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"Alive Again, and Born Double": An Interview with J.P. Grasser

J.P. Grasser is originally from Maryland. His work explores the diverse regions he has called home, most insistently his family's fish hatchery in Brady, Nebraska. He studied English and Creative Writing at Sewanee: The University of the South and is currently an MFA student in poetry at Johns Hopkins University. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from The Journal, Cream City Review, Ninth Letter Online, and Nashville Review, among others.

His poem, "Sign," appeared in Issue Fifty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about slanted light, pre-birth re-birth, and papyrus.

Could you talk to us about how you wrote “Sign”?

“Sign” developed from a conversation I had with my mother on a bright morning last spring. Nature was beginning to wake up, the trees were greening, and life seemed endless—though of course, the “glare” Larkin describes in “Aubade” is always crouching somewhere in the subconscious. I was particularly struck, that morning, by the magnetism of the pagan or occult in relation to spring. When she confessed that the in vitro fertilization occurred on a Friday the 13th—a day she has always (strangely?) considered to be lucky—I knew there was a poem waiting to be written. The more of the story she related, the more I was sure that it was one of those rare occasions when life provides a writer with all of the necessary symbols, and it becomes his job to synthesize, organize, and commit them to the page.

The poem went through many drafts, the initial of which was written quite quickly. Given our twin-ness, I knew it had to be in couplets, though I tried slant-rhyming couplets first. Somehow, these seemed too austere for a subject I considered tender—and already tempered by science. So, I reined the form in some, opting for internal rhyme (which seemed appropriate, given the internality of the fetuses). Once I felt I was in the right vicinity, formally, the content quickly fell into place.

The image of objects being slanted comes up twice in this poem: first, as something complicated the speaker’s mother’s pregnancy (“cervix slanted.”) At the end of the poem, we learn the light “does not come in slants, / but washes, or else grows up from the river itself.” Both times, the slanting seems negative or at least not preferable. Could you talk about your use of “slanting” in this poem?

Though I didn’t intend for “slanting” to have particularly negative connotations within the world of the poem, and wasn’t entirely conscious of the meaning during the poem’s composition, I suppose I have always carried around an image that defines winter light: somewhere, in a study that I’ve never been to, light slants through the Phoenician blinds. Dust motes dance in the light-lancets, thrown down in parallel bars to a hardwood floor. Someone has stacked books in parallel rows, on a shelf, and the light and the edges of the bindings form a type of grid. I’m not sure where this image came from, though it feels as real as any memory. The way I imagine spring light, when the world is in full swing-dance, is as a type of envelopment. Blinds and doors are thrown open, the dust is beaten from oriental rugs draped over wrought-iron railings. Children play in the street.

I have also been quite intrigued by two poems that deal with light and its qualities, which certainly influenced my treatment. Dickinson’s “A Certain Slant of Light” and Anthony Hecht’s “A Cast of Light” both inform my poem. While Dickinson views light that comes in slants as a morbid harbinger, Hecht uses the chaotic, archipelago-like pattern of light cast on a forest floor to expose the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. I like Hecht’s take a whole lot more than Dickinson’s; he suggests a type of connectedness and inclusion that I agree with completely.

In this poem the speaker muses over the different possibilities of what could have happened to a twin in the womb who had vanished: the possibility of the living twin absorbing the dead one completely, as well as the possibility of fetus papyraceus, or, as you more delicately describe it, “Or else each of my fibers pressed by your new growth / into a parchment-like disc at the base of her womb.” And yet, neither of these happened to the speaker or the speaker’s sister: instead, both reappear and live, live until the day, at least, that the speaker commits this poem to the page. Which is interesting in that it feels like a pre-birth re-birth. A re-awakening before becoming fully awake. Could you talk about this theme in your poem?

In many ways, you’ve described something fundamental to creation in any sense, but especially to art. I’m always writing to surprise myself, to wake myself up to the truth of a given situation, in the hopes of becoming fully awake in the world. What a reader’s mind does to a text is—I think—a different type of reawakening, though no less worthy. We read and explore the world around us for the same reasons we write, to sharpen perception, to wake up to our lives. Maybe every poem we write or read is a smaller order re-birth? And each time we sit down at the blank page, a type of pre-birth?

I was particularly struck that the very syndrome that might have ended me before birth was etymologically related to papyrus, a medium that has been used for artistic creation for millennia. It resonated with me, on a thematic level, that one’s job as a writer is to put life down on paper, but what if the writer became the paper? It could have easily happened, but it didn’t. Ultimately, the possibility of non-existence is at the heart of every poem, and for some, that possibility is glaring.

Could you provide our readers with some reading suggestions?

A good friend recently gave me Richard Jones’s The Correct Spelling & Exact Meaning, which I have been finding delightful in its handling of etymology, engagement with typographical characters, and syntax. While I was unfamiliar with his work, Jones has kept my critical and emotional attention fully engaged. Additionally, I have (finally!) gotten my hands on a copy of Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins. The poems Traci creates are always exquisitely wrought, chock-full of sprezzatura and tenderness. Of course, the poems of Philip Larkin, Richard Wilbur, and Michael Longley continue to instruct and delight me. And, I’m looking forward to picking up a copy of Erica Dawson’s The Small Blades Hurt.  

What else have you been writing recently?

I’m currently working on a full-length manuscript, which ultimately tries to reconcile my experiences on my grandfather’s fish hatchery in Brady, Nebraska with my upbringing and education near Washington, DC.

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