Eliza Griswold joins Kevin Young to discuss her poetry sequence “First Person,” featured on newyorker.com. Griswold is a poet and a journalist who has contributed to The New Yorker since 2003. She is the author of, most recently, “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Her new poetry collection, “If Men, Then,” will be published in 2020.
Below is an automated transcript of this podcast episode.
Kevin Young: Hello. You’re listening to The New Yorker poetry podcast. I’m Kevin Young, poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine. Today we’re talking about our newest poetry feature on New Yorker.com. “First Person” is a sequence of poems that follows the musings and mishaps of a 21st century female character known simply as I. Here with me is the author of “First Person,” Eliza Griswold. A poet, journalist, and frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Eliza won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for her book “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America.” She’s also received the J. Anthony Lukas Prize, a PEN Translation Prize, and the Rome Prize, among many many other honors. Eliza, it’s great to have you. Thanks for joining us.
Eliza Griswold: Thank you so much for having me.
Kevin Young: So tell us a little bit about the origins of this project. When and why did you begin writing the poems that became “First Person”?
Eliza Griswold: When did I begin? Probably almost a decade ago.
Kevin Young: Oh wow.
Eliza Griswold: You know I mean this character emerged who wasn’t the poet, right, as we’re familiar with. Right?
Kevin Young: As we always say at least.
Eliza Griswold: Right. Right. Exactly. But also I was almost past the experiences that the I had had. I mean a lot of what I wrestles with—ambition, motherhood, like wrestling with disparate identities—and some of that was happening at the time, a lot of it in fact in real time. Like the towing of a car, which happened again last week.
Kevin Young: So there was an experiential quality but not necessarily an autobiographical one.
Eliza Griswold: It is totally autobiographical. But it’s only one of the many selves that we carry, right? And I wanted to delineate that from the beginning because in a lot of ways I, the self like with a capital S, the watcher is not I. Right. So I is out there fighting the good fight and often losing. But the wisdom of the poems hopefully is beyond the I. Right?
Kevin Young: Right.
Eliza Griswold: So but it’s not really a persona. Because it’s really me, you know? I is me.
Kevin Young: Well persona can still be a mask. I mean I was wondering about that when I was reading them because there’s kind of a Whitmanesque quality to the poems which is to say—it’s called “First Person” but it’s actually written in third person. The protagonist is named I but it’s a she. So it’s sort of Whitman turned on his head. This I is both self and other. But how did you think about that? I mean were you self-aware as it were of this I?
Eliza Griswold: Yes. I mean the larger collection, what I hope the larger collection does is trace a reintegration of disparate selves, because over—I mean the book, it was over a decade, it’s probably like 12 years of poems. And that traces my sort of transformation or my shift in life from being a conflict correspondent, single, abroad, to coming back and trying to wrestle with what it means to be an American woman at this time. And not just a woman, a mom, a wife, you know, a member of society that one is kind of—that I felt she’d largely rejected, right? And then WHAMMO—and is implicated by it, and is implicated by it. Because it’s, right, there’s no more kind of, Oh poo poo, America, it’s behind us, the world is so much more interesting—it’s like, Oh no, where is I’s kid going to go to school and oh, I got the car towed again, and, you know, God damn it, I didn’t get her coffee—whatever it is, right. And so yeah that’s kind of it.
Kevin Young: So it’s a modern Whitman in that way or is it like would Whitman not recognize this I?
Eliza Griswold: I don’t think Whitman would recognize this I at all. Because I mean what it is also attempting is to be like rigorously honest.
Kevin Young: Yeah.
Eliza Griswold: Right. And I think that I can’t get any more honest than this. Like you know, I is me, right? Me can’t get more honest. This is what I can do on a page with really outing—I mean in some ways I is synonymous with the ego.
Kevin Young: You mean in general or in these poems?
Eliza Griswold: In these poems. In these poems. In some ways—
Kevin Young: I think we think of the I as the deepest self, especially the lyric I. You know and Whitman sort of saying for his part, you know, I is everyone.
Eliza Griswold: Right.
Kevin Young: You know? And instead this is saying I is this really specific person experiencing these very specific early 21st century problems.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah.
Kevin Young: You know, which I think whether it’s being towed or, you know, there is a moment where it’s really thinking about gender I think a lot in interesting ways. Tell me about that, how that’s working.
Eliza Griswold: Well I mean first of all I think these poems are embarrassing. Like when I started writing them I was like I don’t—a lot of the poems I write I don’t want to be writing them, but these in particular, right, which I wonder is maybe why I created this character. Right? She’s wrestling with what it means to be a professional woman. You know, what it means to have a Fox newscaster slip his number across the desk and be like, Just call me. Right? And a lot of what, for me, in my 40s like—I, as she says, I is pre millennial. Like I came of age as a woman in a different era. Right. And so, so much of what made me and in a professional setting as well is not acceptable anymore. Right? But I swallowed a lot of these things and wasn’t particularly bothered by them and found another way to negotiate that world and I feel like we discredit women with this particular experience as somehow, you know, collaborators. Right? But the way that I got through a lot of that was to simply disregard the role of the body. I feel like we see this a lot with women in the poetry world, where like women are either like seeing ghosts in their closet or like they are arrested children. It’s not easy to embody, like, I’m a matter of fact woman. You know, there are other ways to negotiate these power structures by sort of avoiding that. And I think what I’m hoping to do in these poems is really challenge some of the me too, like, you guys are collaborators, you went along with all this, on one side, and also challenge, like, no, this is a full blooded woman in a poem, right. Trying to navigate what does it mean to be a mom and all that stuff.
Kevin Young: How does a poem do that? I mean you know that’s a big ask for a poem and I think in many ways one of the ways the poem that you’ve written has achieved that is through series. So that we get a kind of kaleidoscopic view of I. Were there other models that came to you, were you just, you know, trying to write through these decade and more, these sort of dozen years of thinking through these kinds of questions? Because what I also love about them is they aren’t freighted with all of that yet they really address all these kind of questions.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that the idea of this persona allows. First of all I hope they’re funny and you know humor I think allows us so much latitude because if they were haranguing or fingerpointing or like you know polemics or screeds, I certainly—that’s not the kind of poetry I read. And I don’t, I’m not often funny in poetry. I wish I were. I’m funnier aloud than I am on the page. So that’s one reason it’s especially fun for me to do this with you because I’m like, oh, they’re funny, right. So O.K., so creation of a persona, use of humor. I set out probably to write one or two of them.
Kevin Young: I see.
Eliza Griswold: And then I realized, oh my goodness, there are so many experiences and things. Like the one about being pre millennial and the Fox News guy and you know a board member asking my weight and comparing me to his Labradoodle, you know. Which happened last year.
Kevin Young: Oh, man.
Eliza Griswold: Right?
Kevin Young: Wow.
Eliza Griswold: Right? And it was a little bit of a job interview so like what do you do. You know? And so anyway. All of that stuff. Right. Like what do you roll with as a human being.
Kevin Young: Sure.
Eliza Griswold: You know?
Kevin Young: Well and I think there is a—for me I was really struck by the way that I reminds me of a kind of almost surreal double that you see in other poems. People like John Berryman with Henry—
Eliza Griswold: Of course.
Kevin Young: Or Plath’s Lady Lazarus which you know is terrifying on the one hand but I know that people who were close with her thought of those poems as kind of funny or absurd, you know, and big in this way.
Eliza Griswold: Huh. I mean definitely the Berryman is an explicit, like I was reading the Berryman, but in ways we’ve moved beyond the Berryman, right? Like in ways we don’t—so I was worried in these poems to make sure that I was far enough away from that space. Right?
Kevin Young: Which part of Berryman? Because there’s many Berrymans, even within the Dream Songs, sort of on purpose, right?
Eliza Griswold: I think so. I mean, moving away from the sort of pidgin voice, right.
Kevin Young: Yeah. The blackface, you know, not the easiest.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah. So how do you—
Kevin Young: I mean you know I’ve written about Berryman much so I thought about him a lot.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah.
Kevin Young: He does have this kind of self-awareness about his problems, let’s call them. Or Henry’s problems.
Eliza Griswold: About Henry’s problems, right. And I think what I really look to, I mean not when I read poetry so much but definitely when I write it, it’s self-awareness. Like I’m looking to be as honest on that page as I can be. Which I don’t even know is necessarily, it’s not confessional per se but it’s like putting the self under scrutiny and finding, you know, finding the contradictions that the self lives, you know, really exploring, what sort of appeasement do I make to be in this world in this way.
Kevin Young: And tell me about, what do you see as the difference between honesty and confessionalism?
Eliza Griswold: Oh see. O.K., so now again we’re like, we’re in a generational lens. Right so I grew up in an age of poetry where confessional was an insult. It was often a tacit insult—
Kevin Young: Really?
Eliza Griswold: But that’s what it was. Yes. Oh confessional? That’s not, I wouldn’t write, you know.
Kevin Young: Yeah, it’s supposed to be more transformed.
Eliza Griswold: Exactly. Exactly. Confessional is kind of like J.V. poetry, right? So—
Kevin Young: It’s like your diary—
Eliza Griswold: Totally.
Kevin Young: Read aloud.
Eliza Griswold [00:10:35] Exactly. Exactly. Like don’t you have anything else to write about?
Kevin Young: You know certainly there is a corresponding rise of the memoir or you know that gets seen as sort of lesser than nonfiction you know.
Eliza Griswold: Oh absolutely.
Kevin Young: That can sort of happen. But you know our best writers—James Baldwin.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah.
Kevin Young: You know. We could stop there.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah.
Kevin Young: You know James Baldwin, he’s writing through the self to talk about, like Whitman, these broader concerns.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah.
Kevin Young: You know an America, a world that may disregard him. And by claiming this I he’s standing tall and in a way that’s really interesting. And I also think of someone like Lucille Clifton who I think of often—
Eliza Griswold: Yes.
Kevin Young: Who’s writing poems that I wouldn’t call confessional.
Eliza Griswold: No.
Kevin Young: But they are very much thinking of this I in large and literally lowercase ways.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. But I think in the sort of, among contemporaries, more even than looking for models you know among contemporaries—I definitely came of age, and not just in poetry, right, in journalism as well, to fear the vertical pronoun. The vertical pronoun is lazy. That’s kind of the school of thinking from which I came. Right? How can you go beyond this? And I know, so this is actually a way to reclaim that, I think, in a way that’s tolerable to my ego but also owns this idea of fracture and hopefully, hopefully, the conscious mechanics of this in the book itself are that hopefully at the end the I is integrated. Right? Like the ego has been whacked enough times that it kind of gives up, right. And I think that is part of, there’s a lot of adolescent rebellion in these poems. There’s a lot of foot stamping and that is definitely still part of me, right. But there’s also kind of a surrender into something larger. I mean a lot of them, you know, to be honest, a lot of these I poems also deal with addiction, which is something else that I don’t talk a great deal about because a lot of people do, you know. But a lot of what this I is doing is medicating of self with small s and then giving that up. Right. And dealing with what kind of rage and problems come up after that.
Kevin Young: Wow, that’s very intense. I mean and I think what I like about it is how—you say it’s whacking over the head but it’s more doing it through form, through shifts in tone, sometimes through slapstick. But at the same time there is a kind of sticking of the landing that the poem is interested in. I’m curious about your thinking of form, especially coming from journalism. And I want to talk a little bit in a minute more about sort of your journalism background but tell us more about like what you were thinking about in terms of form.
Eliza Griswold: Form? I mean I try not to think all that much about form consciously because it actually impedes the work. You know I’m not great with form and if I’m thinking too much about it it’s going to it’s going to sound that way on the page. I think if I think about the most authentic experience of form for me, you know, I grew up like learning to read, right, from a pulpit in a church, like playing in the church where my dad was a priest, right? Literally flipping the pages of the Bible and reading Psalms and other passages. And when I think about that meter and form I think about probably Dickinson. I think that’s probably the closest. And you know it feels kind of grandiose to even say that but that’s the kind of short, heavily rhythmic but often—I like to enjamb the expected line endings that I think sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s awkward but sometimes I want it to be awkward. You know it’s not really, it’s trying to, it’s trying to get beneath the expected idea. And the best way I know to do that is to break the line, right, in unexpected ways, that are sometimes successful and sometimes not.
Kevin Young: Well also I’m glad you brought her up because she’s another nineteenth century giant of course but also someone who’s thinking about the self in a very different way. The self as a society but also a society of one that I think this I is kind of circling.
Eliza Griswold: I absolutely think so. Right. I absolutely think. I mean I grew up with Dickinson’s poems on my wall. You know, I mean this and a lot of—so I think as a poet sometimes or as a human like I’m sort of kneejerk anti-intellectual. Like I will naturally respond against what I think is going to sound bloviated or learned, do you know? But I think these early influences of poetry and psalm, right, were pretty—and you know I’ve talked about this a little bit before, with the blues and with the Afghan poems, like the intonations, which I really think are incantatory, of folk singing—I don’t know that I naturally possess that but that’s what moves me. That, the idea of poetry as ceremony. Right? Of really trying to invoke another register, that I really go for.
Kevin Young: Well that’s really powerful. You put it well but I too think that, you know, that ceremonial ritual part of poetry, which goes to form but also to song and as you say psalm, I think that’s really important. Well tell us a little bit more about the Afghan poems. You’ve translated and written of landays from contemporary Afghanistan in a book called “I Am the Beggar of the World.” So you gathered those from—how? Tell us about that process.
Eliza Griswold: All right. So as a journalist I’ve worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan since October 2001, like many of my colleagues. And over time I started to, once when I was—I’m just trying to think how to do this well. So I came across this story about young women who were being—one young woman who, actually her family had killed her for not being allowed to write poetry. Right?
Kevin Young: Wait wait wait. Back up. She wasn’t allowed to write poetry, and she wrote it and got killed.
Eliza Griswold: That’s what I understood at first. And the way that this story came to me was that she was a member of a secret literary society in Afghanistan called Mirman Baheer. And they operate openly in Kabul, every Friday they meet they have poetry readings or lectures, but they operate secretly in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Like they’ll have a member from Kabul go on the radio and be like, hey here’s our poetry. They literally have a poetry hotline number, right? And young girls, many who cannot go to school, who aren’t allowed, will call in and read their poems. Right? It’s pretty amazing. So this one had been one of their members and I wanted to write about them but I also wanted to write about them because the one poem that survived this young woman was a landay. It was a 2-line 22-syllable form that’s a folk form passed, you know, mouth to mouth, ear to ear over millennia. They were traded and they still are around fires but more often like at weddings. It’s a rural tradition. And we’ve talked about a little bit, they function a little bit like rap music. Where you like swap out one word that, like, first they were about British soldiers being terrible, then they were about Russian soldiers, and now they’re about Americans. And the word for American is Angrezi which is the same as British, right. So anyway. So just amazing poems. And when I went to Afghanistan to track down this young woman, track down her story, what I found is she had actually set fire to herself, which is quite common in Afghanistan, because her parents had heard her reading the poems over the phone and they thought she was reading to a boy. Right. It just really, I mean just an unbelievable story. So working with these women, I was with a wonderful photographer Seamus Murphy who I work with a lot, and we discovered how relevant these poems—they are so sexy and funny, they are so subversive, right. I mean my favorite one says, you know, “When sisters sit together they’re always praising their brothers. When sisters sit together they’re always praising their brothers. When brothers sit together they’re selling their sisters to others.” Right. I mean some of them I can’t even say on the radio they’re so dirty. Right? And you hear these whispered under burqas and what they do is completely confound any facile notion of an Afghan woman as a mute blue ghost. Right. Which I myself have been, like over a decade, been like, I understand the nature of her subjugation better than she understands it—nonsense.
Kevin Young: Wow. Right. Right. And they’re uttering and creating poems for millennia that resist any easy notion—
Eliza Griswold: About the size of their husband’s manhood—I mean literally, man, they will take it down. You know?
Kevin Young: Yeah.
Eliza Griswold: So it’s pretty amazing.
Kevin Young: And so in the book itself you translated and gathered them?
Eliza Griswold: Yep. So I went, you know, because Afghanistan is familiar to me, you know, I went a couple of times and I wasn’t quite sure how to do it because it’s a rural tradition. And the ones I wanted to hear most were the ones—I wanted to trace how the American occupation had really impacted culture. Right? So this is one lens through which to do that. Because they sing about bipilot, which means a plane without a pilot, bi is without, a pilot—which is a drone. So Seamus and I started by going to refugee camps around the capital, Kabul, because that was a safe way to access rural people, and then little by little we we went more into the countryside into active war zones to get them. And that was really humbling and freaking amazing. You know, to hear women saying, this is what I saw yesterday, you know, my son was—and the Taliban uses them sometimes. I mean they are really—
Kevin Young: Uses the form?
Eliza Griswold [00:20:46] Uses the form. To you know, to like, at that point they were talking about Bush and Obama. Right. And I mean it’s, it’s amazing.
Kevin Young: And all that’s captured in the book?
Eliza Griswold: It is indeed. It’s all in the book. Yeah, it’s all in the book.
Kevin Young: How great. And do you feel like that influenced your poetry?
Eliza Griswold: Yes. O.K. So it influenced my poetry because it’s a folk form and it is so free and it is so honest and it helped me get over some of my inherited, like—not scholarly so much but sort of hierarchical notions that poetry should be a certain way. And the audacity to translate them. Do you know? I don’t speak Pashto. I can—there are about nine words, so, and I can read Arabic and they use Arabic characters, so by the end of doing the translation I could be like, oh this says moon, June, my darling. And that’s all it says. Right? So talking to different young women about like, this is how I would translate it, like it just was a kind of a freedom.
Kevin Young: It was a process, it sounds.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah.
Kevin Young: And a collaborative one, you feel?
Eliza Griswold: Totally collaborative. And you know it’s a lot about the condition of women in Afghanistan, the poems are. That’s what they’re singing about. But my—two of my translators—my first translator was a young woman who died in the course of the reporting, of a heart condition. And then my second translator, she received a death sentence, not a threat, but a death sentence from the Taliban that said—she’d worked with Americans for a long time, and it said we know what you’re doing. We have already dispatched the assassin. He’s sanctioned by Islamic law. So there’s no, it’s not, it’s done deal. Right? So to see how—there was no woman immune from the forces of, I mean it’s such a limited word because, the violence associated with the way patriarchy works there—but it’s so much more than that.
Kevin Young: And do you feel like—we’ve just passed the anniversary of 9/11 and some of these things are in the air. How do you—do you go back?
Eliza Griswold: I don’t go back. I haven’t been back. So you know, I think with 9/11, you know I was here on that day and two weeks later I was in Pakistan.
Kevin Young: So you were here in New York?
Eliza Griswold: I was here in New York. I had just become a freelance reporter. I’d done my first story for the London Sunday Times when I found out what had happened around 930 that morning. You know maybe a little earlier. I called the London Sunday Times and asked if they needed a stringer here in New York and they did. They sent me down there and two weeks later they sent me to Pakistan. Right. And that’s part of a whole generation who has a similar story.
Kevin Young: Right.
Eliza Griswold: Right. What I hope that we always understand, when I hear people talking about the horrors of 9/11, which are egregious, and we must understand and honor the great sacrifices of people who lived through them—to not understand the the depth of the violence and conflagration that we have perpetrated on the world in the name of that event over the past 15 years—I don’t think we can mention one without the other in the same breath.
Kevin Young: And so this leads to a question that comes from that, which is how do you think your journalism affects your poetry? I mean, did you think until that moment of yourself as a poet and then you’re off on the other side of the world and you’re like, wait, I’m a journalist? And was that in conflict with the poetry? And more importantly how did it influence?
Eliza Griswold: Yeah. I mean that is exactly what happened. I mean I was writing poems. I had worked at The Paris Review and then a friend of mine had a job at Condé Nast and she was like, I need to hire the next person. I worked there for six months and then I was like, I’m going to go try and be a journalist. So when I first went over to Afghanistan and Pakistan, like, I had written a couple of articles. I’d written almost nothing. Right? When I first became a reporter I was already a poet and I was like, how am I going to feed myself. Right? And I did see this model—you know, it was a different era of journalism, right, so people were traveling around the world, like you know Sebastian Junger would go write about blood diamonds in Sierra Leone, you know, and I was working at Vanity Fair and I was like, that’s a viable—I could do that.
Kevin Young: Yeah. There’s some glamour and you get a little money and your picture’s in the paper.
Eliza Griswold: Like somebody’s paying for your ice cream. That looks like it’s for me. So I set out to do that kind of human rights, social justice type reporting in 2000, early 2001, and then bam, it was 9/11. And that set me out on this whole other journey as a correspondent. And there many people as we’ve talked about who did the same thing. So what has happened for me with the poems is that they have become spaces—my first book of poems was very, like, directly related to the journalism in ways that made me uncomfortable but also allowed me space as a poet that nobody else—like that Mark Strand thing about you better lead an interesting life, I was like, beat this, Mark. Like, you know? Like so it allowed me a landscape that there was no one else who is going to write poems—of course there were. Right? And there—soldiers and all kinds of people doing great work. But at that point it was like O.K., what does it mean to—
Kevin Young: For you—
Eliza Griswold: For me—
Kevin Young: That was the moment that let you write about something beyond what—
Eliza Griswold: Exactly. And it allowed me imagine the authority to write those poems, right. And then they became spaces where what doesn’t belong on a page of journalism—but much of the issues in the journalism, like, this is the moral conundrum here that can never be solved—that became the space of poetry.
Kevin Young: That sounds amazing.
Eliza Griswold: Oh please.
Kevin Young: It does. I mean I think that’s where poetry can do it in less words and then you know with a song in its step, you know.
Eliza Griswold: Yes.
Kevin Young: There is a way that you know these things aren’t anti each other but they I think can go hand in hand. And what you’re saying I think is both in the landays and in your own work there’s a way there’s this space that it creates that isn’t always available in other forms or places.
Eliza Griswold: I think that’s absolutely right.
Kevin Young: So I want to think about the difference between journalism and nonfiction for a moment.
Eliza Griswold: O.K.
Kevin Young: This is a poetry podcast but we’ll allow ourselves—having written nonfiction myself and you know poets I think write the best nonfiction.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah.
Kevin Young: You know, was there a difference for you? When you—and you know in your latest book, which did so well, and congratulations.
Eliza Griswold: Thank you. O.K. So I think being a poet taught me how to look very closely. That there was like an absolute benefit in looking very very closely. I think also the economy of words and that nothing was sacrosanct. Breaking the frame of what was traditional reportage or whatever could be done all the time. And also making clear to a reader the ethical questions that arise all the time. As a human in the act of writing about other humans. I think poetry gave me the feeling that I could do all of that. You know? Does that make sense?
Kevin Young: And “Amity and Prosperity”—it was immersive? Or you know, tell me.
Eliza Griswold: It was like put a bullet in my head immersive. It was seven years of going to these two towns in Appalachia repeatedly during which—so I went there and then I went to Afghanistan. I was going between there and Afghanistan to do this landay book. Right? And I spent year after year with this remarkable family and some of their neighbors who let me witness every aspect of their life coming up against the oil and gas industry. And they didn’t know, none of—I mean when I started reporting it they really didn’t know what was wrong. And it was a leap of faith because I didn’t either. Like I was like what if this is Munchausen? Like what if they, what if we don’t know exactly what’s going on? And what happened over time is that different experts came along to help them and were able to explain not only to them but to me in very clear concrete terms what was going on with these people. So it unfolds in real time and a bit—like it’s like a horror story. You know, like first you have goats aborting fetuses, then you have horses and dogs dying, and then you have these mysterious illnesses, and then you have the smells, and the water going black. And I think in many—but it’s really about people. You know it’s really about how rural Americans have paid for the energy appetites of urban Americans for a century. And we don’t even think about it.
Kevin Young: Did any of that make its way into poems?
Eliza Griswold: Yes! Because the Washington Post Magazine asked me to write a poem form of the book at one point and so I did. At one point I was so frustrated with the reporting and so uncertain that I was like, I’m going to just write a collection of poems. No editor was excited to hear that.
Kevin Young: They didn’t want those?
Eliza Griswold: Shockingly they did not want environmental illness related poetry instead of the book they’d already paid for. Yeah.
Kevin Young: Right right. Exactly. Well, this brings me to your forthcoming poetry book. So “First Person” appears in a poetry book called “If Men, Then”—which you know if we were writing it I would say “if men comma then”—which will be published early next year. Can you tell us anything about how these poems sit in that larger effort?
Eliza Griswold: I tried to do everything with “First Person.” I put one every few pages—
Kevin Young: Sure.
Eliza Griswold: You know, I put them—I knew they weren’t the end. Because if this were the end—poor I. Right? Like hopefully she has a better fate than she ends up in this section.
Kevin Young: “I is sorry.”
Eliza Griswold: Right, exactly. “I is sorry.” I would be still at the impoundment. Right? So they sit as a discrete section in the book and the concerns of the larger project, I hope, arc through, as I said, a reintegration of this I, with some humor and some deference and the admission that that rabid ambitious I is still around. Right? That’s part of it. Like can we really—I can’t subsume that part of myself, I can’t erase that part of myself, but I can attempt to integrate that part of myself. The concerns of the book without knowing—you know, “If Men, Then” comes from a poem that’s written in direct response to Stevens’s “Magnifico” poem, “Metaphors of a Magnifico.”
Kevin Young: Wally Stevens?
Eliza Griswold: Wall. Wally. Wallita. Because he has this line where he’s like, 20 men crossing a bridge, you know, is prelude to a metaphor, right? I think I might have gotten that wrong. O.K. But it’s like that. 20 men crossing a bridge, right? And for a woman, 20 men crossing a bridge into a village—especially for one who’s like, reported on massacres? That ain’t no metaphor. That’s a massacre. Right?
Kevin Young: Sure. And it’s real, it’s not imagined.
Eliza Griswold: Exactly. So I think in some ways taking on that poem and taking on like the legacy of violence but also womanhood, I think—I’m cautious about writing these things at this time because there’s so much in the air and that makes me, you know, cautious about writing them but that’s just what came out when I sat down.
Kevin Young: Yeah. Well I’m excited to see the whole. And we’re really excited to have this as one of our feature poems, so thank you so much.
Eliza Griswold: I am so excited I can’t even tell you. It’s really, it’s so much fun.
Kevin Young: Eliza, thank you for being our feature poet. You can read, listen to, and interact with “First Person” on New Yorker dot com, and you can also find Eliza Griswold’s poem “Towed” in the September 23, 2019, issue of The New Yorker. Eliza Griswold’s latest poetry collection “If Men, Then” is forthcoming in February 2020. Thanks for being here, Eliza.
Eliza Griswold: Thanks for having me, Kevin.
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