Gray Jacobik Interview, with Ken Robidoux
I came of age as a poet in the 70s, a period when American poetry was, in my limited experience at the time, still under the influence of a minimalist approach: spare, lean poems written under the influence of William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Robert Bly and James Wright, among others. The literary magazine work popular then had a pared-down diction, simple syntax, an aversion to decorative or linguistic flourishes, a paucity of figuration. I’m compressing a great deal of literary history here because it begins with Pound’s dicta: “go in fear of Abstractions” and “the natural image is always the adequate symbol”. Although I wrote in a similar vein for at least a decade, I was never satisfied and felt hemmed in by what I perceived to be the accepted standard, and by a fear of making direct statements in poems. Then, in 1983, I read Martin Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, Thought: a major revelation for me, for, among the many questions Heidegger poses about the nature of language, the poetic, the breaking of stillness, and so on, the mere idea of language qua language – language as language, language in and of itself –– shifted the ground I stood on as an artist who works in the medium of language. I realized that all my life, up to that point, and subsequently of course, I had had a sense apart from one of total immersion in the stream of language, although I surely had that as well, as all human beings do. I “saw” language, that is, at times I had a modicum of objectivity about it, or at least a distance from it. That book, by the way, still strikes me as being a profound inquiry into the nature of the poetic as a way of being and of being in (or dwelling) in relationship to language. This revelation has given me a good deal of freedom as a poet: I feel free to listen to and play with language, to up the ante in terms of diction or flare or syntax or grammar. I feel free to paint with, gesture with, explode, exploit, dance with, sculpt words. It helps, as well, that I share in the postmodernist perspective of regarding culture, cultural identity, and the self, as human constructions. You know, the whole shebang, as Stevens would have it.I want to mention another important influence, and that was my discovery in the early 90s of contemporary poetry written by English-speaking Irish writers, and most specifically the Irish-American poet, Eamon Grennan. I don’t think the Irish ever succumbed to the same minimalist approach to writing poems that dominated popular American poets. I found Grennan’s poems to be lush, lavish, sensuously written on a linguistic level (among their other virtues), and studying his work, along with that of Bridget Pegeen Kelly’s (another Irish-American deeply influenced by Yeats), opened up new worlds of possible ways of writing. Wallace Stevens has influenced me deeply as well, particularly in terms of cadence and in my willingness to use high diction unselfconsciously.
One day a couple of summers ago I was meditating on the question, “What is the single thing I can say is true of all the poets I know?” Of course immediately all the differences among us came to mind: different worldviews, sensibilities, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, different ranges of experiences, different mother-tongues, different genders, maturation levels, skill, beliefs, and so on. Then I realized that the one thing I can say is so about every serious poet I have ever known –– and, after more than thirty years of being actively engaged in this form of art-making, I’ve come to know hundreds of poets –– is that every one possesses a fundamental love of language. Poets are people who love words, love language. Perhaps not all of us relate to language in and of itself, in the Heideggarian sense, but we all love words and what words can do. “Italian Names” is one of a series of poems I am working on that derive from this realization of mine: I decided I would write some poems that embodied, but did not name, my fundamental experience of loving language, poems that enact that love. Of course, in a sense, I’ve been writing such poems for a long time as you realize, I just wasn’t quite as deliberate about it.
Two of your poems we are publishing here, “Fala” and “Lorena” (which is a poem in form) are persona poems, dramatic monologues if you will, in the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt. I just love these poems. They are so dynamic, and I know they’re part of a larger collection (forthcoming in Drunken Boat, I believe), which I am excited someday to get the chance to read. Among other reasons, I’ve noticed that sometimes authors choose the persona poem form as a way of saying things that, perhaps, they’re more comfortable saying in the voice of another. Please tell us what drew you to the persona form? Why did you choose Eleanor Roosevelt as your subject? What were the challenges and successes you experience in writing these poems? And how much of yourself can be found in them or do you think they’re all Roosevelt and little to no Jacobik?
Drunken Boat is publishing, in the current issue, just three poems from this series, not the entire collection, all of which have not yet been written or are still works-in-progress. I choose Eleanor Roosevelt because I feel a deep desire to honor her contribution to twentieth century world history and because I admire her for her fidelity to her social and moral values. I admire, as well, her great fortitude in the face of personal suffering while never failing to fight for “the greatest good for the greatest number”. I am interested in speaking to what I interpret to be her subjective experience, and since this is an interpretation that comes to me through empathizing and imagining what she might have felt and thought at times, it is, of course, Jacobik, not Roosevelt. Nonetheless, in these poems I rely on the historic record: biographies, autobiographies, letters, and so on. My interpreting her inner life does take hubris and I am concerned about the liberties I am taking especially with what is speculation with regard to her sexual and romantic life, but is not known, and never will be known for certain. However, I do have a personal link that has provided me with the arrogance to think I can do this (and, since this project isn’t complete, I may fail at my endeavor). My maternal grandmother was an exact contemporary of Eleanor Roosevelt’s and, as was true of ER, was raised by her Victorian grandmother (both Roosevelt and my grandmother were ophans) and therefore, in many regards, had a late-Victorian sensibility. Although from a different social class, my grandmother had a social-consciousness similar to Roosevelt’s and a similar inviolable belief in the separate domains of public and private life. It is my early absorption of my grandmother’s worldview and manner of being that informs whatever empathy I bring to these poems.
Through you work it is quite clear that, although you are not locked into it, you are a fan of form in poetry. Further, “Criticality” seems clearly based on the scientific theory of criticality, which is quite an ambitious subject matter (or in the very least scaffolding) for a poem. And your new book Little Boy Blue is a memoir in verse. Our friend, the astonishingly brilliant Maurya Simon (Hi M!), once told me she is always making things more difficult on herself when constructing a poem. She’ll choose a particularly difficult form when blank verse will do. She loves the challenge. What, to you specifically, is the benefit of utilizing form in your work? Do you, too, find yourself challenged by form like a memoir in verse and by choosing subject matter like criticality or the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt? Is that why you do it or is it something far more innocent and equally valid than that. i.e., it’s just the way the poems come to you?
Of course I feel challenged by form: writing in form is part of proving ones chops as a poet and I delight in a sense of accomplishment when I have selected a form and pull it off to my satisfaction. However, form and its relationship to content is perhaps the most complex question one can raise about the poetic enterprise, so I don’t want to sound a single note about it. Jack Gilbert once told me that the sign of a true master of the art is the careful management of tone: I agree that achieving control of tone is perhaps one of the last skills a good poet acquires, nonetheless I regard poetic scope as being the highest measure of a strong poet. I seek to create a body of work that reflects scope, or poetic range as it is often called. Writing a villanelle or a sonnet successfully; writing a series of dramatic monologues or dialogues; writing narrative poems that are not weighed down by a plethora of narrative details; taking on challenging subjects; writing so-called objective poems and deeply subjective poems; writing graceful blank verse or tetrameter rhymed couplets: it’s all part of a desire to grow in scope. This commitment of mine has had a downside: It makes it difficult to establish a recognizable “style”, to become visible on a national level as a poet. Perhaps you, Ken, can recognize a Jacobik poem, but very few can. My work is too “all over the place” to be easily recognized. Only a part of me cares about this: my better self, obviously, works to ignore this aspect in favor of the challenges of being artistically engaged by various modes, meters, forms, and so on.
Does a particular form “come” with the poem? Rarely in my experience. Usually after I’ve been working with draft material for a while, a form suggests itself. A notion pops into my head such as “this might work best as a villanelle” or “cast this as a narrative, that will give you the capaciousness you’re struggling for here”. So it’s during revising that possible solutions about the best way to manage the relationship between content and form emerge. I do think it is key to think of the problem this way: as a relationship, just as, in visual media, for example, one thinks about the relationship between mass and space or plane and color. Every element of a poem is a matter of the relationships created between every other element: working these out is what makes writing so engaging to the writer, and, when done extremely well, pleasurable for the reader.
My favorite poem in this collection is “The Blameless Cage”. I must have read it 50 times. Stanzas that include phrasings like “Your categorical speech alone ascends” and “rational as heck” sound so much like a Gray Jacobik poem to me. This poem seems like you must have put yourself in a rather uncomfortable place to write it, but the results are astonishing. I suppose most poetry is very personal to the author, in subject matter or otherwise, but I was wondering how difficult is it for you to write poems that are so deeply personal in nature?
I have the thought that I would seem to you and your readers to be a better person if I said it was difficult to write very personal poems, but in fact I don’t find it difficult, that doesn’t mean I don’t find it emotional. Long ago I stopped thinking there was anything unique about my experience or what I have to say. I’m with the camp of poets, like Stevens, who believe that our subjects chose us, we don’t chose them. Often, by the time I write about a personal subject, I’ve long ago reckoned with the experience personally, and sometimes I write for therapeutic reasons, for catharsis or to gain perspective. Living is sometimes painful: writing is a joy. I write poems because it gives me great pleasure to do so.
Please tell us a little about your new book, Little Boy Blue: A Memoir in Verse, coming out in February 2011 from CavanKerry Press. Writing a memoir is difficult enough, but writing one in verse sounds like a rather serious undertaking. How did you find the experience? Also, I’ve heard some interesting things about CavanKerry and I really like their mission statement. How has your experience been with them?
Working with CavanKerry Press has thus far been a delight and I feel privileged that CKP has agreed to publish Little Boy Blue. Nothing would please me more than continuing to have a long relationship with this important literary press. CKP is a non-profit, cooperatively-run endeavor and community outreach is a big part of its mission. Every writer signs a contract committing himself or herself to take part (and document) such activities at least three times a year. For most, this involves giving readings or workshops for members of under-served communities. In addition, one volunteers support toward the press’s successful continuance – fundraising, encouraging donors, serving on committees, and so forth.Little Boy Blue is a long poem comprised of twenty-three sections, in varying forms, spoken in my voice to my son. While it is not presented chronologically, the time span is forty years and moves back-and-forth from the early 1960s to the early 2000s, encompassing the child’s conception up to his departure, at forty-two, into a secluded, in fact, a hermit’s existence, wherein all communication from me was forbidden. My inability to talk to my son triggered my need to write this memoir, to tell him the story of our life together as I remember it. My promise to myself was to be absolutely truthful, to hold nothing back, and to focus on those occasions which most crystallize, for me, the most powerful and dramatic transactions of our shared experience. I think I have done that. The poem is a long dramatic monologue made up of largely narrative components, although there are some meditative sections and some wholly dramatic sections. I felt the influence of W. S. Merwin as I wrote some of the sections, in others I felt the influence of C.K. Williams and of Allen Ginsberg (which is to say with these two, Whitman’s influence). I am astounded by the response I have gotten when I have read some of these poems in public. The poet, Dawn Potter, who served as CavanKerry’s copy editor for the manuscript, wrote to me that “it reads like one of those hallucinatory rushes of recognition” speculating that “this must be part of why non-poets are overwhelmed by it”. After hearing me read, Baron Wormser said something similar to me in an e-mail: “the urgency with which you spoke is more like revelation, the genre evaporating in the voice” and “I haven’t heard anything like it in a very long time––maybe never. The ground it occupies sounded a lot to me like the ground between poetry and prose––Beckett and Joyce come to mind.” Well, forgive me for this bit of book promoting, but I wanted to give you a sense of how others are responding to the book and to say that they’ve picked up something of how the book was written: in a white heat. Every single one of the twenty-three sections arrived whole, virtually no revising was necessary and they came to me in the order in which they appear. The poem wrote itself, or rather forty years of life and thirty plus years of working at this craft, wrote them. Compression under pressure. Thank you for asking about Little Boy Blue: as with all collections, the poet hopes it finds its readers.
On The Front Porch Of The World
Praise for Gray Jacobik
“From beginning to end, I felt my attention gripped by a true poet. A maker of stunning metaphors, Gray Jacobik revels in that swift and burning thought ‘like a line of sparking gunpowder wending toward a cache of dynamite.’ Here are poems of keen intelligence and disarming candor, ranging through a universe of feelings, from barbed wit . . . to splendid love poems to astonishing meditations. To read Gray Jacobik’s work is to be pleasurably illuminated—to live in a wider and more finely comprehended world.” X. J. Kennedy
“Gray Jacobik knows more than most that art is something painstakingly made, that a poem is a made thing, carefully and slowly crafted, even calculated, and not the unedited gush of a moment. She composes poems that are intense, richly musical, and remind us at every turn that we are witnessing a performance, witnessing language taught to stand up and sing. Her mode is never one of Wordsworthian plan speech. Enter a Jacobik poem and you are invariably in a world of Keatsian high color. Reading her work, I am also reminded of Wallace Stevens, for she shares with him a speculative turn of mind, if not an implicit belief in the ‘poem of the mind in the act of finding/what will suffice.’” Peter Makuck"Gray Jacobik's attention to the things of the world is vigilant, celebratory, responsible, a quickening force. Sensuousness, surprise, sharp-mindedness are the distinguishing marks of The Double Task, making it a distinct and happy addition to contemporary American poetry." Eamon Grennan
"The language of these poems is rich, sonorous, and precise. The intelligence is keen and never flagging. Add to this a sensuality that is occasionally sexy and always appealing. The combination of these qualities makes Gray Jacobik a rare poet, one not to be missed.” James Tate
“Gray Jacobik’s The Double Task vibrates with an intensely female spirit, a voice that is eager to declare her presence and flood the world with her worlds. Her language is lush and smart, rich and crafted. And her cultural scope—which includes Erik Satie and Pinocchio, Sappho and Magritte—allows her, like the English metaphysicals, to use what she knows to discover and express what she feels. Open this book, and it will pull you in.” Billy Collins