In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Michael Garrigan
In your poem, “The River, A Ghost,” I love that you give us several fourth-wall breaks that jar us out of the river imagery. When did the inspiration for equating a “river in drought” to struggles with fertility emerge in your writing process?
I didn’t start out writing that poem with the intention of exploring infertility, but the poem eventually took me there. It was a summer with very little rain, so I spent a lot of time in a drought-stricken river and that imagery inevitably showed up in a poem. I had already written a few other “The River,…” poems and this, I think, was the last one. There was a poem in my first collection called “Your Poem About Unicorns” that also explored the struggles with fertility, but I didn’t feel like it went far enough so I think I always had the notion to revisit that again and, in some ways, own it differently. This poem allowed me to do that, almost as if I needed the river and the days of wading into it as a way to enter into that difficult experience again.
Speaking of the interjections throughout this piece, the line “but this is bullshit, metaphor only goes so far,” highlights how often flowery language hides real emotions. What is your relationship with metaphor as an artist, and how do you work with it, rather than have it overwhelm your work?
I love metaphor, but I can sometimes rely on it too much. For example, the “river” is a strong metaphor throughout this poem and throughout the entire book in which it appears (River, Amen); however, I found myself, especially with this poem, putting all the weight on the metaphor and using it, in some ways, to protect myself from going to the place the poem was taking me which required vulnerability, honesty, and an emotional exploration that was uncomfortable. I’ve learned to honor the metaphor, but also to be sure to ask what it wants and to check myself, especially through the revision process, to make sure I’m not just using it as a distraction or as a way to step around something that I really need to step into. It’s important for me to make sure the metaphor is getting me closer to something rather than further away; so in that poem every “bullshit” is a push through a figurative facade and towards whatever’s behind it.
You’re also a teacher; do you find that there’s a dissonance between scientific environmental terms and more poetic language when you’re writing?
Oh for sure. I think there’s always a tension, for me, between scientific and poetic language, especially within eco-poetry. I definitely have to go back through my work to make sure my diction fits the piece. I think it’s important to incorporate the scientific environmental terms when appropriate, especially to honor a specific plant or animal. However, sometimes the more “poetic” choice is the better one. I guess it’s just about finding the balance between the two and coming back to what the poem is looking for, what it needs and wants.
You say that every watershed should have a Poet Laureate. Can you elaborate; and also, how do you suggest the general population take action to help with conservation efforts?
Sure! I guess that’s my way of saying that every “place” should have a poet that is writing about it, exploring it, celebrating it, and advocating for it. We all live in a watershed and I think poetry and art have the ability to connect us to a landscape in an engaging way which I think is really important. I think through that engagement we can build a stronger connection to the plants and animals and the places they live and hopefully increase our involvement with local conservation efforts. I’ve been doing a lot of readings and events with local conservation and non-profit organizations and I find that people love sharing their connections with landscapes and participating in a community centered around art and conservation. I think a Watershed Poet Laureate would be a great way to build those connections, conversations, and acts of conservation.
What authors and books keep you inspired? Do you have a favorite text?
Todd Davis is a great inspiration for me as a writer, teacher, and person. I love Anne Haven McDonnell’s work and her book Living With Wolves is a great source of inspiration for me both as a writer and conservationist. Donika Kelly’s Bestiary is definitely one of my favorite collections that lives right next to my writing desk so I can pick it up whenever I need to. Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers is another book I keep coming back to over and over again. I’ve been reading a lot of Gerald Stern this summer which has really shifted my way of thinking about what a poem can do and how a poem can work.
I have a few projects I’m working on. I finished the first draft of a novel over the summer which I am really excited about. I’m going to spend the winter revising it with the hopes of sending it out to some readers by the spring. I’ve also been working on my next poetry collection, which might be two collections; I’m not really sure yet. I have a lot of new voices emerging and I’m still seeing how they speak to each other and what worlds they are pulling me into.