This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Gregory Orr about his collection, River Inside the River.
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. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Greg Orr: Hey, I’m here. Excited would be an understatement, but I’m going to do my best. This has the feel of fun, but as I say: it’s new to me. Damn, I haven’t even ever sent a text message, yet. does this count?
Camille Dungy: It’s not a text message. It’s even more advanced!
Brian S: Ha! You’ve blown past text messaging into live chat.
Greg Orr: Whoa! more advanced? should I fasten my seatbelt?
Brian S: Camille, do you want to kick this off?
Camille Dungy: That seems to offer an opening for a question. I often think of poetry as a conversation with the ages, and your book seems to confirm you think the same.
Greg Orr: I loved that phrase from your note about the choosing;conversation with the ages. Yes, with “poets dead and gone” as Keats says in “Mermaid Tavern” they are alive and talking to us and us to them
Brian S: I’m curious about the way you came up with the book’s structure. Did you intend to link these three long lyrical sequences together, or did that just happen as the pieces came to life?
Greg Orr: Brian, yes I intended to link the first two (eden and city) for sure. the third is a continuation of the last two books (concerning the book and how beautiful the beloved) which are both open-ended lyric sequences moving around the key phrase “the Book that is the resurrection of the body of the beloved.”
Camille Dungy: Yes, the poets of old are alive and talking to us. Also, though, we are talking forward into time to people we can’t even fathom. That’s such a crucial concept, but to write a whole long sequence on it…your poem felt both refreshingly obvious and also newly thought, and I wonder if you can talk about what sort of choices you made to allow for that balance.
Greg Orr: Camille, yes, if only backward, it would be more limited. But we talk “forward” also in the sense that we poets write our poem to help us with whatever is immediate to us, but then when it’s done that first job (our “survival”) the poem is still there. So, we put it in the Book with all the other lyric poems and songs so that people can find it later and use it to help express or understand their own lives and situations. very simple. obvious. but also worth talking about or risking talking/writing about.
Camille Dungy: Yes.
Greg Orr: Another way of saying “put it in the Book” would be that each poem we write pops up in the city of poetry, where anyone can visit it. Just as we visit the poems written before us. Go to Dickinson’s house, or Li Po’s or whomever we think has something to say to us that might help or be beautiful
Camille Dungy: I’m curious how you constructed the sequences. How much did you write at one time, for instance. The first section felt like it could have been an obsession your returned to over a long stretch of time, but the second and third felt like more concentrated meditations in some ways. Then again, they also felt like the kind of meditations you would write then return to and revise and branch off from.
Brian S: It struck me as I was rereading the book this afternoon just how open this book was about ideas, which is not something you see so much of in contemporary poetry (it seems to me at least). So often the ideas are hidden by images, when they appear in poems at all. Did you have a sense that you were wrestling with some large concepts when you were working on this?
Greg Orr: Brian, my earlier/earliest work was ALL image, really. It was dense with image. The new work is idea and statement (and puns). How that happened I don’t quite know. But I experience the ideas as images (a city, a book) though I realize they aren’t NYC or a paperback or something. I can’t explain the connection between ideas and these poems except to hope it sounds like “metaphysical imagination or “mythic imagination” or something.
Camille Dungy: It does sound like both “metaphysical imagination or “mythic imagination.” Especially in that the ideas are not time or situation bound though the suggest both time and situation.
Greg Orr: Camille, once I “saw” the images for the sequences. In Eden I “saw” that Adam or Eve probably spoke each word FOR THE FIRST TIME and that seeemed wild and seemed to me that that might have brought them to some essence of language. Once I “saw” the city, I knew it was real. once I saw that a poem was a house, i knew it was real and could go back to it or else write a flurry of poems around it, both worked.
Camille Dungy: Sounds like something William Blake might say.
Greg Orr: Yes, but timebound and free of time: we want both, because both are true. We long for the latter, live with and through the former.
If William Blake said it, then it must be true. that’s my motto. If he could have said it, it could be true.
Brian S: I loved the way you started the second section, “The deep snow of oblivion–/If those before us hadn’t kept/ Poking up the huts of the poems.” Even though intellectually I know that more people today are writing and publishing poetry than ever before, I still feel like one of those people running around with a stick to poke up the hut sometimes.
Jennifer Perrine: Brian–I think maybe you’re not so much poking up the huts as directing people into the City, or showing them new neighborhoods. As I read that sequence, I wondered how visible the City is to people who don’t consider themselves readers of poetry.
Camille Dungy: Did you exclude and of your truly beloved poets from your poem about the City of Poetry?
Greg Orr: Camille, I had to exclude hundreds. Anyone I mentioned I DO love, but I couldn’t always write well about others I love– Yeats, say. or Roethke. I got one of whitman, but had several others also.
Jennifer Perrine: Hi, Greg. Could you talk a bit about the role of language in the first sequence? I read those poems as a kind of midrash, but the commentary’s not just on paradise and “the fall,” but also on language, speech, writing. I’m curious especially about how the power or nature of language seems to change in the course of the sequence, from God’s initial boast to the small stay against death/loss.
Greg Orr: Hi Jennifer. Yes, language is a theme in the whole book, no? I mean it ends with the title poem about words are all we have. I guess midrash makes sense. How does it change in the course of the sequence? Well, God is into No and into Stasis/Nouns. Adam and Eve, in order to be in this world (and get this world going) must choose verbs. Which is to gain sex but also to choose death and all else that goes with change. To choose becoming over being.
Camille Dungy: That’s an interesting question, Jennifer. Though I did feel in that part of the point is that those who would knowingly or unknowingly work to erase poetry are no real lasting threat to poetry.
Greg Orr: Jennifer, speaking of people I had to exclude: Hank Williams. which is to say, songs are part of lyric poetry in my book, my thinking. In fact they are the urgent element of poetry in our time, they carry the most emotion for the most people in our culture. everyone LOVES poetry, because we all love (one form or another) of rock and roll (be it folk to emo to rap). It’s all rock and roll and all lyric poetry.
Camille, no one can threaten poetry. It’s always been there, always will be. Humans need it to live: it has sustaining powers. How could we (anyone) get through adolescence without some form of song? Song is only a version of lyric poetry that is carried more by melody than by internal coherence and unity. but lyric and song– they are the same.
Camille Dungy: Since you mention songs and lyric, can you talk a little about your thoughts on the line, on beat and the music of the line?
Greg Orr: Camille, I liked what you noticed about the lines in your piece. I can’t actually explain why my lines got shorter, but they did. Just as I can’t explain why my early poems were ‘all image’ and my current ones are relatively abstract. The sense of the line changed with the theme, somehow my ear (or brain or heart/mind) fell in love with a short line and very very simple words.
Camille Dungy: I read an article today about the San people of Botswana, the people who are thought to be descendants of the people who figured out how to harness fire. Different San groups speak their language so differently they can’t understand the WORDs that the others say, but all their songs sound the same, the SOUNDs they make in sacred song are communicable beyond the words. I’m still working with what that concept means, but it’s clear it means a lot where poetry is concerned among other things.
It was in Conde Naste Traveler of all places. Having just returned from taking my small child to West Africa, I thought I’d read Peter Godwin’s take on a trip with his own family to Southern Africa. His was a far posher trip than mine.
Brian S: Why Adam and Eve? I know you like to work with old stories–I still have the copy of Orpheus & Eurydice I got when you visited the University of Arkansas–but I was wondering what made you go with such a central and well-worked story.
Greg Orr: Brian: several reasons. One is that it is a story of origins. Two, is that I love retelling because retelling is changing the meaning of a story without having to invent the plot (e.g. I left out the snake/Satan). Also, personal reason: my life “started” or went astray with my younger brother’s death by my hand in a hunting accident. When I was 12, that made me “believe” I was Cain. I wanted to go back before Cain, before everything went wrong and say HOW RIGHT ADAM AND EVE GOT IT.
Camille Dungy: Brian, I had a similar question about Adam and Eve. I remember thinking “Damn, that’s ballsy” when I first picked up the book. “First Greek myth, then Adam and Eve…” But I was so immediately caught by the idea of language tied with this old story. It helped me see a story I thought I knew in a new way.
Brian S: I actually had a professor in grad school tell me to leave the story alone, because too many other poets had worked it over already. I mean, my poem was not good, but that wasn’t good advice either, looking back on it.
Greg Orr: Camille, the Adam and Eve and the whole myth thing: D.H. Lawrence says that myths are “inexhaustible” because they are symbols of heart mysteries. That is, they can’t be exhausted– they somehow have embodied some central human mystery (love, loss, being a body in time, who knows which or what?) and thus can be retold infinitely and still be rich. That’s part of your saying: it’s old, but it’s also new. Or: there’s nothing “new” in the human heart, but it still matters lots.
Jennifer Perrine: I was caught by the idea of language, too, but also of Adam and Eve’s sensuality and sexuality, about which God (that “bodiless body”) seems to know nothing. It really turns the sense of omniscience on its head.
Greg Orr: Jennifer, I think adam and eve were doing a great job with their situation. I think the male, bodiless God of that story (or I take him as bodiless, though genesis has him walking in eden with adam “in the cool of the evening”). Yes, you’ve got what I was after.
Brian S: I loved the Adam and Eve section in large part because I grew up in a faith that read the story literally, and while I transferred the story to mythic status a long time ago, it’s still nice to see you remake it into something new.
Greg Orr: I want language to help us live in a world of wonder/terror/change. I want it to be about “becoming” rather than “being.” I think that being and nouns are part of our hopeless dream that time will stop and we will not die. but it’s not that way. So, why not celebrate verbs and the beloved’s metamorphosis into other people or creatures or places– the same spirit but moving through things, not static.
Addendum: which also means opening ourselves to loss and grief, but without them, how get love?
Brian S: Yeah, they’re all parts of that big messy ball of emotion.
Greg Orr: Which is what we are. that big messy ball and also imaginings and longings and so on.
Jennifer Perrine: Tying that back to music and sound: I was curious about how you thought about the rhymes at the close of so many of the poems. In other poems, rhyming in that way often seems like an act of snapping shut, of stasis, but in these poems, it sounds more like echo–one thing changing into another thing, similar but not the same.
Greg Orr: Jennifer, I love that observation, thank you. Rhyme as an echo not a closing off of sound. Love it. I don’t know where the rhymes came from. Or the puns like “no/know” and so on. Just a way my mind start moving toward what seemed urgent to it. I’d like to claim complete rational intent for it all, but it wasn’t that way. if you asked me about rhyme thirty years ago, I’d have said: not me, never. And now I done it.
Jennifer Perrine: Do you still feel the urge to move toward it?
Greg Orr: “similar but not the same”– that’s like the return of the beloved for me. And metamorphosis: the spirit of the beloved moving through things, not lingering long in any one thing or place, no matter how we might wish it.
Jennifer, “move toward it”– is it “rhyme?” I have to go where the words take me. Most recent stuff I’ve written, the rhyme impulse continues to assert itself. I’ll just go along and see where we end up.
Camille Dungy: Along the lines of my last question, I feel like there is a way in which your work deals with similar obsessions over and over and over again. Your own inexhaustible myths, I guess. You work them sometimes in new ways and sometimes in similar ways (which I find refreshing and intriguing). Do you ever find yourself thinking “I’ve said this already?” Or is that not a concern of yours?
Were the poems written in the order we receive them in the book? Something you said a bit ago (“which also means opening ourselves to loss and grief, but without them, how get love?”) made me feel like the peace around the confessions we receive could come from the first poem’s meditations.
Greg Orr: Camille, I think it would be hard for me to say clearly about the order the poems were written in. As I mentioned earlier, once I “saw” the garden and knew it was about words, once I saw poems were houses in the city– once I had those images I worked a long time on both sequences. At one point each was about 90 poems long. Once, they were ten poems apiece. Expanded and contracted; I went away and came back. I don’t experinece them as sequential, but want them that way in the book, of course.
Thelma: What are you working on now?
Greg Orr: Hi, Thelma, I am working on more “beloved” poems. I don’t know whether anyone wants any more of them, but they seem to be a capacious “myth” (the last two books, concering and how beautiful) plus the third section of this collection. I may just keep writing them from here on in, for my own satisfaction–I don’t know whether others have had enough of them, but who knows.
Camille Dungy: “if you have to be sure don’t write” as Merwin would say Berryman would say.
Brian S: I got dizzy there for a second Camille.
Greg Orr: wait a minute, who ever went to a party and left after one hour– doesn’t make it sound like they enjoyed the party.
Camille Dungy: We can keep talking. I’m having a blast at this party.
Greg Orr: Me too.
Camille Dungy: Jennifer, Thelma, lurkers, any more questions?
Greg Orr: if I opened another bottle of wine, would people stay longer?
Thelma: Absolutely! And I always want to know how the editing goes if you have time to talk about that.
Camille Dungy: Hearing that about the 90 to 10 and then back somewhere in the middle was really interesting. Do you have a sense of the amount of time it took to write this book?
Jennifer Perrine: And, how did you settle on what to include as you were going through the “contraction” part of the “expansion and contraction”?
Greg Orr: Editing. If only I knew. I mean I am committed now to one thing: lyric sequences. I want the intensity of lyric, but the scope and arc of narrative. so, I think I’ll just write sequences for the foreseeable (the Beloved sequence doesn’t have a ‘plot’ so I can just keep adding poems to it, it’s like a giant bag I can just put beloved lyrics into– I think there are about 300 of them i’ve published by now). The editing: the story expands, then contracts. I keep looking for its strongest emotional energy and idea energy.
Camille Dungy: I think he went to open that bottle:) There, an emoticon to complete Greg’s first live chat experience.
Brian S: So what you’re saying is that we’ll have to wait for a Collected edition in order to get the full scope of this project?
Camille Dungy: That would be a beautiful thing to see, Brian.
Brian S: We’ve created a monster, I think–from never having sent a text to extending the chat in just one hour.
Camille Dungy: The Rumpus is a generous generative space.
Greg Orr: I guess it took (time) about four years. I write every day when I can (I’ve had a dry spell recently, but it may have to do with trying to write some memoir/prose). So, I write and rewrite a lot, but the big thing, as you note is: how many lyrics does it take to create a narrative arc that is persuasive and urgent. Very hard to decide with City of Poetry. I saw two strands in that sequence: 1. the myth of the (timeless) city and 2) my own life facts moving through it and interwoven with the city (hearing Neruda, the civli rights movement, etc., being young at begining and old at end of sequence.
Camille Dungy: Greg, do you have any final thoughts you want to share with us about the book, your process, or poetry in general? I would love to hear you talk about the intersection you see between your prose and your poetry. I felt a strong and direct overlap in City of Poetry, stronger than in the other series. I think that has a lot to do with the life facts included in that sequence.
Greg Orr: Well, first to say that this was great fun and I’m grateful for your interest and ideas, wish we could face to face it. Then this: poetry saved my life, the writing of it led me and leads me to meanings that sustain me, so I think poetry is amazing and I can’t feel it is in any “danger.” We just give what we have to give; take what we need (from the Book from the generosity of our fellow poets now) and we try to keep our hearts alive.
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us Greg, and thanks to Camille for picking such a terrific book, and to Jennifer and Thelma for your excellent questions.
Camille Dungy: Yes, yes. Thank you, Greg, for the book and for tonight’s discussion. You gave us a great deal to think about. Thanks, too, Jennifer, Thelma and Brian for your questions.
Greg Orr: Camille, Yes, prose mattered a lot to me/matters a lot. Two books I wrote in early 2000s: POETRY AS SURVIVAL and THE BLESSING (a memoir) allowed me to work through a lot of material that was blocked in or blocked out of my poems and that freed me to gain access to the material in CONCERNING THE BOOK THAT IS THE BODY OF THE BELOVED and everything after.
Well, thanks to all of you for this. It was quite dizzy-making and I hope I didn’t sound incoherent. I really enjoyed this. Cheers,
Camille Dungy: I’m glad we had time for that final answer. I wish we had time for many more, but all good parties must come to an end.
Greg Orr: Until the next one.
Brian S: Good night everyone!