Rachel Eliza Griffiths: Interview

Reading Time: 23 minutes

BY OPAL MOORE

I have two copies of Miracle Arrhythmia (2010 Willow Books). I bought one; the other is signed, a gift to me by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Somehow I don’t remember exactly how we met. Was it Kyla Marshell, poet and (at the time) Spelman College student and editor of Aunt Chloe: A Journal of Artful Candor? One of Griffiths’ photo-tributes to Black women appears on AC’s inaugural cover. Each of the women wears a white dress and her own expression. That was 2009. I hope that was the sequence of events because I like to think of how singular acts of kindness can soothe or disturb like “ripples on a pond,” to quote another poet. In that case, Griffiths’ generous gift of a work of photographic art to one of my students led to my own eventual friendship with this painter, photographer, and poet through a single, powerful image of women in a languid, yet kinetic embrace. Griffiths would offer other covers to our little magazine. Eventually, she visited the college, where she delivered a mesmerizing and stunning reading that included poems from all of her works, including (then forthcoming) Mule & Pear (2011 Western Michigan Univ.). So I believe that Rachel and I met because of an act of kindness, which is a gentler or more expressive word for collaboration. Acts of kindness are, in their effect, collaborative. I think of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who said, “Kindness is my religion.” And while the world knows Brooks for her poetry, the poet community knows something else about her—her unstinting generosity to younger poets, for her poetics of healing. Few people have not heard the old truism that people will take kindness for weakness—a warning that to be kind is a risk one takes, not a purchase of reciprocity. (In this present moment marked by armed hatreds, kindness (despite its reputation) has been fearfully discredited, along with all of her near or distant relatives: generosity, sharing, forgiveness, civility, politeness, diplomacy, honesty, candor—yes, truth is a brave act of kindness.) One might wonder, Who dares to be kind? And yet, kindness is not dead. It remains the domain of the brave. I know Rachel as a person whose spirit is generous.

What does generosity have to do with making work? In the intervening years since our meeting, Rachel has built a reputation for her photographic portraiture, her literary portraits, her artistic video shorts, and her documentation of poets in conversation about poetry (an impressive archive of the creative exchanges of at least 100 poets in her Poets on Poetry project). In this body of work, we can see a creative philosophy that links the solitude of the artist with the warmth and connection of creative community. Always this poet seems to be moving from the (human) interior to the (global) exterior, from solitude to connection, and back again, in a portfolio demonstration of what has come to be termed “radical empathy.”

Seeing the Body, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ new and highly acclaimed collection of poems, brings together her mediums— poetry and the visual art of photography. One confronts poetry, in this volume, as the labor of seeing as much as the work of words. Seeing the Black body has often been presented as social work, work for the maintenance of public spaces—work that we must do to navigate historical divisions of race, class and gender. Griffiths alerts us early on that the “seeing” in this collection issues from the interior. As a “symptom of grief”, the work of confronting herself in all her guises, avoidances and confrontations, ensues. This work of seeing is aided by the eyes of the artist— the poet; however, she is led by grief brought on by the loss of her mother. Griffiths demands a seeing of the self and of the greater world in which she is “both visualized and invisible”. The self, after all, is a landscape. But there is also journey here, from grief to praise song to laughter to joy. Like the salt and the sugar of the Blues, Griffiths’ joy unfolds, enfolds.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is the author of four previous collections of poetry, including Lighting the Shadow, Mule & Pear, The Requited Distance, and Miracle Arrythmia. She currently lives and works in New York. Her next work, a novel, is near completion.

Opal Moore: Seeing the Body, your complex and resonant new work, is inspired by the death of your mother Michele Antoinette Pray-Griffiths, and dedicated to her. In the poem “Comedy,” I hear ambivalence in what is surely a direct quote: Yeah, don’t go and write about me like that…I already know you will. Was there a moment when you decided to or knew that you were making a book in celebration of your mother’s life and mother-daughter life and love?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths: I was very reluctant to admit to myself that I could create something from the grief I inhabited. But there would be so many signs and indications in my ordinary life that to deny the creation of the book would be a denial or silencing of that love. Organizing the book in a way that celebrated her life, allowing her to exist and to speak as she lived, became a way to stay close to her. Over the years, there was this maternal pendulum, which exists between many mothers and daughters, where the mother wants to be remembered and also does not want to be written about through her child’s perspective. I grew up, like many Black children, being instructed not to put my mother’s business in the street, that whatever happened in her house was not to be shared in any way. As I became a woman, my mother would sometimes ask me to write her story. She would say – just tell the truth, tell the truth about who I am – that is both a complicated and simple thing to do. We trusted each other so deeply that the word truth feels peripheral. And the “truth” that a daughter experiences after her mother’s death is not necessarily identical to the “truth” that exists when her mother is alive.

OM. So there is love, truth, and trust, the alchemy! Your choice of epigraph is a line from Stevie Wonder’s brilliant ode to love, “As”: Did you know you’re loved by somebody? That line is like a cosmic response to Hannah’s galling question to her mother, Eva: Did you ever love us? The question is galling to Eva because she assumes that her daughter has seen her life lived, has shared it. You did not select an epigraph about death; instead, Stevie’s question signals that this book is about love realized. Love of the mother, yes, but also negotiating to love one’s self?
REG: My mother loved some Stevie Wonder! When she played Motown, particularly Stevie, I witnessed her joy – we danced in the kitchen, the living room, we sang at the top of our voices in the car! Because “As” is about joy, about life cycles, about what is natural and impossible, and the way love comes to us over and over if we will only remember it and sing. All my childhood and coming up, I’d heard the song. It meant that everybody got up at the cookout. It meant fingers snapping and everybody smiling. After my mother’s death, I heard it so deeply, as I had never before. It makes me cry and smile! Because the somebody is the earth, and my mother, and my family, and that inexplicable miracle that gives us the strength to cry and to laugh in the face of incomprehensible events. For me, the somebody is also myself, and the things, however painful and beautiful, that affirm humanity.

My mother would have replied very similarly to Eva Peace, who answers Hannah, “What you talkin’ bout did I love you girl I stayed alive for you.” I also think of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” where Hayden asks “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?” How do we, especially Black families, understand how Love is embodied and offered, particularly by our parents, if we are looking at romances from segregated balconies, or reading texts that describe the lack of, the poverty of our families? How can the oppressor be trusted to tell the enslaved family what love is?

I love Nikki Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa” where she writes, “…and I really hope no white person ever has cause/to write about me/because they never understand/Black love is Black wealth and they’ll/probably talk about my hard childhood/and never understand that/all the while I was quite happy.” Given that my mother was given a chronic health diagnosis that seemed to promise deterioration rather than healing when I was eleven or twelve years old, I was all too aware that her insistence on taking care of herself and her family was the plainest, brightest, hardest love I could have had. She fought against all kinds of things to live to see her four children become adults. And so it follows, in the name of her love, that I must embrace that radical notion, as poets such as June Jordan and Audre Lorde have insisted, that I must also have joy and take vigilant care with my life. I’m tired of writing elegies. I have a right to do more than merely survive.

OM: That line by Giovanni does speak of resisting erasure. Can you talk about the way this book took shape? Did you ever feel that you were investigating the properties of love?
REG: The book took shape over the six years after my mother’s passing. Many of the poems came both from internal memories and the intensity of being shocked that the world would keep going, and has always, in spite of a personal loss. The poems were written out of my most primal need to remember the past and to stay very attuned to the present, whatever that might be at any moment. Anyone who has endured such loss knows too well how difficult it can be to resist living in the past or to imagine the future. The present state is difficult because it contains the past and the future.

I’m uncertain about whether I perceived a need for an investigation of the properties of love but what I will say is that I lived in a state of unrelenting questions – who was my mother, as a child, and as an adult? What were the things she couldn’t tell me about who she was (and vice versa)? How would I live without her and, what would be required to live without her? All of these questions erupted from the complex wellspring of love itself. Mothers and daughters can have complicated relationships. There is the way our mothers, in fear and distrust of the world they have seen and survived, may want us to be silent, obedient, and accepting of traditions that they themselves went through. They can be afraid for us because they have seen how easily and carelessly the world treats Black children. In the name of love, their silence is a way that they believe they are protecting and saving us.

When I think about love’s properties, it’s this kind of tension that bewilders and challenges me. It’s this complicated love, which exists in the same utterance of pure and unconditional love, that gives me the strength to go forward in faith of what love can say, see, and be, how it is always, in its greatest contradictions and voices, humanity itself.

OM: A few of the words readers have used to describe Seeing the Body include “tender,” “harrowing,” and “radiant.” Your work, for me, brings to mind the phrase “radical empathy” or even “radical joy.” The poem “Ars Poetica” does the work of inhabiting moments that seem mundane, unmemorable, to look around and open all the closet doors of that moment. The radical part is claiming what you discover in the process—knowledge, mystery. And then there is the poem, “Paradise,” which is pure joy in laughter, resistance, self-claiming love. Can you talk about the arc between “harrowing” and “radiant”?
REG: I didn’t want the book to concentrate on wounds, on absence, on death. One of the most fulfilling elements of writing these poems happened when I could write poems that acknowledged how much work and power was necessary to accept radiance, kindness and that there was/is an imagination that can hold these spaces in one gesture.

image credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

OM: What about the decision to tell another story through photographs—was the inclusion of the visual media a risk, or was it, for you, an obvious choice?
REG: The self-portraits that appear in Seeing the Body weren’t included in the first versions of the manuscript. It was a relief when I finally realized that the book could only exist if I gave myself permission to trust what the photographs could be and do in relationship to the poems. I was surprised, in the best way, when I realized that Jill Bialosky at W.W. Norton wasn’t asking me to justify why they would be considered a section of a poetry collection. I think it is still not a regular practice, primarily because of the cost, to have so much real estate in a poetry book reserved for images, but these photographs are integral to nearly every thread of the book. For me, the death of my mother forced me to think of my mortality, to remember the ways that I echo my mother’s literal body, and also that devastating feeling of time passing, life going on.

The woman in the photographs—the ones that were made just days before my mother’s death—is dead too. I can’t be that woman again. The portraits that I created, deliberately, after my mother’s death, reveal how grief had lived, and how it had altered me. These days, as I age, I see my mother often in the mirror. It is so comforting, wonderful, and it has also helped me to truly feel like a loved and beautiful woman.

OM: How did you begin working in photography? As a painter?  What compels your interest in these media, the diversity in your choice of tools? Is there an origin story? 
REG: Before I moved to New York in 2003, I mostly painted and made drawings. My first years in New York, I could only afford to live in a single room, with a bathroom down the hall, in a women’s residence. My window looked out on an elevator shaft. If I stretched my arms, I pretty much touched both walls. I couldn’t work there, so I got a camera. I learned New York that way. By 2006, I’d been accepted into Cave Canem, and the serious study of photography portraits began. It was perfect because I wanted to focus my portraits on Black poets, artists, writers. In fact – it was Ron Kavanaugh, editor of MOSAIC, who provided me the opportunity to have my very first cover, which was my portrait of the late, and always cherished, Walter Dean Myers! When MOSAIC came out, and I saw the cover, I couldn’t believe that one of my portraits could be the entrance to a magazine that I read from cover-to-cover whenever it dropped.

That day was pivotal to me for so many reasons. Mr. Myers’ kindness and hope lit up his face. His voice and presence inspired me. I was so nervous and he was patient with me. We were up in Harlem and it was chilly but I remembered that even after we had the portrait he asked if we could keep talking. The way he listened to me as I struggled to explain how art meant everything to me and that I had sacrificed so much because being an artist was the only thing I wanted, knew, about my life by then. When we finished speaking, and he walked away, I sat on that bench and wept. And over the years, and now, I hear his voice so clearly.

OM: Thank you for sending me a documentary photograph of the installation that you have been creating in your studio. It engages materials from your life—some appear in Seeing The Body, like the dress that appears in “Cathedral of the Saint and Snake”. There are also references to artists—the material-realist painter Alberto Buri and the sculptor, Louise Bourgeois. Are these two artists, in particular, important to you, to the way you think about media and making poems?
REG: Louise Bourgeois is more important to the process I went through while working on the book and she remains a force to which I often return. From her wondrous, oversized spiders scaling walls, webs, and cages related to childhood and to sex, to her hand-stitched texts on clothing and her watercolors and drawings that are so explicit, vulnerable, and often humorous, I could see how Bourgeois explored her intense relationship with her mother. Hers was a lifelong exploration, and I think it will be the same for me.  

My mother will be present in anything I create. I’m grateful for that.

image credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

The reference to Alberto Burri relates specifically to my visit to the Guggenheim to see his show, The Trauma of Painting. Burri was a physician, and he also referred to himself and his style as a polymaterialist. The paintings and works in this show incorporated burning and applying and assembling multiple layers of materials, unconventionally, to create abstract and jarring tableaus. To think of this artist “painting” but also tending and treating wounded and sick patients, that he witnessed awful deaths and used the resources from one part of his identity to join it to the other space in him was striking.

For me, I think there is a connection to our identities in that sense. Recently, during a virtual event, my poet-brother John Murillo called me a polymath. I don’t think I’d ever used that specific word or language to consider myself or my process before. But John is right. I think I’m a polymath, or the word Burri used –polymaterialist – and I am probably some other things that I haven’t explored. I feel like everything is beginning for me now.

The photograph I shared with you is of the installation for Seeing the Body that I created to help me expand my own notions of the relationship between language, image, and material. I nailed my mother’s dress, my own, as well as other objects and ephemera to a wall and added photographs, texts, colors, hair, etc. Sometimes in language, the real sense, and energy of objects can get flattened, can fall away. To look up and see the blue dress my mother wore the last time that I saw her fills me with something that will be, however unconsciously, in the language. To see the dress I wore to her funeral, and that I later wore to the gorgeous memorial to Maya Angelou, who had died two months before my mother, made me also think of the chosen mothers, so many Black women writers, who were also leaving us during that time. In this sense, the worst pain came to me when Toni Morrison died. I’d written and dedicated my third collection, Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose 2011), for Morrison. I was fortunate to give her the book in person. I remember how she held it and looked up as I was leaning over (and shaking!). She smiled and said, “This is for me?”

OM: Your double self-portrait (which I love!) borrows from and revises the iconic Frida Kahlo painting—can you comment on the appearance of this photograph that faces the author’s note? The importance of the camera and typewriter, as objects themselves, rather than just tools?
REG: The double self-portrait, “Two Elizas” (2009), was created for two women who remain significant to my practice and perspectives about women and our lives as artists, creators. You mentioned Kahlo, yes, and visually I wanted to have a call-and-response with her painting, Two Fridas (1939), suggesting that there is a self whose heart is a typewriter and another self whose heart is a camera. There is an unpublished version where I am holding paintbrushes, but finally, I liked the conversation between the antique camera and antique typewriter. If you were to look carefully at the double self-portrait, you might notice that the expressions on my face are slightly different. The writer is literally a bit darker, and her expression is more guarded, while the self that holds the camera is literally brighter. Her eyes are more vulnerable and childlike. She does not center the camera on her lap, which was deliberate.

To focus on the hands in this double self-portrait, I was speaking to the late, extraordinary poet, Lucille Clifton, and the lines in her incantatory poem, “come celebrate with me” – “my one hand holding tight/my other hand;” – I’d wanted to attempt a reverse ekphrastic poem. Instead of writing about art, I used language to form the image. Between the energies of Kahlo and Clifton, I could see the strength and “starshine” of what it meant to accept my duality. I could celebrate!

OM: I like that—reverse ekphrastic. Seeing The Body dropped in the midst of an ongoing national health disaster, COVID 19. This is a book that mourns; it is a book that investigates the work of dying and the work of living. What did you do to take care of yourself while doing this work?
REG: I have a personal, spiritual regimen of self-care. It’s important to me because I know that my body is my instrument in the same way an athlete understands the significance of the body and its mind states. One of my core practices is meditation. I’m also someone who is pretty useless unless I get enough sleep. I’m careful about how much “news” I ingest. Making time to hear the voices of my family and friends helps me – laughing and sharing stories. Stretching, solo dance parties in my living room, and (virtual for now) yoga are ways to stay aligned. Listening, and observing my mind and heart (I don’t separate them really), is at the center of how I can create and also support others.

OM: Great prescriptions. Is there a way of thinking about using your own body in so much of your photography and visual meditations?
REG: Kahlo once said, “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.”

I like what she is trying to say here, but I would also add that for me, the use of my own body is about discovery. When I push my body, when I center it, when I claim and observe my own form, I can come away surprised and changed from the process. It allows me a concentration and kindness that helps me when I am wading in language or painting. It also helps me to work with others. Sometimes a model is unable to achieve the energy. Other times, due to technical needs, I have to be behind the camera, and even then, I am getting to see something inward by working with another body. Diane Arbus once noted, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells, the less you know.” Again, I’m rarely interested in creating images that are illustrative or trying to “tell” me something. I suppose that could be also said of my poetry. Much of my intuition is about the tension of what we know versus what we think we know versus what the world says we are.

My body is so fluid and vulnerable that it feels ideal to use it when a project suggests I should. My body won’t always be here. Since my mother’s death, I am even more aware of this truth. And I think there are photographers whose work has clearly revealed the dynamic complexity of what it means for a Black or Brown woman to create an image of, and for, herself – Carrie Mae Weems, Ming Smith, Lorna Simpson, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Mickalene Thomas, Deborah Willis, Graciela Iturbide, etc.

OM:  There are lots of mirrors in this book, reversals. “Ars Poetica” comes early in the collection. It opens with mother and daughter watching Jeopardy. It closes with the daughter’s silent action: she, “Put the book away / and picked up the knife.”  Violence here is suffused; the poem is a masterpiece of heartaches, both stark and obscure.  When the daughter appears in “Good Mother,” she howls, with pain and loss, not in the lonely kitchen but publicly in the Rite Aid.  There are no knives in “Good Mother,” no silences.  What work do these two poems offer our bodies “born in a specific sadness” that need to be seen?
REG: The arc between the two poems embodies so much about how my process, as both a poet and a visual artist, has developed. Tension [the book? the knife?] is often where my voice and perspective can be felt and seen. For my inner life and psyche, it is often this conflict of spirit that informs my imagination.

The adult [figure] in “Good Mother,” who invokes the form of the ars poetica, now possesses the vocabulary and lived experiences to know what the daughter-poet-self could not know then. The shock in “Good Mother” is kindness, love, and survival. The daughter-poet-self must accept love in order to fly and to do her work, which is to live. I feel that “Good Mother” is a direct reply, a fervent soul-clapping, to the epigram of Seeing the Body, Stevie Wonder’s gorgeous shout of praise, “Did you know you’re loved by somebody?”

OM: Rachel, thank you!


Opal Moore is a poet, fiction writer and essayist, and author of Lot’s Daughters, a collection of narrative poems.  Her poems and stories appear in various journals and anthologies, including The Boston Review; Furious Flower:  Seeding the Future of African American Poetry; Honey Hush! An Anthology of African American Women’s HumorCallaloo, Trouble & Hope: An Anthology of Poets in Performance and Conversation, The Notre Dame Review, and other places. 

Moore currently serves on the board of The Art Section, an international journal of art and commentary, edited by Atlanta-based artist Deanna Sirlin.