Presenter of the National Book Awards

2007 National Book Award Poetry Finalist Interview With Linda Gregerson

Linda Gregerson

Magnetic North

Houghton Mifflin Company

Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.

Photo © Nina Subin

CMT: This is your 4th collection of poems in about 25 years. What’s your process of writing like?

LG: I do not write quickly, and I do other kinds of work. I also teach at University of Michigan, and I do renaissance scholarship, so I’m always begging from Peter to pay Paul. I’m extremely happy when I get corralled to doing something on assignment. You wouldn’t think poetry on assignment would be very promising, but in fact, the poem to which I’m most deeply wedded in this book, the final one called “Elegant,” was commissioned by two very lovely poets in England who got a small grant and commissioned poets to enter into conversation with a scientist. I thought it was just a thrilling idea. I had an extremely generous colleague named Ron Ellis at University of Michigan, who had in fact worked with a couple of that that year’s Nobel laureates. He basically gave me a private tutorial—he set up slides and labs and introduced me to a gorgeous microscopic roundworm. I’m a complete lay person and I really just worship this kind of work. I think it’s really as close as we get to the mysteries of creation. So that one was on assignment. Other times I’ll be prompted by something, some harrowing headline, some story told to me by my mother, a work of art, something I don’t want to let go through my life too quickly.

CMT: While there’s often a touchstone for your poems in the experienced world, your work has a different relationship to what’s “real” than, say, Robert Hass’s does. How would you describe it?

LG: I’ve had to learn how to live in the material world, and I learn it immensely from my daughters, because they’re gifted with a wonderful quality of attention. My relationship to it probably relates to the fact that I’ve actually been sick most of my life: I was a very sickly kid. I’ve experienced my body as a place of debility and crisis. That has probably also contributed to my sense of wonder and admiration about physical science and life science, because my sense of the oddity of our embodiment is based on a keen awareness that bodies are much more intelligent than we are and that they don’t always have us in mind. They don’t always have what we believe to be our best interests—things like living longer and being without pain—in mind. Our access to the physical world in our consciousness is intermittent, precarious and highly contingent.

CMT: One of the first things a reader will notice about the poems in this book is the distinctive, sprawling line you’re using. How did you come to use that line?

LG: For me, the primary elements of this work are the syntactical unit and the line. They are at odds with one another more often than not. That resistance or syncopation is a very fertile one. It’s what tells me where to go. And so I fret; I work very, very closely with lineation and rewrite endlessly. It’s partly about cognitive pacing, though it starts out very practical, with a rhythm and cadence and a need to not let the poem get too airless. I need to make sure I build in some white space so that it’s not too compressed or heaped up or too thick on the page, so there’s a chance to breath, to pay attention. It may be that lineation is as much about listening as speaking.

CMT: So what would it mean to you to win the National Book Award?

LG: I don’t think I can even contemplate that. To be on this list with other writers I so admire and to have this kind and generous recognition means more than I can say.

Craig Morgan Teicher's poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Bookforum, and Poets & Writers. His first book, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems won the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and is due out this November. He works as an editor at Publishers Weekly.