Contributor Spotlight: James Grabill

“Reverberating String,” “Out of the Light in Leaves,” and “The Life of Lightning” by James Grabill appeared in Issue 19 and can be read here.

We’d love to hear a little more about your process and these poems.

You might think the more practiced someone is at walking through town, the easier they’d find it to talk about. And that someone whose job revolved around weights of words and measures of syntax would have an even easier time of it, dishing out words. Maybe most poets find this to be the case, but when I try to write about current poems, which I consider ecological, I have trouble finding perspective, not mixing in too many things at once, and not heading into a sentence with one idea but ending it with another.

Anyway, it seems to me that poems come out of a different state than business letters or analysis. The poet cradling a whiskey bottle as he declares he’s under an artistic spell – the compulsion to write a new poem – only has it half right. A shift in consciousness is necessary, but the “liminal space” in which poetry forms as words resonate, emerging with rhythmic syntactical strategies, is much easier on the body than whiskey. It does require entering a less-common state of mind that promotes psychological receptivity, as personal vision and emotion share communicating circulation with probable neural embedding that affects the way language turns out. (This might be what Simic was referring to with his book title Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk.)

While no one creates art in a vacuum, a case can be made for the importance of “not knowing,” of approaching the imagination as an informed beginner when hoping to launch into new work. For me, however aware I might be of what I want to say, “not knowing” means allowing mindfulness to exist in the place between naming and not knowing, while recording words or images that insinuate themselves into the language, through what might be an aesthetic corollary to the hypnagogic state between waking and sleeping.

I compose and rewrite early drafts by hand on a yellow legal pad, which makes the experience more visceral, engaging, I think, with a few other neural intersections in play than when sitting before the computer. Writing words by hand might or might not give the language more sound and bring out more honesty, but it definitely moves more slowly, letting the mind lean closer to the subconscious and possibly consider language or imagery that happens to float up into view. Generally, I feel driven to write poems when the primal desire to connect (outside time?) combines with fresh ethical imperative, sending me into material hinged on radical ecology and intuitive feelings I’ve collected, such as those that pertain to materialism and definitions of what/who people are.

The human body, of course, consists of countless cells derived from early single-celled beings which are now engaged in complex collaborative activities that assure our survival. Only a fraction of these living cells contain human DNA. The rest are other species, microscopic beings that outnumber human cells 10:1. So the body, besides being the latest version (out for a trial run) of our unthinkably long evolution, is a complex inner ecosystem –  rivers with tributaries in a rain forest where not many of the species have been named or classified. We call ourselves human and receive names, while the body consists of a co-evolved collaboration mostly consisting of other species on human terrain, with human circulation. We know the body is inextricably complex, and much remains to be learned.

In the last few years, I’ve been writing prose poems and poems that explore ecological perspectives and who we are, trying to practice “systems thinking” by asking “where did this come from?” and “where is that going and what are the consequences?” This process has involved “integrating” updated information into the implied historical backdrop. Public discourse needs to catch up with what we now know, to add to the working definition of people the ways we depend on the health of inner and outer ecosystems (adding this to the ethical imperative that drives us to protect the environment).   

A corollary is that consciousness and ecological interdependence are not fixed things but emergent processes. Each of my poems included here explores this in metaphor by focusing on a point of transformation (production of nutrition in leaves, broadcast of pitch by a vibrating string, release of built-up electricity in the  air), where seen and unseen data help establish the whole picture. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Emergent reality depends on finely tuned conditions to create it on the spot. Otherwise, of course, it wouldn’t exist. Take consciousness, an emergent property of bodily components. Sever the head at the neck, and consciousness ends. Construction materials making up the body aren’t exclusively “human,” a point that stamps a red question mark on pages of a number of textbooks. Spontaneity in the way inner ecosystems create “mind” challenges the object worship of materialism and deserves extensive poetic research.

What are some difficulties you experience in writing and in these poems specifically?

Seeing only the next stretch of highway that appears in the headlights.

Listening for contributions from less conscious regions of the brain.

Wondering how to get in the following: To understand climate disruption, think about what happens when you spike a temperature. Two to three degrees of inner warming can disrupt consciousness. Something similar happens to ecosystems we depend on if the climate goes two to three degrees warmer.

Not being distracted by debates outside the purview of the mind.

Not overmodifying, overexplaining, or disrespecting understatement.

Trying to end each line with the right word.

We’d love a few book recommendations.

The Future, Al Gore. An intellectual, friendly integration of information, trends, breakthroughs, and and possible effects collected over the years from extensive research and in-depth discussions with experts in a breathtaking range of disciplines all critical to the long-term stability of civilization.

Lean Logic, David Fleming. An alphabetically arranged posthumous collection of major ideas, principles, and paradigms from lectures and notes, with detailed discussions of patterns of thinking, with definitions of key concepts relative to systems-thinking, long-term viability of civilization, and graceful recovery from cut-throat industrialization – from the highly respected British philosopher educator.

If you could have a drink with any living author, who would it be? Why?

Maybe over iced Chai tea, I’d love to talk with the unique thinker and wonderful writer David Abrams about peak experiences, natural beauty, human identity, and defense of the other species, among other things.

What are you working on now? What’s next?

Along with continuing to draft and revise individual pieces, I’ve finalized or revised a few poetry collections that may or may not find a publisher – I expect to continue writing in all these veins:

Out of Unfathomable Time – new lyric poems that explore radical ecology through shifts in perspective with an eye toward moving more in sync, with regard for the extrinsic value of all forms of life, the deep evolutionary past, and elemental processes around us.

The Case of the Great Mammoth-Lying Lizard-Hearted Dummy (Making the Place Safe for Ruskie Oligarchy) – pieces tackling the ethical void in which a number of multi-billionaires and hundred-millionaires ignore other people’s needs while the world’s greatest megalomaniacal continually lying ignoramus parades before media mirrors, where oligarchic control of systems that address disparate needs in the nation is not only antithetical to democracy and self-defeating, but exists literally at the public’s expense (short-circuiting practical checks and balances, disregarding values that don’t hand it money, disengaging itself immorally from current needs of people and ecosystems it nevertheless depends on).

Being Within Being – a collection of prose poems on many subjects, from chickens to climate disruption to Allen Ginsberg, from exploding oil trains to traffic jams at the pearly gates, from locating the head on the body to standing before redwoods, arguing we’re in this together, in process, emergent awareness protected by and indebted to interdependence within the emergent whole (this volume could be considered Sea-Level Nerve, Book Three).

Double Helix – a long poem built symphonically in movements that revolve around vivid meditative imagery, inner and outer resonance, with explorations of morphic overflow and cross-modifications within being.

Schoenberg in the Troposphere – a collection wild with longing, that conjures collective roots of individual consciousness, where experiences argue with the backdrop of Western arrogance and a catastrophically threatening future barrels in from the western front.  

Our thanks to James for taking the time to answer a few questions and share his work. Read Grabill’s poems “Reverberating String,” “Out of the Light in Leaves,” and “The Life of Lightning” here:


James Grabill’s work appears in Caliban, Harvard Review, Terrain, Mobius, Shenandoah, Seattle Review, Stand, and many others. His books include Poem Rising Out of the Earth (1994), An Indigo Scent after the Rain (2003), Lynx House Press, Environmental prose poems, Sea-Level Nerve: Books One (2014) and Two (2015), and Wordcraft of Oregon. For many years, he taught all kinds of writing as well as “systems thinking” and global issues relative to sustainability.