I saw Jorie Graham give a reading once in spring 2008. It was at the Brookline Booksmith in the Boston area, and she was reading from her then-new collection Sea Change. Though I’d loved her work for years, I wasn’t sure what to expect at her reading and feared that in person she might not conjure the meticulous passion that’s informed her work throughout her career.
But when Graham stepped up to the microphone, she didn’t do the usual cursory introductory banter poets usually do before quickly diving into their poems. Instead, she spoke at length about all of the different environmental crises we were undergoing. She talked of melting ice caps, the disappearing of bats, all with the same exigency. By the time she began to read her poems, we all knew what was at stake, in her book and on our planet.
What I remember about that introduction she gave was that, though it was frightening, there was something trance-like and oddly comforting about it. To hear someone give voice to all the ways our ecosystem was aching, to share in the mourning, to celebrate being alive to hear it. It has been six years since that night, and Graham is still as engaged and engaging as ever. In her new collection Fast, Graham uses her formal innovation and deft fission of moments to confront deeply personal issues. Here, she confronts her father’s death, his Southern roots, her mother’s dementia, and her own cancer diagnosis and treatment. Though these issues are personal, she writes about them as only she can, never losing sight of the eternal and the ever-weighty now.
Jorie Graham is the author of thirteen collections of poems. She has been widely translated, and has been the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize, the Forward Prize (UK), the International Nonino Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the LA Times Book Award. She lives in Massachusetts and teaches at Harvard University.
The Rumpus: Can you speak to the ways the different forms in the book are in conversation with one another?
Jorie Graham: Some of the poems interact or flirt with prose, or with the artificially imposed edge of the page—a mechanical impediment. You could say these enact coming up against one kind of ending—say, where the human ends and AI begins, or where the organic ends and 3D matter begins. There are attempts in these to find a way to “speak” or whatever you would call it—to utter from—“non-human” voices: the bottom of the ocean floor, bots, surveillance devices, the holy shroud.
Rumpus: And then there are the more traditional forms.
Graham: Yes, more traditional free verse forms are more capable of registering experience where my individual humanity in solitude comes up against a crisis—in this case my father’s death, my own cancer diagnosis and treatment, my mother’s decline, for example. The free verse line just carries voice in its marrow—while the poems approaching prose resist voice, or resist human voice as we know it. With its subjectivity and its sincerity.
Another form I use, I would characterize as a mixture of the traditional stanza made of breath-units, and an implacable machine-cut stanza. It seems to come about where the poems explore how the body feels itself to be a body at all—or be dragged into being one—in various ways—from being gendered, or becoming incarnate, to reaching a threshold such as death, or cryogenic suspension.
Rumpus: I’m also curious why some poems have arrows between words, some poems have dashes, and some have both. I had originally thought the arrows were replicating computer code since you mention bots and such in the first section, but then they reappear throughout.
Graham: Ah, the arrows! Well, the poems enact life in an historical acceleration, ours—our runaway everything—from climate change to robotization to overpopulation and collapse of resources, failed nation-states, the horrifying numbers of people torn from their lives and rendered homeless on this planet—are there 64 million refugees now trying to find a place that will let them live, just live? So the poems began to accelerate past the dash—or seemed to be forced to accelerate past normal reasoning, past thinking as we know it, even past feeling as we have known it, by the acceleration the arrows generate.
Rumpus: Did you just decide to use arrows?
Graham: Actually, they came about as an accident. One day I made a dash and accidentally followed it with a “greater than” sign on the keyboard. And they joined up, and I thought, wow, what is that! Because the arrow it made suddenly vectored forward. The dash creates a pause, a slight waiting, a paced sense that the next thing said is equally distant in time from the prior one. But the arrow! It just hurried every felt and said and seen and experienced event into every next one—no time to pause, catch breath, hold the experience up outside of time for an instant—something a lyric poem loves to do. No, the arrows force every experience to be over almost too fast, force an expendability onto sensation and emotion, override each new instant with each next new instant. I didn’t use them often, but when I did it was as if I was trying to get words to hold still between them. Sometimes it felt as if they were developing a life of their own, trying to override all that could be said by a human voice in words. So they came to act as further agents of the machinic, the post-human, the force we live in now rushing-past-the-human to erase it. There were times where they actually seemed to interrupt what I was trying to say. They developed a seductive power. In some way they became markers of the limits of the will. As well as markers of the limits of human power, or agency, or capacity. It was amazing to feel the words “survive” them. To realize feeling would re-coalesce… that the human voice fights back to be heard, to reach out.
Rumpus: Fast has two self-portraits in it, picking up a thread from your other books. Do the self-portraits have any continuity from one to the next for you, or are they more like snapshots?
Graham: Well it’s very hard to look in a mirror and see anything which resembles what one feels one’s self to be. I think that discomfort, that dislocation, disintegration—that raw lack of feeling whole—that dysmorphia—is a very good place, in this moment, to hunt for the kind of experience which really requires the means of poetry to be grasped or felt. I think most people would agree that in our current historical and political extremity it has become unprecedentedly hard to look in the mirror.
Rumpus: In “Self-Portrait at Three Degrees,” one line reads “define human.” In the second part, we get “The Post-Human,” which is about death. “The Medium” has the passage about taking of shoes, heart, skin, palm, etc. The third section has a lot to do with the body, questioning corporeality and image. Were you thinking of all the different ways to be post-human while writing this?
Graham: Yes—all the states towards which we are morphing quickly now—the virtual, the robotic, the cyborg, the barbaric—but also other post-human conditions: my father’s body lying there on “his” bed after he is “gone”—what is it? My mother’s body after her mind goes. My father’s being when I use a medium to contact him—in what “other” world—and he “communicates” with me through her. As well as the world without us in it. The seabed, for example, long after we as a species are gone—what will it still be undergoing. That mutter. Or our human trace on the so-called “holy” shroud. What is left of us? Why does the trace have power? How far do we want to stray from what we still know to be the human? How far? Really, how far? Are we prepared for what we are encountering? Do we like the face that stares back at us—even now, culturally, politically—saying Hi, this is you, this is what you have become. Everyone okay with this?
Rumpus: Throughout Fast, there is a lot of water imagery, whether it’s watching the Charles or it’s “Deep Water Trawling.” Was water consciously important while you were writing these poems?
Graham: Yes, because we are heading towards a dystopian relationship with water above all else. Flooded cities. Desertified cropland. Also because water is a miracle—it takes so many forms—is the core of life—is holy. So it becomes important to pay utmost attention to the holiness which is this planet’s life-blood, which we are destroying. I always look for it in a poem. I honor it. I pay it mind.
Rumpus: Some poems here—I’m thinking of “Incarnation,” “Prying,” and “Cryo,” are relatively lengthy. Can you speak to the experience of working with longer poems? What unique challenges do they present to you?
Graham: I always try to end a poem as soon as I can. That said, I’m seduced by and mesmerized by dilation. How much the “now” can hold and carry and still remain the fast fraction of time, the instant. So much happens at once, in the split second. It has always interested me to see how much I can expand the lyric moment—which is by definition a quick spell—without losing the tension that holds it together. It makes me feel how wide life is, how rich, how much happens while we are not paying attention. The long poems are definitely attempted acts of lengthened attention. But they also try to mash up—for all their length—into the lyric now. “Incarnation,” for example, rushes to stay almost all in one breath. “Prying” dilates the time under anesthesia—one comes to, and it is as if life disappeared under there. I like, in poems, to go “under there” and come back. It all happens so fast and yet lets in such long vistas. Such intimations.
Rumpus: “The Mask Now” explores your father’s past related to the Civil War, which is an aspect of your family you haven’t written about before. What does that part of your history mean to you, and why are you writing about it now?
Graham: My father’s death prompted me to touch upon, for the first time, in that elegy, a world I have never approached—the long history of his Southern family. They were involved at prominent levels in both sides of the Civil War. But I have never gone near that Southern heritage. It just felt off limits. And then there was his body before me and there was no more, no way to ask the questions I did not ask in time. He left home very young. He fled. He went to war and then never came back. He stayed in Italy, where he had fought in the war, and where I was raised. He very rarely spoke of it. He had outrun it, it seemed, but then, near the end, I could feel it all flooding back into him. As the past must, I guess, to fill one up to one’s death. All this was unspoken. So the poem came out of that. It’s like a lifetime of fear. The mask is obviously partly a metaphor for that—that masked life. I was astonished when, in writing the poem, I put on his mask. Yes, it happened in life. But in the poem the mask lent me eyes I had not had before, if that makes sense.
Rumpus: The first section of Fast has a lot of technological references in it, such as the bot in the title poem. What is the role of technology in these poems?
Graham: It is present and it is questioned and it is used. It makes promises. It is moving us so fast we can’t grasp its nature.
Rumpus: With Sea Change, you said you were trying to make the environmental crisis real for yourself. What comes after it becomes real?
Graham: Others start to believe with you. That helps. Others awaken to the possible absence of a future as we used to imagine it. How do we live with that? That’s also partly the project of this book. Trying to squint in an unimaginable future via the imagination—a hard future, potentially unlivable for our species. Trying to be a soul who can do that and still love life, still attend to beauty, still live out the days as if they were still… days. Not just days moving towards catastrophe—though one must look that in the eye in order to act. But also just days. We still have them. We have to live them. Honor them. It’s Spring again. However distorted it might be in terms of warming, it’s still the Spring we have. We don’t get many Springs in a lifetime. We have to find a way to not refuse to see where we are, what we are doing, and yet we must still live. And making sure to live—to go through life not around it—was always hard. Making sure to be in the vale of soul-making—as John Keats put it. Now it’s insanely hard. I certainly cannot say that I achieve it—or come close. It’s incredibly hard to calibrate how to grieve the small death of your father, your friends—to face the small but important event of your own death—and simultaneously grieve the huge death of whole species—to attend to those creatures, those destructions. It can drive you insane. And yet the personal grief must be undergone even if it is dwarfed by the near apocalyptic grief we all feel. Somehow we have to be able to do both. How will we have lived if we don’t love and grieve and remember—who is to say what we are here to do?
Rumpus: What is the first poem you wrote for Fast?
Graham: “Double Helix.” The onset of runaway weather in “Double Helix,” the storm, the birds born in it under the eaves, the boy starting out his life, chalk in hand, at the blackboard, learning the words for it all once again. The words for our world.
Author photograph © Jeannette Montgomery Barron.