Behind the Words: Christopher Grillo

Posted by on May 22, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Christopher Grillo

Christopher Grillo’s poem, “Without” was published in the fifth issue of Spry Literary Journal. Elizabeth Cooley, Spry staff and former contributor was fortunate to interview him.

Elizabeth Cooley: Can you describe your relationship to confessional poetry? This seems to be a theme for you but plenty of poets and other people are skeptical of confessional poetry or don’t like it. How do you feel it has worked for you?

Christopher Grillo: Great question! I don’t think I am a good enough writer to be really purposeful about the style in which I choose to write. I am very purposeful about what I wish to convey, which is in many ways the feelings and emotions associated with the speaker’s relationship to the world around him. In that sense, I am kind of forced into a confessional style and the use of personal pronouns, which act as a sort of vehicle. I like to think I am giving the reader the primary source. I lay out what is happening and highlight certain things with the speaker’s inner narration. This either provides the obvious interpretation, or if I have done my job well, gives the reader another layer of bias and imperfection, or many layers of the speaker’s context to search through for the truth. I think this is why I have had success writing narrative collections, and why my work cannot always stand alone. In many cases, for a reader to get something out of a poem I write, they may have to have developed a bit of a rapport with my characters. Again, this is not something I choose. It is intrinsic to my process as a writer and as a person and a feeler of feelings. I have worked in other, more traditional styles and I find something is lost. I think it is the humanity.

Your book, The Six-Fold Radial Symmetry of Snow, was written in part from your MFA thesis. Can you talk about the process of turning the thesis into a book?

Of course! From the get go, Vivian Shipley and Jeff Mock, my professors and advisors at Southern Connecticut’s MFA program, encouraged writing each week for workshop with an overarching thesis topic or connecting theme in mind. I was lucky in that my style of writing and the things I was writing about at the time could be easily categorized or bucketed and shaped into a collection. For workshop each week, I was mostly writing the Charlene poems, or the poems that would become my first chapbook When Rain Fills the Chasm. These poems mostly deal with the speaker’s relationship to his high school sweetheart as the two age out of their innocence. I knew I wanted to write the other side of this story, the Frankie side, which would become Six-fold. To do that, I proposed an independent study in literature that dealt with sport. The curriculum dictated I read and respond to various titles that dealt with sport as a topic or subtopic and then create an original work that did the same.  By the end of the course I had the bones of Six-Fold. When it came thesis time, I put the Charlene poems and the Frankie poems together. It wasn’t until my defense that my second reader, Will Hochman, pointed out that I in fact had three books within the one collection. Subdividing the thesis into chapbooks based on which relationship each poem focused on– the speaker and Charlene or the speaker and Frankie– came after the fact. So going from thesis to book was really just a practice in sorting the poems and reworking a few stylistic things, like grammar and tense, so that each collection was continuous.

You’re a teacher and high school football coach. Do you feel those roles affect your poetry or speak to it or change it in some ways? How do those parts of your life inform each other?

I don’t know that my roles as a teacher and coach affect my writing all that much. I think I designate times and frames of mind to each of those things that are very distinct from one another. The thought processes that goes into planning lessons and teaching are very different than the kind that go into writing, and the same is true of coaching. I will say that as I have had more success as a teacher and a coach, I have become a better writer. I think the reason is two fold:

1. For me, to be an effective teacher and coach, I have to be maniacal about details. That micro-focus has bled into my writing in a really positive way. My latest work is better thought out and more organized in that there is a clearer vision of an end product and a clearer criterion for how to get there.

2. Secondly, I have to work very hard to be a successful teacher and coach. I am willing to do that because I know my success means success for my students and players. That is too important for me to give anything less than a winning effort. There is no margin for error. Teaching and coaching take precedent over my writing, which is the more self-serving part of my life. That being said, when I do sit down to write, I am accustomed to a degree of dedication that you just don’t turn off. This has helped my writing immensely.

Your poem in Spry, “Without,” is book-ended by part of the Genesis story—particularly Adam’s story—and sandwiched in the middle we move to the speaker’s contemporary perspective. It feels very organic here, so I wonder if you could talk about your process for writing the poem. Was it similar to your typical writing process, if you have one?

When I am writing I typically follow a kind of standard procedure that has seemed to work for me thus far. It starts with a word or collection of words or turn of phrase that I encounter just living in the world that captivates me in some way.

When I was a kid, I remember my parents using the phrase “fat, dumb, and happy.” I think it had kind of a dual meaning. Someone was “fat, dumb, and happy” if her or she was blissfully ignorant, unjaded, or didn’t know enough to care what other folks thought of them. Then, someone could be “fat, dumb, and happy” in a more negative sense, where that person is too stupid to know he or she is being taken advantage of.

The poem started with the speaker as “fat, dumb, and happy;” he is not aware of his physical appearance and doesn’t know he should be ashamed. Nor is he conscious that there is a different way he should be dressing. He is content when he is shirtless in high school mascot shorts. Charlene brings it to his attention, buying him cologne and a new pair of pants in order to refine him in a way that he is uncomfortable with and that is just not a good representation of who he is.

This poem is a good example of the basic scaffold of my writing process. After the starting word or phrase and the narrative around which it is built, comes a connection to something more abstract but hopefully accessible. With Without, I thought about metaphor and decided on what seemed like a clear connection to Adam in the genesis story: the fattest, dumbest, and happiest man in all of history regarding self-image prior to the fall.

I didn’t necessarily want to draw on Eve as a connection to Charlene, even though that seems like the logical move, because I think within the Genesis story, Eve’s motives are less malicious than Charlene’s. Charlene knows what she is doing and she knows she is going to change the speaker in a bad way.

Bookending the speaker’s story with the Genesis story just seemed right in terms of story structure and narrative arc. I like starting wide in scope, hinting at what is meant to be said, zooming in on the anecdote, providing nuance to open the interpretation slightly, and coming full circle in the end.

The line breaks in this poem have a good mix of end-stopped and enjambed lines, and they add to the good sense of rhythm here. How do you think about line breaks while you’re writing?

Thank you! I work really hard at that. It feels like I write each poem twice. It is probably more like 20 times. The initial drafting process is about making sure what is on the page is as close to what is in my head as possible. That sounds like a dumb thing to say, like “Chris, why can’t you just write what is in your head?” but there is so much muck to sift through in there, and so it is much harder than it seems. Once I get to the point where I am almost touching the feeling of the moment I want to show readers, there are typically only a few words that cannot be compromised.

I know there are poets who are really particular about line breaks and enjambment for how those things add meaning or depth to the poem, but that isn’t how I see it, really. That part of the process is all about the music and what it sounds like when I am reading.

I have a couple (not so) pro-tips:

  1. Once the words are out of your head, play with form. Literally, Google “poetic forms,” and try to make the poem work in each one until you find something suitable. This helps in cutting the fat, forcing a syllable limit in some cases. Once that is done, you can take it in and out of the form as you see fit.
  • I draft a lot in 10 syllable line counts and haiku stanzas. Rarely do the poems stay that way. I simply do it for the limitations.

2. Never end a line on a word that isn’t an important word.

    • Typically, I saw nouns and verbs only, but I have broken this rule many times.

3. Never end on a line with a period. Comas are fine I guess, but they are also implied

    • And I am sure I have broken this rule countless times,
      But going forward I won’t.
      You heard it here first.

4. Read the thing out loud to yourself.

    • This is something I practice with my 8th grade language arts classes during writing tasks. It is a part of a whole editing day. They work in partners, switch essays, and read their work aloud to one another. As each student listens to their work read, he or she marks spots that feel abrupt or that trip up their partner who is reading it for the first time. It works!

Sometimes it’s hard to get enough writing done post-MFA, coming out of a place where writing was the main goal for you and everyone around you. As a recent MFA grad, how do you find the time while having a full-time career? Do you still exchange work with readers from your MFA or other writers?

As a teacher, I am afforded the luxury of writing all summer long. I write a little bit during the school year but it is difficult. For me, the key has been a mindset shift when school is in session. For ten months, writing becomes a pastime, something to unwind with. I have a regular Tuesday night prompt with a few friends (I think this is what non-poets call “poker night”), and a few of those poems have even evolved so much as to be published.

In the summer though, it is work. Hard. Hard. Work. I have friends from the MFA that I am in touch with and we have a nice workshop relationship. I try really hard to go into the summer with a clear vision for what needs to be produced before August hits.  

What are you reading right now? Do you find what you’re reading influences your work?

I just finished House of Nails. It is the story of Lenny Dykstra, the bad boy of baseball in the height of the steroid era. It is a Macbeth-status tragedy. No kidding.

I struggle with the question about influences because it comes up a lot. The honest answer is no and here is why: I do better when I am a blank canvas in the middle of a serious writing project and so I am typically not reading during this time. There are exceptions. My last project was out of my wheelhouse in terms of my expertise around the themes and motifs it deals with.

This next statement will seem out of left field, but I find that there is a lot of natural poetry in the vernacular of various trades or disciplines, so when I come across parts of speech that are manufactured by the niche walks of life they are associated with, I become a crazy man about learning everything there is to know. This usually makes for good writing. 

You’ve finished a book! What have you been writing since then? Has it changed much in content, form, style, or any other way?

Everything has changed! A year or so ago, I came across some online article that said every person should read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. Around the same time, I saw the Hawking biopic and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. It was the perfect storm in terms of “things that make me a crazy man until I know everything there is to know.” This became my first true practice in research, despite countless annotated bibliographies throughout college and graduate school. My most recent book is called Elegy for a Star Girl (Swimming with Elephants Press). It is a book of love poems. It is an elegy. It is a space odyssey. It is all those things (I hope). I read probably 20 books and sat for hours teaching myself these celestial concepts (literal and figurative pun intended), in some cases, just to write one short poem.

True to style, the speaker is a slightly more cerebral and mature version of the storytellers in SixFold, When Rain Fills the Chasm, and Heroes’ Tunnel. I don’t think I could change that if I wanted to.

Elizabeth Cooley‘s poems have appeared in Toad, Spry, and Mason’s Road. She is a recent graduate of Purdue University, where she was managing editor of Sycamore Review.