Michael McGriff is an author, editor, and translator. He was born and raised in Coos Bay, Oregon, and studied creative writing at the University of Oregon, The Michener Center for Writers, and Stanford University. He is the co-author, with J. M. Tyree, of the linked story collection Our Secret Life in the Movies, which was selected as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014. His poetry collections include Eternal Sentences, Early Hour, Black Postcards, Home Burial, and Dismantling the Hills. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Poetry, Bookforum, The Believer, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Poetry London, and on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday and PBS NewsHour. His latest collection, Eternal Sentences, was selected by Billy Collins as the winner of the 2021 Miller Williams Poetry Prize.
NM: Let’s get straight down to business - new book coming out in a few weeks - can you say a little bit about it or how it came to be?
MM: This is a different kind of book for me: all the poems are short and each line is a single sentence. I'd come to a point of being more than a little tired of my recent work, which tends toward the dense and dreamy and tortuous. Like all the writers, I gaze longingly over the fence and yearn for the poems I can't write. In this case, the desire was to write a stripped-down, short, understated poem that wasn't afraid to retain a spirit of mystery. Yannis Ritsos is one of my heroes. He's been heckling me from the bookshelf for twenty years, challenging me to stop hiding behind pyrotechnics and a certain kind or ornamental poetics. But why the line as a single sentence? The answer is pretty unromantic--I was reading Larry Brown. In his story "Boy and Dog" from Facing the Music, each paragraph comprises a single, short sentence. It looks like a skinny poem on the page, yet it's an utterly devastating and direct work of fiction. Facing the Music is Brown's first book, and it shines with the swagger, experimentation, and "fuck-it" attitude that tends to make early works so alive and unapologetic. It hides behind nothing and says everything. It looks its drama square in the eye and says it like it is. I took it as a challenge to try to translate that formal element--and that spirit of writing--into a poem. I suppose at the back of it all is the social media zeitgeist, where language is corrupted into a system of yes or no, like or dislike, praise or kill. It's a system that rewards grandstanding and violence and the weaponization of the very building blocks of poetry. It's far too romantic and stupid to say that Eternal Sentences is a kind of reclamation project. But it's also true that the age we're in is deeply cynical and dangerous--even the poets and democracy advocates have signed up to abuse one another in the public popularity contests our cultures have become. When I was writing this book, I decidedly took my dearest subjects and tried to give them the clearest language: poverty, violence, class, family, and the post-industrial, rural American landscape of my childhood. I wanted to be honest, direct, and unadorned. What's also true is that this was never "a book I was working on." Rather, this collection represents more of a laboratory experiment. I didn't send this work out to journals. I didn't share the poems with trusted poetry friends. I wrote them for an audience of one, really. I'm also growing dreadfully bored of talking about myself. Like all writers, I bumble along in the dark and hope something sticks. This book is carnival mirror for who I was during the time I wrote it.
NM: I wrote a review of Early Hour on this blog and implied that your physical surroundings are one of your biggest muses. Was I right? Or does the muse evolve with experience/time/kids/financial hardship/ etc.?
MM: The poet Alexandra Teague asked me recently what my current book project is about and I said something like: "Ya know, same-o same-o: family river horse dream landscape simile crow." That pretty much sums it up. I'm entirely moored to place (rural Oregon). As it happens, that place is an American logging town on the other side of its economic heyday. I grew up in the woods. I lived there for the first 20 years of my life. We were poor, though I never felt that way. We lived in a house. We lived on land that has been in my family for generations. I felt like an insider--I was another face with a known last name that belonged to an industry. All my memories--those mythic, important memories from childhood--belong there. All of my mother and father's memories belong there...and so on and so on, back through the family tree. It's likely why I'm drawn to the poems of Ted Hughes and C.D. Wright and Larry Levis and Charles Wright; they write through the personal and into the mythic. My myths include the landscape itself. It's why I'm so drawn to figuration. I'll spend the rest of my days strumming up similes for the gray light that hangs over those waters and logging ridges.
NM: I’ve always thought - and I’m sure many people have thought this - if you’re going to be an actor you need to live in LA, a musician in New York, an artist in Berlin... what about a poet? For one year, where would you base yourself if you could?
MM: Assuming I had a vaccine in my arm and Euros to burn, I'd happily fly to you! Vienna! I could drink that coffee and traipse around there forever (or for a year). No matter where I've been I've only ever written about my childhood landscapes. Like everyone in lockdown, I've filled a good portion of my days wishing I were elsewhere and in a different time.
NM: Ha! You´re not alone there! This lockdown has definitely seen our imaginations wander a bit more. In terms of wandering and the new book - are you normally one to do a reading tour to promote it? Given the current situation - what’s the plan?
MM: Nah. I'm likely a publisher's nightmare. I don't promote my work or give many readings. It may turn out that the pandemic will look like any other year for me, in terms of my getting out there with a new book. I'm fairly private and quiet, these days.
NM: If you could superimpose your name onto the cover of one book as the author - which book would you choose and why?
MM: Well, if you're asking about book design, please slap my name on the cover of ANY Penguin or New Directions book from the 60s or 70s. If you're asking about a book I wished I could have written, that would likely have to be Larry Levis's The Dollmaker's Ghost. Or Malena Mörling's Ocean Avenue or Frank Stanford's The Singing Knives or...