DD: In an interview you did with Poets & Writers Magazine, you discuss working on William Stafford’s The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems during your first years at Graywolf Press. This was the first Graywolf Press book that I ever purchased and remains one of my favorites. In reading through interviews you’ve done over the years, it strikes me that much of your thoughts as an editor parallel many of Stafford’s insights as a poet. Could you begin by discussing what Stafford’s work has meant to you as a reader and an editor?
JS: Thank you, and I’m glad to think of our experiences of the Graywolf poetry list as running side by side and starting with Stafford. I grew up in the middle of Kansas, not far from Hutchinson, Kansas, where Stafford grew up. My high school English teacher, the terrific Carole Ferguson, noted my interest in poetry, and mentioned Stafford and gave me a copy of “Traveling through the Dark.” It was the first time, really, I considered poetry as an ongoing art, and a poet as a living person, and someone who suddenly seemed proximate, when all else were wheatfields and churches. So Stafford’s very being changed everything. I share with him, very much still, a sense of landscape and severe austerity, and a shame at what our country perpetrates against so many, including our own citizens, as well as ourselves.
DD: Stafford also wrote: “We may be surrounded by a system of talking and writing that falsifies event after event, decision after decision, relation after relation. Tangled in this system, we perpetuate it. Like porpoises in a drift net, the harder we try, the more we are entangled…When a writer works he is like someone who sets himself in a closed room and then invents new exits.” These words, published in the early 1990s, seem even more apt in 2017. In the spirit of these words and in this era of “alternative facts,” what is the place of poetry?
JS: I agree with Stafford’s statement, that we are entangled and complicit in our entanglement, as long as we emphasize, as he does, that it is worth trying to escape, even in the most futile of times, perhaps like these, where our language is under assault, if not our sanity. We can’t always free ourselves, but we can sometimes loosen the nets and snares that are tightening around others. I think poetry is a force for recognizing the positions of other people who may be like us or who may be little like us, but for the duration of a poem, and the echoing after, we speak in and with another person’s voice. That’s a truth, or at least it can put us in relation to a truth, for which there is no “alternative fact.” I think the poetry that we need right now shows us, sometimes unbearably, the failures of power and of language and of political leadership and the consequences of our collective action and inaction. I am thinking very much of works that many readers are turning to, such as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS—works that position the reader in relation to confrontations of race, or examinations of the language of war, or the emptiness of false apology. The place of poetry is to show us the truth for what it is, and the lies for what they are. That isn’t new, per se, but neither are “alternative facts.” Kevin Young has an absolutely brilliant and ambitious nonfiction work coming this fall, titled Bunk, that has been many years in the making, and that so importantly demonstrates that American history has run parallel to the American hoax and to the American brand of racism, from Barnum to Trump. In publishing such books, and in many genres, Graywolf aims to combat fakery with literature of integrity.
JS: Many years ago, at Washington University, Carl Phillips implored me to read the poetry and critical works of Susan Stewart, and ever since, her clarity has been a touchstone and example of the lyric possibilities of both traditional and experimental poetry. Cinder is a perfect starting place for those who may not yet have been charmed by her particular ingenuity, and it’s a celebration of a remarkable ongoing career for those who have been reading her poetry and scholarship for years. I certainly admire the formal brilliance across these poems—the poem in the shape of an arrow, say, or the poem seemingly breaking down into an array of symbols and punctuation, or the poem that configures hell as a moving into and out of repeating lines, or the new poem in the form of gas-pump TV screens. But more than that, I admire the extraordinary sensibility behind these poems, one that is very concerned with the human capability for memory, individually and collectively, and concerned with our culture’s oppression of our human senses. I’m thinking, for example, of one of her masterpiece poems, “The Forest,” and the way the poem grapples with the question of how any of us will still be capable of experiencing a forest, in conception and in reality. So many of the poems, taken together, are reminders of art’s ability to record, encapsulate, and pass on our sensual experience. That’s an argument both of body and imagination, and of course, it’s an environmental and cultural argument, as well. Cinder opens with a terrific and generous group of new poems that alone is worth the book. I hope it’s an opportunity to celebrate a unique presence in contemporary poetry.
JS: All three of these poets offer very exciting first books this year, and they all point ahead to work that will matter for a long time.
WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier is a kaleidoscopic work, in large part a kind of searing rejoinder to the duplicity of government documentation, double talk, and pretend apology. The title sequence reconfigures the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, which was never spoken aloud, nor were tribes invited to receive the apology, and which was then buried as a text inside larger legislation. So was this even an apology? WHEREAS attempts to answer that question. It’s an important and innovative book, and one that has been a long time in its making.
Afterland by Mai Der Vang is a historic publication, the first major award-winner by a Hmong American poet, and we’re really proud to be publishing it at Graywolf as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Carolyn Forché selected the book for its really moving recounting of the Hmong exodus from Laos during the fallout of the Vietnam War, and the resilience and survival of the Hmong culture in exile here in the United States. The imagery of these poems is so unique—otherworldly and haunting in regard to “afterland” as the country refugees flee to and as the spirit world of the afterlife.
Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sánchez is a bold combination of personal poems about growing up the daughter of undocumented Mexican parents and almost journalistic poems about sex workers, narco traffickers, and immigrant laborers. The subjects here are important ones, and Sánchez makes them feel vivid and very close, while also turning a discerning eye on the history of both sides of the border (and beyond), as well as on herself, sometimes with a deadpan and self-effacing wit. This is a really audacious book, and an important one.
It’s a hugely exciting time for poetry with so many amazing first books!
DD: In a recent book review written for the New York Times, David Orr writes of the first book:
"If you’re an author who specializes in, say, writing about science for general readers, then your first book will be regarded by most people as . . .the book you wrote first. That it was your inaugural effort will have no special significance; your work will be judged the way books are typically judged: as interesting or dull. But if your goal is to write about the imaginary lives of imaginary people or — particularly — to write poems, then your first book may be another matter entirely. Because now it’s not merely the book of yours that happened to have the earliest publication date. Now it is the start of your career."
Could you discuss your thoughts on the essential specialness of the debut collection in poetry? What have you learned about debut collections by reading and editing so many of them?
JS: Orr is right, I think, in that we seem to think of a poet’s development as something with a beginning, an arc, and an ending, and it’s often the work of scholars and critics to make a lot out of what it means for a poet to have a career. In fact, Craig Morgan Teicher is working on a book to be published by Graywolf about poetic development, titled We Begin in Gladness, which will look at various paths and directions—many of them not easy nor at all straightforward—as examples useful to readers and to poets getting started and wondering what a “career” even looks like. What does it mean for a poet to have a life in the art?
It’s true that a poet only gets one first book, and while more first books of poetry are published than ever before, many of them through first-book prizes and contests, there is the pressure for a first book to make a statement. I think poets feel a pressure, understandably, to come out with a book quickly and to have that book get attention, and that’s an impatience imposed by academic professional expectation if not by the ambitions of poets themselves, in many cases. It means publishers like Graywolf see a whole lot of first book manuscripts, and first-book contests like the Walt Whitman Award are flooded with thousands of submissions. It also means that way too many poets get overlooked at the stages of the first book, and perhaps even more so, the second book. That’s a reason why Graywolf feels it so important to collaborate on the Poetry Foundation’s Emily Dickinson First Book Award, for a first book by an American poet over the age of forty, and partner on the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, for an African American poet’s first book, including most recently Donika Kelly’s amazing debut, Bestiary, which is one of the first books Orr is reviewing in the New York Times piece you quote from.
While I think every first book (or otherwise) is hopefully different and distinct, and so I hesitate to try to offer broad commentary about them, but in order to answer your question, I would say that many first books want to be acceptable, they want to win the contest, and they want to be liked. But fewer first books want to challenge, they want to risk, they want to unsettle, and they care less that they are liked and more that they are read and even resisted.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor?
JS: Every time a writer considers editorial suggestions and on certain things the writer pushes back, I feel encouraged that the writer is assured in their vision and ready to be published. It means perhaps seeming foolish or seeming just plain wrong or off base, but it also means I feel I have done my job in approaching the line that the writer has deliberated upon and decided is the defining line of what they sound like. That is the invisible work in the intimate space between writer and editor. It’s very encouraging to me as an editor.
DD: What is the most encouraging development you’ve witnessed in contemporary poetry?
JS: The incredible groundswell of young poets right now, among them some individually brilliant talents, but more importantly, together creating a sense of collective greatness by way of national community defined by artistry and activism. That is encouraging as a development not just in contemporary poetry but in our world.
DD: What is one thing that American poetry needs more of, in your opinion?
JS: American poetry needs serious, astute, challenging, and regular poetry critics and reviewers who are people of color, and who are women, and who are given an ongoing byline in the visible print and online publications that middle-aged or older white men are regularly holding and have been holding for a very long time. Solmaz Sharif very rightly mentioned recently that we need a great, new criticism to run alongside the great, new poetry of our time.
DD: If you could only read and remember one poem for the rest of your life, what poem would it be and why?
JS: You’re describing a world I don’t want to live in. We exist for multiplicity not just for singularity, and the single poem can only be great because it exists in a world with other poems in it. And if I knew I had found the one poem to be read and remembered for the rest of my life, and could name it for you, I think I could no longer do my job as an editor, nor could I continue to read poetry. Luckily, it seems, I haven’t found that poem yet, and I’m happy to be left in this fallen world where I am still searching for it among the many life-changing imperfect ones.
DD: What prose, music, and other art have most influenced you as a poetry reader and editor?
JS: An ongoing, revolving list might today include:
The prose and plays of Samuel Beckett.
The visual artwork of Kara Walker.
Any music that does not have lyrics.
The essays and criticism of Eula Biss.
The patterns and variations of offense and defense deployed by the Kansas Jayhawks on the basketball court.
Whatever Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée is.
DD: Could you tell us a bit about some of the other Graywolf Press titles out later this year?
JS: In 2017 poetry, in addition to the titles mentioned above by Stewart, Long Soldier, Vang, and Sánchez, Graywolf is publishing:
Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing is a sequence of prose poems in Bang’s unique signature language about the Bauhaus School in Germany, its artists and art (from which the title comes), and in particular the life of Lucia Moholy, who struggled so much of her life to be recognized for her photographs documenting the school, before the Nazis closed it in 1933;
Fred Marchant’s best book to date, titled Said Not Said, which is a book about moral and ethical questions, what gets spoken and what goes unspoken, and it includes a really wrenching sequence of poems about his sister’s long suffering from mental illness;
we are expanding and reissuing a truly essential book, The Half-Finished Heaven, by Nobel Prize winner Tomas Tranströmer, in Robert Bly’s seminal translations, which Graywolf first published in 2001, but we’re now glad to offer for the first time all of Bly’s known translations of Tranströmer’s luminous poems;
and we are publishing in November a really fascinating book, Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, which will present original poems with multiple English translations, followed by a brief essay about the challenges of translating that work, all in a wide trim size to allow readers to see the poems and translations side by side by side.
Each year, Graywolf features online previews of all of our books in a given genre across the year, and for a better rundown on this year’s offerings, you can find the poetry preview here.
DD: I’d like to end the interview with my favorite poem from a Graywolf Press book, Christopher Gilbert’s “Listening to Monk’s Misterioso I Remember Braiding My Sisters’ Hair” from Turning into Dwelling. Could you introduce this poem (and this amazing book)?
JS: Every interview should end with this poem and with celebration of Christopher Gilbert. It’s a poem from Gilbert’s Walt Whitman Award winning book, Across the Mutual Landscape, which was selected by Michael S. Harper and published by Graywolf in 1984. It was Gilbert’s only published collection in his lifetime, but it has long been a kind of touchstone first book—in certain circles a cult classic—for its vision and music, as in this poem. Gilbert sees the syncopations and patterns of Thelonious Monk’s Mysterioso, which walks forward and backward in intervals, as akin to the patterns of braiding. But more than that, it’s the movement of offering and taking back, being called into a space that you might not normally be invited into, like braiding your sisters’ hair. There’s no music like Gilbert’s, part homage to jazz, sure, but the music of a mind making sense of itself and calling itself to be. Like music, it’s a poem whose language exists seemingly in and out of time, a participation with mutuality, and one that never arrives or tries to arrive at completion.
After Gilbert’s death in 2007, through Ed Pavlic and Terrance Hayes, we found that Gilbert had been working for a long time on a second collection, called Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation, which had been entrusted and edited by Fran Quinn and Mary Fell, and in 2015, we were able to publish Across the Mutual Landscape and Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation together in one book, titled Turning into Dwelling, with an introduction by Terrance Hayes. It’s landmark work, and it deserves as many readers as it can get, and it certainly deserves—thank you, Dante—the last word.
Listening to Monk’s Mysterioso I Remember Braiding My Sisters’ Hair
What it’s all about is being
just beyond a man’s grasp,
which is a kind of consciousness
you can own, to get to
be at a moment’s center
and let it keep on happening
knowing you don’t own it—
which is moving yourself close to, being
particular to that place. Like my two sisters
taking turns braiding each others’ hair—
hair growing against their weaving, they formed
a flow their hurt and grace could mean
as each took turns pulling the comb through
the other’s knots and their little Vaseline.
A knowing which makes the world
a continuity. As in your core
something calls to you
at a distance which does not matter.
As in the world you will see yourself
listening to follow like water
following its wave to shore.
To arrive in your life you must
embrace this letting, letting
which is a match for the stream
through flowering field and the tall trees
wandered into and the river wearing beads
just ahead which you go into
further on because you can.
This going so is something else—the way
it flows into always something deeper and
over your head, a kid with “why” questions.
Your answer is a moment struggling to be
more than itself, your straining for air
to have the chance to breathe it free.
It’s alive you’ve come to,
this coming into newness, this dis-
continuous mind in you looking up, finding
an otherness which trusts what you’ll become—
for me, my sisters once offering,
“You want to learn to braid my hair.”
If we are blessed in this world
it is in feeling this—
i.e., there are circumstances
and you are asked to be
their member. Not owning but owning in—
a participation, like Monk’s implied words
reaching for their sentence: “If you can
get to it. . . .”
Jeffrey Shotts is the executive editor of Graywolf Press.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016).