PE: By what process/under what sign do you feel you have moved towards writing longer poems? To what effect are your poems getting, and i mean this appreciatively, more time-consuming?
GF: I think I’ve approached writing in the same way one might approach exercise. Start small, go slowly at first, try to be able to do a little more as time goes on, etc. When I began to write poems, my goal was to pare things down to the fewest possible words, because, well, that's one useful way of thinking about what constitutes a poem. And it happens to be not so easy, I guess, but perhaps *manageable* in some way. Now I'm feeling more like I can get carried away, not in the hallucinatory sense, but like I can go long distances or many rounds with a particular idea or emotion or a particular set of ideas/emotions.
I'm selfish, too--I write poetry because I like writing, and writing little poems just isn’t interesting to me right now, though there are some short-ish poems in the new book. I just finished a 30-page poem, which I'll read at Studio One. Maybe people will stick around to hear the end of my jogging in place.
PE: Can you talk about collagist/allusive poetic procedures? Your poems contain many quotes and references but in a way that would make an index quite beside the point. I wonder if the many fragments of poems and songs that find their way into your work act as a kind of thickening agent to the nominally solitary lyric voice. Do you snip to thicken?
GF: That seems like a terrific way of describing one of the effects/uses of that technique, though it's not the only one. I’ve always thought that Spicer’s notion that poems can’t live alone any more than we can to be absolutely accurate, so that’s part of it too. I sample to keep my poem company.
PE: Can I ask you a word-association question? In the new book, out of some kind of California, two major themes seem to keep pushing each other around.... So: *grief* and *belief*; what kind of energy (or doubt, or whatever) obtains between these states?
GF: One ends where the other begins. It may be that poetry is rooted in belief-oriented grief. Holding dear a weight? That seems a decent description of a poem.
PE: You've presented half of your books in a specific visual context: the paintings of Brian Calvin. Can you talk about your poetry in the context of the non-auditory arts? Has this become more important to your work over time?
GF: I've been drawn to painting for as long as I've known that I'm incapable of it. Maybe longer. I love Brian's work, and, as it happens, he's been kind enough to let Flood Editions use his images for my books. I don't much like "imagey" covers for books, especially for poetry, but I think his pictures work well with my poems--they set a certain tone, rather than saying "Behold the person these poems are about" or something awful like that. Though it's amazing how many people asked me if the paint on the cover of Necessary Stranger was in the shape of me.
PE: What artists, or artistic trends, in any mode, are currently infuriating you, in good or bad ways?
GF: Bad art is very easy to ignore, as is bad thinking about art (as is bad thinking by artists about subjects other than art)--one need only switch off the computer, leave the gallery, close the book, etc. So I tend to not get infuriated very often. But I get interested in things with some frequency, and lately I've been very interested in Roberto Bolaño, the Brice Marden paintings at SFMOMA, a singer named Eilen Jewell (particularly her album Sea of Tears), and Alice Notley's poem "In the Pines."
But maybe that’s a cop-out answer. Here’s one: “The idea of making things last is something which just has to be conquered.” That’s Spicer, too, and I think a lot of writers seem to be buying it lately (though not necessarily because of him). As much as I like Spicer, I don’t buy it for a second. It’s an idea that the folks who make the plastic gewgaws you buy at Wal-Mart have already conquered. I think we should expect more from poetry.
PE: I read that Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost once had an argument that went respectively something like this: "The trouble with you is you write about things." "The trouble with you is you write about bric-a-brac." Were they having a real argument?
GF: From gewgaws to bric-a-brac . . . We’re on a roll! "Subjects" was what Stevens accused Frost of writing about. In order to have a “real” argument, people have to use a shared set of terms, so I guess I'd have to think about how "subjects" and "bric-a-brac" are related to one another. (And "bric-a-brac" could in fact be a subject, which makes things a little strange.) So, perhaps Stevens is accusing Frost of being grandiose--he's writing about capital-S Subjects--and Frost is accusing Stevens of being chintzy and quotidian. Or maybe Stevens is accusing Frost of knowing what he's going to say before he says it and Frost is accusing Stevens of just fiddling around with language rather than "saying something." These are "live" arguments in the sense that we see these same notions being pitted against each other these days as well, but are they “real”? I feel like poets are always engaged in some combination of all of these things, so I don't see much point in arguing about it. Poetry is what we make out in the distance while other people are quarrelling about it.
Paul Ebenkamp lives and works in Berkeley CA.
Graham Foust is the author of A Mouth in California and three other books of poems. He works at Saint Mary's College of California and lives in Oakland.