Saturday Sep 19

EricaGoss2014 It was a privilege to interview Rachel Eliza Griffiths for The Third Form. Rachel Eliza is a poet, photographer and professor (see John Hoppenthaler’s 2010 interview here). A Cave Canem Fellow, Griffiths is widely known for her literary portraits and is currently at work on her first extensive film project, P.O.P (Poets on Poetry), an intimate series of interviews, which gathers 100 contemporary poets together in conversation to discuss poetry in relation to individual human experience and culture. She is the author of Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books/2010), The Requited Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press/2011), and a chapbook, Memoria, Memoria (Deadly Chaps/A5, 2012).  Her recent full-length collection, Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose/2011) was selected for the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus American Library Association. Currently, Griffiths teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York.

Rachel Eliza was an artistic child: “I’ve wanted to make art as long as I’ve been conscious.” The eldest of four, she learned how to draw from comic books. “My mother was a gifted person who turned us loose with crayons and paper. Even her grocery lists were artistic, with these great doodles. Her cooking, meals - all were expressions of her creativity.”

As a poet, photographer and professor, Rachel Eliza shares this multi-genre approach. “Students have a more visual life nowadays. In my creative writing classes, I often have students respond to photos on their iPhones. One day they might examine their own work, and on other days they respond in writing to the photos of other students. It’s very interesting to see what they come up with.” Students write self-portrait poems using, for example, five photos as a gallery. Rachel Eliza asks them, “How does shadow work in a poem? Is it similar to shadow in a photo?” 

Shadow and light are elements of Rachel Eliza’s photography and film. In her video poem “This Dust Road: Self Portrait,” a young woman walks out of shadows and into light, emphasizing the contrasts in black-and-white film:


Rachel Eliza told me she shot some of the video during a trip she made to France to visit the homes and studios of artists. “I was investigating the homes of artists in Arles during the summer. It was very hot, and the light was very bright. I made a pilgrimage to the studios of Cezanne and Van Gogh.” Parts of the video were also shot in Mexico at the home of Frida Kahlo. “I needed that kind of texture. Frida’s house was full of color, with parrots in the garden. I sensed Frida’s prankster spirit, and all of that Day of the Dead humor.”

A very different video, “Incident,” based on the poem by Amiri Baraka, takes a hard look at the recent police violence against unarmed black men:


About the making of “Incident,” Rachel Eliza said: “The night that the decision about Eric Garner was announced, I felt changed on a molecular level. I thought, what can I do? I was willing to put my body on the line. I wondered how I could participate in the conversation.”

Rachel Eliza read “Incident” at a tribute to Amiri Baraka during the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival, which included poets Billy Collins, Natalie Diaz, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa and Marilyn Nelson. “My one voice didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to do something, I wanted to make something in response.” For the video poem “Incident,” she says, “I didn’t want a made, polished thing. I wanted it layered, jarring.”

To create the video, she used clips available on the Internet. “After watching so much violence, I felt as if I might develop PTSD. It made me ill.” In the videos, “you see the lack of respect for the victims’ bodies. There is so much brutality.” Her reading is especially effective, with an anguished voice echoing a quieter one, and gunshots punctuating a steady heartbeat. “This is about starting a dialog,” she said. Read Baraka’s poem here.

Rachel Eliza’s current project is P.O.P (Poets on Poetry), a project with 100 contemporary poets who read and comment on poetry, their own and others’. “I wanted videos that showed poets in a better light, quality-wise, than what you often see in archival videos on YouTube, for example. I’m happy that teachers use some of the videos as part of their lesson plans.” P.O.P includes poets such as Cornelius Eady, Tina Chang, Michael Dickman, Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes:

She has a new book coming out, Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books) in April of this year, and plans to make a triptych of videos for it. “I think of them as ‘lyric videos’ rather than book trailers.” See more of Rachel Eliza’s work here