INTERVIEWS December 6, 2019

A Conversation with Gregory Orr

Gregory Orr’s career as one of the premier American lyric poets has spanned four decades, with eleven books of poetry, most recently The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write; a memoir; two books on craft; and a heap of awards. But who's counting? Not Orr. He’s busy clearing his head with either yoga or jogging, not to mention founding and running the University of Virginia’s MFA program, while still finding time to write seven days a week. His book A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry has become assigned reading in MFA programs across the country. Orr chatted with Booth this past spring about his legacy, our hunger for authenticity, and the quest for poetry at the boundary between chaos and order.

Michael Gawdzik: Let’s first talk about your primer. What were your expectations for the reception of the book versus the reality of it?

Gregory Orr: Well, the reality of any book publication is that you never know what’s going to happen. If you have expectations, you’re asking for trouble. It’s better to talk about motivations for producing the thing. About that I can say something more sensible. I’ve taught poetry, reading, and writing, but mostly writing, for forty-four years at the college level. And now that I’m getting ready to retire, one of my motivations is to leave a kind of legacy. So I tried to put into the primer what I’ve come to think and know and assert about poetry. It’s a compromise between teaching and not teaching.

MG: What legacy do you think you’re leaving?

GO: Poetry writing more or less saved my life. I came out of a childhood background of extended trauma, or trauma that extended itself pretty deep. And one way you can think about the violence of trauma, when it affects young people, is that it abolishes meaning in the life. It abolishes the chance of a life being meaningful—having coherence, having order. What I discovered about writing poetry is that you are able to create order out of your own chaos.

The peculiar circumstances of my individual trauma—growing up in the country, being involved in a hunting accident at the age of twelve, killing my younger brother, then two years later when I was fourteen my mother dies overnight—what you get is the violent disappearance of stable presences in your life and an inability of culture or the people around you to explain what happened, to reassure you, to assert some kind of coherence.

For instance, I grew up going to church, but like a lot of kids I was doing it because that’s what I had to do. But the day my brother died somebody said to me, “Your brother is in heaven now, feasting with Jesus.” And, poof, that was it. That’s a really dumb idea. That’s just totally not credible. I needed explanation and credibility then, and that wasn’t it. And it closed the door to that kind of order making.

So I proceeded for several years in guilt and silence, fear, despair. Somebody, a high school English teacher, showed me poetry, encouraged me to write, and when I wrote a poem I thought, “This is it.” It was the first ray of light I felt. 

The first book I published had absolutely no mention of my brother’s death or my mother’s, except in extremely cryptic ways that no one could possibly get. My second book, I finally was able to write about my brother’s death because I had the skills, the emotional courage, and I knew I needed to do it. Even at the beginning of writing poems I knew I would have to speak of this. And so one of my legacies is the first prose book I wrote about poetry—it’s called Poetry as Survival—and it basically says, “Lyric poetry is one of the things people have always used to survive.” Either writing it or listening to it—in our culture, the way we listen to lyric poetry is through some form of rock and roll. I have yet to meet a person who could have gotten through their fourteenth or fifteenth or sixteenth year without some form of popular music. Usually it’s individual songs, like, “Oh my god, I never would have gotten through my fifteenth year without that song.” And that’s proof that poetry has the power to give people courage, a glimpse of beauty, validation. Popular songs and lyric poetry, they’re really the same thing. Professional poets like to think of poetry as being an elitist, cultural thing, but to me that’s stupid.

MG: With the title The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write, I have to ask, will this be the last love poem you ever write?

GO: Nah, poets are liars. Plato told us that. But it’s a catchy title. Why would it be the last love poem I ever write unless I became a deeply embittered creepy old man who didn’t love anybody? So I hope not. That would be terrible. 

MG: Where do you see this new book on the shelf with the rest of your work?

GO: Interesting question. There are two and a half books of poems from about 2006 to 2013 that were what I would call a “beloved” sequence. They were a somewhat unified theme. And that theme is completed. So this book is more various, although there are some “beloved” poems in there, whatever that might mean. I don’t know. Poets don’t know how their work fits. They just do it. 

MG: Within a book itself, how do you curate your poems?

GO: Painfully. A friend of mine, when she put her last book together, she knew exactly how it was structured. She showed me the book at a certain point, and she had the titles of poems but hadn’t written the poems yet. And I thought, What the fuck? And then I thought, There’s somebody different than me. And she did it. Eventually she wrote those poems, and that was an amazing purposefulness in arrangement. 

What I do? I probably write forty poems for every one that I decide to present to other people, and the poem is what it is. It’s not part of a structure in my mind. So when I finally have what seems to me enough poems to make a book, I start to think, Well, how should I arrange them? Lyric poems tend to be somewhat complete worlds of their own, so if you arrange the same poems in three different orders you get three different experiences for your readers. So I tend to go for one moment of coherence or intensity or beauty at a time and arrange them into a path toward interesting places.

MG: Memoir requires a certain amount of objectivity, but lyric poetry is so emotional and volatile. How have you balanced those two mindsets?

GO: You don’t work in the world of memoir long before you realize that all memory is imagination as well as fact. Anybody who tells you memory is an exact phenomenon has never been to a trial or talked to a lawyer or a policeman.

MG: But you can have a misunderstanding of the truth. You can misremember—

GO: Don’t we always? You just have to say, “What the eff, I’m going to test my story against reality—whatever that means—as best I can.” But I also have to go with my memory and my understanding of the truth, hoping that it will lead to something of significance both for myself and others. If you think about audience too much when writing a lyric poem then you’re an idiot. Nobody gives a hoot about it. 

MG: I guess I’ll cross out that question I had about audience.

GO: Yeah, forget it. You’re delusional if you think anyone cares. That’s not the place lyric poetry occupies in our culture. Memoir has a bigger audience—we have a huge hunger for memoir in our culture. Some of my novelist friends won’t allow you to say memoir in their presence because they’re so angry at having their audience stolen.

MG: Where does that hunger for memoir come from?

GO: It’s a hunger for authenticity. We want to know how people live. We want to hear first-person testimony. In the first chapter of Walden, Thoreau says this book is going to be like every other book you’ve ever read except there’s going to be more first person singular in it. More “I” words, more “I” sentences. He said, “We commonly forget that it is always the first person speaking.” And that is a wonderful tongue-in-cheek way of saying that individual subjectivity is deeply entangled within American identity. We like to think, “We’re an individualist culture, we’re a culture of self-reliance.” But we are a culture that carries the burden of self and the mystery of what the fuck the self is. Where is it? How does it fit into things? 

MG: Is there anything within contemporary lyric poetry that speaks to uncovering the self? Or rather, what do you think the state of contemporary poetry is at this moment in history?

GO: Well, let the record state that you are talking to a seventy-two-year-old person. I can’t imagine having any interesting insights from my age perch. What I do know from my young students who want to write poetry is that it’s still an anguished and exciting experience to be a self. Addressing our psychological and existential makeup is never going to change.

There are five mysteries everybody experiences. First they experience the mystery of wonder as children. I’ve got a grandson now, two and a half years old, who is thrilled with wonder every day. He sees a cat and he’s filled with wonder. Next there’s going to be love or absence of love. If you want to call it sex, call it sex. It’s a big mystery; everybody goes through it or experiences some form of it. Loss or death is a mystery everyone knows. Being a body in time, that’s a mystery we all experience in different ways. And finally there’s rebirth, renewal, resurrection, not after death but just in a day. Emerson says, “Every day is a god.” Every day is a new thing, a new encounter. And there are emotions that everybody experiences: sadness, fear, anger, joy, disgust. They are apparently universally recognizable facial expressions. So these universal human things, where are they going to go if not into poetry? 

MG: As an educated guess, from your perch, where do you see the future of lyric poetry going? 

GO: Wherever it’s going, it’s going without me. There’s no way to predict. You want to say some genius will lead it in a new direction. Who knows? Whitman came along totally prepared to lead American poetry in a new direction. Nobody followed him at the time. Emily Dickinson, our other great, greatest poet—nobody would even read her work, and one hundred years later people were still condescending to it, of course because she was a woman. Bob Dylan says, “Don’t follow the leaders. Watch your parking meters.” 

MG: Do you see anyone alive today heading toward that level of influence?

GO: No, but even if I were looking I wouldn’t know. Wordsworth is a good example. He just pow turned the world around in his own lifetime. I mean, he publishes lyrical ballads when he’s thirty-one years old. Between that and the next set of poems he publishes he changes English poetry. He created nature for us. He created childhood for us. Wordsworth was a poet who had change happen in his lifetime. Unfortunately for him he died shortly after writing his genius stuff. By the time he was forty-five he was dead, even though he lived to be eighty. 

MG: So why do you think such a big chunk of time exists between whom you reference in your primer versus now? Are we in some kind of desert of lyric poetry?

GO: I feel closer to poets from the nineteenth century than I do to poets from the twentieth century or even my contemporaries. Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Wordsworth, they are just people I felt close to. 

MG: Why? What’s their allure for you? 

GO: I don’t know. The most important thing about it is that lyric poets don’t die. The ones who still speak to us have somehow transmuted the seal and said, “Poetry is not above time, but it is across time.” Some kid could be sitting, as Whitman dreamed they would, with a copy of Leaves of Grass, and it feels like Whitman is speaking to them, as if he really sees them and hears them. Whitman created that intimacy, and I feel an intimacy with those poets. I mean, they were traumatized. Wordsworth was an orphan separated from his siblings when he was a kid. Keats lost his parents, lost his brother. You can see the connection, that poems somehow have those experiences and mysteries coded into them. They still speak to you. 

MG: How inclusive or exclusive should poetry be?

GO: There’s no such word as should when talking about poetry. Anybody who is using the word should is saying, “Well, I’m an authority on this. God’s talking to me and telling me what to tell you.” What I wanted to do with the primer was give anybody interested in reading and writing poetry the conceptual tools they could use for their own purposes. Threshold only means have courage, go to an edge. The most urgent poems we know of come from some poet who put himself or herself at this edge space between disorder and order. So I don’t think there are any prescriptive terms in the book, just descriptive terms. Now this may be a result of growing up as a young person in the sixties, but I react very negatively to shoulds. Maybe I was just too deeply alienated, and yet I wanted insights, I wanted concepts that felt true to me.

MG: So what advice would you give to young poets on how they can expand their threshold?

GO: I think what I would want to give would be a sense of courage.

MG: How do you give someone courage?

GO: Poems have a lot of disorder in them. If they didn’t, they would be these little airtight things and we wouldn’t have access to them. So the first exercise in the book is called “I Remember,” which is about writing seven or ten or one hundred pages of what you remember. It doesn’t start out scary—I remember my first bicycle; it was a green Schwinn—but it does go to strange places because that’s what happens when you start letting memories come back. But there’s a structure to save you from that disorder. I remember, I remember, I remember, you’re always coming back to that so you get the stability. I always have my students start there, and invariably when they come to talk about their experience they say, “Man, I ended up with some really scary stuff” or “I had to stop.” So that’s opening yourself to disorder.

The second exercise in the book is called “Random Poem,” and basically you take a bunch of random lines of poetry and say “OK, take these random twenty lines and make them into a twelve-line poem. You can change pronouns and verb tenses but otherwise you have to leave the lines the way they are.” What you’re showing them is that they have the courage to do something scary and still be here after. Now look what you can do with chaos. I’ve never had a student who couldn’t take those twenty random lines and do something that has a coherence about it. So that’s showing you that inside you is the power to make coherence. You had the courage to go to that crazy place—the disorder—and you had the power to order. You proved it to yourself.

If you’ve gotten through those two exercises, then I’ve made my point. What you do with that is hard to say. What poetry does with the blank page is say to you, “You can put anything you want here. I’m not going to judge you.” The page isn’t judging you. That’s so cool. 

MG: So what’s next for you after you finish teaching?

GO: Who knows? I’m old. When you get to my age you have no idea. I’ll miss teaching. I’m a very shy and solitary person, so excuses for interacting with other people are important and fun for me, and they’re going to vanish. I don’t know what I’ll do. In my experience of poets, you just show up. You never know what you’re doing.

Michael Gawdzik is a writer, reader, and high school English teacher living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He spends his days teaching kiddos how to write and his evenings teaching himself how to write. His work has appeared in genesis, Hoosier Voice Journal, Medium, IndyStar, Another Chicago Magazine, and Sport Literate. His debut memoir is set to be released right after he finishes it and finds someone interested in publishing it.