Poet Of The Week

Garth Graeper

     May 7–13, 2018

Garth Graeper lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. He has published two chapbooks of poetry, By Deer Light (Greying Ghost) and Into the Forest Engine (Projective Industries). He spent many happy years as an editor at Ugly Duckling Presse. Currently he is an associate director of ebook production at Penguin Random House. An excerpt from “Journal” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released last spring.

Journal

 
a blind loop
of breath
curled
against cold air
this voice stuck
under my skin
feeds well
storing fat growing
muscle and teeth
in the dark
throbbing me
from room to
room as the moon
pulls me open
from above

 
       *

 
sometimes I do
things wrong waiting
for a better word
this green wave
building between
my legs green filling
my mouth with
nothing
to stop it the roots
of my tongue
scraping the forest floor
I taste my own
impatience inside
moldering
broken branches

 
       *

 
the rain’s ceaseless
sound on lake
and trees soft tones
welling up how can I
forget when I still
feel you in my thighs
walking a path
to real nakedness
I want to stay
awake tonight
even if you won’t
answer even if
your words just
make me more
alone

 
       *

 
trying not to speak
what my body hears
all these sounds
held back I promised
to give you space
but fears rush
from my lungs
my wild need-
song replaces
humming insects
replaces your absence
with mine a failure
of silence
no teeth or lips
just vibration
rippling

 
       *

 
sounds rise up
fresh and unnatural
through my toes
black marshy force
molds my tongue
I cannot stay
within myself
beautiful hips
quivering with so many
years of water
and beef I am sheep
wearing dead
sheep I am quiet
still air I am
what is left
after the glowworms

 
       *

 
soft human
smell mixing with
the smell of smoke
muscle absorbed
into flab providing
no pleasure only
rage a void
suspending my voice
inside yours
every sound snagged
on the edge of joy
I try to call you
home but not even
a whimper
comes out of me

 
       *

 
touching my body
I wonder if
this is the same
path you took
if you also branched off
from yourself
slipping almost
collapsing
with exhaustion
through thousands
of years of cells
the momentum
pulling you forward
until you could
finally hear
yourself answer

 
—Excerpt originally published as “April” in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

About seven years ago, I first read the journals that Dorothy Wordsworth kept while living with her brother William (the famous Romantic poet) at Grasmere. It is difficult to describe the sensation: it was as if I had been there when the journals were written. I experienced the words as an intimate memory. My poems usually begin with language found in source texts, and this practice became a deeper engagement once I read Dorothy’s journals. After five years of revisions, changes of approach, and reimaginings, this poem moved beyond being about Dorothy’s experiences. Instead it became an experience as Dorothy. She is waiting for William to return or to send a letter, and I am waiting to understand more clearly what is beneath our shared language. This poem occupies a central place in my first full-length manuscript, which explores the connection that language enables across time.

What are you working on right now?

In addition to trying to put my pen down on the manuscript I just mentioned, I am starting to make some poems inspired by a book I read a few years ago, Conrad Richter’s novel The Trees.

What’s a good day for you?

Working on poems in the early morning and while commuting, a chance to walk for an hour at least, classical music, making my wife laugh, reading with my daughter. I work at Penguin Random House, supervising the team that makes ebooks for Knopf and Crown. It’s a good day there when an interesting book comes across my desk (often) and when I can celebrate the success of someone on my team (very often, as they are a super talented group!).

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I spent several happy years as an editor at Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP), which was based in Red Hook when I first joined and then moved to the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus. I lived in Queens for much of that time, and I spent many hours commuting to Brooklyn on the B61 bus. My wife Julia (who had lived in Brooklyn for many years) and I were living in the least tree-filled part of Astoria and were ready for a change. So we landed in Brooklyn.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I live in Greenwood Heights, south of Park Slope on the other side of the Prospect Expressway. We have been here about eight years. When we moved in, what I liked best was how laid-back and residential it felt. I grew up in Queens, so this is the vibe I am most comfortable with. Friendly people, good schools and nearby green spaces: Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park. I love this neighborhood, but as it becomes more luxury condo filled, some of the quieter charms have fallen away. I’d still recommend it, though.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

One of my favorite Brooklyn experiences is from many years ago (maybe 2006). It was a beautiful summer night, and I was out on the Liberty Pier in Red Hook with a bunch of friends from UDP after a long day of printing covers and hand-assembling poetry books. We met some fishermen who had a pretty good catch. We ended up cooking late-night fish in a nearby apartment. Red Hook felt like a half-forgotten place back then, before IKEA or Fairway. Just the right place for poems and book making and fish.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

My connection to the poetry community in Brooklyn grew out of my work with UDP. I met writers, artists, designers, and had a chance to think very actively about poetry as a living thing. Before that, poetry had been words on a page, but I got to experience writing and reading and laughing and arguing as part of the process. UDP helped me understand the myriad joys and difficulties that people bring to poetry (and how much I cannot be without it). The poetry community I first connected with had a very DIY spirit, which inspired me to create lots of handmade projects, including the Park Books, a series of little books of anonymous poems that I would leave in parks. I feel so grateful to have been welcomed here.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Because of all the Brooklyn-based readings and events that I’ve attended, I feel connected with some of my favorite poets via Brooklyn even if neither of us lived there when we first met. Phil Cordelli is one; during our early friendship I mostly associate Phil with Inwood and I was living in Queens, but most of our time together was spent in Brooklyn. I had a wonderful experience working with Brooklyn poet Michael Ruby to publish an online version of his project Fleeting Memories. We would work in his Park Slope brownstone combing through photos from his collection to associate with the text. I haven’t met Ocean Vuong, but I love his poems. It was fun to learn from the anthology that he lived in Brooklyn.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

At Vassar, Eamon Grennan was the first person who made the sound of poetry come alive for me. In addition to being writers that I admire, I think of three folks at UDP as mentors: Matvei Yankelevich, Anna Moschovakis and Ryan Haley. It was really from them that I began to think of poetry (as a reader, as a poet, as a publisher) of not being just “what’s next?” but also “what haven’t we heard because it’s not been translated?” and “what’s been forgotten?” Inspired by Matvei and Anna, I helped publish works in translation by Nordic writers like Aase Berg, Gro Dahle and Pär Hansson. Ryan’s commitment to recovering “lost” works of the avant-garde helped point me toward working with texts from the past in my own poems.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I recently read Popular Music by Kelly Schirmann (published by Black Ocean) and really loved its simple language and spirit of exploration. I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry and music over the past few years, and I was drawn in by the fresh and human consideration of this central thing that, by nature, resists articulation in words.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I’ve returned many times to Rilke’s Duino Elegies, but I have not been able to dive much deeper into his poetry. Despite a few recommendations, Clark Coolidge has not made it to the top of my list yet.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

My job is deadline oriented and requires strong organizational skills. That definitely carries over to many areas of my life (I am a list maker), but not to my activities as a reader. It is one area where I am swept up by the moment. If I get interested in a topic, I will try to read something about it pretty quickly. I used to be a cover-to-cover reader, but I am more willing to put things down now or spend time in both a book of poems and something else. In the last few years, I have become infatuated with classical music. As I listen to a composer’s works, I try to read a biography about them as well. Jean Sibelius is next up on the biography front; he is one of my favorite composers. I work every day with ebooks and am happy to read digitally, but I prefer print for poems. If I need to remember something, I definitely take notes (my memory cannot be relied on!).

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

For my next sequence of poems, I plan to work with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books. They were formative for me as a young reader, as they were for a lot of people. Unlike many other texts that I have worked with, I am not in love with the actual language in these books. It is a chance to explore another kind of connection, more evocative than visceral. I want to think about mystery and what it means to be human, so these poems will probably take me forever.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

My subway commute is about an hour each way, which is time for reading and writing, especially in the morning. The subway inspires deep concentration. I try to look at delays (so many!) as gifts of a few extra minutes for poems.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Walking is essential to my well-being, as a human and as a writer. My favorite place to walk is Green-Wood Cemetery, with its stunning variety of trees and rapidly shifting terrain. It is an amazing place to engage with the past. I have been there all times of year, in all kinds of weather. With poems, I am capable of certain kinds of mental connections and leaps using pen and paper, but the unconscious jostling that occurs when I walk gets at different, deeper connections. Muscle memory can sometimes trigger a more mysterious, less ego-driven engagement with language. I find things when I walk in Green-Wood.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the simplest words,
And what I say, you have said,
For whispering pine opens me as good as it opens you.

Why Brooklyn?

The magic light that shines on the red brick warehouses in Red Hook is unlike anything else I’ve seen.