An Interview with Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Sarah Marcus: As a poet and photographer specializing in literary portraits, fine art photography, and lyric videos, what was it like working on your incredible first extensive video project, P.O.P (Poets on Poetry), an intimate series of micro-interviews, which gathers nearly 100 contemporary poets in conversation?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths: This experience is still happening for me. When the project began, I was terrified and determined to see it live. I taught myself video software and used my experience as a photographer to "see" the promise of the project. I had no funding or support but I went for it anyway. It remains a favorite project of mine. Also, I'm working very hard to get the entire project published/featured properly online where anyone can access the content. Last year, the Academy of American Poets generously featured twenty something videos. I received positive notes from all over. People in other countries wrote to me. Teachers and colleagues wrote to me because the videos were being used as teaching tools in classrooms. All of it remains humbling. The project feels important to me because I think contemporary poets are doing exquisite work and are working together to expand and to change the "lens" of poetry.
I wanted to show the very real and tangible presence of contemporary poets in conversation with one another. I wanted it to be beautiful and powerful. And that happened, over and over, with each video. I can't even begin to describe how astonishing those moments were! And how kind the poets were as I was running around my studio trying to sound proof it! And I appreciate the different voices and ways that poets think and engage the world. I like that the videos possess a certain sense of intimacy that you don't often see in recorded footage of poets. So, the videos are also highly artistic. One of my hopes for 2016 is that P.O.P finds a permanent poetry home and that funding happens to get the rest of the editing completed. I can't wait to share the project in its entirety!
SM: In your beautiful essay for The PEN American Center, "Eyes, Exile, and Opportunity: Banning Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye," you write the following powerful words: "I remembered how it felt, as a young black woman writer, to be seen. When you are seen you can no longer disappear.” And, in this same essay you say: "The capital and complex imagination of black people has always been banned, unless it is supportive in the service of the privileged body’s desire to view itself as superior. The audacity of a black woman writer to articulate her own mind and her own imagination through language must appear, to those holding their own leashes and chains, nothing short of terrorism.” Can you tell us a bit more about what it means to you to no longer be able to disappear? I would clearly argue that inclusivity is vital to our immediate literary landscape, so how can we better address those “holding their own leashes and chains?” Are there immediate actions you would or wouldn’t recommend?
REG: I don't think I have anything further to add to this except that we're living in a culture that is so terrorized by its own fears and desires it can't comprehend its own humanity, let alone a complicated notion of freedom, especially in terms of language and ideas. Rigorous, difficult conversations must persist. There must be many more, underscored by practice, by which I mean action. It's not enough to talk and to blame and to shame folks. I want to see some real doing and happening. Too, we must include and acknowledge how bodies are captured, colored upon the page and in the mind and too, in how we communicate our fears and hopes and rage to one another. Ultimately, and it will sound obvious, so many of the dialogues must begin within and journey back to childhood and publicly, systems where institutionalization of fear and power have been (and continue) to be preserved.
SM: In my interpretation, Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books) seems very much about survival, the weight (literal and metaphorical) of our bodies, and the search for balance. What is your favorite poem in this collection and why? What do you want the reader to walk away knowing?
REG: One of the things that surprised me about Lighting the Shadow, when I finished it, was that I had accessed some inaccessible places, privately but also, in a sense, publicly. That's often been difficult for me, in terms of balance, in the past.
I can see the poet I was during the writing of that book and I can see where I am now. I'll always be searching for a body that can fit all of my various identities but for now, the body I live in is more than beautiful and vulnerable enough. So, I don't have a favorite poem. Trying to select one would feel like saying I love my lungs more than heart or my brain more than my womb. I need all of these poems working as an ecosystem. So, when I think about the book and what I feel like reading or something, it really depends on my mood.
I love that the book gets close to sharing how much nuance means to me. It is certainly about survival. In terms of the reader, I can't do anything more than hope that a meaningful connection occurred between us. Let the reader's knowledge be whatever it will be. I'm not interested in controlling or forcing that. I like the sense of freedom that reading has always offered both writer and reader alike. We can come away from a shared language altered, opened, and incited to speak and to imagine and to witness private and public experiences for ourselves.
SM: As an educator at Sarah Lawrence College and IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), what advice do you have for new or young writers and advocates?
REG: I think it can be meaningful to collage advice together and to discern when you need and do not need advice. It can be overwhelming when you need to listen to your own voice. To me, advice isn't a fixed prescriptive space. As we each shift and mature, our needs as writers, teachers, and students become fluid, especially in terms of academic spaces. For me, it's often about not divorcing the non-academic space from the 'academic' space. In a sense, it's about encouraging a curious and engaged mind, a journey. It doesn't have to happen at school but schools can sometimes offer beautiful and supportive communities for students.
For new writers, I insist upon being an open reader. I also believe strongly in imagination, discipline, intuition, and empathy. Be kind to yourself but push yourself toward risk upon the page. No one can articulate what shape that risk takes or how it speaks but you. Never think that no one is listening.
SM: What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
REG: I'm working on photography and prose. The poems are crawling, cocooned and I'm not going to force them. So I'm looking at prose and images. I'm learning so much in these spaces!
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist. Her most recent collection of poetry, Lighting the Shadow, was published by Four Way Books in 2015. Her visual and literary work has appeared widely including The New York Times, American Poetry Review, Guernica, LitHub, Callaloo, American PEN Center, and many others. Currently, Griffiths teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She lives in Brooklyn.