The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Lea Graham


The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Lea Graham about her collection Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You

This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Lea Graham. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.

This conversation was edited by Rumpus Poetry editor Brian Spears.

Editor’s Note: Due to some technical problems, Lea wasn’t able to answer as often as she would have liked. Let’s just say pop-up ads are evil and leave it there. So we decided to give Lea a chance to add to her comments via email, after the chat was completed. Those additions are set off in italics.
Sean Singer: Should we get started?

BrianS: Absolutely. You want to kick this off, Sean?

Lea Graham: I’m ready whenever you all are.

Sean Singer: OK… Your book shows wide and imaginative leaps in form. What was your strategy in expressing your theme, the crush, in terms of form?

Lea Graham: A smart question…. When I first knew that the book was becoming a book, I was interested in brevity, these swift little poems that provided immediacy through form.

BrianS: So you didn’t start with the idea of crush as a unifying concept?

Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Hi! Sorry I’m late. Very spotty connection.

BrianS: Hi Gaby. Glad you could make it!

Lea Graham: As I kept writing the book, I started to want to write longer, curvier, poems that moved from place to place (like in #90). Later, I was just interested in providing different forms to help explore the word itself and go beyond the typical of what we might thing when we say “crush.”

Sean Singer: Interesting. Yet it seems like some of the longer forms do much labor to reveal the threads of the book to the reader, or between speaker and reader. For example, “Crush #421” which uses long couplets, which I think sow the bare skeleton of the writing; strengths or weakness of a poem will show with long couplets.

Lea Graham: Hi Gaby!

Joe Harrington: Hi, Lea. It seems like a lot of poems these days are combining lyric and narrative modes – including the ones in your book. There are *pieces* of stories that aren’t finished – some are autobiographical-sounding – but it’s not exactly narrative poetry, and definitely not confessional. What is your relationship to narrative, in your work? How do you think about storytelling, in your poems?

Calvocoressi: Hello! So happy to say hello and get to talk about your book!

Lea Graham: Hi Joe! Thanks, Gaby. Ok, let me get to Joe’s question….

Joe Harrington: take yr time

BrianS: Has it gone quiet for everyone? I think my computer locked up for a second.

Calvocoressi: Me too. Now it seems to be back

Lea Graham: I am really interested in narrative. But, I am, for some reason, always more interested in incomplete narratives. When I first started writing, I was sure I would be a fiction writer (I’m a Southerner, if you didn’t know) and grew up with oral storytelling and all of that (I’m sure there’s some joke that should follow this….) Anyway, I think that as I evolved into a lyric poet , fragments fo stories kept creeping into the poems. A few of them are autobiographical, but really they are from all over the place. I love the stories that people tell me or the fragmented details and all. I hang on to them for years.

BrianS: Oh good. I was worried.

Sean Singer: If there’s a theme or strong thread in a book of poems, what prevents it from becoming a case of “the sum of the parts”? In other words, how do you deal with the poems working on their own and as a unit?

Melissa Barrett: yeah i keep having 30-second ads pop up and block the chat function

Lea Graham: I’m having the same thing, Melissa!

Another good question, Sean. All I can say is that I wanted to have it all.

Joe Harrington: What’s with all the high fallutin $93 words?

Lea Graham: Hahaha! Ok, Joe…I’m assuming you’re asking about some of the archaic language?

BrianS: There were times, Joe, that I wanted an e-version of this book so I could use my dictionary function by tapping on the word instead of having to actually pull my dictionary down from the shelf. Not that I minded learning the new words.

Joe Harrington: I guess it’s archaic . . . it’s OED stuff, for sure . . .

Sean Singer: Speaking of “having it all,” “Crush” might be a way to talk about obsession; what are some of the obsessions expressed in this book?

Melissa Barrett: Re: theme & obsession — There does seem to be poems that call out to each other — “Breedlove,” “Poughkeepsie,” “Brando”–certain words pop in and out of poems

Reb: Hough & Helix really put the our proofreader to work looking up so many words– we definitely got our money’s worth.

Melissa Barrett: lol Reb

Joe Harrington: I think “hough” is what back home is known as a “hamhock,” no?

Lea Graham: Well, this might be connected back to the question about narrative. What I didn’t want in this book overall was to give some “list of crushes” or narratives about desire and/or destruction. Mixing language has always been interesting to me. I love the OED and etymologies are a great way that I fritter my time away.

O yeah, Joe! The good old ham hock!

I think it’s easy to see how influenced I am by Frank O’Hara and his use of names–and even moreso, how he is able to get everything into a poem. I think that this was part of my thinking, going back to Joe’s earlier question about including arcane language. If you’re a poet in 2011, don’t you want to try to pull it all in? On the other hand, I didn’t want the names, places, etc., to be thrown in gratuitously or in a showboating kind of way. I think as you read through the book, it reveals its landscape of people, place and things. I hope that the poems teach you to read them as you go along in the book–or else, through some of the repetitions, the poems start to become your own familiar, your own names, your own crushes.

BrianS: I think that’s one of the things I enjoyed most about the book, Lea, is that it mixed word uses in such interesting ways.

Lea Graham: Thanks, Brian.

Joe Harrington: I also thought of the fabulous arcane words as expanding the meaning of erotic beyond the sexual – there are those of us who derive pleasure from words – from saying them, for instance.

Reb: No Joe, hough is what I did with all the 10karat gold jewelry my high school & college boyfriends gave me.

Joe Harrington: Bet u got a lot of it, Reb : )

Lea Graham: I honestly can’t remember why “hough” kept popping up for me, but it did and when I learned what it was (back of leg/erogenous zone) and that it was my very own “ham hock,” I had to have it.

Melissa Barrett: so maybe you can speak a little about richard siken, and your relationship to his work?

Reb: Good question, Melissa! And maybe Lea, you can discuss that evolution of your book title?

Lea Graham: Exactly, Joe! Pleasure in the sound and knowledge of the histories of these words.

BrianS: I think I just got locked out by a freaking Michele Bachmann ad!

Lea Graham: Just to let you all know: I have an ad blocking much of the text box. So if I’m slower to respond that’s why. It’s not going away (Scottrader Streaming Quotes)

Joe Harrington: I’m getting our local pro soccer team.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I’m back. And the ads seem to think I’m single.

BrianS: Facebook ads have asked me for more than a year if I want to be a minister. So much for all that personal data they collect.

Sean Singer: What if everyone felt that a strike against capitalism were a beautiful thing!

BrianS: We may get something like that if there’s no budget deal.

Sean Singer: While you’re mulling over the questions re: Siken and your title, I have another: This may be related to Joe’s questions about narrative: In some of your shorter lyrics, the first person doesn’t appear until almost the last line. For example, in “Nones/January” and “Winter’s Crush” (p. 40 and 41), the speaker appears and stops in mid-thought. Can you explicate what your thinking about these poems was?

Joe Harrington: Vis-a-vis archane words:

Lea Graham: Melissa, when I had written a lot of these poems with the title “crush” in them, I started to look around for other books using the same theme in some way. Richard Siken’s book had just come out to much acclaim a year or two before. I read it and really liked a lot of it, but I didn’t feel like I was repeating his work. With that said, I did acknowledge it in the opening epigraph and thought even more about his version of crush as another of the fragments of desire and destruction. I’m not sure if that answers the question.

Melissa Barrett: Definitely does–thanks.

Lea Graham: As for the title of the book, I had up until the end of the editing gone with “Crush,” “Crushes” and “Crushed.” Then, when I was working with Jill Alexander Essbaum, she helped me see that I needed to enact “crush”–not say it. Obviously, “Hough & Helix…” is a line from one of the poems and is, in itself, a fragment–something crushed–from one of the poems.

Joe Harrington: OK – so not getting the “end of the story” is part of “crush” – we want more.

BrianS: If the ads ever let you respond, Lea, where did you come up with the form for “Crushed Psalms.” I’m a sucker for that type of poem, the incantation, the almost prayerfulness of it.

Sean Singer: A terrific poem with many surprises.

Lea Graham: Yes, crush is about wanting more, right? (In its desirous state, anyway). But mostly we don’t get more–we get the interest, the suspension, the way desire incites imagination. Crush isn’t about the culmination.

Joe Harrington: You said it.

Lea Graham: So, Sean, in those poems “Winter’s Crush,” etc., when I’ve suspended the poem through ellipses it’s a kind of enacting how desire isn’t met. It’s also a way in which the reader gets to take it over in their own imagination. What happens next? That’s kind of delicious to not know.

BrianS: That’s how I took them, a deliberate uncertainty. Not something I’d like to see a lot of, but in small portions? Lovely.

Lea Graham: Yes, that’s absolutely the deliberation on my part (or any writer’s part): What to reveal? What to conceal or where to stop?

Sean Singer: Is concealment or revealing a question of emotional honest (as it would be in creative nonfiction), factual data in terms of language, or a rhetorical problem, how you construct the “argument” in a given poem?

Joe Harrington: Lea, you may be typing away in response to Sean’s and Brian’s questions, but if not, I’m curious – about the “I” and the way it/she appears or disappears. And about the origin of “Crushed Psalms”

Melissa Barrett: One more Q to add to the pile: Many of the poems end with dashes, or sometimes question marks–which is quite different for me . . . Most poems I read seem to drive home a final thought or a lesson of sorts in the last line. Can you explain how you want your reader to feel at the end of your poems?

BrianS: Lea, if technical problems keep you from being able to answer these questions as much as you’d like, you can email me some answers and I’ll put them into the edited transcript we’re going to run later this week.

Lea Graham: Brian & Sean, Thank you for loving Crushed Psalms! I love that poem, too! Ok, I grew up having to memorize Bible verses (actually, my dad paid us–ha!) I was thinking about how biblical language and phrasing along with my own colloquial language was such an early part of naming crush (both desire and destruction). Before I understood what any of those concepts meant, I knew about those Psalm repetitions. But I wanted to celebrate my early place in the world which is so connected to the way people speak (I mean it is everywhere, of course). Also, I had been talking with another Arkansas writer about all of this and he gave me some of those images: smoking Camels in her mama’s Impala…and all of that. It really started me going….

Joe Harrington: I loved that one, too – definitely the most Arkansas poem in the book, I think . . .

Lea Graham: Thanks, Brian, for the possible follow-up answers. It seems the ads for the moment have disappeared.

Sean Singer: We’re preoccupied with reading poems, and we forget those truly in need, the good people at Mentos gum. They just want us to put down our reading material and give it a try.

Joe Harrington: “Palinode” kind of “takes it all back.” It’s right before that amazing last poem, too – what’s the function of that poem, in the book?

“Palinode,” I mean.

Lea Graham: Melissa, I tend to like poems that leave more up to the reader. I think that I often leave poems that drive a point home to long or hard with trying to counter or them or just have a sinking feeling that I’m being sold something. So I guess I would say that I want the poem to be taken up by the reader–like you might do with abstract art. Here’s the question…what do you think? Or here’s the silence, the abrupt stop or fade-out…where does your own mind enter?

BrianS: We’re coming up on the end of the hour, but I’m willing to hang around a little longer if Lea wants to try to get some more answers out. Or I can add them in later. Completely up to y’all.

Lea Graham: O Joe…that Palinode! Ok, well a few things. I wanted to write a palinode and just see if it could be done. Secondly, people kept assuming the poems were about me. Some of them are, but many of them come out of so, so many different places and my own reading, etc. So, it was a little cantankerous of me, don’t you think, to include that Palinode?!

Joe Harrington: Yeah, but very cool.

But why does it matter to people whether or not it’s about you??

Lea Graham: Brian, I’m not sure how everyone is faring with the pop-ups. They aren’t so bad right now, but I’m thinking that it might be good to do another question or two (up to ya’ll) and then I’ll do the rest by email to you.

Lea Graham: Wait–the other thing about the palinode is that it gave me a chance to re-think things in the book. Does it matter that they are true or not? There’s story. And there’s story. So, no, it doesn’t matter. I just get tired of the typical question about autobiography.

I want to add a bit more to the conversation around autobiography that Joe brought up near the end of the conversation. If there’s anything that is autobiographical about the book consistently, it is the querying of how to stay interested in the world. Around the time I began writing these poems (even before I knew it was a book and well before, to answer Sean’s early question, I started employing “crush” as a thematic location), I did an interview with an artist who, at that time, was nearing eighty. I was marveling at his industriousness when he told me the anecdote about the old Hollywood producers sitting around smoking cigars, drinking highballs when one of them leaned over to another and said: “All I want is to be interested in something.” When I heard that, I thought that was so connected to the desirous part of “crush.” By what means are we interested in other people? Ideas? Places? Art? Also, to not be interested in something seems destruction itself.

Finally, I think my wariness of autobiography is two-fold: Since I teach college students, I am always aware at how they are looking for the “gossip” in the poem–what they call “the truth.” I think the poems give a sense of gossip or fragments of stories that you want to pass on, without, as someone said, being confessional about me or anyone else. Also, I think the “tell-all” of reality tv and talk-shows has made me even more uncomfortable with our notions of truth. I think that we are living at a time when no one feels they are being told the truth, but they still keep desperately seeking it. It has made me more committed to artifice for the way the fiction writers say it’s “the lie that tells a truth.”

Sean Singer: I’m going to call it a night. It was great talking to you Lea; I enjoyed your book.

BrianS: Well, even autobiography is rarely factual. It might be true, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Lea Graham: Just an fyi ya’ll: I’m starting to get pop-ups again. How about you all?

Melissa Barrett: I just got one 🙂

Lea Graham: Ok, I am happy to follow up with any other questions you all have. It has been a pleasure!

BrianS: MIchelle Bachman paid me a return visit.

Melissa Barrett: Lea, thanks for writing this totally funky book! I really enjoyed reading it.

Lea GrahamThank you all for reading my book with such engagement. Such smart questions!

Thanks, Melissa! I love that you call it “funky”!

Reb: Thank you Rumpus!

Lea Graham: Yes, Rumpus, you rock!!

Reb: And thank you Sean for selecting Hough & Helix!

BrianS: And Reb, we’re sorry to see NoTell go, but I’m glad we’ve had the chance to select one of your books. And let us know when you relaunch.

Reb: I will, thank you! Only the magazine is going away, the press is just taking a nap from publishing new titles.

Lea Graham: Brian, I’m thinking I may have answered everything…? Am I missing something? (Yes, probably, because the pop-ups kept/keep me from seeing the earlier questions….)

BrianS: Good night everyone. We’ll see you next month with Aricelsis Girmay

Lea Graham: Thanks again, Brian!

BrianS: Good night.

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