A Poet and Photographer

A Poet and Photographer

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is the author of Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton, 2020), which Edwidge Danticat describes as “radiantly elegiac,” a book “we all need for living, loving, and letting go.” 

Her other books include Lighting the Shadow, Mule & Pear, The Requited Distance, and Miracle Arrhythmia. Griffiths’ work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and many other journals and magazines.

In addition to her literary portraits, fine art photography, and lyric videos, Griffiths’ visual projects include the noted “P.O.P” (Poets on Poetry). This intimate video series of micro-interviews of nearly one hundred contemporary poets is featured online by the Academy of American Poets.

In 2019, Griffiths was selected by Atlanta Celebrates Photography (ACP) as one of the ten “Ones to Watch.” Her photography has also appeared in Showtime’s The L Word: Generation Q reboot. Her literary honors include an Inaugural Poetry Award presented by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association in 2012 for Mule & Pear, and fellowships from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Cave Canem, and Yaddo. She lives in New York.

Interview with Rachel Eliza Griffiths

By Sara London, WTP Poetry Editor

London: First, congratulations on your moving new book Seeing the Body! It’s unusual to find photographs in a volume of poetry, and your vision and voice come together here in striking juxtapositions. The black-and-white self-portraits depict a solitary odyssey: a lone figure amidst hauntingly silent landscapes. Aptly for a book of elegy—poems about the loss of your mother—we observe absence lashed to presence in these images. In your poem “About Flowers,” you write: “I must stop gathering the stems & dust &/the nights I walked through my mind/holding a camera against the darkening.” How did you toggle between the two art forms? And is it reasonable to assume that they helped you navigate grief?

Griffiths: In each medium I was fascinated and haunted by the notion of memory, functioning and dysfunction in relationship to grief. Photographs during this period eluded language yet failed to serve my need to articulate the interiority of my grief. Poetry requires a visual language of letters and grammar that I also felt was inadequate. When I joined both mediums, I found myself as close as possible to creating the complicated instrument that encouraged me to let go and to be lost in myself. Being lost and letting go of “controlling” a single medium appealed to me as I struggled to find something inside of me that resembled my own mourning voice.

London: Estrangement and resilience emerge powerfully in these poems—poems that grapple with issues of identity, gender, and violation. I’m thinking of the poem “My Rapes,” or of “Whipping Tree.” In “Myth,” which mourns the murder of Michael Brown just days after your mother’s death, you write: “I whispered/his name against the barrel of August/that shot through the blue clouds.” Resentment and loss ignite an “alphabet” (a metaphorical motif in the book) of despair in your work, yet the poems are also powered by syllables of reclamation. Could you address the role of the creative imagination, for you, in a world of racial injustice?

Griffiths: To survive, I must imagine a world that does not require the oppression and massacre of Black Lives. I must imagine that Black joy is worth the discomfort and dismantling of others’ dismissal of Black life, whether that dismissal happens through individuals or institutions. I must imagine a self, an identity that is not merely reactive to the battlefield and sirens of people who are more afraid that they will lose themselves if they do not have Black people to torture, sell, or kill.

London: The imagination as a generator of hope—how could we ever cope without it? And the legacy of harm to Black lives continues so tragically today—along with the pandemic ravages that highlight society’s cruel inequities. But the “body” in your poems is multi-metaphorical. Could you speak about the idea of “seeing” the body—and your book’s title?

Griffiths: The idea orbits how we establish relationships with our own bodies and the bodies that help to form a map, a geography, a nation, a joy, a grief, that gathers to form the bodies in which we are transformed through our histories, memories, injuries, and healing. Seeing my mother’s body as she stopped breathing altered my own breath but it also altered my previous notions of what death might be. Seeing her body helped me accept death in ways that have transformed and empowered me. Seeing her body inside of my own body has given me a language of courage and transformation. The body I refer to is also this country. It is, too, the body of language itself and how fluid, how wounded, how resilient, how alive we are in our attempts to articulate what and whom we care most deeply about. Seeing “the body” means I can see my own mortality, my own breath, with love, because I am willing to give and to receive love. My “seeing” has no end—it is a continuum where my fears and strengths can stretch and constrict like the muscles of my heart.

London: I’d love to learn a bit about your influences. Was Carrie Mae Weems, who has photographed herself in a range of explorations of history and identity, important to you during your development as a photographer? Your earlier book, Mule & Pear, addresses issues of literary inheritance, summoning voices from the written worlds of Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison, and others. Who most inspired your love of the word?

Griffiths: My mother and my great-grandmother, Lucille McKay, most inspired my love of the word. When I was young, I was prowling around my mother’s bookcases when I discovered Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou. As a photographer, I was very late and self-taught, when I discovered the works of Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Ming Smith. I was so overwhelmed by Weems’ Kitchen Table series, which brought together a visible typeset narrative and then those black-and-white photographs that reminded me of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha, and so much of my own childhood. Morrison could do so much with language that I’m certain my lyric imagery is very much drawn from what, and how, she celebrated Black life, especially Black womanhood by a deliberate, visible language. 

London: When did you begin writing poetry, and do you write with ease? Do you revise often? Ever experience dry spells?

Griffiths: Since I was a small child, I’ve always been a visual artist and poet. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be—a creator, a maker, a jazz singer, or a kind of inventor. I thought that writing poetry was as close as I might ever be to becoming an astronaut. Yes, I revise frequently and fervently across the mediums I use. It’s an inseparable organ of discovery in my process. I like to practice, to experiment. I don’t mind “failing” because I know even when I miss what I thought I was after there will be something else that will shine, wink, and announce itself. Sometimes it becomes the intention I was after the whole time. I don’t have dry spells. 

London: You’ve mentioned that you’re working on a novel now—how is that going?

Griffiths: It’s too soon for me to even have a way to qualify time or energy at this point with it. There are so many novelists I admire that I’m resistant to saying much more about my process except to quote them because they know better than me – they’ve come through it. I’m listening and transmitting language at a new frequency, which is prose, and that is pretty intense.

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