Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Rachel Eliza Griffiths

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 


I’m rereading June Jordan’s essays. I just finished revisiting Gwendolyn BrooksMaud Martha. Trying not to binge on Luke Cage right now! Enjoying Solange’s brilliance and style. I want to check out the Diane Arbus show but what I really can’t wait for is Kerry James Marshall’s exhibition, Mastry. Rita Dove and Robin Coste Lewis read at the 92nd Street Y next week and I didn’t want to miss that. Too, I want to read Ari Banias and celebrate him, have been looking forward to his first collection, Anybody, for years. Aziza Barnes, Jayson P. Smith, Jeremy Clark, Angel Nafis, Rio Cortez, and Ricardo Hernandez are poets whose works and vibes excite me. I’m not sure I’d call any one of them ‘emerging’ because when you’re so fierce and devastating it’s right there. These poets are full-throated worlds. There’s no waiting or recognition needed from anything or anyone else. They already know. 

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

For me, being vigilant about self-care on a daily basis is critical. I think I add even more rituals and spaces to my life when something feels very difficult in the creative realm. I check in with myself frequently and keep things around me as low-key as I possibly can. So, more meditation, more laughter with friends, more sleep, more painting. I don’t just wait to practice self-care when difficult things arise in my work. A sustained practice allows me to get even deeper with hard material because I know I have tools and strategies to get myself out once the work is doing what I need it to do.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?


This is an interesting question. The thing is that I’m not reactive like that. I don’t need to say anything to anyone. I have too much work to do. And honestly, my writing is not nearly as intense or as upsetting as what’s happening in this country right now. My writing and art is, currently, in tandem with an ugly, complex American narrative. If people can speak and listen, the work is there for them. But I also write about imagination, art, grief, desire, and joy. I would like to think I work across a number of mediums in an effort to exist in a three-dimensional space. Not flat or isolated. I’d never write or create anything if I had to worry about someone thinking whatever about me. They’ll do that anyway. That kind of control, or the need to police someone’s opinion of me, does me no good. So much of the time I’m thankful for the support and friendships I have with various communities where our commitment to the arts is mutual and shared.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

My recent writing has been much more transparent and autobiographical. My mother died in 2014 and most of my poems have lived and emerged from that grief and love. In the past I don’t think it has always necessarily been clear that I may or may not have been writing about my own life. In our time, people are very fixated on a breed of truth that sometimes doesn’t hold as much breadth or depth than how either ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ are defined. Because I sometimes write about something that may not be inherently autobiographical doesn’t mean it isn’t true or that it doesn’t hold some significance or meaning to an event or relationship in my life. I don’t need to convince anyone whether something really happened to me or not. I’m not writing non-fiction and I don’t think I’ll ever write a memoir. All of the believing and disbelief occurs in the truth of writing. The narrative or stanza bleeds in and through me. Certain types of assumptions can limit imagination and be charged with politics and fears that are narrow. I’m not a narrow artist. My workwriting, photography, painting, proseis all about expansiveness without sacrificing nuance, intelligence, or body.

What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently? 


I’m not sure yet. It feels as though we’re in the middle of that impact. In immediate ways it’s evident that poets are connected, engaged, and able to communicate quite a bit of information. It’s been wonderful to receive links about articles, essays, and poems that would have traveled out into the world at a slower speed. Poets who may feel isolated are able to access a frequency or ‘hive’ in a number of ways whether it’s direct discussions on threads or simply posting drafts or thoughts about readings, current events, or interviews. For me, the frequency often tilts. Where social media happens, I often go and return. I need breaks. It can get noisy for me and like any room of creative and gifted individuals, there can be a range of opinions and tastes, some which I respect and others not as much. But that’s the point. For me, it’s more about social media being a space to connect to another person or group. I find out about cultures and people I don’t know if I would have ever discovered otherwise. But, too, I never forget that there is a human being behind that screen, not just a name, no matter how I feel. Even if I may not connect in opinion, I consider my agency and engagement with the space. I think social media allows groups, especially groups who have fought to have a collective voice, a way to urgently verbalize and recognize their needs. This may be a celebration or confrontation within the group or reactive to some event.

We’re currently living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?

We’ve always lived in some incarnation of a police/surveillance state. In this country, black bodies have never lived without being policed. If anything, the policing that happens now includes the people, who are now equipped with technology, at least, to participate in how the gaze and the narrative happens. But this relationship can also be broken down in so many ways, defended or accepted, for better and for worse. I’m certain that this current state has affected me. Sometimes I will need to ask friends, or even family, to refrain from photographing or sharing personal details when I want to be private, which is much of the time. I don’t think anyone cares where I’m having dinner or what I’m eating but I really need to have a private place. I don’t want to accommodate an internalized gaze…sometimes cameras can feel that way. And I’m a photographer so I think I’m a bit more sensitive to how and when and why a camera is needed and what the purpose is. I’m aware that when I’m in a public space I can’t have that kind of privacy on my terms. If I’m presenting my work, at a reading, or am working with others, I know that I am opening myself to community, but also to strangers. Risk has always been important to me and the work I create. Which makes a certain kind of visibility part of the experience. Though it makes me nervous, I don’t try to avoid it when I’m the role of artist, at least the part of it that arrives after the work is finished. It’s the work and the intention of the work that asks and insists for a response, a single reader, or a wider conversation.    


Rachel Eliza GriffithsRACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS is a poet and visual artist. Her most recent collection, Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books), was a finalist for the 2015 Balcones Poetry Prize and the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in Poetry. A Kimbilio and Cave Canem fellow, Griffiths’ poetry and visual works have appeared widely. This month Griffiths’ photography and mixed media exhibit, American Stanzas: 2006 – 2016, will open at Poets House. She teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Sarah Lawrence College.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.