The Rumpus Interview with Rachel Eliza Griffiths

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Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ Mule & Pear is one of the most affecting books of poetry I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Each poem works in conversation with an important work of black literature but each poem is also evocative enough to stand on its own. What is particularly striking about the poetry in this collection is how well attuned each poem is to the work it harkens as if Griffiths is channeling the spirits of those writers who came before her while still revealing the power of her own voice. Mule & Pear is, as a whole, an elegant balancing act—a collection that is intelligent, soulful, and full of grit and heart. Griffiths was kind enough to answer my questions about her collection, writing, and influences.

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The Rumpus: Naming is always important. How did you come to Mule & Pear as the title of this collection?

Rachel Eliza Griffiths: One of the early (and critical) scenes of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God involves Janie and her grandmother in a bitter argument. Janie has just witnessed a bee stitching pollen through a pear tree in bloom. It’s a moment of awakening – in direct monologue to sensuality, womanhood, eros, power, hope, and self-identity. What Morrison’s young character, Nell, felt in Sula – “me-ness”. When Janie’s grandmother sees Janie kiss a boy she takes up a brutal argument about the plight of women, particularly, black women, in life – “nigger women is de mule uh de world as fur as Ah can see.” The title of my collection uses the ampersand as a door and a window. It’s not something that is either or. As I’ve grown up I’ve encountered ways of thinking in the world that embody the conflict of Janie’s and Granny’s perceptions about life. I’m interested in how Hurston’s Granny racializes womanhod in this instant and whom exactly needs black women to be animals (mules). This is still too dominant as a bi-lateral ideology – the black woman as either fetishized fruit or stubborn, angry laborer. Void of complexity. An excellent example of what I’m talking about is Nina Simone’s song “Four Women” – the resistance of these “types” the world wants us to nurse. It’s fascinating how Simone names each of them after colorizing them and asking each of the women a question, “what do they call me?” I wrote a poem about “sweet thing” – she’s the only nameless woman in the song. Nina ends the song along a historical riff with the declaration of “Peaches”. So many years have passed and yet there is the persistence of certain tropes of visibility and invisibility. Perhaps Mule & Pear focuses upon the loops of language and of truth, the spectrum of possibility in the space between beast and blossom.

Rumpus: I agree about the pervasiveness of the bilateral ideology when it comes to black women. Do you think it is possible for us to break that binary? What kinds of things could bring about such change?

Eliza Griffiths: I think it’s very possible for the binary to be shattered. It’s already been splintering for some time. It can be imperceptible or immediate depending on what we’re speaking of. Imagine women who lived 25, 50, 200 years ago. I know I’m certainly living a life that margins the margins in regards to identity, to art, and to acceptance. It’s about opening more space(s), interiorly and exteriorly, for an individual to be and to experience a full scale of self/selves without threat of physical, psychological, cultural or economic violence. It’s about archaic and unfitting notions of value, freedom, and the gaze of desire, the “good” and “bad” – those things are utterly easy. It’s also when those with privilege, including other women, try to preserve and control our selves and our bodies so that the dynamics of certain ideologies persist.

I lean against optimism, aware of the sheer will one needs to understand and to engage how complex and systemic the world is and how nature itself can enforce impenetrable dualities. I keep hearing Miss Lucille’s voice in my head – her question, “what did i see to be except myself?” and her wisdom, “What they call you is one thing. What you answer to is something else”.  Many women are living these syllables, other women and men who cannot speak yet will give their lives to this.

Rumpus: You’re clearly very well read. What books have influenced you the most and why?

Eliza Griffiths: I read all kinds of things. I have to be reading several things at any given moment. Reading centers me, opens me up.  And I think Mule & Pear is as much about my identity as a reader as it is about my identity as a poet. Books have certainly influenced me but I’d have to open that space further to include painters and musicians and films. Imagery speaking to the lyric form. There are certain writers I return to: James Baldwin, August Wilson, Paul Celan, Toni Morrison, Borges, Lorca, Mahmoud Darwish, Rilke, Lucille Clifton, Nabokov. I could go on so many tributaries but I’ll try to focus. It’s hard. The letters of Vincent Van Gogh are important to me. I like reading letters, journals, and biographies too.  Comic books and graphic novels. I’m all over the place.

Rumpus: One of the most interesting aspects of Mule & Pear is the conversation your poems are engaged in with the work of other writers, In the Notes, I saw that you drew from the writing of Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. How would you characterize the conversation your work is engaged in? Why do you draw from these works?

Eliza Griffiths: I’m not certain how I’d characterize it because it seems to change. I heard the voices of these characters for years in my mind and still do. Sometimes the words and stories and experiences of their “fictional” lives taught me more than anyone else could growing up. I could return, whenever I needed to, to the same pages and feel like I was reading something new and yet something familiar and resonant. And, of course, whenever I did return to their stories, I was changed. A different writer, different woman myself. Eventually, my imagination collapsed the walls and blurred the spines of the books as I kept going with the reading.  It became hard to make the titles and authors possessive because they all seemed to say “I know you” to one another.  The characters don’t belong to me and at some point I’m not sure how distinctly they belong to the writer after years have passed. Many of the women in the book truly seem to be aligned to a collective conversation far older than me. And yet I’ve been entering and withdrawing and observing all of it since I was a young girl. Some of the things these characters did or said were similar despite different historical or cultural contexts (and the way they were treated, historically, seemed pretty identical in its rejection). Almost like family in a way but better – recognizing your face and some of your manners from them without ever meeting them except on a page. So I drew from that intuition. I never wanted to write about them from an academic lens because they don’t exist inside of me that way. I think that’d place some distance there and I don’t want that. I’m all of those women and none of them. Some of the poems are almost like portraits to me. Glimpses of women I’ve met in my life or that I’ve wondered about.

Rumpus: It takes a certain kind of courage, I think, to so intimately and explicitly, place your work in conversation with some of the greatest writers. Do you think of yourself as fearless?

Eliza Griffiths: I couldn’t imagine not taking risks in my writing or work as a visual artist. I never want to be comfortable. Even as a young girl I was terrified to write but I couldn’t consider a life that wouldn’t hold a writerly space for me. My imagination is audacious. And now I think of those writers and their risks. I think of my friends who are taking risks every time they pick up their pens. Upon the page and in the world. I’ve thought about them for years – Morrison, Walker, Hurston, Toomer. How each of them created worlds and lives and used language to breathe. When I think about it, nearly all of the characters invoked in Mule & Pear are challenging their own fears, their own humanity, as well as the world’s. That’s what makes me return to certain novels again and again as I move through our times.

Rumpus: I really enjoyed the two Celie poems and how well you captured the essence of Celie. What would a poem about Sophia look like?

Eliza Griffiths: A poem about Sophia would be full of earth. It would be a flower that survives winter and even spring. A landscape that appears barren to careless eyes when actually roots are growing far and deep, inimitable in fertility and dignity. It would be a poem full of moon-polished hips and knuckles. It would be a poem made to hum and burn. It would not be a poem about silence or prisons. Maybe I’d have Sophia talk to Nina Simone’s Peaches (from Four Women).

Rumpus: Do you find it difficult to write about slavery, such as you did in “Alice Paints the Moon?”

Eliza Griffiths: I didn’t have any difficulty writing about slavery. To read a novel like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World or Valerie Martin’s Property helped me focus on my own voice in the poems I wrote about slavery. When I was working on the poem I didn’t read any poems about slavery. I thought about the particular scenes regarding Jones’ Alice and that, by the novel’s end, Alice had rendered a new Creation story and that she was an artist – a painter. I don’t think many poets use it, in its historical understanding, as a subject anymore. Slavery exists in the world. There are all sorts of individuals and institutions who still unfortunately feel they need it. And so there are various names and incarnations of its evolution. I was able to write the poem because Jones’ character, as you asked earlier, was fearless. And that her story, who she was and later became, was literally about a physical and spiritual death. And then her resurrection.

The Rumpus: Race is deeply embedded in many of your poems. Why?

Eliza Griffiths: To strip race from the poems in the Mule & Pear would be impossible. I wouldn’t and could not do that. When I think of the characters I’m focused on in this collection, race is a character and a condition too. It’s not always the same in each novel of course. If I turned a ‘blind-eye’ to race in these poems I’d be guilty of grafting an invisibility to their lives. I’d be using privilege in way that I simply cannot. One of the most important things in the book is the notion of how race “worked” in the characters’ interior and exterior lives. The location of it within the body and within society and the legalization and daily practice of tension, fear, desire, violence, and often – love. To deal with these characters and not acknowledge and invoke race would be like pulling out their eyes and tongues. Bringing race into a poem these days often feels like pulling a ring out of grenade and then eating it. Others may, and of course, do “read race” as they are inclined, given their own experiences and perceptions about the world. I don’t feel I’m forcing this theme except to embed and name its complexity in regards to history and to imagination. Given the climate in the world right now it’s clear that there is much to question. And much to celebrate in some instances. I’m hoping that readers of Mule & Pear will want to return to some of these novels and have conversations of their own about the “stories” of the women they witness.

Rumpus: Mule & Pear seems like a book that is well suited to a soundtrack. What songs would you pair with this book?

Eliza Griffiths: It’d have to be a double box set, I think, maybe a triple box set that would include Billie Holiday, Chavela Vargas, Anita O’Day, Erykah Badu, Satie, Fiona Apple, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Alexandre Desplat, Curtis Mayfield, Amy Winehouse, Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, Valerie June, Bach, Otis Redding, Odetta, Cassandra Wilson, Minnie Ripperton, Jessye Norman, Celia Cruz, James Brown, Bessie Smith, Camaron de la Isla, The Roots, Chaka Khan and wow, I’ve gone on too long already! Let me just say there’d likely be some B-sides and Z-sides, I’d need to include some stuff only on vinyl!

Rumpus: I love movies as much as I love books so I have to ask—what did you think of the film adaptations of Color Purple and Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Eliza Griffiths: Their Eyes Were Watching God was challenging for me. I guess I’d already invested so much imagination with the novel it would have been difficult for me to fall in love with any film adaptation. That’s just my preference and I tend to be careful about comparisons with books and films because I know that each medium has it challenges. I wasn’t even ten years old when The Color Purple came out. By the time I saw the film so many people in my life quoted it regularly that I had to watch it and absorb it just to know what was going on in a conversation or how someone was feeling. If one of my friends was having a ‘Sofia’ day I had to know exactly what that meant.  I still cannot watch the shaving scene without covering my face or having a strong reaction when Mister physically separates the two sisters, forcing Nettie to leave the only family she has left in the world.  I know there are different feelings about the film but I’m one of the ones who just needed to see and experience that film in my life. Anyway, I experienced The Color Purple quite separately from the novel, which was also the case for Beloved and the film based upon Sapphire’s novel, Push. If The Color Purple comes on TV now, I already know I will stop anything I’m doing and watch it, dare anyone to touch the remote, and force everyone around me to watch it too. I remember the very first summer I was at Cave Canem and everyone was singing the music from it on the bus after an event and it seemed to have a totally different afterlife, familiar but else. It seemed to belong to us. I don’t know why but there are some scenes that I can quote by heart and there are scenes, to this day, that will make me sob or dance around my living room with my invisible tambourine!

Rumpus: The book trailer for Mule & Pear is the first book trailer I’ve ever seen that I enjoyed and could watch over and over. What did you want to accomplish with the trailer? How has the trailer helped (or not) in the promotion of your book?

Eliza Griffiths: With the trailer I was mostly interested in a visual conversation with themes and specific images within the collection. It was frightening – to move from still photographs to moving images. To ask dear beautiful poet-sisters to lend their energy to my first role as director and images I suddenly realized could be perceived as strange. To learn computer software and to consider sound in a way I never had given too much thought about, except in poems and music and peoples’ voices. But I asked myself – what do these women look like? Where in time do they exist? What or whom are their talismans and tongues? How can I collapse so many palettes through music and editing? I knew right away that Nina Simone could be the foundation – I listened to her music heavily while I wrote the book and have a poem in the collection that’s inspired by “Four Women”. I challenged myself – I had to learn new things and I brought those things back to the collection and my feelings about it. At first I didn’t have anything in the trailer to “promote” it per se except for the title. I was at odds with feeling that I was “selling” something. I inserted lines from the book throughout the trailer because I didn’t want the trailer to be “silent” if that makes sense – and I didn’t want to mute myself either. But I forced myself to make the lines I included integral to the movement of the images themselves so that they didn’t seem gratuitous. The language and images had to be indivisible, finally.  So I hope the trailer helps, through lyric and mood mostly, explain what the book is about – thematically, historically, culturally. I haven’t looked at it for at least a month, actually longer than that, but I think I’ll look at it again now in a few days and see how I feel about it. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s done anything to help or not with how readers might engage the collection. I’m happy it came out the way it did. I do know that I’m excited to work on more film shorts in the future that will employ language and poetry.

Rumpus: How have you grown as a writer?

Eliza Griffiths: I don’t think I’ll know for a long time if I ever do or how to qualify it yet. I’m certain I’ve changed but I don’t have enough distance or space yet to articulate the growth, however, I will see it when it’s already happened. I like to experiment and shed my skin so the “growth” is hard to measure depending on what I’m working at. My growth as a writer also depends on maintaining a museum life and a heavy reading schedule, which I think is important. I’ve grown more me. On a simple note, I’m more patient with myself on the page or behind the lens. I want to savor every distraction and every obsession. I seemed to have grown by returning more to my intuition.

Rumpus: You’re also a visual artist. Where do you find intersections between your visual work and your poetry? Or do you create those intersections?

Eliza Griffiths: Sometimes they intersect (consciously or otherwise). I never try to force them. Ever. The intersections create themselves most of the time, by-products of a flare, experiment. If I’m working deeply within a poem I may challenge myself through a visual prompt as a way to widen and sharpen what I’m after in the poem.  Other times I’ll create an image or experience an image and will ask myself how the tongue would see this – what sound/rhythm would the image make if it could. If I could listen to it. I’m often trying to listen. And there can be spaces between the mediums where the drop is staggering. Many of the themes between the visual work and the writing blur and bleed. I don’t try to control it, not anymore.

Rumpus: What do you love most about your writing?

Eliza Griffiths: For now I believe I love the process more than the “made” thing. The experience of a precise concentration always surprises me. The imagination and its tension with language. I love when I look up and realize hours have passed, the music I was playing has gone elsewhere, the light on the street is moving away. And I remember I’m attached to my body, that I have to walk my dog, that I have to eat a meal and re-enter the world, and that I won’t be able to ever fully remember what happened as it was happening because I was working in it. Kind of like dreaming but harder to translate. How do you witness imagery and rhythm? I don’t ever want to answer that all the way. Well, I couldn’t, thank goodness, but I know how it feels just the same.


Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger forthcoming in 2017. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. Roxane was the founding Essays Editor and is a current Advisory Board member for The Rumpus. You can find her at roxanegay.com. More from this author →