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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Jesse Graves says poetry takes courage

Jesse Graves on campus at ETSU
Jesse Graves on campus at ETSU
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By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | March 26, 2014

Jesse Graves' first attempt at a poem was an assignment in elementary school a poem about the Revolutionary War.

"My brother helped me with some of the word choices, so the poem ended up with phrases like "England's yoke' in it-I'm sure my teacher was skeptical about whether I actually had written that poem," Graves says. "I wrote lots of things in high school that I imagined were songs, but I never wrote any music to go with them, so those were basically unknowing attempts at poems. When I started college at UT in Knoxville, I became more serious about writing poems. I discovered Wendell Berry, who wrote about the kind of place where I had grown up, and in a voice I could relate to, then I found James Wright and Philip Levine and other poets who would become early influences."

The Graves family of storytellers lived in Sharps Chapel, Tenn. Their stories and that community, coupled with his discovery of Berry, greatly influenced his poetry.

"My German ancestors settled in that area in the 1780s after one of my grandfathers, Johann Graff, got into trouble for fighting with the Regulators against the English government of North Carolina. My mother's family also had a long history in Union County, and many of them, including my mother, were wonderful storytellers. Many of my literary influences come from this part of the world, central Appalachia especially, like Robert Morgan, Ron Rash and Jeff Daniel Marion. Also, several international writers like the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney have inspired how I think about my own poetry.

"I have written a good deal about my childhood, and the place where I grew up, which felt full of a kind of mythic history. Our farm seemed inhabited still by ancestors, like they were lingering around in the woods and in the old family house. Stories of the Civil War, of Native Americans, of panthers, of supernatural occurrences, these all felt very real to me, and like they weren't even that far in the past. I've also written about the other places I've lived, New York and New Orleans, and there are several poems about my grown-up life with my wife and daughter. Most writers probably worry at one time or another about repeating themselves, and I have tried to keep alert to new subject matter, and to new ways to write about things I have looked at before."

While looking for new ways to express himself, Graves remains cognizant of the technical aspects of poetry, such as syllable count, line breaks, repetition patterns. "These techniques take time to learn, but once you know them, they become part of the pleasure of reading and writing poetry."

But techniques alone won't result in a poem that speaks to the reader.

"For me, poetry expresses more about what it is like to be alive in the world today than any other art form. For a poem to work, it needs to address matters of the heart and of the head in almost equal measure. Since there is no interference between the reader and the text, poetry can deal with emotions in an intellectual way, and deal with abstractions in a way that evokes feelings. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said that poetry is "accelerated thinking,' and I love the idea, but I think it is also amplified feeling, and when those two elements come into balance, nothing else speaks so powerfully."

The powerful voice of a poem plays an important role in society though traditionally for a small audience. "In a money-and technology-driven culture, poetry upholds beauty and patience," Graves says. "Poetry basically insists that you slow down to appreciate reading it. This is not an easy sell, especially to younger people who may feel that time is moving slowly anyway, but I tell my students that reading a poem more than once will reward them for their attention. I also encourage my students to go out and hear poetry readings when they have the opportunity. Often they enjoy these events more than they would have imagined-they just didn't think that sort of thing would interest them, and sometimes they are surprised to find that it does."

Graves, as an assistant professor of English at East Tennessee State University, also tells his poetry students that poetry takes courage.

"It does take courage to try writing poems, especially if you are going to share them with others. Students also have to be willing to enter an unknown territory, even if I give them an assignment to write about, or a form, like a sonnet, they still have to find their own way into the subject matter. There is no real blueprint for how to write a poem, so I think my role as a poetry teacher is to help young writers find their own voices. I have had unreasonably good fortune when it comes to writing teachers, and to people who have encouraged my work. At UT, I had two great poetry professors, Marilyn Kallet and Arthur Smith, and then at Cornell I had the chance to study with A.R. Ammons and Robert Morgan, two North Carolina-born poets. When I came back to UT as a Ph.D. student, the poet Jack Gilbert, who was nearly 80 years old at the time, spent a semester as a visiting writer, and I took a wonderful class with him. Writing is pretty solitary work, and requires privacy and quiet time, but writers generally thrive in communities of other writers."

Graves' community of writers includes a group of friends who participate in a creative frenzy called poetry marathons, which have had a dramatic effect on his writing routine.

"Three or four times a year, we agree to write a new poem every day for a full month. This has been a revelation to me. I used to be more comfortable with waiting around for inspiration to strike, but I am convinced now that it strikes more often if you go out looking for it. Of course, I don't get 30 good poems in a month, but I get lots of sketches that can be revised into poems. Plus, that kind of everyday requirement makes me pay closer attention than I ever have to what might become the subject for a poem. One of my old professors, Arthur Smith, said that good poems tend to come in batches, and I believe that is true. It has to do with what another of my old professors, Robert Morgan, calls "perceptual energy,' and it happens when your attention is most acute to the world around you."

These marathons and the willingness to leave the solitude of writing for the community of other writers led Graves to the vibrant Johnson City, Tenn., poetry scene.

"When I first arrived here in 2009, I was invited by some colleagues to come down to the Acoustic Coffeehouse for an open mic night. I had been to these kinds of events in other places and had never been very interested in the competitive nature they usually had, but the one here was just the opposite. The atmosphere was friendly and encouraging to all levels of poets, from the absolute beginners to retired professors, and many of the readers were from the community and not only the university. There are several good organizations that local writers can join, including the Knoxville Writers Guild, and the Tennessee Poetry Society, Northeast Branch, and I'm sure there are similar groups in Virginia and North Carolina.

"I have also worked hard to bring published writers to ETSU, and we have had several great events, ranging from an evening with Emerging Writers most years, to a new annual reading sponsored by the Mockingbird, our student literary and arts magazine. We named the reading after one of our legendary English professors, Jack Higgs, who was also the magazine's first faculty adviser, and this year's reading will feature our own Poet-in-Residence, Don Johnson, who has a new book of poems coming out. "

If you would like to hear Graves read his poetry, he has three public readings in April. He and William Wright read in the Reece Museum at ETSU, Thursday, April 3 at 5 p.m. He and guests from the "Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VI: Tennessee" speak at the Johnson City Pubic Library Wednesday, April 16 at 6 p.m. Graves and five other poets are part of the Sunday with Friends series at the Washington County Public Library, Abingdon, Va., Sunday, April 27, at 3 p.m.

Graves received the 2012 New Faculty Award from the ETSU College of Arts and Sciences. He has published two full-length poetry collections. The first, "Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine," won the 2012 Weatherford Award in Poetry from Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Association, and the Book of the Year Award in Poetry from the Appalachian Writers' Association. It was also awarded the 2013 Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for excellence in writing any genre from Morehead State University. His second, "Basin Ghosts," is due out this spring. His poem, "Source," received a Denny C. Plattner Prize for 2013 from Appalachian Heritage magazine. He has a doctorate in English from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn., and a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.



My brother, how far apart are we tonight?
I look for you in many places, especially
the mirror, as your face washes over mine,

finds a way down along my cheekbones.
I saved your last phone messages
and keep a picture of us on my desk,

yet some Saturdays, I still listen for you
to call and tell me where you've been.
What is the veil between us now?

October leaves take on the bright colors
I dread, the wretched, shimmering beauty
that held your last days in its arms.

I feel around for a balm to this long missing,
long shadow under a shadow, translating
worries into language I thought long forgotten:

Lord, please keep the rain, clicking tonight
at my window awnings, clear of the hillside
where my brother awaits your faint signal.

By Jesse Graves
Reprinted with permission from "Basin Ghosts"

Topics: Poetry

"Basin Ghosts" is due out this spring.