Translating Time

Eliza Griswold, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Jonathan Galassi

In Conversation

If Men, Then, Eliza Griswold’s second poetry collection, charts a radical spiritual journey through catastrophe. Alternately searing and hopeful, funny and fraught, the poems explore the world’s fracturing through the collapse of the ego, embodied in a character named “I”—a soul attempting to wrestle with itself in the face of an unfolding tragedy.

A revelation, a shoring up, a transposition: Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s Living Weapon is a love song to the imagination, a new blade of light honed in on our political moment.

In this interview, recorded at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Eliza and Rowan discuss both of their collections—as well as what we glean from history and tradition, refraining from tautology, in work and in life, and what it really means to be a poet today—in conversation with their editor, FSG president, Jonathan Galassi.

Jonathan Galassi: I don’t really know where to begin with my admiration for Eliza, but I will just say that what drew me—actually, her mother asked me tonight, “what was it that first drew you to Eliza’s work?”—and I think the combination of clear observation and depth of perception, and the disjunct between those two things lies at the heart of her work.

There’s a lot of journalism in Eliza’s poetry, and there’s a lot of poetry in her journalism. I think that she starts from observed experience, and takes it inside. I’ll begin by asking you this: “If men, then.” That could mean a lot of things. What is the source of that?

Eliza Griswold: Life. [laughter] A woman’s experience. No, I mean, the source of it really came generatively out of a poem . . . .  I began with two lines of Wallace Stevens, and his idea of the generative act of a poem, of Wallace Stevens’s “Twenty men crossing a bridge / Into a village,” and that’s the beginning of a generative act.

People keep talking about this book in terms of women, and I don’t really see it that way, but I do see very much—the idea of twenty men crossing a bridge into a village—I can only hear that as impending disaster. That’s not the generative act of poetry to me!

Galassi: That’s the journalist in you.

Griswold: That’s the human, maybe at this point, in our devolution of human experience. Which we can celebrate as we  . . .

Galassi: Well, let’s just say that Wallace Stevens’s idea of a village and yours are not the same.

Griswold: That could be. Yes. And maybe his experience in a village is a little different, too.

Galassi: I would say that that poem, like all your poems really, brings with it an influx of spiritual questioning, almost always. And I think that in a way that’s what mediates between your journalism observation and your inner observation.

Griswold: Yeah, I think that’s probably true. I’m interested in the questions of why we’re here, you know, or why what’s what. And that’s the same whether we’re working out journalism or poetry. But poetry allows for questions that are unanswered in a way that journalism can’t. And so often what happens to pieces, little moments, where I am implicated in them, or things can’t be solved, and remain unknowable—that’s the material that then goes to poetry as opposed to what goes to the nonfiction.

Galassi: Another thing about Eliza’s work that I love is how open it is to poetic tradition. That’s true of Rowan’s work, too; that’s something they share. And that is something that, in some ways, goes against the temper of the time in writing now, but I find it very exciting and rewarding in reading. What do you have to say about that?

Griswold: Well, I think what I would say is, that’s true. And it’s so much part of the landscape—literary allusion or writing about myth doesn’t come from an attempt to tack something on. First of all, it comes from the fact that these questions aren’t new questions. And the idea of living at end of empire—that’s nothing new. People have been doing that for a long time in other contexts, and have much to teach us. So there’s the sort of wisdom embedded in tradition, and then there’s just the language—I mean, I grew up pretty steeped in myth in lots of ways, although that sounds kind of pretentious. And then raising a six-year-old now—like, his bedtime story is a really poor version of The Trojan War, where there are flying cupids in there—it’s a mess. Because I can’t remember part of it. But I think it has to do with how we raise children. And what we raise children on. And the idea that these stories are so old, and tracing them back through time is—I like to do that in a poem. But can I tell a story? Can I tell a story?

Galassi: I guess so.

Griswold: When I—how Jonathan became my editor. I had finished my first book of poems, and the person who generously sent them around sent them to Jonathan and a couple of other editors, and of course I knew—who doesn’t know?—who Jonathan is, and I was like, “Well, you can just send them there,” and Jonathan called me and said, “You can come in,” and I assumed I was going to get a nice pat on the head and, “I’ll see you in ten years, maybe,” and he held my first little book of poems, and he said, “I love these, and I want to publish them.” And I just almost fell out of my chair! I mean, that moment is one of those four or five moments that are just etched in our heart, and I will just never forget that moment.

Galassi: I won’t forget it either. Thank you for that. But I wanted to return to what I was talking about, because—before I was so kindly interrupted [laughs]—because myth, yes, but there’s something else underpinning what you’re doing, and that is iambic pentameter. It’s the way you write, which is grounded in poetic history.

Griswold: Yes. And it’s also grounded, whether I like it or not, in hymn. I mean, it’s grounded in the cadences of Emily Dickinson; it’s grounded in the Protestant hymns. And that’s a product that I’m deeply ambivalent about, about growing up in churches. That song, that singing, and the cadence of the Bible was part of learning to read, and turning those rice paper pages, and thinking, how is this text both a story—beautifully written, but also how is it a ceremonial act? What world is it connecting to? What is it supposed to invoke?

Galassi: We heard about where this phrase comes from, but I want to say, if you didn’t know that, and you saw, “If men, then,” you’d be thinking something else, right?

Griswold: What do you mean? What do you think? I don’t think something else; I think that!

Galassi: I think it means, “If men, then trouble.”

Griswold: Yeah! That’s what it means! [laughter]

Galassi: Of all sorts.

Griswold: Yes.

Galassi: And I want to turn to another aspect, because I think there’s a lot of humor in that.

Griswold: There better be some humor! I’m proud of the humor in this book because everything I write is so serious, but I’m not so serious. So it’s fun to bring some of that.

Galassi: Well that’s why I want our friends here to enjoy the second part of this book, which in some ways is my favorite part. It’s called “First Person,” and there’s a little epigraph, that says, “The first person is always the last to know.”

Rowan arrives

Galassi: We’ll get to you in a minute. [laughter]

Rowan Ricardo Phillips: If men, when? [laughter]

Galassi: And in these poems, Eliza treats “I,” the first person, as a third person. I love the “I” poems, and I think that that disjunct that sets up “I” as “me,” as “she,” as “you,” is really brilliant, and I don’t know anyone else who’s done anything like that.

Griswold: Thank you. Rowan was one of the early readers of those poems. We weren’t sure where they were going at first. They sounded a little Dream-Song-y. We weren’t sure. But they pulled themselves together.

Galassi: So I’m going to now say a few things about Rowan, and then I’m going to let them talk. But, Rowan is also a poet whom I’ve worked with for a long time. This is our third book of poems together, and we also published his wonderful book called The Circuit, about tennis in late 2018, which won the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, and I recommend this book to you—

Griswold: It’s brilliant.

Galassi: It’s wonderful. This is Rowan’s third collection, and he started out with The Ground, then he wrote Heaven, and this must be his purgatory book, Living Weapon.

I said there’s a lot of journalism in Eliza’s poetry, and I think there’s a lot of actuality in your poems, but there’s also a tremendous sense of literary history, of tradition and the individual temper.

Both of these writers engage with the difficult exigencies of our world in terms of ongoing poetic tradition, which is much older and much more potent even than certain aspects of contemporary life in my opinion. And that’s why they’re here at NYU Journalism School, for one thing, and it’s also why I see them as talking to each other on the page as well as in person, so I just want to read this one little poem, because I think it’s so brilliant, and it’s called “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which is, as we know, an essay by T. S. Eliot, and the first line is a quote from William Blake: “I wander through each chartered street / ‘Til I was shot by the police.” I think that that is an incredible comment on actuality, it’s an incredible use of tradition in a very creative and powerful way.

Phillips: I’m just going to sit here and sweat a little more.

Griswold: You wouldn’t be the first. So, Rowan.

Phillips: So, Eliza.

Griswold: Rowan’s office is two floors down?

Phillips: That’s right.

Griswold: And on occasion, we meet to have deep conversations there.

Phillips: We chat.

Griswold: Over, usually, gluten-free cookies.

Phillips: Delicious, gluten-free cookies. But we also talk about the real world and the imagined world, and one thing that’s made me so happy and proud now is that you did let me see some of these “I” poems when they were early on.

I believe with poetry, there’s no big advance waiting for you, it’s all about the long game—the long game is the only game—and you play the long game with every sentence.

Griswold: It’s because I’m old, man.

Phillips: ’Cause you’re old! No, but you’re a young poet. That’s what’s wonderful about poetry. You’re an old soul. But, you know, we’re kids writing poems and trying to make sense of things like “I” and stuff. Because when you teach poetry, one of the wonderful things is the old things that kids think that they’ve discovered, like a small case “I,” they’ll come to me and say, “I’m using the small case ‘I’ in a poem, it means x, y, and z,” and I say, well, it’s been around for a hundred years, so when you come across oratory, you come across a type of archaeology of the soul.

Griswold: Yes!

Phillips: And I really like that, you know, I’ve had the opportunity to live with some of your poems and see them breathe in your book. This didn’t happen on purpose.

Griswold: How do you be a poet at this moment? We are professional people who also write poetry. Like, that didn’t happen maybe so much a couple of generations ago. Like, we don’t just teach and then hang out with poets. We are in the world, and I think our work is about that, so I’m thinking—I see students here—and I’m thinking, how could we be helpful to them along their journeys, and talking about how we make work happen on a page, and how we continue to do it.

Phillips: Sure. One thing we can, I think, do is talk about this long game. I know that I wanted to have a professional career and also write poems, and I studied the lives of the poets.

Griswold: Did you?

Phillips: Of course I did. Because I wanted to know how to do it. Everybody knows that William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and that Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive, Eliot worked for Barclay’s before he moved over to Faber. There’s a wonderful African-American poet who recently passed away, Christopher Gilbert, who spent his entire career as a psychiatrist. But I spent a lot of time looking for poets who were doing other things. Not to then study their poems and figure out how to write like them, but just to realize that there are all different types of ways to actualize yourself. One thing I’m very concerned about trying to avoid is to be a tautology. Like, I write poems, therefore everything I do should reflect that, and all of my poems should reflect some sense of what you may think is my identity, but I like to kind of be—I don’t like the word “problematic,” but I grow wary of tautologies. And I think you have a similar kind of temperament, our tautologies—the things that people would assume us to be—are honestly different.

Those of you who are here who know me, you should know, I’m always studying you. That’s what we do. It’s kind of like we have this muscle memory where we try to remember not the anecdotes that people tell us but the ticks and changes in the problems and the tone and all of that. I think that’s the fun stuff. How do you teach that? I think it’s difficult. I find myself more interested in teaching people how to be citizens than how to be poets. The poetry will work itself out. But let’s be good citizens first and see what happens from there.

Griswold: Yeah, I’ve never taught poetry, so I don’t know, but I do get to teach journalism, which is very much about being an observer, and also, what is our role now? We talk a lot in journalism about what role identity plays and doesn’t play in our work. And we talk a lot about—that reporting requires crossing lines of difference. That you don’t just report inside who you are, and that there’s a value and a necessity to crossing those lines to other people. And we’re at a particular time where that’s threatened—that idea of who has authority and who has the right to speak is under a lot of pressure. Teaching journalism has become more clearly an ethical thing for me to do. It’s really preparing people to take on the hardest questions of our time.

But I know when it comes to poetry, Rowan—I mean, we haven’t done this in a while, but our emails will be poems back and forth to one another, and that’s—for students, I mean, you guys are really looking for people who are going to tug on the other end of the line.

I think the final poems and how the books have come to be are different, but for a while they were in pretty close dialogue. Like, for me, it takes a lot to prioritize poetry, because it takes a lot for me to allow myself to believe that the poems are going to be important enough. It’s one thing to say, okay, this family is sick from an oil and gas site next to their house, of course that deserves attention and time and resources. But am I sure that an exploration of self does? And of course it does—in fact, as much as other things. But one of the things that I love and celebrate about your work is also your approach to it, which is pretty pure. When you’re approaching the page, it’s not just the content that is reflecting the ethics of our time: it’s the way in which you approach the page. There’s a lot of integrity to it.

Phillips: I’m really moved by that. Thank you.

Griswold: It’s true. I don’t fuck around.

Phillips: I find us to be very similar. I think we come off as different but we’re very similar. I think that a difference, though, is that I don’t have that question about poetry. To me, poetry is the most sacred vocation that there is. I don’t do it because I like it: I do it because I’m obliged to. It’s how I understand the world. Now, that said, I don’t think that anybody is obliged to read my poems, nor do I think that the world is waiting for my poems, but I write them. It comes from the old Greek poesis, “making.” I like that it’s that participle: it’s not the thing made or “to make,” the infinitive, but it’s always this process. I can’t not do it.

Griswold: I can’t not do it either. I mean, I would love to not do it. I’ve got enough to do.

Phillips: Well. Do you tell your journalism students—I seriously sometimes, you know, when people come to you and say, “I really want to be a writer, what should I do?” “Well, you should quit. If you can quit, you should quit. If you can’t quit, then get to work.” But everyone should try quitting, and if you can quit, then you should.

Griswold: Poetry, yes; journalism, no. We need them.

Phillips: Well, yes, that’s a different story. But do you think it’s different when you start from a blank page and you’re thinking to write a poem or working on journalism? I guess the difference would be the spur. You don’t have a moment where you look at a blank page and think, “Am I working on a piece of reportage or am I writing a poem?” That doesn’t necessarily happen right?

Griswold: No, it doesn’t. I mean, the intent is different with hitting the page, although sometimes the poems fail because they’re too much reportage. You can tell when—I mean, some of these are just famous truisms, but a poem has to be two things at once: it has to be itself, and it has to invoke a world much larger and more essential all at the same time, and good journalism has to do the same. We look in the particular for the universal. But when I sit down and write a poem—I don’t know if it’s a woman thing, or a work ethic thing, what it is—but it takes me a lot to say, “I deserve to do this,” which is sort of tragic, but maybe it’s generational. I don’t know. I’m working on it because I don’t think it’s right. And I want to say that aloud and in front of students because I want them to know that that challenging fact as a poet—Saskia Hamilton just walked in, and I know this is true because we talk about this sometimes, but the courage and the competence to face the page even when it’s blank, even when you have a hundred things that need doing that aren’t prioritized, is part of what we need to do. We need to claim that space. And I do think that’s more of a woman’s thing.

Phillips: Well, Robert Hayden, a poet who I have endless admiration for, said that a poet always has to learn to switch the gender. And I think he meant it more as a rhetorical thing, but really about getting into the skin of the other. If it is a woman thing, then I hope that men can step up to that and find a space for that as well, whatever type of thing that is. I don’t think that poetry is something that we deserve or don’t deserve: it’s something we do or we don’t do. You know what I think about—you’ve been mentioning the world a lot—I’ve been thinking a lot about Dante and “The Divine Comedy.” It seems everyone knows about the “Inferno,” because it’s filled with violence and politics, and Americans love that stuff. I like the other books more. But basically, imagine—I finally get the temperament that would have led Dante to write that. Because somebody would be writing about the senate right now, or Bob Barr, or things like that—it’s just this kind of real need to get at a certain ancient ethics that’s met with a type of pure poetry as well that you find in the best Dante—and you find in the best Milton, I think. Or a poem that I find myself thinking about quite a bit now is Shelley’s “1819,” which is basically—it could be America 2020. And I like that poetry can translate—you’re a translator; I’m a translator—poetry can translate epochs. It can translate time.

Griswold: I’m now going to ask you, Rowan—you frame this book with two prose poems.

Can you tell us how you came to do that? What’s Rowan telling us about this book to frame it this way?

Phillips: I live between—I won’t call them two extremes, but I’m a New Yorker, and I’m Catalan, I’m a Barcelona resident, and I found myself thinking about the way in which those places—you know, Ralph Ellison said that Heraclitus said that geography is fate—Heraclitus never actually said that; Ralph Ellison liked to make up stories—but I do find myself thinking a lot about the geographies that kind of made me, and how they are not only part of my DNA so to speak, but they’re incredibly fucked up now. Barcelona and New York are both cities that are in people’s mouths, and you spend a lot of time having other people tell you about them and how wonderful or terrible they are, or have a terrible misapprehension of political situations, and I found myself wanting to—one, I rarely write about Barcelona. I think it’s because when I’m there I’m not speaking in English, so kind of the English engine doesn’t rev up, and I wanted to see what would happen when that would happen. Also, I love prose poems. There’s a great Spanish poet, Bécquer, from the nineteenth century. I loved his prose poems. I love French poems, prose poems—and I wanted to give them a go. But I’m also—like I said, with these tautologies, I understand the poet that I think I’m understood to be, more or less, and I think I’m very much still in process. I’m always willing to try something new.

Eliza Griswold is the author of an acclaimed first book of poems, Wideawake Field, as well as The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, which won the 2011 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. Her translations of Afghan women’s folk poems, I Am the Beggar of the World, was awarded the 2015 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She has held fellowships from the New America Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and Harvard University, and in 2010 the American Academy in Rome awarded her the Rome Prize for her poems. Griswold, currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University, is also the author of Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2018, one of The Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction for 2018, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction in 2019.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of the books of poems Heaven and The Ground, as well as the essay collections The Circuit and When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness. His many awards include a Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/Osterweil Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, and the Nicolás Guillén Outstanding Book Award. He lives in New York City and Barcelona.

Jonathan Galassi is President of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.