Jesse Graves is the author of two collections of poetry, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine (2011) and Basin Ghosts (2014). He was awarded the 2014 Philip H. Freund Prize for Creative Writing from Cornell University, and the 2015 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He is Associate Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at East Tennessee State University.
Alex Reynolds interviews Jesse Graves below.
The language you use in your poetry is beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the moments in “Trace”: “cardiac pulsing of a transmission” and “as the vanishing of a name / forgotten whispers not even a soft goodbye.” What inspired you to write this poem?
Thanks, Alex, for noticing those particular lines. “Trace” was written as part of a sequence I was working on with a friend, and it picks up a fairly persistent theme for me, that so much of the knowledge we acquire over time slips away. I spent hours and hours as a kid (and as an adult) learning about specific things—in the poem, it’s the names of car parts, and how they work together—and then interests change, or focus moves to something else, and I lose that information. One of the great things about writing is that it gives us an occasion to make a record of what we don’t want to let go, a means for keeping a kind of hold on memories and experiences.
“Not at War” has a nostalgic nature and it addresses the college experience. How has your education impacted your writing career?
College was a revelation to me. I loved being in a place where so many people wanted to talk about books, and that there were classes that facilitated those conversations. It was the group-oriented time of my life. “Not at War” is nostalgic for youth, certainly, and also a particular time in public life. I was an undergraduate in the 1990s, before 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Wall Street bailouts and financial collapse. It was even before social media as we know it now! I was a first-generation college student from a working class background, so I faced some challenges in finding my way through university life, but it was worth the struggle because it gave me a community I needed. Many students don’t feel safe on college campuses, and that’s a source of real sadness for me, because I know that if the environment is right, wonderful things can happen for people.
We last saw you when you published two poems, “Taylor’s Grove,” and “West of Raleigh,” in Issue 27 of the Roanoke Review. How have you changed as a writer since then?
Well, the time has flown! I think I have gotten more patient as a writer, and as I’ve read more, and thought more about poetry, I hope the canvas I work with has gotten a little larger. Some of my poems have taken a long time to develop, and I feel better about the work when I don’t rush it into being, or out into the world. I suspect, though, that I still have a lot of the same inclinations I had back in Issue 27— I prefer a lyrical style, and I care about landscape, and how people interact with one another.
What writers have influenced you throughout your career? How have they impacted your craft practices?
James Wright was a very important early influence for me, for reasons that were both aesthetic and cultural. His poems were lyrical, yet retained a kind of raw energy and exploratory persistence that I admired. I could also tell from his work, and the bit of biographical information I could find, that his background had been something like my own, and that might have connected me to his work in a more personal way. Philip Levine and Larry Levis have been similar influences for me. I am definitely interested in the formal elements of poetry, the components that make up the practice of poetry. Some of the scholarship I have done focuses on the craft of making poems, such as the use of syllabics as a way of measuring the poetic line, or the relation between song lyrics and poems. More recently, I have found Adam Zagajewski’s and Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s work to be seemingly endless sources of interest and inspiration. Stylistically, they feel pretty different, with Zagajewski’s interest in phenomenology, and Schnackenberg’s more metaphysical turn, but both write poems of deep feeling, clarity, and formal beauty.
As a teacher of writing, what is the most important lesson you try to impart to your students?
I hope that I have encouraged my students to trust their own perceptions and their own voices, and to always be open to new perspectives on their subject matter. Since I came to ETSU in 2009, I’ve been lucky to work with an almost unbelievable string of talented student writers, and I have tried to meet their poems where they are, and to assist them toward being the kind of poems they want to become. So many wonderful teachers have influenced my work, on poems, and in the classroom, that a few, like Connie Jordan Green, Marilyn Kallet, Kenneth McClane, Robert Morgan, and Arthur Smith, should be mentioned by name. They are also all wonderful poets, who each helped me find a way into my own material.
Your family has a long legacy in Tennessee. How does your personal and family history factor into your writing?
My family roots in rural East Tennessee have provided a good deal of subject matter for my poems, both in terms of the visual imagery of old houses and woodlands and farm life, and in the narratives of the lives people who often go unrecorded. My graduate school professor, Robert Morgan, uses a phrase that has made a deep impression on me: he says that in reading and writing about the past, we create “a community across time.” I really love that idea, that we can share a bond with those who came before us (and those who come after, too, I suppose), and that we can read their stories, and also tell our versions of the stories they may not have been able to tell for themselves.
Why do you write?
I like the way words sound together—that must have been the initial reason, and it probably still makes the truest answer for me. Music was my gateway into poetry, and I love those same pleasurable aspects of language. I also like to try to record impressions of what I see and experience, and to make connections between those things that help me to understand what they might mean. Poems have a special way of communicating, through figures of speech and a dazzling range of sound effects, and each poet is free to find his or her own voice within the poems. I find that if I want to explore a thought or a feeling, and if I can keep open to perceptions and associations, unexpected things can happen. Images appear that I might not have expected, patterns emerge in phrases or structural elements, or I might feel something about the subject that I didn’t know I felt. I find the possibility of the unwritten poem irresistible.