2010 National Book Award Finalist,
The Eternal City
Princeton University Press
Interview by Jean Hartig
Jean Hartig: How did you respond to The Eternal City—your second book—receiving a nod for the National Book Award?
Kathleen Graber: I was stunned, and I am still stunned. I am so happy—this is good news not only for me but also for the newly relaunched Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and for Virginia Commonwealth University, where I teach.
JH: You worked on much of The Eternal City while abroad, and much of the imagery involves transit, foreign solitude, making one's way. How has travel informed your process?
KG: I am quite a homebody by nature. I like routine and I like to have all of my “things” around me. I love odd, old things! Not valuable things, just junk. Traveling so widely for such an extended period of time taught me that it is possible to live very differently, to live a very spare life—to love things but not to possess them. To me, that felt like the important reclamation of some old wisdom that is only too easily forgotten now that I am home again. I still appreciate, however, simply having what I would call the essentials: some heat and drinkable water, a few well-loved texts and access to an adequate English-language library, a reliable computer and some technologically reliable means of communication. At one point I intentionally went to Gozo, a small island that is part of Malta, because I knew that there would be almost nothing “to do” there. It was very good for my process to realize that one can write less from inspiration than from something more like determination and focus. I like to incorporate other voices and streams of information into my poems, but there were not a lot of books at my disposal in Gozo. I don't like to read on the Internet, and my Internet access was rather spotty. I had to find a way to engage what was at hand, and that was the intellectual equivalent of learning to value potable water. I think I learned how to more fully discern and engage with the world around me, as well as the random texts on my desk. Small things mattered much more, which is an odd thing to say, I think, when one considers the rather sprawling style of the poems. I seem to have a lot to say about almost nothing.
JH: This book is vibrating with voices and visions—from the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Milan Kundera to the films of Werner Herzog and Luis Buñuel. What compelled you to incorporate the work of these artists and thinkers into your poems?
KG: The first poem I wrote for this book was “The Eternal City.” It is a response to an essay by Joseph Brodsky about Marcus Aurelius. In the essay Brodsky compares Rome to “a gigantic old brain,” and that concept of the mind as a kind of eternal city became an informing principle for the manuscript from the start. While no one mind lives forever, the mind is eternal in so far as everything exists in the mind in a simultaneous way: the past and the present, what I am reading now and what I read when I was seventeen years old, the person I was then and the person I’ve become, whatever one knows of history and current events, pop culture and film, and the fine arts, and the most esoteric scientific facts and theories, even the outdated ones. I wanted the poems to embody the experience of inhabiting that “city,” with the understanding that many of us have built our cities with the same materials and our cities are in part occupied by the same figures. Of course, each city is primarily wondrously singular and ever-evolving.
JH: This sense of cities folded within cities, words folded within other words, human beings folded within each other, even, permeates The Eternal City. How does this sensitivity to the stratification of people, places, and objects affect your view of the state of your home nation and the place of the poet in it?
KG: I had in my mind from the beginning an interest in exploring “empire.” But I did not want to go at such a big construct directly. And, eventually, I realized that there is nothing that is not related to “empire” in some way. I am fascinated, for instance, by collections. My father collected stamps and coins and bottles, and I am in love with the assemblages of Joseph Cornell, but in some way, collections now seem to me to be fed by the same drive that wants to build an empire, the desire to own the world. I am fascinated by Aurelius who wanted as few material possessions as possible while waging war after war to maintain and expand the reach of Rome. Hence, what has been diagnosed recently as a new and uniquely American mode of cognitive dissonance does not seem so new or unique to me. It seems terrifyingly human. On the other hand, it is true that History does not feel as weightily sensuous to me in America as it does in Eastern Europe, and I know that the relative un-weightiness of our days—though it’s become much weightier in the United States in recent years—makes it easier for me to deny my own contradictory impulses, ideas, and actions. In one of The Meditations, Aurelius advances the claim that there is no thing that is not implicated in every other thing, no day not implicated in every other day. And this seems like a given to me. Hence, the elements in the poems tumble into other elements, the present tumbles into the past and the past into the present. History tumbles into our lives, or we stumble up against it. The public and private become jumbled as well. There is a moral aspect to such a realization. Our bumbling about has consequences we cannot track. We are jostled in a thousand ways each day by the bumbling about of others. It is very complex and cannot be untangled. Every one of our actions is freighted with import. To see this, once must slow down and think, become paralyzed by the knowing, and then find a way to move anyway. Poems are the antidote to the sound bite. They require the engagement of a radically different quality of attention. The rhetoric of our cultural moment often wants to look away from the confusion of our complex, perhaps uncontainable, impact upon one another and the planet as a whole. Who doesn’t want a very simple answer? Who would not, in fact, prefer a lie? The role of the poet is to deny the simple answer, to deny the comforting lie. I love all forms of poetry. I love the diversity of voices and aesthetics. I have no love, however, for polemic.
JH: You mention in one of your poems, “No Lightsome Thing,” the bliss of stillness. Through poetry, have you found it possible to achieve that sort of stillness?
Yes. It is widely asserted that poems “stop time.”
And in a way they do. The lyric moment is an eternal
moment, one that resurrects and resanctifies what has
been lost. To stop time and to experience one moment
of stillness. What is more impossible, more desired,
than that? “No Lightsome Thing” is also
a subtle moral indictment of inaction. To do nothing
is also to choose—our inaction is as decisive
as our action. If someone were to call the poems I write
“kinetic,” I wouldn’t like it, but
I would be able to see why a reader might make a claim
like that. My mind tends to be a busy mind. I think
that it is a slower mind than it used to be, an intentionally
slower mind, but it is still a busy mind. And I like
it that way.
Jean Hartig is the author of a poetry chapbook, Ave, Materia, and the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.