An Interview with Jessica Garratt

Jessica Garratt’s first book, Fire Pond, won the 2008 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, selected by poet Medbh McGuckian, and was published by the University of Utah Press in April 2009. Individual poems from the collection have appeared in theNorth American Review, Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Missouri Review, and in the forthcoming Helen Burns Poetry Anthology: New Voices from the Academy of American Poets’ University and College Prizes, 1999-2008, edited by Mark Doty.  Currently, Garratt is a doctoral candidate at The University of Missouri, where she teaches literature and creative writing, and holds a Creative Writing Fellowship.  She has also received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, and from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of  Texas at Austin, where she earned her MFA.  — Ruth Joynton, Nonfiction Editor

SR: Order is an essential process in building any poetry collection, and you’ve done a fantastic job of arranging the poems in Fire Pond. How do you decide which poems go where?

Garratt: Well, initially, I was lucky to have the help of a friend or two who had a very good sense of this sort of thing.  So when I was first putting the manuscript together and feeling like I had a jumble of discrete poems, it was great to have that help – that removed eye.  Once the general “arc” was established, I kept messing around with the order more locally for about a year (and might have continued to, had the book not been taken).  Each time you read through your own work, or someone else’s for that matter, it’s possible to notice new resonances or slant congruencies that seem to want a bit of room on the stage.

SR: In terms of form, you’re open: Fire Pond has small poems and poems that go on for pages, sonnets, longer lines and shorter lines, lots of white space here, but none there.  This is interesting to me because most poets seem to work in only a few forms.  When writing something new, does the form show itself or do you consciously set limits for the poem?

Garratt: Part of what you mention is I’m sure due to the fact that this is my first book, and about seven years separates the oldest poem from the newest poem included in Fire Pond.  So I was trying out many different forms.  The longer, more discursive poems that navigate between more than one subject were, for the most part, the ones written more recently.  That seems to be the direction I’ve been heading in the last four years or so.  And in some ways, the sonnet sequence “Fire Pond” was the hinge between the shorter lyrics and the longer mediations.  It is also the only poem written under premeditated formal constraints, and the reason for trying it out was partly that I was in the quiet woods of NH doing a writing residency, and needed a ‘project’ to hang my mind on.  So one fruitful constraint led to the other, in a way.  The more meandering form and line of the longer poems find themselves in the writing.

SR: Do you write every day? What is the best time for your writing?

Garratt: No, I’m definitely not a write-every-day-er.  Routines work well for many, many writers, of course, but I always end up feeling like I’m slowly letting the air out of a balloon when I try to enforce a regular schedule – as though the urgency weren’t being allowed to build up.  Time of day is also not crucial to me, though I’ve never been much of a night-writer.  I tend to write in the late morning or in that long no-man’s-land stretch of the afternoon.  There’s something luxurious and rebellious-feeling about working on a poem during that stretch, when there are so many other things that “should” be getting done.  As though there’s an atmosphere of business and tasks out there, pressing at the windows, and to look away and duck into a different atmosphere feels giddy.

SR: “Things said (me & others, dreams & waking, yesterday & years ago): An Exorcism” is one of my favorite poems in Fire Pond. In the book, there’s a considerable amount of frustrated uncertainty, but your work is often light-hearted.  Many poets are afraid of this: being funny.   What would you say to them to encourage them otherwise?

Garratt: Well, the “frustrated uncertainty” you mention comes, I think, from the feeling that there’s a loose connection or two between one’s self and the world.  And isn’t that also where a lot of humor comes from?  The ambiguities of language and other signals, misinterpretations, weird superstitions, the fact that we’re limited to one set of eyes our whole life, the foolish hurling of one’s self (over and over) at a world that often (it seems) could care less!  Frustrated uncertainty and underdog humor seem like sides of the same coin to me.  I also think shifts in tone feel like an important and natural part of poems.  Within a single poem, and across poems.  But ultimately, I really do think people should write from their own sensibility – should trust and be kind to themselves in that way – so long as there is also the balancing itch to challenge oneself.

SR: Images of water are everywhere in Fire Pond, exceeding the title poem’s setting to become a theme of the book.   Why do you think this is?  What is it about water that fascinates you?

Garratt: Yes, eventually I noticed this too, but I’m not sure I did till after the poems were collected in manuscript form.  I remember when I was waiting tables one summer, a fellow waiter was doing acupuncture school during the day and he’d recently been learning to experience a person’s “dominant elements.”  He wanted to practice, and of course I was in…  He sat with me, observed me, my gestures, and asked me to speak naturally about something for a few minutes (as rhythms of speech are part of this, apparently).  Then he told me I was about one part fire, two parts water.  I’d already written the “Fire Pond” sequence at that point, and thought, huh

SR: You have one poet’s work to snag off your shelf before catching a flight to ___________ for vacation.  Who do you choose and why?

Garratt: I sort of love that moment before a trip, standing in front of different bookcases, scanning the shelves to figure out which books will travel best on this particular trip.  I choose on whims, and never, ever take just one… so that’s hard to answer.  But here are some that have recently joined me: Brenda Hillman’s Bright Existence & Death Tractates; Wallace Stevens; Laura Kasischke’s Gardening in the Dark; Jorie Graham’s The Region of Unlikeness; Larry Levis’s Selected; Rilke’s Duino Elegies; Dickinson.  I think I tend to pick poets whose voices seem to expand and expand, in many directions—that are uncontainable.  These are the ones I crave on the verge of a trip.