"Leaning on the Scaffold of Hope."
An Interview With Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and a photographer. She is the author of Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books), and The Requited Distance (Sheep Meadow Books). Her new collection, Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose) will be released this fall.

Griffiths has received fellowships from Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, New York State Summer Writers Institute, and others. Her visual and literary work has appeared in Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, RATTLE, Indiana Review, MOSAIC, Tidal Basin Review, and many others.

Recently, Griffiths was featured in the first ever O Magazine poetry issue in April 2011. A Cave Canem Fellow, Griffiths is working on Ars Poetica, an archival fine arts portrait photography collection of the Cave Canem collective. Currently, Griffiths teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn. Please visit: www.rachelelizagriffiths.com

For you, which came first - the love of images or the love of words? Did your love of art lead you to a love of writing, vice versa, or were they two separate pursuits in your life?

I don’t think this love was linear or lateral or divisible. I’m not sure whether I could categorically cleave how I pull meaning from one without the other. Sometimes, depending on what is working better, I can gravitate more towards one than the other. But rarely do I separate them, except, I guess, my eye wouldn’t necessarily use “language” the way “language” would include seeing for me.

I suppose, as a child, I would have relied on images to speak for and to me first. But I believe there is certainly a vernacular for seeing alone that does not use syllable as we are accustomed to engaging that notion. Seeing has as much rhythm as the tongue in speaking and in silence.  

What do you look for when taking photos? What do you hope to capture through the image? What is your favorite thing to photograph?

I experience duende. I don’t try to have control ever, except for sometimes specific photographic techniques. Mostly I hope that I was able to open my eyes a bit wider and listen through sight. The word “witness” surfaces and a feeling of the sacred and the ordinary – both are equally profound to me – surfaces though I can’t elaborate exactly how.

I look for what I both recognize – humanness – and also the surprise of what, there is so much, I don’t or can’t know. Not necessarily “invisible”. I’m thinking about the sea and how it exists. I hope for risk in each frame. I look for imagination embedded within and against and above “reality”.

I never try to “capture” anything or anyone – I’m not sure I can or want to. I don’t like the aggression of the jargon of photography sometimes – “capture”; “take”; “shoot”.  I’m looking, sure. I have agency. I’m not anonymous, never passive. I like to experience awe because it can be terrifying. It doesn’t always feel good and that seems human. For now my favorite focus in the frame is the face. That’s a vast landscape – I include animals and trees in “face” too. There’s so much – blur, depth, opening, interiority, light and shadow. Grain in a face.

You were featured in the first-ever poetry issue of O Magazine in April. What was that like for you? How did it come about?

It was fun in that once-in-a-lifetime category and I got to meet some very beautiful poets, inside and out. I’m a photographer so it was interesting in that way too. I received an email from someone at the magazine and things went into motion. My parents were proud of me in a wonderful old school way. The support of family and friends meant so much to me.
You had two poetry books published in a five month time frame and have another due out this fall, each from different presses. Describe the differences of the three - both in terms of content as well as the process of publishing them.

I think it’s an unusual gift, which arrived mostly because of publishing schedules than me having any agency besides the writing itself. I’m so grateful – it’s very difficult to get one book out in the world let alone three. I worked hard and I love independent presses – it’s been a joy to work with different presses and see how much they care about the work, how much support they need.

The books feel like fraternal triplets to me. I hear Levertov’s “the poet is in labor” and wonder what that might look like for me – certainly I carried pain. I carried hope and resistance. I carried flight. I carried imagination and a house in my head of writers and poets whose lives saved me.

These books were written over years of time. I imagine the process more as a visual artist where I’d have three different canvases tacked to three walls and be working on all of them at the same time as my imagination saw fit. Poets all work differently. This is how I often work. It may be a decade before the next collection is out and I’m fine with that. Each book is utterly different-looking than the others but all contain some refraction of my voice.

Mule & Pear
will come out this fall and is being published by New Issues Poetry & Prose. It’s a book where black women literary characters  from some of my favorite novels meet on the page and speak with one another and with me --- about the freedom and carthasis of reading, about their what-ifs & after-lives, about the complexity of human nature for men and women. Have you ever met a character and just, hands-down, treated them and included them in your life because the character was/is real to you, your experience, reminds of people you have encountered? Have you really sat back ever after reading a book, especially if the character you love most has just died or been hurt badly, and have to take a deep breath? My poems are breathing in that breath.

How do you feel about the state of poetry in America? Is the national poetry scene doing well? What improvements could be made?

I’m a poet who leans, even if it’s shaky, on the scaffold of hope. How one defines “doing well” is challenging to gauge. For whom? For what institutions? In regards to gender, race, sexual orientation, class, mainstream culture, popularity or number of books sold?

Improvements can be made to almost anything except chocolate and back rubs. I’ve done much traveling to other countries and have always been of mind that isolating a country’s art, in this case America, from the rest of the world sets up some dangers, most dangerous being in ideologies.  It helps perpetrate the layering of “Other” I have engaged, resisted, and continue to experience in this country.

I wonder how acts of mongering, privilege, the appetite for any breed of fame, in the larger culture have influenced poetry for poetry is not immune to that, and what it might mean for poets and future poets. The use of nostalgia invoked by poets to open and/or limit “progress” or “movement”. Oh, and the persistent powers of a particular brand of fear in America affects everything, including art and how art is deemed (in)valuable, is distributed and/or dissolved.

Describe the most artistic place, from a geographical standpoint, that you've ever been. What made it that way - was it the people who were there with you, a well-developed movement towards the arts or a place with particularly inspiring features?

There are, perhaps, three that I will mention for now. Alone in fog on Limantour Beach in northern California is the first. The second is with my best friend and amazing poet Kamilah Aisha Moon at the rim of a small tuna boat looking right into a whale’s eye during a visit to Provincetown. The most artistic places for me tend to be found in Nature. Finally, I was also in awe and thanksgiving at the gathering of 73 poets who came together to celebrate Lucille Clifton at the Lucille Clifton memorial reading via Furious Flower at James Madison University last fall.

What has been your proudest moment as a writer? As a visual artist?

I don’t think I’ve had it yet for either.  My proudest moments right now involve celebrating and supporting other poets and artists. 

As a teacher of creative writing, what is something you hope all of your students will learn?

I would hope for them to learn how to express themselves with meaningfulness to whatever passion suits them.

Tomorrow is going to be a perfectly inspiring day. What does that look like for you?

It looks like a morning walk with my dog Hero. A horizon of coffee. Maybe some huevos rancheros if it’s not too hot out but right now in Brooklyn it is scorching. Hearing the laughter and wisdom of friends by letters or phone calls.

It looks like a statue of emails. It looks like a bike ride on my vintage Schwinn cruiser, Bee, on the way to my art studio in DUMBO. Lunch under the Brooklyn Bridge and something to read. It looks like a camera on my hip and some interest in the clouds & faces I see or dreamt of the night before.

It sounds like the soundtrack of Frida, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, and Curtis Mayfield.

It means looking through art or photography books and working. Maybe painting if the hands are willing. Editing, always. It means calling my sister and Aisha. A siesta if the coffee vibe has ebbed. More & more reading. Yoga.

It means reading through some newspapers to see how insane the planet is and more coffee. Writing letters by hand to friends. It means an ice cream cone or two or three. It looks like a swarm of fragments that may or may not be poems. A night walk to survey the swarm.

It means Jon Stewart or an indie film later if I’m still awake. A proper belly rub for Hero. Checking on the moon. Then it looks like lavender, Coltrane or Johnny Hartman, more reading, some Nina & more poetry if I’m stubborn, & the bathtub if I’m still up.    

What is next for you? Any new projects in the works?

Visually, I’m working on a short black and white film called POP (Poets on Poets). It’s a series of conversations via interviews where poets answer questions about poetry, craft, culture, life experience, etc. that have been anonymously created by other poets. Trailer and excerpts will be released in the fall. As for writing, I’m working on a manuscript about Frida. Mostly prose poems I think. Near the selves.

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