Interview by Kristen Bulger
I first met Gregory Lawless back in 2011 in the basement offices of the English Department at Suffolk University in Boston. One Friday afternoon, as everyone was shuffling notes and student papers into backpacks, preparing to leave for the weekend, he causally mentioned that he was going to spend the next couple of days “scribbling”— a word that only serves to exemplify his own modest, dry humor. Lawless’s poems, in fact, far exceed the scribbles they are formed from. With the recent publication of his new collection, Far Away, winner of the 2014 Red Mountain Poetry Prize, Lawless was kind of enough to take the time to answer some questions about his work and his development as a poet.
B: Congratulations on the recent publication of your second book, Far Away. I was wondering if you could speak to how you evolved as a poet from your first book, I Thought I Was New Here, to this work. What was your process in putting together this new collection?
GL: I Thought I Was New Here featured every kind of poem that I could write, and every poetic thought that I had had up until that point in my life (back in 2009, when I was 30). It was a collection in the truest sense, since it featured all of my selves, disguises, experiments, and exercises. Beyond that, the poems wondered what it meant to be new—as a poet and a person—when the world and the art they inhabited were so old and their tragedies so recursive.
Sometime during the book’s haphazard composition, I started retreating a little from my early-20s surrealism and working through more sober, descriptive, and gnawing poems about landscape and memory. Nearly all of those poems were about Pennsylvania. So it turned out that a poem about landscape was, for me, a poem about Pennsylvania. I’m glad that’s not true for everybody.
But these charred place poems were just kind of tossed in with the other stuff I was writing at the time—micro-fables, associative rants, and anachronistic narratives about ruins, space travel, and survival. For whatever reason, I could never fuse all of those elements together in a single poem.
In late 2011 and early 2012, I started to write compressed, paratactic journal-entry-style prose poems that became the basis for Far Away. These poems were a kind of spooky glue that held the rest of my poems, and poem-world, together. They did so, I think, because they were the least premeditated and the most passively rendered—they felt almost like recordings, and I discriminated very little when I was first getting them down. They finally said everything I wanted to say, because they were receptive and unscripted.
B: You have lived in the Boston area for quite a while now as well as spent time in other cities, yet the poems in the book are strongly rooted in and around rural life. How does living in a city affect your work?
GL: I grew up in a small suburban town in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but I was always close to woods and fields, and I was, often enough, blundering into them on some ridiculous childhood errand or other. I’m no naturalist and I was piss-poor Boy Scout. But I saw things. And what I saw, in the woods, creeks, and shrugging towns back home, became an inevitable part of how I would see everything else.
Now everywhere I go is Pennsylvania—The northeastern part of the state, in particular. I’m from it, but I also don’t belong there. So I choose to live in other places. I’ve lived in cities, for the most part, since I was 18, but I’m so parochial that I don’t, on an imaginative level, see anyplace else, at least not to the same degree.
B: From a reader’s perspective, there is a strong mythos that gets created around the places in which your poems take place. Factoryville, for example, is the site of several of your poems in the collection. In addition, you also had a poem published a couple of years ago in an issue of Transom Journal titled, “Dreamburgh, Pennsylvania.” Are these real places you have lived in or representative of real places? Was it your intention to build a mythology around them?
GL: “Dreamburgh, Pennsylvania” is a marriage of vision and place, history and imagination. It is a poem that sees Pittsburgh the way a decommissioned angel with a serious head injury might see it. It is the title poem for my book that is coming out, at some point, from Dream Horse Press.
That poem is explicitly mythological, since its images waver between terrestrial and extra-.
The Pennsylvania poems in Far Away feature some mytho/poetical thinking, too—in the “State” poems—but otherwise, they rely on the tragic force of detail to achieve anything like a mythic effect. Factoryville is a real place—the birthplace of Christy Mathewson! The gas trucks are real; the trees are real, so are the deer and guns. But the way I remember those things, and live with them while being far away from them, is, well, I don’t know what. It’s something else.
B: These poems feel aligned with the pastoral tradition; however, there is a lot of industrial decay pitted against the natural imagery. What drew you to this juxtaposition?
GL: That’s northeastern PA: there’s Scranton, an old coal town and garment center, and then rural towns, to the north and west, especially, that surround it. I lived in Pittsburgh for six years, too, which, in some of its neighboring towns and communities, features the same kind of mix: trees, rivers, trucks, ruins, woods.
B: Many of your poems feel like they exist in a transitory or dream-like state and hold a certain quietness within them. What is it about these qualities that appeal to your voice as a poet?
GL: I’m a mumbler, a low talker. I’m not a ham; I slink away from social obligations and spotlights. I like corners and couches. I’m a middling priest in the Church of Quiet Desperation, in which I was baptized, thanks to an endemic nervous condition. Consequently, I seize on moments of private hallucination—little death fears and panics—whimpers more than screams. I also ‘transition’ from social interactions to solitude fitfully and frequently, via daydreams and withdrawals. So, in essence, I write that way because I think and feel that way.
B: Many of the poems in Far Away feel to be expounded through some performance of labor, whether it is the speaker collecting aster flowers for his wife, an old man scattering seeds across graves, or the speaker building a stonewall. This reminded me in the way Seamus Heaney often uses the action of labor within a poem to cut and mold its tone and overall shape. Was this a theme you were purposefully trying to invoke or did the poems grow on their own in that way?
GL: Death of a Naturalist and nearly all of Frost’s poems are fundamental influences on my poems and poetic thought. The poems in Far Away react and respond to each of these models in different ways.
Some of Heaney’s early poems feature both an estrangement from and appreciation for the labor and landscape of his native realm in Northern Ireland. He saw his writing as a way to unearth and re/enact the traditions of his forbears, and as such, it constituted both an act of labor (“I’ll dig with [the pen]” to restore the past) and a solace, because it connected him to missing things.
But the speaker in Far Away is pretty much immune to consolation, especially from work, which compromises him in many ways. He see work as compulsory and binding; he works for his father and resents it (“the work I hated with childish force”), partly for Oedipal reasons, but also for biblical reasons: he recognizes that work is always, in part, a punishment and a critique of human needs and limitations. He knows that work means paradise is either behind or beyond us.
Otherwise, the labor he performs is maybe temporarily restorative but often ineptly done: he drops his tools, he helps his dad and sulks through it, his stone wall fails perhaps because maybe he didn’t build it right to begin with.
To top it off, the surrounding landscape (which, he thinks, withers more than flourishes) and the odd and sometimes ramshackle houses that dot it, imply the futility of all acts of maintenance and repair.
For Frost, labor is contemplative—it's a means to explore and test ideas, or perform them—prove them. Labor, ideally, auspiciously, gives rise to “[t]he fact,” the known thing, or the physical fact (the made thing), as the speaker says in “Mowing.” But the speaker of Far Away is at least as afraid of facts, of knowing, or confirming what he knows about nature, as he is of work. For Frost, labor is sometimes pointless in itself (as in “Mending Wall”) but generative because it sets the mind in motion. For the man in the middle of Far Away, the estranged man, the “man who must ask how to die,” among other things, contemplation is almost beside the point. He knows labor to be repetitive, doomed, punishing, and tedious, though it also exposes him to the world outside himself, to hills, creeks, hunters, fallen houses, and the birds and flowers he sometimes misidentifies—and he knows all that is beautiful and inexplicable and that he is a part of it, however compromised and small.
The one thing that work enables him to do is rescue—a field cat, a memory, his marriage for a day, his daughters from the woods. But these are desperate chores done desperately. And he’ll likely have to do them again and again.
B: What is the most exciting thing you are discovering or uncovering in poetry right now? In addition, what works do you continually return to?
GL: Lauren Haldeman’s Calenday is one of my recent favorites. I’m reading a seventies anthology called The Poetry of Black America, which is great and has a hilarious and incisive introduction by Gwendolyn Brooks. Otherwise, I reread Lesle Lewis’s books. Mary Ruefle. Rilke. Etc.
B: Do you have ideas of where you would like your work to go next?
GL: I’m working on the smallest poems I can write, the fragment poems, some which you have seen, and published—thank you.
In general, I want to write poetry free of bombast and drivel. That’s all.
I write alone poems. If I have a movement or school that I belong to, it’s The School of Solitude. I don’t see any other direction my work can go.