THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
The book’s title was my first choice and it has remained the same for several years while I was working on a full book of poems and the chapbook. I loved the word “Capacious” and felt it encompassed the spaciousness and largess that I wanted to convey about this world and the possibilities inherent in our lives and the lives of creatures that share our world.
I looked through four or five photos and an image of a painting of the minarets, a mountain sub-range in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the setting for the poem, “Capacious Earth.” Then I remembered a 1936 photo I’ve always liked of Sierra mountaineer Norman Clyde descending Alta Peak in the Sierra. I thought it would be perfect for the cover because it shows the daring and strength of the “famous” climber (Norman Clyde) that I refer to in the poem, “Capacious Earth” (though his face is in shadow and so he’s also an anonymous climber, which I liked) and that he’s in a very capacious place. Being out on a limb, on a tightrope of sorts, taking risks, and exalting in the beauty and wonders both in the natural world and in a relationship are threads that I feel run through the book’s poems.
What were you trying to achieve with your chapbook? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it?
I wanted to convey, I think, something that I didn’t have words for. I felt that the best way to do that would be to detail the experiences themselves and let those moments speak for themselves. Often we feel two or more things at once and I hope that the poems convey this fractured and very human nature of existence. My thought was about creating poems that would reflect the unexpected and mysterious nature of the heart, how loving someone unconditionally can be the most upending and life-changing experience one can have. For me, that love was linked to the natural world and all the beings that reside in it and share our world with us. I believe real life or actual connection occurs in small moments between people, sometimes with words but more often not, as words can be poor conveyors. What is telling, I think, is the actions of the two people when they are together, what they actually do to help one another, console, be open, truthful, trusting, and have concern above all for another’s well-being.
I chose the other poems in the collection to hopefully speak to this central relationship by envisioning how the content of those poems intersected that relationship somehow, whether that be in the historical lives of others, people and animals going about their lives, or an experience in a wilderness landscape. To me our lives and the lives of everything around us is intertwined. One poem speaking to another is a tricky thing and it’s up to readers to decide what kind of connections they see, where the poem takes them. It’s an intuitive process and sometimes a poet may not see the connections until later or see different interactions that may not have been intended. But I feel that what we experience in the natural world can reflect or inform our inner and outer life, sometimes in surprising ways. It’s a compassionate exchange.
Others may see other things in the poems in the collection. I’m always interested in what others see in my poems. Once you send a poem out into the world it belongs to everyone to make of what they wish.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
It’s an entirely intuitive process that I used in combining older poems with newer ones for Capacious Earth. I didn’t know what the book would look like until after I saw the poems side by side, added new poems, took out others, and reassembled them several times. Then I began to see perhaps a pattern of sorts. I found some of the older poems spoke to the newer ones. In going over the manuscript, I took out older poems that I felt were weak or didn’t serve the book, even though I was attached to some of them. I had to be ruthless in cutting those out.
My writing practice for Capacious Earth was to go camping or hiking in the wilderness or taking a walk by a creek or meadow near where I lived, bring my notepad or laptop with me, and write whatever happened to come up. In writing these poems, some of which were very emotional for me, it helped to be outside. When I’m outside, I often have a thought about a sentence or a word which will then start a poem. Or I’ll have a vivid memory of an interaction that I feel needs its story told. I usually come at poems in an oblique way. I love to observe what’s going on around me, the small details. I also read a lot of historical and science-related nonfiction, and something will grab me and need to be explored.
In a first draft, I just write out everything that comes to mind without editing or judgment. Then I go back, and delete, or rearrange, or recreate, based on whether something sounds right or not, a better word could be used, or the syntax isn’t conveying something that it might need to. I often think of what other poets have done and look them up for inspiration and to jolt myself into writing perhaps in a sharper or different way. Once I feel a poem is complete, I’m done with it, and move on to another one. I was a reporter at one time, so I’m accustomed to rewriting and editing, which is helpful, because I’m not that attached to words or lines.
I have a poet friend who reviews my poems and tells me what works for her in the poem and what doesn’t and suggests changes I might consider. Or she has questions about a line or stanza that lead me to think about where the poem is going. That’s enormously helpful.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
The opening poem, “Only This” was always my first poem in this collection. I also knew what the final poem would be. After that, I laid the rest of the pages on the floor and decided how they sounded next to one another.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I like poems that hold back a bit from an emotional standpoint. I think a poem is more interesting and powerful when something that’s very emotional or poignant is understated, or contrasted with something that seems entirely unrelated (but is, in some way). It’s important I think to have emotional honesty in poems, to tell the truth, and not be afraid of your truths. That’s all any poet or writer has is the truth of what the person or personas inside them have to say. I also like to change the subject in a poem and take it to another visual or mental perspective, much like our own contrary minds work. One moment you’re watching a bird’s path along a rail, then you notice there’s snow on distant peaks, then someone unexpected knocks on your door, who seems familiar though you never met them, and so on. I love poems that hit a true emotional cord or take me into the life (or lives) of another or that suddenly veer to a natural-world place or image. I find that captivating.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
The poem is, “Lake Sunrise” which is a little short of the middle of the collection. I chose this poem because it shows a moment which was quiet and I felt heartfelt for the two people who are central in the book. It also shows, at least for me, the tenderness and desire that was uninhibited in those moments. It also shows in my view the connection, the unspoken need. There were other instances like that and other poems that I wrote about those moments, but this was the one that made it into the book. It sort of encapsulates the bond. The poem, “Blessing,” which is one of the first poems in the book, was a later event that spoke to me very deeply because it was a purely spontaneous, visceral touch that went on and on and which I didn’t want to end. “Lake Sunrise” had just a tinge of poignancy, but “Blessing” shows, I feel, how both joy and sadness can sit side by side. So, here is “Lake Sunrise.”
My intertwined hands reach out to you
in your grandfather’s red plaid shirt. A need
to touch again. There by my office
door. There’s a yellow glow in that warm cave
and nearly all the occupants have left
the building as if they will awake
under some new star
and never return. I say, you look good. Our eyes
hold each other, linger. The colts
are loose now. A colleague interrupts us
and then capitulates.
You bend your head and wish him away. Alone now,
your cheek near mine when I offer a map
of the far-off state in which you’ll travel
tonight after a Nevada car camp and waves
of Utah cliffs. Our arms then hands touch
near the 40th parallel which I’ll see
as photos later in your office with October darkness
in the window.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
What scares me the most is when I stop writing for a time. I’m anxious that I’ll never start writing again. I feel a need to get back to it. I assume that my first draft of a poem may or may not work and at any rate, it’s just the beginning and I’ll need to revise. I assume some poems will be bad at first, or the words will fail me, or it’s just not going in a direction that works. I’m not afraid of failure because if you work at something, you’ll sometimes fail. I expect my poems or a book to be passed over many times, and they have been. I try not take it to heart because it’s not productive. I just keep working at it, trying to make the poem better or a book better. I think that’s the important thing.
I love the solitary act of creating a poem. I was an artist, drawing and painting in my 20s, and it’s the groove that you get into when creating that’s wonderful to me. I love to hash out a poem, then go back and edit and change things, sometimes dramatically, to get where I want a poem to be. I love the physical act of typing or writing a poem and the thrill of not knowing where the poem is going, what images or lines will arise, until its finished, and even then, not knowing exactly what you have, as if there is another force that’s beyond you at work, which I feel there is. I feel a poem isn’t really finished but that the poem ends without an ending. A good poem shouldn’t really end but leave a reader thinking about possibilities or a thread that makes them think of connections that the author may not have intended or thought of.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
Really, almost anything works for me. I love reading other poets. I like Barry Lopez’ book, Home Ground, Language for the American Landscape. I like nonfiction about pre-industrialized America. I’m fascinated with what early explorers saw—a virtual virgin wilderness populated by American Indians. At one time I read a lot of nature writing, like Loren Eiseley (The Immense Journey), Mary Austin (Land of Little Rain), Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), Gretel Ehrlich (The Solace of Open Spaces), and Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place) to name a few. These authors have stayed with me.
What are you working on now?
A new collection of poems.
What books are you reading that we should also be reading?
Madness, Rack, and Honey by poet Mary Ruefle, Pacific Walkers by poet Nance Van Winckel, Sand Theory by poet William Olsen, Proofs and Theories, Essays on Poetry by Louise Gluck, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard by poet Franz Wright, and Interrogation Palace by poet David Wojahn.
Purchase Capacious Earth from Finishing Line Press.
Lois Grunwald’s poems have appeared in the Iowa Poetry Source anthology Leaves By Night, Flowers by Day. An author of many science and natural-history related articles for her work for environmental agencies, she also has led Sierra Club groups on wilderness conservation projects. She received a B.A. degree in journalism from California State University, Fresno, and holds an MFA in Poetry from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Capacious Earth was a finalist in several poetry publications before being selected by Finishing Line Press. It is her first book of poems. Lois grew up in California’s Central Valley and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ventura Country, and Southern Oregon. She now resides in eastern Arizona. Visit her online at