Jorie Graham has published eight books of poems since 1980: Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Erosion, The End of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness, Materialism, The Errancy, Swarm, and Never. Her selected poems, The Dream of the Unified Field, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. She has also edited Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language and The Best American Poetry 1990, contributing a much-cited introduction to that volume. A mainstay of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop from 1983–1998, she is currently Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, succeeding Seamus Heaney, and the first woman to hold that position. One of the oldest chairs at Harvard, the professorship permits her, by contract, to tether a cow in Harvard Yard.
Graham was born in 1950 in New York City, then taken by her mother back to the south of France at three months. Her parents, the painter and sculptor Beverly Pepper and the journalist Curtis (Bill) Pepper, moved to the town of Positano in Italy when she was two and later, by the time she started school, to Rome. There she attended the first Montessori school, and then the Lycée Chateaubriand, receiving her baccalaureate near her seventeenth birthday. Graham moved to France to pursue studies at the Sorbonne but left after the student uprisings of 1968.
Back in the United States, essentially for the first time, she attended New York University and Columbia, initially working in film, and was employed briefly by NBC News. Following graduation, she moved to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., then back to Los Angeles, leaving the West Coast to attend Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, from which she graduated in 1978. Teaching positions in Kentucky, northern California, and New York followed before she returned to Iowa City in 1983. She has one daughter, with the poet James Galvin, and lives now in Cambridge with her husband, the poet and scholar Peter Sacks.
This interview took place over the course of a weekend in Cambridge, February 2002, in a number of venues. We began holed up in Graham’s office in Harvard’s Barker Center, on Quincy Street, talking about Emily Dickinson for another project. Her mind still on a series of student conferences she had just completed, she told a story about being so distracted the previous day that she had thrown twenty-three dollars in the trash along with her uneaten lunch, showing me a secretary’s note—“Jorie, you’ve thrown away money!”—as she moved piles of papers out of the way so we could open Johnson’s Complete Poems of Emily Dickinsonbetween us.
Photos and postcards line her desk and worktable: the Roman Forum, her mother cutting stone in her studio with a chisel, four Annunciations, her daughter Emily at various ages, an engraving of Beatrice and Dante, an aquatint of Lady Macbeth, photos of her parents’ house in Umbria. A poem by Seamus Heaney and a note from James Tate are taped to one wall. Three shelves hold books by ex-students; another is crammed with manuscripts by current students, all in various stages of revision. There were piles of unopened mail. Graham showed me the cover for her soon-to-be released book, Never, then a fragment of a highly varnished seventeenth-century painting on wood that seemed to show Cain and Abel struggling.
As the evening settled, the building quieted and the sounds of traffic filtered in through the window at her back. The phone rang once and, after a flurry of appointment setting, Graham returned to the sentence she had broken off, remarking, “It’s just how my brain works,” to my raised eyebrow. We spent most of the evening talking about Swarm, to my mind the book where her conversation with Dickinson becomes most acute; Dickinson led her to touch on many of the subjects displayed around us in the room—the Forum, the role of silence in James Tate’s poetry. Then we headed off to meet Peter for dinner at an Indian restaurant.
We picked up the next day with Never. We met on the street and ducked into the C’est Bon Café, a few steps down from the sidewalk. Coffee, bagels, six or seven closely spaced tables. Graham wrapped herself in her black coat as the door at her back opened and closed. We opened the galleys of Never. The café filled, emptied. Voices, then no voices, then voices again. The coat, almost unconsciously tracking the opened door, was pulled off and on all morning.
Never’s dense, layered sentences, drawing the reader out then back, are in many ways the culmination of a focus on syntax that has stretched across all of Graham’s books—syntax, she writes, as it “absorbs, encodes, reveals, transmits, reenacts,” being the means by which “the perceiving mind, and the imagining restlessness, is, in language, imprinted, stained by the world, made to take the force of it in.” One hears the same restless absorption in the sentences which follow.
I’d like to begin with “The Taken-Down God,” one of that last group of extraordinary poems in your most recent book, Never.
First of all, the speaker is sitting during Easter Saturday in a small chapel, somewhere in Italy, where a life-size puppet-like Christ has been taken down from the cross and placed in a velvet-lined coffin covered by a wedding veil.
She is struggling with the very act of “writing about,” or “taking down,” the experience. It seems like an inexplicable wrongness—a trespass of the profane on the sacred. She actually seems appalled at the sound her pen makes on paper in the midst of all those forms of worship—some people praying, some crying, some just watching . . .
. . . children running around, some people kissing the veil, and all the rest—old, young, blind . . .
The crucial act in the poem, it seems to me, is when she ends up summoning the assistance of the reader. It gets rather urgent. As if she can’t do it alone—can’t bear the situation, can’t undertake the act of witness—alone. She uses the word here repeatedly to summon the reader. Finally even pleading with him or her to help her hang Christ back up.
Yes. Here and now—exactly. The terms that summon presence. In the literal sense, as well as the spiritual. Although we usually use the word to mean the presence of the greater-than-human, in that book in particular it’s the presence of others—the attempt to rebuild the shattered community of the we. It’s a very small space, that chapel. And the we we have got to live in—politically, environmentally, spiritually—is a very sacred space. Because we have to act in unison in it—or . . . Well, it’s dire.
Here’s a part of what you write:
Weren’t we here? Wasn’t I in here? And you here too? We have “written”—can’t you feel it in your hands [this pen for instance, this scratchy weightlessness] or in your eyes [the incense filling up this church] or mind [“at the summit of the tiny hilltop town”]—haven’t our eyes the empty cross before them now: here: in this [real time] between us [if you will do the work]:
Was this an actual experience?
Of course. That’s the whole point. Yes, I went there, as I had seen the ritual before, because—I don’t know—I was feeling very low. I was in the middle of a very sad divorce . . . I didn’t go there intending to write about it, I was just walking through the piazza, feeling a sense of profound exclusion from everything, and saw the little doorway I knew well and thought, Why not, maybe it can help to just go there. Once inside, I got that feeling of “I should write this down.” The feeling of “this is interesting”—which already felt like a wrong, very wrong—sensation to be allowing into one’s soul. As if just letting one’s mind “go to work” under these circumstances—rather than one’s heart or body—was already the failing of some spiritual test. I remember so vividly trying not to make noise, or a fuss, getting my notebook and pen out of my bag (people will tell you I don’t go to the grocery store without them, it’s kind of a craziness). Once I had pen in hand, once I heard the silence—because it took the noise of my pen scratching that paper to make me really “hear” the silence—which is an amazingly loud noise once you hear it (as is the sound of pen on paper)—I had this terrible sensation of exclusion, and of usury, trespass, sacrilege. A real revulsion and deep upset. Why was I writing a poem? Why did I need another damned poem? Why did I need to use their very real event? I went outside and started to cry. It was quite a little crisis. I’m not sure I even understand it now. But I couldn’t leave. For a while I sat on the very edge of the outside steps—so as not to block access for all those others arriving—thinking, I can recall the details, and still get it from here. But I couldn’t. Or not what I wanted, or needed, from the event. I had never felt the hunger to “see it all” so fiercely before. And how occluded it—whatever there was to “see”—was from me. As if there were something in there—something invisible—that only a tracking of the actual details could lead me to. Something only exposure to the actual physical matter, via the act of description—that terrifying act we so take for granted—could get me to. Of course, as I say this now, I can feel it all again, and how much the word hunger leads me directly to the fact that it was a desire filled with the desire-for-belief, as well, for that presence. But at the time, I just wanted to be “let in” to the community—it was a place twelve by twenty feet—the barrow with the Christ and wedding veil took up almost a third of the space; the rest was the altar with the emptied-out wall and cross above it. I could feel them all staring at me. I recognized some, and they recognized me—as it is a town my family has lived in for most of my life. I thought they were truly upset by my actions, but I felt I couldn’t help it. I stood a while then took one of the few little chairs, when one opened up. Most of the people were standing. After a while I had the amazing sensation that nothing anyone did could get in their way. I felt simultaneously like a thief—even down to the chair I remember taking—and something utterly invisible to them.
You felt acceptance?
Not quite acceptance, just—well, like the painters who painted themselves in to their frescoes, just “not there” to the real actors of the event. And I wanted to be let in to thatfeeling. That feeling of not-needing. I guess it’s grace, or “unknowing”—but at the time I thought of Keats’s notion of negative capability. Mostly I kept trying to record and not think, as I felt that thinking—or some activity of the mind—was something I was supposed to be learning to shut down. Of course it only came more awake.
Did you know immediately you had this amazing poem?
No. In fact, I had to fly back to the U.S. unexpectedly a short while later, and found myself alone in Cambridge in the middle of the summer. I thought Never was finished—in fact it was already delivered to the publisher. But I called Frank Bidart, and (he’s a guide on the path if there ever was one) he’s the one who said, when I told him about the event, You have to write that, you just have to write that. So I took the time of that solitude—which was great, and full of fear—my daughter was very ill—to work the notes up into the final poem. Peter, still in Italy, spent the time walking from Todi to Assisi and back—which took him many days. So I felt that pilgrimage-walk of his somehow behind the poem—that spine of days. It was a very silent time.