Interview with Featured Poet
[Town Creek Poetry]: Your work seems focused, if not preoccupied, with place, particularly Southern Appalachia. Can you comment about your personal connections to the southern mountains, familial, historical, and poetic?
[Jesse Graves]: I do feel connected to the community I grew up in, a small farming community in northeastern Tennessee, about forty miles north of Knoxville, and I’m sure that bond comes through in my work. My experience in this regard is becoming increasingly rare in America, in that I grew up in a community that my ancestors helped to establish in the 1780’s. Johannes Sebastian Graff came to America from the German Palatinate in 1730, and lived in Pennsylvania and then western North Carolina. His daughter married another German immigrant named Henry Scharp, and moved in 1784 to what was then a western outpost, which they named Scharps Fort. Old Johannes and a couple of his sons followed them in a few years to that settlement at the convergence of the Clinch and Powell Rivers, and the younger men took on English sounding names, Sharp and Graves. Johannes died in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee in 1804 at the age of 102, refusing to ever change his name. My family was moved from that particular piece of land—nearly a thousand acres of river-bottom for farming and timber— in the mid- 1930’s when TVA built Norris Dam, so I did not grow up on the same ground they cleared, but only a few miles from it. Much of this history forms the context for my poem “Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine,” which tries to understand some of the mystery of feeling that one belongs to a place.
Now I live in Knoxville again, where I spent five years as an undergraduate in the mid-1990s, though previously I lived for four years in Ithaca, New York, and for one year in New Orleans. I loved both of those places. Ithaca is fairly Edenic with its Farmer’s Market, its intellectual diversity, and its abundance of used book stores and green spaces; New Orleans felt mythic and alive to me in ways that I am trying still to figure out, and yet I never exactly felt at home in either of them. Both of those cities have been settings for a number of my recent poems and will probably continue to be—it’s not uncommon for an image or an event to wait several years before presenting itself as a poem to me. However, my understanding of the history and development of Ithaca and New Orleans is so much less ingrained than my sense of the scope of life in east Tennessee, and I think that whatever is most deeply ingrained within a poet is his or her truest subject matter.
[TCP]: The motif of nature underscores much of your poetry. As you see it, how do you work with this much-used motif; specifically, how do you attempt to use nature to create an original voice?
[JG]: My poems rely more heavily on setting, on the physical space in which the poem’s action takes place, than most contemporary poetry. Landscape dominates the imagery of my work because I have spent so much time in the midst of it—there are no visible neighbors from the house where I grew up. Had I been raised in Memphis, Tennessee instead of Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, I don’t doubt that the settings of my poems would be different, but I suspect that physical surroundings would remain just as important to the imagery.
I obsess over place and location in poetry, the grain of specificity and shared history, which draws me naturally to Appalachian writers like Jeff Daniel Marion, Robert Morgan, and Ron Rash, but also gives me access to a poet like Charles Olson, with his own obsession with Gloucester, Massachusetts, that I might not otherwise have—I am skeptical, though, of his whole “Projective Verse” manifesto, which takes the wrong approach to volume and tone in poetry. I do recognize the risk of cliché, the risk of pat-responses in using landscape imagery so heavily, but I think there is also a deeper level of resonance in a solitary speaker in a field that reverberates back through Theocritus—the impact of the environment on a poet in its midst is present in every culture which has ever produced poetry.
[TCP]: Can you speak about your literary forbears? Who has influenced your work, and what writers continue to haunt you?
[JG]: There are poets whose work steadily holds my attention, and more than that, particular books of poems. I’ve got a shelf of contemporary poetry books that continue to reveal themselves to me, including: Charles Wright’s The Southern Cross, Robert Morgan’s At the Edge of Orchard Country, Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires, The Boy on the Step by Stanley Plumly, Linda Gregg’s Chosen by the Lion, and Robert Hass’s Human Wishes—I hate even to end the list. Despite some stylistic differences, you might notice that all of these poets work with an engagement with landscape, a quest for meaning, and an examination of personal relationships, and that these concerns form the foundation for most of their work. I am aware that I work from a distinct train of influence—you might call it the line of Romanticism. My sensibilities are more Wordsworth than Byron, more Whitman than Dickinson, more Frost than Stevens, more Machado than Vallejo, which is not to say, for instance, that I think Dickinson is less of a poet than Whitman; trying to prove that is a fool’s errand.
Well, I did grow up in Appalachia, and I do have a kind of identification with the experiences that others writers from this region have written about. More so than with Jack Gilbert or Louise Gluck? In some ways, yes; in other ways, such as Gilbert’s search for an adequate emotional vocabulary, as in “The Hidden Dialect of the Heart,” or Gluck’s sense of voice in the inanimate in Wild Iris poems, not really. A really important component of Appalachian writing is how site-specific the literature is, and I respond to that in Thomas Hardy, or James Joyce, just as I do in James Still. Here again I think the notion of setting is important in what has influenced me.
Insights and recognitions reveal themselves in various ways, and I tend to connect more with the indirect and the woven than with the sarcastic or the explosive. I’m not a storyteller in my work, necessarily, but there is a definite narrative thread—my poems are mostly about things that happen to people.
[TCP]: In Tony Hoagland’s recent book of essays, Real Sofistikashun, he comments on the “skittery poem of our moment,” the poem of meaningless meanings, of purposeful obfuscation (one might call Ashbery the “father” of such work). Your poems, and much of the poetry that is written in your region, tend to be entrenched in an unspoken battle with this aesthetic. Can you comment on why this might be the case?
[JG]: It is wonderfully appropriate that you would mention John Ashbery as the opposite of what my poems are going for, as I am just this week revising a paper on Ashbery to send to my old professor Roger Gilbert. It’s called “The Single Seam in The Double Dream of Spring: Ashbery’s Natural Sublime,” and in it I argue that the use of landscape has been much-overlooked in the commentary on Ashbery’s work, but that he dislocates the speaker’s response to the landscape in a manner very distinct from Charles Wright or W.S. Merwin or other contemporaries associated with natural imagery. Basically, that Ashbery is a landscape artist, just a non-representational, non-mimetic one.
I tend to have a big-tent, utilitarian view of poetry, in that there ought to be room for as many approaches as poets are inclined toward. Obviously, I don’t value them all equally, and though I might prefer the emotional openness and authenticity of Jane Hirschfield, I can still appreciate the sardonic wit of Charles Simic, or the crystalline economy of Michael Palmer. I suppose that if I identified myself with a more avant-garde approach, I would need to be more exclusionary in my poetics, but a commitment to the poem of Meaningless Meanings seems as limiting to me as committing to writing nothing but straight English sonnets from here on out.
I am familiar with Tony Hoagland’s essay on the “skittery poem of our moment,” and actually reference it in my essay on Robert Morgan and Ron Rash in Southern Quarterly. He seems exactly right to me about the trend in American poetry toward a kind of surface mobility and mere witticism. However, poems are not short stories, and they suffer when they give away too much of their mystery, which is a problem with lots of narrative poetry. The best narrative poets, like Dave Smith and B.H. Fairchild, are still writing with lyric concision and an openness that permits surprise and mystery into their work, and their poems feel neither boxed-in nor mundane like the work of some narrative poets.
[TCP]: You have just published a prominent essay in Southern Quarterly about the formal elements in the work of Ron Rash and Robert Morgan. As a poet who vacillates between writing poems and academic essays, how do you view the role of the poet in the academy and vice versa? Does academic writing facilitate your creative work or serve as an obstacle?
[JG]: I think poets have always been the best readers of poetry, and have provided the best commentary on the art, at least as far back as Horace. Contemporary theory and criticism hardly engages poetry at all, and when critics do write about poetry, it is often as part of a social construct or a political/language paradigm. Poets are free to write about the aesthetics of poetry, and that prospect interests me greatly as both a reader and an analyst of the art form. I care a great deal about politics, and about social structures and identities, but I don’t think art should be subjugated to the study of them. The kind of criticism I admire takes poetry for its own value, and makes a careful study of its history, its ways and means, and its objectives.
The academy does offer a great gift to a writer, which is time. Poetry is not a spontaneous art for me, and teaching allows for some flexibility in the time I can give to a poem’s development. There are also not all that many jobs for a person with a poet’s traditional skill-set—reading comprehension, written and verbal expression—I suppose I could have become a lawyer, which seems not all that different from being a teacher to me, except of course for the salary. Nearly as important as time for a writer, though, is the nearness to literature’s history that the university provides. The University of Tennessee has a world-class research library, and a pretty fair collection of contemporary poetry and periodicals. I admit also that I enjoy being around so many people for part of the week—for one who pursues solitary work, the energy of young people in a crowd can be a source of renewal.
[TCP]: Where do you see your poetry going? That is, what aesthetic changes are currently taking place in your work?
[JG]: The past few months have felt like a period of growth in my work, and I can’t really attribute it to any particular event or revelation. I am working now on a longer piece, a narrative poem set in the 1970s, in a voice that could be my older brother’s, but isn’t necessarily about any particular thing that happened to him—he just provides a model. This is interesting for me, as most of my poems have come out of my own range of experiences, and are written in a generally consistent voice. I have been able to work with some truly great teachers in my time as a student of poetry, including Robert Morgan and A.R. Ammons at Cornell, who represent a couple of the most persuasive directions in contemporary poetry to me. Here at UT, I’ve been able to work again with Arthur Smith and Marilyn Kallet, who guided my undergraduate work as well, and who know my writing from the very beginning. I had one life-direction-changing term with the great Jack Gilbert when he was visiting writer at UT, which reconnected me with writing poetry at a time when I was leaning more heavily toward scholarship.
As a child, I was something of a collector, baseball cards, Hot Wheels cars, little things like that, but also a collector of information: I would learn things like the habitat, hunting methods, and war decorations for every Native American tribe; I could identify cars from a certain period just by seeing the position of the headlights or the shape of a fender; I memorized batting averages and earned run averages for every Major league baseball team. I think this tendency in my mind plays out in a more pronounced way in my most recent poetry, the collection and reconfiguration of details, of time and materials, to borrow a concept from Robert Hass. I feel that I am working now on a canvas that is both broader, and somehow deeper in perspective than I have been able to access before, and that energy shows up for me in the language I find available to the poems. Writing poetry always comes to me with a certain amount of the anxiety of the unknown, and lately that has been more thrilling than usual—I’ll take that as a sign of the natural sources of the work. Either that, or else I have taken William Stafford’s suggestion about lowering one’s standards in order to write every day a step too far.
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