Merrill House writer-in-residence Jennifer Grotz reads virtually Saturday
Poet Jennifer Grotz, the November writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington Borough, has moved around a lot.
Early years were spent in Houston and Dallas before the family settled in a small town outside Amarillo. She earned degrees from Tulane in New Orleans, the University of Houston and the University of Indiana, and studied creative writing at the University of Paris. Grotz spent several summers writing and doing literary translations in the French Alps and has read her poetry all over Europe and the U.S. She also runs the prestigious Bread Loaf Poetry Conferences in Middlebury, Vermont, and Sicily, and is a professor at the University of Rochester.
What, then, are her impressions of living and working in the Merrill House?
"Can I reapply? And then reapply again?" Her response is immediate and warm and comes with an appreciative laugh. "This place is incredibly special for a lot of reasons. Some writers can be productive no matter where they are or what they're doing. I'm not one of them. When I'm writing, I'm a homebody. But I instantly felt at home here. The house seems to be endless, and there are so many wonderful books, and at sunset I'll just go from room to room just to see the light."
Grotz, the author of three collections of poetry and a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment of the Arts fellowships, will do a virtual reading Saturday. Connecticut Poet Laureate Margaret Gibson will host.
While many writers explore prose and poetry or move from fiction to nonfiction or even screenplays and teleplays, Grotz says she moved towards poetry at a young age after pondering some intriguing career ideas.
"There weren't a lot of books growing up in our house," she says. "A Bible, the phone book, and a dictionary. When I read the bible at the age of 8, I think my parents knew there was something off about me. But that was my introduction to the English language and poetry. The Bible read like a song. So, at a very young age, I decided I wanted to be a pastor or a country/Western singer.
"Looking back, to my mind, that's exactly what poetry is. With poetry, I'm singing my heart out about what it's like to be human, and to be truthful and helpful."
Grotz's poems are often casually but richly carved with evocative imagery, and she's crafty in her ability to participate as a patient observer who's maybe not as detached from the action as it might originally seem. Beyond the lush imagery, though, in almost sneaky fashion, Grotz will by the end of a poem not only reveal bits of herself but establish a sensorial intimacy that goes well beyond the visual.
Here, for example, are the opening stanzas from the title work from her most recent collection, "Window Left Open."
"What do daisies see with their feathery eye? / Not the night air though it blooms, too, /
because it wants to be seen. It borrows the moths. / Half-asleep, but never asleep, I see /
what they are: perched tightly together like carnations, / a fidgeting corsage of little engines. Or words /
the lamp knows how to translate from / the teeming night. That's what I ask for next, God, / that's why I'll let myself sleep: / translate me."
In terms of process and craft, Grotz says she's not precisely sure how to explain how it all happens. There is a calculated aspect to the writing — and it's something that can require hard work and multiple drafts — but there's also the instinctual, artistic gift that springs forth, too.
"I think a lot through images and a lot of description." she says, "I'm very interested in metaphor, and my rational brain pays attention to that. But the musical stuff does sort of just come out."
A great example of this can be found in her poem "Apricots," another selection from "Window Left Open." A sample:
"Now I stand under the tree and / pluck them one after the other. / Each one tastes different, like a mind having / erratic thoughts. Going into the trance / halfway between eating and thinking, / the thought of an apricot, the apricot of a thought, / whose goodness occurs over time, so that some had been better earlier, others soon / would become correct, I mean ripe."
Grotz says she was writing about an overlap between the sensorial and cerebral. "It's like you become so enmeshed in the sensation of tasting them that it becomes a thought. How did I come up with that? I knew it sounded good, and the fusion of thinking and eating and sensing is all brought to bear with poetry. There's a musical aspect that comes to me instinctively, and it can all be improved through a fusion with doing the work."
Reflecting the recent past
At the Merrill House, the poet says she's been concentrating on poems that will appear in her next book — a collection she describes as unusually somber.
"A lot of the poems in this book are dark; I've experienced a lot of grief and loss recently, and that trickles into the poems. I guess you don't get to choose what you write about," Grotz says. She pauses, thinking, then offers a short laugh. "My mom asks, 'Why are you always so depressing? Can't you be cheerful?' But what interests me is to look at things that are hard to see. And what keeps me compelled is when what I say is the truth but can only express it as a poem."
Grotz's books have been published by elite houses like Graywolf Press and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and many of her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry anthologies, publications as The New Yorker and the New Republic, or featured on NPR. In that fashion, she's slightly amused when asked if fans show up at her reading events and request favorite poems in the manner of concertgoers calling out for a band's hits.
In Grotz's case, poems popular with readers would include "Last Living Castrato," "The Record," "Self-Portrait in an Unnamed Foreign City," "The Conversion of Paul" and the aforementioned "Apricots."
"I was actually thinking about this yesterday," Grotz says, "because I read an article where Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift were interviewed together — and both of them said they DO play their hits. To go to one of their shows is one big deal to fans, so it makes complete sense to play a lot of the the material that made them successful.
"Obviously, that's a very different context from my situation. At Bread Loaf (where she's the director), I have to give a reading each year, sometimes more than one. And it became intimidating to try to pick which older poems to read. For a while, I read only new works, and that way, I could at least measure what I'd done over the past year. Now, though, I tend to mix it up. I'm not sure what I'll do Saturday but I'll probably focus on newer stuff to respect the process here at Merrill."
Grotz should have no problem because, she says, her time at Merrill House has been very productive. She does enjoy "walking in circles" around the borough, and speaks fondly of a visit earlier that day to Sift Bakery in Mystic. "I had a croissant for breakfast and brought home a quiche for dinner," she says. "This is such a beautiful area — I'm surrounded by beauty — but it's also true I don't want to leave this wonderful house. And I think that's the idea."
To see and hear
Who: Jennifer Grotz
What: A virtual poetry reading featuring November's Merrill House writer-in-residence. Connecticut Poet Laureate Margaret Gibson will host.
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
How much: Free
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