interview with michael mcgriff

by ciara shuttleworth

All last week, Cascadia Review featured poems from Michael McGriff’s collections Dismantling the Hills and Home Burial. This week, we’re featuring an interview I conducted with McGriff on his work, his thoughts about poetry, and his connection with his home in the Cascadia bioregion.

CS: Will you please speak to the importance of place in your work, and how memory shapes that, and how objects (the hip bones of a deer in “New Season,” for example) take on greater meaning?

MM: It would take me a lifetime to answer this question with any clarity—and even then I probably wouldn’t get it right or come any closer to knowing how to answer it. In the simplest terms, I find meaning in the place where I’m from (a rural logging town on the Oregon Coast called Coos Bay)—the people and the landscape seem to be soaked in meaning. I just keep coming back to the same images, the images that haunt me. Charles Simic said somewhere that we all have a set of our own “epic images.” That idea rings true for me. One fact of my life is that I spent my first 21 years in the same town and didn’t really travel much. My imagination was born and ran wild there. I fell in love with writing there. And I suppose my mind just flies back there when I sit down to write.

CS: There are writers whose work builds and shares a family mythology. In many (most) of your poems, you seem to be weaving the actual into a mythology of Coos Bay, of place and its people–both in poems about a specific location (e.g., building, cafe, mill) in Coos Bay, and in poems like “Invocation” where the place is less specific. There is even “My Family History As Explained by the South Fork of the River,” which is a family mythology. There is a mixture of beautiful images molded out of desolate scenes, the speaker half in the moment he lives in now and looking back . . . the other half still there, ghosting the old roads (and, consistently enough, a porch or porches), trying to make sense of it all. Do you feel you are building a mythology of the Coos Bay you grew up in? If so, is this so that it might continue to exist as Coos Bay changes in industry and with the influx of people in and out?

MM: I think that myth-making, at least for me, is the unintended byproduct of writing about the same landscape over and over. The more you write about the same place, the more you have to examine it from new and different angles. I’ve lived in different towns and cities, and I’ve spent time outside the United States, yet I’ve never been compelled to write about any of them. I just wouldn’t feel truthful if I wrote about the great mountain ranges in Utah or the Golden Gate Bridge or pickled Baltic herring. I envy poets who can roam about in their work, writing about wherever the hell they please. I wish I could do that!—but it’s simply not an impulse. I love art that captures the essence of a specific region. I’m absolutely obsessed with Frank Stanford’s poetry, for example. But I also love poetry that’s seemingly placeless, even private—like Vasko Popa’s “The Little Box.” I used to feel more partisan about concrete/personal vs. abstract/private. But I don’t have those feelings anymore—these days, partisan attitudes about poetry bore me. And to answer the second part of your question: No, I haven’t really thought about writing about Coos Bay as a cultural or social preservation project. Really, it’s just that I keep returning to that image source.

CS: Stanford’s life was too short for us to know what he was capable of . . . how he would write and what he would write about as he traveled . . . . Do you feel that limits you—or will eventually limit you—as a poet: only having one place you feel truthful writing about?

MM: Yes, Frank Stanford’s life was tragically short, yet he wrote so much, and so much of it was stunning and transcendent. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is one of the finest books on my bookshelf. It’s amazing. There’s no telling what he would have done or where he would have gone had he chosen to keep living. As far as limits go, I don’t feel limited, at least not in a stifling way; I feel obsessed with one locale, and I just keep following that obsession. But I like the idea of “limits”—I think we all have them, and we are all forced to operate under them. It’s where the art comes from.

CS: The speaker in your poems (or you, whichever you prefer) is often alone or in solitude (even when around others), and yet the introspective moments are weighted with people, with experiences and second-hand experiences simply told, without judgment. Can you speak to this?

MM: I’m not sure I have too much to say—I find virtually everyone to be immensely complicated, contradictory, and inherently interesting. These elements seem worth writing about. And as for being alone, I suppose that, too, harkens back to growing up in the boonies. I spent a lot of time by myself in the woods, traipsing around, following old logging roads. I guess it’s a default setting.

CS: By “default setting,” do you mean setting as a place of solitude?

MM: Yeah, I suppose so. Now that I think more on it, I guess this aloneness and solitude has a great deal to do with writing for myself. That is to say, I’m not writing poems for a community or an audience or with a political agenda in mind; I’m writing poems for myself, in a way that I find interesting. Even though my poems are tempered by social and political concerns, I’m definitely writing for an audience of one. I especially feel this is true for Home Burial. It feels different to me than Dismantling the Hills—the poems in this new book feel more private and inward, more meditative and impulsive.

CS: Perhaps that is why Home Burial hit me with such force, and is why I’ve continued to read it again and again over the summer (and will continue to read it over and over) . . . that I am getting away with something by reading it—or that I am one of the lucky ones who is allowed to, even though it is a book everyone should read. Most writers don’t write with the honesty you do . . . . I think this is why I’ve shied away from asking questions about specific poems . . . that you’ve already given enough and shouldn’t be asked to explain further since you’ve already pulled back enough flesh . . .

MM: That’s nice of you to say.

CS: “Buying and Selling” appeared in The Missouri Review with a number of other poems–and this issue is the only place I’ve seen you use forward slashes. What drove the decision to use them at the time?

MM: I did? I honestly can’t remember why I did that. For a while, I was writing all of these poems using only colons—I was under the spell of A. R. Ammons, whose work I deeply admire. At the time of The Missouri Review‘s publication, I was trying to write a book-length sequential poem. I wrote a whole book manuscript that was really bad called Fog. Then Fog turned into this other book-length thing called Landscape with Origins. Then eventually Home Burial was borne out of the ashes of those two duds. It’s great to have honest friends around to tell you that what you’re writing feels forced and lame.

CS: They may have been colons rather than forward slashes . . . . My copy wandered off some time ago . . . so I didn’t verify—I just remembered some oddity in form I haven’t seen in your work other places. Do a lot of your revisions occur as you are shaping poems into a book?

MM: I don’t really have a method for revision. I just keep hammering on the poems until they reach some kind of completion. Some poems don’t comply, and they just float off into the ether. With both Dismantling the Hills and Home Burial, the poems sort of came together. I didn’t sit down with the thought of writing either of those books—that is to say, I didn’t map them out or have a concept for what might make a book. When you get a stack of poems, certain of them start talking to each other, and others seem like permanent loners. This was the process for both books—just putting poems side by side to see which ones fit together. God, it’s a mystery!

CS: Although Barry McKinnon, Franz Wright, and a few others have been using exploded form for decades, it seems to be very popular among young writers now–I see all different formats of exploded form every time I open a literary journal. Abstractions also seem to be more popular in contemporary poetry than ever before. What has kept you writing solid stanzas and using plain-spoken, image-driven language?

MM: To answer the last part of your question first: I love images. James Wright, John Haines, Pablo Neruda, Tomas Tranströmer, Frank Stanford, Don Domanski, Larry Levis (and so many others). These are some of my personal supergods. I go back to these poets over and over. I love the way they represent deep ideas and emotions through the use of the image. I love Bly’s essay / treatise Leaping Poetry, the idea that the stuff of the world is soaked in the unconscious, that to use the image of, say, a leaf, allows you to tap into something way more complex and meaningful—that the stuff of the universe has inherent meaning! It’s a sentiment bordering on the religious, and for me it holds water. I love film for this reason—one image heaped onto another until you get a whole universe. As far as form or the placement of text on the page, I try to follow my impulses. You can tell when someone is faking it—whether one’s poems are running all over the page or in tight verse stanzas. I think form and sincerity have a lot to do with one another.

CS: Freud’s term, “scopophilia,” that was picked up by the film critics in the 1970s to describe the gaze (or the “male gaze,” since the idea of a separate “female gaze” is still forming) as being an unabashed and childlike voyeurism that the camera gives the watcher/viewer—would you say that your work has an element of that where you, the poet, are the camera?

MM: I don’t think so. As I understand it, the so-called male gaze is the idea that the subject(s) of one’s art become unfairly mythologized, marginalized, or exploited. The idea of the artist as one in power or in a position of dominance isn’t one that holds much water for me. I think of art—of any art—as the manifestation of an individual’s vision. There are artworks I loathe and find distasteful—but even then I’m convinced that the makers of those artworks are engaged in a fundamentally democratic practice.

CS: The poems in Choke were in different form (by and large) when published in Dismantling the Hills, the most significant of which (meaning: beyond cutting/tightening/polishing) was “The Last Temptation of Christ.” While there is consistently an undercurrent of spirituality and religious questioning in your work, the Choke version of this poem is directed at “You” as in God, while the newer version is “you” seemingly as in self or reader. Why the switch? (It dramatically changes the poem.)

MM: Yeah, the work in Choke is definitely an earlier and inferior version of what ended up in Dismantling the Hills—or at least I’d like to think so. I changed the “You” to the more general “you” to address the idea that pops up in both the film and book, that the “last temptation” is simply to exist as a normal, general “you,” a person who goes about their life, makes mistakes, and, for good or ill, does the best they can.

CS: But the man—the other self—is changed by the end of the poem . . . or perhaps realizes his inadequacies . . . but nonetheless is changed. Is “the last temptation” for him then to go back to his life and be happy with it?

MM: You know, I’m not really sure. That’s something I love about the film and the book—this paradox of being both self and other. Are we meant to strive for the normal and fallible life, or are we meant to strive for a selfless and sacrificial life? Which is better, which is worse? I like this idea that we have both things swimming inside us—that our lives constantly change because we struggle with trying to live two lives at the same time.

CS: The strength of place in your work is the muscle and flesh of people, of yourself (or former self), as much as place is driven by the machines, the mill industry, and the bay. These are a people of hard living and hard work. Does this determine the language you use? And the structure/format/form of your poems?

MM: Well, my poems are full of things like choker setters and green chain and crummies. I grew up with these terms and assumed they were universal. I didn’t realize that not all people knew what a slash pile was until I left home and moved to a bigger town. I love writing that’s crammed full of details, so I use the details from my life—these “epic images” Charles Simic talks about. As far as structure and form, I really don’t know where those things come from. I learn by reading other poets, trying out their moves and seeing what feels right. I’m a product of my home library just as much as I am my home town.

CS: And do you find that who you read then from your hometown library still resonates for you today?

MM: The poets and poems I read when I first got interested in writing still excite me. I had a great teacher—John Noland—when I attended community college in Coos Bay. The first poets I read were Charles Simic, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, John Logan, Li Po (Pound’s translation), James Dickey, Richard Hugo, Theodore Roethke, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, and so many more. Also a lot of sound-based, absurdist performance poetry. It was a really exciting and inviting class, and it’s what got me interested in poetry. Especially the surreal and opaque stuff. Poetry as pure adventure and invention. Neruda’s “Walking Around” is what sold me.

CS: How do spirituality and religion influence your work? What about superstition? (I’m thinking of things like the foxgloves and dead crow hung above the door in “Dead Man’s Bells, Witches’ Gloves” and the horse skull above the door in “Year of the Rat” re: superstition.)

MM: I’m not a religious or superstitious person in any way, or at least not in an institutional way. I didn’t grow up going to church and I don’t have any ties to the superstitious side of my cultural roots or family background (Irish and Swedish). I’m pretty sure we turn into potting soil after it’s all said and done. Carl Sagan is my deity of choice. He has this wonderful line in Cosmos, something along the lines of: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” It’s such a lovely statement. That said, religion—or at least the figure of God—enters my work from all sorts of angles. You can’t be alive and not think about God. Religion deals in great abstractions and tries to find a language for those abstractions—in this way, religion in made for poets. I think of my poem “Invocation” as being addressed to God.

CS: Interesting! I read “Invocation” as a poem about/to a loved one, perhaps one that was dying . . .

MM: I suppose I’m using the word “invocation” in the traditional, religious sense—as a direct address to a higher power.

CS: How has translating Tomas Tranströmer and your work to build Tavern Books informed or detracted from your own work?

MM: Translating Tranströmer has been one of the most transformative events in my life as a poet. He’s one of my poetry heroes, and it’s been a great honor to have gotten to know him and his family, and to have spent hundreds of hours trying to figure out how to bring a voice from one language to another. The same has been true for my work with Tavern Books—it’s been an amazing experience and a privilege to have reintroduced these lost books of poetry to the reading public. Publishing and translating poetry keeps me close to poetry—I’m working on something poetry-related all the time. It keeps the wheels greased.

CS: My painting teacher, Bruce McGaw, used to say, “Painters paint every day. If they cannot paint, they should hold a brush. If they cannot hold a brush, they should be painting in their head.” It seems to me your immersion in poetry is this way. Are you ever able to take a day off from poetry—reading, writing, thinking about, etc.—or is it a part of every day?

MM: It’s definitely a part of my everyday life. I’ve gone through long spells of writing nothing, but it’s never stressed me out. For me it’s about having an active and engaged reading life. If I’m not reading anything exciting then I’m in no mood to write. My life definitely centers on the writing of others. As for my own work, when it comes I’m grateful.