Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: David Graham

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

David Graham

has published three full-length collections of poetry, Magic Shows, Second Wind, and, most recently, The Honey of Earth (Terrapin Books, 2019). He’s also published four chapbooks, most recently Stutter Monk. He is also co-editor of After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography (with Kate Sontag) and Local News: Poetry About Small Towns (with Tom Montag), just published by MWPH Books. He retired in 2016 from teaching writing and literature at Ripon College, where he also hosted their Visiting Writers Series for twenty-eight years. He has served on The Poets’ Prize Committee and the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission and was a Resident Poet as well as faculty member at The Frost Place. Currently he is a contributing editor for Verse-Virtual, where he also contributes a monthly column, “Poetic License,” on poetry and poets. After retiring he returned to his native upstate New York with his wife, the artist Lee Shippey.

 

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

There are many honest answers to such a question, I think, and depending on my mood, I might stress this or that factor more heavily. Tomorrow’s answer might differ. But as far as I can recall, I began to write seriously at about age sixteen, knowing nothing about the art of poetry except that it seemed a good way to express the inexpressible flood of emotions that a boy at that age feels. Before long I learned that it was also a way to impress young women. At the same time, I was listening to music seriously for the first time, and my adolescence happened to coincide with a great era in popular music. So lyricists like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and many others were among my first deep poetic influences. Yet it’s equally true that long before that I absorbed a great deal of poetry in church every Sunday—in the form of the glorious King James version of the Bible and the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Hearing that wonderful Elizabethan language read aloud surely inspired me, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Likewise, my mother used to read aloud to me when I was a boy—her love of A.A. Milne’s poetry in particular was infectious and certainly must be added to the mix.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Aside from my mother’s love of Milne, I did have the usual public-school exposure to traditional poetry, and for the most part I didn’t much care for it. I was a bookish teen, though, and eventually discovered a number of poets who weren’t being taught in my classes, poets such as Richard Brautigan, Diane Wakoski, E.E. Cummings, Denise Levertov, and others. I should mention here one of my high school English teachers, Ed Brennan, who by being open to the poetic powers of musical lyrics, was an important early permission-giver. Then in college I was lucky enough to encounter some very gifted teachers, including Sydney Lea.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Depends on how old I was. In college and graduate school I gradually became aware of what we now call PoBiz, the making and maintaining of reputations, the “anxiety of influence,” in Harold Bloom’s phrase, damaging labels like “major” and “minor,” and so forth. The older I get the more I realize that worrying about such things is pointless. Honor your elders, do your work, seek out community in the poetry world, and let matters of reputation be decided by others, as they always are in the end.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I have written poetry daily for many years, and haven’t missed a day since 1993. When younger I liked to claim the quiet hours around midnight as my best time; as I aged I could no longer stay awake and alert enough to write after the day’s other chores were done. So I switched to a morning routine, which seems to work best for me. Ideally I write as soon as possible upon waking. But on those days when other obligations prevent that, I fit it in wherever I can. I work on poetry, generally, when I am freshest. Later in the day I often work on prose.

5. What motivates you to write?

I can’t improve on something I once heard Shelby Stephenson say when asked this question: “Why, to defeat sin and death, of course!”

6. What is your work ethic?

Richard Hugo’s wonderful book The Triggering Town contains an anecdote that pretty much says it all. When I was teaching creative writing I quoted it to every class I taught. The story goes that the golfing legend Jack Nicklaus once made an amazing shot, and an onlooker commented, “That was a lucky shot.” Supposedly Nicklaus replied, “Yes, it was. But I notice the more I practice, the luckier I get.” Or, as Louis Pasteur explained his success, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” There is such a thing as luck, magic, inspiration, or whatever you wish to call it. You can’t explain it or call it forth at will. But it does tend to arrive more often when you work at it.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I imagine they’re in there somewhere, always, even if I’m not consciously aware. Of the poets I’m aware of as continuing influences on my work, I would single out Walt Whitman, Robert Bly, James Wright, Philip Levine, William Matthews, and Richard Hugo as particularly important early influences. There are also many I admire and wish I could be more heavily influenced by, but who remain impossible for me, anyway, to imitate. One example would be Emily Dickinson.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

That’s an impossible question, of course. There are hundreds I admire fiercely.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

Whether by habit or for some other, ineffable reason, writing has long since become necessary for me. You could call it an addiction, in that it makes me feel good to do it, and bad if too much time passes between doses.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

My answer is the usual one: you become a writer mostly by writing a lot at the same time as you are reading a lot. They strike me as two sides of the same coin. If you’re lucky you will also find good teachers, mentors, and a peer group to offer critical suggestions and moral support. Such things can aid enormously, but they cannot help you if you’re not writing and reading enough.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’ve just published two books—The Honey of Earth is a new collection of poems from Terrapin Books; and Local News: Poetry About Small Towns is an anthology of contemporary poetry that I co-edited with Tom Montag (MWPH Books). At the moment I’m mostly engaged in promoting those. So I have no large projects underway currently, but soon I’ll begin thinking about my next collection of poems. In the meantime, I write a monthly column about poetry and poets for the online journal, Verse-Virtual called “Poetic License.” For three years now I’ve been reflecting each month on what a lifetime of reading, teaching, and writing poetry has taught me. I invite you to take a look: http://www.verse-virtual.com

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