The Assistant Editors, Rappahannock Review: As a writer, you’ve published both poetry and nonfiction. What do you think about the intersection of these genres? Are there formal or thematic tendencies for you when you write in each one?
Bryn Gribben: My path into creative nonfiction was via poetry. I was writing poems and was told they were too narrative; at the same time, I was told that my academic writing was too lyrical. The second criticism was really fine by me, since my favorite scholars were and are still Walter Pater (father of the Aesthete movement) and Elaine Scarry; their books (The Renaissance and On Beauty and Being Just, respectively) are seminal texts for me because the lyrical writing is so fundamental to the ideas expressed—it mimics the glittering analytical process. Pater says, “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Poetry and philosophy at the same moment. I also love Michael Ondaatje, whose poetry, I think, also tends to be too narrative, his novels so highly image-driven as to drown out the narrative.
I think of poetry and creative nonfiction both as deep dives into a single moment, by way of a single object. Creative nonfiction gets to take more detours, explore more consequences, but I start an essay the way I’d start a poem: I find some talisman and build around it, see how the object might hold within it insight I didn’t know I needed. I love, love, love formal constraints. I need them. When I teach creative nonfiction, my favorite assignment is to get them to take one of their nonfiction pieces and turn it into a pecha kucha. It’s a form architects love: a PowerPoint with twenty slides, twenty seconds a slide. Architects need to present image and concept and narrative all at the same time, and you really want to do the same thing with creative nonfiction: you strip down your story and interweave an image thread and an outside source that both resonate with it. It’s an incredibly handy way to open up an essay, and I think it mirrors how I see poetry and nonfiction coming together, a game of tag with beauty and truth.
Because of that relationship, most of my essays are incredibly nostalgic, looking at images and objects and songs as themselves, but then understanding why they still have such a hold on me. I just learned last year, while reading Leslie Jamison’s amazing Empathy Exams, that nostalgia means “the twinge of the wound.” So maybe both my poems and my nonfiction are ultimately psychoanalytic, working through objects until I understand what’s of value. When I finished Amplified Heart, the larger manuscript from which “There Goes the Fear” comes, I asked a writer friend if she thought I seemed different because of the writing. “Yes,” she said, “you talk about the past less.” So, at least with essays, something’s working.
RR: In the poem “Volute,” each section is accompanied by a different definition of the title. What led you to the word, and how did these definitions help shape the poem as a whole?
BG: I’m in a really wonderful poetry group in which we’re just working our way through an anthology of poets in order to keep up with our reading and our writing. We meet twice a month: first, we read a poet, discuss them, develop prompts based around them, and then we meet again to workshop the poems we’ve written based on the prompts. We’d read Amy Clampitt, who’s just incredibly erudite; I have a strong vocabulary, but I had to look up many words in her poems—even in the introduction to the section on her, she was described as having a “volute syntax.” So, I looked up “volute,” and look what I found! I’ve always thought I’d be smarter if I knew Latin—taking Latin is still on my list of things to do—because I really do love what etymology unlocks, in terms of insight and imagery. Again, I love and need form, so the four definitions gifted me with a structure that made everything else happen. “Volute” is probably the most intellectual poem I’ve ever written that isn’t awful: it was just so interesting to let the definitions lead the way there. Again, with my love of nostalgia, the idea of “turning away and turning into” as two movements within the same object… That’s so me.
RR: Visual art and image play roles in both “Volute” and “There Goes the Fear.” In a broad sense, what role does art play in your life and writing?
BG: I’ve thought about this a lot because I think imagery tends to be hard for me in poetry but incredibly easy for me in creative nonfiction, and I’m not sure why—maybe just the pressure of imagery being something that has to hold so much weight in a poem, as opposed to something working in tandem with narrative in nonfiction. Two of my favorite poets are Mark Doty and Gerard Manley Hopkins, both of whom are obsessed with the visual as the soulful. I read Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons last year, and it seriously changed me. I even had a Dutch still life birthday dinner this year: all my friends brought things that would go in a Dutch still life (pewter cups, glistening fruit, oysters, half-peeled lemons), and we composed three separate “pieces” before eating them. It was amazing.
But in general, the love of the visual and of art is stamped all over my life, in all ways. I love beautiful clothes. The art on my walls is fairly floor-to-ceiling. I’m a dilettante art historian at heart: take me to an art museum and rock show, and I’m yours. Again, I love form. I used to teach a literature course on beauty, and now I teach a class on spectacle and another one on the different values of art, inspired by Carolyn Forche’s introduction to Against Forgetting: Poetry of Witness. She argues Americans tend only to think of art as personal self-expression versus a creation of the “social space,” a “site of resistance and and rebellion.” I think it’s so important to help students get beyond the cliches with art: “art is whatever you want it to be,” the boring retreat into “it’s all subjective.” That class is all about empowering them to love art in a more critically engaged way, while still leaving space for aesthetic pleasure. I spend a lot of time helping them get comfortable with poetry, so they can see how all art forms have the potential to build community and reshape it, even art they find “hard.” Lots of focus on structure/form and patterns of imagery helps them see how poetry pursues its beautiful problems. We do a lot of field trips, too, learning how to read and appreciate public space, in terms of design. I have a cool assignment about how to read an art museum for that class; I interviewed Robin Held, the former curator of the Frye Museum, this wonderful free museum in Seattle, to come up with the questions for that and learned so much from her about how galleries try to tell you a story. Actually, The Painter in “There Goes the Fear” worked as a security guard in that museum for years—I heard he finally quit it two years ago so he could paint full time. I couldn’t love that more.
I feel like I’ve been trying to move my life more and more deeply into its focus on art over the years. My dissertation (I’m a Victorianist, by training) was on how bodies become legends, how one visual figure stands in for words—a loose version of ekphrasis, the image made word. That project was so hard. I kept wanting to talk about beauty, which was definitely not cool when I was in grad school. Beauty was suspicious. My creative work has made me much happier, in terms of helping me think about art. I think creative nonfiction, particularly, has given me the form in which I’m most happily connecting art and analysis. And I love ekphrastic exercises. I wrote a poem called “I Hated It There” about a photograph, using it to explore my childhood in Kansas, and my poetry group laughed at me because they hated that title. “You described a place that sounds really interesting—you can’t call it that,” they say. But I love that tension between word and image. I could talk about that forever.
Maybe also I love visual art so much because it’s the one art form in which I have not a whit of talent. I’m a good musician and singer, I can dance moderately, I write, but drawing something? Nope. My mom painted some, and I’ve dated more than one painter. It’s like watching someone perform some mystifying act, and I ask a lot of questions about their process, but mostly, I just get kind of overwhelmed with wonder. Most of the art on my walls is “real” art.
RR: “There Goes the Fear” is told as a triptych and follows the story through three series of paintings. How did you develop this format while also navigating fluidity in the piece?
BG: Did I mention I love form? Form is the answer in so many surprising ways, almost always, for me. You have to trust that if you really look at an object or really commit to following a form to its conclusion that it will provide you with the necessary tools to get somewhere interesting in one piece. And so, you choose a form that’s likely to be intimate with what your content might explore. It’s like unmixing paint, to be highly visual: you look into the form to see the parts and then you work with the parts, just as you’d put red and blue together to make purple. And when it makes purple, it seems somehow surprising and organic and new, all at the same time. And sometimes, it doesn’t even make purple, but you don’t mind because you learned so much. That interest in form surprises some people about me, at times, because they don’t see me as “conventional” and they expect me to bristle against constraint. But I love puzzles, and having to return to a guiding concept, to the images it holds within it… that makes writing like a puzzle for me. How does this idea work if I have these constraints? And these? Again, look at Hopkins: such crazy interesting ways of doing sonnets! I love interdisciplinary work, too—but real interdisciplinary work, in which both disciplines have to try to the forms of the other.
So, with “There Goes the Fear,” I followed the actual chronology of The Painter’s own artistic development and was kind of humbled by how well it mirrored (or maybe by how well I could reframe) our history of loving each other, how one phase of painting held the imagery within it to move me through my own thinking, how that imagery responded to what came next. He was initially a big fan of “automatic” painting, which I describe in the piece: “you make a mark, then you make a mark in response to that mark, then you erase a mark,” etc. I mean, isn’t that what falling in love and building a relationship is all about? Making marks, responding, correction, erasure, painting on top of each other’s worlds. His “docks” period was, for him, about the overcrowding and overdevelopment of the lake on which he grew up; and for me, it seemed to resonate with that period of a relationship in which you both feel secure and trapped at the same time, when you mistrust safety because it looks too much like becoming static—a kind of emotional overcrowding. My response at that time of my life was to break away, and it really crushed him at the time; it was a figuratively volcanic time for us both, really scorching the landscape left. I had a hard time seeing what phase might come next, didn’t trust the form we were building enough. I blame grad school, in part—there’s a constant focus on the future that makes it difficult to tie your life to someone else’s because you want to make sure everyone is fully self-actualized, on their own path, blah blah. He was, and is still, an incredibly inspiring, brilliant person. So, if this piece seems like it has both form and fluidity, I like to think it’s because by choosing his format for my exploration of us, I got to honor that relationship as it should have moved—into something beautiful—as opposed to the clunky erasures and absences that ended it.
RR: Mix tapes and playlists are an important part of this piece. Did you typically listen to music while writing? If so, how does music impact your writing?
BG: Oh, yes. I absolutely listen to music while writing, but that’s because I listen to music while doing everything. I laughed really hard recently because I saw a pie chart of how my astrological sign spends its time, and about a third was labeled “Just listening to music—really listening. I mean, wow.” So, it’s paradoxical. I have music on all the time, and yet I’m also really listening. In college, I seriously wrote every paper to the Green Card soundtrack. And while I still love whole albums, I mostly listen to music on shuffle. I love the variety and I love hearing unlike things put next to each other. When I first heard about Pandora, I thought it sounded like the most magical force ever—something to explain to me what, exactly, I loved about a particular song, that would also link me to other songs I might love? It was sad to realize it was more about market similarity, not mystical alchemy. But I still use it.
Mix tapes and playlists are long found poems. A good mix tape will draw upon many kinds of music but also find a way to make meaningful transitions between those differences, underscoring why we need contrast to make some emotions feel more intense, how the clever parallels between unlike songs create these metaphors for connection and its difficulties. And you also know you can’t just have a string of power ballads or indie hits–you have to put in a surprise Hank Williams song or a melancholy song from your youth (I like Morphine) or an instrumental by Homeshake to give your mix tape range. That’s good writing advice for anyone: how many sad songs have I played in a row now? Wouldn’t everyone like just a quick hit of Prince?
My longer project, Amplified Heart, is subtitled An Emotional Discography because every part of it reflects how music impacts my writing: each individual essay is about one song and one person in my life, the title (a friend’s reaction to one of the essays), and the organization of the book… I’m still working on that part, but one possible organization is by playlist (break-ups, one-hit wonders). I’m stuck there because, as one writer friend noted, it’s a lot to ask of people to read one hundred pages of break-ups before getting to something else. And as much as I love form, I don’t fully trust the idea of arcs that move from pain to growth and finally healing—I mean, if only, right? Right now, I’m kind of aiming for the structure of Angel Olsen’s beautiful Burn Your Fire for No Witness—lots of loneliness but in various qualities, with a few punchy surprises, and a gentle, oceanic ending. But the project used to exist in blog form, and that was the best because then the essays were basically permanently on shuffle. You could click “adult love” or “delusion” and up would come the essays with those tags. I don’t feel like I’ve written a whole album yet.
Bryn Gribben’s work in Issue 5.1: