Friday, July 10, 2009

THE POETRY CHAIN GANG (part 11 w/ Juliana Gray)

The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Juliana Gray.

BT: When poet Chuck Rybak suggested I interview you next, he said, "...I'm not sure if Juliana has any tattoos, but she sure could give a great answer if asked about them..." That said— I'm going to ask you the same question I asked him in his interview: sometimes poems are bigger than the page; what poem or line from a poem would you consider having tattooed on your body?

JULIANA: I am ink-free, though the cover of my book depicts a young woman with a tattoo of the Mars symbol on the back of her neck, and people sometimes ask if that's a picture of me. I like the idea of a tattoo, but I'm afraid of pain. As for a line of poetry on the body, I don't think anything can beat Harry Crews's bicep tattoo of cummings's "how do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?" The only thing I might get that could compete with that is a line from Larkin's "Church Going" – "A serious house on serious earth it is" – as a tramp stamp.

BT: Do you do something poetry related everyday?

JULIANA: At the very least, I read the poem of the day on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily each morning. (This routine is complicated by the two cats competing for space in my lap and walking across the keyboard, but I manage.) I also keep a couple of books of poetry on the coffee table, and I dip in and out of them as I read a novel, grade papers, or putter around the house. Right now I'm reading a few poems a day from Jim Murphy's terrific book Heaven Overland. I know Jim from graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, where I also met Chuck Rybak, your last interviewee, and I'm just loving the book. In the poem "River Minstrels, No Date Given," he describes the figures in a photograph as "disguised quite as/ themselves, bent to survive the times." I wish I'd written that.

BT: I absolutely love your poem "Summer Downpour on Campus." I can't get enough of it. It gave me goosebumps the first time I read it and still does each time I read it— especially this part which, to me, was an unexpected surprise: "...but I am walking to meet a man/who'll buy me coffee and kiss my fingers— " I'm curious, how did you feel when that line came to you?

JULIANA: I'm blushing— thank you so much! That was one of those poems sparked by a real experience; I was teaching at Auburn University, and one August afternoon the sky just opened up while I was, in fact, walking to the local coffee shop to meet the man I was seeing at the time. When I sat down to write the poem, I tried to think of a small, affectionate token that wasn't too terribly cutesy – one of those little loving gestures that couples unconsciously perform with each other – and that's what I came up with.

BT: Writer's block— what would you prescribe?

JULIANA: I'm not sure I believe in writer's block. Certainly there are times when the creative powers are lying fallow and we aren't producing much or any work, but as for a "block"– some kind of barrier between you and the language – I just don't buy it. Louise Gl├╝ck goes for months or years between books without writing a thing, but she's certainly not blocked— I think it can be a way of storing energy, recharging the mental batteries. Of course, I may just be blithely optimistic here. I've written very little in the last year, not because I'm "blocked," but because I don't seem to have much to say at the moment. The only piece of advice I might have is not to reject an idea or spark of a poem in advance, without even attempting to write anything. The most trivial-seeming starting point can lead to something really surprising and wonderful.

BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Suggest, please, the poet I should ask five fast questions to next?

JULIANA: This is a hard question. I've had the incredible good fortune to spend my last ten summers teaching at the Sewanee Young Writers' Conference and working on the staff of the Sewanee Writers' Conference. (In fact, today is the last day of the Young Writers' Conference, and the "old writers' conference" will begin next week.) Through both of those conferences over the years, I've met so many diverse and amazing poets— legends like Mark Strand, Andrew Hudgins, Donald Justice, and Mark Jarman; and emerging writers like Sandra Beasley, Dan Albergotti, Jake Adam York, Beth Ann Fennelly, Eric McHenry, Leigh Anne Couch— the mind boggles.

But if I can only suggest one, I'd pick my fellow SWC staff member Erica Dawson. Her book, Big-Eyed Afraid, won the Anthony Hecht Prize in 2006. It's just marvelous, personal and confessional and clever and funny and so, so brilliant. It's like nothing else I've read. Although Erica and I both write in meter and form, her approach is completely different from mine, and she has a dexterity with these musty old forms that I really envy. She can handle something like a crown of sonnets – the very thought of which intimidates the hell out of me – with such dexterity and sass. The woman is just too smart. I love her dearly, but I'd never play Scrabble with her.

Juliana Gray is the author of The Man Under My Skin (River City Publishing, 2005) and the chapbook History in Bones (Kent State University Press, 2002). Recent poems have appeared in New South, 32 Poems, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Alfred, New York, and is an assistant professor of English at Alfred University.