new Mennonite Life logo    September 2001     vol. 56 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

Interview with Jeff Gundy

Brad S. Born

As an active poet, essayist, and writer of creative nonfiction, Jeff Gundy has had his work published widely, with over 200 poems and over 50 literary and personal essays, interviews and reviews appearing in numerous magazines and journals. His most recent books include a work of creative nonfiction, A Community of Memory: My Days with George and Clara (1996), and a collection of poems, Rhapsody with Dark Matter (2000). He is currently working on a book of personal essays titled Scattering Point and a collection of critical essays on Mennonite writing. Holding both an M.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English from Indiana University, he is also a Professor of English at Bluffton College, having taught there since 1984.

This past March Bethel College invited Jeff to campus to read from his most recent book of poems, and after the late morning's reading and a leisurely lunch, Jeff and I sat down for an interview on the wide sleeping porch adjoining his room at the college's guest house. Due to my failure to bring good recording equipment, and our choice to open the windows, our taped conversation at times succumbed to audiotape buzz and the early Spring hum of backyard sounds at the Goerz House. So the following account of our conversation has been embroidered a bit.

Rhapsody with Dark Matter

What's moving on the hills could be mist or rain
the first long notes of the apocalypse

or just another load of thick summer dreams.
What's coming won't be hurried or put off.

Yes the stars are out there, blazing, and all
the dark matter too. A woman with son and daughter

settles in beneath a bridge, smooths cardboard
with a dirty hand. A man pours beer and brags

of the tank he drove into the desert. Two million bucks.
So much easier to blow things up than get them right,

a marriage, a country, a small town forty miles
from the nearest beer. It isn't just this poem

that's loose, gliding from scenery to disaster,
floating through the gorgeous, deadly world.

It's not just me. Say what you will about the dark--
it won't leave you contented, or alone. It saunters

at its own pace down the long bluff, up the streets
of the finest little town in Arkansas. I'm trying

to remember where the keys are, which road I'll take
out of town. Remembering a voice: I'm tired, yes.

The boys are fine. Call Tuesday. Bring yourself home.

Q: The title piece of your most recent book seems to me more dark than rhapsodic--the weary meditations of a poet far from home, rather than the exalted song of an impassioned bard. How did you come to choose Rhapsody with Dark Matter as your title?

A: By "dark matter," I had in mind, first, the literal stuff, which recent science suggests makes up most of the mass of the universe, though we can't really identify or locate it with the instruments that we have. But I was also thinking about the "dark" realities of life, the violence and poverty and pain that are recognized in the middle of the poem as taking place even while I'm there in the midst of all that beauty. Combining the musical term with the scientific one came to me only gradually as the title of the poem, which for a while was "Little Rhapsody from White River," then "Landscape with Dark Matter." But I finally decided that putting the two together created a tension that I liked, an image that seemed to capture something of the complicated world we live in.

Q: The closing line of "Rhapsody" suggests you're on the road--"cruising across America," as you write in another poem. As I have read Rhapsody with Dark Matter, I've been struck by the frequency of driving images, and based on my recollection of your earlier books of poems, this pattern seems new to your work. What do you think accounts for all these travel poems?

A: Partly it's just I think that in the last few years I have increasingly written poems on the road. Because I can't grade papers or whatever while I'm driving in the car, driving is one of those times that is available for poetry. I've also found my life at home getting busier with teaching responsibilities--grading papers, getting lectures together, all that--so when I get away I find myself having the time to appreciate new images and new experiences. Many of those car poems were drafted--spoken into my little tape recorder, actually--while driving alone to some conference or workshop or reading.

There's also something about driving along, alone in a car, that throws me into a meditative kind of state. You're alone, even though there are often many people around; there's the scenery, the weather, and whatever recent ideas or experiences that you haven't yet really assimilated. There's time to let all that stuff stew and then see what might come of it.

Q: Your remarks about being busy with papers and lecture preparations provide a reminder that you have a day job--you're an English professor. Like so many practicing poets today, you have to balance your creative writing with your college teaching. Is that a productive relationship? What happens to poetry when so many of its practitioners are full-time teachers?

A: This is a subject of some concern in the profession. There was an article in a recent AWP Chronicle, the trade journal for creative writing programs, that raises some concerns about writers who teach. If all that we do is grow up and go to college and get a teaching job and never experience much of life outside of the institution, that's the material we have to write about, and that's a rather narrow slice of the whole world. That's a legitimate concern.

But I don't feel that I live in an ivory tower, though a small town like Bluffton is surely limited in some ways. As a professor and a parent I interact with lots of different people, I am able to travel, and of course I have access to far more information than I can possibly make use of through the media. I suspect that teaching for a living may be more a problem for fiction writers. I heard Scott Russell Sanders, who has largely turned from fiction to essays, say once that "fiction consumes experience at an alarming rate," and I think many fiction writers do feel the need to spend a good deal of time in observation of people. Fiction also takes sustained blocks of time which are hard to come by while teaching.

Q: Many of your poems come out of encounters with the natural world. Water, for instance, is a frequently recurring image--from the rain's sheen on the black-haired girl of the first poem, "Rain", to the "tall, sweet grass" near the pond of the last line of the final poem, "Landscape with Daily Life". Why so much water?

A: I had a theory for a while about poets and the elements. John Ashbery, for instance, was an air poet, Robinson Jeffers was an earth poet. Eventually I decided it was a pretty simple-minded theory, but I think many poets do respond in powerful ways to the natural world, and those responses often are related to elemental images that turn up in poems. There's a lot of fire imagery in my first book of poems, Inquiries, partly because many of the poems were written during and just after the drought summer of 1988, when it didn't rain for the whole first half of the summer in northwest Ohio and the whole landscape was just transformed. Flatlands, my second book, has a lot of earth imagery, as the title suggests; it's very strongly located in Midwestern landscapes.

You're right about all the water imagery in Rhapsody, though it wasn't something that I consciously planned. Besides the two poems you mention, several others are more or less drenched in water. The long prose poem/essay in part two of the book deals with rivers as a symbol of desire, a traditional association; Robert Bly also says that water, especially underground water, is a symbol of the unconscious, and I think that the poem "Old Water" has something to do with making contact with an element of myself that I had not been conscious of. Beyond that, I suppose I'd add that water is beautiful and essential, as are fire and air and earth, so it's not surprising that poets pay attention to them.

Q: Having just been rereading Ralph Waldo Emerson recently, I encountered again his statement that "Every natural fact is a sign of some spiritual fact." Emerson argued that the poet, by reinvigorating language and reconnecting it to nature, could thus forge a link from word to nature to spirit. Is that what poetry should aspire to?

A: That's certainly one of the things that I aspire to. This happens in the course of writing a poem; one of the reasons I do this, is that something's going on that connects your physical self with your spiritual self, or your intellectual self to your physical self. We are divided within ourselves, as well as experiencing the world in terms of all those other distinction and divisions, but one of the things poems do is to insist and demonstrate the connections between things that we think of as separate.

The "leaps" that often occur in poems, associations that seem strange or obscure at first, are signs of the poet making such connections. If they are merely arbitrary or showing off, the poem doesn't work, but in a good poem we sense the rightness and solidity of the connections that are made. The whole business of connecting a particular set of words to an experience or image or emotion is also important and hard, of course. Without the right language, the strongest feeling or the most intense experience won't make a poem.

Q: Rhapsody includes a poem with a reference to God as "sublime and funky"; an earlier chapbook of yours, Surrendering to the Real Things, includes a line about settling for "an obscure sense / of possible sublimity." Why just an "obscure sense"? Why just a "possible sublimity"?

A: That's Wordsworth, I think, from his long poem The Prelude. The poems in that chapbook were written about a character named C.W., or sometimes "C. Wordsworth Crockett," a kind of parody of the sort of poet that I thought I was in graduate school. I wrote those poems mostly in grad school, when I was almost drowning in poetry and great big ideas. But the poem is really critical of Wordsworth for settling for such vague language--I think it describes "obscure sense of possible sublimity" as "a nice thought, surely, and not much fuzzier than your average lamb."

The poem in Rhapsody you're referring to is called "What the Prairie Boy Learned on the Whistler Road", and it's a much more recent poem about driving in the mountains of British Columbia. In a sense it still contains a persona, but I think the speaker there is much more just me, in a van full of relatives, trying to catch glimpses of the incredible scenery without driving off a cliff, and then trying to somehow put the experience of awe and wonder and a little frustration at being bound to the task of driving into some kind of language.

I think the full line is "In mountains it's easy to believe that God is both sublime and funky." What does that mean, exactly? Often I find myself making statements about God in poems, almost always without planning them beforehand. They're in the poems more as immediate impressions that emerge from particular moments--the kind of thing you might say in a late-night conversation with a good friend--than as the kind of abstract theological statements that I would care to defend in some intellectual way. At the same time, thinking about it now, I do still like the idea that God is both sublime and funky.

Q: Your interest in combining the funky with the sublime is evident in a poem like "Ancient Themes #1: The Martyrs & the Child," which mixes comic irreverence with the high seriousness of Anabaptist martyrdom. Also funky and funny is the poem "How the Boy Jesus Resisted Taking Out the Trash." And what about "The Cookie Poem," which likens God to Sesame Street's Cookie Monster?

A:"The Cookie Poem" is obviously playful, piling up all those different sorts of cookies which might also be different kinds of people, or Mennonites, or whatever. I only realized after writing the poem that the last image of the cookie crumbs flying out of God's mouth must come from Cookie Monster, the Sesame Street character, who must be one of the most benevolent monsters ever imagined. I wouldn't try to defend the idea that God is like Cookie Monster for very long, but I do like the way that the poem comes around to the conviction that "God loves us all."

Q: Perhaps David Baker had such poems in mind when he described your poetry as marked by "latter day knowledge," by "a sharp postmodern edge." I know, too, that a poem from Inquiries, titled "Inquiry into Faces, Light, the Guilt of Metaphor," provides as one of its epigraphs a line from the poster-boy of postmodern theory, Jacques Derrida. "Metaphor is never innocent," you quote. Then against that, for the second epigraph, you quote a line from Henry David Thoreau, whose romantic idealism and moral earnestness might, in some people's eyes, fly in the face of postmodern theory. Is there a tension in your work between a faith in language's ability to incarnate truth, and the wariness of such claims engendered by recent literary theory?

A: I can say several things in response to that. One is that words do get worn out, and we have to find new ways of expression. Another is that poetry ought somehow to deal as fully as possible with all the realities of life, and in a complicated, technologized, postmodern world, poetry ought to reckon and include those complexities somehow. So unlike my Amish ancestors, I find myself drawn to the new, although I approach it with some suspicion and with what I think is a traditional Mennonite reserve. I'm willing to pay attention, but that doesn't mean that I'll swallow anything whole.

You know, I can't write Wordsworth or Thoreau or Blake over again. And yet much of their work is still fresh. Having taught a theory class several times, and having read critical theory with the practical purpose of finding out what's going on and being able to talk with students about it, I have learned to appreciate a lot of contemporary theory, and to see the world through the eyes of those critics in certain ways. But as sophisticated as their thinking is, as complex as their language is, it doesn't cancel out or make obsolete what has come before, especially the work of strong poets and writers like those I just mentioned.

What postmodern critics say about Wordsworth may be interesting, but what Wordsworth wrote doesn't vanish because a critic comes along and offers a reading that seems to dispense with his poem.

There are some creative writers who consciously try to avoid knowing anything about contemporary theory--maybe they're like poetic Amish, wanting to stay clear of the poetic equivalent of the power grid. But I'm not one of them. I haven't found that anything I've learned has cancelled out my desire to write. I like some theorists a lot and don't much like others, and some I just have a hard time making any sense of, but overall I have learned a great deal from trying to pay attention to them. And while I can't say that I've used everything I've ever read, I have found that theory does sometimes inform a poem, allow me to make some move, in a way that seems enriching to me. When push comes to shove, though, I'm still more interested in poems and what poets have to say.

Q: So in your own experience, in the act of composition, you don't struggle with language's inability to make meaning present?

A: That's a practical problem for a poet--for anyone using language, I suppose. It's not as if Jacques Derrida invented it. Poets have known for a long time the difficulty of making language fit the emotional state you're trying to capture--how desperately difficult that is. In one sense, it's like telling a carpenter, hey, when you pound those nails, some won't drive true. That's no mystery to him. It's true, of course, but that's the condition of doing your work. But it doesn't mean you stop; you just keep trying to get better, and to learn from the nails you bend and the jobs you botch.

Somewhere in there my farm boy pragmatism kicks in, and I find myself asking, if language doesn't function to communicate, then why in the world would you write a book about the failure of language? If you don't believe that communication is possible, why labor for years to communicate something? In many ways, most of the time, quite clearly, language does communicate, despite its slippages. I don't mean to make a naïve dismissal of all that stuff. I just don't think it's necessary or even very useful to spend too much time worrying about the difficulty of communicating. We should worry about doing it as well as we can.

Q: Practicality shows up quite a bit in your work. In "Many Strong Rivers," you describe yourself as "practical guy." Near the end of Rhapsody you include a poem about "The Realist Aesthetic." Inquiries includes a poem about "the Son of a Practical Man." And C. W., a persona in Surrendering, wishes at one point to surrender to "Real Things." Can one be a practical poet?

A: Being a poet seems like such an impractical thing to do. Certainly there wasn't much discussion about poetry in the house I grew up in. There wasn't much sense that it was a likely vocation for a Mennonite farm boy. The only times I heard the language used with care for its sound and weight, really, was in church. The King James Bible has been a tremendous influence and resource for me, and for a lot of poets. But the question I still find myself confronting over and over has to do with the place of poetry in a society and a church that really regards it as peripheral, a minor art, a hobby. There's no money in it, after all.

And of course even now poetry is something I have to find time for among all these other things that are expected of me--going to class, grading papers, cooking supper, tending the garden, staying in touch with my family. So there is this tension always there, but there is a practicality, a kind of usefulness that poetry has. It is good for something, although it's not very easy to define what that is in terms that make sense to modern Americans.

Q: Does all poetry have this usefulness? Or is there only a certain kind of poetry that surrenders to real things?

A: One of the things that occurs to me here is that as a white male in America I live quite a privileged life, and I'm aware of that. But a direct use of poetry has always been as the voice of the oppressed, and that continues to be so. The poems of Di Brandt and Julia Kasdorf and others have helped make Mennonites aware of the ways that women's lives have been thwarted and twisted by abuse and domination. Poetry and fiction provide ways of telling stories about sexism and racism and oppression that are not part of the official story, but need to be told. I see my own work as part of that effort to fill in the gaps in the official story, to complicate and resist master narratives by offering others.

So the usefulness I'm thinking of isn't very direct--it's not like you get a certain number of dollars, or get your kids to take out the garbage. I'm thinking of the lines from William Carlos Williams: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there." There's certain kind of understanding, a certain kind of information, that poetry gives us access to. Esoteric practicality, maybe. Kenneth Burke spoke of literature as providing "equipment for living."

I know that my life is far better equipped for having spent time reading poems and trying to write them. I think the real work for poets is to be honest and exacting, to search their own lives and the lives of others and represent those lives in all their fullness and complexity, with all their mystery and grace and darkness and joy.