01 October 2012

Rachel Eliza: Past, Present and Now

Rachel Eliza: Past, Present and Now
By PQ Interviews Editor Millicent Accardi

A force to be reckoned with, the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths took the literary world by storm first with her stunning surreal poetry and, then, in the media, when she became an emerging poet to watch in the 2011 inaugural poetry issue of O Magazine.

A poet, painter and photographer, Griffiths is well-known for her literary portraits and is currently working on POP (Poets on Poetry) a film project consisting of interviews with over 50 contemporary poets “in conversation,” discussing poetry, culture and the human experience.   
Griffiths received an MA from the University of Delaware and an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fellowships include residencies at Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and Millay. She has written four poetry books: Miracle Arrhythmia, Mule & Pear, The Requited Distance, and a chapbook, Memoria. Mule & Pear received the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award from the Black Caucus American Library Association. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence and lives in New York.  

Q: How has participating in Cave Canem inspired and/or informed your poetry? For those who are unfamiliar with it, can you describe Cave Canem’s history?

A: Oh my goodness, I’d need too much space to answer this question. It’s good! I have a simple answer: gratitude. Gratitude to Cave Canem, to Dark Room Collective, to Black Arts Movement, to Harlem Renaissance, to Kundiman, to CantoMundo, to Letras Latinas, to Macundo, any and all bodies that sustain, support, and encourage our poetry and our histories.

I am so grateful that Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte believed enough in what was needed, what was missing, in what they had experienced themselves as young black poets, in what they saw was possible, so much so that they focused their powers into laying the foundation for the 16 year-old body that Cave Canem has become.

Ultimately, you have to do your work alone. But I think I’m more balanced. I used to be very reclusive and solitary. Perhaps too much so. What I know is that there is a community I can go to, that I’m part of. A community that I support. I can share poems and drafts and life experiences. I’ll be aging with some pretty splendid folks! It begins with the poetry and for so many of us, opens into a way of living.   

Q: Who was your biggest influence in childhood?

A: After my parents, I’d name my elementary schoolteacher, Suzanne Pyne. When I was a younger woman, she died from cancer and it changed me. She was the woman to whom I carried my awkward fourth and fifth and sixth grade poems and short stories. I was trying to figure some things out but I knew it felt natural, what I was doing, no matter how it isolated me. I also gave her my visual art and she listened to my ideas. We had an alter life and though she has been dead for nearly ten years, that life continues with me. We made cookies, drank tea together. She had an amazing birdfeeder. She reminded me not to be so serious all the time. I was pretty serious about everything back then. We also spoke a lot about religion as I had attended a Catholic elementary school and always had questions about what exactly that meant. I also could not get over my astonishment about the notion of what a soul or spirit was. I never want to exile spirit from my work. At Suzanne’s home, she played classical music and folk music and she encouraged me to nurture my sense of delight, my imagination, my wonder and my love of Nature as a way to decipher the world and myself. Her death was one of the things that got me to leave the safety that was drowning me into silence back then. I left a PhD program and decided I’d try this ‘be a writer’ thing. I moved to New York and stayed in a woman’s residence and joined the anonymous rhythms of New York that allowed me to begin writing. No one cared whether I was serious or any good at writing, no one cared that Suzanne was dead. I had to figure out how to begin a new life. My tools were words, museums, parks, concerts, the Public Library, and my own solitude. I picked up a camera too. I only hope she would have approved.   

Q: Is there a particular song from your childhood that sticks in your head? What is it?

A: I have a fond recurring memory of my mother playing her Pavarotti records over and over again in the house. But there isn’t a particular melody that’s definitive. Our house was suffused with music from early in the morning until we went to bed. Even after we went to bed it wasn’t unusual for a radio to be on somewhere in the house. We used to have dance parties, jumping off the furniture, breakdancing! My father loved jazz so there was always that happening and I took to that, the mood of jazz, very strongly. I went back further than what my father played, which was more contemporary, and was drawn in immediately to early jazz, big band, and the blues. When our family took road trips the car was filled with pure soul – The Spinners, Tina Marie, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, The Commodores, Dianne Reeves, Sam Cooke, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Deniece Williams, Stephanie Mills, Stevie Wonder, and like, Bon Jovi and Van Halen, that song Jump! was so perfect for air guitar… oh I couldn’t even begin to name all of them! Like most of us, I can hear one of these songs or artists and go back in time and I want to stay there, especially when I turn on the radio these days and try to figure out the relationship between percussion and consciousness. What are the drums saying?   

Q: Can you describe where you work best. Is it a café or at a desk? On a train? In dreams?

A: I think it may be a matter of what section of the work process I’m at.  What happens in a dream is different from the work of translating what eludes us in our bodies. The body is trying to negotiate its own country and the world in which it is contained. Sometimes that is trauma, sometimes it is the vestiges, memories of what is sublime. I try so hard to remember language as I’m coming up from that profound space between the residue of a dream and full waking. Cafés aren’t good for me when I am actively writing but I do like to read or write letters or observe people in them. I’d be distracted! Between the caffeine and the energy of a café, I’d be a window. I do like to read on trains but am not coordinated enough to write very well for a long period of time that way --- I’d be trying to take photographs from my window if I were on a train. I like to write very early. Lately it’s also better for me to stand than to sit at a desk so I go back and forth.   

Q: How has the so-called literary “canon” affected how you write?

A: I wish I could say I even thought about it. I’m aware of “It” but I don’t want to bring that near the energy of the work at hand. On the page and by practice. In regards to the gaze of the ‘canon’, I’d be invisible. Maybe I won’t always be, but it doesn’t matter because I’d still write and have my community. The only permission I have to ask to be is the permission I grant myself. The canon is in service to the language; it doesn’t own me or the language. Though there are important conversations about this democracy. Perhaps the old way of talking about canon is also a way of talking about privilege. I remember reading what Toni Morrison once said about writing from the margins, which was that essentially it freed her to write whatever she wanted. It’s true. But you know what? I also have to include Cornelius Eady’s words from his knockout poem, “Gratitude”, about ‘canonizing’: “And to the bullies who need/the musty air of/the clubhouse/All to themselves:/ I am a brick in a house/that is being built/around your house.”   

Q: Your short poem, “Melancholia”, describes a gothic scene as an entry to perhaps address how we humans have damaged and taken advantage of our planet. Under what circumstances did you compose this piece? How did it come about? 
(after Lars von Trier)
There’s a bride on the lawn of never-again.
The universe swivels like a woman burning
on a vine of moonlight.
A black horse kneels under stars:
:a swarm of hawks fall from light –

Don’t let them know,
slower. Slowly, says the Earth.

I’m dying in the memory

of what I was. 
A: I wrote this poem after watching the film by Lars von Trier, which the poem is named for. The film’s tones are elegiac and apocalyptic. The musical score is profound. Much of the visual imagery and the palette of the film seemed to speak, in that moment, to some elegies I’d already been working on that focused on the palpable world, the properties of what a dying world or civilization might look like. Why the earth needs death, our deaths. Nature is pretty significant in the poems I’m working on these days and I don’t divide it from human agency. 

I was asked to create a chapbook by poet Joseph Quintela for the A5 series of a wonderful, experimental press he founded and runs, Deadly Chaps. My chapbook, Memoria Memoria, is part of a trilogy that also includes chapbooks by poets Doug Kearney and Prudence Groube. We each were given a blank book of 20 pages and asked to play for a month or so. I decided to focus on films and create poems inspired by some aspect of the films I watched and the intersections I experienced between cinema and poetry. These were films, many of them, that I’d watched for years and so I knew that some things were already working and waiting in me about them. 
Q: How do women writers find their own space and establish a sense of belonging? 

A: Could I use an image to answer this?

Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Mahogany L. Browne, Aricka Foreman, and DéLana R.A. Dameron (center).
I belong to these women. I belong to our poems, our bodies, what we know, what we ask, what we reveal, what we imagine. I would do anything I could to support each of them and the power for which we are. That is the space I envision when I think about women artists and it is achieved, for me, by breathing and by the work. They are our sisters, our women, our poems. They want to me to live as myself. We were at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, just shortly after a Cave Canem Retreat a few years ago, and I was photographing them for a series of a project I’m working on that is woman-centered. I think most of my writing and images invoke women. For me it’s not even a choice even when it’s very complex. All women do not get along but neither do all men; however, certain kinds of men do not get torn apart no matter what or who they are. They can be individuals and they’ll be left alone, their power and identity is not threatened or questioned or criminalized. Obviously it is different if you do not exist or belong, entirely, within the privilege and institutions of a heteronormative community. Anyway, this was an afternoon I’ll never forget. There was a moment with these poets, there were so many, - they were so beautiful, so powerful. Aren’t they something! So fine! They had come into view, as women, as beings, inside the lens, fully. They let me see them and see myself! It was a sensation, palpable in our bodies. To love and hold each other. I asked a stranger to take a picture with my camera. I didn’t want to be separated from them for a minute. I never do.  
Q: What do you think poets can do to enhance communication between generations of poets?

A: Respect goes two ways. So does condescension. But, so does listening. If you’re younger, know something about the history. And not the easy one, not the conjure, not the hearsay or the forgery. There are qualifiers to that too, I suppose. Don’t make assumptions or sweeping statements, however romantic or reductive, about a poet, especially if you’ve never read any of his/her work. And even then, consider empathy, if that appeals to you and your imagination. Don’t demand that poets, especially older ones, help and support you if you’re only interested in the chandelier of your own “I”. In all parts of the world, we have seen over centuries, how important it is to have community, even if it means just one other person. If you’re older, know, you do know, that there is a future, however altered or unlike the past it may be. Know that we need your voice, your trust, and your help. Acknowledge that times are different and that change, for all of us, is terrifying but significant. There are many ledges within the body of change. It can be political, individual, environmental, technological, cultural, economical, societal, --- but it’s always human. Sometimes we’re forced to jump, sometimes we’re willing to jump because we are being chased or hunted or we just want to do it for something nobody else can see in us, or because we simply want to see what flying feels like. In other instances it would be quite wise to carry the geography of what existed before us along to guide us as we scale the air and its institutions. I feel afraid when I see so many gifted individuals leaving us much earlier than we expected. The wave is curling more quickly and those who are in the middle are being pushed forward to the crest with increasing speed. When I was younger it wasn’t something I thought about much. I know better now and I don’t want to hurt or damage any of the tenuous filaments that connect us. Of course there are some essential, universal conflicts and conditions, which flow through us at all times because we’re human. I do believe each of us will experience all of these roles as time moves through us. How long does any generation have? We don’t know, can’t know, until several new generations are born, are also moving. Consider the longer narrative and what meaningfulness your humanity holds.

Every voice has meaning. Every voice will be judged by its peers and their ideas: present, ghosts, and future. I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s relative, or absolute, or both? Our voice, valued in that American way too many of us have experienced or have had forced against us, or we ourselves inflict or accept, being aware of it or sometimes not even being conscious of it. Go beyond that. There is an entire earth of cultures. Go further and there is an incomprehensibly different hourglass, which measures the ineffable universe. Then go write a poem and try to forget all that even though you’re That too.    
I’m sort of an old soul. I appreciate the stories and experiences of older poets so much. I could listen for hours to their words, their memories and opinions, and feelings. They will one day be part of my own history. We’ll go to mud, to clay, to the noise of the dead. But I’m also in a space where I can see a crest of younger voices. They are mighty! Sometimes they make me sad. Other times I shake my head and pull into my little shell. They know where the wires go and I feel lost. The wiring can often strand me even as it assures me I’m connected to everyone. I’m in the company of some gifted people and am so glad to walk the path at this very moment. I want to listen to younger poets and I want to speak to them and I want the listening. I hope they won’t forget me but they just might.   
Again, to zoom out and under light why we must talk to each other – they’re banning stories, narratives. They’re voting to make certain Americans illegal. Americans who look and love like me. They’re shooting freedom in the back of its head, claiming self-defense. Performing erasures, performing amnesia. I wouldn’t mind my poems receiving some health insurance, would you?   

They’re trying to drag our bodies, particularly the bodies of women, black men and black women and immigrants and gays, through the gates of something illegible and illegal. They want us to help them with their massacre. They’re killing the old and the young – men, women, and children, newborns and unborns, undifferentiated, and otherwise. And it feels like Big Brother because it might be that and also something far more subtle. It’s anti-intellectual and anti-intuition. You’re a witness even when you don’t want to see.  If you don’t see it that way, that works too. Not all poets want to include the notion of ‘politics’ in their process or their work and we all have to do what is best for us to live fully within the brevity we are. But serious harm is happening at the pulse of our generations, all of us. They don’t want our poems to bleed but something is bleeding underneath the dream. 

Ultimately, we’re stronger together than divided.

Q: What project are you working on right now? If it is writing-based can you share an excerpt of what you’re working on right now?

[Untitled, excerpt]

At least touch me. This is what I want to say to the women and the men who are arriving, clumps of dust and curses in their palms. They arrive, some two-legged. Others must walk on their knees and palms. Others cling to the bridles of mules and horses. Perhaps some of them have arrived by air or wind, dropping from a high point inside of dusk from the shadowed back of a bird.

Mostly they are deciding about fire, bullets, and faith. I remember one of the women saying I ought to be burned on a stake or in a pit. I remember how they often spoke of Mama and me, expressing strong hope that we should burn in hell. They wondered aloud if we would be capable of burning, they doubted we had the same bones as other human beings, or whether our interior organs would melt at all. Some of the children made new words from their parents’ hatred of us. Crossbreed became Crossbones. And it was not uncommon for a girl, black or white, to approach me while Mama was in the store, and pinch me to see whether their theories about us being ghosts, about us being flammable, were true. When the body could not be trusted to affirm their ideas, they suggested the certainty of any inferno. Mostly, hell. Which was a vivid landscape of reckoning. It would be our home, they assured us. I remember that Mama gave the flames of their eyes little air. But now I think back to Mama and the way she looked each night in the bed we shared, as though she were burning from within, while we slept in our husks of beauty.

They say I took everything away. Sometimes this was true. But their ‘everything’ was narrow and limited. They said I was like my mother, that I began stealing it when I was a girl. I don’t know what a girl is. I’m just me. What could I have taken from this earth? There was nothing to be stolen that did not require force, pressure, or time. And I was only in love with the entire wide-armed world at first.

That was the beginning. And it, I mean this peculiarly omniscient world, armed itself, adorning its mountains and shameless eyes against me, waiting to shatter the skin of glass that belonged to me. Where I looked outward with hope. 

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