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Jorie Graham On The Region Of Unlikeliness

In this excerpt from a 2003 interview with Jorie Graham that appeared in The Paris Review, she talks about several of my preoccupations–autobiography, parenthood, lineation, philosophy in poetry, addressing the reader, confession, etc–and how they played out in her collection Region Of Unlikeliness:

INTERVIEWER

In Region—after using works of art, then myth, in the previous books—you turn to autobiography. The poems were all your own stories, at that point. Why was that?

GRAHAM

Perhaps because once you’re a parent, you enter into a completely different relationship to time. History becomes dominant, and then, perhaps, personal history becomes dominant. You are suddenly at that point where facts—both the facts that your child is learning, and the facts of your life your child wants to know, needs to know—become important. You become a bit of story that needs to be told.

INTERVIEWER

The lines in these poems are shorter. Why?

GRAHAM

Many things made the line shorter. Once you begin talking from the position of being a social creature, you go back to the line in which social discourse takes place, the pentameter. It’s a more exterior line, which, since Shakespeare, we associate with people speaking to one another. On either side of it stand more unspeakable lines—longer lines for the visionary; shorter and more symmetrical ones for song, spell, hymn; and shorter yet for the barely utterable, the shriek, the epitaph.

INTERVIEWER

And the second line?

GRAHAM

The indented line became a very useful place to negotiate and control the music of the poem. I was still very interested in the sentence, in the kinds of energies the sentence awakens—desire for closure, desire for suspension of closure, desire for simultaneity in a stream of temporal action that defies simultaneity. I guess I still am. For example, what happens along the way of the sentence that you’re in the process of undertaking, the thing you can’t put alongside but that has to actually happen in the sentence as a “dependent” phrase? If you’re telling the story of your life, in a way, or if you’ve gone back to autobiography or history, you’re in a place where sentence-making is connected to time, as opposed to those epiphanic escapes from time which would employ a different kind of syntax—in Erosion for example.

INTERVIEWER

So, the indented line . . .?

GRAHAM

The indented line allows you to modulate the sentence and keep it capable of carrying so much without collapsing. It’s all a matter of freight carried to speed of carriage, to mangle Frost’s quote. It gave me a kind of lift—and three musical units: the full line; a shorter fragmentary line that condenses stresses on very few words (often words that would never carry a stress—prepositions, articles, conjunctions) words that if stressed truly alter the nature of what the actual inquiry of the poem is; and the “landing,” the oftentimes single word on the left margin, which takes the strongest stress of all. Those “landing words” gave me a kind of propulsion that made a rather long poem continue to feel like a containable lyric utterance. I wanted to pack a lot into the lyric, but not go beyond its bounds. Some have written that I wanted to expand what the lyric could do. I just want the hugeness of experience—which includes philosophical discursiveness—to move at a rate of speed that kept it (because all within one unity of experience) emotional. Also, often, questions became the way the poems propelled themselves forward.

INTERVIEWER

And that does what to the reader?

GRAHAM

It brings the reader in as a listener to a confession? A poem is a private story, after all, no matter how apparently public. The reader is always overhearing a confession.

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