J.P. Gritton in Conversation with Matthew Buckley Smith

JP GRITTON’s novel Wyoming, a Kirkus best book of 2019, is out with Tin House. His awards include a Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellowship, a DisQuiet fellowship and the Inprint Donald Barthelme prize in fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, Southwest Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor of creative writing in the department of English at Duke University.

MATTHEW BUCKLEY SMITH is Associate Editor of Literary Matters.

This conversation took place December 16, 2019, in Carrboro, North Carolina. It has been edited for clarity and length.

About Suffering: A Review of Morri Creech’s Blue Rooms

Blue Rooms
by Morri Creech
(The Waywiser Press, 2018, 80pp., $17.00)

Poets, who should never read reviews, love nothing better than to read reviews. The risk, of course, is not that bad reviews can be stifling. Quite the contrary. As Flannery O’Connor said of universities, one fears they are not stifling enough. No, for poets, the danger does not lie in trusting bad reviews. It lies in not distrusting good ones. More respectable than quitting, becoming an alcoholic, or committing suicide, imitating one’s own most successful work ranks high on the list of time-honored methods for guaranteeing literary failure. This is why, as a reviewer, I am hardest on the poets I most admire. I worry that if I praise them, they will believe me. And I have reviewed no poet I admire more than Morri Creech, whose new book, Blue Rooms, is, sadly, very good.

Omnibus Review of Terrance Hayes, Charles Martin, Natasha Trethewey

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
By Terrance Hayes
(Penguin Poets, 112pp., $18.00)

Future Perfect
By Charles Martin
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 88pp., $19.95)

Monument: Poems New and Selected
By Natasha Trethewey
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208pp., $26.00)

“The Burning Sermon”: A Review of Christian Wiman’s Hammer Is the Prayer

Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems
By Christian Wiman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224pp., $26.00)

The dust jacket of Christian Wiman’s new book, Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems, bears a bold endorsement from the poet-critic Clive James. “The best thing about Christian Wiman,” writes James, “is not that he reminds you of previous poets: it’s that he makes you forget them.” This blurb is, to borrow Wilde’s formulation, perfectly phrased and quite as true as any observation in civilised life should be. And yet it is perfectly wrong. Like most good poems, Wiman’s everywhere display the traces of both peers and predecessors. Indeed, one of the collections from which this volume was selected is a book of poems translated from the Russian of Osip Mandelstam, who is of course just such a previous poet. And formally, Wiman has joined a growing number of American poets in the demilitarized zone dividing traditional accentual-syllabic rhymes from standard-issue paratactical free verse. Listening to Wiman’s poems, it is hard to miss the distant rumble of military exercises to north and south.

Object Permanence

Because you haven’t yet developed faith
That what you see at nightfall will return
At dawn, when time begins again, it’s death
You nightly learn

To dread, like the recurrence of a dream
In which your father or your mother stands
And takes you (singing every time the same
Unmeaning sounds)

Upstairs into the reeling hall that slides
With horrifying slowness toward that room
Peopled with deaf-mute mammals on all sides,
Dim as the womb,

Where you are left to beg and, helpless, watch
As warmth and human touch and hope retreat
Into the dark, which, closing with a latch,
Becomes complete.

The Dark Woods

They are still there, the dark woods from the dream,
While everything they symbolize is gone,
While the wireless speakers unwind their tidy theme,
And the tiki torches stutter on the lawn,
While the dishwasher rattles dishes left in the sink,
And the dog worries his tiny rubber man,
And the blinking clocks aren’t certain what to think,
And the fruit fly circles back to where it began,
And the interest keeps the credit cards awake,
Collecting in a server states apart,
And the siren cries out for a stranger’s sake,
And the smartphone mutes its obsolescent heart,
While the box fan turns a bedroomful of breath,
And the network brings the software up to date,
And the skim milk dies a timely, painless death,
And the woods, the woods you’ve dreamed about, they wait.