Megan Grumbling’s first collection of poems, Booker’s Point, was just released by University of North Texas Press as the winner of the Vassar Miller Prize. Her work has been awarded the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the Robert Frost Award from the Robert Frost Foundation, a Hawthornden Fellowship at Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, and a St. Boltoph Emerging Artist Award, and her poems have appeared such places as Poetry, The Iowa Review, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, The Antioch Review, Verse Daily, and Memorious. One of her poems from Issue 14 of Memorious, “Leaving the Room,” was selected by Claudia Emerson for Best New Poets 2010 and was a finalist for Best of the Net 2010. Her latest poems in Memorious 25 are part of the spoken opera Persephone in the Late Anthropocene, a co-creation of Megan and librettist and composer Denis Nye, which will be produced by Hinge/Works in May of 2016, at SPACE Gallery, in Portland, Maine.
Grumbling serves as Reviews Editor for The Café Review, a poetry and arts journal, and has since 2004 written weekly theater criticism for the Portland Phoenix. She teaches at the University of New England and Southern Maine Community College.
Can you tell me about the origins of this book, and particularly about the character Booker?
When this book began, I thought I was compiling an oral history of the land around where I grew up. I had just returned to Maine from grad school in New York, and was feeling a prodigal’s need to reconnect with my home town, Wells, and Ell Pond, a lake down the road from my childhood house. My father introduced me to Booker, the old guy who lived across the pond who was its unofficial “Mayor,” and who I’d somehow never met, despite all eighteen years of growing up there. This woodsman, surveyor, and jack-of-many-trades knew about the pond, land, trees, stones, and everything else I wanted to know, or had never even thought to want to know. We tromped around the woods together, I helped dig holes or look for white stones, and I listened – and recorded a lot of – his stories. And I found myself unexpectedly moved in many ways by our work and connection. Soon enough I was writing a portrait, and poetry, and eventually I made my way into the poems myself.
This book exemplifies what is often called “poetry of place”– how does your relationship to your home state of Maine, and the particularly geography of where you grew up, shape this book?
Booker’s Point is steeped in the landscapes of my home state, some histories of those landscapes – the imagery of pond and wood, the former grazing lands returned to forest, the various town lines and how they were run. But I also meditated on more ambivalent or complicating factors of this place: What I didn’t know or even knew wrong, after all my years of living there; the human hand in the pond’s natural history; the challenge of holding the home of a place in the face of change. I wrote about these matters in the context of my Maine hometown, but very conscious that I was writing about wholly universal questions that I hope will resonate with many.
What led to your formal choices for this book?
Much of the book’s formalism – blank verse, sonnets, some nonce stuff in pentameter – was a very conscious nod to Frost and the heritage and grace of his conversational voices. This is the case particularly in many of the poems that center on Booker himself, his stories, or history in general. In the poems in which my own voice, experience, or ambivalence are more central, I often found style, music and lineation sometimes becoming more modern, more lyric than narrative, more leap-y and expressionistic.
And sometimes the interweaving of Booker and myself – and occasionally of multiple time frames in a given poem – gave rise to little experiments in a kind of poetic montage. Also, working with many hours of transcript from my recordings of Booker presented interesting challenges, including how to get documentary quotes into pentameter! Frost was again helpful for thinking about this puzzle, as was my work as a reporter and ethnographer, and, though this may sound weird, I kind of had Shakespeare’s myriad pentametric voices in the back of my mind, as a reassurance maybe.
You do not have an MFA, but an MA in journalism from NYU, but you have published widely in journals such as Poetry and The Iowa Review, and you’ve received the Ruth Lilly Award, the St Botolph Award, and many others awards for emerging writers. How did you come to poetry, and how would you describe your alternative path of studying poetry?
I was writing and reading poetry even as a kid, but chose not to pursue it in my higher ed – I wound up studying American Studies, oral history/ethnography, and cultural reporting and criticism. While that decision means I’m not as well networked in the academic writing realm as I might otherwise have been, I think that my path has provided really interesting alternative ways for thinking about story, telling, and voice, and for working with the notion of “no ideas but in things” on very practical levels. I think there are a lot of parallels between good criticism and poetry – using the small and sensual to meditate on the expansive – and my reporting and interviewing really attuned my ear – and my affinities – to people’s tellings.
You have a few poems in the latest issue of Memorious, and I know that you are working on an opera and a book-length collection that include poems. Can you tell us about both of these projects?
The project, Persephone in the Late Anthropocene, re-imagines the Persephone myth in the age of climate change – she comes and goes between worlds erratically, drinks too much, takes a human lover. It’s essentially a story about our narratives: how we tell ourselves and what we’ve done to the planet, which I think is fundamental to how we understand, grieve, and respond. The opera version of Persephone is co-created by myself as librettist and composer Denis Nye, and it premieres this May in Portland, Maine, with a site-specific installation as set and an amazing team of artists who have been committed to its development for nearly two years now. Denis’s score is a gorgeous, post-Romantic post-Romantic chamber work for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, filtered live through a digital delay to evoke the disjunction and crisis – as well as the beauty – of our modern world; the libretto ranges from lyric verse to edgy, magical realist prose poems and an imagined Farmer’s Almanac.
Now that the artists are in rehearsals, I am trying to finish the book form of this project, which tells the same story but includes additional threads and layers. A book is the form I started in, but I finished it in libretto mode, when I had grown immersed in writing for voice and staging rather than the page. So now the challenge is to make that translation back to page, and it’s an interestingly confounding one at times. It’s really making me think about form and page space in ways I haven’t had cause to before.
For stories, poems, interviews, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.