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The Poet’s Challenge
by Russell Bittner
Interview with Alex Grant

I owe my thanks for this introduction once again to Diane Lockward.  She gave me Alex Grant’s name and Website address, I looked him up, and I found the piece (“Interpreting the Silence”) that immediately follows. 

‘Better to know the thief who’s going to steal your heart than to give it to a total stranger,’ I always say.  And so, first to Alex’s bio:

RRB:Alex, I have to say that “listen to the moon-vine grow” (kudos for the line-break, by the way!) is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.  But it’s just one jewel in the entire aural delight that is this poem.  Tell us, are you by any chance aurally fixated?

AMG:I suppose I am to some degree, though I’d have to say it’s definitely more of an internal fixation. The music of poetry is very important to me.  So, in that regard, I find that I go over my poems, internally, again and again.  It’s usually not until I think a poem is completely done that I read it aloud—I think maybe I want to save that one-time experience for last—and try to identify where the music loses its way.  So, yes:  I guess that could be called an aural fixation.  In the end, the realization of the image and the idea or feeling I’m attempting to convey through language is what’s really key to me.

RRB:And realizing images through language, Alex, is precisely what you do with impressive effectiveness.

Now, with your permission, let’s move on to something lite ‘n’ lively.  I’ve seen from your poetry that you have a phenomenal sense of humour.  And yet, you assure me that very few of your poems are humorous.  C’mon, what gives?

AMG:It’s true—I know because I was recently asked to headline a humor-only reading (oddly enough, called “Humor me.”  Really!), so I dug through the poems to find enough to fill a twenty-minute slot—and I didn’t have enough. Of maybe 160 poems I’ve held onto, exactly ten of them could be described as “funny” —but people seem to remember them. I love humor, and I think it’s important for it to be present in poetry (as well as in my daily life).  But ultimately, it’s not what I’m really after with my poetry.  I think you can sometimes employ it—and some people do so brilliantly—Billy Collins, for instance (there goes my invitation from the poetry snobs and the experimentalists).  But ultimately, it isn’t what moves me about poetry at its best. I suppose the things that really concern me are, in the end, just not really all that funny.       

RRB:I understand.  At the same time, poetry is often just another form of entertainment.  It can be heavy, or it can be light—or even lite.  But as with conversation, theatre, even sex, too much of a good thing is, well, just too much.  The “rhythm method” applies to more than birth control.  And who knows it better than midges?

RRB:I’m speechless.  Care to comment?

AMG:Well, my comment has as much to do with your last statement as with the poem itself.
I suppose that for some people, poetry may at times be “just another form of entertainment.”  But as I said before, I don’t write or read poetry to entertain or be entertained—at least, that’s certainly not the primary motivation. I would also say that’s not the primary motivation of most people who read or write poetry. At the risk of sounding precious or pompous, poetry at its best is, for me, one of the highest forms of human expression—it’s right up there with painting, sculpture and song. And I’m not talking about high-flown, esoteric, linguistic gymnastics—I’m drawn (as I think many people are) to poets who attempt (and may partially succeed) to describe something universal or recognizable about what it is to be human—think “Song of Myself.” That something written almost 160 years ago, in what was ostensibly a very different world and time, can still move someone to tears today is just astonishing to me—and that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to with entertainment. I think that, like any art, it has more to do with trying to make sense of a world that often seems to make no sense at all. As for “Giant”—there’s no doubt that it’s a bit of a laugher—though I think that beneath the surface humor, there’s a wee bit of a dark undercurrent—of the life lived perhaps not so well, of decline and atrophy, of transience—and of the recognition of the absurdity and impermanence of it all. What a hoot!
RRB:I stand corrected, Alex.  Your answer on this one makes perfect sense.  Perhaps the debate—if there is one—should rage around the word “entertainment.”
In any case, I quite agree with you that “Giant” consists of layers—and that only the top layer is really amusing.  The deeper, darker layers are both instructive and revealing of other parts, deeper layers of the poet himself—as well they should be.
I wonder if you’d care to give us some background on “Argentina’s Huge Beaver Problem” before we take a look at it.

AMG:This poem came about as a result of one of those rare “you should write a poem about that” suggestions from a friend—rare, in that I was actually able to do it,  since those suggestions invariably don’t work out for me. He’d just come back from Argentina and told me the story about the non-indigenous beavers which were causing widespread flooding there—he was definitely motivated by the “beaver” aspect of the story too, I think—the double-entendre appealed to the sophomoric side of his sense of humor (as he knew it would to mine!).  So I Googled the story and sure enough, there it was—“Giant Beavers Flood Land of Fire”—a headline I thought was simultaneously brilliant and absurd, and one that piqued my interest enough to do a little more digging (pun intended).

I did some research on the environmental aspects of the story, and when I found that the government was offering a(n insultingly small) bounty for beaver tails, it was enough to get me thinking about it all more seriously. Then it became a process of happy accidents of discovery and reference—finding that the genus was named “Castor” immediately led to Castor and Pollux, and from there to the whole husbandry/exploitation/Argentinian cliché thing, which led (again not explicitly consciously), to the little nudge-nudge sexual fantasy element before returning to the real heart of what the poem is about—the ultimate impotence of human beings in the face of natural phenomena—something I actually find to be hopeful, in the end.          

RRB:This one really is quite amusing—and brilliant in its execution.  I congratulate you.
Your next piece (“The Ringmaster”) is in every sense quite different from the pieces we’ve seen so far.  My best guess is that it’s a prose-poem.

What inspired it—and what inspired you to deal with the subject-matter in this particular form?

AMG:The poem was inspired by an idea to write an entire circus-related collection. I’d never attempted or even considered doing that before, but the circus is a subject which has always fascinated me for all the obvious reason. Once I had the idea, the natural starting-point was The Ringmaster—I went on to complete a full-length collection on the theme, and three-quarters of the poem are in this form—prose poems, all of the lines within a given poem exactly the same length (that doesn’t translate here), bounded by the bars top and bottom. I think I chose the form because it seemed somehow to fit well with the notion of archetype (which almost all of the poems address)—a common framework for each, but common only on the surface (I hope!). It’s a form I feel works very well for me for some reason—I think the constrictions of the form force something more succinct and compressed. I actually went on to complete another full-length collection in which all of the poems use this form (though there are large variations in the line and lengths of each poem within it).


RRB:When I look at your last poem together with the picture Pontius Pilate Washing His Hands, the word “ekphrastic” comes to mind.  However, I have to admit it’s an approach I’m relatively unfamiliar with.
Help us out here.  What is the point of ekphrasis—or, more to the point, what is the poet trying to achieve through this approach?  And what did you want to accomplish with your own poem “Pontius Pilate?”

AMG:The “point” (if there really is such a thing) of ekphrasis for me is that it forces the writer (and hopefully the reader) to really dig below the conscious reaction to a painting, photograph, sculpture—whatever’s being examined. I’ve often been surprised to discover what the work really means to me on a subconscious level—I think that’s partly because it does make you really home in on the minutiae of the work, which in turn seems to have the effect of making you home in on your own deeper reaction to it. What I wanted to accomplish, I guess, was to write a response to an archetypal image and idea which tries to say something about the everyday human conflicts and politics which bubble under the surface—nothing really changes with people, and I think we sometimes forget that humans 2,000 years ago were not so much different from people today, despite our ostensible advances—you have only to follow the political goings-on in this country to realize that! 
Pontius Pilate 

RRB:Alex, it’s been both an education and a pleasure.  I can’t thank you enough.

Alex Grant’s first full-length collection, Fear of Moving Water, a finalist for a number of national book contests, was released by Wind Publications in October 2009. His chapbook, Chains & Mirrors (NCWN /Harperprints), won the 2006 Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize and the 2007 Oscar Arnold Young Award (Best North Carolina poetry collection). His second chapbook, The White Book, was released in 2008 by Main St. Rag Publishing. His poems have appeared in a number of national journals, including The Missouri Review, Smartish Pace, Best New Poets 2007, Arts & Letters, The Connecticut Review, Nimrod and Seattle Review. A recipient of WMSU’s Pavel Srut Poetry Fellowship and the Kakalak Anthology of Carolina Poets Prize, he lives in Chapel Hill, NC, with his wife, Tristi, his dangling participles, and his Celtic fondness for excess. He can be found on the web at
         “Interpreting the Silence”

         'Behind every jewel stand
          three hundred sweating horses'       
                 — Zen Buddhist aphorism

Believers in invisibility, we describe the sound
that nothing makes. At night, we hear the stars
move across the sky, listen to the moon-vine

grow, wait for the engines of the sun to crack
the morning. The clacking wheels of desire
lead us to this – this endless fascination, this

capturing of fog in a bottle. We need to inhale
it, to learn its given name, to feel it compress
under the skin and emerge through the pores,

an invisible diamond inside a painted nutshell,
held tight in the breath of our hands. We pry
the shell apart, clamp the empty geodes to our

ears, like seashore children straining to hear
the wedding of the oceans in a paper cup,
and listen to the sound that nothing makes.

I read once that garden midges only live for around

ten minutes, and as I watched a swarm of them, I picked

one out, kept my eyes fixed on him, lit a cigarette, and tried

to imagine his life. I did the math, and decided that eight

midge seconds equaled one of our years, and as he moved

from the top to the bottom of the cloud, he had two affairs

and a nervous breakdown right there. He spiraled up again,

and by the time he’d reached the top, he’d sent all seventeen-

hundred of his children to a fashionable private swarm in the

upper reaches of a more desirable neighboring tree. He’d

gained a little weight by now, and couldn’t fly quite as fast

as he used to, but he compensated by quietly negotiating

his own private air-space, and by employing some of the

younger midges to bite people for him. By the time my

cigarette had burned less than half-way down, he’d written

a number  of wildly successful self-help flying manuals,

as well as his acclaimed study of midge relationships –

‘Female midges are from the eastern boughs, male midges

are from the western.’ He’d had liposuction and wing implants

by this time, and was campaigning tirelessly to have the trashy

cloud in the next tree publicly censured. His therapist advised

him to adopt a lower public profile, but he was insistent that

he alone had secured the swarm’s tenure of the tree, and that

the other midges ought to damn-well recognize his contribution

and reward him accordingly. He died three quarters of the way

into my cigarette, convinced that the rest of the swarm

were plotting to run him down with a golf-cart.

     He was truly a giant among midges.


Giant Beavers Flood Land of Fire – Reuter’s

Whether this title relates to outsized rodents
or some enormous beaveresque conundrum

withers if you know that in Tierra Del Fuego
they pay a dollar a tail, a gnawing diminution

of this “large aquatic rodent of the genus Castor”
(fathered by Zeus in the form of a swan – born

from an egg with Pollux, his twin – protectors 
of sailors, whose brotherly love flickers nightly

in the constellation Gemini, under whose white
stars gauchos tote their boleadoras, beef-hooves

waiting for entanglement – spindly fore-legs
propping up mounds of meat in this bloody

menagerie – etymology old French ménage
add in à trois and we’re back to the beaver.)

At The End of the World, the Pampas
are flooding – the Paranà river gushing 

over cut-banks of Lenga and Guindo -
oceans pouring into oceans, flat-land

inundation in the mouth of black water,
ground down by the smallest white teeth.
                                             THE RINGMASTER

The first ring is contained in a small box no bigger than your fingernail.
We keep it on a shelf with minor planets and constellations—the beasts,  
people, sawdust—the random arrangement of atoms and circumstances
that make up the world. I once knew a woman who believed that every
moment of every life was moving inexorably toward the same vanishing
point—the myriads moving on a giant canvas toward an invisible pinhole
somewhere in the middle distance. The stars continue to burn. The seas
pay homage to the sky. The brittle shards of days under your fingernails.
      - After Pontius Pilate Washing His Hands
       (Juan Correa de Vivar, 1548).


The Prefect of Judea sits on a wooden throne – in his cardinal-red,
velvet-trimmed robe and white-piped cap looking for all the world
like Father Christmas in Hell, the gauntlet of pikestaffs pressing in
on this baptism of hands - Pilate’s fingers dripping under the silver
cup, the leather-skirted centurion’s crooked pointing, all contained
in a bounded circle, like looking through a telescope pointed at the
past – and the man with the thorns in his hair looks at the ground -
sacramental spears spiking the earth with their bloody interdictions.