Becoming Porous: An Interview with Kathleen Graber

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Kathleen Graber is the author of Correspondence (2006), winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, and The Eternal City: Poems (2010), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent collection, The River Twice (2019), shifts modes from the epistolary to the essayistic while contemplating personal and collective grief. Graber is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, Princeton University, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation, among others. She teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and lives in Powhatan, Virginia.

This piece has been edited for clarity.


Abigail McFee (AM): How does a poem typically begin for you?

Kathleen Graber (KG): When I teach beginning poetry workshops, I always tell students…the big leap-step forward for poets is learning to live like a poet. It’s not necessarily line breaks or rhyme or alliteration…. I emphasize that it’s about being alert to the world—really trying as much as possible to train yourself to be present and attentive, and contemplative.

And so that’s how poems start: something moves me. I go for a walk, and I see something, or I’m reading and suddenly find myself thinking. Or something I’ve read triggers a memory that I haven’t had for a while, and then maybe a line comes, and I’m like, Oh, I’m going to write a poem, oh my gosh.

AM: I had that experience, while I was spending time with your collection, of feeling an increased awareness of what was going on around me… I love the title of your latest collection, The River Twice (2019), which refers to the Heraclitus quote, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on.” There’s this tension between the perpetual, inevitable change that is always remaking us, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the way in which we human beings seem drawn to repetition. I was curious to hear you talk about that in relation to writing a third collection.  

KG: I felt that I had found, finally, some strategies for composition and the organization of the poem on the page—for the presentation of my own sensibility embodied in text. I’d found ways that were working. Yet you don’t want, as an artist, to repeat yourself. So, I wanted to find a new strategy. I wanted to write a new kind of poem, both for my entertainment and because writing really long poems is a challenge for your reader. And, at some point, I found myself just writing the kind of poem I had written before. There was a moment of confrontation with the reality that this is my style, this is my voice, this is my sensibility, this is what it looks like. I can fight against it—and I still think it’s productive to fight against it and resist—but there was a moment of surrender that said, at least some of the poems in this collection are going to operate in ways that, for someone who’s read the last collection, will feel familiar. I needed to give myself permission to do that. [The title] The River Twice was sort of like, hey, right off the bat, I’m telling you, some of this is going to feel familiar. It’s the same river. You’ve been here before. Maybe the waters flowing past it at this particular moment are somewhat different, but the river is still going to be recognizable.

AM: I love the idea of a title as a way of giving permission. At the same time that I was reading The River Twice, I read Marianne Boruch’s book of craft essays called The Little Death of Self, which made me think so much of your poems. She speaks of the “I” as an essential conduit, letting thought and experience arise from a personal grounding. But she also complicates this by saying: “Do we really write poems to find ourselves, as so often is promised? The sweet thing goes deeper: to lose the self, to make room for something else.” Is this something that you consciously do in your poems—that kind of loss of the self to make room for something else?

KG: I think that is one of the things that Keats meant by “negative capability,” the emptying out of the self. I think he was talking about drama—for another character or another perspective to inhabit the self. Part of being observant and contemplative, and aware is attending to that thing that is exterior. But I think that, in a way, it’s a false distinction. I wonder if it’s in the process of looking at the world that I do understand myself, or at least my place in the world, better. We are pattern-making creatures, so we recognize ourselves in what we see outside of us, in some kind of strange cooperation. I think what I’m trying to do in my poems is say something like, This is what it feels like to be alive. It doesn’t sound very profound, but: This is what it’s like to be. It’s really complicated to be.

AM: I think that’s about as profound as you can get.

Both laugh

AM: I understand what you’re saying about the false distinction. The boundary between inside and outside collapses.

KG: That’s what literary criticism and philosophy and science would be telling us more and more. We think we’re one person, but we’re actually this conglomeration of other organisms. We’re more not us than we are us. There are more bacteria and fungi—a little cloud around us all the time like over Charlie Brown.It’s so complicated, what is us and what is not us. I’ll qualify it by saying that I do agree that it feels as though we have integrity. Sometimes I get frustrated when I’m reading some kind of theory, and I’m like, yeah, yeah, of course, but it doesn’t feel that way—I still somehow wake up in the morning and think I’m myself.

AM: On the note of feelings, I was brought to poetry, especially writing poetry, through grief, so I’m drawn to the threads of grief and loss in your poems and moved by them. 

KG: Everyone will [have loss] at some point in their life if they live long enough, and they will have an accumulation of losses. Still, those early or initial losses stamp you in a way that changes you profoundly forever because you are ushered into an experiential understanding of mortality. And then also just the irretrievability of the other: what you have lost cannot be reclaimed. One of my griefs is that I had a very long marriage that disintegrated after 30 years. That is a kind of grief I will never get over. I have a terrific new partner and relationship, but his parents are both still alive, which is incredible because we’re both in our 60s, and his parents are both in their 90s. Sometimes I look at him, and he’s a medical doctor, so he’s been aware of death and the possibility of death and mortality daily, but I sometimes look at him and think, Oh, you’re not an orphan. You don’t understand. I feel that that is a profound change. It’s a kind of wisdom. It makes you porous in a way that is, I think, positive. 

AM: That word you use, porous, makes a lot of sense to me because, in fresh grief, I always feel the most attuned to the world. There’s the ability just to receive beauty in a more intense, distilled form. 

KG: Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel. I almost feel like I’m so full of holes the sunlight is shining right through me. 

AM: Yes, exactly! I had another question that relates to this. Some of these poems deal with the end of a marriage and the loss of an older brother, which got me thinking about elegies. It’s intuitive to think of an elegy as a kind of love poem. But I’ve had a thought about most love poems also being elegies. I’m thinking of the poem “A Short History of Sorrows.” Does that idea of love poem as elegy resonate with you? 

KG: Yes! There’s an idea that praise is only possible in the sphere of lamentation—I think it’s Rilke (Note 1). That is how I feel. One of the things that make having found a new relationship so incredibly sweet is the absolute awareness that he and I will not have 40 years together. That’s just not possible. So, our days are stamped with this awareness that we have now. We are at a certain age where there is this fragility, just a ticking clock. You’re very aware of that. What I often feel tender about are the things that I know can’t last. It’s just not in their nature. And we are one of them. We are one of those things that cannot last. So if you’re having a great day, and you get up, and you brew your coffee, and it’s your favorite kind of coffee, and it came out just right, and it’s warm, and spring is coming, you should hold on to that because those very simple days are a blessing.

AM: I think that’s where a lot of the joy in your poems comes from, or it felt that way to me. I also loved reading the Notes attached to your book. They are fascinating, lengthy, humorous, and imbued with your voice. I get the sense of an excited researcher, one who brings not distracted but concentrated attention to the facts she encounters, many of which enter these poems. Do you have a favorite fact? (All-time or recent?)

KG: No

Both laugh

All of a sudden, every fact goes [away] completely

AM: Yeah, it’s one of those magical questions that just evaporate the answer. 

KG: My impulse is just to get the book out. 

AM: I was going to say, one of the gifts of being on Zoom is being able to see this wonderful bookshelf behind you. 

KG: Looks through book

Here’s a fact. I love Rudolf II. So, he is just a wacko. He wanted to live forever, so right off the bat, he’s a character after my own heart. He was sort of a hedonist, and as a Roman Emperor, you can be indulgent. But he offered sanctuary to all kinds of divergent thinkers who were persecuted at that time: scientists, chemists, alchemists. He wanted to find the philosopher’s stone, which would be eternal life. But he was also the first real art collector. He had a cabinet of curiosities, this amazing enclave of eccentricity. He wanted this altarpiece from Venice, and he purchased it and had it transported by horseback—this massive work of art—from Venice to Prague. That is an amazing fact. It’s kind of complicated because we would like great art to be in the public domain and not sequestered away in some private residence by the very rich person who can make that happen for themself.

On the other hand, there’s a part of me that is extremely acquisitive—I love things—so I understand that impulse towards loving something so much that you want to have it near you. I just love that story. The sad part is, the work of art fell into an incredible state of disrepair. It was rediscovered in a monastery in some backroom, and then it was restored, and the restoration is notoriously bad. 

AM: I love that fact. It brings up two thoughts for me, the first being that collector impulse. I find it interesting to hear what people’s first collections were—the first they can remember in childhood. Did you collect anything?

KG: When I was a child, it was a common thing for grocery stores to have promotions, so every week, there would be a giveaway of some set. My mother was really good about diligently getting me the thing—whatever it was—that was the promotion. One year it was a set of Funk & Wagnall’s encyclopedias. If you spent whatever it was, $10 on groceries, you got, like, A through C. So I had this all my life, from the time I was a little kid: this set of Funk & Wagnall’s encyclopedias that was above my desk. It was a giveaway, so it wasn’t a great encyclopedia. It wasn’t beautiful. But the nostalgia for that is profound. 

AM: It’s interesting because an encyclopedia kind of is a collection, so then to have—

KG: —yes, a collection of a collection! I was stamped with a love of facts early.

AM: The other train of thought that opened up for me when you were talking about Rudolf II’s collection—”an enclave of eccentricity” was the phrase you used—was Cornell boxes. I’m about to go to a craft talk where you’re going to discuss how Cornell boxes have informed your ideas about association [in poetry]. I wondered if you might give a teaser of that for the interview, as well.

KG: Sure! These are always at the ready. 

Reaches behind her

It’s a collection of postcards of Cornell boxes. 

Holds one up to the screen

I think everything about them ignites my entire being when I look at it. It is quirky. It’s full of interesting objects. Every object in and of itself is sort of fabulous for me. I love the old images. In this one—this is a Medici box—there are these reproductions or bookplates of the Medici family and children. There’s a little map on the pillars. There are little birds on these blocks. I’d have to sit here and think about what makes it feel like these belong together. But it’s also so orderly. I think about this very much as what poems do. There’s a lot of quirky content in this box, yet it is organized in such a way as to be pleasing and digestible. You can see the clusters, but you can also see associations. I think about the geometry of the box, and the boxes within the box, as the way stanzas work in poems or lines work in poems. Spatially, this makes sense to me in terms of both its form and content. It’s a great representation for poets of a true marriage of form and content. And it shows you that you can be quite eccentric in your content if your form is capable of presenting it in a way that doesn’t feel crazy.

AM: That’s beautiful. I also wanted to ask you a bit about the America series in The River Twice, which is composed of epistolary poems addressing America. I think you said that the first was written about a decade ago. And then I imagine the last was written sometime before the book was published in 2019.

KG: “America [October],” I think, is the most recent one.

AM: I wonder if you still find yourself in any kind of inner dialogue with America in the style of these poems over the past couple of years since the book has come out.

KG: I feel like so many people now are writing America poems. The political climate—I look at it and think, oh my God. I’m not holding America’s feet to the fire [in these poems], in a way that I think many people would say has got to happen. There has to be a reckoning, which wasn’t the approach that I took in these poems. I just don’t even know how to talk to America right now or how to conceive of it. 

But you and I talked earlier about grief, and I think those are poems of tremendous grief. Those are poems of political grief. For a long time, I think I lived in the same illusion that many of the privileged people in America were able to live in, which was that we were making progress towards a more perfect Union—towards a fairer country, a more equitable country, a freer country (in a lot of ways), a compassionate place. And that myth got blown to bits.

So that has been a shock to me. The kind of violence that we saw recently—all types of violence, meaning the violence against Black men and women and the violence at the Capitol—I could have died without seeing any of that. I just feel tremendous grief for the idea of America that I had, which wasn’t great to start with. It was precarious and frail. It was always complicated and teetering. It had many problematic aspects, including genocide. But where it has gone in my lifetime, the reality of it, and the real fear that people have—I don’t know how to speak to that America. I don’t know what to say to it.

AM: I resonate with so much of that. For me, it’s been a reckoning that there’s not an ideal America we’re trying to return to, that the very concept of America was founded on this genocide, this horror, and this is how it’s designed. So there’s a lot of grief that comes with that. 

This is a shift in topics. But when you were putting together this manuscript, was there anything that didn’t make it in?

KG: I am such a slow writer. You’ll have to transcribe [this visual]. 

Shakes laptop vigorously in the air 

Is there another poem in there?

Princeton [University Press] and Susan Stewart wanted me to get it together and bring this book out, but Susan put a lot of pressure on me because I said, “I’ve got this slender volume of poems I feel pretty good about.” And she’s like, no, I don’t want to look at it until you have 75 manuscript pages. Which is a lot! 75 was a challenge. And she gave me a year. So I had to write very quickly, for me. There’s nothing that got left on the cutting room floor. 

AM: I know you’ve spoken about being a slow reader, as well. I sometimes wonder if the pace of those two things is connected. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, because—at least with reading—bringing that amount of attention to it is so important. And it’s something that is often lost.

KG: I think the fact that I had been a lifelong slow reader was a benefit to me when, in the middle of my life, I decided I wanted to learn to write poetry. Because one of the things that I realized, which I’d never thought about or ever had any reason to think about, was that I was slow because I was literally reading the poem aloud in my head—or whatever I was reading—and that was helpful because I had, over decades of reading that way, developed an understanding of the natural rhythm of the language. 

AM: Oh, I love that, and it makes sense. So, I have one more question for you. I’ve been trying to ask myself this question more, but it’s also sometimes difficult to answer. What is moving you these days?

KG: I happen to live in a wooded area, and the area is rapidly being developed. That is incredibly painful for me. I’m wearing my little woodpecker here. 

Gestures to pin on her blouse

The trees around me are amazing. They’re huge, I can’t even get my arms around them, and it’s nothing for a bulldozer to come in and take down five acres of trees that are 200 years old. That is—I don’t even know how to speak to that—it’s so profoundly heartbreaking to me.

But, on the other hand, I saw the biggest bullfrog I’ve ever seen yesterday. That was fantastic and moving. I kind of really like frogs—who knew? 

And I have a letterpress. I get great joy out of the letterpress, which is everything, all the little pieces I can just keep collecting. Here. 

Holds a block up to the screen

Let’s see… what do we have? A spotted dog. 

AM: Oh, my goodness.

KG: All of these are really old. 

Holds up another block 

A typewriter!

AM: All the little details—I love that.

KG: I have a gigantic set-up in my garage, so that is something that is moving to me. When you set type, it makes you think about language in a whole new way. You start thinking about how the sonics of the poem become physical. Sound is physical anyway, but they become visible.

AM: Yes, there all of these ways of being with our poems that can make us see them in a completely different capacity.

KG: Setting type will really slow time down for you.