Jennifer Grotz’s most recent book of poems, The Needle, explores both Polish and American twentieth-century poetry and its traditions. According to a Washington Postreview (4/20/11), “Where many writers look inward and mine their private landscapes, Grotz sees the objects and scenes around her. . . . Attentiveness brings her poems—and the world—alive. . . . Grotz’s perspective makes her work feel objective and insightful, even when she writes about family tragedies. Her ability to balance artistry and emotion results in buoyant poetry.”
Her previous collection, Cusp, is informed by the phraseentre chien et loup, between dog and wolf, which is a French colloquialism for twilight. It signifies a brief instant in the blue light of dusk when the dog, who roams during the day, is about to retreat and when the wolf, who roams at night, just begins to come out. Cusp is a book about being in a kind of middleness, and it is also a book that aims to locate itself in terms of a literary tradition. The longest poem in the book, “Arrival in Rome,” for instance, is an imitation of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and grapples with the anxiety of influence of a young woman poet. While the poems in Cusp portray the world as divided, the poetic project of the book is to locate a cusp, a “now” moment between past and future, between domestic and foreign, between the random and the inevitable.
She is currently completing a manuscript of translations of contemporary Psalms from the French poet Patrice de La Tour du Pin.
1. You’ve lived in France and Poland. How was it? Did living in these countries influence your work?
JG: I have found that any time I spend an extended amount of time abroad, there’s a crisis in my poetry. I think this is because a good amount of my energy when I’m in another country is getting better at another language, and writing for me is something that I can only do in English. When I was a student in France many years ago, I stopped writing completely that year—I really felt like I was in a no man’s land between French and English and for a long time I couldn’t really speak either language—or that’s honestly how it felt. Now that I’m more established in French, I can write and work on poems in France. In the past decade I’ve spent a lot of time in Poland, but strangely, I’ve never felt unable to write while I’m there. Krakow, the city I frequent, is my metaphysical poetic home—that probably has something to do with the inspiration I feel there—but even there I notice that if I’m working on a poem, I’m tempted to shut down my ability to understand and interact in Polish. Nevertheless, all of these strange brain eccentricities aside, I strongly believe that frequent encounters with other languages and other cultures is tremendously helpful to my writing. It’s a powerful antidote against easy cynicism or narcissism—and it keeps my eyes and ears—and therefore heart and mind—wide open.
2. When did you begin writing poetry? How did you choose your genre?
JG: Well, as Pound said at the end of his career, “I did not enter into silence. Silence captured me.” That is, though it may sound melodramatic, I honestly feel as though poetry early on captured me—I never even considered another genre to write in, and though I do aspire to complete some significant prose at some point, it’s going to be a struggle, I think. The way I think most aligns itself with the way poems think and operate.
As for when I started writing, well, again, I can’t remember not making poems. My very first writings were scribbles, little extra lines and verses, into the large illustrated Bible my grandmother gave me as an infant. There was a lot of strange stuff I wrote—part letters, part diary, part poem—and then I discovered the poetry section of my school library, and, later, the public library. That’s where I began to read poetry—which, naturally, began to shape and strengthen my ability to write poems.
3. You have two books of poetry published, “Cusp” and “The Needle” and also a chapbook, “Not Body.” Do you have another book in the making? Translations? Could you tell me where do you find ideas for your books?
JG: I have a book of translations from the French—some “psalms” by Patrice de La Tour du Pin—forthcoming next year. I’m also working on a book of translations from the Polish of the poet Jerzy Ficowski. And yes, I’m writing poems, which means a book is in the making, but it’s slow. I write poems for a long time and only after I have a bunch do I try to think about a book—otherwise the organizing, rationalizing, productivity-obsessed part of my mind takes over and kills the playful, soul-making creative part….
4. How long do you take to write a book? Can you tell me a little about your writing process?
JG: I don’t know how long it takes—probably five to ten years, depending on what else is happening in my life. Maybe if I keep writing, it will take less. My writing process changes too much to be easy to talk about. I find that something kind of works for a while, like a routine or a time of day or a particular approach, and then it stops. I write pretty sporadically. My favorite time to work on poems is during the summer—probably then is when I feel the most psychically free from obligations, and that really helps gain access to the imagination.
5. My favorite book of yours is “Cusp” (and maybe that’s because of taking your class and learning what you meant by “cusp.”) I especially like the poem “The Waves.” Could you tell me how that poem came into being?
JG: That’s a poem I wrote during the summer, on the Oregon coast, watching the Pacific ocean. There’s a literary ghost poem underneath, too, which is Rilke’s poem “A Bowl of Roses,” which you can probably hear or notice if you put the two poems side by side. But mostly the poem came from watching the waves for a long time, seeing how they were similar and different and constant—and then trying to generate imagery and music/rhythm that enacted that as well as captured the feeling one has while watching the waves….
6. What are you currently reading?
JG: I’m working on a piece about poetry and boxing right now, so I’m reading a lot of boxing-related stuff: On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates, The Sweet Science, by A. J. Liebling, and Boxing: A Cultural History, by Kasia Boddy. Poetry-wise, I’ve got Henri Cole’s new book Touch, and A. E. Stallings’s new book Olives, close by.
7. What classes are you currently teaching at the University of Rochester?
JG: I teach creative writing courses (workshops, forms classes, and the like) and literature courses (primarily in contemporary poetry and international poetry). I also teach translation courses, which is hard but thrilling work. I adore my students at the University of Rochester for how bright and truly talented they are, how enthusiastic they are about poetry. It’s an honor to teach them.
8. Are there any occupational hazards as a writer?
JG: Yes, but not physical ones (unless you count alcoholism). Bitterness, vanity, and egocentricity are high on the list. But all avoidable, too.
9. Do you have any advice you would like to impart to writers about developing their writing craft?
JG: In addition to reading a lot and writing a lot, the two inescapable ways to improve as a writer, don’t be afraid to think a lot. And don’t be afraid to set high standards for your work—which is very different from external ambitions (i.e. I want to publish at so and so, I want to win this and that). Also: at least once, try your hand at translation. Historically, it’s the way most great poets assumed at least some of their craft (it’s been around much longer than the workshop!).