Struggles with the Holy in the Poetry of Michael Graves
Interviewed by Vic Schermer

Michael Graves's poems cover a wide variety of subjects, linked by images and allusions, by themes of the divine and the profane. They speak with a clear, universal voice. (VS)

You, Who Create

You, who create
With a word,
A thought, or a breath,
Who was the first
To shudder with bliss
Or grovel before you?
There must have been many,
Not only Adam, my father.
This tree you forbid us
Grows from the grave
Of the former creations
Buried beneath it
To feed its roots!
There should be candles
In skulls in a circle around it.

VS: Who are a few of the poets and writers who have influenced you most, and a few who may not have influenced you strongly but are among your favorites?

MG: I think I have been most influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Yeats, Joyce, and James Wright. As for favorites, I love Seamus Heaney's early work, especially Door into the Dark and North, Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, the second half of Louise Bogan's The Blue Estuaries, Milosz's Bells in Winter, Thomas Kinsella's Notes from the Land of the Dead, Millay's Sonnets, especially No. XXXIV, Wright and Bly's versions of Vallejo and Neruda, especially Vallejo's 'The Black Riders,' --"and everything alive / is backed up, like a pool of guilt, in that glance."

VS: You have dedicated your life to poetry and have made many personal sacrifices for it. What forces in your life experience, family history, personality, and identity may have led you to such a commitment?

MG: One can't sacrifice what one could not have had. The easiest part of the answer for me is the mentoring I received from James Wright who directed two semesters of independent study in creative writing for me and then allowed me to keep in touch with him, James Wright's office mate at Hunter where I was an undergraduate, the brilliant Joyce scholar Leonard Albert, and Bill Rossky, who taught Shakespeare at Temple University where I did my graduate work. Leonard Albert arranged for me to meet Jim Wright and critiqued my poems, mostly by mail, for some seven years, if I remember correctly. He found a way to handle my neediness for a long time, to put it mildly. Bill Rossky has met with me four or five times a year for more than twenty years.

VS: As you mentioned, you were fortunate to have studied with the great American poet James Wright. Can you share one or two brief anecdotes about him? Can you say what you learned from him about poetry, writing, life, and literature?

Tyrants of free verse vs. masters of "iambic trimeter"

MG: I was mostly a pain in Jim's rear end, but his widow Annie has been kind enough to say I was one of his favorite students, so I take some consolation in that. He was going through a difficult period in his life, and I knew him mostly as a teacher. As my understanding of his stature grew, I looked up and read every writer he mentioned, and I went to hear them if they were still alive. He knew I admired J. V. Cunningham's work, so he told me about quoting Cunningham to Robert Bly to rile him up. As you know, Bly was deeply involved in trying to suggest new possibilities for American poetry whereas Cunningham was a traditionalist from the Stanford School which Ivor Winters dominated.

I remember him quoting from "To What Strangers, What Welcome", a poem about a stripper: "one clock, the other counter clockwise twirling/It was enough to stop a man from girling." He said Tobias Smollet wrote as if he had an erection and all the blood in his body had rushed to it. He also said Smollet's epistolary novel Humphrey Clinker was an influence on the deliberate mispellings of Finnegans Wake. He emphasized the importance of a knowledge of the past and voiced his objection to what he called "the stalinist tyranny of free verse" in contemporary poetry.

When he studied under Roethke at Seattle, Roethke told his students that Yeats was a master of the "iambic trimeter" line and made them write exercises in that meter. He assigned that as an exercise. He told me that the Irish discovered that if they could sing, they could bear anything. And he told me that sometimes I got a rhythm going that reminded him of the Irish poets, and quoted Hyde's translation of Thomas McDonough's "The Yellow Bittern." Some years later, I had the honor of hearing Thomas Kinsella recite it in Gaelic when I visited him during a hospital stay. On one of the first poems I showed him, he wrote, "Jesus Christ, what a line! It's almost insane." And at the bottom, "In the deeper sense, you're a poet. I'll help you in any way I can."

. . . to put with perfect calm
The host upon the tongue.

VS: Your poems address themes that cross religious and national boundaries, but, as you say, you have a strong identification with the Irish. You have published in an Irish journal, one of your mentors was Thomas Kinsella, and you are deeply immersed in the work of James Joyce. To what extent and how are you influenced by your Irish heritage? Would you consider yourself an "Irish poet"?

MG: Thomas Kinsella wrote me a generous letter acknowledging the gift of Outside St. Jude's, but he never mentored me. In his appropriately magisterial way, he told me to keep writing. At one time, I did consider myself an Irish poet. It had a lot to do with what I mentioned above. It was also partly a desire to identify with my father.


Like a loose garment
The world should be worn.

Spare and easy to shuck.

As I cast out my garbage,
Slough off my clothing,
Strip down to journey
Closer to death,
Consider my loyalty, Father,
And smile.

VS: I understand some of your poems, such as those in Outside St. Jude's to refer, perhaps autobiographically, to a young man whose desires are awakening in the context of a tragic family life. (Parallels to Stephen Dedalus?) The mother figure is portrayed as a Christ-like martyr, and the struggle between father and son seems beyond repair. The persona of the poems bears with terror yet courage the family legacy and is its muse. Is this a fair construction of these poems? Are these poems which you see more as a set of images "carefully dreamed" or as hard realities?

MG: The only parallel to Joyce's Portrait that I'm conscious of is the closing stanza of the last of my sequence, Meditations: "They always seemed to put with perfect calm / The host upon the tongue." It alludes to the communion Stephen receives after his confession: "The ciborium had come to him." But the example of Joyce is, I like to think, present in the book. I was both more familiar with and more comfortable with Dubliners and Ulysses than I was with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I was focused on sexualizing the religious content--symbols, images, allusions. I had conflated that with the intention to create anagogic levels of meaning, which Joyce had done as early as Dubliners by means of puns, following the influence of Dante. It falls far short of Joyce's achievement. "Eve Speaks" closes the book because Penelope closes Ulysses.

Eve Speaks: IX

You lifted rocks
And cracked the skulls
Of snakes.

You piled an altar
Of those stones,
Above your brother's bones.

You threw him skins,
And wheat and fruit.
You cursed my face
And called my womb
The nest of snakes.
You burnt the offerings.

You stepped upon
A writhing branch,
Escaped from Eden's tree,
And, stumbling through
The biting rocks,
Wrenched your hand
Away from me.

VS: Your Cain poems are, I take it, always a work in progress. While you take liberties with the Old Testament story, the poems reflect similar themes of sexuality, sibling rivalry, and personal character. What is your intention in these poems and how should the reader approach them?

MG: In his course, "The Bible as Literature", Leonard Albert pointed out that God offers no explanation for his rejection of Cain's gifts. So, I saw Cain was Job. In his Joseph books, Thomas Mann presents the idea that all beginnings are earlier than they are thought to be. Moving typology backward, Cain may be Christ. How? You'll have to read the poems. But the real motive, in addition to an interest in the Christian and Jewish sources, is a deep identification with Cain. And a somewhat gnostic attitude. At this point, the core of the sequence seems to be the poems in which he speaks directly to God.

The Seal

Open, raw,
Aflame on my brow,
This mark of bloody ownership,
Seal of despair.
But for me also a brazen
And reflecting shield,
Repelling both pity and contempt.

Spare me your protection.
Erase this burning brand.
Make smooth my brow--
Signature and punishment
Too fierce to bear.

VS: The Cain poems and others appear, at least on the surface level, to have been written with a strong male bias, echoing Biblical perspectives. Do you think that feminists would tend to be critical of such a bias? How would you respond to them if they were?

MG: Well, some feminists, as I know from reading their criticism, find redeeming things in Joyce. He's not so bad according to them. In addition, why should "Eve Speaks" offend them? Doesn't it portray the scapegoated mother of us all, to pretend she really existed, as an imperfect, but powerfully complex figure?

VS: Do you allude to themes and characters from James Joyce in some of your poems?

MG: Well, I've published eight poems on Joycean themes in The James Joyce Quarterly, and three more are forthcoming.

Remembered realities and careful dreams

VS: In general, how do you go about constructing a poem? Does it emerge whole from your unconscious or undergo many revisions?

MG: I get poems both ways, as gifts and as jobs to complete, but I can't remember any one that needed no revision whatsoever. I like to leave drafts of poems and/or ideas for poems incomplete and then revisit them days or weeks later. That gives me objectivity, the needed distance. All poems are combinations of remembered realities and careful dreams. Dreams may mean material that comes into consciousness from the unconscious while one is awake.

VS: You are a poet who is interested in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. I am a psychoanalytic therapist who is interested in poetry. Which schools of thought and ideas in psychology attract your attention most these days? Also, as a psychotherapist, I am sometimes concerned that "getting well" may make the patient "normal" in a way that interferes with creativity. Doesn't psychology as a conscious pursuit hamper the creative process?

MG: My interest in psychology has helped me immensely as a writer. Both psychology and creative writing are concerned with preserving, transforming, and presenting the inner life. Why shouldn't they influence each other? Both Leonard Albert, who wrote James Joyce and the New Psychology, and James Wright, who told me Freud was a prize-winning essayist, taught me respect for psychology.

Poetry is, among other things, an embodiment of the psyche. Your web site promotes dialogue on psychology and the arts.* The article we co-wrote on James Wright for The Psychoanalytic Review reflects that dual interest.** I found Leonard Shengold's Soul Murder and Father, Don't You See I'm Burning? fascinating, and I'm interested in the work of analysts in the British Object Relations School, people like Winnicott--especially his concept of the true and false self--and in the work of Wilfrid Bion and James Grotstein.

VS: What advice about living and writing would you give to a talented young poet who is starting out on his or her career?

MG: Read. Read, read, read, read. Seek out writers whom you respect who are able and willing to help, not necessarily to publish, but to grow as a writer. High art is often a language and a world the aspiring writer has to learn how to enter, has to earn entrance to. For example, reading Ulysses and Finnegans Wake is not only a wonderful experience, but also hard work. There is no great art without a great criticism. Learn the concepts of analysis by reading Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and others. Imitate the masters, think about what might be worth writing, what is worth saying. That's often neither popular nor easy. Write often, every day when possible. Be open to criticism. Be tough on yourself. Hope to get lucky.

*Psychology, Literature and the Arts
**"The Abandoned Male Persona and the Mysterious Feminine in the Poetry of James Wright: A Study in the Transformation of the Self." The Psychoanalytic Review 85/6, Dec. 99, pp. 849-870.

Author of the collection, Outside St. Jude's (R.E.M. Press, 1990), Michael Graves has published over a hundred poems and essays in journals and anthologies, including The James Joyce Quarterly, The Hollins Critic, The Journal of Irish Literature, European Judaism, Writer's Forum, Rattapallax, and Modern Poems on Classical Myth (Oxford University Press). He teaches in New York City, where he founded and co-directs the Phoenix Reading Series. [See Series on Series, this issue. Ed.]

Vic Schermer reviews music and literature and conducts frequent interviews. A psychologist in private practice and clinic settings in Philadelphia, he has explored artistic consciousness in professional articles and presented papers on Eliot, Wright, and Dickinson respectively for the Phoenix Reading Series. His poetry has appeared in Rattapallax (Vol. 1, No. 1) and his work appears in this magazine's Big City, Little section (Philadelphia).

Interview conducted via electronic media from Feb 24 through March 6.
©2001 Big City Lit(tm)