INTERVIEW WITH ED GRANGER
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The tone of “Dear Nameless” is surprisingly calm, given the subject matter. What led to your use of the voice of tranquility, instead of calamity?
Ed Granger: I think it has a lot to do with how we approach—or re-approach—our own experience. In this case, does “calm” mean emotional distancing? Processing? Acquired wisdom? Or something else? I don’t know myself, as the poet—I can only invite readers to explore that space with me. I believe contrast and juxtaposition are two of the most powerful tools we have as writers. I’ve learned this lesson from many, many poets I can only hope to someday emulate, and also from reading and writing haiku. It’s just one reason why it’s so important to read, read, read, and not just write. I initially learned to pay close attention to tone from Sue Ellen Thompson—her workshop on tone was the first one I ever took when I began writing poetry about six years ago.
This particular poem was a response to a prompt in an online workshop taught by the amazing Jenn Givhan on “Duende.” She made the point that a “cooler” tone can sometimes carry more emotional freight, and I lean that way naturally. Jenn is also big on scene-setting, and in this case, I think the choice of scene really does a lot of the work to establish tone and carry it forward. Sometimes, tone is easy to find but tough to sustain. In this case, I hope I was able to move from scene to scene in a way that kept the tone intact. The poem is an inward journey through these scenes, hoping to return “home” with some kind of healing or resolution, but based on honesty rather than some type of easy grace or platitude. Whether or not it succeeds in carrying out that mission is up to the reader to decide.
RR: Although this poem is about a deeply emotional subject, some of the images, such as “The jellied pumpkin / belly of you” still feel lighthearted and imaginative. How did you approach playfulness in terms of sound and image in this context?
EG: To be honest, I don’t approach it. This stuff just pops into my head, and I can either accept or reject it. Much of my learning curve has been about knowing what to keep and what to jettison in this regard. My sense of humor threatens to take over at any moment, just as it did in third grade at Neff Elementary. And the music of sound and rhythm is central to my conception of poetry. So I have to be careful sometimes not to lapse into something bordering on sing-song or cartoonish (in a bad way—poetry cartoons can be great). I think in this case, the playfulness works at least in part because it mirrors the way a parent interacts with a young child, which is what the speaker is in essence doing. Playfulness is typically non-threatening, and provides a way to move toward a difficult emotional truth or experience in a way that renders it, if not benign, at least easier to encounter.
RR: In multiple places, the poem returns to themes and images of outer space. Why did you choose outer space and does it have special significance to you in this context?
EG: I’ve noticed that this is a recurring theme and set of images in my writing. To an extent that I sometimes have to discard it in favor of newer ones. I grew up during the era of the Apollo moon missions, when every kid wanted to be an astronaut, and the supermarket shelves were lined with items that mimicked the awful food the Apollo crews were forced to ingest in outer space. So maybe space has a particular emotional resonance for me that it doesn’t for everyone—I experience it again every time I re-watch the film “Apollo 13,” for example. In this case, the speaker is addressing a once-hoped-for child using images from his own childhood. That said, I do think outer space resonates for many people not from my era, as reflected in how many films, books, etc. are still set there. It remains a beckoning source of metaphors for mystery, exploration, ultimate questions, black holes, dying galaxies, and so on. Every time we humans make a new discovery there, we find a piece of ourselves as well. There is always a tension between inner-outer that can be mined and used creatively—and in some ways, the farther out you go, the farther in it can take you (and vice versa). To some extent, that’s what I was trying to do with this poem. Outer space is a good place to navigate “distance” of all kinds.
RR: How does a poem start for you? Do you ever or often work from personal experience?
EG: I’m one of those poets who is very quick to tell readers that my poems are not strictly autobiographical. For me, imagination is an element that should not be too quickly abandoned in favor of “what really happened.” That said, this poem is one of the most autobiographical ones I’ve ever written, which I think is partly because it was a response to a workshop prompt inviting the writer on a very personal journey. I do often start with an experience, but I maybe just as often start with an image and use it to find my way into an experience. Also, I am a believer in empathy, so sometimes there’s a dialog between my own experience, which in memory is never a neat facsimile of “what really happened” anyway, and that of my speaker or another person or element in the poem. It’s these opportunities for dialog that ultimately interest me. Part of that dialog is also with other poems, even subconsciously—in this case with W.D. Snodgrass’ “Heart’s Needle,” which is one of my very favorite poems, and Matthew Thorburn’s book “Dear Almost,” which I read a year or so prior to Jenn’s workshop, and which I went back to in order to find an epigraph for this poem. Plus, I’ve addressed this same event previously in my own work.
One thing I’ve learned the hard way, and honestly continue to struggle with, is that you have to invite the reader into the poem from the first line or two. I try to use language to establish the energy of the poem at the outset, like when you start your car in the morning in the driveway. If the right energy isn’t there to pull the reader along, the poem will fall flat, and the reader will grow weary of waiting for the poem to get rolling. I rarely use a place-holder as the beginning to a poem, I’ll take the trouble to make sure I’m off to a good start. I realize this is different from a lot of the conventional wisdom that says to just get the poem onto the page and worry about the rest in revision. It just doesn’t work as well for me, because I’ll fall too easily into the well-worn grooves waiting to pull me in. I often write my way into a poem, then wake up the next day and prune it way, way back to where I feel like the energy has begun to flag, and then move forward again from there.
RR: In revision, how do you decide what parts of a poem to keep and what to cut? Do you ever recycle parts you’ve cut to create new poems?
EG: I struggle with this, because I have a tendency to overwrite, and I’m often told to “tighten.” I fight that a little bit, because often, there are reasons having to do with sound and rhythm, or with a more natural mode of language, that demand a few “extra” words. I remember taking a workshop with Mark Doty in which he said, “A lot of poets are ‘less is more’ poets, but I’m a ‘more is more’ poet.” That really struck me, although I’ll never be Mark Doty. So it’s important for me to have readers I really trust to tell me what’s working or not, or when I don’t need that extra image or line, and who aren’t just saying “tighten” because it’s a stock admonition everyone seems to have accepted. I’ve worked hard to at least try to be honest about this during the writing process, so I have less to let go of in revision—which, again, is the reverse of the conventional wisdom that says to leave everything in the first draft and pare later. That makes it easier for me to keep the poem on track to begin with and maintain elements like tone and energy. Long story short: I tend to keep too much, and I need to get better at cutting without killing the music, maybe just turning the volume down a little.
More generally, revision is an opportunity for me to go back and—as Ellen Bryant Voigt so aptly puts it—“press on every word.” That’s when I tend to find the nouns and especially verbs that allow the imagery of the poem to be woven into its fabric rather than tacked on like the fringe on a carpet. For me, revision is often where the “magic” happens. I try to be ruthless when it comes to clarity—this is where good readers are so helpful—and to make sure the flow of the language isn’t impeded, for example by paying close attention to syntax (Ellen Bryant Voigt also has a helpful book on that subject). The longer I write, the more I use fewer “big words,” even when they’re ones I use naturally in everyday speech, and instead pay attention to what Claudia Emerson called the “one genuine emotion” of the poem, and how it wants to emerge irrespective of my tinkering or preferences. To really enter into dialogue with my own work in order to help it to realize its potential, at least to the extent I’m capable of.
The question about recycling the bits I’ve cut is an interesting one. I rarely do that, although I may revisit specific images and try to do a better job of providing them, like gems, with the right setting. I do often return to the same topics or experiences if I believe I’m better equipped to do them justice or approach them from a fresh angle. The event in this poem that I’m so grateful to Rappahannock Review for publishing is one I looked at from a very different perspective in one of the first poems I ever had published. The most powerful experiences of our lives stay with us, and we process them over long stretches of time (and space?). And that, in turn, transforms the experiences themselves into new ones—I believe they’re rarely, if ever, “once and done.”
Ed Granger’s work in Issue 7.2: