Grady Chambers is the author of North American Stadiums (Milkweed Editions, 2018) selected by Henri Cole as the winner of the inaugural Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. His poems and stories have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Paris Review, Kenyon Review Online, Ploughshares, Joyland, Bouleva
Caitlin Johnson: How did you choose the title North American Stadiums?
Grady Chambers: It’s funny, I get asked this question a lot! I’m beginning to have the vague suspicion that people seem to find it incongruous with their experience of the book.
But, on a very basic level, I simply liked the sound of it—as a reader, I would be drawn to a book of that name. More substantively, I wanted a title that suggested or captured in some ways the breadth and scope of the book. The poems’ speakers crisscross the country. Landscapes, cityscapes and history (history of those landscapes and cityscapes and places, and the people who reside there) are all over the book, and I wanted a title that suggested that broad range of the book’s territories. Writing this, I’m remembering that an initial thought I had for the title was “Dispatches.” That title now sounds not-so-good to me, but it does capture a facet of the book: a speaker reporting from or about a specific place and time, trying to capture something of that place.
But I was also attracted to the title for its connotations or suggestions of sites of worship. Prayer—how we pray, what we pray to—is something that recurs throughout the book, and I wanted a title suggestive of what we honor and devote ourselves to, both culturally and individually.
CJ: The collection begins with “Explaining the Resurrection in Simple Words.” Why did you choose to emphasize speaking simply?
GC: I think that I emphasize speaking (or writing) “simply” because when you speak simply, you speak without adornment, and when you speak (or write) about the world and the things of the world without adornment, you are honoring it for what it is. I had (and am having) a hard time articulating a coherent answer to this question, but when I think of speaking simply my mind draws an immediate connection to the moments where I’ve felt most intensely present on the earth. There’s a kind of clarity of seeing that I feel in those moments, and there’s a sense of simplicity in that clarity—this is grass, these are flowers, this is a river—a sense of looking at the world as it is and naming it as such. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have a sense that simplicity is a quality of something that feels sacred to me, so that maybe a way to approaching the sacred is through plainness.
CJ: What prompted you to divide the collection into four sections? Was there a specific tone you wanted to create in each one?
GC: On a practical level, I thought the sections would be helpful in giving the reader a natural place to pause and put the book down (and hopefully make it less daunting to pick back up). In novels, obviously, chapter breaks provide that function, and in story collections you get that built-in chance to step away and return in the space between one story ending and a new one beginning. I actually wanted the collection to read a little bit like a collection of linked stories (certain characters and settings recurring throughout poems and sections of the book) and the section breaks felt helpful in constructing a larger narrative arc to the book, and in giving the reader a space to pause in that broader narrative.
Tonal and thematic consistency within individual sections was important to me as well. For me, the book’s second section is the clearest example of that. The winter I first drafted most of those poems, I was living in a studio apartment in Oakland (I know “winter” and “Oakland” might seem like an oxymoron). But in what passes for winter in Oakland, it rained for, like, four straight weeks that year, and because I was living on my own and had few other obligations, two or three days would sometimes pass without me leaving my apartment or speaking a word to anyone. It was an unusual period of isolation for me, and I think many of the poems in that section reflect that isolation—the sense of someone speaking from an isolated / haunted remove, sort of obsessively turning over events and memories from the past.
CJ: You include an interpretation of psalm 17 (when David asks God to appear and judge him and his enemies, but more than anything, just seems to want to see His face). What struck you about that particular psalm?
GC: What struck me about so many of the psalms (and it’s certainly true of David’s address in psalm 17) is how personally the speakers speak to God, how they talk to God as if It’s this active participatory presence hovering just above them, potentially interested and (sometimes) willing to intercede in the seemingly trivial affairs of the human world. There’s something that amused me about how whiny so many of the speakers’ complaints are (“I’m so righteous yet good things only happen to my enemies!”), how presumptuous the speakers are in their assumption that God has an interest in them winning a particular battle or dispute against their neighbor. I find the speakers in many psalms funny and sort of charming in their bratty-ness, but also interesting in their way of speaking to God: that prayer would be an arena to ask for something, particularly for something against someone else, is very foreign to my own relationship with prayer. For me, prayer is an arena primarily to give thanks, and to try and be present in the place and moment where I am.
CJ: Many of the poems are set in midwestern and northeastern cities. In what ways have those landscapes influenced your writing?
GC: They’ve been enormously influential, particularly the landscapes of Chicago (where I grew up) and the Midwest more broadly, and New York state (where I lived and went to school in New York state for seven years). History—or maybe memory is a better word—is most alive for me in those places—the stories that my poems often seek to tell often take place amidst those backdrops because those land and cityscapes are the scenery of so many of my memories.
At the same time, the landscapes themselves—particularly those of the Midwest, have always exerted a really powerful hold on my imagination. When I was little I’d spend weekends in my mom or dad’s car, driving to far-flung places in Illinois for my soccer or hockey games, and I’d sort of just stare out the window at the fields and farms and whatever else passed by. I think the landscape gave me a sense of very large forces at work—the Midwest’s huge, terrifying weather events are a very literal representation of that—but something else too, more something I felt than something I can articulate well. Looking out at the landscape I found a lot of beauty there, but also felt a real eeriness, violence, even fear—I’m not sure why. But probably that’s partly why I have so many descriptions of those landscapes in my writing—to try and capture something of what I felt, or explore it. I read an interview with the great fiction writer David Means in which he said, “History is personal; the landscape you live in is part of your inner life, your soul.” That sentiment really resonates with my experience—those landscapes and cityscapes I wrote about so much feel part of my “inner life,” my “soul,” to use Means’s words.
CJ: In “Another Beauty I Remember,” you describe watching U.S. Steel workers leaving their shifts and “believing them angelic, knowing not a thing / about their lives, each of them, perhaps, seeing what I saw: light/coming off the backs of the others as they drifted / into the lot, but knowing the light I saw was dust, / not wings, and, knowing to call it dust, / calling it dust.” Many of the poems confront a similar instinct to mythologize, as in the line about loving “the sepia pictures / and not the life.” What do you think we lose when we mythologize something or someone? When we don’t?
GC: I think we lose a great deal. Mythologizing someone or something typically serves to obscure any nuance, and in doing so seems doubly problematic: you create a false or overly simplistic impression, and you fail to acknowledge the true nature of the thing or person mythologized, fail to honor the person or thing for what it actually is, in all its complexity. Both seem harmful in different ways. And, honestly, I’m not sure we gain much of anything in mythologizing something. At the same time, it’s something we do in a variety of ways all the time, and as my poems show I’m guilty of doing it as much as anyone else. But in writing those poems, I didn’t want to look back at myself engaging in that act of mythologizing with harshness or shame, to have the poems be some great act of contrition. It’s very common and human to mythologize, and I wanted to simply acknowledge that instinct for what it was.
CJ: In “The Life,” you describe your personal philosophy as “a second-story porch: bee-eaten / beams, wobbly and rotted, corners filled / with the day’s leavings.” Why the second-story?
GC: I think I chose that as a metaphor as a means of expressing how much I lacked a personal philosophy, how uncertain I felt as a person, how prone to whim I was (“I liked this, I liked that,” as the poem goes). I arrived at that specific image because I was living in a second-floor apartment in Syracuse at the time, in a fairly ramshackle house. There was a porch off my apartment, a slanted, rotting thing that felt like it would spill you onto the street if too much weight were put on it. In the warmer months I spent a lot of time sitting out there, and must have thought at some point that it seemed as unsteady as I felt uncertain of / in myself.
CJ: The first poem references resurrection and the last is entitled “Memorial Day.” Can you say a little about that progression from the divine to the humane? The absence of finality to the acknowledgment of it?
GC: I absolutely see that progression you’re talking about between the two poems (and the two ends of the book), and in some ways I wanted the very first poem (“Explaining the Resurrection in Simple Words”) to embody that broader progression you point out. The title of that first poem, and my choice to sit the grand title atop the small poem, was meant to have an aspect of humor to it—just the idea of trying to explain something as inexplicable and unlikely as resurrection “in simple words” is funny to me. And then I think the poem seeks to enact the broader progression you see in the book’s arc in that it turns away from the language of religion / the divine—“blessing,” “mercy,” etc.—in favor of the visible, the present, the earthly, with the image of the speaker leaning against a tree, yellow flowers falling on him.
Lately I’ve been reading V.S. Naipaul’s strange, totally absorbing novel “The Enigma of Arrival.” On a plane ride back east from California last week, while thinking about your question, I came across a passage from the book that seemed to resonate with what I’m trying to say above. Describing someone he knew who has passed away, the narrator says of him, “…he had sensed that life and man were the true mysteries; and he had asserted the primacy of these with something like religion…the primacy not of what was beyond life, but life itself.” In “Explaining the Resurrection…” and in the movement between the two poems that bookend the book, I am trying to assert that same primacy.