I once told J.P. Grasser that I wanted to live in his brain for a day, and I stand by that. You're about to see why. We talk about his dog Gus, the connection between our desire to tame both poetry and animals, Keats, Herrick, Counting Crows, and Flannery O'Connor's peacocks.
Hold on to your hats!
First, a little about J.P.: he attended Sewanee: The University of the South and received his MFA in poetry from Johns Hopkins University. He is currently a doctoral student in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Utah, where he teaches undergraduate writing, serves as managing editor of Quarterly West, and helps curate the Working Dog reading series. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, Best New Poets 2015, Cincinnati Review, West Branch Wired, The Journal, and Ninth Letter Online, among others. He will begin a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University in Fall 2017. Find more at www.jpgrasser.com.
Tell us a little about your dog Gus. Maybe a story that exemplifies his role in your life?
Gus: (named after Gustav Klimt, the Art Nouveau painter, and/or Gus-Gus, the rotund & ruddy rodent from Disney’s Cinderella).
Gus: sweet & caring, regal & dainty, wild & vicious.
To elaborate: one afternoon last March, while teaching, I received a flurry of phone calls from my partner. When I managed to get in touch, she was beside herself, nearly inconsolable. She & Gus had been hiking on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail—a tract along Salt Lake City’s east side, which had once been the shore of the Bonneville inland ocean, a tract which is now mostly domesticated. Mostly.
As she tells the story, Gus had been trotting at her heels with all of his characteristic amiability—just enjoying the early spring weather, taking in the new smells, soaking up the good light. In a flash, he dove into the scrub brush. Just as quick, he re-emerged with a Magpie firmly in his maw. She got to him just in time to see an iridescent, blue-tipped wing disappear down his throat (whole).
When the scene wrapped up, he returned to Maggie’s side, calm & sweet as ever.
Getting to know Gus, watching our lives interweave & imbricate, has been much like this. He possesses a ferocity of spirit, an untamable instinct, which I admire. Which I’d like to emulate. And yet, there’s a grace in him too. Which I’d also like to emulate.
"No good poem can be written in this way—we must, I think, have one foot in this world & one in that other, indescribable realm."
Where does Gus fit into your writing rituals?
At first, he didn’t. Gus is nothing if not a fetch-fiend, and I usually like to write outside. Which meant, of course, I couldn’t get a thing done. Outside time, for Gus, means playtime. He never gets tired of it.
So, like him, I’ve learned to adapt. I write at the kitchen table most days now and, at times, forget he’s here. That is, until he decides to curl up at my feet.
This has struck me, of late, as a metaphor for the process of composition in general. For us, as writers, when all cylinders are firing in tandem, there’s a breed (pun intended) of absolute absorption that occurs. We forget the world; our psyches recede from it. But no good poem can be written in this way—we must, I think, have one foot in this world & one in that other, indescribable realm.
When I’ve lost myself to the pure pleasure of writing, Gus happily reminds me of all the multitudinous joy & pain & love & suffering going on, at that very minute, in the space outside the margins.
In our pre-interview banter, you noted you saw some connection between how we engage with poems and how we engage with domesticated animals. In essence – please forgive the rough paraphrase here – our aim seems to be to contain both a poem’s and an animal’s wildness. But as you said, “Wildness can exist in even the well-mannered poem.” Can you elaborate on this connection?
Yes! Advance apologies for the grad-school density to follow:
In The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks gives one definition for poetry as “the language of paradox.” Or, to go the Keats ‘Negative Capability’ route, one might say good poetry is (un)simply uncertainty unbridled. But isn’t that also the definition of all creatures? Of Gus? Of (your pup) Bowie? Of us?
I often find myself gravitating toward received form as a way to mete & measure this uncertainty—one can’t stare into the void too long without a tether (or leash!). But Gus has made me truly realize that even the most domesticated of forms—the perfectly constructed Elizabethan sonnet, say—must likewise incorporate surprise, variation, spontaneity. It’s not so much duality as multiplicity. (I’m thinking here of Herrick’s line from “Delight in Disorder”: “I see a wild civility.”)
When Gus first came home with us from the humane society (his third home in six months), I was hell-bent on training him. He was going to be the best-behaved dog in the Mountain West. But he isn’t, not even close—he is a dogged dog, to be sure. And now, I love him for his wild, independent spirit, not in spite of it. I love him for his multiplicity.
"We’re animals too, just as subject to the whims of the world as a puffin, a tulip, a dung beetle."
In your poem “Fetch” that appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review, you write: “Stay, I say, and Sit – / exhibits of my neuroses…”
Does this hint at what you think drives our fear of what’s wild? Or, more specific to this conversation, what drives our need to control both wildness on the page and in our animals?
Many of our neuroses & anxieties, I think, stem directly from this fundamental dissonance. We like to think of ourselves as higher order beings—fully rational, fully civilized, fully in control. But, we’re not. We’re animals too, just as subject to the whims of the world as a puffin, a tulip, a dung beetle.
We’re happy to acknowledge this in abstract discourse, but we’ve done everything possible to hide this fact from ourselves. We use forks & knives & spoons (god forbid we eat a salad with our hands). We’ve invented commodes & bidets (for sanitary and sanity reasons, I’d argue).
For the past year or so, I’ve started to work toward a regular practice of Mindfulness. Which is, of course, exactly what our dogs practice every day. They live in the present. They control what they can. They don’t worry about the rest. What great teachers they could be, if only we were more willing pupils.
Your poems are so drenched in rhyme, slant rhyme, assonance, and consonance. I could pick a number of examples, but let’s go with “Surrender the Animal” because those last few lines won’t come down from my mind:
Me: too rational,
too busy thinking what these people thought
of me, wearing a suit to a funeral
in Nebraska. Maybe regret’s futile.
Still though, I wish I’d screamed my animal
grief like the animal I think I am.
What is the ideal role for sound to play in a poem?
The role sound must play in a poem is exactly that: serious play, playful sincerity. (If you see Gus with his tennis ball, you’ll see—he gets it.)
"We must grieve the living if we’re to appreciate them, if we’re to accept their eventual going."
A follow-up about that poem: you draw on how animals grieve to illuminate human grief. How else have animals informed the way you explore human complexities on the page? Has Gus helped in this regard?
I’m not sure this answers the question, but, being a poet, how could I pass up the opportunity to share some thoughts on mortality.
By comparison, death makes the previously mentioned problems-of-being-human quite minor. (To quote Larkin: “The mind blanks at the glare.”) Think of the pomp & circumstance we ascribe to death—the ornamentation of funeral rites, 21-gun salutes, the Minwax-sheen of the casket itself. We ritualize & aestheticize death out of terror and uncertainty. We make sure the urn is well-wrought.
But this only takes us farther from the grief-work we must do, the excavation. On a farm, death is flat, plain, and part of life. You don’t get used to it, but you accept it. (This time, Harold Bloom, on Keats: the poet’s “gift is one of tragic acceptance.”)
Since Gus has joined our pack, we’ve already begun the process of grieving for him. He’s only two. He’s healthy. He’s impossibly energetic. But we must grieve the living if we’re to appreciate them, if we’re to accept their eventual going.
There’s that age-old adage, perhaps best summarized (for my generation, at least) by Counting Crows: “Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got ‘til its gone.”
Only in accepting the impending gone can we know what we’ve got.
Your poem “Dog,” which appeared in diode, opens with the epigraph “Let them have dominion” from Genesis 1:26 and uses an uncle’s treatment of a dog as a microcosm of that dominion. Can you talk more about the premise of this poem and what you hope readers take away from it?
The passage from Genesis reads, in full, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
But why shouldn’t dogs have dominion too? Or any other animal, for that matter? If you ask me, there’s something creepy about this transitive god-complex.
But, again, we’re back to the idea of control and domestication. To me, the poem is about averting my own glance, about taking pleasure in suffering, when I was a child. My uncle, who was once a professor of biology (and who, therefore, unequivocally knew the scientifically-verifiable ‘interrelatedness of all things’), kept dogs chained down by the ponds on my grandparents’ farm. Why he did this, I don’t know.
But this is a phenomenon almost entirely distinct to humans (if we disregard, for the time being, cats and orcas)—the malevolent thrill we find in exerting power over other creatures.
We all know the one about the ants and the boy and the magnifying glass.
Or, to take the Aristotelian route, it’s a poem about the competing desires of egoism and the supererogatory, avarice vs. charity. Or, simply put, self-importance winning out over fundamental goodness. We must care for the world & all its beautiful, beautiful things.
"...there’s something creepy about this transitive god-complex."
A metaphor or simile for Gus?
Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks.