My Own Sad Little Kind of Prayer: An Interview with Gregory Lawless

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The poems of Gregory Lawless’s Far Away (Red Mountain Press, 2015/Red Mountain Poetry Prize) all deal with various figurations of distance—distance as a bringer of insight, as a form of estrangement, and as a synonym of loss and uncertainty. As these poems rove over the ruined fields of northeastern Pennsylvania, we encounter a speaker who sees beauty in ruins, but who is worldly enough to be suspicious of such beauty. By which I mean that Lawless has concocted the most trustworthy and exciting of guides: A self-effacing, would-be naturalist who is never certain what he’s hearing in the woods, a consciousness that is circumspect almost to the point of silence, but who instead continues to find ways to use misgiving as a means of making. The result is a group of poems that are immaculately carved, poems that are minimalist and yet full of questions and of movement. In offering this book, Lawless writes back to and updates the Deep Imagist tradition with poems that, taken together, comprise an elegy for a landscape already destroyed.

Over email during the fall of 2015, Lawless was kind enough to put up with my questions about his preoccupations and processes, about the state of poetry and our world in general. All along, I appreciated his willingness to share, to think out loud, and, as we wrote back and forth, I found myself returning frequently to ideas and insights that came up through our interview—often in ways that enriched and complicated my own practices as a reader and writer. I offer our discussion in hopes that others will enjoy and benefit from it as I have. Moreover, I hope it will lead more readers to his excellent poems.

Jack Christian: Your book’s title recalls two lines from John Clare that serve also as an epigram to your collection’s final poem: “Of rude waste landscapes far away from men…/I’ve seen thee far away from all they tribe.”

What does it mean to you to see “far away,” especially when the poems themselves bring us into such closeness with the landscapes they describe?

Gregory Lawless: For the speaker of these poems, and for myself, to a degree, an engagement with the landscapes described in the book entails a corresponding detachment from other people. The speaker is far away from many, many things: his wife, his father, his mother, his daughters (scarcely mentioned), other places he used to live, his past, “nature” itself (“I never know what I’m hearing in the woods”), etc. He seeks out empty (foreclosed and abandoned) houses and the (human) emptiness of the landscape, to both fill and test his own absences. Out there, he probes, mostly intuitively, the limits of human communities, social contracts, ownership and capital, his own powers of observation, and whatever austere solaces the woods and fields of Pennsylvania have to offer. For him, being close to others breeds conflict and a need to retreat. When he does retreat, he sees things, woods, creeks, animals, people (smaller now, remote), from a purer vantage point (self-free, almost) and sees their beauty again, once he’s out of the picture.

You mention the need to retreat, but what you’re doing in these poems is at least a slightly different take on “emotion recollected in tranquility,” or is it?

Emotion recollected in isolation, I think; and isolation is, I find, a mood unto itself, a wilderness, spectral, vast, disorienting. I get very lost there. (Granted, isolation is tranquil in that it’s “free from [certain] disturbance[s],” but mine isn’t calm or composed at its core.)

For me, the self, to the extent that it’s anything, is a kind of binding mood, a sense of emotional equivalence with my past. I’m amazed, sometimes, at how consistent my inner state has remained since I was small.

These days, my isolation is always partial, hedged—I have a family, a home. I can return to these things from isolation. But writing takes me away from them. It does not bring me closer to other people, though it helps create a world in which others exist more richly and coherently thereafter. That last sentence makes it seem like I’ve achieved more balance than I have. But the truth is, I’m often ambivalent about where and how to be.

I’m also interested in your speaker’s uncertainty. “I never know what I’m hearing in the woods,” is one early example. Another is the back-and-forth in the first “Factoryville Eclogue” where the speaker imagines birds “the color of stories” only to think “Maybe not.” Later in the same poem, he asks, “Thank God for what?” In both cases, your speaker reigns in his own desire to believe in what he might imagine, but of course the desire to imagine is what sparks the poems. What’s up with that? What do you find in mining that tension?

The tension is endemic. I enact it in a poem, of course, but I don’t have to work very hard to mine it or bring it to mind.

The act of writing a poem always competes with some other act, some other pastime or need, so there’s a natural tension built into the process. Writing poetry produces no capital, so there’s guilt or stress about not working; it separates us from others, so it can easily disturb the rhythms and concourse of relationships; and, of course, it’s likely to fail, casting a sense of (possible, likely) waste onto the entire endeavor. Given all of these conflicts, and many others, inherent to writing a poem, my mind turns naturally during composition to images of relationships in disrepair, hostile places, and lapsed enterprises of all sorts.

Besides, the imagination must constantly work with and, tragically, against observation, “the pressure of reality,” and much more. It takes work or madness to grant it control, to truly heed it. The speaker in Far Away is perhaps too suspicious of the imagination’s powers. He might be happier if he just decided that ravens were “the color of stories,” but November’s withering landscapes dissuade him from that kind of magical thinking.

But he goes about gathering, or trying to gather flowers anyway—the sense of waste and suspicion is balanced by the flowers, and by a beauty in noticing. In the first poem, it’s two fishing lures caught in a tree, which also plays on the scale of being “far away”: “fishing line too fine to see.” It’s great how this poem moves us from the distant landscape on the cover and into the much more specific world of the poems. You manage to capture a nice middle place between what’s knowable and unknowable—nice particularly for how it focuses the poems without limiting them.

I wonder first off: are you more suspicious of the imagination than you were however long ago, say, in the poems of your first book, I Thought I Was New Here?

Second, I wonder about influences: The way you go about representing an interior back and forth, the wordplay, the attention to land, landscape, and lineage all get me thinking about Roethke and particularly Richard Hugo. Would you be comfortable calling northeastern Pennsylvania your “Triggering Town?” How do you see yourself talking back to those two?

I’m naturally suspicious of the imagination when it competes with place, history, and landscape. And Far Away is heavily invested in the given and observed—more so than other poems I’ve written, both before and after.

Ever since I started writing, I’ve oscillated between what I’ll call different moods about reality. I concluded one poem in I Thought I Was New Here by saying that “nothing real can help” you make sense of experience or, um, reality, and that was true enough for the speaker of that poem, and maybe even for me too, when I wrote it. So that’s one mood about reality, and in Far Away there’s another.

Because, when I think about NEPA, where I’m from, my past, etc., I don’t feel very imaginative, viz., inventive. Instead, I feel more like I’m dealing with some kind of native and inexorable condition. Even purely made-up poems (the state poems, for example) reflect that condition more than they rewrite it. There’s invention in Far Away—plenty, and even some of the more naturalist anecdotes (“ravens sorting ferns in the snow”) have dubious origins and cast irrational shadows—it’s just that I’m (pretty) devout about recreating the mood and scenery of the places described.

The answer to your second question is yes, certainly, NEPA as a region is my “triggering town,” even though I’m from there, which, for Hugo, is problematic. But I’m not from Factoryville or Scranton, the towns I write about the most—I’ve lived in the former and spent years near the latter, so they still qualify as “triggering towns.”

Both Roethke and Hugo are primary influences. I talk back to them, for the most part, by being from somewhere and sometime else.

I admire those poets and the dramas of isolation they constructed. I don’t live in isolation, but, when I write, there’s never quite anyone else around. Even influences like Hugo and Roethke only show up residually, not as selves and souls, not quite as company.

You keep mentioning isolation. What’s there for you in that “native and inexorable condition?” If the act of writing brings you to images of despair and disrepair, is there also a hope for transcendence?

To another question about influences, maybe: What drew you to Clare, as a reader, and/or as far as the project of this book is concerned? Who besides Roethke and Hugo loomed large as you were writing Far Away?

As I’m writing this, Minnie Mouse is singing to my son, and to me, “Don’t think you’re all alone.” And, to the best of my abilities, I try not to. But what can you do? Company and community (in poetry or elsewhere) aren’t solutions to isolation; they mitigate it, but don’t cure it.

Isolation is a basic condition of poetry, and has been for some time—maybe since Augustine saw Amrbose reading silently. The subjects and themes of this book—recalling, as they must, the thousands of hours I spent alone, back home—reinforce and agitate poetry’s reflexive demands for solitude. Other people might stress poetry’s social functions (via publication, writing groups, schools, public readings, retreats, fellowships, social media), but none of those things ever made me feel less isolated, at least not for long. In fact, during the past year when I’ve written little poetry, has been one of the least isolated of my life.

In sum, I find that you can’t transcend isolation so much as you can reorient yourself within it, because of it, via poetry. I take comfort in isolation all the time, but that comfort is always touched by compromise. My panics, my dreads, my fear of pain, of death; the limits of my body and my vision; my inherent languor, my shrugging intelligence; my fear of the future, my colossal past. I can’t transcend those things. But art, poetry, shapes them, colors them anew, like a mural on an abandoned cooling tower.

To your second question: at some point while writing the book, I came across Clare’s poem “The Sand Martin,” and knew that this was the line my book would somehow exist within: “I’ve seen thee far away from all they tribe.” A few lines later—Jack, you’ll be pleased by this—the speaker says that he “felt a feeling that [he] can’t describe / of a lone seclusion and a [here it comes] hermit joy / to see thee circle round nor go beyond / that lone heath and its melancholy pond.”

But how daft and weird does this “hermit joy” seem when we learn that it derives from visions of the sand martin’s desultory, isolated circling? “We’re alone together,” Clare thinks, or maybe “You choose this behavior, as do I,” though both conclusions, even if they prompt joy, are troubling. Clare banks around and wends through the same wastes as the sand martin, in a terrible, natural solitude, but his flight is merely vicarious.

The speaker in Far Away is rather “far away from all [his] tribe”; he feels many feelings “that [he] can’t describe” but those feelings tend more toward hermit wonder and worry than joy. For him, the black cat he rescues toward the end of the book is a fellow leftover, a peer. He can touch and lift and be present with it, something wounded, something in need, but not the birds, like the raven-magicians in his backyard, because their flight/nature is so alien to him.

My other influences for this book: Frost, early Heaney, Bishop, Kevin Goodan, and formally Srikanth Reddy, Julia Story, Dan Rosenberg. But you know, I wouldn’t overstate any of those influences. I could never be those people. They’re all better writers, and the book would have been better if I could have been more like them.

I know when my own book was published, I reread it and felt a longing for the poems and lines I’d cut. This was especially because I knew I’d taken out a lot that I felt was interesting and evocative but that I couldn’t more fully articulate and/or fix—a process largely of sweeping failures and fragments under the rug, and also a few gems that went beyond what I could handle.

To me as a reader, Far Away feels complete, fully realized in both the diversity of thought and how thoughts reoccur, and in the torn-down, often perverse beauty/insights you find. I wonder, do you have still have a strong sense of an ideal Far Away beyond the actual Far Away?

My book Dreamburgh, Pennsylvania, whose composition both pre- and postdated Far Away’s, was the ultimate work in progress. I stopped changing it and editing it simply because I was allowed to—it was accepted by a press—but I could have tinkered with it till death, without either ruining it or improving it. Dreamburgh changed as I did, and included both too little and too much of me. I like it now, and look forward to seeing it in print, because of how scattered and anthological it is, whereas Far Away is tonally and thematically contained. That was and always would be a crucial element in its success, even if I had published some other, earlier version of it. The fact that the book only talks about a few things gives it a chance to succeed.

I don’t miss anything yet—anything cut or excluded, but as you suggested, that may come in time. I like how the book begins and ends, and that gives me some peace.

I want to go back to the idea of “together alone” that you mentioned earlier because I think it provides us a good opportunity to discuss the “State” poems of your book’s second section, where, compared to the speaker’s isolation in the first section, we encounter a “we.” (“We’re sick of stars…” “It’s a color we won’t / discuss.” “Some fruit we never eat…”) These poems are more public and gregarious. They’re haunting and charming at once—“State Bug” for example: “It’s good luck / not to see one … When you kill them, it’s ok / to feel good.” Maybe you could talk a little about this interlude, how you conceptualized it and placed it within the book?

I wrote these poems at the tail end of our time at St. Paul’s (we taught at a summer program there together), late July in 2013. As you remember, I was a little out of sorts—tired, hot, exhausted. The poems were a way for me to remember myself—that I write poetry, could still do it. I don’t remember a model for the poems (maybe Robyn Schiff’s finch poems; not sure) but I think I was interested in defining things, or least writing definitively, and specifically. I was insecure about a number of things (teaching, fatherhood, health), so the public we, and all of its sham authority, of the poems was an ironic antidote to my insecurities.

The “State” poems don’t document personal failings; they symbolically monumentalize and mythologize state failure through the voice of a kind of mordant regionalist, a bent partisan who merges the rhetoric of brochures and welcome centers with the rhetoric of nightmares. So maybe this is the speaker’s shadow-self talking here—his drunken, inner editorialist—or maybe it’s some disaffected local columnist speaking off the record, in night-language, to the visitor who threatens to stay.

In “State Flower,” you write: “I’d do anything / not to talk about it, / which is why I talk / about it now.” It’s one of my favorite sentences in the book because of its simultaneous illogic and truth. Which is also to say I like your idea of these poems as shadow-talk: what does a shadow do if not talk about what we don’t talk about?

Imagine me as Charlie Rose asking this: To your mind, is shadow-talk an or the essential function of poetry?

Also, this brings me, perhaps obliquely, to the concept of the necropastoral that Joyelle McSweeney defines as “a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of “nature” which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.” (I’m thinking necro and shadow are closely related in this instance.) Necropastoral seems an apt, perhaps obvious term for what you are writing in Far Away. Does a term like “necropastoral” mean much to you? Is it motivating? Is it useful? Are you aware of yourself participating in a larger artistic dialogue surrounding ecopoetics, and/or poetry of social engagement?

Shadow-talk is a fine mission for poems or poets to have; I’d say it’s an essential function of poetry. I think we’re better off not knowing or saying what the essential function of poetry should be. I don’t know what it will be like to write poems in seagull blood on the wasted bark of extinct trees somewhere near the Arctic circle one hundred years from now, but, chances are, future poets will have to figure that out for themselves. And they will have to decide what’s essential, or merely possible, for them.

Which brings me to your next question. The term necropastoral is fine but kind of flashy for me, and besides that, not altogether necessary. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, both the book and the phrase, informs my concept of nature, landscape, and the pastoral:

An idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is “nature,” the separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died.

Wallace Stevens wrote the air “is no longer air.” That’s what I’m thinking about: the end of nature, weather, air. I prefer “the end of nature” as an aesthetic/philosophical tagline. The term pastoral is sufficient for the poems. It works just as well for us—it’s a big enough word—as it did for Victorian landscape poets.

Your question about participating in a dialogue is more difficult to answer. Who’s listening to me? I don’t know. My friends and family, occasionally. Then, to what extent can I be said to participate in a larger cultural conversation? I don’t know again. My petition signatures, small donations, and letters to congressional reps are many times more important than my poems in terms of effecting change.

This conversation about environmental crisis will eventually be (if it isn’t already) the matrix for nearly all discussions about social engagement. Someday soon, every conversation will be about it. It already requires a great deal of repressive force to avoid it. It will become just short of death in terms of significance.

For the poet, this isn’t, weirdly enough, all bad. Many of our (even most conventional) images have an apocalyptic shine to them now, a grotesque importance. Our roses, trees, and oceans are much different than they were a hundred years ago. Consequently, they require a great deal of attention and description, something poets grant almost inevitably.

“Who’s listening to me? I don’t know”—this I think is our segue into section three, much of which involves collaging the ruins of houses and landscapes. Like the second section, the focus is more outward, but the voice is more similar to that of the first section. I experience it as a synthesis in which the speaker is now intent on making something of what he collects: a “glass-built dream.”

Am I right in my reading a spiritual longing into these poems? Would you consider the Notebook poems, especially, letters to the world that never wrote to you? Or, is the making that goes on here basically ironic, cynical, broken?

I suspect you’re trying to corner me into at last confessing my heretofore-unacknowledged transcendental appetites, at least as they manifest in the third section of the book, if not in the book as whole. And I’ll tell you what. I’ll admit to a permanent, ambivalent, harried spiritualism, one that’s constant but just as constantly thwarted. In the end, the poems are compensation for the divine that, as you suspect, never writes to me.

This (divine) absence is terrible, and sublime in its own right: “The world-flower has eaten thee.” It fills me with a feeling like communion, but grotesquely. It shakes me up. This is Romanticism without the fervor of glad annihilation or the tranquility of halcyon retreats. The woods scare me, and they should. They are an inventory of so many things I don’t know, so many opportunities for loss. I confess, I’m afraid that some day I will die of not knowing what I’m looking at. The “Notebook” and “Foreclosure” poems try to scratch a few things off the I-don’t-know-list. And in doing so, they enact a quest, which has a whiff of heroism to it, and implies a spiritual trajectory and project larger than the poems themselves. But the poems, I’ve noticed, almost always end in a moment of failure.

So the making is ironic without being pointless, though pointlessness always threatens. There’s little excuse for optimism. Our weather is broken. We’d “do anything not to talk about it,” which means we’re always talking about it, even when we talk about other things. I wish it weren’t so. And the scale of my wish gives the poems something like or of a spiritual dimension.

The tragedy is, thinking of the “Foreclosure” and “Notebook” poems, that we can’t make bones into a person again. Or empty houses into families at home. Or bad marriages into love. But playing with different kinds of skeletons, as I do, isn’t just some neurotic, morbid pastime. It is, as you’ve correctly noted, my own sad little kind of prayer.

***

Jack Christian is the author of the poetry collection Family System (2012 Colorado Poetry Prize/Center for Literary Publishing).

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