areas of life is something that is very good for poetry and something that certainly my students are beginning to think about very interestingly.
We may see a return to some of this breadth. The economic realities are such that not all poets are going to be able to pay the rent by teaching in universities. On the one hand, that’s difficult because there seems to be such a congenial fit between reading and writing and teaching. On the other hand, it means we’re forced to infiltrate other realms of social life. That’s very good for poetry because it thrives on the textures and specificities of every sort of activity. It can record such activity not just as subject matter, but as method, as cadence.
We live in an incredibly rich time for different aesthetic contours, methods, and modes in which lyric action and lyric thinking are taking place. American poets are striding in as though they owned the place, moving through all kinds of terrains. But certainly we have a way to go. We have been very suspicious in this country about the relationship between poetry and politics, and we’re suspicious for real reasons. Preaching to the converted and waving the flag of one’s own virtuous thoughts is not very interesting. So, except for a select few who sought to practice what we’ve come to call the “poetry of witness,” most American poets fled from the political for most of the twentieth century. But an increasing number are beginning to search again for meaningful ways to think politically within the lyric. The lyric is properly much larger than the self and the self’s local concerns. Of course, it behooves us to approach any social or political realm—especially the realm of other people’s suffering—with a great deal of caution and self-scrutiny. But it’s what we need to be doing
RCWS: Do poets have a responsibility to their readers, and if so, what is it?
Gregerson: Yes, a thousand times. Responsibility has many dimensions. I find myself talking a lot about rhetorical contract, and I’m working on a book that I’m going to call The Social Life of Poems. It’s actually about the opportunities for meaning and resonance in the lyric poem, but also the strictures and responsibilities that are at stake in these contracts of expectation. They can be as concrete as syntax. If I begin thus, with a dependent clause, the contract of expectation dictates that there is going to be something that follows. I may wish to pull the rug out. I may set up the expectation in order to subvert it. But I am inviting the reader to expect a main clause, and there are responsibilities that follow. I can’t just say, Ah, I got bored with that. I have to realize that either I am following through or I am using that momentum to do something else.
Also, one has the responsibility to be as legible as possible. The richest and most allusive mindfulness can take place in a poem – we all aspire to such things – and they depend on legibility. One doesn’t always have the option of complete transparency—indeed I would say almost never—but I think it’s very much the responsibility of poets to be as clear as can be.
If the poem involves certain kinds of difficulty—difficulty of allusion or language, or abstract thought, some ethical challenge that you know is very hard to meet —then it is good for both the poem and the reader if the poet finds ways to make that porous. She can interrupt the surface periodically, or she can interpolate an easier-to-grasp touchstone, a vocal or narrative touchstone, for example.
There are other kinds of invitational strategies in poems, all kinds of ways we can signal that something is at stake. Some gestures suggest the poet is using an autobiographical prompt and has an experiential stake in the poem’s subject. Of course poets can lie; they can use such gestures independent of the literal truth, but it ought to be in the service of a more important truth: that’s the ethical responsibility entailed in such gestures. One invites the reader to construe an emotional, thinking being behind the poem, one who is in the world with all the constrictions and sorrows and joys that involves. I don’t think one should do that frivolously.
RCWS: What about ethical responsibility to the subject matter?
Gregerson: It’s a huge issue. If one uses material taken from life—and which of us doesn’t?—then the ethical issues are very complicated because one is taking proprietary liberty with things that don’t in the first instance belong to the self. One doesn’t have ownership rights over most of what one uses, even if it’s autobiography, because we don’t lead our lives alone in the world. We lead our lives among other people, and they don’t get to vote about whether they’re going to appear in our poems. Well, let me revise that. If you find yourself writing in a way that uses someone else’s material, especially suffering, I think there actually are times in which they get veto power. They don’t get veto power over whether you write it. But there are times they ought to get veto power over whether you publish it. Period.
The other much more sweeping stricture, however, takes place during the writing. That’s self-scrutiny, which is as rigorous as conforming to rhyme scheme and meter. Self-scrutiny should be felt syllable by syllable, to ensure one is appropriately honoring the material. Is the poem submitting to the material’s strictures and necessities rather than using the material in some cavalier way for local color? These are the discoveries you don’t make in advance, and you don’t generalize afterwards. You don’t go back and fix such self-scrutiny and revelation with certain kinds of revisions. You feel it as pressure, syllable by syllable, as you work on things. Because there are ten thousand ways of doing something cheaply, something shabbily, something that is exploitive, for every one way to do it right.
RCWS: You’ve defined your own poetry as pairing “maximum consequence with minimal gesture.” Can you expand on that?
Gregerson: I hope I didn’t actually claim to have accomplished such a thing; I meant to describe what is an aspiration for all poetry. Lyric poetry is the genre of compression, and I think there are two formal continuities that link lyric poems that may look very different on the surface. One is syntax and the other is distillation. Distillation is the wish to have maximum consequence per cubic inch. I would never say I achieve it, but the pressure of that wish is one that I find very liberating. It enables me to work locally. It enables me to slow down time, to inhabit a present tense more richly than I can in my normal, discombobulated, clamorous life. It allows me to generate some margin of silence within which I can think and put pieces of language and pieces of apprehension together in faceted abutment. The other continuity in lyric poetry, syntax, is an architecture that generates temporal momentum. It organizes ongoing expectation. It is there whether you are talking about the sonnet or the latest nonce form invented last evening after we all went home.
RCWS: You acted in the KRAKEN Theater Company, and I believe you did improv as well as traditional theater. How has that training influenced your poetry?
Gregerson: Hugely. It influences everything that I do. The theater was the first place I learned how to think. I try to build into the poem the kind of multiplicity that I first learned about as a performer. I try to find ways in which the poem can be porous to other voices, other insights, other impulses. I look for ways in which it can allow itself to be disrupted. It is a path of discovery that should leave its trace on the poem.
Theater work is irreducibly collaborative, and there’s nothing like the exhilaration of those moments when one is doing one’s very best work with an amazing collection of people. It’s almost compensation for existential solitude. By contrast, the poet is perpetually seeking a little space of her own in which to work. It’s much more controlled. Solitude in many ways is the air it breathes. And there are delights about that as well, but for me, also always a kind of sorrow.
RCWS: Do you listen to music when you write, or when you’re near to writing? Does music intersect with your writing at all?
Gregerson: I can’t allow the world to come at me through my ears when I write. I don’t know how people do that. I need to hear the cadence of language and only that. I spend most of my time trying to solve problems like how I can break up an iamb and introduce a triple foot at this point in the stanza. So I can’t have anything else in my ears.
It’s very sad how little I actually listen to music. I adore music. I feebly play the piano, and I studied music history and theory, and I adore it. But I don’t consult it on a daily basis. I don’t know why. That’s a pity. I think I’m missing half of life. I really do. It’s an unfortunate, inadvertent self-impoverishment, now that you call my attention to it, and I’m going to fix it tomorrow.
RCWS: Due to your schedule, I know sometimes you have to go for some time without writing. What advice do you have for students juggling class loads, work, and other demands of life?
Gregerson: Don’t do as I do. I stagger helplessly from one overdue commitment to another and it’s always got a great deal of blunder associated with it. I think it’s very important to write regularly. James Dickey is reported to have said, “If you don’t have time to write that day, go over to your desk, pick up the manuscript, walk around the room with it, and put it back down.” You need at least that much contact with your work every day. If you get too far from your project, you then spend just as much time coping with the anxiety. You spend more time avoiding it than you do getting to it. It’s immensely important not to build up that block of resistance and anxiety. If you have ten minutes a day, it matters. There’s a huge difference between ten minutes a day and nothing at all for several weeks or months. Keep the momentum going so you don’t have to pick yourself up by the shoelaces every morning. Staring at a blank page can lead one into the great energy expense of avoidance and anxiety. And believe me, I know the other side of it. I’m very expert at doing this wrong.
There’s a huge piece of good fortune that we poets have: we can work in smaller units than can our friends the fiction writers. Poetry requires extended stretches of time too, but it can also benefit from remarkably compressed periods of time. If you’ve got even one bit of a poem going, it can be in your head when you’re at the dentist, when you’re driving somewhere to get groceries, when you’re falling asleep at night, when you’re waking up in the morning. There can be a little piece of the problem that you solve sometimes by surprise because it benefits from oblique attention rather than frontal attention. So always be working on something and try to make sure you touch base with your work one way or another every day. You’ll be surprised at what you can get done in the tiny margins of time.
RCWS: My students deal with the political in their poems, and they’re grappling to make their poems useful. Do you have advice for them?
Gregerson: Avoiding pitfalls is not the worst way to go about working on the page. Keeping nine tenths of one’s impulses at bay, and making sure some white space stays white space because those are the wrong impulses, can add a very interesting formal tension. Also, it’s not useful for the poet to preach. It’s quite damning to congratulate the self on being superior to the errors of others. That’s not an interesting, good-faith place to find oneself. Andrew Feld published his first book a couple of years ago, a book called Citizen, and there’s a hilarious moment in one of his poems when the speaker says apropos of nothing, “At this point I would like to state my solidarity with the working classes.” The speaker is waving credentials! I would say be very alert to your own tendency to wave credentials.
At heart, political poetry has to be like any other poetry, which is to say the writer has to go into it with some real question at stake. Poems are not vehicles for reporting on what we already know. They never are. If that’s what happens in a poem, then it’s not a poem. There are many things that sound like poems and look like poems on the page, writings that may be vivid in their language and moving in local phraseology, but they are simulacra. They are fakes if they do not at some point discover a place to be at risk and get surprised. A political poem, like any other, has to set up its terms so that on some level the writer is wading in over her head into a place of danger, and doesn’t know in advance how to get out of it. The real political work that writing can do is to ask questions.
RCWS: Finally, how does being a poet affect how you see the world?
Gregerson: It gives me a place in which I can be a frank enthusiast, and I think that can be an extremely exciting place to be intellectually. In our ordinary lives that enthusiasm can feel superfluous. It can even feel like something we need to be apologetic about. After all, where are you going to put that enthusiasm? Oh, I guess in dinner party conversation or at the breakfast table. Or to entertain the kids when you’re driving somewhere. But it’s an incredible luxury to be a sort of professional enthusiast and have a place to put that enthusiasm in your work. For example, I have a great interest in neurophysiology. I think neurophysiologists do the work of the angels. In my own discipline I can plunder the golden textures of daily labor in that field. I can combine those details and textures with my own sheer wonder and outsider status to formulate with precision and care what I see to be at stake. It’s like having the best of both worlds.