In Service of Sincerity: An Interview with Grant Souders

In Grant Souders’s first full-length book of poems, Service (2017), faith is tested and refracted, asking the question of “How to go on?” without any simplistic answers. These incantatory poems work like a church service on a hot day investigating the power and the burden that language holds over those who share it, as well as the magic and delight that can be found in using it. They explore how sincerity means not just freedom from pretense, hypocrisy, and deceit, but also a burrowing into the things that make us vulnerable, that make us look in the mirror and go “Is this me?”

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VIRGINIA MCLURE: A word like “service” has so many associations. The first thing that came to mind for me, because I’m from the Deep South, was church service or military service — but also doing a service for somebody. Do any of these definitions resonate?

 GRANT SOUDERS: The reason that I called the collection Service is an interesting story. But first, to say which definition or usage of the term “service” did I think of, or what I thought of when I was writing this book, was definitely the idea of, like, a church service. Not specifically military duty, but the idea of duty itself. There is a poem called “Vocation” and there’s a lot of poems that end in “-er” that sort of denote “one who does something.”

I noticed there was a lot of “be done”/”get done”/”is done” which is really similar to the cadence of, you know, a church service.

Yeah, very much thinking about that — a church service as the idea of enacting something for someone else and also for yourself. To attend a church service is both to, like, nourish the soul or the spirit; but it’s also being given to you by this other as a kind of higher duty. A righteous duty. But, you know, there’s an interesting story of how I finally decided on that name. I knew that I wanted a single-word title, and I knew that it had to have a certain amount of vagueness.

To give you room.

Yes, that too. So this friend of mine Caryl Pagel — who’s a wonderful poet — we were looking at the books on my bookshelf to think of a title. And there’s a book that just has the word “SERVICE” carved into the spine. And she said, What’s this? So I told her, when I was a young teenager, my grandfather gave me this book. It was collection of poems by Robert Service that he had had as a child, and the binding had fallen off and he had used some deer hide from a deer he’d hunted to rebind the book. Then he carved into the spine just the word “SERVICE.” It seemed to embody this ominous, imperceivable book. Like, what could possibly be contained in this? [Both laugh] After I told her that story, she was like, “Grant, that’s the title.” It was one of those things that can happen in poetry and in language in general where you start to, like, concatenate these other meanings and these other possibilities because language gives you that ability. It gives you the room, as you said, to do things. It makes it seem almost magical.

That reminds me of something else I wanted to talk about, in terms of the magic of language. I thought it was interesting that in the first poem, “Naked,” we have phrases that seem a bit sardonic like “we haven’t fucked well enough,” but also these sincere phrases that work against them: “It isn’t dumb to love the woods / near your house so to walk / to and re-enter ourselves.” How did you pick “Naked” to begin the collection?  

I sort of think of a book of poems as — maybe among other things — an album of music. A record. And sometimes you want to jump right into it and have this banger, [laughs] or something that picks up the energy. And I feel like “Naked” had that. It had a lot of things. I also thought of it as, like, Jacob wrestling the angel after the sermon, like the idea of wrestling with this idea of sincerity, or the spiritual, or the transcendental, or you know, the sort of malaprop of “The trees could care less.” It’s also non sequitur, it’s unpunctuated, and it’s this kind of coming into being. This idea that we begin in this world naked. And naked also being this vulnerability, that would set this tone of beginning, of a mythological start. Like, normally I don’t use words like “fuck” or “shit” in poems but I say, “Fuck,” and so why would I not have it in a poem? Why would I not be vulnerable to my own vernacular? And it felt important and maybe in service of sincerity, to say those things.

In the book, we begin naked, and then some of the following poems talk about the natural world, and then we move into man-made object poems like “Chair” and “Museum,” and then above the earth with “Airplane” and “Astronaut.” A kind of creation myth. But to end on a poem titled “Vocation,” if the structure was indeed a creation myth, is interesting.

 When I was arranging the poems, that is what I was going for, that we start in this naked condition and sort of, like, come through these forms — like the form of the chair as this linguistic thing and this thing of functionality and this thing as a pure form, you know, like the chair-ness of the chair. And then we step into stranger places and stranger locations, where we get into the airplane. There are multiple airplane and astronaut poems. That multiplicity — like, “I have to write another because I’m running out of time.” And to end on “Vocation,” it is in some ways about death. But it’s also about how we understand death and how we understand those who have died. There’s this Forrest Gander poem, it goes something like: “They leave us what we call them.” So, that “they” are the subject, becoming the object of “them,” passing into death. For me “Vocation” was that difficulty of the name and this process of, you know, making a headstone and of trying to understand the significance of putting a name onto a stone to remember the dead. In a way, it seems like the farthest from that nakedness and that willingness in that first poem to say whatever comes to mind. By the end, it seemed like it was hard to say even one word without being apprehensive about speech and about what language does. So, to me, that seems like the sort of condition that I found myself in — I don’t want to say anything grandiose like, “That’s the human condition” — but in writing this book and thinking about how I feel about poetry and how I feel about language, there is this apprehension and there is this questioning of its ability — language’s ability, poetry’s ability — in the same way that people at some point in their life might doubt their faith. When I wrote this poem I was driving across the country and I was in South Dakota in the Badlands. There was this place where you could buy bulk stone, you know, flagstone or marble, and directly across the street was a graveyard. I thought, Here is a person whose job it is to write the name of a person in stone and then have it sit above the dead body and it was all there in one space and it seemed like it contained some magnitude of life, of being alive.

I want to ask you about George Oppen. He didn’t believe that politics could be made with poetry nor that poetry could have an effect on social conditions. Do you agree with that?

I think that one makes a statement politically by endeavoring to write poems. I do believe that. And I believe that ethics and aesthetics are one. That there is something, you know, we’re couched in this ethical frame when we begin to make art. Not only poetry, but I do think all art has a political — I don’t want to say a political message — but it can’t live outside of the world of politics and ethics, and what is right and wrong. And I think, especially in the age of Trump, that language specifically has been brought into question. I think my desire to say something true and to be sincere is not only an aesthetic endeavor, but an ethical one, in an era where words are sort of being tried to be made meaningless, you know, with fake news and the idea that one man can invent the truth and decide what is true and what is false. I want my poetry and the poetry of others to reject that sentiment.

I think the practice of poetry is similar in a lot of ways to meditation and to other ways of self-betterment, you know. Trying to unlock from the way you might be saying things or thinking about things. It’s, like — intrinsically, I mean — poetry is you, you trying to educate yourself.

Learning to be vulnerable and empathetic, yeah. [Laughs] I used to, kind of, maybe in my own young pretentious way, think: “People just think of poetry as this therapy that you write when you’re sad.” But in a way, you know, it is. [Both laugh] It is self-treatment, and it is a way of coping with the world. And it is a way of trying to use this fundamental tool of ours, language, as a way of understanding how we see this world. Speaking of Oppen, he had a friend who had a baby and he wrote this letter that asked about his friend’s daughter saying, “What do you think she’ll make of this world of which she’s made?” And that, you know, that things are kind of our existence, and language, and how poetry is this kind of coping and then this act of reciprocity of making. So that, you know, this world has put you in some condition or conditioned you or acts upon you, then you make something and put something back into the world.

So what about Oppen’s theory — was it the Objectivism, or the style, or his being wary of rhythms — that attracted you to his work? 

Uh … yes. [Both laugh] I mean, I think for all those things. I mean, there’s this poem “Psalm” that I really love, that’s one of my favorite poems. And it both, like, revels in the magic of language and its functionality and the desire to say something true and to see the world and be mystified by it, to be in sort of a contradictory position of the things in the world and the words that we call them, and I think his instinct to try to go back to the origins of language and of making and art was a big influence for me. Like, that there is a materiality to language, but language is also not just pieces of furniture in a room. Words carry with them meaning, and that is a huge burden that language carries and what makes it different from other forms of art. Like, you know, G Sharp does not have a meaning. You might associate an emotion with the sound of it, but it doesn’t have meaning.

So, do you think when you’re writing — because of the burden each word carries with it — is your goal to try to unburden words from their current weight or is to, kind of, investigate? 

I’d say it’s the latter, to investigate. And to be apprehensive in that strange way of being both hesitant and, to a certain extent, afraid. You know, to apprehend something is to hold onto it or capture it. So, to at once investigate and be in wonder of it, but also try to claim it. Or understand it, at least, not to claim it for your own but to understand that we inherit language and that it’s this shared thing that humans use. And to be bewildered by the possibility of those permutations of language and context but also the desire to restore clarity to a word and to get to a sense of it through a poem — you know, this is something that Oppen and the idea of Objectivist poetry wanted to do. Like, if I could write a poem and get out of that poem some half-step closer to more clearly understanding a word or an idea, then that poem is doing its job.

So another person you’ve mentioned as an impact is Gertrude Stein. I think the words you used were “the magic of Gertrude Stein,” which I think is interesting as a parallel influence to Oppen, because of her use of words almost as sculpture pieces as often as meaning-making devices. How do you feel like that ties into investigating the meaning of a word or of a piece of language?

It’s sort of paradoxical, but for me it’s that paradox that I’m kind of mashing together to form my own understanding of poetry and what I want my art to do. I think very much that idea of the utterance and, the, uh, word as a marker in time and as this spoken thing, as a written thing, as an experienced thing, and how that moves and is kinetic. That’s where I see myself aligning with Stein and, you know, at once — that’s what is lovely about poetry — I can, like, try to clarify something or try to find meaning and then sort of obliterate it at the same time, now in the next line. I don’t want to answer questions in poems. I want there to be more wonder and more magic. But, at the same time, I do want to leave some truth. And I think that wrestling is fruitful, and it fascinates me. You know, there’s — if I’m ever, like, sad, I will read Tender Buttons, because there’s something pure about it and that’s a different kind of purity than anything someone like Oppen would write. I was in a workshop and someone asked our professor some question like, “Who do you prefer, Shelley or Keats?” and he said, “Well the great thing is you don’t have to choose. They both exist and they don’t need to compete.”

So, one of the most fun things to me about reading a new collection is picking out words that recur and also words that I see only once. Words that I saw a lot were fish, lilac, eye, dumb, alien, gravity, cup, cardinal, mouth, fingernails, and mass. Several that I saw only once were shame, greed, machinery, and triangle. Is the repetition of these words is a surprise to you? 

You know, some of them are. Like, “cardinal.”

“Cardinal” is used three times, I believe.  

Wow. Um, well, I think I kind of like the idea of limiting a vocabulary. Like, I’m working on a new book and there’s, likeso, geese. Like, there’s tons of poems about geese, or then tons about, like, a bear. So I’m kind of drawing this circle in the dirt and being like, alright, I’m not gonna walk outside this circle. I think it goes back to both clarifying a word through usage and also, like Stein, maybe obliterating that stabilized meaning through repetition. I like that humans are these meaning-making creatures and the way we desire to make meanings out of things. Can I make my own symbols, can I make my own archetypes? If “cardinal” only appeared once it’s just a cardinal, but if you have it in a book three times, you know, maybe it means something more than a cardinal. Does it point outside the circle then? Does it point to some other world outside the poems?

A world structure that is being made, torn away from the regular idea of, say, a cardinal?

I like thinking of books the same way I like thinking about visual art, as dwellings, as structures that we can dwell in. There’s a Heidegger essay, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” and I like poems as this place for meditation or for, um, a kind of living within them, and that they form a world unto themselves. So I think Emily Dickinson, is probably the best example of creating these microcosms that seem to explain everything. I think she is, kind of subconsciously, one of my biggest influences, but I never think to mention her the same way I think to mention Oppen or Stein, because it’s become so embedded. That’s a whole other discussion of, like, Dickinson becoming sort of a mythical figure.

So, is there anything else you want to talk about with Service?

I was really struck by what you say about my book. You know, I don’t like the idea that the book has a hidden meaning and that you’re searching for it and you feel like you found it. But you said some things that I was considering and hopefully other people see those things and find other things to do with, like, memory and naiveté and childhood. You know, I wrote some of those poems in Service when I was 23. And I’m 31 now. It came out when I was 30. So, you know, there was a long span of time and I think it’s exciting to be a poet when you’re really young and then you sort of, like, realize, what have I decided to devote a huge chunk of my life to? It’s still exciting and it’s great to see how, for me, poetry renews itself in my life and continues to be important to me for changing. I hope that that is somewhat evident in the book.

I think it is. Because the name is kind of pointing to the service that art makes in a life, but also to the investigation. Also, as a poet myself, one who was initially very excited, and then discouraged, um, I loved really loving this book. I felt a lot of, “Oh I like that.” A lot of wonder.

That makes me feel like the book was worth it.

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