Michael A. Griffith
A Brief Bio: Michael A. Griffith began writing poetry while recovering from a life-changing injury and its resulting disability. His chapbook Bloodline will be released in fall 2018 by The Blue Nib and his chapbook Exposed from Hidden Constellation Press is available on Amazon. He is a 2018 Pushcart Prize nominee.
Why not start with a bang–what’s the purpose of poetry?
MG: Heck of a bang, too, Brian. I feel the purpose of poetry is to offer messages in its own uniquely challenging way.
The more common responses we encounter as to the purpose of poetry — to express emotions, to share the human condition, to make sense of life, to portray things witnessed — all fall short of poetry’s uniqueness. Plays, novels, diaries, essays, and more can do all those things.
Poetry uses syntax, wordplay, formats, patterns, and more that no other form of writing does. In doing so, poetry offers readers and writers unique challenges of formation and expression and then interpretation.
The purpose of a poem like Robert Lowell’s wonderful “Skunk Hour” is, in part, to express his feelings, but to do so with a unique choice of words, diction, syntax, line and stanza formation, and more. And since the interpretation of these things is like solving a riddle with no clear answer, we are given a divine challenge. If he were to have written out his feelings as an essay or letter they may be compelling to read, but they would not hold the power and magic of his poem.
When did poetry enter your life–what drew you to it?
MG: I have been actively writing poetry since early 2016, so a bit less than three years. Before that I’d written a few poems in my undergrad and high school days for classes, and when I wrote songs during my time in a rock band about a hundred years ago.
What drew me to start writing poetry in 2016 was my girlfriend.
I was living in a nursing home as I rehabbed from a serious injury in 2015 and 2016. While there I’d write my girlfriend love letters and share what I was feeling with her. She realized I was going stir-crazy and that I needed to feel productive and creative. She encouraged me to try poetry, so I began writing my feelings and ideas down in ways I remembered from my college days and from writing songs.
We went to Barnes and Nobel on one of her visits, and I bought the latest issue of Poetry magazine and the 2016 Poet’s Market. I read the magazine cover-to-cover, marveling at the variety of formats and voices I encountered. I felt that divine challenge I experienced as I riddled over every poem.
I then followed the advice from the Poet’s Market, and soon began editing my scribbles and sending poems out for publication. A few got accepted and I have been rolling along ever since.
And now you have some chapbooks under your belt. What inspired them; what makes them unique?
MG: I have two chapbooks, Bloodline and Exposed, both of which came out very recently.
Bloodline, from my friends at The Blue Nib, is a collection of poems with different voices, themes, and moods. It’s pretty much a sampler of my poetry. Exposed is focused on the themes of my injury and recovery and growing older.
I’m excited to say that Soma Publishing has produced an eBook version of Exposed which contains artwork chosen by Soma’s founder Mark Anthony Rossi. Mark also wrote an introduction to the eBook, I added three poems to it, and an interview of me by Soma’s Sy Albright is included.
I’m proud to share that the title poem “Bloodline” has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize this year
The title poem “Exposed” is a very early poem of mine from 2016 which was accepted just as I began sending poems out. Both poems seem to resonate with readers.
How do you write a poem?
MG: Chances are a poem’s inspiration will be a memory, an image, or a phrase that comes to me. I’ll either record what I am thinking, or the poem will just come rushing out of me. Either way, once a first draft is written I must resist the temptation to swoon over it; I must realize it needs time to process, time to ferment, time to brew.
Editing is as big a part of writing as idea creation. Ideas come easily; editing is hard work that I am afraid not enough writers enjoy doing.
If I am able, I will read my poem at my local poetry critique group and they’ll put it through the proverbial wringer, highlighting issues I probably would never have spotted on my own, making the poem a much better piece of writing.
I need to learn when to stop fidgeting with my poems and be satisfied and call them “done” once and for all. I’ll leave the poems in Bloodline and Exposed alone now that they are in book form, but it’s difficult for me to stop editing my work.
Is there a “best part” of writing poetry for you? A “worst part”?
MG: Thinking about the latter question, it occurs to me that there is no one best part of the process of poetry, just as there is no one best part of making lasagna or making love. Okay, eating lasagna is superb, but that is not the same as the process of making lasagna. It is the outcome of the process. Laying the layers of pasta or pouring the sauce, it’s all one thing. Is the thought of making love, the foreplay, the climax, or that one second about 23 minutes in when you…
No. It’s all one thing, the process, which is its own reward. There is no real “best” beyond the final product, a lasagna or messy sheets, or a finished poem.
Answering generally, the hardest part of poetry is the unfortunate status of poetry. Who reads poetry but poets? The average fan of music is not in a band, yet the average fan of poetry writes poems. We’re kind or writing for the “in” crowd yet hoping to reach the average person, a person whose last experience with poetry left a bad taste in the ear – Shakespeare in high school or that weird instructor they had for English Lit 101 back in freshmen year.
Likewise, the holders of advanced English degrees and MFAs tend to look askance at those of us who are not of those pedigrees. Despite my master’s degree from a damn fine and pricey university, it’s not an MFA.
The lack of those letters from my past seem to have created a glass ceiling for me and many of my peers trying to make a convincing impression in larger markets.
Do you have any favorite poets?
MG: Of poets still writing I have to list Shirley Bell who edited Bloodline. Her own book, The Still Room, also from The Blue Nib, is not to be missed. My friend Liz Balise from Scranton, PA, doesn’t publish much – and I am hoping to change that in 2019 – is just incredible. So is Anne Walsh Donnelly. Every one of her poems is its own unique wonder.
Of poets who are more established, I enjoy Patricia Smith, sam sax, Marilyn Chin, and Ted Kooser, among others. Poets no longer with us I enjoy include Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others.
Lyrics to songs are probably many persons’ introduction to poetry that they feel they own, they feel they can live through. I have felt very true connections to the lyrics of Pete Townshend, Ian McColloch (of Echo and the Bunnymen), Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.), Paul Weller (from The Jam), and Elvis Costello.
Life has a way of seeping into a poet’s work. What parts of it inform your poetry?
MG: My injury, recovery, then disability come up a lot, as has my divorce of several years ago. Occasionally something that went on in my day or a song I heard will give me a nudge to write. Family and my own personal history (or sense of it) come out quite a bit in my works.
It’s all fuel for thoughts and feelings, so it’s all fuel for poetry.
Now, can I challenge myself and readers by writing a compelling poem that does not alienate them? That’s the real art of poem-making.
How would you describe your style of poetry?
MG: Hmm. I think readers are better-suited to give an answer here. Those with more technical knowledge of poetic styles, too. (Hello, MFAs?)
I write very much more often in non-rhyming free verse than in any format. I have done haiku and some other forms of very short poetry and have played with rhyming formats, but I end up tripping myself up when I try to get fancy or try to use structure.
The ideas and emotions must flow as they will. If a format can work around them, fine. Fire and heat are hardly ever contained. Likewise, I am not sure the things we feel can be easily or well-contained.
If you could let our readers know just one thing, what would it be?
MG: I learned many things while going through physical rehab and later going through life with my new disability. Maybe the most important thing I learned is that we are our own challenges. Yes, that I am now missing the lower part of my right leg is a challenge. The larger challenge is how I choose to cope and manage life with that loss. Attitude really IS everything.
What’s next for you?
But on the poetry front, I will be doing some readings and panels in my area (near Princeton, NJ) and I’m submitting the manuscript for my third chapbook, New Paths to Eden, to publishers.
New Paths to Eden is a collection of love poems, and, as we know, love can be sweet and it can be sour. It can be quiet or loud. So this is not a sappy collection, though it is a lot lighter in places than Exposed is.
I edit a tiny poetry site called Hidden Constellation when time allows and I’d love to publish a Best of Hidden Constellation book as well as several chapbooks from poets that I feel deserve greater exposure in 2019.
Thank you very much for these wonderful questions, Brian! I enjoyed our interview.
If your readers would like to contact me, my WordPress site is https://michaelgriffithwordpress.wordpress.com.
Hidden Constellation’s address is https://hiddenconstellation.wordpress.com.