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Ecopoetics and Exactitude: a Conversation with Garth Graeper

The Sky Broke More (Winter Editions 2023) is Garth Graeper’s first full-length collection. With a hybrid form of poetry and prose, lyric and science fiction, the book provides a meditation on time, memory, and the self. We’re pleased to present excerpts from the book as well as an interview with Garth conducted by Jeannine Marie Pitas.

Garth Graeper is the author of two chapbooks, By Deer Light (Greying Ghost) and Into the Forest Engine (Projective Industries), which was featured in a New York Public Library exhibition about small press publishing. Explorations of place— real,remembered, escaped, imagined — are at the core of his poems. Graeper created a site-specific, handmade Park Book series based on places like New York’s Central Park and Battery Park, which he distributed surreptitiously. During a decade of work as a Brooklyn-based small press editor, Graeper designed and published translations of poets from Sweden, Norway, and Uruguay, as well as works of contemporary American poetry. Born in Queens, NY, Graeper now lives and works in Pittsburgh.

from The Sky Broke More


windchimes mid-
swing, clawing
at quiet
from inside

a fault line


trees pick up
the drone

hills, a river rushing
into existence

skin, hammer, sound

sheen even as the current
still half-

a thickness
a blood-breeze pulling
buzzards near

each string
in the hum

slipped back into

larger and larger circles
in grass

across space
the last moment
freer than any other

Myself by the Thousands

portrait-head pasted on, frantic human hieroglyphics

a mind split between channels, glued across two worlds

rain, smoke, radiation, unnatural twin formations

crumbling fast, emitting jagged, hard-carved cries

my throat uncoupled, losing strength, dragged deeper

through drenched fields, fertile, dirty, and alone

a ghost in me probing each place to remember

your mouth, humming, hugging a different earth

a stain looping, liquid-slow, lips never closed

until the whole frame breaks and rises again

at the start of each cycle, new lungs, new air

harmonized with rivers and mud and branches

a cloudless bright blue, a scarlet bloom, a green

quivering across centuries, unafraid to spill

Jeannine Marie Pitas: How long did it take to write this book? Why was there a long gap of time between your two chapbooks and this full-length collection? 

Garth Graeper: I worked on this book in various forms for ten years. Different parts of the book were written at different times. The third section I wrote most recently, and most easily, after moving from New York City to Pittsburgh. The first section contains a few older poems, substantially revised, from my two chapbooks. The new poems in that first section were written when we moved to Pittsburgh in 2018.

“The Dorothy Loops,” the second section, which is inspired by the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, took by far the longest to write. I think it was 2011 when I first read Dorothy’s journals (the ones written between 1800-1802 at Grasmere). I had this instant, ferocious attraction to the material. I felt an intense familiarity unlike anything I have experienced before or since. It’s almost as if I had been there when they were written.

It took me a long time to figure out how to understand myself and my poems through Dorothy’s writing. For years, I absorbed her language (or it absorbed me). It was with me on long walks and on the subway. Eventually I found my way there, but it was a frustrating process. There were lots of false starts. Even now, individual poems in that section are a collection of sideroads I went down, like the one about alpine disasters, or the one about a volcanic eruption—each of these was once a chapbook-length work of its own but is now just present in the book in a ghostly way. That second section is the main culprit for why this book took so long to finish.

JMP: Describe your writing process. Is the level of composition the individual poem, or is it the manuscript as a whole?

GG: I always write poems thinking of them as parts of a larger body of work—even if I have no idea of what that larger world will look like. In terms of process, I often begin with a source text that interests me. I collect words and phrases from it, and those become the raw material for making poems. By the time the poems are done, there are not many words left from the original text. It’s like I walk through those original words so I can see the shape I leave behind—and understand that it is my shape. This process was difficult with the Dorothy Wordsworth poems because her text stood so powerfully on its own. I was in love with her words, and it was difficult to get lost in them the way I needed to.

That wasn’t the case with the third section, “Homes.” The source that inspired those poems was a collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. They’ve always been important to me, a passion I picked up from my dad. With Conan Doyle, though, I was in love with the atmosphere, not the language. Ultimately, that made it easier to work with. The poem titles in that section are all phrases from various Sherlock Holmes stories.

Some of the first section was inspired by a novel called The Trees by Conrad Richter. It’s about the rough existence of pioneers barely surviving in massive forests that no longer exist.

JMP: One thing I notice is that the book begins with a lot of mystery—the first section, “Pioneers,” is like abstract art. Then, the book invites the reader in more as it goes along. 

GG: I agree that the first part is the most shrouded in mystery. I love the challenge of creating something that ultimately has a sense to it but not necessarily narrative sense. Something evocative that is a surprise, especially to me. I wanted a first section that involves “pioneers” moving through an unfamiliar space, discovering new things without having a map, without knowing how the pieces fit together, without any guarantee of survival. These initial poems offer the reader a kind of disorientation, a feeling of exploration that is urgent and unsettling.

Richter’s language in The Trees is terse, and the action is brutal. You get a sense of the reality of human beings as animals with soft skin, and what it means to expose that vulnerable body to a massive landscape in terrible weather, avoiding predators, avoiding illness, avoiding fatal conflicts with other settlers and with indigenous people. I’m not sure I’d recommend the novel, but there is something powerful underlying the words. That resulted in poems where humans are less differentiated from nature, less set apart from the world around them.

I love the mystery and confusion, but I did find it limiting also. That approach wouldn’t let me explore what I wanted to in the second and third sections. The rest of the book operates at a different frequency. It’s probably true that the first section is the least inviting. I’d be sad if people read through the first ten pages and decided “this is not for me.” But in the end, it felt right and inevitable.

JMP: As you have already discussed, “The Dorothy Loops” builds on quotations from Dorothy Wordsworth. What piqued your interest in her? What does she have to say to us today?

GG: I ran across a short passage from Dorothy’s journals in something else I was reading. I thought “that’s pretty interesting.” I bought a copy of The Grasmere Journals, and it sat on my shelf for six months before I picked it up. I started reading it, and a switch flipped. It was like flashes from a past life.

There’s a poem in the middle of the Dorothy section—the longest poem in the book—called “Left to Ourselves.” Working on that poem felt like time travel or a kind of possession. It’s a tangling and untangling of my relationship to Dorothy and her relationship to her famous brother, William; I am swept up in her language, and she is so swept up in his. Sometimes William would be away, and she’d be waiting days for a letter from him. Waiting and working and waiting.

I kept coming back to the idea of Dorothy working in service of a true, living depiction of nature—of being in a supporting role both to William and to nature itself. I kept wondering if that felt more like solitude or like loneliness. I grapple with that tension myself. Dorothy and William loved their home in Grasmere, but with any setting you love, if you’re there alone, the feeling can change.

I would encourage everyone to read Dorothy’s journals. She had an amazing ability to casually sketch out a scene that feels very real. The writing is thrilling—it’s not stylized, but instead both dreamy and visceral. If William’s poems sometimes drew on Dorothy’s images as part of his investigation into the relationship between human beings and non-human nature from an intellectual, social, and philosophical perspective, then Dorothy’s journals are the unadulterated, underlying source code. They are vibrant, transporting depictions of landscape and also a frank description of country living, which was bare bones with repetitive tasks.

If somebody went out and read Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals because of these poems, I think that would make me just as happy as knowing they read my book.

JMP: The third section, “Homes” moves between very spare verses and prose poetry—what got you into that structure?

GG: That third section is a lot about longing, about trying to find an intimate “other” and missing them, going through multiple lives, somehow trying to find some kind of union. I love grappling with paring down short poems to an intense precision, but that generally offers a glimpse, or a moment. I couldn’t travel the way I needed to in short verse, couldn’t follow a long-term progression, so I started writing prose pieces that were 1-2 pages long, maybe two or three of those a day. This let me roam much more widely and pull in memories and other sources—everything from the comic book character Swamp Thing (and the idea of consciously moving into, through, and back out of the green parts of nature) to glimpses of old movie scenes.

I can’t imagine writing exclusively prose poems; for me, whatever world is being created has to have its core grounded in short verse. But I really loved writing these prose poems. It was something I hadn’t done much before, I enjoyed the freedom of it, and it built a momentum of its own, which is why this section took a shorter time to write compared to what had come before.

JMP: In addition to the source texts you’ve mentioned, who are some of the poets you are responding to in this book?

GG: For better or for worse, I don’t have the kind of mind and memory where I remember texts with great detail. I remember more how they made me feel or remember I want to reread them. So, as to a larger conversation with poets, I guess I don’t consciously think in those terms. For sure, whatever I’m reading in a given moment is where my brain is (and I guess my brain has spent a lot of time with the work of Scandinavian poets). I have always admired and appreciated George Oppen’s very human exactitude. But ultimately so much in this book got filtered through Dorothy Wordsworth.

Other influences and affinities had a more direct impact, especially one specific film. A bit after my first chapbook came out, my friend Jeff and I were talking about it. We were walking through Central Park (in my life, I have spent thousands of hours walking through Central Park), and he asked if the poems were inspired by the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. I hadn’t seen the movie (or heard of it). I watched Stalker soon after we talked, and I could see why he would ask. That movie has been a touchstone for me ever since. Tarkovsky’s vision of the relationship of humans with nature, the deep mystery and danger of it, trying to survive in the lush, post-apocalyptic zone, it was such a real and believable expression of something I had always felt but could barely articulate. It was not as simple as pioneers surviving against the elements—the elements were constantly changing, or at least threatening to change. That idea of an invisible, mystery layer of nature is appealing to me because it feels real and has since I was a child.

JMP: How did you get into ecopoetics? What inspires you specifically in that direction?

GG: Growing up in Queens, weekend trips to the suburbs of Westchester to visit my grandparents meant being exposed to (what seemed to me at the time) wild nature. Those weekends always carried a certain sense of possibility that was both comforting and frightening. The idea of being able to look out and not know what was beyond those trees, of following the little stream in their backyard to a pond with mysterious pipes and sewer grates and wondering what was beyond it, that exposure to green space was deeply attractive. It still is.

My approach to life is one of survival—I’m always worried (irrationally) that something deadly is going to happen, I’m always anticipating difficulty. To me the idea of a natural world that is potentially antagonistic feels real. Humans obviously are problematic for the rest of nature. As we’ve driven ourselves to this current potentially irreversible destructive moment, it is not difficult to imagine the rest of nature feeling antagonized by humanity.

Do I literally think the trees are purposefully out to get humans? No. But in the poems, I do. Even if you are writing about something you don’t believe in literally—a science fiction trope, maybe—it still feels important to have honest exactitude with language. My rational mind says one thing and another “gut” part of me says something far different. These poems are more about what that other part of me says, emotion and empathy above rationality.

Sometimes in seeing a natural disaster, it feels like you can suddenly understand the scale of what a human is—very, very small. That feeling of being small in the scale of nature is at the core of my being. And it is at the core of this book, too, which feels to me more like an ecosystem than a collection.

JMP: What are you working on now, and how has working on The Sky Broke More influenced your current writing?

GG: Right now, I’m working on some poems in part inspired by a different comic book character, a not particularly famous heroine called Shadow Lass whose powers involve controlling darkness. I read a comic with her in it when I was very young, and one scene from it has stayed with me always since. In the past—really until the last couple years and finishing this book—it is not something I would have been willing to potentially spend several years writing about because it didn’t seem “serious.” But I’ve come to accept that it’s serious to me. It is in fact just the kind of topic I want to spend my time on because it is a way to think about the many facets of what darkness is and what it means. I want to explore this peripheral comic book character the same way we consider thousand-year-old ideas about love or conquest.

Jeannine Marie Pitas just published her second collection of poetry, "Or/And" (Paraclete Press 2023). She is the translator or co-translator of eleven books by Latin American authors, most recently Uruguayan poet Mariella Nigro's "Memory Rewritten" (White Pine Press 2023), co-translated with Jesse Lee Kercheval. She is translation co-editor for "Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry" and teaches at Saint Vincent College. She lives in Pittsburgh. (Photo credit: Dawn Zacharias)

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