This is part of my Poetry & Belief Series. Read parts 1 and 2 here, with poets Lisa A. Flowers and Rosebud Ben-Oni, respectively. In part 3, I interview Rachel Eliza Griffiths, an astounding poet and visual artist.
LISA MARIE BASILE: Your work as a poet draws upon some beautiful ideas of god, and in your language there is a feeling of holiness. But then you write, "For a husband who could not save his entire family/ because he only had two hands. For their house split/ in half by water. For his wife’s last words: you can’t hold on/ and hold me. For the absence of God as she dropped his hands/ and gave herself like a petal to the gulf." Sometimes I think writing is the poet's way of finding God, even if it exists only in our hopes. Are you trying to find or provide answers in your work?
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS: I don't want to write poems that ever attempt to answer anything, especially anything as complex and profound a subject as God. I'd rather leave the space of finding answers to the reader. I'm fine with being unresolved. We can each try to make sense of the world until the next moment arrives to remind us how little we know. As a poet, I'm more concerned about how questions function in my poems and in the ways these questions resonate with tension for the reader and myself.
The intimacy between language and readers is already a great power. I would hope that my work would reflect my desire to witness a strong sense of spirit in our common experiences, including our miracles, however ordinary, however sublime. Often, I feel aligned to the role of a witness, a participant of what Lorca articulated in his theory of Duende.
When I read another poet's work and I can suddenly hear or experience Duende, I feel both gratitude and hope.
The lines you quoted are from a poem. 'Hymn to a Hurricane', which was written about Hurricane Katrina. One of the many things about the poem is about my role (and frustration) as a poet when this was all happening. I watched and listened to so many stories of loss and survival. One day I was watching the news and saw a man who shared how he had been holding both his wife and son as they struggled to get up on their roof. At a pivotal moment the husband and wife realize that they are all not going to survive. Before the husband has to choose the wife lets go of his hand so that their son is saved. I will never forget the man's face or how he held his son against him as he shared this. His name was Hardy Jackson and his wife's name was Tonette Jackson. I believe he died from lung cancer in 2013. The poem was also about trying to make a record for his and his wife's faith, to name and to acknowledge so many human beings - gods, to me - on a number of scales, whose lives were given to known and unknown forces. What I am also trying to say is what happens at the end of her poem, "Photograph from September 11", when the poet Wislawa Szymborska writes, "I can do only two things for them - /describe this flight/and not add a last line."
LISA MARIE BASILE: I first met you when we worked together on the unBound video for Joseph Quintela's Bookdress project. In this, we resurrected a sort of Eve-like creature, but the whole video involved the cycle of birth, death and nature. What was it about this cycle that intrigues you as a poet and photographer/videographer?
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS: That was an amazing day! When I arrived with my camera I felt as though I had stumbled onto the set of a fantastical movie. To find oneself in a universe of paper was overwhelming and exciting. Honestly, I thought it would be a difficult ekphrastic assignment to use Quintela's visual work to create another work of visual art that could be viewed and interpreted independently from its original source.
Later, while editing, I realized there was actually a creation story in the footage. I didn't know that while we were working. My mind wanted to visually explain how such a landscape could exist and how the characters, all three women (The Book Dresses), interacted with the landscape and each other. What if Adam didn't exist? What if the rib pulled out of a human life was language?
Then I took away the chronological order of the footage and added found footage, mostly of animals - jellyfish, bees, and owls - because I felt that all of the paper was obscuring the more primal feelings I had experienced and observed during the project. There were moments when the expressions on your faces resisted the sense of the paper world in which you existed. Then I cut the footage so that it became very fragmentary, frenetic, dreamlike, and distorted, which was how I had begun to feel as we worked together in that underground gallery.
LISA MARIE BASILE: I am not religious, but I want to create the sense of meaning I find so beautiful in religion. Often I struggle with appropriating the decadence and aesthetic of my Catholic upbringing while not believing. How do you filter your own spiritual or religious beliefs into your work?
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS: For me, these areas aren't isolated and are unlikely to be filtered from other elements of my work. For example, in nature I find a persistent spirituality. In my work, I may blur several religious vocabularies together but there is always something more happening. Nature works as such. T.S. Eliot achieves this in his Four Quartets where he uses both imagery and symbols from both western and eastern religions to discuss man's relationships with time, universe, and religion. The most important thing for me is that I view these spaces as complexly human. They are tense, intimate, and contradictory spaces for me. Ultimately, I don't want to have too much distance between where I locate my spirituality and the language I use.
LISA MARIE BASILE: I absolutely loved your book The Requited Distance, like all of your work. When I read it, I think I fell apart! I love the book's uncanny way of exploring grief and transcendence, much like someone trying to find their way through the mire of beliefs. What was it about Icarus that inspired you to write this book, and why did you choose the American desert as a landscape?
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS: My resistance to writing about mythology is where this book began. I kept asking: do we really need another book of poetry about the gods & their bad behavior in the 21st century? How and why do I need to contribute to that conversation? The poems began to arrive and I had to stop dismissing my own voice's need to use them. I had to stop asking reductive questions because I was afraid to write about some real issues in my life.
Actually, many years before I even began to work on the poems, I'd made a number of drawings --- a sequence of self-portraits of myself as both Icarus and the Minotaur. Then I looked through some old journals and discovered I'd been obsessed with the Icarus myth as a teenager. After I graduated from high school, I had completely redacted those memories and I don't know why. But it was the relationships between the father and the child, the inventor and his invention(s), the queen and the bull, and the supporting cast of gods and the Minotaur that lured me back to Crete as an adult.
And I didn't choose the desert consciously. It began to insinuate itself in my questions about Icarus and my attempt to connect the myth to a contemporary landscape, which ended up being America. Out of all of the myths, I feel that the Icarus myth is one of the most American if that makes any sense.
LISA MARIE BASILE: Do you think male writers write about God in a different way than female writers?
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS: I don't know. Let's ask God one day.
I mean I think male and female writers are not a monolith and that amongst both sexes you'd find limitless and nuanced incarnations regarding how God is or is not experienced in a poem or by characters in a novel. The craft and imagination of the writing about God is what would draw me in to reading something or skipping it.
LISA MARIE BASILE: Is there a poet/performer/artist/photographer that you think deals with religion/atheism/myth in an interesting way?
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS: This is a terrific and impossible question! There are so many names that come to mind so I'll just tell you what I've been reading and looking at recently.
Visually, I'm spending time with Jasper Johns' Regrets as well as the works of artists Marina Abramović and Ana Mendieta. I think each of these artists have pursued extraordinary conversations, which speak to some of the themes we've been discussing together.
At this moment, I'm all up in Jericho Brown's New Testament. I think its title doesn't begin to give away all of the complexity, intelligence, spirituality, terror, courage, and grace he explores. I think I'm into my second or third reading of it now. And as I read Brown, I've also been rereading Rilke's Duino Elegies and revisiting the collected poems of Larry Levis. I like to bridge different voices together for suspended amounts of time. There is a lot of loss happening in my life right now and these voices are helping me to bear it.
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS is a poet and visual artist. Her fourth collection of poetry, Lighting the Shadow, will be published by Four Way Books in 2015. Currently, Griffiths teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn.
LISA MARIE BASILE is the author of APOCRYPHAL (Noctuary Press, October 2014), and the chapbooks Andalucia and Triste. Her poetry and other work can be seen in PANK Magazine, Tin House, The Nervous Breakdown, Johns Hopkin’s The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Huffington Post and Prick of the Spindle, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and a co-curator for Diorama, a NYC-based collaborative poetry/music salon. She is a graduate of the New School’s MFA in Writing program, and works as a content director. Find out more about Lisa here. Follow her on twitter @lisamariebasile