Saturday, May 10, 2008

Imagining the Unimaginable: Jorie Graham in Conversation

A nice interview with Jorie Graham on her new book, Sea Change, from the good folks at The Academy of American Poetry.
Jorie Graham is the author of eleven collections of poetry and she currently holds a position as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. In 1996, her book Dream Of The Unified Field won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and she has received numerous honors throughout her career including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

In her newest collection of poetry, Sea Change, Graham's writing is immeasurably engrossing and increasingly timely. With a touch of softness and a deep sense of urgency, her work acts as an alarming harbinger of what our fragile planet may face in the not-so-distant future—irreversible global destruction and the profound loss it will cause for humanity as a whole.

Deidre Wengen: Your collection seems incredibly relevant to the environmental problems that we are facing today—problems that we finally seem to be coming to terms with. It almost feels prophetic.

Jorie Graham: Well, that comment makes me feel very grateful to have been able to write this book, as far as the art is concerned, as well as filled with the renewed sadness that occasions its having to be written with its particular "climate change" background. As for the sensation of "bringing news"—although I am not bringing any news that isn't already everywhere to be had on the climate peril front—it is still one of the aspects of the poetry which most alarms people. And although these poems engage many other aspects of human life—abiding love—of a person (some of my very first love poems!), of the world (what I think of as a love poem or a hymn to water)—and much attempt to describe the daily astonishments of being human at all—there is still the aspect of it which does "carry hard news" if you will, and, as we know, no one is friendly to the messengers in this life.....So I do not expect its reception to be easy. How could it be. We have come to expect most of our poets to be entertaining, distracting, or, when really gifted, we have expected of them primarily the attentive scrutiny of the intimate, lyric life. And of course I admire much of that poetry—Carl Phillips is perhaps one of the most gifted poets writing today, for example. I wouldn't want him to turn away from the intimate for a minute, as he finds the whole universe in the tiniest moment of the private life. Although, in all fairness, there is intimacy in this book! I even bake a loaf of bread in one of these poems—not something I've done before, and I pick flowers for bouquets, and spy on birds in their nests.....And I do love my loved ones fiercely in it.

Wengen: Do you have a personal goal of increasing awareness and educating the public about environmental concerns?

Graham: As this is tricky, I just want to add that in spite of the subject matter much of this book speaks from, and to, I need to make sure we both recall—as that subject matter is a profoundly disturbing source—that this book is an act of imagination and a piece driven by music. By that I mean that it serves the art first and foremost. One makes art from what one's imagination senses is the most deeply affecting aspect of one's human "predicament." In some cases it could be lost love, or the nature of being. In my case, at present—after having written a book which tried to deal with war as I encountered it by coming to live in a house right near Omaha Beach—the sensation of "climate change"—both experienced (as in watching the bees vanish, or the blossoming trees lose their natural cycle, or the birds species disappear) and researched (I have studied the subject at some length)—has become the overwhelming question. The overwhelming sensation that rises before me each day. Sometimes I feel I am living an extended farewell, where my eventual disappearance, my mortal nature, normally a deep human concern, has been washed away by my fear for the deeper mortality—the extinction-of other species, and of the natural world itself. I cannot look at the world hard enough. My love for it has never been so directed. I can take nothing for granted. Creation astonishes me where it used to "just" delight me. In many ways this book is an attempt to describe to a future people what is was like to have water, to have seasons, to know what blossoming was and a daybreak where one did not fear the sun, or a heavy wind where one did not fear its' going "too far," beyond normal. What is normal, I have kept wondering. Where is the tipping point? Where does the positive feedback loop set in? Where is the point of no return? How are we going to be as people then. What is an ethical compass for when scarcity sets in? How does one retain one's humanity under those circumstances or does one become inevitably barbaric in the defense of one's tribe? Where does one draw the line—what is a line under those circumstances—and which side of the line will one be on?

And what is art for then? What is dreaming for? What is the imagination supposed to do with its capacity to "imagine" the end? Is the imagination of the unimaginable possible, and, perhaps, as I have come to believe, might it be one of the most central roles the human gift of imagination is being called upon to enact? Perhaps if we use it to summon the imagination of where we are headed—what that will feel like—what it will feel like to look back at this juncture—maybe we will wake up in time? I have written it in order to make myself not only understand-we all seem to "understand"-but to actually "feel" (and thus physically believe) what we have and what we are losing-and furthermore what devastatingly much more of creation we are going to be losing.

Wengen: Do you think that art, specifically poetry, can raise the global consciousness of these problems?

Graham: Well, this is mixed. I am committed to making poems. And I am overwhelmingly concerned with, and attentive to, the issues that surround man made climate change, and man made forcing of otherwise natural climate change. But to pick up a point from your first question, I am not sure, unfortunately, that I see us "coming to terms" with these problems, most especially in the U.S . This is a deeply sad fact. Especially as much of the rest of the planet looks to the U.S. for leadership and what it gets is head-in-the-sand governmental action, and a level of denial in much of the country at large, thus far, which truly scares the world.

Read the rest.

Here is an example of her award-winning poetry:

by Jorie Graham

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water's downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into
itself (it has those layers) a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
motion that forces change--
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing
is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself,
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry. And if I listen
now? Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only
something I did. I could not choose words. I am free to go.
I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never.

From Never by Jorie Graham, published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 2002 by Jorie Graham. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

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