When Carol Novack, publisher and editor of the edgy on-line literary magazine Mad Hatters’ Review, asked if I would review a new book of poetry by a writer named Michael Graves, I was expecting free verse, something crazy and narrative like much of the work I read on her site. I was surprised when the book I got in the mail was (what I have come to consider) academic in style — a style that often leaves me lost, losing interest and running for my dictionary. In Adam and Cain, Graves uses the original story of sibling rivalry, and turns it into a morality tale that transcends its biblical origins. Using a series of nine long poems, Graves tells his version of this story. Here are part #1 and #2 from the fourth poem in this collection, “Cain to Adam”:
“#1 / At first, / There was one, / Adam, the Master, / Unrivalled. / Now, / There are brothers / Who envy their father, / But tremble to show it, / It is not so, / Abel, my brother, / You, whose face I see / When I look for my own / in the still waters of dream? // #2 / I would do anything / To quiet the voice / That argues within. / The unceasing voice / That drives me to fight / With arrogant Adam — / That tyrant! / And rages and quails / At the peacekeeping gestures and words / Of smooth, solicitous Eve! // O, brother, blest is your peace!”
While I have written more than 100 poetry-book reviews, I don't have an MFA degree. I wondered if I was qualified to review a collection of poems as erudite as this one. Everything I know about poetry has been through my own reading, living in the small press and talking with (mostly) non-academically trained poets. Maybe I not a fan of formal poetry out ignorance, but I just don't find it accessible. I think this issue of accessibility is at the core of the debate I often see in the small press between academically trained poets and non-academically trained poets. Some, in the non-academic small press would say poets like Graves have lost contact with the people and common expression; and some in the academic press would say the work of non-academic small press poets is not informed through study, and has not progressed.
So what was I supposed to do? Toss this book or deal with it? I knew certain poetry circles find Michael Graves’ work to be exceptional, and this made me curious enough to ask Graves if he would help me understand why I should care about his work. He graciously agreed to do so.
: You are an academically trained writer; how does this training color or influence your writing?
: I am an academically trained writer, but one of the academics who trained me, James Wright, was a translator of, and deeply influenced by, 20th century Spanish language poets such as Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, to mention only two. He also translated Georg Trakl, an important early 20th century Viennese poet, among other German writers. Wright's association with Robert Bly is well-known, so I think I don't need to go into it here. The brilliant Joycean Leonard Albert who arranged my introduction to Wright frequently encouraged me to be sure to read “juicy” work not included in the canon.
I think academic should be divided into at least two categories — the academic which honors and celebrates the archetypal, the universal, that approaches its subject rigorously, but humbly, say Socratically, with a genuine sense that basic assumptions and truths might be true but must be tested, explored, presented, etc., over and over; and, second, the dead arrogant, prescriptive-only academic. The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life. The arrogant academic would be that which honored only the canon of DWEMs — Dead White European Males, with only token exceptions, and it would assume it always had the final say as to what was worth reading and why. Dictionaries and those who work on them recognize the reality that language is a living thing and that words and meanings and usages phrases enter languages and become accepted, so why shouldn't academics recognize that poems come into being and gain and deserve recognition, even if they compete with canonical works for attention.
: Adam and Cain is your first full collection of poems; have you done chaps? How come so few books of poetry?
: I have a chapbook, Outside St. Jude’s (REM Press, 1990) from an extremely small press that a friend, Remington Murphy, published for awhile. It’s been reissued as an e-book by Ram Devineni, who publishes Rattapallax. It’s available by going to the Rattapallax site and as a PDF. I also have a chapbook Illegal Border Crosser forthcoming from Gloria Mindock's Cervena Barva Press.
I have about another five to six hundred good or better than good poems on a wide range of subjects. I have one manuscript ready to mail out and the rest are waiting for me to find the time and energy to finish organizing into manuscripts. That work was interrupted by my mother's death in March 2006. Gloria Mindock is interested in publishing a full-length collection. Last but not least, this is an opportunity for a good publisher to get some of my work while it’s still available!
: Do you rewrite your poems extensively?
: Though I rewrite some poems extensively, in general, the answer is no, but they have long gestation periods. Some are looked at over many years, five, ten, fifteen until I know what to do. They are often not finished when they come, but they are often close. I jot notes for poems all the time. And I have long stretches when I’m thinking about writing on and off all day long. I suppose I’m obsessive and don’t mind thinking about trying to transform my life, especially my inner life, into poetry. However, I know that writers can be extremely unreliable commentators on their own creative processes, like a narrator in a novel.
: In your Cervena Barva Press interview you say, “The book [Adam and Cain] was written slowly over many years. The initial impulse came to be during Leonard Albert’s course, Religious Ideas in Modern Fiction, and I think the style of the poems might be indebted to Auerbach’s discussion of Biblical style in Minesis.” You also say, it was written in a “non-discursive in a high modernist manner.” What is Minesis? What is a non-discursive in a high modernist manner?
: I started the book with the short story “Cain in Exile,” originally titled “Cain” and written for Leonard Albert's course in the short story, probably sometime in 1976-77. I finished the book in 2005. So, the book took about thirty years to complete. Mimesis is the transliteration of Aristotle’s word for imitation. He writes that art imitates life; mimesis is the representation of life. After that, it gets complicated: we could probably say that any poem or work of fiction imitates life. I think it becomes a question of by what means, in what style, what degree of success, what truth?
By non-discursive high modernist manner I mean that the transitions are left out between the poems and that the reader must think about the relationship of the parts without help from the writer. Also, the reader is not told how to interpret the work. For example, he is not told Adam inflicts a psychic wound on Cain. The rationale is the writer need not tell the obvious to the reader and that the reader gets more pleasure out of participating in the creation of the text, and that the impact of what he gets is more powerful and profound, and that it is modern in a deep sense to give the reader the freedom to determine for himself.
: What audience did you have in mind when you wrote Adam and Cain? Will my neighbors who shop at the Pic’n Save down the street enjoy this book?
: Everybody who’s interested in poetry. Everybody who doesn’t say “I hate Biblical themes on principle.” Everybody who doesn’t say there must be no difficulty in poetry. Everybody who doesn’t say the Bible is the final word and no one can add to or subtract from it. Anybody who hears the music in the poems and imagines the human situation will feel their power. I have already had a wide range of readers buy or praise this book, readers without college degrees, from various ethnic groups, people from various walks of life.
: A few of your metaphors in Adam and Cain were meaningless to me because I am not a biblical scholar; so in a sense these metaphors have not deepened my appreciation of your work, but obscured it. Maybe as we read widely, travel, think, experience life with growing awareness and evolve, our art reflects this insight and complexity of thought that come with our personal and creative growth. For example, we may use metaphors that are common to us, but uncommon to most people. I recently read a New York Times Book Review interview with a noted poetry critic who said she didn’t review poetry collections from writers born after 1950 because she felt so out of touch with some of the cultural images they were using (cartoon characters, TV shows, cultural events, movies etc) — images that were very clear to them, but not clear to her.
: Absolutely, there are books I could not do justice to. For one example, I find Allen Mandelbaum’s The Maxioms of Chelm beyond me, I have not found the time and energy to look up the terms I don’t know, though I have spent some time looking for critical articles on it, but I love its music. Though I like to think one could sense/perceive that something is interesting, worthwhile, etc., even if one’s grasp of it were limited.
: Do you feel elevated or formal language, such as you use in Adam and Cain, loses its audience because it is difficult to grasp?
: No. My most important audience is composed of people who can enter and/or accept the book. In one sense, the audience by definition is the people who read the book. I’m not writing for people who won’t look a word up when necessary. I suppose it’s fair to call the language elevated, but I think the better term, which you mention, is formal. It carries no negative or satiric connotations. And there are plenty of poems in the collection that are made of easily understood mono or disyllabic words only.
: You wanted Adam and Cain to be read; yet your writing style will not be accessible to most people. Why publish it?
: I’m not worried about being a best-seller and I’m not sure my work won’t reach a wide audience. Nonetheless, I am aware that it is quite possible that it won’t. Perhaps this comparison would be helpful: getting to really know someone takes time and effort. Even though there is a place for connections that are immediate and wonderful, all too often, when we connect immediately and “completely” we are sorry later. Most of us would agree that long-term relationships need investments of time, energy, willingness, open-mindedness, dialogue, etc., and we are very used to saying reading a book is a conversation. In addition, I think that Adam and Cain has qualities that a reader could connect with immediately. Sir Philip Sidney settled for, “Fit audience though few.” I want as many fit audience members as possible, and I think a lot of them are out there. Whether or not I’ll reach them…
: What attracted you to this morality tale?
: I think the key moment came in Leonard Albert’s class “Religious Ideas in Fiction or The Bible as Literature” when he pointed out that God gave no reason for His rejection of Cain's gift in the King James Bible. To paraphrase, I thought something like “What an amazing thing.” I didn’t have these words but it pointed to God’s nature as Manichean and suggested Gnostic perspectives on Biblical texts were possible. I think there was also something deeply rebellious in me. I had already shown some of my writing to Professor Albert and he had voiced the opinion that I had an argument with God, very unMiltonic I suppose! And I had already discovered my conflicted anger, which might be too mild an expression, at my parents.
: In the same Cervena Barva Press interview you say James Joyce is a big influence of yours. The American writer Max Eastman once asked Joyce why Finnegan's Wake was written in a very difficult style and Joyce replied, “To keep critic busy for three hundred years.” Some critics considered this book a masterpiece, though many readers found it incomprehensible. I guess you don’t find Joyce incomprehensible? How come I do?
: I’m willing to read a lot of Joyce criticism and join Joyce reading groups.
: Fair enough, but tell me why you love James Joyce and how has he influenced your writing?
: Joyce was one of the very first writers I was exposed to after I returned to school and he represented the triumph of the artist over repression. The first of his works that made a major impact on me was Dubliners. Central to Joyce’s purpose in that collection of stories was the revelation to both the reader and the characters that the characters were trapped and paralyzed in a living death, although the naturalistic surface of stories remained undisturbed. I encountered those stories at a messianic phase in my life and they filled me with enthusiasm.
I have spent many years misreading Joyce in important ways and unable to penetrate much of his work, especially Finnegan’s Wake, but what was accessible to me was so immediately rewarding, so full of beauty, human importance, respect for art, intellectual interest and excellence, I have been willing to persist in my attempt to read him. It is said of Joyce that one only rereads him. His work has inspired me to explore the sexual content of religious symbols and images, to strive to make theme/form and content inseparable, to explore indeterminacy in narrative sequences, to charge writing with as much meaning as possible.
: Let’s talk about whether or not poetry can not be formal. I believe this term (form) is most often used when referring to academics that choose to write within various forms (sonatas etc). Yes, narrative poetry is a form; but for the most part narrative poetry, of the sort I find throughout the small press and enjoy, does not obscure.
: There is no necessary opposition between form and clarity. It could be argued that form is a clarity that emerges from the flux or obscurity of experience or that form is the underlying structure or can be. The sonnet, for example, is based on the statement of a situation or problem in the first eight lines, which reaches its fullest tension about the eighth line and the comment or resolution in the last six. It is a form that is true to the mind’s perception of experience: problem and solution. It is true that some forms, such as the sestina, if followed rigorously, are complicated and difficult. But even so, the content in a form need not be obscure; need not be filled with arcane or specialized facts or allusions. Narratives have formal elements, as I assume you agree — plot, protagonists, narrators, conflicts, symbols, irony, setting, situation, rising action, climax, resolution, images. I think the question is always whether or not they are well used.
: It feels like our poetry worlds are, indeed, worlds apart. Do your students at New York City Technical College relate to your poetry?
: Surprisingly, yes, some of the students do relate to my poems. I read them a selection from Adam and Cain and my other work. Of course, some of them have little interest in English and little if any of the course content seems to reach them. It’s not appropriate to read them many of my poems or spend a lot of time on them. I teach remedial writing and freshman composition. And City Tech students are not succeeding at passing the CPE, the Competency Proficiency Exam, so there is great concern to get them ready for the final exam. I think that teaching poetry could be one way to try to get them enthusiastic about language, but our curriculum doesn’t really include that as much of an option. Our freshman composition course has a required text and there is only one poem in it, but I take a little time near the end of semester to give the students a sense of who I am as a writer, and some of them feel the emotion the poems generate and give — I can't find the words — grunts, wows, gasps. Not a whole lot of them, but some. This semester I had a student ask to purchase the book. I asked him to contact me after the semester ended, that is, after final grades went in. Though he asked twice, I haven’t heard from him, so he might have been hoping to influence his grade.
: How old are you? What do you do for a living? Are you married? Do you have children?
: I’m 55. I work as an adjunct instructor (technically, I believe the term is lecturer) for the City University of New York and a reader for a faculty member at New Jersey City University with weak eyes. I’m single and don’t have any children. I still have fantasies, but I’m getting old…
: We are both getting old, but (I pray) immeasurably wiser. Thank you for widening both my vocabulary and my mind with regard formal poetry and narrowing the great divide between academic and non-academic poets.
Graves’ earlier comment that “long-term relationships need investments of time, energy, willingness, open-mindedness and dialogue” has timeless truth to it. How many times have I been surprised to become close with someone who after a first and second meeting I feel no connection with? Yet over time something begins to happen; we begin to be aware of something deeper. Through the process of preparing this review I have had to look deeper, think deeper and read again. Adam and Cain was no fast dance, but I got through it. It was hard work, and I will read it again. After all, we’ve become friends.