Peter Grandbois is a writer, poet and playwright, who teaches English and Narrative Non-fiction Writing at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Grandbois is the author of eight books. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over ninety journals, such as: Boulevard, The Denver Quarterly, Failbetter, Gargoyle, The Gettysburg Review, The Kenyon Review, and Necessary Fiction. His plays have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, Los Angeles, and New York. Grandbois’s essay “Honor” was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2017. Grandbois earned a master of arts from the University of Colorado, a master for fine arts from Bennington College, and a doctorate from the University of Denver. He is a senior editor at Boulevard magazine and fiction co-editor at Phantom Drift. Dr. Grandbois is also the Big Red Fencing Coach at Denison University.
All hunger and thumbs
“The idea of God is the sole wrong for which I cannot forgive mankind.”—Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)
You could stand quiet in the dark, waiting
for the Voice folded away in a drawer,
if only you knew what to do with your hands.
You could choose to give up whatever choice
you thought you had, sit down on the back
of a black sun and ride it into the scrub.
The problem is God’s not an abstract noun
but found in every soggy smear of light
in which, by way of pain, we find ourselves
Backwards into being
“There will always be times when you take leave of your senses.”—Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Standing outside my voice,
The stinging stone inside
Walking the dream-woods,
The slow slide of body
Backwards into being.
I cannot say which ghost
Carries our stories
Beyond the darkened mirror,
Or why every word we speak
To the scrambled night
Becomes a lie.
I only know that morning rises
Like steam from a dog’s piss
On the cold snow, and
The mind is a door
That makes us strangers
“I is the other.”—Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)
Is madness wisdom,
This long passage into
A hole in the top of my head
Is drenched in
This ache is
Outside it all
A person wants
Is this voice,
This bleating silence
Where the rain lives
“They all hold me up to ridicule and straiten me from all sides. Among those that suffer there is none like me. Hence I cannot stop crying and sobbing from morning till night.”—Christina of Markyate (1096-1160)
Each day, I feel a tiny electric shock in my left knee, and my stomach can’t seem to hold anything I put in it. Neither can my head. The cold drives blood from my fingers. The sun sends salt from my skin. Rain beats down, throwing me against the stone. A little hemming in and we can no longer be found. As if there were a world big enough to contain the body and not the other way around.
This is how you become absent
“But I saw these visions not in dreams, nor sleeping, nor in frenzy, nor with the eyes of my body, neither did I hear them with my exterior ears, nor in hidden places did I perceive them, but watching them, and looking carefully in an innocent mind, with the eyes and ears of the interior man, in open places, did I perceive them.”
—Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
We cover our heads
And hold our breath,
Thinking that being
Alive is easy to imagine
We live half our lives
Waiting for the silence
Of evening sky
To fill us again.
Without our bodies
We touch the ocean inside
The field and hear the dark
Vowels buried there.
The unfolding wind reminds us
We’re never completely sure
We’re awake, the dead
Never fully out of reach.
The world will make it’s own
Good end, but for now we wait.
There is no relief from being
Interview with Peter Grandbois
By Amelia Looney
AL: To start off, can you give us a visual of what your writing process is like? Is there anything you have to do before you get started, or something you can’t do?
PG: My process is pretty simple. I make myself a cup of coffee or tea (I’m trying to break from coffee, but am having difficulty!), then sit in my favorite chair in our family room. It’s a nice recliner by the fireplace. The two dogs usually sit at my feet. I read a few poems before I start or look at an art book to get me into that deep place. I never have an idea of what I want to write about. But I do keep what I call a “seed house,” that is a list of images and phrases and lines that I have thought up or discarded from previous poems, etc. I read through that list when I’m ready to start and pick a phrase or image that speaks to me in some way, one that seems to beg to be explored somehow, and then I start playing with it. This means that the first couple hours consist of me sitting or walking around and doing nothing but tossing phrases or words around in my mind. If I like one, I write it down….I don’t start writing the poem until I have several phrases or words on the page, then I start arranging them, shaping them. Once I get a sense of what the poem wants to be about, I can really start honing it. The process is simple. The difficult part is finding time to write. Between teaching, coaching (I coach the university fencing team), and family I have very little extra time, which can be frustrating.
AL: Since the topic for the poem series deals with historical figures who are known to have mental illnesses, how did you decide which figures to channel?
PG: I did a lot of research, which was really fun. I discovered so many famous people who are thought to have been mentally ill: Isaac Newton, Leonardo DaVinci, etc. The book moves historically, so it was more difficult to find people in the middle ages because there simply weren’t any records of such things…and, of course, their ideas of mental illness were radically different. So, I decided to research the medieval women mystics. These were women who regularly had visions. Since they were seen as a threat to the church, they were often locked up, burned at the stake, or labeled witches. Whether or not they were mentally ill, we’ll never know. But it’s likely that some of them were. The only certain case was that of Margery Kempe, who wrote the first memoir in English. She talks a lot about her depression. The difficulty in more recent historic periods was picking from the many, many figures who suffered from mental illness. I researched a lot of people who didn’t make it into the book, people like David Foster Wallace, or Ezra Pound. The deciding factor boiled down to which quotes really spoke to me, which quotes inspired a dialogue with the poem. I looked for things each person said about their own mental illness. That was important. I wanted to have their own words, as too often the mentally ill have been silenced.
AL: What inspired you to write on mental illness, or at least from that point of view?
PG: I’d just come out of a five-year period in my own family in which we’d had a particularly difficult struggle with OCD. I’d also finally realized that I’d suffered from depression for as long as I could remember. That it affected everything I did. I just hadn’t realized it because I’d lived with it for so long. Then I looked around at my extended family and realized just how many of my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins suffered from depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. No one talked about it. I thought about the fact that growing up some of my friends’ parents suffered from mental illness, and again, no one talked about it. Of course, the history of mental illness is the history of silence, of being silenced. I decided I wanted to do something that gave voice to those who had suffered. That’s why it was so important to find quotes from historical figures in which they talked about their own struggles with mental illness.
AL: What was your process for selecting the quotations that accompanied each of the five poems?
PG: Research. Research. Research. In some cases, I had dozens of quotes to choose from. In other cases, it was very, very difficult to find a quote in which the person talked about their struggles with mental illness. With people like Sylvia Plath or Carrie Fisher—people who have been pioneers in speaking about mental illness—the problem came in selecting the best quote….but for others, it became more like digging up a long buried secret. And, as mentioned above, the further you go back in history, the harder it becomes to find actual quotes. In the section of the book that deals with antiquity I pulled the quotes from Greek myths and plays, since we have no personal accounts or public record.
AL: What is one of the greatest lessons you have learned throughout your writing career?
PG: To have faith. Faith that the ideas will come. Faith that the next sentence or line will come. To have faith in the fact that I can write. I spent years wanting to “be a writer” but was afraid to do it because I felt I wasn’t smart enough or good enough. Once I made the leap, I was surprised to find out that fear never went away, not after publishing my first book, not after my second, or my third, etc. In fact, every single time I sit down to write, I have the same anxiety that I’ve lost whatever ability I had, that the past was just a fluke. Every single time. What has changed over the years, is that I’ve learned to have faith that as I work, the doubts will recede, and I will be able to put words on the page. More importantly, I’ll be able to shape those words into something meaningful. The hard thing about poetry compared to writing novels or stories is that you have to face that blank page, to create something out of nothing every single time you sit down to write. When I’m writing a novel, I might be working on it for years, so the anxiety is not as bad once I’ve started the project. I already have something there to work with, so it somehow feels easier. But with a poem, you start new almost every time.
AL: Your writing ventures into so many forms: novels, poetry, plays, essays, memoirs; Is there any one form in which feels the most organic to produce? Also, is there one that has given you trouble?
PG: Such a great question—and a difficult one because each genre has its own problems and joys. As mentioned in the previous answer, poetry requires the most faith, and that moment of starting something new is always so hard. But I love to play with words, phrases, and forms. In that sense, at the moment, poetry feels the most organic. Novels are always hard. They are just so long. And you’re not the same writer at the end that you were at the beginning, so you have to reconcile that when you revise. Structuring a novel is a nightmare. It feels very difficult to me. I started out writing novels and have written three of them (two so far published) and six novellas. Yet, I feel as if novel writing is like putting my head through a cheese grater. Plays are difficult as well. To make the dialogue do all the work and yet make it feel natural. To keep the action going and tension high so that it keeps the audience riveted while still making it meaningful. That’s hard. Writing is difficult no matter what the genre, but I think I have the most fun writing poems and short stories.
AL: What book, or books, are on your night stand right now?
PG: So many. I’m a big reader—as most writers are. I usually have several books going. The poets currently on my nightstand are Craig Morgan Teicher’s The Trembling Answers, James McCorkle’s Evidences, Jorie Graham’s The Dream of the Unified Field, and Arda Collins’ It is Daylight. I just finished László Krasznhaorkai’s collection of short stories The World Goes On (which was amazing!), and am currently reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel, Visitation. Next up in prose another Krasznahorkai. Did I already mention he’s amazing? I also subscribe to many literary magazines and read lots of work online.
AL: Do you see a relationship between writing and fencing?
PG: Yes, as a matter of fact, I see many parallels between fencing and writing. I see both as a conversation with another person. In writing, you have to find the right words to communicate, to make the reader see and feel. In fencing, you have to find the right moves to penetrate your opponent's defenses, but also to draw the opponent in to your defense. Both require that you pay deep attention to the world--whether that world is the outer world (i.e. the life around you, or your opponent) or the inner world. To be successful in either writing or fencing, you have to know yourself. You have to know your weaknesses....bad writers and fencers try to cover them up...but good writers and fencers use them. Besides the fact that both require an incredible amount of dedication and discipline, I think both require imagination. That may seem obvious for writing...but it's true for fencing as well. The best fencers surprise their opponent with the unconventional. They take risks. Finally, I personally love both because neither one is really about money or fame in the end. Yes, a few (very few) writers make big money, but most don't. And even the ones that do aren't famous. They can still walk down the street, and nobody knows who they are. Fencing is an anachronistic sport that American society doesn't really care about. It's not like basketball, baseball, or football, where if you're at the top, you are rich and famous. I like that. I like the fact that we compete in the sport without hope of money or fame. We do it because we love it. And that's also why we write.
AL: Recently Dr. Walker and I were discussing a quote from The Poetic Species: A Conversation With Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass, in which Hass says: “By the middle of the nineteenth century people like Marx were saying that, while the idea of nature was once liberating, the bourgeoisie had taken it over to put women in their place, to justify slavery and imperialism, to say that homosexuality was perversion, to say that a monotheist male God was the natural order, et cetera, et cetera, so that the reasons for wariness about the idea of anything being absolutely determined by nature, culturally, have bled over into the ways we talk about it biologically.” What are your thoughts on this comment?
PG: The eugenics movement of the early twentieth century was rooted in a very wrongheaded notion that we are biologically determined, and because of that the genetically superior beings had an imperative to eliminate the “inferior” ones. The science and philosophy of eugenics came from our most respected universities: Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, etc., and was used to justify all sorts of horrors, most particularly to torture and sterilize the mentally ill in the U.S. At one point, every state had a law requiring sterilization. They were trying to pass laws to exterminate the mentally ill. Remember, many of these “mentally ill” were just women with bad periods or teens with mild depression or homosexuals. Of course, it all starts with the weakest group….and those with mental illnesses have always been the weakest group. Then, the U.S. government planned on using the same tactics on Jews and African Americans, criminals, etc. Hitler actually learned many of his ideas from the American eugenics movement, and, of course, everything Hitler did to the Jews, he did first to the mentally ill. So, yes, I would agree that “nature” has been used as a weapon to oppress, and as a result we are wary when it comes to talking about biology. However, I think we should be. Not because it’s wrong. I think science is one of the most important tools we have and tells us so much about the world, but because human beings have perverted it and used it to oppress in the same way they have done with religion over the centuries. Even now, the science behind mental health treatment is being manipulated by the big pharmaceutical companies. They suppress studies that don’t support their claims.
AL: What are you working on now?
PG: I’m writing poems, though I’m not sure what direction the book will take, or if it will even have a direction. I’m also working on revising a stage play that deals with mental illness. This time, the focus is much more on the families of those who suffer and how it impacts them. The play takes place in a mental hospital waiting room. Finally, I have a couple ideas for novels knocking around in my head. I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to start something as ambitious as that, but part of me thinks that at least one of these novels may take the form of a series of prose poems, so, perhaps, I can find a way to tackle that a little bit at a time. I think that novel will deal with my early family history, a great-grandfather who was married to an Ojibwe woman who died young of diabetes and left him with six children. He’d been a tenant farmer in North Dakota until the rich Englishman who owned the land decided to give it to his own son. After that one-two punch, my great-grandfather went to work in a prison and raised the six children on his own. Family history says he never raised his voice to anyone. I think there’s a novel in there somewhere.