Rachel Eliza Griffiths interview, with John Hoppenthaler
In a previous interview (Tidal Basin Review, Summer 2010), you say of the fact that you are both a poet and photographer, “It took some time for me to develop a way to understand and appreciate the voices and articulations of each medium, and they are usually in conversation with one another, however harmonious and/or cacophonous. Tension in creation.” You go on to say that “[m]ood, intuition, craft, and imagery surface repeatedly for both.” You don’t speak much in that interview about subject matter for your two different forms of art-making. Does subject matter reveal itself differently to you in each form? Is one sort of subject matter best—for you—expressed via poetry rather than in film, or vice versa? Do you see the subject of a photograph as being more static than that of a poem?
Those are great questions. The relationship between these mediums is not cleanly bi-lateral. It is not synonymous or identical in any respect. Subject matter is utterly important.
The issue of Time for example.
In poems I can revisit the past in a way that photography, which is usually limited to advancing a frame unless I am deliberately fooling with double or multiple exposures, cannot.
With photography I guess I would be collapsing time in a way that would be different in its expression through language. Writing accommodates, in my mind, a wider net for experimenting with points-of-view/perspective, chronology, memory, etc. (And then there is a further distinction with issues of exposures because digital cameras, when I use them, exclude that kind of immediate experimentation or accident though it possible to edit and manipulate images later through digital programs like Photoshop).
The uses of photography in its relationship to memory, context, mood, the subliminal, etc. seems very different than creating a poem. Photography is taken as “evidence” in a way I don’t think is extended or expected of poetry.
Most of my photography focuses on portraiture, which is something in poems that does not usually interest me, unless I’m working at poems that use the idea of a ‘self-portrait’ as a device.
If I’m working on self-portraits, I can make a space where both visual and textual mediums speak to one another. The interior and exterior are always in conflict but it is the actual process of attempting to translate and articulate these distinctions is what fascinates me. However, if I am photographing another person, it’s unlikely that I would then attempt to place that experience into a poem. I never try to “capture” a person in a portrait, how impossible, and I certainly don’t write poems where “capture” is of much interest. But to glimpse the interior, or any aspect of the spirit, is something I’d like for both my images and my poems.
But it becomes different if I’m shooting, say, street stuff. The way that I’d use the images in a poem or as a photograph would be similar. I’m walking down a street and gathering every thread of sensory information I can—colors, faces, overheard conversations, signs, textures, moods, trash, arrangement of the light that day or night, whatever it is might surface in a poem. It could be a bit different, but I’d still recognize it in a poem.
Sometimes I can use the feeling of a subject in both spaces.
For example, I can make photographs that may express a particular mood that my poem may also share. With photography I usually have some frame of “reality” to work from (or against) while with poetry I feel that there is a living world as well as an emotional and intuitive world contained within myself that I am capable of imagining and conjuring without having to open my eyes and see it.
Photography insists on both a presence and absence in a way that translates differently for poems. But I must always drag the codes and chaos of the intuitive world over to the images I photograph. The photographs must feel alive in the way that I hope my poems live. But they’re never synonymous, never easy lovers.
I think concentration is also important for both mediums and how they relate to subject matter.
When I’m doing a portrait, I cannot be distracted. I cannot think about a draft of a poem I’m working on. But if I’m photographing outside then distractions are welcome and become interesting fragments and narratives and moods. They are part of the seeing.
Distraction during a portraiture shoot would be disastrous.
The precision involved in attention to detail, muscles, twitches, intimacy, angles, light/shadow, the mood of the individual, etc.—those things matter to me in poems too. “Weight” and “surprise” in a poem and a portrait are interesting things to consider. I’d be embarrassed to confess how obsessive I am with light and shadow in poems and photographs—you know, content and the way I am surrounding it, by language or through a lens that is both mechanical and primal.
For example I’m working on a project about Frida Kahlo. After a while I realized I couldn’t “imagine” any further poems in the book until I traveled to Mexico, until I visited her home, her plaster casts, her neighborhood. I needed to see what her paint brushes looked like, her universe of a bed. I had to see Diego’s murals. I had to get lost for a while. After leaving Mexico I felt I’d accumulated a world of fuller language and image, both in poems and through the photographs I’d taken.
But there are distinctions. When I take portraits I resist, as much as possible, any manipulation of the image in post production. Minimal cropping, etc. With poems it is the opposite. After the initial bones are set I am constantly editing and moving things around until I see a body that might be solid, that has some depth to it.
And there are exceptions and resistances to all of this which is why I mostly permit the mediums surface as the need and subject’s need emerge. And it always interesting to see the results of both.
Please respond to this word in terms of your work: Chiaroscuro.
For me, this is a technique of absolute intimacy. The subtlety of the living world and my relationship with it. A riff between shades of primary colors. The erratic distribution of experience to illustrate knowledge or a condition. Mood. Flat light. Shadow. Silence. Masking. Blur. Suggestion. Ghost. In my poems it might also be about distillation, solitude, loneliness. Clarity.
It’s also about the hard contours of any force. A manipulation of shadows or brightness to endow or impart surprise. The contrast of the interior and exterior.
Sometimes porous and transparent, or obscured. Chiaroscuro invokes mystery and a pronounced lens for examining an experience, an image, a memory. It is one of my favorite devices in photography and painting. When I apply it to how I make poems, I see evidence of its presence via language.
In that same Tidal Basin Review interview, you say something of great interest to me as I continue to think about poetry’s engagement—or lack thereof—with politics. “Creating anything involves politics,” you say. Could you be more specific about this statement, especially in regards to your own art?
“Creating anything involves politics” means evolution and revelation for my art. It means accountability for both decisions, accidents. Surprises.
But perhaps, when I used the word previously, in regards to my art, I was and still am talking about strategy, technique, craft, a translation of intuition and creation in order to express or communicate something about my human experience.
And I am acknowledging the “political” decisions, declarations, interrogations, tortures, and imaginations placed upon my work as well as the work of other artists by which we may be judged at any given juncture, particularly in America.
And well, fear for some, not me—he fear that some artists have to utter the word “political” in regards to their work and the fear “Politics” has when it is placed in view of and relation to the Artist. They seem to feed and starve each other more so lately in either direction.
With my own work, it is also sometimes about control, clarity. Identity. Absence. Visibility. The dusty hanging bridge between heart and mind, or the line drawn in dust or blood between any absolute definition of Art and Politics.
I think the word “political” holds multitudes, for better or for worse, depending on whose politics you are.
You’re a member of the Cave Canem Collective, an organization founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady in 1996 with, as the web site describes its mission, “the intuition that African American poets would benefit from having a place of their own in the literary landscape.” The Collective has succeeded, I believe, to a degree far beyond what anyone could reasonably have expected fourteen years ago. Fellows have produced a rich and varied abundance of poetry collections, and they have received a stunning array of prizes and honors. It’s really quite extraordinary. Can you tell us about your experiences with Cave Canem and how those experiences have impacted your life as an artist?
I became a member of the Cave Canem collective in 2006, which was the year that celebrated their 10th year anniversary.
Well, my first summer Rita Dove and Lucille Clifton were the visiting poets that luminous week (I miss her very much).
I didn’t eat or sleep much—there was the serious business of dancing, dominoes, and nocturne lectures on craft, form, spirit. Voices reading poems would leak out from the windows all night long, and nearby from other windows you might hear Michael Jackson or Jessye Norman or Coltrane or Marvin Gaye. Nina Simone. It’s a week of rhythms, and you have to find your own while also understanding that there are infinite worlds circling. Essentially they are in your line of sight and within reach if you are open. And knowing of such rich existences is a fine and awesome thing. Sometimes this knowledge arrives weeks or months or years after that first initial week.
My second year it was Ntozake Shange, and my last summer Sapphire and Brenda Cardenas, from Letras Latina, were present as guest poets. I think I managed to eat a little bit more. Dance a little bit harder. I estranged myself, joyfully, from sleep. I got through a draft of something that interested me. The space of the workshop is a phenomenon like northern lights or Miles Davis. A wide music. Always an emphasis on the work itself—“work” meaning “page” but also the life and breath that must be negotiated to get any of it finally on a page.
Last summer I “graduated” from the Summer Retreat program, which is one of the brightest parts of my experience. I don’t believe I had (or have even now after being a member for nearly five years) any language that could articulate the vast layers of this experience, which is always evolving. It is a complex city as any space in which an artist (or community of artists) exists must be.
In 2006, during the celebration of its tenth anniversary, I began to wonder, as a visual artist, what a collection of photographs—portraits—would look like as I’d yet to see any significant archival or visual documentary of the collective. It was at this time, I suppose, that I began to imagine what has been an ongoing work-in-progress of mine called Ars Poetica.
To be a poet who belongs to the organization and then to undertake the project as a photographer requires intuition, a preservation and then collapse of distance, and precision. There are other photographers in the collective who are doing this in their way too. I feel that the project will be a long lifeline, and it is not “mine” but rather “ours.”
When I read through the selection of poems that you’d sent me for consideration, I was struck by a couple of things. You dedicate the poem “To the Sea” to Jean Valentine, and I’m a fan of Jean and her work. The poem just so wonderfully resonates with Jean’s spirit, that dream-like atmosphere and fragmentary relationship with the world. The second thing that strikes me is the closure of the poem “According to Beauty”: “I told you once about the woman / I met, huddled by a river. Stained yet polished / by rain and music. I always wondered why / she waited for the moonlight to disappear // before she revealed her face, / pronouncing our name.” That moment so vividly brought me back to a conversation I once had with Toni Morrison in her home. Sitting on her porch swing, she pointed to a place on the shore of the Hudson River and told me that’s where she saw Beloved emerge from the water. Other moments in the poem also remind me of Toni’s novel. Coincidence?
Well first, I feel a great intimacy with Valentine’s work, and I believe that my poems move toward this articulation of the relationship between dreams and the wakeful world. I heard Jean read a sequence of poems titled “Lucy” about the first bones of a woman discovered in Africa. I admired her translation of bones in these poems, her meditation, just the gesture of it is brilliant to me. My photographs and poems are usually fragmented. They can be strange creatures. They are often meditations, elegies, riffs. Squalls.
I wrote “To the Sea” during a week at Provincetown while taking a workshop there. During this time a young woman, a beautiful spirit—Aura Estrada—had died suddenly in a surfing accident. It struck me deeply. During my time at Provincetown, I spent every moment I could out on boats photographing whales. I was grieving a number of experiences.
Water, particularly large bodies of it, are important sources for me in a way that is mostly unconscious. I think I was in a sort of rage that the same water that could hold something as awesome as whales could be the same water that had taken life, vast lives. That as much as I was drawn to the water I could be nothing but a fragment, a speck, too. The sea often serves as a space where I pull and sink my dreams and troubles.
So much of Valentine’s work percolates in the invisible, the depths that each of us strives to articulate, no matter how bewildering. And because of such a scope, the task is made nearly ordinary.
There’s likely no coincidence between my dedication to Valentine in that poem and the presence of Morrison in “According to Beauty”—looking at the poem now I see and hear and feel the presence of water again.
For no immediate logical reason would I have first considered bringing Valentine and Morrison together and yet, thinking of your question, I see that it is emotionally true. We all seem to be in conversation, in part, with memory, with the body and its/our history, with numerous species of the human imagination, with humanness itself, and a particular (in)dignity in language.
Morrison has a splendid part, from her work “The Site of Memory,” that invokes some of what moves, unconsciously, in my poem. She writes, “All water has perfect memory and is forever trying to get back where it was.” This articulation comes after talking about how the Mississippi River was “straightened out” to accommodate human comfort and commerce. Then, after the line I mentioned, she links “remembering” to writers, and I’m certain that what she is speaking of resonates emphatically and mystically for me.
She also has that passage in Sula where Sula lets go of Chicken Little’s hands, and he flies out over the river and then he slips under the water, etc. He drowns. I think the first time I read that it just settled down deep. And it is connected, but not identically, to the way I feel when I see and remember the images, photographs, taken of Emmett Till.
Also, I remember Morrison saying something during her interview on the first volume of Timothy Greenfield-Sander’s Blacklist Project that when she was growing up her own mother spoke of her dreams as events. That they were real. I find my imagination and my dreams to be a realm as legitimate as any country on any map of the world. I understand and trust this deeply because dreams are cast just as such in my own life.
According to Beauty
Under midnights you came, a hunter through memory.
It was memory that could please and betray. It was memory
that crawled and staggered, staging the deaths of beautiful words.
It was memory, distressed as a mirror, which shattered smoke. Face.
It was memory that bewildered the alchemy of the real.
I could never escape midnights or the remembering.
It was memory, a voice said. The voice belonged to everyone,
which made it into thunder. It was memory waiting in a corner
like a riff of selves in the dark. I am an outlaw woman
shadow-dancing. My life too fast to burn. It was memory
that killed my loves, my children, shamed the old country.
The moon was involved wherever wolves hunted.
Stars were gathered. Arrows piercing my shoulder. Luck fell silently
through the earth. Luck crawled wherever beautiful things lived.
Through fields of water I wandered. Ishmael,
as I fled the whale-skull. What salt gave me at dawn.
There were colors, textures. Under the hood of irreparable delight,
adorned in moths, I arrived. What is the name
for those who collect the beautiful?
The word for the gesture of seeing
but not possessing eyes? Sight ghosted or exorcised. An eye
that blurs as the selves, the burden of the I within
a flawless landscape.
Starlings, from a dark cluster.
I stare at the way bars lengthen in moonlight
upon my bedroom floor where I danced in a wind
for your lungs. You held solace, a small yellow bird,
to my cheek until it stopped breathing.
Whispers uttered between memorize and believe.
It was memory that gave me faith then unleashed termites
in my house, my body. It was memory that held
the faces quiet. It was memory that marched and saluted
my useless authority, mocking my splattered skin.
It was memory that cried for blood
and vengeance. Against the midnights
where the shutters of the law remained latched.
And it was impossible to know whether God was
I told you once about the woman
I met, huddled by a river. Stained yet polished
by rain and music. I always wondered why
she waited for the moonlight to disappear
before she revealed her face,
pronouncing our name.
After Another Death
We weren’t prepared for other risks:
silence near a gibbous moon and the falling
birch limbs where something outside was
being hunted. The moon came apart, pale
seam bruised open by bees. Stalks of lupin
chalked with ash. The father
has been dead a long time. Shadow
at your throat. Ghosts never requite
what midnight needs. Nothing, you said.
My fingers trail over ribcage, tap
the red stone I once believed would sprout.
No night could cry this mercy.
But everything was falling, stone
from stone, summer roses
lush as prayers. We learned
to cry without breathing, the way
some wounds bleed without
our understanding pain.
The night thick enough
to pull apart with our hands
and the stars nearly distant by now
form broken staves
where a strain of music
had been flung, scattered,
and our hands shook.
for Reginald Shepherd (1963 – 2008)
With us, within
the light that pearls
that other light.
Did you know the last star,
falling through dusk as the body
stopped, like a word
in the lungs: a last breath,
pouring itself through the body’s
funnel of blues? Little curve of
flesh, milk, and mouth.
Say the question that began
in our darkness, waiting.
Did you reject how small
your body was? The beauty
of wreckage holding beauty.
Shell tossed from the mouth
of the sea. Where is the word
that opens dawn? Where is the life
that sways the raw bough, bringing you
back to us? The recurring return
as tide and birth. Were you going
somewhere beyond the arms of
earth’s lantern? Your name there:
a son of Orpheus singing
in the dark. Before the last flare
and perhaps, the clarity? Did you see
the ribcage that held a woman’s breast,
fruit pushing its star through bone?
Your name is a song
that even touches the buried
galaxy where you grew. And the heart
is never widowed by all of
the others, we who have held love
like a small body within,
beginning this belief
again, as the waters cradle
our suffering, cries cupping
the long thirst.
To the Sea
after Jean Valentine
I am afraid of you now.
You take everything and exist. You take everything,
which means you are never hungry.
Here are vertebrae hymned with your spit, cupped within sand,
a lady’s shoe, a leaking compass, a pearled shell
salvaged by your hermits, a plait of rope so ravaged
I imagine my own hair, years from now, fanning out
towards the dark.
Your violence edges each tide with a plea
of white. Remorse crashes in its own foam.
A child, you snap the spines of boats. A man,
when you are like a wall. A woman, when you reveal
yourself as beautiful and terrible, whose depth is
fog without light.
You, like each curve of
my body, are tomb and life at once.
Here is a bra, a fish-skull, one unbroken headlight, an eel
halved like a clean glove. Here are my faces that slip, dive down
starving, to gulls. I am afraid you may hear my cries.
You are merciless as a body without wounds.
I lower useless chains beneath this wooden flesh. I hold
love like a chain flecked with blood.
You are never deserted. You are solitariness fulfilled.
You are the voice that shucks language, like a pearl of blood,
from my skull. I come to your edge, my lips nearing the word.
You answer me in floods, droughts.
How do you give your lives nothing and
everything at once? Your mouth so rough
as I run, with closed eyes, towards your ruin. I fear
you will hold me. I fear you will keep me.