Kimberly Grey is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and a current lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University. Her work has appeared in Tin House, A Public Space, jubilat, Southern Review, TriQuarterly, The Best New Poets Anthology and other journals. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her poem “We Are Mostly Merciful” appears in the Fall 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review and can be found here.
Could you tell us a little about “We Are Mostly Merciful”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The hardest part about writing this poem was the hardest part of writing any poem, attempting to create, what Alice Fulton calls “an expatriate space.” She says, “From the mother tongue poets create a linguistic state that is both foreign and available to readers of the broader language in which it exists” and that this space is a “slightly skewed domain where things are freshly felt because they are freshly said.” I’m always trying to make language feel strange and new as I discover the interior of a poem. And the interior of this poem was preceded by an emotionally and mentally exhausting 2012. It felt like a merciless year in the news: the Aurora shooting, Hurricane Sandy, the Newtown Massacre. I had just moved to California from New York and felt far from everything I had ever known. In a way, geography became merciless to me. But so often I’ve found myself on the merciful side of things in life: sitting in a classroom while twenty miles away those planes struck the towers, moving out of my barrier island apartment two months before the hurricane hit, the lover that I begged to stay, staying. Public and private mercies. As always, what’s hardest is translating these ideas into form and trying to adequately match language to experience. To move you in an honest way, that’s the hardest.
“We Are Mostly Merciful” focuses on news from Russia as a counterweight to the speaker’s home life in the U.S. What made you select Russia, out of all possible nations or regions, for the role of foil here?
I wrote this poem two days after the Chelyabinsk meteorite struck Russia, injuring over 1,500 people and damaging 7,200 buildings. I remember sitting in my little apartment in California and listening to the first-hand accounts: a large strike of light across the sky, a sonic boom, glass flying everywhere. And I thought, “Why Russia of all possible places in the world?” Of course, there’s a long tradition of tension and conflict between the US and Russia, but I wasn’t thinking about that. Rather, I was thinking about the conflict between the merciful and the merciless. The order and progression of events that at once seem natural and tragic and unfair. That while someone gets a meteorite falling toward them, someone else gets the hand of a lover washing their back. I want to understand this simultaneity. I want to understand how even those who are shown mercy can turn around and be merciless to another. I think it’s probably in our human nature to be both -ful and -less. Writing the poem didn’t reconcile this for me and I think the poem is a demonstration of that irreconciliation.
A common exercise in creative writing workshops is composing a poem based on a newspaper headline or clipping. What advice would you have for a student embarking on this type of engagement with journalism?
I’ll quote Robert Pinsky here: “Before an artist can see a subject, they must transform it: answer the received cultural imagination of the subject with something utterly different.” It’s a great project to engage with public events, but I think a poem must do more than just report. It’s the poet’s job to imaginatively translate that piece of news. Or else, what would differentiate the poem from mere information? I’d tell the student interested in this kind of engagement: “your reader is going to have to feel something and what are you going to do about that?”
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
These past few years I had the most unbelievable luck to be part of the Stegner Fellow Program at Stanford and to be in workshop with some of the best writers and teachers in the country. I’m particularly fond of my Stegner year, whose poems taught me how to compose my own. As for my teachers, here are some highlights:
“There are worse things to say in polite company than what is “felt life.” W.S. Di Piero
“A poem will always fail on an element of form, rather than an element of expression.” Eavan Boland
“Poetry grows out of inefficiency.” D.A. Powell
“Allow yourself digressions.” Ken Fields
Mostly, I’ve learned to let the poem pursue itself as freely as possible. To follow it as if it’s dictating its own life to me.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I obsessively watch the news. As I’ve accepted this life of a poet, I’ve accepted the responsibility to absolute awareness and to knowing exactly what is going on in the world. I want to be aware of the suffering of others, the current state of things, how the world is changing, evolving, failing, succeeding. I want to study how we are using language to tell, convey, teach, preach, relay, and move. When a large event happens, I won’t go out for days, scared that I’ll miss something. After Newtown, I was paralyzed in front of the TV; furiously angry, yet infatuated with the way the public came together to collectively mourn. And it was the news coverage, the incessant repetition of newscasters saying GUN GUN GUN that inspired a poem where I refuse to use the word. And though it’s not necessarily the healthiest of existences, I feel better knowing that I am trying to be an active, informed member of humanity. I refuse to look away from anything. And I think this attempt toward absolute awareness very often collides with my work.
In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” If you were to write a credo, do you have a potent piece of advice, either from yourself or from another writer, that you might use as a jumping-off point?
Write the poem that disassembles you. Let it turn you into something else. Then repeat repeat repeat.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m writing a book that explores the failure of language as both a private and public phenomenon. I call these poems “systems” and they formally focus on repetition and patterning. I see a poem as a systemization of language, sound, and thinking. These poems explore public events like 9/11, mass shootings, suicides, as well as private ones: cancer, the death of a lover, the absence of a mother. I want to understand how language and narrative can coexist in a poem. For me, there has always been a great tension between the two. I struggle writing narrative, often turning to anaphora, refrain, and other modes of repetition to move the poem forward. I used to think something was wrong with me. I’d think why can’t I write a story? It’s simply a beginning, middle, and end? It wasn’t until I read Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Rejection of Closure” that I started to embrace my anti-narrative tendencies. I always return to what Carolyn Forché said, that “The history of our time does not allow for any of the bromides of progress, nor the promise of successful closure.” We are writing in a post 9/11 world and I don’t think we’ve fully discovered the impacts that terror and time and technology have had on our attempts toward an adequate language for our postmodern experience. It’s startling how much information there is. How simultaneous we are. Existing everywhere and at the same time. And fastly! Maybe I repeat to slow it all down. Maybe I’m trying to hold everything still for a little while.