I don’t remember when I didn’t love poetry I think from the Golden Treasury of Verse and nursery rhymes I was interested. But I do remember when I began to want to write my own poems and take part in poetry myself, around 8th grade. I wrote little ditties, funny rhymed poems about crushes or the equivalent. Then in 9th grade I had one of those wonderful English teachers who makes a mark on you … she was young and enthusiastic and she did a great job with poetry. She showed us Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and asked us to write “Thirteen Ways of Looking at…” anything of our choice. I did something kind of corny “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Rainbow,” but I realized there were many unconventional ways … one of my best verses was something about “Kelly’s striped T-shirt/ in a puddle/ on the locker-room floor.” I was smitten! The idea that there were “ways of looking” was so seductive to me. After that I always wrote poems. They weren’t good, but it didn’t matter.
Q: Your poetry uses ordinary language; it is very accessible, yet fresh and surprising; what influences and decisions helped you find your poetic voice?
(books by this author)
Poem: “Goodbye New York” by Deborah Garrison, from The Second Child. © Random House. Reprinted with permission.
Deborah Garrison on A Prairie Home Companion March 24, 2007.
This is hard to answer. I do feel there was a moment, in my twenties, in the atmosphere of the city and my work life, when I began to understand who I was, who I wanted to be. Part of becoming a poet for me was about becoming an adult recognizing both that you have a unique self and soul, as it were, and also you have your limitations. I was not going to be able to stride on a world stage as a poet; I had no claim to a larger political or moral sense. I had to begin in an intimate realm, with the kind of young women’s trials and tribulations that I hoped would not feel like self-absorption but, if I could make real poems out of them, would carry a touch of the universal. I had no project or program as to what style I would adopt; I had no poetic mentor or poet who “taught” me since I never got an MFA … but I did my graduate thesis in literature, and wrote about Philip Larkin. I believe his plainspoken English, his basic good grammar and avoidance of obscurity, really spoke to me. I found it amazing the way he used the most apparently colloquial language, and yet his achievement was always supremely poetic even his shrinking self-deprecation was made into art. I think somewhere along the way I made a conscious choice that I would avoid pretension and try to speak on the page almost in the same language we’re speaking now. Could I make poetry out of the materials of our everyday life and conversation? It’s very tricky. The risk is you won’t achieve poetry just accessible language broken into short lines on the page. You have to find sly musical resonances, half rhymes, things that make art of ordinary language almost stealthily. I think some of my poems are successful in this; others, probably less so. In my new book (The Second Child: Poems), I even tried to make poems out of our daily conversation with children. On the one hand, our communications with them couldn’t be more prosaic and boring; on the other, kids say the most amazing things at times…they tap into a kind of pure poetry of perception that I wanted to bring to the page. Maybe you could say my style, such as it is, has emerged out of the business of communication in everyday life.
Q: How did you start your fifteen-year career at The New Yorker, and what are some memorable people and moments?
I started in the summer, when I was in college. I wanted to spend a summer in New York I had the idea that I wanted to live there when I graduated, but I thought I should try it out (I’m from the Midwest, and had only been to the city a few times), and I asked myself, what would be the absolute ideal, dream summer job? It was almost on a lark that I made up a résumé and sent it to the magazine. I didn’t know anyone, had no connections there. There was nothing on my résumé at all except that I was an English major and was working on the college literary magazine at Brown University … to my amazement, they needed people for the summer, to cover for the magazine’s typists when they went on vacation. That was how I started there, typing copy. Then by some luck I was sent to fill in in the fiction department, to type letters and read stories from the slush pile for the editors. It was an instant love affair for me I was in awe of Roger Angell, Charles McGrath, Daniel Menaker, Veronica Geng…the reigning deities of that department at a time when fiction was still really the heartbeat of The New Yorker. I learned so much from studying the proofs they scribbled on, from their letters to authors. (We used carbon paper to keep copies of each letter back then!) Their work began to demystify the process of writing and editing for me; I knew I’d found my “thing.” As for memorable moments they are too endless to describe. I remember moving out of the old 25 W. 43rd street building, where James Thurber had drawn on the walls (those drawings were excavated and brought along). We in the fiction department decided to have a moving-day party and invited the cartoonists to draw on the walls one last time in that tradition. They did caricatures of all of us, which we knew would soon be painted over … I believe we took Polaroids of some of them. It was the kind of place where even the receptionists and messengers were fascinating and turned out to be writers; the temperaments were everywhere on display. It felt as though people would live and die for their writing and for their relationships in those halls. As a young person, it was thrilling to be confronted with such high passion. Some of it was silly of course, but some of it was indeed about a pure love of quality and wanting the work produced to be important, to matter … I’ll never forget the joy of reading new stories and discovering new work. I still seek to duplicate that feeling when I edit books and work with authors. Of course, the attachment changed over the years. I suppose it was like a love affair the passion gets more ordinary and domesticated with time. But I was so glad to have had a taste of the different editorships, from William Shawn on through to David Remnick, and to have worked with people of that caliber.
Q: You are both a poetry editor and a poet, how do these to roles interact?
Actually, I find the combination can be awkward. When I was editing fiction and nonfiction at The New Yorker, I viewed poetry as a kind of moonlighting; I loved it, but it wasn’t connected to my daily work life. I submitted my poems to the magazine and other publications with crossed fingers and got as many rejections as acceptances. When my first book came out, I was pretty innocent about the world of book publishing and about the difficulties of reaching the audience for poetry. Now, I’ve become a book editor and my job includes editing a lot of poetry, for Alfred A Knopf. I love it again, I feel my true métier is as an editor. And what could be more wonderful, really, than devoting my professional energy to bringing poetry I love into the world? It’s deeply satisfying. But I try not to bring up my own work or concerns as a poet to the poets I edit. Being someone’s editor is a bit like being their shrink; you want the relationship to be about supporting them. No one wants to hear about their shrink’s personal troubles… Nor do I want my writers to feel that literary admiration has to be a two-way street. Just because I love their work and want to publish them is no guarantee that they’ll be interested in mine. I try to keep a separation of church and state, if that makes sense. I truly can’t be concerned about whether the poets I admire have any regard for my work. We’re all doing different kinds of things and have wildly diverging visions; if we all liked the same kind of work, the offerings in poetry today wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
Deborah Garrison is the author of A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems (Random House, 2000) and The Second Child: Poems (2007). She lives with her husband and children in Montclair, New Jersey. After many years of working on the editorial staff of The New Yorker, Garrison is now an editor for Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon Books.