Imagining the Unimaginable: Jorie Graham in Conversation
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.
Wengen: The need for sustainable products, eco-friendly materials and a "green" consciousness seems to have increased in the past couple of years. Do you think this is a positive sign?
Graham: All over this planet there are many, many brilliant minds devoted to this predicament. Some early outcomes are visible in new initiatives—green building, green cities, green businesses—and a general sense that this is an "important" issue. Actually, it is a catastrophically important issue—and anyone who has kids no doubt is, or should be, very awake to it. The idea that the coming "water wars," just to take one example, are a long-time area of study for our so-called intelligence services, but one which just seems to be taking our citizens by surprise (as when Atlanta came close to running out of water last summer) is the kind of disconnect I am talking about. (Of course Darfur is, in an important sense, already one of our first water wars). When the Secretary General of the UN, at the climate conference, in Bali, said we had a small window of opportunity to take real action as a planet or we faced "oblivion," that comment ended up on page 8, I believe, of the New York Times, in a tiny story. I actually called the international desk of the Times to ask them what on earth (literally) they thought they were doing? I asked them if the word "oblivion" was a word they heard commonly in political speeches? A word used regarding the life their children might most probably face. I asked if they thought the Secretary General was a crackpot? (No) Did they think he was otherwise nuts? (No) Then why was it not a front page headline. OBLIVION means something. A man in that position uses a word like "oblivion" precisely to get the New York Times' attention—to get the U.S. public to take its mind off Britney Spears, reality TV—or all the endless distractions we are given to keep us diverted—and to see what's in front of their very eyes: there will be no ice in the north pole in 6 years. This was agreed upon at Bali. Now I am not a scientist—although I certainly read as much as I can about these issues. And when the kind editor at the paper of record answered me it really took my breath away: yes, she said, what you say is true, but no action was taken by the US at Bali, and if nothing happens then that can't really be a front page story. NOTHING HAPPENING is the story, I tried to say, as calmly as possible. But there you have it. That is, to my mind, how we are "coming to terms" with it. People might think this is part of "the kind of remarks made at a dinner party where everyone already agrees"—as one reviewer put it—but in fact, as with much in the human universe, "everyone agrees" means nothing until people actually feel what they think. That's where the disconnect is. As one of the poems says, "make of your compassion a crisper instrument/ you will need its blade." The "dinner conversation" is often precisely a protection from the real sensation—the real taking on board—of what we are living in. Compassion and imagination are deeply related.
Wengen: In several of these poems, it appears as if the speaker has just stumbled upon a shift in the natural world—as if they've suddenly woken up from a dream and discovered that they were in some kind of peril. Was this intentional? Is this a phenomenon that you've noticed in others or have experienced personally?
Graham: That's wonderfully perceived! Yes. And there is another aspect of this activity of awakening—which the book—as far as its surface subject matter—tries to undertake. It is one thing to "understand" what is happening, and it is quite another to "awaken" to it. That second part is very hard. It is a constant practice. I have all the information, and then I can kind of slide that off into the "information-gathering" part of my mind, or even my soul. Yes I "know" about climate change, I am doing my bit, as many of us are—you know, shorter showers, light bulbs, recycling, trying to conserve, relying less on fossil fuels, changing sources of energy, planting trees, supporting organizations, writing letters, speaking out—and what else can I do? But I feel that the act of really awakening to the world, to creation, to what we have before us—to what we are made of and born of—the paradise of the natural world—the brilliance of it—the utter amazement of it—is something we need to really stir awake in ourselves in order to understand WHAT is at risk. You know, it's not just a hotter or colder season! We are going to have to decide that putting ourselves at some discomfort in order to save that miracle is worth it. That is a whole other spiritual—and physical and emotional— awakening. We know, but do we feel that knowledge? What does it mean to us that so many many species will disappear in the next 10 years? Do we really need them? Will we miss them? Is the world still the world if it is silent, if nothing is living secretly in the earth and the sea all around you? Is the blue-looking ocean still ok to you as "a view" if it is dying, if what lives in it is toxic, if all the mystery of what you do not even know lives, or lived, in it, or ever saw, or ever will see, is gone? Coral reefs—and the life in them-besides all the reasons the planet needs them—do you need them? Even if you never see them or think about them? Do you need the intricate astonishment of reef life to EXIST alongside you for your small portion of years on the planet earth? After all, you wouldn't necessarily even know they were gone? Does the disappearance of Cod, for example, matter? You can eat something else? But what—what—has been lost? Does the fact that songbirds are disappearing at a horrifying rate because of insecticides being used in fields over which they migrate—causing them to die of neurological disorder, and eventually to disappear altogether—does this matter? I mean a bobolink? Will we change how we grow corn to save the bobolink? Is a world with the recording of birdsong as a substitute for actual birdsong a world we are ok with being slowly "trained" to live in? Because we are voting on this now. With every purchase we make of, say, non-organic coffee. Does the fact that we all "know" this, because we read the Op Ed piece on it and can chatter at dinner about it, does that mean we "know" it? There is another kind of knowledge we need in addition to that of the intellect. These are feelings we need to awaken—earlier, more ancient, human feelings of belonging in creation. That is what I am trying to awaken in myself and others in this book.
Anyone who is awake would immediately realize some very unfashionable things—things no one wants to even touch: we probably have to really talk about population growth. We probably need a gathering of world leaders, world religious leaders, tribal leaders, to sit down and address this deadly time bomb. Now can you imagine such a thing? Even in the U.S.? It is so off the table I even fear writing it here—to you—as the charge of racism instantly rears its ugly head. But actually for everyone—from every walk of life—unsustainability is unsustainability. And it's not only population growth, it's all the ways in which we have overused, and continue to overuse, and injure, this planet.
The very rich might be able to build floating cities—which by the way they are already doing, in rather "Waterworld" ways, in Europe—self-sustaining private worlds—huge tankers turned into luxury cities with floating "real" gardens and trees and malls....Able to dock just once a year to refuel. Who do we think is going to be "left behind" then with no defense against the rise of pandemic disease, war, aggravated scarcities and so on. These all seem like science fiction scenarios to most people. We cannot afford to think of them as such, or as being "in the distant future," much longer. And what do we really do? If anyone has read this far I imagine they just want to 'turn the page." The problem is we can't. We are the page that is being turned. And still we think the book is in our hands. It has been for a long time, yes, and we could have been good 'readers' of the world. We could have been its "dominant" but grateful and responsible species. We are, instead, its disease and its predators.
Does it have to be thus? No. That is the sad part. The human spirit is a thing of such glory. The human imagination and the human soul rise to every occasion, when given a chance, at the personal level. But in the current "sleep of the nation"—who is going to face this? I think our kids know this. They know much more than their parents and they are scared and yet brave. That is part of the reason why they are breaking away from the system as it is built and turning to someone like Obama. It seems essential that he is trying to break the mold. It's very late, but there's still a small window. And it is that window that the kids—with access to the information on all these issues on the internet—hope to survive in. They can look at the politicians of the past—in both so-called parties—and see the greed. Greed is over with, or we are.
Of course the problem is much more complex, and world wide. Yes, many other nations are way ahead of us in terms of facing these issues. But in some cases they seem just as much in denial as we are (take China—although it is both polluting like crazy and building experimental green cities)....And of course many are unwilling to accept the apparent—or actual— "unfairness" that their people cannot enter their own phase of prosperity by the same means we have done. At this point there may be no way to dream of level playing fields—if we expect there to be a field at all.
Wengen: What actions, if any, do you think people should begin taking regarding the planet?
Graham: I think I addressed this above—but of course there is no shortage of information available as to what one can do, as an individual. I would stress that what we need to do as a nation is, at this moment, even more essential. We need leadership and courageous vision-capable of truly confronting the issue and not just giving us placating little things to do. But this is not going to be a comfortable passage. No, we are not going to be rescued magically at the last minute by altered science, the discovery of sustainable life on other planets, or a return of the savior. And most importantly right now we need to face the family of nations again, and say "we made this mess together we must solve it together." We are great inventors, and we are great optimists-just look at our national project-we need to turn to the rest of the planet and say "we're back." Some books to read—With Speed and Violence by Fred Pearce is a good place to start, also his When Rivers Run Dry, and Hell and High Water by Romm, The Suicidal Planet by Hillman, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit by Vandana Shiva—there are many interesting studies of ice core research—and of course the devastating The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. But there are so many, and so many different directions to read in. And of course just speaking out is so important. One has to be able to feel free to speak out. One has to be able to confront, as tribes have done in times of great crisis, the communal danger open-eyed. The inevitable harshness of the future must become something we feel truly free to think about as a community of humans on a piece of land which is a nationstate, but which is also a piece of land in a complex ecosystem, on a planet, shared by other humans. The differences among those other humans pales, pretty much vanishes, when one sees what one is up against as a species. It is true that as a leader Obama is trying to speak of this, but tangentially, as it is hard to bring bad news and not be blamed as the messenger. However faulty, one must try to carry the message across to the tribe as long as one has breath. That is, among other things, what I feel I am trying to do in this book. But it is hard. I am trying to also "make it real" for myself, trying to confront myself, awaken myself. The imagination, the poetic imagination, is singularly qualified to undertake the imagination of the unimaginable. By the time the rest of the Antarctic shelf falls—look at what fell off just recently—we should be as familiar, emotionally, with what we are being called upon to face as we are with, say, the lives of our movie stars, or the infidelities of our politicians.
Wengen: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the form of these poems and how they appear on the page. It is very distinct and, at first glance, a little unnerving. Was there a particular reason for creating them this way?
Graham: Well, the alternation of the very long and very short lines, spread over cascading sentences, with a sense that the music moves out for a long moment, then drops, then recovers and "hovers" again, then drops again (accelerating) is a new music for me, and, just from a technical point of view, one of the reasons I found my way to the book. "A new music is a new mind" says William Carlos Williams—and this was a sudden new music which took me to new places in my emotions and thoughts. And Williams, the second great poet of our "democratic" experiment, the formulator of the notion that there are "no ideas but in things", is definitely behind the short lines. But our first great poet of the American Democratic experiment is the visionary master of the overly-long line, Walt Whitman, who says, "do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes." So, letting the sentences move along this grid of very long and very short lines—feeling both of those prior "socially aware" poets in my ear—I also was able to enact a sense of a "tipping point"-the feeling of falling forward, or "down" in the hyper-short lines at the same time as one feels suspended, as long as possible, in the "here and now" of the long line—so that the pull of the "future" is constrained by the desire to stay in the "now," which is itself broken again, as a spell is, by the presence of the oncoming future. This also involves a tipping back and forth between hope and the brink of its opposite.
I also see the lines enacting a complex relationship to time such as the one I have been describing—one which questions where the "beginning" is (the poems have two re-beginning margins)—; does time flow uniformly, does it fray or gather, does it bunch up, does it thicken? We are being asked to live, if you will, as people, now more than ever, on multiple parallel end-stopped lifelines: our own individual one, potentially that of our species, even that of our planet. We are used to historical time, personal time, but can we feel and reason in the time-frames of planetary change-time-frames which more resemble geological time? That is an open question. What, in such a time frame, is a "false" start-historically-what is a false foundation myth (are we living one out), what is a false "storyline" for our tenure and role in evolution? I am hoping the reader feels both margins as places from which the poem seeks to "start anew" again and again. And, too, as when I was referring above to windows of opportunity: what is the frame of such an opportunity? Is the poem a window or a door? Is there a way to keep the door ajar—to quote Dickinson.
Finally—in that commitment to the "recovery of one's body"—which I was speaking about a few minutes ago—the use of synaesthesia, or empathy, or multiple use of the different senses, is especially important in this book. And these lines, as they move one from one use of a term to another, especially allow for that. Take these lines, for example, that describe the sound/smell/emotion/texture and color of a moment in the season which turns from Spring to Summer:
I step out and suddenly notice this: summer arrives, has
arrived, is arriving. Birds grow
less than leaves although they cheep, dip, arc. A call
across the tall fence from an invisible neighbor to his child
right down to the secret mood in it the child
also hears. One hears in the silence that follows the great
desire for approval
which summer holds aloft, all damp leached from it, like a
thing floating out on a frail but
perfect twig-end. Light seeming to darken in it yet
glow. Please it says. But not with the eager need of
Spring! Come what may says summer. Smack in the middle
I will stand and breathe. The
future is a superfluity I do not
taste, no, there is no numbering
here, it is a gorgeous swelling...........
As you can tell it is hard to break off any part of this, as the point is that it is all built like a connective tissue, a living tissue. Both of the organic and the human. There is bird call, the motion of swift bird-flight (dip, arc)—a human cry placed into this listening—then the silence that cry is placed into, then the listener's ability to "cross over" into the child's point of view—all this in the midst of the "leaves growing"—so we feel this expanding exfoliation of the hearing and listening, and of human empathy as also a kind of organic growth—until it is all cantilevered—as the long line is cantilevered (as the I-beam which the poem has been watching rise up is cantilevered—held aloft—by workers—on its chain)—and the whole emotion, of the child, hearing his father, of the speaker hearing the child hear the father, is held aloft by summer "all damp leached from it, like a thing floating on a frail but perfect twig-end."
I see that final image of the leafing-out at the end of a twig—(how amazing that an enlarging leaf can be carried by such a fragile stem and twig)—as the outer limit to which the human can go, out from the self into the unseen child's inwardness in empathy, out from the human to the natural world. The run-on lines allow for this motion from the core interior to the twig-end exterior. You could say the poems look like trees!
Wengen: Throughout Sea Change, human actions, emotions and experiences are often overshadowed by the raw force and beauty of nature, and yet, in these poems the very act of living seems to remain so tenuous and important. Can you expound on this? Where do you see human beings in the larger scope of things?
Graham: I see them surviving. But if they fail, I hope they do not take the rest of life with them. Their (our) desire and unsatisfiable greed-in other words the human sense of emptiness‐is immense, and scary. What will ever fill the appetite of the human? The great hollow at the core of the human? At any rate, spiritual gnawings aside, creation—nature as a whole—is to me a far more astonishing event in the history of life than the advent of the human—in spite of all the great accomplishments humans have added to creation—music and fresco painting and mathematics being standouts in my small pantheon.
Wengen: This collection feels as if it ties the connection between the past and the unknown future into a state of teetering present-yet you weave hope throughout. Would you consider yourself a hopeful person? Do you have faith in the future?
Graham: In the short run I cannot but hope, I wouldn't have written this if I were hopeless. I think artists have a large responsibility at present-that of awakening the imagination of a deep future. If humans have to be asked to make sacrifices for people they do not even know will be alive-sacrifices the results of which will not be evident, if at all, except four or five generations hence, then we are going to have to help awaken an imagination of that "deep" future, in order that people feel "connected" to it in their willingness to act. After all people are going to be asked to radically alter their lives—for their whole lives— in order that their kind and their world might remain. I happen to feel one can reawaken that sensation of an "unimaginably" far off horizon. We are so collapsed-down now into a buzzing noisy here-and-now, an era of instant gratification, decimated attention-span, that it is going to take some work to help people "see" in their mind's "eye" that far off horizon many generations beyond their own time, a time towards which they are going to have to try to take a leap of faith-and a leap which involves deep sacrifice at that. But I wouldn't be making the effort to answer you in this way, at length, or to write such a book, if I did not believe we still had that chance. A real chance. And that art could be in service of that goal.
Wengen: You studied film at NYU. What made you decide to begin writing poetry? Is it something that you've always done? How, if at all, has the medium of film shaped or inspired your work?
Graham: Oh you know, this deserves such a long answer. It was profoundly important to my way of thinking, seeing and shaping. One short answer would be that learning to shoot and, especially, to edit, film taught to me one could see nearly invisible patterns between things. That was quite a revelation—and led to a lifelong practice.
Wengen: You currently teach at Harvard and previously taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. What has your teaching experience been like? Has it been rewarding?
Graham: I have been blessed in having had the opportunity to teach incredible students at amazing schools. I have always learned as much from them as they could possibly learn from me.
It has been a central part of my education in life—and looking into their faces, each day I walk into a classroom, makes me feel the issues we are discussing ever more vividly and urgently. If I have hope it is in great measure because of them.
Wengen: What would you suggest to people who are aspiring to be writers and poets? Do you have any advice on how to achieve their goals.
Graham: I hate giving advice. But if I take a stab at it today—today I would say: read. Read complete works of poets, to learn what a whole poetic "idiom" is. Also walk, look, smell, taste, touch, listen. Get your body back. Try to make yourself use all your senses every day. There is a vast amount of "information" that is coming at one from sources one doesn't even know exist. Get outside. Find the strange—not the weird, but the mysterious. We all need to work on staying awake. This is a somnolent era. Growing more so. We need to work hard, pretty much all the time, to achieve moments of presence and wakefulness. Also, avoid living too much in the conceptual intellect at the expense of your body—the "thinky death" Berryman calls it. Undergo poems before you jump to interpretation. Wait till it is absolutely necessary to begin to think "about" the poem, or what it might "mean." Your own or someone else's.
Also, write as if there is no satellite to transmit your words. Write as if you are writing something that could be dug up out of the sand…
Deidre Wengen is a writer and book content editor for phillyBurbs.com, a division of Calkins Media. She lives in Philadelphia.
First published in phillyBurbs.com, a division of Calkins Media. Copyright © 2008. Appears with permission. All rights reserved.