“Ghosts are our muses—our inspiration—whether we want them to be or not.”
This End of the World: Notes to Robert Kroetsch (Apt. 9 Press, 2016)
Speaking specifically about your chapbook, This End of the World: Notes to Robert Kroetsch, I have to ask how you came across his works and how you became so inspired as to write a work entirely to him. And did you ever get to meet him?
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about the time when you were writing it?
I became aware of Robert Kroetsch back in 2004 when I was invited by the well-known Canadian prairie writer, Dennis Cooley, to present at a conference in Winnipeg where Kroetsch was going to be featured as his poetry book, Seed Catalogue, was being re-released. I was struck by his humility and his gravitas–both as a person and as a writer. His materials were “Canadian,” but resonated with me since they have a lot to do with land and the farm, as a locus. Since I grew up partially on my grandparents’ farm in Northwest Arkansas, I connected with it and I began to think about how “American” these materials were–and how “Western” they were, too. Kroetsch gave me a kind of model to think about place in a way that I hadn’t before. He was playful and self-deprecating, but also quite learned about so many things. I think back on that conference where I met so many wonderful writers and scholars…it was a time that really had an impact on my reading and thinking. I am grateful to Dennis Cooley for really encouraging me to look into Canadian prairie writers–particularly, Andrew Suknaski–and give a talk even though I didn’t think I had anything to say.
But it was really when my first book, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011) was about to come out that I had the most correspondence with him. I asked him to blurb the book and he wrote very generously for me, despite not knowing me well. As you might imagine, I was deeply grateful and simultaneously on my way to hike the Camino de Santiago Compostela in the early part of the summer. While on the Camino, I kept a journal in which I wrote an “American sentence” for each kilometer I walked (which turned out to be something like 180). American sentences were a form that Allen Ginsberg came up with that mimicked haiku. They are 17 syllables (like haiku), but written as a single sentence, imagistic and with a narrative arc. I planned to use these to write a poem for Kroetsch to send to him when I returned. I also collected wild flowers on my walk that I pressed into my journal that I hoped to drop into my letter since I knew that Spain was a place he loved, too. The result of my American sentences is mostly in the poem, “Notes from the Camino de Santiago Compostela” which was the first poem I completed in the chapbook. When I returned in June, I received a phone call with news that he had been killed in a car accident.
The “Excerpts from This End of the World” all strike me as powerful with their strong imagery. Not only that, but they are clearly riddled with pain and suffering due to heartbreak. How do you channel your emotions when writing and convey those strong feelings to you readers?
After learning of his death, I began having dreams in which he appeared. The first poem in the chapbook, “Dreaming Notes,” has to do with a dream I had where he slides on his knees onto a gym floor, reciting Shakespeare in a play that was being performed. It was such a vivid dream and took place in Chicago (where I lived and studied for many years and where some of my family and close friends still live), but really just that sort of shaking up of all the things my unconsciousness threw together. I should say that I went back to reading his poems in an even more intense way at that period of time. That fall, I had a former student who died in a freak house fire where she lived off-campus. The elegy that ends the chapbook came out of that tragedy, but while, of course, I was still thinking about and reading Kroetsch’s work. It was a difficult and sad period of my life for these and other kinds of losses. I think your reading of the chapbook as a book of loss is correct from that standpoint.
You ask how to render these “strong emotions” and “channel them for readers.” The answer is the answer that you will find in many or even most creative writing classes: try to show those feelings through the senses more than you tell your readers about the abstract feelings and thought. I think a lot about this and how to strike a balance. It is particularly hard to write about loss. The feeling can be so overwhelming that it blocks the language that shows who or what you lost—and why it was so important. I think that in writing notes to Robert Kroetsch and incorporating his work (and other poets’ work, too) into my own, I was able to give a body—a kind of physical sense— to the loss I felt in losing communication with him, his actual presence in the world, my student, a romantic loss, the loss of a pet, etc. So Kroetsch became for me a kind of personal metonym for all of my losses.
But you know, I hope you also found fun in these poems, too. I think of Kroetsch as a writer full of fun and wry jokes and pranks. A story that Dennis Cooley told me was how when he was working on his long book of poems, Bloody Jack (Turning Stone Press) about the Canadian outlaw, Jack Krafchenko, his colleagues which consisted of Bob Kroetsch, David Arnason and others, kept encouraging him to end the book as they thought it was getting too long. According to the story, Kroetsch and pals would sneak into Cooley’s office and steal parts of the manuscript. Cooley would come in and discover this and instead of taking the hint, he just kept writing. And then, they would do it again! I love this story for its collegiality and fun even as the serious business of writing continues. I also grew up with brothers and aunts and uncles on my grandparents’ farm, who pulled pranks and joked a lot. And I love to tease my friends and give them silly nicknames. So I hope that the fun in these poems and my own jocularity comes through, too.
Ghosts are mentioned in a few different pieces in your chapbook, and of course there is a specific part with that title itself. I was intrigued by this part, not only because it broke away a bit with the Stephen King quote, but also because of the pacing. Is there any symbolism tied to ghosts or perhaps an underlying motif you might explain?
I’m so pleased you were intrigued by the poem, “On Ghosts,” and the Stephen King epigraph. I had been reading poems of Kroetsch’s that had to do with, I believe, the ghost of his Aunt Annie or something like that. I started thinking about places that I had grown up around that were storied to be haunted and the names of ghosts I had grown up with (usually not so much a proper name as “the lady who used to live in that old house up off Rudy Road”).
Then I began reading reference books about ghosts and the supernatural which helped me think even more concretely. You can read in the poem the images from a few different cultures as to what they called ghosts or how they thought of them. One of the striking entries I read was about Gettysburg battlefield and how people have reported seeing limbs stacked against walls or under windows when they were visiting (presumably, amputated limbs of the soldiers). I was especially struck by this as I grew up in Northwest Arkansas where Civil War battles were fought—notably, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. We used to take field trips to these battlefields in elementary school. Also, not all that long ago, kids in these areas would still find finger and toe bones of the soldiers while playing outside and digging around in the dirt (clearly, this was before internet). My grandfather had a small collection of Civil War cannon balls he found while ploughing his fields and that he kept in a tool chest underneath the sink in the bathroom. So growing up I had all of these tangible, yet ghostly objects around me: bones and battlefields and cannonballs.
In any case, doing the research helped me to think more closely about how we live with the past—the ghosts among us—on a daily basis. Actually, our losses from not just death, but of friends who are no longer friends, divorces or romances that ended, phases of our life that naturally ended. We live in those times and with those people still in our heads in some small or big way. Sometimes we don’t even know they are there. Other times, we become aware of how present they are by the stories we tell, by the recurrence of their images in our memories and our writings. I think this is what Stephen King’s quote was about: ghosts are our muses—our inspiration—whether we want them to be or not. William Faulkner said, “the past isn’t even past.” While I am an optimistic person and believe change is possible, I also think he’s right. I think ghosts just become part of us in some way. In the poem, I reference the history of Poland, a country that was re-mapped often. The mystical lights that people saw, the ignus faatua, they believed to be the ghosts of dead mapmakers, who they feared for the way they could make a place—their own country—disappear if they chose to draw borders differently. Talk about how ghosts are a metaphor for our real fears!
How long did it take to compose your entire chapbook? Was it a frustrating process or a smooth one?
I wrote most of the poems in a year or year and a half (2011-2012). Then I put them away. I wasn’t quite sure what the manuscript needed, but I began to publish the individual poems fairly quickly. I went back to the poems as a whole while on sabbatical in 2014, edited them and then wrote the short series “Excerpts from This End of the World.” I was traveling a lot at the time which provided a lot of good material and even catharsis for that earlier sad time when I began the manuscript, but also had a good solid stint to sit and write while living with my brother in Ecuador. Cameron Anstee, the head of Apt. 9, a chapbook press, was, fortunately for me, interested in the project. I would say that compared to my first full book it was a very smooth process (mostly because I had no idea what I was doing then!). But I am a slow writer and thinker. I need time to consider about what I really want in the writing I do—because once it is out there it gets a life of its own apart from my control. I just want to be able to think about it as deeply and angularly as possible.
Can you tell us about any projects you are working on?
Currently, I am writing a book of travel poems. It is tentatively titled, In Transit. I am looking at the history of travel, the strangeness and likenesses of place and trying to figure out my own enduring call to travel. The poems will cover over 30 countries and 40 U.S. states in its geography. I am interested in the ways that we can go to places like Borneo and eat in a KFC—a “chain” that links us, but also (given the image of Colonel Sanders) reminds us of the chain and enslavement of and in history. But just as much, we might be traveling in our “home” state and realize the foreignness of names or other things that spins the familiar for us—Palestine, Arkansas, for instance, or Lavaca, where my grandfather grew up, is a derivation of the Spanish word, “la vaca” for “the cow.” I imagine the latter as being somehow left over from when the Spanish, De Soto and company came through the area. I am still exploring myself.
Additionally, I am working on a chapbook entitled, Occasionally, which are poems that I’ve written based off of assignments given to me by occasions (holidays, birthdays, retirements), family and friends. I am also working on publishing my second full book of poems, From the Hotel Vernon, which spins out from a derelict hotel in Worcester, MA, that was built at the turn of the century and is a hub of artistic and political history about Worcester and also short narratives about the neighborhood it is in that are tragi-comic. What I find really interesting is that the manuscript was a finalist for the Robert Kroetsch award last spring (he keeps bringing me luck, that guy!)
Do you have any advice for budding authors?
I always love to pass on the advice that the wonderful poet, Sherod Santos, gave to me when I was just starting out: “If writing is important to you then you will come back to it.” He said this to me when I didn’t know what I was going to do after finishing my undergraduate studies. He had read my poems and knew I was serious about writing poems then, but he didn’t know me. He just knew that writing—especially writing poems—was something that had to exist in its importance for anyone outside everything else.
One of the great satisfying moments in my life was about 15 years after he gave me that advice, I wrote him and told him I had passed on what he said to a student of mine who had come in to my office in tears because she hadn’t gotten in to the graduate programs she had applied to. I told him how much his words had meant for me at 21 and how practical they were (since he hadn’t said, “Oh I’m sure you will come back to it” or “You are such a good poet that I’m sure you will succeed…”). I told him about all of the jobs I had worked at (advocate for immigrants, ESL teacher, bartender, waitress, etc.), but how I did get back to writing as a profession—even as I had kept writing through the years on my own. I told him how hopeful I was for my student and how much I hoped she would hear those words as hopeful. When he replied to me a day later, he said, “Just so you know, I received your email of thanks after teaching the last class of my career. Thank you.” What serendipity. It was wonderful to feel how much I was part of a legacy. So I will just say, that your family, religion, financial needs and other commitments may always be there, but if you need to write, you should. Writers are generally people who like/want/need/crave (or something) challenge. If you can remember that in frustrating times it may go a long way. When trying to publish think of rejections as evidence that you are working as a writer. Refrain from thinking that your work is so good that it doesn’t need rethinking and reworking. But neither should you believe that it is so imperfect and no one needs it. Maybe they do.
Lea Graham‘s published work includes the chapbook, This End of the World: Notes to Robert Kroetsch(Apt. 9 Press, 2016), the poetry book, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011) and the chapbook, Calendar Girls (above /ground press, 2006). Her current poetry manuscript, From the Hotel Vernon, was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch prize in March 2016. Her individual poems, translations and reviews have been published in or are forthcoming in Bateau, Poor Yorick, Notre Dame Review, Ditch and Southern Humanities Review. She is an associate professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York and am a native of Northwest Arkansas.