“I am first a creature of the imagination”

An interview with Benjamin Grossberg (2015)

I had the opportunity to ask this year’s guest of the Writers Who Edit, Editors Who Write Series, Benjamin Grossberg. Supplement your experience of his reading with his answers, and read them alone – Ben is personable and passionate, and a truly unique voice in modern poetry.

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A Polish filmmaker once made a film focused entirely upon one question: who are you and what do you want? I love this question and all of its deceptive simplicity and will be framing all of my interviews around it. So, who are you, and what do you want?

Is it a good thing to be able to answer this question, to know and be able to articulate the answer? Maybe it’s better if there’s a little more churning, or if the answer is too complicated to formulate.

I’m not sure who I am beyond a half-dozen social roles that you could find out from a cursory internet search, and I guess I want . . . what? . . . to know and be known, to surprise and engage myself writing poems, to be good to as many people as I can, to stay healthy. That’s not very exciting, is it?

Right now I’m sitting at my desk with a cat on my lap, and every few minutes she lifts a paw up to my keyboard, wanting to scoot herself onto it. What I want is for spring to come, or at least to stay home tonight. It’s going to get down to negative ten.

Editing Questions:

1) How has being a writer helped you as an editor? Do you find yourself more empathetic towards submissions, less so or neither?

Being a writer may well have made me more empathetic to submitters. But that kind of empathy doesn’t have much bearing on the work of winnowing poems for The Antioch Review. Reading for a journal is an intimate but merciless process. The poem either evokes, or it doesn’t; the language forks some energy, or not. That said, I am never, even in my head, even in the privacy of my own couch, flip about submissions. I do not mock or superciliously dismiss. And often I do feel touched by the gesture of reaching out on paper — paper! — with poems, the hopefulness of it, the sweetness. Every month, The Antioch Review gets work from people who clearly never read poetry and have no formal training, who approach and practice the art almost wholly on received notions. Yet there’s deep feeling there: they, too, “get the news from poems” in a way, as the process connects them to something inside themselves which is, I think, often important and beautiful. And I do feel moved by that, and probably some of this empathy comes from my experience as a writer, knowing what it feels like – to be opened up by the act of composition.

Of course, I also know that such opening doesn’t necessarily translate to the reader, or mean much to anyone else in the world.

If my work as a writer has helped my work as an editor, it is in this way: stumbling through three-and-a-half books now, I have long exhausted my original notions of what a poem is and does. As a matter of fact, I’ve exhausted my second and third notions, too – so I know first hand, in late-night work, that poems are various and variously glorious. Being a writer – and being a teacher — has made me aware of discovery in a host of modes. As an editor, I seek to find great poems, your proverbial needle-in-hay-stack search. So the wider my ability to understand what a poem can be, the more full and flexible my understanding of what that needle might be, the more likely I am to find it.

2) I’m sure you get a massive amount of submissions. How does your reading process work? How long do you think about each piece before making a decision?

I have a set process. I get a box of submissions every other month; the box contains between 100 and 150 envelops, most of three to five poems. There’s a second associate editor who gets a box on the months I don’t. My job is to mail Judith Hall, who makes the final decisions, ten percent of the envelops I see. From these, over a course of two or three months, Judith selects the ten or so poems that appear in the magazine.

I read ten envelops a night. Usually that takes between one and two hours. More than half the envelops can be disqualified quickly. The poems either aren’t well executed – as if the act of composition wasn’t hot enough to fire the clay – or the stakes aren’t high enough. Stakes should be understood widely here: sound, form, subject matter, voice. Some kind of artistic heft was missing.

And sometimes there is one envelop of the ten which distinguishes itself right away. When a submission is good, really good, the light in the room changes. The submission itself seem to change the context. I feel myself shift from editor to reader. I fall under the poems’ authority.

And then I’m left with the three or four envelops in between. Here is where the bulk of my time goes. These submissions I read again and again, and always out loud. Sometimes I put a few of the envelops aside, come back to them the next day. I’m looking for something, some quality that’s really remarkable—a very particular, beautifully executed aspect of the writer’s aesthetic. It makes sense, I think, for writers to send well-unified submissions: a group of poems that take up a single aesthetic project or theme, rather than trying to “show range.” At this stage, I’m trying to understand a project, to discern an aesthetic. I want to understand a new poetic, and then think about whether it might be a good fit with the magazine. The envelops that make it through this process go in their own pile.

So – ten envelops a night – I slowly move through the box.

I finish this process at the end of the month with three piles. The first, by far the largest, is submission we cannot use. The smallest pile — usually less than ten envelops — are those I will definitely send on to Judith Hall. And then I have a pile of about fifteen envelops which I must whittle down by half. This second round of whittling is similar to what I described above, except more clearly comparative. It is now a zero-sum game.

The process is labor-intensive. But it’s exciting to read poems – often by very accomplished poets – in manuscript form, before they acquire the gloss of publication. And it’s even more exciting to discover poems you love by writers whose names you hadn’t heard before. The reverse is true, too: even very good poets sometimes send work that is less dazzling. That’s a useful reminder. No one, it seems, is a “poem machine.”

But the real reason I do the work is because I take so much from this art — as I submit regularly to journals and contests, and as I look for readers. It seems only fair that I give something back, too. It’s for this reason I also review books, usually six a year. The poetry world can only function, I think, if we take on an ethos of service. Otherwise — with so many writers and so few readers — the whole enterprise can begin to seem a little solipsistic.

3) What grabs you in a piece? Do you find yourself gravitating towards similar styles as your own, even subconsciously? Or totally different?

I don’t think I’d be much good as an editor if my own style tightly defined what I could appreciate — but surely there must be some connection there.

I strive to find the best — work that is fresh, sharp, and involving — whatever the aesthetic. I do like poetry that integrates substantial thinking, and I do have a bias toward understanding what I read. I suppose in this I’m with Marianne Moore: “we do not admire what we cannot understand.”

But that said, I’ll forward on to Judith Hall even work I don’t particular love, or understand, if I think it is very good, or innovative, or uses language in a remarkable way. At Antioch Review, we are especially interested in innovative use of language — so for our particular venue, that can help tip the scales.

4) What was your experience with literary journals before working on one? Has it changed your overall feelings?

I worked on my first literary journal as an undergraduate, and I submitted my first poems then, too. I didn’t work on Gulf Coast at the University of Houston. I was intimidated by the editors, who were older and seemed glamorous. In retrospect, I wish I’d been more assertive about that. But, off and on since I was nineteen, I’ve both worked on and submitted to journals.

Being inside the process has shown me both how objective it is and how subjective. I say objective because in my experience submissions are an even playing field. At Antioch Review, envelops from new poets and those from well-published poets sit side by side; the quality of work is what matters. (Though if poets are of a certain stature — say, Pulitzer Prize winners — I will automatically send the work to Judith Hall, so that she can correspond with the writer in question.) But the process is also subjective because very few people – two, finally are involved in the decision. As an editor, I try to be careful, but I am sure I get things wrong sometimes. My feeling, then, is that no particular journal is the final arbiter of worthy work. I do think the process is fair, but I don’t think it’s definitive.

My bottom line? Send your work to lots of venues—and while you are waiting to hear back, send other work to other venues. Be confident that your work is being read, but take the weight off any particular submission by having many envelops out at once. Perhaps, as a final arbiter of value, the collective process of submitting is more useful than any particular journal.

What else have I learned? Oh, maybe to be gentle when things don’t go right, when submissions get lost or it takes a very long time – over a year – and all you get back is a photocopied rejection slip. (This has certainly happened to me on numerous occasions.) The work of reviewing submissions is slow and generally uncompensated, and most of those doing it are struggling to find time for their own writing, too.

Writing questions:

5) I heard once that “poets are forever trying to recreate the first poem they really loved.” What was the first poem that you remember really moving you?

The first poem I remember really moving me was Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” The “moving” felt physical. “Lazarus” took me to an internal, visionary place. I fell out of the classroom in which a professor was reading the poem aloud, and I found myself in a black box theater with Plath’s images flashing before me. Pick the worms off me like sticky pearls . . . A cake of soap,/ A wedding ring,/ A gold filling. It must have been a combination of the music – literally hypnotic – and the power of those images. The final one I can still see clearly: Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air. I won’t describe what I saw; the words diminish it too much. But the image took me wholly, and when the professor stopped reading and there was suddenly silence, I sat stunned. I didn’t know where I was. It took me a minute to adjust to the light, to the fact of other students around me—that I was there, but had been somewhere else.

It hadn’t occurred to me before you asked this question, but maybe that experience is one of my goals for a poem. I am first a creature of the imagination, of wanting to see and be shown cool things. I think that’s why my first book is full of dramatic monologues from the age of discovery (Henry Hudson, Amerigo Vespucci) and classical mythology, and why my third book looks to outer space. Imagination is what engages me, still, in the way children are engaged: with wholeness and joy. But of course, there are ideas and emotions to contend with, too. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite figured out what to do with those.

6) I’ve read that your book, “Sweet Core Orchard” was inspired by an orchard you worked at in Ohio. What are some other important muses that drive your work? Any other strong places, people, feelings, moments?

Maybe it works the other way around: poets have concerns, and we’re always looking for vehicles to express them. (Is that the other way around?) So the apple orchard didn’t so much inspire me, as it allowed me to explore two of the concerns that open me up most fully to utterance. The first is mythology, stories that stir the imagination. (In this case, Old Testament apple tree mythology.) And the second, a feeling of being displaced, of homelessness. That farmhouse and orchard were home to me; when I planted those trees, I thought I’d stay there forever. Sweet Core has an ecstatic ending: the discovery of home, or, in mythical terms, the planting of a new “paradise.” Though it turned out I was forced to move just five years later.

Space Traveler channels my life-long love of science fiction. That book, started as I left my orchard and moved, alone, cross country, reflects the experience of rootlessness. But I’m not quite sure it’s accurate to say that science fiction inspired the book, so much as I groped for it, for science fiction, as the vehicle to express what I needed to think about—leaving the home I loved—and as a way to fire my imagination.

7) I’m always interested in the varying perspectives on the matter: what was your MFA experience like? Do you still draw on things you learned from it today? And how did it compare with your Ph.D experience?

I pursued my MFA and PhD at the same school, The University of Houston, so there was a lot of continuity in the experiences—though PhD study is by its nature more solitary, more about the grind of research and the impending reality of being a professor. (And the impending stress of the job market—the possibility that you won’t be a professor.)

When I think back to those days now, they are much as they were then: a blur. During that time, I hoped that in the years after I’d be able to sort out what I was learning, to be able to say with some precision, this I learned, and that. I’m still not sure I can.

But I can point to one thing. At The University of Houston, there was a definite respect for tradition, and for the scholarly poet. Graduate School is largely a socializing process, and in my case, the values of Houston – valorizing erudition, carefulness, and form – found fertile ground. I believe that scholarly work feeds poetry, and that poetry requires ardor, as well as a willingness to take on the arduous. My teachers there, including Richard Howard and Edward Hirsch, modeled the marriage of intellect and passion. How to be wildly learned and carefully enflamed. This combination stays with me – in my life as a reader and a teacher, and, I hope, as a writer.

Of course, there were other things, too. The workshops were terrific; my classmates were terrific. They examined poems carefully and with high standards. I internalized those standards. After a while, you want to have something lauded in workshop, so you strive toward its standards. And, of course, the friends I made there are irreplaceable.

Teaching Questions:

8) And on top of all of that, you wear a third hat- teacher! How do all of these professions inform one another?

In a very mechanical way, my work at The Antioch Review and my work as a teacher are deeply connected. I discover poets and poems as a book reviewer and editor, so I am continually updating the material I bring to the classroom. The new material keeps me engaged, and it ensures that my students are actually reading contemporary poetry. I also teach a class on literary journals, so it is imperative that I know how these journals work—and know what the trends are, what going on in the culture of literary publishing. Additionally, I run a reading series at the University of Hartford, and my work with Antioch Review helps me choose who to invite — whose work I admire, who would be a good model for my students. My work with Antioch Review is like an extended course in contemporary poetry that I’ve been taking for the last decade, and the learning of that course constantly feeds my classroom.

The connection to my work as a poet is less direct, but no less important. I am constantly reading and thinking about poems, about the way poems work; I am never far from the logic of poetry. As a result, even when I am not actively composing my own poems, I am still immersed in the art — exploring what poems do, the new ways they can use the language.

In my experience, being a poet means that you need to reinvent the art for yourself with each new book. Perhaps that sounds extreme: “reinvent the art for yourself.” But in my practice, the fire of discovery must be part of the composition process for me to turn out my best work. So I can’t simply write the same poem again and again. Once I understand an approach or strategy too well, a dullness sets in. That doesn’t always happen quickly. I probably wrote over a hundred “Space Traveler” poems before I felt a little bored by the trope, before the poems began to feel formulaic to me. But it does happen eventually. So it’s imperative that I read constantly, imperative that I discuss poems constantly — especially with undergraduate writers, who force me to see things afresh, as they do. The day I stop exploring new ways to be a poet is probably the day I stop being any kind of poet at all.

As I formulate the art, complacency has no place in it. “Complacent poet”: an oxymoron.

General Questions:

9) What is your favorite line of poetry, ever?

Just one!?

When King Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia, he says: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!” The finality and tumbling music of those five trochees breaks my heart. I know of no statement that better nails down the finality of death.

Or Prospero’s response to Miranda’s exclamation of joy at the end of The Tempest. She suddenly meets an array of different people, where before she’d known only Caliban, her father, and (briefly) Ferdinand. She says, “O brave new world,/ That has such people in’t!” Prospero’s reply is four monosyllables. It couldn’t be simpler in diction or articulation — or more devastating in content: “’Tis new to thee.” Ouch. I can’t say the line without hearing an aching thud of silence after it.

Whitman needs to be mentioned here, too: “Edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my feet,/ Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me softly all over,/ Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.”

And Tennyson, “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall.” What an amazing way to establish point of view in a dramatic monologue: immortal Tithonus, who wants to die.

And Keats, “To cease upon the midnight with no pain….”

And Milton, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” God do I want to believe that.

There are contemporary poets I might name here, too. CK Williams and Mark Doty, especially. I think of Doty’s definition of joy: “heaviness / 

which is no burden to itself.” Or the end of CK Williams’ “The Cup.”

This is an impossible question, isn’t it? One favorite!? If you’re going to pin me down, I’ll stay with the Lear.

10) What is something you would recommend to anyone? Book, song, activity, advice, anything.

Chocolate . . . human touch, as often as possible . . . more sleep (again, as often as possible) . . . a dog or a cat, but only one (you don’t want them controlling your life) . . . rereading your favorite book (I’ve read Siddhartha, Pride and Prejudice, and King Lear no less than twenty times each) . . . acquiring those things that you love viscerally and immediately, and passing on all other stuff (again, whenever possible) . . . telling people how much you like them . . . giving up on family members who consistently hurt you. . . .

By “chocolate,” I mean dark chocolate—85% cocoa or better.

I have to say just one thing, right? Again, just one? Well, I recently saw the film Mr. Nobody – an ambitious, playful, beautiful mess. And Jared Leto has dreamy eyes. So, yeah, I’m going to recommend that.

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