The Fogged Clarity Interview
Michael McGriff is the author of the poetry collections Dismantling the Hills and Home Burial, and is co-author (w/J.M. Tyree) of the story collection Our Secret Life in the Movies. McGriff is herein interviewed by the Canadian poet Tarn Painter-MacArthur.
Tarn Painter-MacArthur: Mike, thanks for joining me to talk about poetry, prose, visual art, and music for Fogged Clarity.
Michael McGriff: Thanks for taking the time.
T.P-M.: You’ve spoken a lot to the subjects and landscapes of your poems (coastal Oregon, family history, work, etc.) in past interviews, and much has been written about these topics in reviews, so I want to step away from that and get to know more about what makes your artistic clock tick. I’m aware that some of your major poetic influences are Levine and Levis, but aside from poetry, what/who is a sure way to get your mind firing—I’m thinking of anything from cinema, to visual art, to music etc?
M.M.: Funny you should ask, as I’m reading very little poetry right now but writing quite a bit on a new book of poems. This has never been my process. I’ve usually got my favorite poets’ books in a huge bedside stack: Levis, Levine, Tranströmer, [James] Wright, Ritsos, Stanford, Domanski. These days I’m mostly reading prose writers: Tove Jansson, William Maxwell, Renata Adler, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Herta Müller. And I’m always watching films. I have a long-standing obsession with the music and writing of the late Jason Molina. His early death is a great loss for my generation. As for what makes my clock tick: anything interesting in any medium. I’m omnivorous.
T.P-M.: The pieces in your most recent book, “Our Secret Life in the Movies” (co-authored with J.M. Tyree), are written in direct response to films. To follow up the last question, could you give us a few instances of how other artistic mediums have led to new discoveries in your work as a poet, translator, or short fiction writer? How do these influences tend to enter your work (I’m thinking of a poem like “The Cow”), or do they mostly act as outside stimulants?
M.M.: Yeah, Our Secret Life in the Movies is a book of 78 linked short stories, half of which I wrote and half of which J. M. Tyree wrote. The short stories were composed in pairs, and each pair responds to some facet of a particular film. The book is an unreliably narrated meta-autobiography in two voices. Josh and I share a life of film geekery, and both of us are huge fans of slippery, genre-defying fiction (Braughtigan, Sorrentino, Davis). I’m not sure how Dan Flavin or Donald Judd will find their ways into any of my work, but I’ve spent hours staring at Judd’s aluminum boxes and Flavin’s neon lights. It all goes in the hopper. “The Cow” was written after a painting I made up in my head after staring for a few hours at Grant Wood’s Dinner for Threshers. In a way, it’s an ekphrastic poem, in a way it’s completely a work of fiction. So, to answer your question, all the art I encounter gets composted and enters my bloodstream. I’d say most of my writing responds to the art of others in some way.
T.P-M.: Speaking of your shift into short fiction, could you speak on how the experience of writing “Our Secret Life in the Movies” differed from that of your books of poetry. The pieces I’ve read appear to have some stylistic staples—recurring images of landscape and the natural world, for example: “gray marble of the salamander’s eye” or “The free–range cattle remains hunters found singed into the damp earth” (from “Reasons for Staying” and “Figures in the Landscape” respectively); but there is an obvious change in subject matter and a seemingly new approach to narrative, one that varies from being more traditionally character/persona driven, to a fragmentation that acts almost like a cinematographic description of scenes. Did your approach to the work differ from previous endeavors, or did the forms seem to develop organically with the work?
M.M.: Well, in one way, writing is writing—there’s just the one source to draw from. That said, I’ve noticed more and more that my distilled and lyrical writing finds its way to the poetry pile and my conversational, narrative-driven stuff lands in the fiction and essay pile. I’m working on a novel now, and reading a ton of novels, so my brain feels more wired for fiction these days. That said, the term “genre” means less and less to me. I love Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid—I love the searching and invention, formally speaking, that goes on in that book. That’s something I aspire to. I want that kind of permeability in my own work.
T.P-M.: You mentioned that you’re working on a new book of poems, would you be willing to tell us a little about the book? Also, over the course of three manuscripts, what changes have your recognized or consciously tried to make in your own poems?
M.M.: Sure. It’s called Early Hour. For now, what’s driving the book is the 1935 oil painting Früe Stunde (Early Hour) by the German expressionist Karl Hofer. The manuscript is a work of apostrophe, with virtually every poem addressed to an unnamed other. The two characters in the book—the speaker and the woman being addressed—are more or less the two figures in the painting. It’s a different book for me. It’s largely a meditation on desire. Desire and the impending doom of the 1940s. The biggest difference between the first two books I wrote is that Home Burial feels like a book I wrote for myself—it’s tortuous and snaky and full of the kind of lyric opacity that’s always been at the center of my poetic impulse and reading life. I feel like I wrote Home Burial for an audience of one—just me. In my first book, Dismantling the Hills, it was important for me to tell my family story, to explore narrative and witness as a way to examine class, self, industry, and place. While those things also drive Home Burial, they are less dominant, less pronounced…..maybe? I’m not sure, actually. Perhaps these differentiations are for others to discuss and decide. I like Home Burial better—it represents the current “me”. In Early Hour the engine is the “you,” the other. There’s a sort of synthesis between the landscape depicted in the painting and the landscape I grew up in. So, the book is tied together in this thematic way that I’ve never worked with before. I didn’t set out to do this in Early Hour, it just sort of materialized. I’ve never tried to make any conscious changes in my work from poem to poem or book to book—the changes that occur are simply a byproduct of me as a writer and reader. I’ve read more books, seen more films, been exposed to more visual art. I’m 38 now—the oldest poems in Dismantling the Hills were written by an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. I read those early poems and they are truly written by a different poet, a different person. I marvel at writers like Charles Wright, those who have had long, amazing careers as poets and who keep writing magnificent stuff book after book. If I could only be half as lucky. Or a sixteenth as lucky. I’m only on book 3 and I have an enormous amount of doubt. “I’m repeating myself. I’m out of ideas. All I can do is make weird images and write in lists,” the voice in my head keeps saying. I deeply admire anyone who writes a book. Let alone 20.
T.P-M.: It’s been said that overpublishing can have negative consequences on a poet’s work (not that I would ever accuse Charles Wright of this), that you should take at least four or five years between publishing collections. Do you see any truth in this? Have you found it necessary to take breaks between collections or do you write continuously?
M.M.: Hmmm. No, I don’t think that holds water. I’m happy to read any book. A poet’s first book, a poet’s Nth book—I don’t care where it falls in their trajectory or how long it took them to write or if they published it one or twenty years after the publication of the previous book. I’m simply astounded by poets like W. S. Merwin and Charles Wright who publish book after book. I’ll always read them. I’ll always buy their books. I was just revisiting Philip Levine’s Selected. It’s amazing to me that I love his work starting around the collection 1933. That’s his sixth collection. It’s humbling. It’s more than humbling. I find all of his books so earnest and searching, organic and complex, yet I have my favorites. As long as you’re being true to some impulse or obsession, then that’s all that matters. If you’re publishing for other reasons, like tenure or pageantry, then you’re done for…and it shows. I don’t have any superstitions about publishing, whether it’s in terms of volume or frequency. I’ve published so few books in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure I’ll publish some good books, some duds, and maybe some I wish I could take back. But in the end, I’ll know that everything I’ve published is something that I believed in wholeheartedly when I wrote it. I think of William Stafford. He published so much—far, far too much—yet that was his process. You have to dig through all that rubble to find the gems, but it’s so worth it. He believed in that process—that’s the important thing.
T.P-M.: You spoke earlier about the loss of Jason Molina, and I can’t help but think of his aesthetic range and the evolution of him as an artist in reference to our discussion. Tell me how Molina came into your life and what he taught you or showed you as an artist, as a person, as someone trying to say or make or do something beautiful, or why you love what he left us with.
M.M.: I stumbled onto Jason Molina’s work when I was a grad student. My friend Kim Jones stuck “Farewell Transmission” on a mix that she gave me. Curtains. I was obsessed from that point on. I think Jason Molina was one of the most talented writers in my generation.He died at age 39 of organ failure. It’s a great loss for everyone. What I love most about his work is that he creates these distinctly American landscapes and tempers them with the surreal, the phantasmagorical. He re-envisions folk, blues, and Americana through his own lyrical, sorrow-laden lens. I listened to his Songs: Ohia albums on repeat when I was writing Home Burial. He captures a very distinct, unmistakably American kind of loneliness and desperation: “Mama here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws / Must be the big star about to fall…” Loneliness and desperation coupled with ghostly beauty. I’ll be forever in his debt as a writer. I wish I could have told him that. And I wish more people knew his work.
T.P-M.: On another note, you mentioned you’ve been reading a lot of fiction recently, but across all genres are there any new books on your reading list that you’re excited to get to, or anything new you’ve recently read that you know you’ll be going back to again and again?
M.M.: Lots of stuff. I’ve been re-reading Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. I’ve been reading the novels of Herta Müller. Right now I’m reading her novel The Land of Green Plums, which is simply astonishing. Tove Jansson’s novels have been really doing it for me, too. Her short novel The Summer Book has been a touchstone. I’ve revisited poetry collections by Peter Everwine, Richard Shelton, Yannis Ritsos, and W. S. Merwin lately. So much. I’m sure I’m forgetting something.
T.P-M.: Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me for Fogged Clarity, Mike.
M.M.: My pleasure.