Working Class Poet Finds A Seat At The Table
"When I heard back from the Tranströmers over a year or two later, one of the things that Monica was telling me was, 'Tomas was just so taken by the fact that you’re a working class guy.' And you know, no one’s ever thinking 'This’ll get me a seat at the table for a famous European poet: telling him that my dad’s a logger.' But I think it’s germane to my relationship to his work: he’s a working class guy raised by a single mother and he walked through the sub-zero streets of Stockholm every day to go to work. So I think putting your real foot forward is different than putting your best foot forward, and I think that’s how I made my connection with Tomas and his family. " -- Michael McGriff
Poet Michael McGriff discusses his connection to Tomas Tranströmer as well as his latest book, "Early Hour," on this episode of The Write Question.
The following highlights are from a conversation with Michael McGriff about his book, Early Hour. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: This book has been described as an “Ode to Eros” or a meditation on desire, and there are several potent scenes in the book. I’m wondering what it was like for you to write your way through those?
Michael McGriff: This is a great question. Potent, I think is another word for—“there’s some sex in the book!”—and there’s quite a bit of it actually. I’ve never written poems with any explicit investigation of the sensual or sexual body before so this is new territory for me as a writer. Another way this is different is my first two collections were largely about place geography, class, and a particular logging town—the one that I grew up in in Southern Oregon—so in many ways this book is devoid of my family members, or family members as archetype, and what this book has is the direct address from one lover to another, one adult to another.
Which I think is really hard to do in poetry and not have it sound cliché.
Well yeah I think this is true for any poem. If you do a good job at it, it’s going to be pretty great and if you don’t, it’s going to be a total pastiche of the thing you set out to do.
Thinking again about your home, what’s your relationship to your home now?
Probably the same as it’s always been. It’s where I’m from, it’s where—even in this new collection—for lack of a better term, it’s where the book is set. It’s where the images come from anyway, I don’t think the book is really set anywhere but it’s where all the images come from. It’s the thing I always turn back to in anything I’m writing. And I think that’s largely due in part because it’s the place that I lived for the first 21 years of my life. My family all still lives there. We’re a multi-generational logging family and we live on the same bit of land and we live on the same bit of land we’ve lived on for many generations. So it’s deeply connected to it in more ways than just artistically.
It’s interesting because even though there’s this backdrop of this European painting, there are lug nuts, ditches, drive shifts and gears, and suicide knobs.
Yeah, you know, this speaks to your last question about this book seeming different. And you had mentioned in an interview I gave that “Home Burial” was the first time I felt like I was writing for an audience of one, being myself. And I think the spirit of that sentiment is that I am allowing everything to come in to one artistic space. So, I’m totally obsessed with the Spanish language surrealists like Neruda, I love European poets like Tomas Tranströmer, I’m obsessed with Richard Hugo and his obsession with the landscape, and I like all those things to be on the same plate, in my reading life and in my writing life. So I think that’s how this idea of a European painting and some lug nuts can end up in the same poem.
And it was actually his Tomas Tranströmer’s wife, Monica, who accepted the [Nobel] Prize on his behalf. I want to read this quote and see what you think as a translator. She’s addressing translation, she says:
“Your motivation is your curiosity and commitment. It should be called love - the only realistic basis for translating poetry.” – Monica Tranströmer
This is the only reason I became one of his translators, I think. I didn’t know any better when I tried to get in touch with him. Had I been a little older and not a bumbling graduate student I never would have tried to be in touch with someone so famous and bothered. You know everyone’s trying to be in touch with him. He’s the most translated poet in the world outside of Neruda. But I loved his work, and I thought “Well, I should be in touch! Obviously! That makes sense to me.” I wrote him this very long letter that found its way to him, through Robert Hass. That I had no idea about, I never knew it was passed along. In it, I was just describing Tomas’s poetry and what it meant to me, and one of the things I said was “Well I am from a place haunted by all these waterways and sloughs and inlets and the ocean and creeks and all these things and you know, I’m not from an island, but these different kinds of water are something that really haunts me,” and I went on to say, “I’m a working class guy and my family are loggers and diesel mechanics and whatnot and everyone I know is tied to the landscape both spiritually and sort of against their will.”
When I heard back from the Tranströmers over a year or two later, one of the things that Monica was telling me was, "Tomas was just so taken by the fact that you’re a working class guy." And you know, no one’s ever thinking "This’ll get me a seat at the table for a famous European poet: telling him that my dad’s a logger." But I think it’s germane to my relationship to his work: he’s a working class guy raised by a single mother and he walked through the sub-zero streets of Stockholm every day to go to work. So I think putting your real foot forward is different than putting your best foot forward, and I think that’s how I made my connection with Tomas and his family.
About the Book:
"Early Hour" is a book-length sequence inspired by German Expressionist Karl Hofer's 1935 painting (Frühe, Stunde) of the same name. Between two bodies, a wild, surreal, and at times erotic landscape blooms – even as it is fractured. Michael McGriff's sustained meditation forms a lyrical backcountry imbued with desire and cultural anxiety. These poems are an ode to Eros in a world unraveling.
About the Author:
Michael McGriff is an author, editor, and translator. He was born and raised in Coos Bay, Oregon, and attended 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 Black Postcards, Home Burial, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, Dismantling the Hills, and a forthcoming volume, Early Hour. He is the translator of Nobel laureate Tomas Traströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola, and is the editor of a volume of David Wevill’s essential writing, To Build My Shadow a Fire. From 2009-2014 he published and edited Tavern Books, a nonprofit literary press dedicated to poetry in translation and the revival of out-of-print world classics. He is a former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and his work has been honored with a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Poetry, Bookforum, The Believer, Tin House, American Poetry Review, and on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday and PBS NewsHour. He has taught creative writing at Stanford University, The Michener Center for Writers, and Lewis & Clark College, and for several years has mentored young writers as a Visiting Writer at American International School in Vienna, Austria, and as a faculty member in the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. He is a member of the creative writing faculty at the University of Idaho.