Interviewee: Shaun T. Griffin
Interviewer: Christopher J. Johnson
CJJ: You have been called, “Nevada’s best poet”. How do you feel about this distinction?
STG: As to comparisons, there are many fine poets in Nevada—north, south, and rural—and I am honored to be among them. But one of the beauties of living in this place is the lack of competition, of ego, of striving among this same group. It is refreshing, particularly as a poet who grew up in a city where the notion of community is so hard to foster. It does us no good to compare ourselves to others; we are all artists at work and the work is far more difficult than any notion of mastery will permit.
CJJ: Your poems follow many themes, but I find these to be predominate: family, rural life, and community. You strengthen these themes by addressing an often ambiguous “you.” This “you” signifies both different individuals and, it seems to me, sometimes a larger more wide-ranging persona, a “you” that could be anyone reading along or listening to your work. Bearing that latter, wider “you” in mind, what is the social function of poetry? How, do you feel, does it speak to a community, a place, a way of life, etc.?
STG: With respect to my themes, there are at least three: family, landscape, and work for justice in the larger world. I just finished editing a book about Hayden Carruth. In it, he talks about poetry having a social utility—in fact the very thing that drew him to poetry was the idea that he could change the world with his words. Of course, it is not that simple but I believe we write for more than ourselves. When I put down words, it is in this larger context, the context that I wake up to everyday—the incredible sense of both despair and hope that permeates our existence. I would be foolish to think otherwise and consequently the “you” of address in my poetry hearkens to that frontier of imagination that wants more from this world than what we settle for.
Imagine peace—what an idea—and why can’t it be something that hearkens across the great tradition of poetry? Or the absence of hunger? Am I so naïve to propose such in a poem? Or farther still—what about the love poem as yet unwritten, to some person or thing—a leaf, a tree, a star? Neruda made a history of this infinite attention to detail and Lorca, like him, a history of his people in words that transcended that time and place. That is something that I remember every day as I return to the page: what will this poem really mean? How will I finally do justice to the landscape, to those I love, to the metallic taste in my mouth from the ore being driven from the nearby mine?
CJJ: A rather large section of your overall work deals with hunting, fishing, being an outdoors person. Though rural literature is a long-standing tradition, very few poets have made such sports a focus of their works. Would it be fair to say that such activities inspire you? Do you draw a lot of your poetic ore from your time in nature?
STG: Regarding outdoor activities, because I am a watercolorist, I see things in colors. When a landscape is burnished like the one I live in, it is representative of a feeling, a tone, and a moral and physical sense of place. I carry that sense with me to these activities but they are only the beginnings of poems. A place to start. I am a pacifist; I do not hunt but it was a bad boyhood experience with hunting that led me here. What I want to write is a poem that is larger than any one experience, a poem that might push the reader beyond the comfort of a physical act like fishing to consider what is not said or heard, but felt. That is the hardest poem to write—the poem of inference—to name the very thing that has been unnamed. Since the time of Lucretius we have struggled to get this right.
Landscape is similarly inviting and difficult to redress which is why I am so attracted to it. Particularly the landscape of the Southwest—Nevada and New Mexico have much in common: the colors, the light, the openness and there we are, small, little creatures in the middle of all this land. What to say, what to do? To take a real risk in this place is to try and represent something so beautiful in a poem.
CJJ: You are also a scholar. Most recently you’ve written a book about the poet Hayden Carruth who, as I see it, shares many qualities as a poet with your work. You have also translated some of the poetry of Emma Sepulveda. My question to you is, what is the difference in your mindset when you are working on a poem or a translation or a book of scholarship? Do these works all come from the same place inside of you or are they separate places?
STG: Whether I’m translating, editing, or writing a poem—it emanates from my desire to know something more than I did before I began. I have always considered myself a novice—still do—it’s just that I’m too stubborn to stop writing. Translation is especially rewarding because you must make the poem sing in another language. It is the greatest challenge for me—to find the language to bring it into the realm of music, the cadence, the nuance, the slippery divide of words that cannot be found and yet must be chosen. But in truth, all literary work requires exquisite attention, concentration, and for a lack of a better word, prayerful dedication. Nothing comes easily except, perhaps, that hundredth time you’ve tried to say one simple line. This devotion to the ephemeral work of the mind requires faith—and not just a faith of belief but of action. I cannot assent to the words without fully embracing the task. And then I am consumed—which is what it takes. Ken Kesey said writing is a corrosive process… so I have to remember to step back when the edge is near. I have a busy job, a family, although grown, and a woman with whom I’ve lived for more than half of my life. These, too, must be embraced for the words to return.
CJJ: When you are working on new material, how do you keep notes or do your drafts? Do you have any reoccurring habits that you have found helpful in your literary career in regards to keeping a notebook? Or do you use some other system entirely?
STG: When I’m working on something new, I typically write in longhand, although if I’m not able, I will write wherever and however it is possible and then revise the subsequent drafts on the computer. I write almost all of my poetry in longhand and keep the drafts in journals so that I can revisit them when I have had some distance on the poems. It’s very important that I know where the poems came from—physically—where I was at the time, what I was doing, so that I can recreate the moment from which it came.
Prose is different. I’m comfortable writing first drafts in both longhand and on the computer but it takes much longer to find the clarity and depth of a well-made sentence. I’m sure that’s because I’m used to the poetic form; I want the snap of a line or stanza that is infrequent in prose. Of course, many drafts—whether prose or poetry—never get typed because I know when I have completed them that they are frail and so I use the time I have to push the drafts that seem like they are possible further. There are also many drafts that have died because of my unwillingness to resurrect them. A Faustian bargain that I cannot reconcile.
CJJ: What should the reader of poetry know about Hayden Carruth and his contribution to American poetry? What drew you to his work? Also, do you have a favorite poem by Carruth or collection of poetry?
STG: Hayden Carruth’s love of jazz and rural Vermont formed the core of much of his poetry. He created multiple new poetic forms including the “Paragraph,” a highly evolved fifteen-line sonnet, which he used to write his book-length meditation on love, The Sleeping Beauty, which many feel was his strongest work. But the poems from Brothers, I Loved You All, captured his humanity, his abiding concern for the values of his fellow “cowshit” farmers—thrift, community, labor, and sacrifice for one another when it was needed. These values finally drew me to him and the more I read the more I wanted to tell his story. He was neglected by many in the literary world but his closest friends, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Jim Harrison, Carolyn Kizer, and many more thought of him as someone who made poetry new. They respected his desire to live far from the literary mainstream and yet make such an impact on literature. He is perhaps most widely known as the editor of the anthology, The Voice that Is Great Within Us. My favorite poem by Hayden Carruth is Paragraph 25 from Brothers… with these haunting lines:
Reading myself, old poems, their inside truth that was
(is, is!) crucial, tree stark in lightning glimpse, hidden
mostly by the storm: complexities
modes, names, manners, words laden
with terror. What true voice? Where? Humiliated, in throes
of vacillation, roundhead to cavalier to ivy league to smartass—
never who I was. Say it plain….
CJJ: What should readers of poetry know about Emma Sepulveda? What kinship have you felt towards her work, and can you speak a little on the art of translation?
STG: Emma Sepúlveda is a Chilean exile that came to this country when Salvador Allende was assassinated in 1973. She has been a tireless human rights activist since immigrating as a college student. She is a photographer, journalist, poet, and prose writer. She has written numerous books and co-authored books with and about other Latin American writers. I met her when I was editing the anthology of Nevada poetry, Desert Wood. I knew immediately I wanted her in the book and yet, had never translated a poem. I suggested we try and nearly three years later, we finished her book, Muerte del silencio, (Death to Silence) which Arte Público Press, published in 1997. This led to several collaborations on translations of Latin American poets and prose writers for three books edited by Marjorie Agosín.
What I admire most about her poetry and art is her unrelenting desire to tell the truth about her homeland and the consequences of Pinochet’s dictatorship. I learned immensely from her example and had to teach myself so much about Latin American history and specifically, Chilean writers, to be a part of her artistic conversation. Translation, as I have said, is deeply rewarding and if I had more time, I would translate often but—the poet has to speak to me for the translation to be fully realized. I have tried to translate some Spanish poets and it has not gone well. I try and write poems in Spanish but imagine they are limited in their reach. Emma and I also translated a volume of poems by children of the disappeared, From Nowhere We Shall Pass, for which we have not found a publisher. Those poems are heroic and beautiful and need to be recorded in the history of Chile’s long struggle for independence.
CJJ: Having read your book This is What the Desert Surrenders a few time now, the poems in the section entitled “Winter in Pediatrics” continually strike me. The poems there haunt the back of my mind and sometimes remind me of Miguel Hernandez and his poetry dealing with the loss of a child. These poems are charged and that charge is fueled, I find, by both hope and sorrow. If you feel comfortable, can you tell us a little about these poems, their motivating factors, and their after effects (if any) on you as a poet?
STG: The poems from Winter in Pediatrics (from The Harvest of Lesser Burdens: Art in the Fields of Medicine) were written during a two-year residency at what was then Washoe Medical Center in Reno as part of their Healing Arts Program. I was one of three artists—a photographer, Stephen Davis, a painter, Sharon Maczko, and myself—who spent time in the various parts of the hospital to record the journeys of the patients. Our cumulative experiences resulted in that book (The Harvest…). I worked in Pediatrics and Pediatric ICU. It was one of the most profoundly moving experiences I have had. Every week I spent a morning in the hospital and when I left I tried to record what happened. Some days I wrote a journal entry but could not write any more. Some days the sorrow was overwhelming. On other days, I got lucky and wrote a poem. I always asked if I could share their experiences and became very close to several of the patients and their families. I have the highest regard for the nurses in that unit. Over time, they let me sit in on their rounds. Their humanity was unlike any I had seen—over and over again, they returned to the bedside and the family to administer care—whatever the circumstance. More often than not, they brought the family through the long period of suffering. They, like the young patients, were equally resilient. Few people have so much on the line when they walk into work everyday. Perhaps the poems are acute because there was nothing imagined save the fear that was everywhere and could not be spoken.
CJJ: Finally, what are you reading right now?
STG: I’m trying to read for pleasure again. After so long on the Carruth book and other books, I have thoroughly enjoyed returning to fiction for joy. I just finished McCarthy’s The Road—years later I know—and I am about to start on a biography of Robert Laxalt: The Story of a Storyteller. A friend gave me The Boat by Nam Le and I may swerve to get to that one first. The choices are endless even as I read manuscripts like Stephen Liu’s Entering the Valley of Peach Blossoms, another excellent book looking for a home.