“Against the Language of Grief”
—an interview with Rachel Eliza Griffiths
by Amy Suzanne Parker
In her work, Rachel Eliza Griffiths enters the personae of literary characters, engages with other works of art and, in her new collection Seeing the Body, she discusses personal and national grief. Many of the poems are about her late mother, including the collection’s title poem and “Comedy”: “This is my new mother who has finally admitted fear/into the raw ward of her heart,” Griffiths writes. Her work also focuses on the joys and griefs of being Black in America. In “Myth,” she writes: “America shot Mike Brown/& I can’t be sorry anymore/because I’m too angry, too tired,/too alive/to let their good myth put its hands/on me & mine.” Grief is more than sorrow—there is anger, of course, and sometimes, as with Griffiths, transformation. The speakers of her poems don’t wallow or fall into the traps of grief but rather explore the intensity and complexity of mourning, revealing new insights into what Griffiths calls “the human condition” and finding joy in a celebration of life.
Griffiths is also a photographer, and the middle section of Seeing the Body, “daughter: lyric: landscape,” is composed of self-portraits that show her in different landscapes, including a photograph where Griffiths is jumping in front of an American flag in an abandoned town—an image used for the cover of Black Lives Matter co-creator Alicia Garza’s recent book. In her author’s note, Griffiths writes that the photos “function as a map of the self and of the greater world in which I am both visualized and invisible, as a symptom of grief and identity.” Her use of light and shadow and the juxtaposition of objects and landscapes demonstrate her ability to create poetry via photography.
As part of a class visit with students at Binghamton University, Griffiths read her work and graciously agreed to answer some questions for Harpur Palate. We discussed grieving the deaths of our mothers, persona poems, and her newest work, a novel. Here is our exchange:
Amy Parker (AP): I’d like to start off with joy, something that you’ve mentioned is key in your work. Where do you find joy these days, during the pandemic?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths (REG): At this point, it’s a by-any-means-necessary situation. There are some things that I always appreciate—conversations with friends (filled with laughter and tears), rubbing my dog’s belly, reading so many amazing new books (when I can focus), and self-care. Self-care is walking, yoga, naps-on-naps-on-naps, baths, donating to Black-owned organizations whose missions support Black Lives, taking social media breaks, and lots of breathing. Also, warm brownies.
AP: You often incorporate other works of literature, art, and music into your poetry, especially in your collection Mule & Pear. What was the writing process like for this collection in particular?
REG: Mule & Pear was published nearly ten years ago. I think the book was more a symptom of my respect and need, as a writer, to focus on my identity as a reader. The poems arrived in the way that reading can often happen—the mind is holding so many stories and questioning the truth that lingers and crystallizes through how those stories live and manifest in my decisions and opinions about my life at the moment. Then the re-reading of certain stories across the years and the effect of those voices on me grew as I matured. In Mule & Pear, I wanted to create a space that was both distilling and expansive, a space that gathered all the immeasurably, complicated interior fragments of Black women’s voices. There are so many women in those books, written by Black women writers, which raised me as much as my own biological mother had raised me. There were experiences, questions, ideas, and styles that were both familiar and startling to me. Mule & Pear allowed me to map my love and gratitude for those fictional characters and their truths, as well as the authors who risked and dared to imagine, to live, and to channel that energy.
AP: I’m interested in your persona poems. When entering this kind of poem, what do you think is the poet’s responsibility to the original voice?
REG: I think the poem must be inseparable from the persona. There has to be something mutually intimate in the persona and the poet. Otherwise the poet is in danger of being a ventriloquist. Every persona poem in Mule & Pear has a germ of my identity inside of it. Taking that risk pushes the form to a kind of reckoning that can be as truthful as the poet’s own voice and lived experiences. If I think about Mule & Pear again, I remember one clear thing, which was that I wasn’t going to be reckless with these characters. First of all, they didn’t belong to me, even though I’m possessive of them now. I mean, even the characters I didn’t particularly always like—I had to work even harder to listen to them. Second, the thought of mishandling any of Toni Morrison’s characters literally makes me ill. Thank goodness she loved the book.
AP: I was immediately struck by your latest collection, Seeing the Body, as I lost my mother last year. In “Work,” you write: “I don’t know what my work is anymore/except that the pressure of her fingertips appears in me like grammar./How can I avoid embalming her twice by alphabet?” I love these lines—I feel them. What was your biggest worry in writing about your mother’s death? How did grief affect your writing process?
REG: When someone, especially a parent, dies, it is an act of resistance to hold that person in memory as he/she/they are, and not what the grief might do to comfort or soothe you. In the fangs of grief it can be easy to empty someone’s life so that we can live without them. I understand that impulse but am relieved that it was not my impulse. For example, in Seeing the Body, I never write persona poems in my mother’s voice. That didn’t feel fair, to occupy her body and emotions, and it was something I wasn’t interested in doing. Those would have been awful poems. Because I wanted to think of my mother’s life as an arc, it also meant that I needed to include my celebration of her life. I had to allow her the dignity of being who she actually was versus molding her against the language of grief and, sometimes, the narcissism that can sometimes appear in grief.
You think you are alone in your grief and that your grief is supreme, above anyone else’s. But that isn’t true no matter how you feel. In fact, it is braver, to me anyway, to allow yourself to feel connected to the human condition because of what you have lost. Seeing the Body was also about my own transformation—what I gained, how I opened, what I let go, what I gave away, and how some of these things, and much more, freed me.
AP: For Seeing the Body, you include a section of self-portraits titled “daughter: lyric: landscape.” What made you turn toward self-portraiture for this project?
REG: I was already making these self-portraits in Mississippi before I even began to think of the book, before my mother died.
So some of the images of me in Seeing the Body are of a woman who is oblivious to what is coming. After my mother’s death, it took some time but I returned to the camera and made self-portraits because I hated the idea of writing dead-mother poems. The whole process was anguishing to me. It was non-linear. My images and language bled together into one wound. Including the photographs was the last part of the project. I didn’t want them in the book because it felt frightening to finally join these selves of language and image in a book. The idea of people looking at my body (because I had placed it inside of the book) freaked me out. Then it felt impossible for it not to be this way. It had to be this way.
AP: For these photos, you traveled to Mississippi, Florida, New Mexico, and upstate New York. What about these specific places appealed to you?
REG: The images in Florida, New Mexico, and upstate New York were all created after my mother’s death. Honestly, nothing appealed to me. The images created in Mississippi are a range of images created before my mother’s death in 2014 and then I returned again to the south in 2015 to retrace where I had been before. Out of all of the landscapes, Mississippi is the only deliberate geography. The others were simply because of work or opportunities that I was given during this time.
AP: In the last part of Seeing the Body, you address the police’s shooting of Michael Brown, and all across your work, you speak to the grief of Black bodies. What do you think is the role of the artist in the Black Lives Matter movement?
REG: For me it isn’t “the role”—I resist any monolithic assignment of role, especially related to art, in relationship to the movement. The non-question for me is the expectation. This expectation of our labor, our educations, and the tired, easy notion that Black artists must privilege grief, violence, and the white gaze in our work is another type of racism. Another violence intended to poach our imaginations and visions. It’s foolish and dangerous to say anything about a movement that is so fluid right now. There’s so much more work ahead that it’s too soon, for me at least, to begin to summarize what’s happened thus far.
In Seeing the Body, the police shooting of Michael Brown took place seven days after my mother died. It sickened me. I was in such a private place of grief. Then I am forced to watch our public and this country’s greed and life-blood—the continuous imagery of dead Black people. In this instance, a Black mother’s Black son lying facedown in the middle of the street, uncovered and shot, for four hours. It broke something in me—hope, maybe. The gloating of law enforcement and white supremacists, as well as the whites who will say they are different, the lack of humanity for Black Lives is the real corpse, the one we can barely stand because this country has internalized it across individuals and institutions everywhere.
AP: Which contemporary poets have you learned the most from?
REG: There are many communities to which I belong and for whom I feel thankful. As much as my “learning” may be centered on their writing, my learning also tends to include action—what actions those individuals and communities are doing to hold space, to pull others up. The idea of “learning” is a vast work-in-progress. Contemporary poets have taught me how to laugh, how to stunt, how to forgive, how to say ‘yes’ or ‘hell no’ or ‘what if’ or ‘why’—there are all sorts of micro and macro moments of vulnerability and power that contemporary poets share with the world. I’m thankful to be making work in our time, it’s a gift to walk, dance, live, read, imagine, and be amongst these fierce voices.
AP: You did a video series for the Academy of American Poets called P.O.P (Poets on Poetry) several years ago. In these videos, a poet reads a poem by another poet that has inspired them, and then the poet reads one of their poems in response. If you were the subject of P.O.P, which poems would you read?
REG: Years ago, I thought I would do a P.O.P video but then it made me feel too sad (and also anxious because I don’t like videos of myself). I’m trying to remember what I’d chosen but I can’t. Maybe I’d read something by Lucille Clifton or Natalie Diaz.
AP: Finally, I heard that you recently finished writing a novel! Congratulations! For your M.F.A., you specialized in fiction. How do you determine which genre or medium to use for a piece?
REG: Thank you! So, I try to be as open as possible before making a decision about medium. I listen to the energy of the work. I’m patient before rushing into a decision. Even if I decide on a medium, I’ve also become comfortable with changing my mind. I like to experiment, to play, so I may have an idea and I’ll see what it feels like if I explore multiple mediums before settling into a form. Some ideas, when they arrive, are deliberate. Organically, I usually know which form would suit and amplify the material. Even then I’m willing to accept that I’m wrong (and that’s an inadequate word). My novel, however, is not something that needed much deliberating when I began it years ago. However, I’ve made photographs that I’ve sometimes titled Novel or Essay or Poem. It’s up to the audience to think and to feel how all of this is happening in the work. I always want to guide the audience toward an experience that can go beyond my own intentions.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet, writer, and visual artist. She is the author of five collections of poetry: Miracle Arrhythmia, The Requited Distance, Mule & Pear, Lighting the Shadow, and her latest, released in June, Seeing the Body. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Guernica, The Writer’s Chronicle, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Best American Poetry 2020, Harpur Palate, and in many other publications. She lives in New York.
Amy Suzanne Parker is a Creative Nonfiction Co-editor at Harpur Palate and a Ph.D. student in Binghamton University’s English and Creative Writing program. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in DIAGRAM, Pithead Chapel, Hobart, Entropy, Witch Craft Magazine, Oregon East, Burrow Press Review, and elsewhere. Originally from the Tampa Bay Area, she loves a good storm.