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.

Harold Bloom: A Grateful Reminiscence

In one of my earliest years as an assistant professor, the man who hired me at SMU brought to campus Harold Bloom (his friend and former colleague at Yale) and Geoffrey Hartman, for a weekend of lectures, seminars, conversations, and meals.

After what was, for me, the intellectual wasteland of my graduate school experience, this weekend provided a shot in the mind’s arm. I was jolted, delighted to be in the presence of men thinking–to quote Emerson–and I was grateful to learn how greatness dealt with greatness, in this case Bloom and Hartman on the Romantic poets and their legacy. Harold had just published The Anxiety of Influence, so we in the audience felt that even in provincial Dallas we were close to the cutting edge.

Breaking Down the Inner Wall

While mulling over my experience at the Vermont Studio Center and the ALSCW Fellowship, I keep thinking about the word routine. How important routines are, psychologists tell us, to our overall mental health and happiness. For writers and artists, I have found this to be true as well. It’s hard to argue that the development of a regular writing practice does not make one a better writer. What happens, however, when a writer’s routine does not and cannot include that practice for reasons outside of their control? What an awful place to be! And just the place I found myself in last year, before receiving the fellowship.

An Arrangement

You mornings in the white chair, bare legs draped
over chair arm, the other pillowing your back,
robe bunched up, thigh exposed, foot inching up
and down the arching instep of the other,
touching you as maybe you imagine
somebody (who? I wonder) would, or did
(how long ago, just how long has it been?)
in the right place, with the precise finesse
of pressure shifting at the pace you needed
to lift you from yourself the way heat teases
smoke signals from the cup between your hands
too far away faint tangled up to read.

Artist’s Statement

With each piece, my work typically begins with a process of close observation and admiration. In that sense, a great deal of work is done before I begin making any marks. Once I’ve laid in enough of a technical foundation, the rest is dancing. It’s an interpretation not of lived experience, but of its impact on me, of the ways such things move me—a small but important distinction. What motivates the choices I make in every piece is the desire to surprise myself, and to make things that bring me a sense of awe.

Caroline Lamb

I could not live enough!
Another round, another buzzing flute!
Come now, Gordon, break this ancient knot.
I’ve painted myself Persian, as you like. Notice the scruff?
Merely a bit of pencil, dot-by-dot…
Of course, you shaved. Always the bride & I the brute.

How well we understood our parts!
When I was Dido, pyre & wince,
you capered like some silver planet in a peacock shawl,
clucking at heroes with your highway arts;
or when I played the Furies with their whirlwind scrawl,
you were Anna not the prince!

The Bank

Before our livelihoods went down the drain,
Everyone said it’s all good and that,
At the end of the day, there is no end of the day.
Risk reigned. We were good to go.
So, going forward, how appalled we were
To see things going backward, downward badly
Every day, what we worked for dumped
As damaged goods for the greater good of all.
Ruin whispered in the very word
No one cared to look too closely at:
Subprime, bad, a bad end
Just waiting to occur. And when it came,
Pulling down a venerable house of cards,
Mostly jokers, we paid for what we were.

One Hundred Pounds of Myrrh

for Joyce Polistena

You knew her simple name and called to her,
allowing that we often make mistakes.
That night, she thought she’d seen the gardener.

You looked upon the coins of Lucifer
and took, withal, what you had come to take.
You called to him, as you would call to her.

You lay amid a hundred pounds of myrrh
where few can tell what is and isn’t fake,
and there you were at night, the gardener.

But what is truth, and what were you to her?
Some nights, not even Peter stays awake.
You knew her name, and so you called to her.

Paul Verlaine: Seascape

The sonorous ocean
Beats under the eye
Of the moon that pines
And beats again,

While a lightning crash
Brutal and sinister
Cracks through bister
With a long, zigzag flash,

While each breaker
In convulsive leaps
Along the reefs
Goes, comes, shines, asserts,

While in heaven’s sky,
Where the tempest wanders,
Roars the thunder
Wonderfully.

“Marine”

L’océan sonore
Palpite sous l’œil
De la lune en deuil
Et palpite encore,

Tandis qu’un éclair
Brutal et sinistre
Fend le ciel de bistre
D’un long zigzag clair,

Et que chaque lame,
En bonds convulsifs
Le long des récifs,
Va, vient, luit et clame,