Thursday, January 3, 2013

About the Work and the Words: an Interview with Stacey Gruver

Hippo.  Image used with permission.  Copyright, Stacey Gruver.

The chromium was a gift
from your mother,
passed from her breast to
lodge in your bones,
each vertebrae plated
until it gleamed like the links in
the chain encircling your wrist.

Your body buries your treasure
as it grows,
but despite the years
my fingers find them–
the rows of ingots rising against
your skin, ready for
erosion to rub them free.

–Stacey Gruver, 2011

Garden Dwellers, this week’s interviewee is a painter and writer who hails from Baltimore, Maryland.  In her paintings, she focuses on abstraction, and in her writing....well, that’s a little more difficult to describe.  In my humble opinion, Stacey Gruver is a starry dynamo.  She is beatnik, punk rock, steam punk, Monty Python, and quantum physics as influenced by comic books, science fiction (the good stuff), and video games.  Her poems are crafted to present new avenues of the every day, each piece edited and whittled down masterfully until it sits just as it needs to be.   That's just this toad's opinion.  I encourage you to form your own impression after reading her work at her blog Two Dead Swans

Last Friday, Stacey kindly humored my interview request and answered my questions over the phone.   I am proud to present the conversation which ensued:

Izy:  All right lady, I’m buying the first round, what are you having?

Stacey:  If you are paying for it, the most expensive Scotch they have.  

Izy:  I really appreciate you taking full advantage of the Real Toads imaginary budget, anything else you’d like to order as long as the tab is open?

Stacey:  [Laughs] ....Yeah, I gotta look over the menu.  I’ll have the most lobster-y entree available.  I am only going to eat half of it, though.  And later, I’ll probably want some of that outrageously priced chocolate mousse crap, but I am only going to have a few bites.

Izy:  But of course, I would expect nothing else!   Here is where we talk about your writing and ask serious questions about your work.  So what serious statements do you want to make about your poems?

Stacey:  They are never about me or anybody I know.  There are bits of me in there, but not about me.

Izy:  Why do you avoid self referencing?

Stacey:  I want to be able to discuss the things I make without discussing myself.  I want it to be about the work and the words.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the poems.  I am not trying to be a disconnected robot.  I want there to be a separation, a filter.  

Izy:  What sort of dialogue do you want to have with the reader?

Stacey:  I like ambiguity.  And unreliable narrators. I am interested in exploring the complicated nature of reality:  the self and conflict.   That’s what I am about.  

Izy:  With such broad concepts, how do you pick where to start?

Stacey:  The sweet spot of writing is the ability to take these big concepts and reveal it.  To bring it into everyday life in a concrete way so that it is recognizable.  I know what I write is often confusing,  but what I am aiming more for is something that some one can interact and dialogue with in a meaningful way.  It starts with applying something I am interested in and bringing in my view point.

Izy:  That seems like an incredibly easy recipe to follow, but I know there is a lot more involved.  What are some pitfalls you’ve experienced?

Stacey:  The language.  Word choice and tone are very important to me.  I often try to find a balance between communicating what I want to say and making something interesting to read from a poetry standpoint. I basically try to say something without out actually saying it, like I think space is really cool and terrifying, but I can’t just say that.  I have to build to that.  My own aesthetic is very minimalistic.   I don’t want to write just prose with line breaks but I don’t want to write formalism either.

Izy: How do you balance ambiguity and the concrete so that the poem is interpreted correctly?

Stacey:  People will come up with their own interpretations, and I am interested in that.  I want to people to think about it and have their own emotional response.  The reactions are interesting and some are way out in the left field.  Some times that’s my fault, and sometimes it’s not.  I don’t want to tell people how to interpret my poems.  That’s boring and if it’s boring for me, it’s boring for my audience.  It’s fun and a source of pleasure to figure out and analyze poems.  You gotta have faith that your audience will do that.  Literal poetry has a place and a time but I am not interested in that.  
Stacey's paintings often focus on abstraction.  Above is an image from her Cutmaps series.  Copyright, Stacey Gruver.  Image used with permission.

Izy:  So we are on to fluff and filler part of the discussion.  Sugar coma or sleep deprivation?

Stacey:   Sleep deprivation.  Because that’s what I do.  Sugar coma takes more effort.

Izy:  We’ll visit Melancholia next.  Another planet is going to crash into Earth.  You have time to play one song, what is that song?

Stacey:  I don’t answer would change from day to day.  At the moment, I would say Grown Ups by the Whiskers.  

Izy:  I’ve got a million Marriott rewards points that will get us a lavish hotel room anywhere in the world, where are we going?   

Stacey:  Somewhere in rural France, where there’s a farm house where I can lie down.  I don’t speak the language, and I can barely read it.  I would be in perfect peace.  We’d also go to Mont Saint-Michel.  It is beautiful.  The part of me that took medieval art classes wants to see the cathedrals.  We’d go in the off season and eat great seafood.

Izy:  We don’t have to go in the off season. I have so many Marriott points, we could go whenever.

Stacey:  I know.  It’s better in the off season because there are less people.  They got lots of medieval narrow streets and poky stair cases.  Too many tourists would ruin it.  In the off season we could have the whole town to ourselves.  

Izy:  When you open the newspaper, which section do you read first?

Stacey:  I don’t open the newspaper.  I used to get the New York Times weekend edition.  I’d read the arts section.  But that is all.  I am very mono-focused.  I would read the news headlines but not the articles.  I am interested in the world, but it’s too much to take in the morning.

Izy:  My mom is worried about the things she reads in papers or sees on the news, too.  She keeps telling me the world is falling apart (surprise, it isn’t).  What do I tell her?

Stacey:  Well, my only comfort is that history shows us that we have always been incredibly fucked up.  Civilization has always been on the verge of collapse in one way or another.  Look at history and the things we have done to those around us:  we are getting better.  We can’t enslave people anymore.  We can’t murder without consequence.   It’s hard to see sometimes, but we are getting better.  Maybe in 5000 years we’ll have a glorious Utopia.  Hang in there!  

Izy:  What are three words you avoid using in poetry?

Stacey:  Soul.  That word is very vague.  Ambiguity is good, but vagueness is bad.  Dream.  It reminds me of my 16 year old self writing poetry, and I can’t handle that.  Again this word is too vague.  It becomes like shorthand.  Heart.  Sometimes when poets want to describe a feeling or emotion, they describe it by referencing their heart instead of the feeling.  That’s a cop out to actually exploring the emotion through images.  But there are some solid uses of heart, like the actual organ.

Izy:  An alien lands on earth and asks you “What is poetry?” ...which poem of yours would you share with the visitor?

Stacey:  The goat poem, Can I make a request.  Because it’s a poem, and I remember writing it.

Izy:  So you’re picking this because it’s the most recent thing you’ve produced?

Stacey:  Yes, I can remember what it’s called.  See I have problem remembering what I write.  

Izy: Which poet should any writer read before writing their next poem?

Stacey: Diane DiPrima.  She’s accessible and she’s really good.

Cutmaps 9.  Copyright Stacey Gruver.  Image used with permission.

Izy: Dinner with Lou Reed or David Bowie?

Stacey:  Lou Reed.  I got a lot of questions to ask him about the Warhol days.  What was his life like back then and why did he make Transformer the way he did?

Izy:  You’re going to the disco.  Who do you take with you:  Lou Reed or David Bowie?--By the way the rest of the interview is fifty more questions about who you’d rather hang out with in certain scenarios--Lou Reed or David Bowie...

Stacey:  [Laughs]  At the disco, I’d pick David Bowie.  He’d be more fun.  He’d probably get you arrested in New York.  Lou Reed would be a little too self conscious and would internalize everything.

Izy:  Time to go to the laundromat!   Do you bring Lou Reed or David Bowie? 

Stacey:  I would bring David Bowie because I want to see David Bowie standing in a laundromat waiting for clothes to dry.

Izy:  The power is out for four days, do you want David Bowie or Lou Reed staying in your guest bedroom?  

Stacey: Lou Reed I think? We could play Uno.

Izy:  The next question is a hypothetical scenario which does not involve Bowie or Lou Reed:  There has been an unlabeled tin can in your kitchen cupboard for years, do you open it?

Stacey:  No.  It lives there now.  I’d be afraid to open it.  Whatever’s in there is going to be horrible, so it’s there for the rest of my life or as long as I am in the house.  If I move out, I’d leave it behind.  

Izy:  What’s your favorite curse word?

Stacey: Fuck. Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuckity fuck.  It’s best the word in the English language.  It feels good to say.   It satisfies the throat with its gutturalness.

Izy:  Next we’ll go for a Misfits scenario:  A freak lightning storm over London has given you a very specific and rare super power, what is it?  Here I am looking for something a little more interesting than “the power of flight” or “to be invisible.”

Stacey:  I would choose to have photographic memory.  But that could be a curse as well.  I can see the angsty comic book now about an artist with a photographic memory:  I did a terrible painting, now I can’t stop seeing it. OMG.

Izy:  I would totally buy that comic by the way!   Last question...what is one thing you'd like to ask the Real Toads Community (and of course, they'll leave their responses in the comments!)

Stacey:   I am interested in finding out what contemporary poetry publications you all are reading.  I am talking about the professionally edited magazines, journals, etc.  I think it’s really important that poets read and support these places, you know, go beyond the blog. I’m a fan of Poetry is Dead.  [A Canadian Poetry publication], and I am looking for more to read.  Recommend something! 


Isadora Gruye said...

A big thanks to Stacey for her time in making this interview happen. I apologize for dragging you through so many Lou Reed/ Bowie scenarios :) Viva la Bowie Laundromat

Isadora Gruye said...

Ps...forgot to answer Stacey's question: the only Poetry publication I read these days is Diagram, though I am also looking to expand my horizons. I can't wait to see what you all recommend.

Herotomost said...

Wonderful....I so love reading about oher toads....there is a sick sense of "hey I think that too" its nice to not feel alone in the world...oh hell what am I saying ...fuck fuck fuckity fuck to quote a now well known toad.

Kerry O'Connor said...

There is much to learn from reading of other writer's methods and inspirations. I will certainly take with me Stacey's words regarding the use of space in poetry, as well as the difference between vague and ambiguous. Thank you for a fun and enlightening interview. Sorry to say I don't read poetry journals, but would be interested to follow any links provided.

Maude Lynn said...

Well, Izy already said Diagram . . . actually, I need some suggestions, too!

Stacey said...

Many thanks to Izy for making me sound somewhat coherent. Looking forward to any lit mag/journal suggestions that you lovely people can come up with.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

Such a fun interview. So nice to meet you, Stacey. Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine is a good source at And at, one can find the latest book news and reviews.

hedgewitch said...

Let's try again in actual English:
Fascinating interview, as always, Izy--especially learning of the narrow knife-edge that exists between the essences of Lou Reed and David Bowie. (!) Loved the whole thing. Stacy's poem leading in was real, and damn good, definitely agreed on the best curse word, but most especially this part really resonated with me:

"I don’t want to tell people how to interpret my poems. That’s boring and if it’s boring for me, it’s boring for my audience. It’s fun and a source of pleasure to figure out and analyze poems. .."

*Exactly* how I feel--I hate poetic autopsy. I don't mind the occasional clarification, and as you say, sometimes one is obscure where one didn't mean to be, but the whole point to me is to get your mind working to open the personal gates. I much prefer poetry I don't immediately understand--it's like hoarding chocolate for later.

I'm not much of a poetry journal reader--but totally agree on the need to read, even occasionally soak our brains for extended periods in high quality words if we want to write anything worth reading.

This site is an online poetry mag I liked, but I don't know how active it still is:

Sorry for the length of my babbling--really enjoyed this interview.

Susan said...

Yow! I want to read more of these-- of her-- of your work, Stacey. For me the space in/of the poem is most interesting . . . I like the layers of it in "Chrome." And Izy, I learned everything I have ever known about interviewing from you.

Lolamouse said...

Great interview! I love the opening poem too! I didn't know there was a Toad living so close to me! I'm in Prince Frederick (Southern MD). Went to college in Balmer.

Unknown said...

Great start to my Friday, gals. Thanks for the read and the insight. For your reading pleasure, Stacey, I suggest Sierra DeMulder's "The Bones Below." It's the only book I've refused to archive on my Kindle. I read it and read it and read it again.