Following her debut collection, Cusp, chosen by Yusef Komunyakaa to win the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize, the composed, observed quality of Jennifer Grotz’s The Needle will remind readers of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Whether she is describing a town square in Kraków, where many of these poems are set, the ponies of Ocracoke Island, a boy playing a violin, or clouds, she finds the lyrical details that release an atmosphere of heightened, transcendent attention in which the things of the world become the World, what Zbigniew Herbert called “royal silence.”
Q: Before I ask you a few questions about The Needle, I was wondering if you would mind saying something about the fact that you are a huge fan of professional boxing. How did you begin to develop your interest in it and does it have any bearing on your life as a poet?
A: I became interested in boxing about ten years ago, unconsciously but passionately. I used to cover my eyes when my boyfriend would watch it because I thought it was so violent! But over time, I found myself peeking between my fingers to see what was going on and growing increasingly absorbed in the sport. Maybe I do this with the whole world, I don’t know, but at least for boxing, I watch it because I think it has something to teach me about human possibility; I honestly watch it the way one might watch ancient Greek drama. Boxing struck me initially as an extremely gendered sport, but that’s because, as a female with my particular upbringing, I wasn’t taught to see boxing. My eyes weren’t fast enough to catch the various punches, and my mind wasn’t able to process what was happening apart from my initial emotional responses. One of the things boxing teaches me is that seeing itself can be learned through efforts of attention and practice. And one of the recurring attractions I feel when watching boxing is the tension between my desire to see objectively what’s going on and my emotional reactions (of fear, anger, confusion, etc.). In this way, it has a lot to do with my poetic interests.
Q: Can you describe the way a poem has its genesis for you?
A: Something in the world catches my eye; that’s usually first. A nun wearing a “Members Only” jacket gets on the tram; or raspberries bought at the market just a day or so before they begin to take on that dull gray fur that signals it’s time to toss them out. Second is a kind of music or rhythm that accompanies that image or observation. Sometimes I get this music from walking and thinking at the same time. Other times, especially early in the morning with a cup of coffee at my desk, I can hear something like an inner whisper—like my interior voice?—start to bubble, or gurgle, or sing. That normally will give me a scrap, a beginning. I write what I hear down, and then I elaborate and refine. Then I have to walk and think and read and wait and sit at my desk until I can figure out the rest of it—and this can take days, months, or years.
Q: It's clear from the poems that travel is important to you. How does travel influence you as a writer? And what are some of your favorite places?
A: I might say it differently: languages are important to me. Languages are other realities, all human, all valid, but nonetheless surprisingly different. I teach translation studies at the University of Rochester and one of the things I like to begin with is a meditation on the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. I find this so compelling because it’s a myth that addresses something I have felt firsthand in my life—that I exist differently in different languages. Whatever it is to be a human being in the fullest sense of that term is probably not something that can be adequately conveyed or articulated in any single language.
But it’s true, the most authentic access I have to those languages I study most deeply—French and Polish—is through travel. And for that reason, and probably also because things in my life have fallen into place in such a way that makes extended travel very possible (being single, being an academic with much of my summers free), going abroad on an annual basis has been incredibly vital to my work. My favorite places are France and Poland, but there’s one poem in The Needle, "Pharos," that has to do with a very beautiful couple of weeks I spent in Egypt, specifically in Alexandria. But I do think that one can write poems just as ambitious and startling by staying at home. (My favorite American poet is probably Emily Dickinson.)
Q:How long were you working on The Needle? Do you see any stylistic and/or thematic differences between it and your first book, Cusp?
A: I worked on The Needle for about seven years. I do see a lot of stylistic differences between it and my first book, Cusp. To go back to the question of boxing, I think I was much more interested in this new book to explore trying to speak "objectively" more than simply "subjectively" about the world. And I think I was more interested in using the poem as a kind of zoom lens—a vessel or apparatus that allows one to go from the personal to something larger and vice versa.
Q: Did you have any specific influences—poets, writers, painters, musicians, etc.—looking over your shoulder when you were writing The Needle?
A: In many ways, I feel as though I tried very hard in these poems to apprentice myself to some of the great twentieth-century Polish poets—Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska, and Zagajewski, in particular—but I also wanted to acknowledge and deepen my understanding and thinking of English-language poetry, from twentieth-century poets such as Wallace Stevens or Elizabeth Bishop, to early modern poets such as Samuel Daniel.
Q:You are the assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. How long have you been associated with Bread Loaf and how has it influenced your development as a poet?
A:I first attended Bread Loaf as a "waiter" (on work-scholarship) back in 1996. And though there have been three or four years between then and now when I was not at the conference, I have more or less grown up as a writer at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, serving on staff, coming back here and there to teach a craft class, being a poetry fellow after my first book came out, and now as the assistant director. It has been my strongest source of learning and community over the past decade or so, and that conference—what it represents in terms of Robert Frost’s initial intentions for the place as well as its long history, the people who comprise it, and where it takes place, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, is a longstanding source of joy and inspiration in my life.
Q:What are you working on now?
A:I’m writing poems, waiting to see what, in a group, they might become. All of my most recent poems were written or at least begun in a former Franciscan monastery in the French Maritime Alps. They feel very different from the poems of The Needle, but it will be a while yet before I understand what they’re up to!