A Conversation With Jennifer Grotz
BY ELISA GONZALEZ
Jennifer Grotz is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Still Falling (Graywolf Press, 2023). Also a translator from the French and Polish, her newest translation is Everything I Don’t Know, the selected poems of Jerzy Ficowski, co-translated from the Polish with Piotr Sommer (World Poetry, 2021). Her poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, New York Review of Books, Ploughshares, New England Review, and in five volumes of the Best American Poetry anthology. The recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, Grotz has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, she teaches at the University of Rochester.
It’s a little strange how easy it is to know someone in two distinct ways. I was introduced to Jennifer Grotz’s poetry thanks to a perceptive professor who’d seen some kinship in our interests and sensibilities. Then, in 2016, when I was a work-study scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, we finally (from my perspective) met. She greeted me kindly in Polish, as I was about to depart for a Fulbright in Poland. And she welcomed me back to Bread Loaf after the Fulbright. In the conference’s vibrant ecosystem, it can feel as if everything, even conversation, is happening at a racehorse pace. So this exchange, which took place by email over several days, was a lovely opportunity to return to the gentle pause of poetry. I think of one of the many brilliant lines from Still Falling: “Why are you in such a hurry? … / It’s time to savor. We’re penultimate, too.”
Elisa Gonzalez: Thank you for having this conversation with me! It’s given me a chance to sit with all of your work, including your translations. And I appreciate in particular the gift of this book, which, in the ways it speaks to love, absence, expression, death—the grand topics—through intricate, subtle lyrics, has meant a great deal to me emotionally as well as poetically. Still Falling seems incredibly whole and full, as if it were written in a single fluent moment. But how did the book actually come together? Did you have some goal in mind for it from the outset, or did it develop with less deliberate oversight?
Jennifer Grotz: This book came together the way all of my books have so far, which is simply a years-long and agnostic process of writing one poem at a time. As a writer I’m not really able to say much about what I’ve done until after the poems are all written (which makes applying for grants quite a tedious endeavor). So, it took me a long time to see and believe that these all fit together into a whole. Early on, the first handful of poems I wrote were dark. What was odd to me wasn’t that they were figuratively dark but that they were literally dark; that is, they seemed preoccupied with trying to look at things that were hard to see. This ended up becoming one of the principal motifs of the book: poems of light and poems of darkness (and then the center poem on Caravaggio, himself a master of chiaroscuro). Another theme was this vertiginous and shifting sense of the literal and the figurative. In any case, this was the first book of poems I’ve written that resisted being organized into sections. Ordering them in one long sequence turned out to be a thrilling enterprise.
EG: This is your fourth collection of poetry, and seventh book, including the translations. How does it feel to publish this book vs. your first? How have you changed as a poet?
JG: This is such an interesting question to me—as a poet interested in how to sustain making my best work over the long haul—and it’s something I find myself thinking about a lot. One thing your question reveals about my own process is that I’ve alternated writing books of poems with translating books. Although I identify primarily as a poet, translation has proven to be an abiding interest for me, and I think it is deeply connected to how I think about poetry and writing, and even reading, for that matter. I’m a very slow writer too, one who has periods of quiet and emptiness and waiting. Those are good moments to work on translations, I’ve found.
You know, publishing a book is always exciting. I feel just as happy about this book coming out as I felt with my first, in part because each book has felt really different to me, so each feels like a first. But, of course, having done it a few times before, there is a kind of pattern I’m aware of—the editing and production process, the going out and doing readings for a few months, the positive feedback from readers and reviewers (if one is lucky), and then the quiet moving forward. And each time that happens, I’m an older person, with more experience and memory, and that makes the whole process more rich and poignant and also bittersweet.
Have I changed as a poet? I wonder if I would be the one to know! From my perspective, I do feel like I’ve changed somewhat in each book. At least I’ve grappled with some aspect of poetry in each book and come out different in the process. But another way to put that question is have the poems changed? I think they have—I like to think each book has gotten more ambitious or at least tried to be poetically ambitious in a different way. I also have tried to be aware of forming habits or tendencies—often it’s a matter of syntax—and trying to disrupt that. I often think of Robert Frost’s poetic advice that goes something like “figure out what you’re doing well and stop doing it,” which is perhaps counterintuitive but has to do with keeping oneself vulnerable and sensitive, encouraging a renewed sense of resourcefulness on the page.
EG: The collection seems in many poems to reckon with the limits of poetry—especially in the face of death, of modernity or technology—and the book is so much more interesting for this. Can poetry incorporate or overcome things like the iPhone, or the “darkness” that recurs in various poems as reality and metaphor? And if not, or only incompletely, as I think these poems suggest, then what can the poet do with such material?
JG: I still think of poetry as being our oldest, most resilient, durable, endlessly satisfying, and pleasurable technology. But you are absolutely right: there is some intense reckoning in many of these poems of how to incorporate or confront our current moment of perpetual crisis (environmental and otherwise) and bewildering change and uncertainty. And thinking about time, and technology over time. I didn’t set out to do it intentionally, but it was interesting to me, when I was assembling the manuscript, that there are these juxtapositions of current and obsolescent technologies—like the iPhone and the crystal ball or knocking table. Most personally. I wanted to push back against that notion of the poet’s power to immortalize through poetry. I keep coming back to Miłosz’s formulation that poetry is the “passionate pursuit of the Real,” which is really in part about the lyric impulse, about trying to capture the “now,” and to convey and help us understand how to remain human. I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter, actually—to be honest I have more questions than answers.
EG: You are a highly referential poet, which I love—the notes section in this book is so rich. And the poems are full of play, or homage, to other influences. How do other poems, poets, and works of art emerge in your work? What is the impulse behind braiding in these references, and what does such braiding add?
JG: I’m glad you like the notes—I was very conservative initially with that section but my editor Jeff Shotts encouraged me to elaborate a bit more, I think exactly because of the referentiality that’s in the poems, which is maybe not obvious to some readers.
I love this question, and it actually feels related to the previous one about what poetry can do in the face of death. One thing it did for me in this book was allow me to converse with the dead, in literal and figurative ways. In addition to wanting to push back against the poet-immortalizing-the-beloved in poems, I felt a compulsion to push against the poem as a work of original genius or insight. Poems are dependent on or at least exist in relation to other poems and to traditions. But I think this question is also sensing something about the conditions under which I wrote the book—isolated in the pandemic and grieving an increasing and unbearable string of losses. Never have I been more aware of and grateful for the ways poems are so often conversations: with people, living and dead, with works of art, with God and even the self.
EG: I love what you’ve said about each book trying to be poetically ambitious in a different way. Now that my first collection is done, I am trying to figure out what poems I will write next and I hope to do exactly what you’re describing—I am sure my voice won’t change as much to anyone else as it might seem to me, but I want to do something different, not repeat myself. It’s encouraging to have a model and to hear someone saying that’s possible. Right now it’s all silence, though. Anyway, this may be a purely selfish question, but how do you survive the silences?
JG: The silences are rough, but I’ve come to love them in a way. In my own case, anytime I’ve been able to write a poem or two after finishing a book, those poems always end up in the book! The silence is when I know I’m really done with a mode, a way of thinking and writing. And I do still, in a way, write, or I call it “scribble,” in my journal. Just little phrases or observations or images from the day. I collect them and sometimes go back and sift through them when I feel ready to write again. It feels a little like a psychic jetlag, sort of waiting for something inside me to change. Another way to put it is that I forget for a while what a poem is. I think we all have these working inchoate definitions in our mind of what a poem is or might do, and after a while, that definition feels insufficient and must be reinvented. That’s where reading comes in and helps remind one of all the possibilities. It’s also where translation comes in for me, which is such a sophisticated form of reading or, as I once heard Andrés Neuman put it, the closest one can come to reading and writing at the same time.
EG: I’m so glad you mentioned translation as it relates to your own poetry! Can you describe your journey as a translator and elaborate on how your translation interacts with your own poetic process?
JG: I began to translate for private and selfish reasons—to keep up my French after I finished my MFA and wasn’t able to get back to France, and also to inspire and instruct my own poetry. (I often like to point out that translation is largely what poets had to acquire their craft before we invented the workshop.) That ended up being my first book of translations, Psalms of All My Days, by Patrice de La Tour du Pin. I was actually approached by Open Letter to translate my second book, Rochester Knockings, Hubert Haddad’s novel about the Fox Sisters, and it was eye-opening to work on a historical novel; it stretched me in various ways but my motivation for doing that was external—to support this young translation press at the University of Rochester and this terrific author. But in the meantime, I was falling in love with Polish poetry and studying Polish. The culmination of that was this most recent book, Everything I Don’t Know by Jerzy Ficowski, which I cotranslated with Piotr Sommer.
EG: We both love Poland and Polish poetry. How did you encounter the language and poetry, and what drew you into a long-term relationship with it?
JG: I love that you use the phrase “long-term relationship”—it’s so true. Languages themselves really are like relationships—if you neglect them, you lose them. You know, I’d read Polish poetry casually since my early twenties, when Miłosz and then Szymborska won the Nobel Prize and were international names. As you know, Polish poetry has been wonderfully translated into English. But my deep encounter really came when Adam Zagajewski asked me to help him and Ed Hirsch organize a poetry seminar in Krakow in 2002. Traveling to Krakow over many summers, reading the poetry there, and taking part in sustained discussions about Polish poetry completely changed my life and my poetry.
One thing that drew me in was simply being immersed in a culture where poetry was such a valued enterprise, where poetry had played a large role in preserving humanity and culture in the twentieth century. And though many things have changed—and so much for the better—in American poetry, at the time many of us poets felt pretty sheepish about being poets, writing what felt like private lyric or ironic performance. Polish poetry provided so many models of how poems could be private and political at the same time, how they could use irony in expressive ways, and how poems could be vessels that contained history and trafficked in ideas.
EG: I admire so much the drive to push back against “the poet’s power to immortalize through poetry.” Overweening mysticism seems dangerous to me. Part of the “passionate pursuit of the Real” seems to me to acknowledge poetry’s limitations, and at the same time its durability, which I think your work does so well. Recently I have also been thinking about Miłosz’s use of “ocalenie” —to what extent poetry can “rescue” or “save” reality? To me it seems, perhaps, that poetry can do that, but in the way of someone pulling a shipwreck survivor from the sea, not saving the ship from going down (if that simile makes sense).
JG: I think that’s a beautiful simile, and Miłosz’s Ocalenie has been a really important book for me too. I almost titled my second book Rescue after his and I have a poem with that title in the book, about my brother. That said, I think Miłosz, like so many Polish poets in the wake of the Holocaust, was writing out of a profound subgenre, if you will, of grief, which is survivor’s guilt. I’ve only felt what I think is similar to that in the grieving of my little brother. My poems or elegies for him repeatedly conjure up an awareness of having grown up next to him, but of his having not survived, evoking my sense of guilt and failure at not having been able to save him somehow. But in general, at least in my own poems, I think of poetry’s function as more to attend, if that makes sense. To observe and remember the details (“because in details there’s compassion,” to quote Szymborska). But I think I’m nuancing what is essentially the same idea of trying to rescue and access reality.
EG: I actually think it’s an important distinction, which I thank you for making, for historical reasons, despite the entwining or adjacency of “rescue” and “attention.” I am thinking of the marvelous poem “This Living Hand,” which is full of detail and attention to the mundane, though also concise and lovely. The poem turns on “french fries / some student likely spilled” lying on the ground for a winter and spring! Amazing. How do you cultivate the habit of attending? (Whether quite literally, as in how you accrete details into a poem, or more broadly, as in how you create or encourage an orientation toward attending in yourself.)
JG: When I was an undergraduate, I spent my junior year abroad at the Sorbonne. I took an art history course that, instead of an assigned textbook, gave a free pass to the Louvre, which I visited almost every day. My homework would be to look at a painting. I got into this habit—which I still have when I visit museums, for better or worse—of going to look at just one painting a day. It’s marvelous to give oneself permission to look long at one thing! In another year-long literature course I took, there was only one text, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses. At first I thought there was some mistake; how were we going to read and talk about this book for an entire academic year? But we did! We close-read every paragraph of every letter (it’s an epistolary novel) and teased out in the process an extraordinary amount about the characters and plot as well as French literary history, theory of genre, the French language, even human nature itself. By the end of the year, every métro ride, every interaction I had with someone, every daydream, made me think back to the novel, which had become a kind of lens. I don’t mean to suggest this is how we should go about reading everything, but it was revelatory to have that experience. And often I think of attending the world as simply giving it the same attention I give a work of art—visual or literary.
Other times I think about this habit of attending as a kind of visual rain (though we use all of our senses). It’s so wonderful to watch a sidewalk when it starts to rain, how each drop is visible and landing randomly on the sidewalk, and how through a gradual accrual of those drops, the sidewalk turns from being dry to being wet. So maybe this cultivation of the habit of attending is really a matter of two things: one needs to slow down, and also, one probably needs to look at less at a time.
EG: I wanted to pivot briefly but only if you are willing—you dedicate this book to Adam Zagajewski. I was hoping that you could talk a bit about your relationship with him, and what his personal and poetic influence has been on you. (I suppose this is related, as he was—is—what I think of as a master of attending.)
JG: Lines from two different poems pop into my head as I ponder how to answer this question—one from Adam himself, in his beautiful poem “Late Beethoven”: “What would I have to be / in order to speak about him, he who’s still / growing.” The other poem is the brief heartbreaking “Poem” by Langston Hughes that begins: “I loved my friend. / He went away from me. / There’s nothing more to say.”
But I can say a little more. I met Adam in January 2002 and was his student in the PhD program at the University of Houston. I had taken time off after my MFA and before going back for the PhD, so I was in my early thirties and a bit older than my cohort. I also had my first book accepted for publication that spring and so it put me in this temporarily “advanced” place that set me apart a little from the other students. That same spring, Adam asked me to help him organize the Krakow Poetry Seminar that I was mentioning above, and so we had this special project that we were working on together. I think all of those factors made what began as a teacher-student relationship transition rather quickly into a deep and abiding literary friendship. I was also spending time in Europe in the summers—Paris and Krakow, where we would see each other. We loved to take walks. We also would go out to dinner or meet in cafes. And sometimes he would propose little tours—a favorite memory is one time in Poland when we took a day trip to visit the bociany—the storks that would come to nest in the countryside in the spring. We spent a lot of time together talking about poetry and our lives, but Adam was also very generous about inviting me into his life. I enjoyed spending time with him and his wife Maya and also with his friends and some of his family.
When we were on the same continent, we usually talked on the phone pretty much daily. This continued even through his years teaching at Chicago, when I lived in North Carolina and then Rochester, New York. When we were on separate continents, we almost never talked on the phone; we emailed instead. But he was a part of much of my daily life until the pandemic and his sudden illness and death. What I’m describing sounds perhaps a bit odd or unconventional.
But I’ve often thought about how impoverished our vocabulary is for friendship (and how much it feels left out of poetry!). It’s very hard to talk about it, as that Langston Hughes poem suggests. But meeting Adam truly changed my life’s trajectory. He was incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about my poetry, which meant—still means—a great deal to me. It helped me keep confidence when I was tempted to lose it. And there were times when I was also able to be helpful and supportive to him, too. Being his student allowed me to synthesize some then-unsynthesized parts of myself—poetry, for one, and a kind of international interest and perspective that I’d begun to develop from being in France and starting to translate, for another. As well as my interest in arts administration, which I continued to develop by working with him and Ed on the poetry seminar. And most obviously, I suppose, being his student educated me deeply in Polish poetry and granted me access to a whole other literary tradition that is now ingrained in my own poetics.
EG: Finally, I wanted to say thank you, again. Your book reminds me that there is much in the world to love, though there is much darkness, and that “Earth’s the right place for love.” And in that vein, I’d like to open a space for you to add anything that has come to mind that hasn’t been explicitly addressed here about poetry or the book or life.
JG: I don’t think I’ll add anything here except to say my own tremendous thanks back to you for your thoughtful questions and for this opportunity to talk together. You have a book coming out soon yourself, so let’s reverse the roles and continue our conversation soon! I look forward to that.