10 Questions for Benjamin S. Grossberg
- By Abby MacGregor
Last time, that was nice, all of us there, and her sat sideways
on a chair, short of breath after bringing out the yams, a slab
in their thick pyrex. And the last time I saw Michael naked
was nice because I noted the color of his skin—cream with one
tablespoon of coffee stirred in, that precise, one tablespoon. . .
—from "Thanksgiving at Mom's, That", Fall 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 3)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Maybe the first real poem I ever wrote was in my sophomore year of college—a lyric in which I imagined twisting my hair into a wick and lighting it. I was a hippie back then, so there was lots of hair to work with. The reason I might call this my “first real poem” is because my interest was almost entirely taken over by the image of a body slowly melting, like a candle. The poem sounds maudlin, and probably it was, but it was almost completely given over to the senses—much more of a surrealist painting than a diary entry. And that marked a beginning for me. The poem was printed in the 1990 or 1991 issue of the Rutgers College undergraduate literary magazine, The Anthologist, so it still exists somewhere out in the world. That said, it would probably be better for all concerned if it remained undisturbed there.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I learned a lot about the power of voice—the dramatic possibilities of poetry—from D.H. Lawrence, who was one of my earliest poetry crushes. In my first book, there’s a poem called “Banana Flower,” which could have been a gay out-take from Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers. I also learned a lot from Sylvia Plath, especially about the image—the way an image can leap from a poem. Plath set a high bar which still, twenty-seven years later, seems to me the essential one to clear: the image you can’t not see. The ending of “Lady Lazarus”—what I saw in my head the first time I read those final lines—is as vivid to me now as if I’d had a poster of it on my bedroom wall all these years.
What other professions have you worked in?
I started graduate school at twenty-two, so my first real job—or half-real, I guess—was as a teaching assistant (we were called “assistants,” but we had our own unsupervised classes.) I was a T.A. for the seven years of my graduate program, and then I went to teach at a small liberal arts college. So I’ve never worked in any profession but the one I am in now. I wonder if I’ve missed something essential about our moment, and our American brand of capitalism, by not exploring work worlds outside of academia.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I wrote this poem after a Thanksgiving dinner at which my mother did not almost collapse while bringing out a tray of yams. But something happened that alarmed me. Strangely, I can’t recall what it was now—likely some gesture of exhaustion or sharp twinge of pain in my mother’s face. That Thanksgiving was great. My volatile family deeply enjoyed each other’s company, something that doesn’t happen all that often. But whatever I saw in my mother ignited a terror in me. As it happened, the year following that dinner was brutal for her. I won’t go into the details because they’re pretty awful, but I wrote the poem before any of that went down. What do we know—know in our bodies or in the recesses of our minds—that we aren’t consciously aware of knowing? I think in that moment, when my mother showed that she might not be well, I really felt and understood mortality—understood it in a way that I just hadn’t before—and writing the poem was a way to deal with that understanding. There were other kinds of endings in my head as I was writing the poem, and these come out on the page: the end of a relationship with a man named Lucas, the death of the dog I’d had for seventeen years. But what inspired the poem, what set it in motion, was a very frightening glimpse that I can’t quite recall.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
For my book Space Traveler, I was inspired by science fiction, by the idea of life on other planets. Does that count at a location? I am strongly influenced by the natural world—like the flowering cherry trees in “Thanksgiving at Mom’s, That.” Images from the natural world occur throughout my poems. But they aren’t necessarily place-specific. I’m reminded of what Frost says about knowledge (or imagery) sticking haphazardly to poets “like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Many of the burrs that stick to me are close observations of nature’s processes, but I don’t seem to be attached to any particular fields.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I don’t, but it does seem like I do chores first: wash dishes, fold laundry, scoop the litter box. I’m not sure if this is ritual or procrastination.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I go to a great poetry group that meets every Tuesday night. I am lucky to have it: the members are smart and warm. And for work that I’m really unsure about, I go to my buddy Clare, who is an absolutely brilliant poet and a terrific reader.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
In college, I took a lot of classes in clay work. I’m not sure I was a great sculptor, but I loved how huge blocks of time got swallowed up by the clay. I could spend three or four hours at a mound of clay with no awareness of time passing. I get that time-zap with poems, too, but not as reliably, and never for so long. Maybe it’s the nature of the art—or of decades and decades as a practitioner. But ceramic sculpture still calls to me. I hope to get back to it one day.
What are you working on currently?
This summer I finished a new book manuscript, My Husband Would, which the University of Tampa Press will publish in 2019. “Thanksgiving at Mom’s, That” will appear in this collection. In terms of new poems, I’ve spent the last year writing about my mother. I’m not sure anyone will want to read these poems, but I needed (and still need) to write them.
What are you reading right now?
It’s the start of term now, so all I’m reading is student texts. But this summer, I read two beautiful—even breathtaking—novels. The first was Zero K by Don Delillo, and the second, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. Both made me wish I was a novelist.
BENJAMIN S. GROSSBERG is director of Creative Writing at the University of Hartford. His books include Space Traveler and Sweet Core Orchard, winner of the 2008 Tampa Review Prize and a Lambda Literary Award. His chapbook, An Elegy, was recently published by Jacar Press.