Open Mic: There’s a kind of inverted society to your first book, Gullible Skeptic, published in 2001 with Harmonia, that seems to deify the misfit, ennoble the somehow-or-other disfigured marginalia. In the poem “At the Tone”, “the homeless [stream into] / lofty bank towers / decreed low-cost housing”, Jerry Springer “talks quantum physics on the BBC”, “Hell’s Angels ... bring canned goods / to a hospice”, and there’s mention of “a loving God who really does exist”; the poem “Weeping Juanita” obliquely likens America to Heaven, while “Bob, the Hospital Janitor”, who “stopped ... sickness in its path / and cleared disease beneath our steps”, is “showered with disdain / by candy wraps and bubble gum.” Similarly there’s a parallel drawn between Kerouac’s On the Road and John 3:16 in “Ivan the Activist”, which title itself inverts the old tsar’s sobriquet.
As I moved through the book, flanked by other of your works, The Fall and Apocrypha among them, the imagery in the poems seemed to become more and more obviously religious. The portraits, rather than seeming painful for the sake of evoking pain, seemed to document essentially either Job or Christ-like figures. “Gretta Van Doeufenmacher” is scarred by facial acne, but also referred to as “braille face”, as if there were something to be deciphered, some message in her “pitted” visage that could sustain meaning or vindicate her in some way.
I wonder whether this makes any sense, and if you’d talk a bit about how you saw the purpose of your first book of poems.
Andreas: Well I have to thank you for going back and reading my early poems -- and you are correct in that they speak of misfits and those marginalized from society. Gullible Skeptic was a collection of stories (which more or less continued on into the next several books) that attempted to convey a spark of the divine in these societal rejects that people do not see. And though not everyone approves of using fictional tales in the craft of poetry, I believe that the story and the poem make a wonderful combination -- for even if the characters are not "real," the feelings and life experiences conveyed in them are. The emotions embedded in the lines are authentic, and, like parables, reveal a greater truth. And yes, in the years that have followed since this book was released, and with my writing having (hopefully) matured, it has become more clear in its embracing of spiritual imagery and at this point, since I've given my life to Christ, I expect it to offer more in the way of messianic symbolism and allusions to the Lord and the Gospel, though preferably avoiding the didacticism that can easily lead to the loss of its literary quality. But back in the early 2000s when I was still discovering my poetic "voice," things tended to be more cryptic or have multiple metaphors being that I really didn't know what I believed, if anything.
Open Mic: “Regarding the Pitfalls of Finer Dining” from Perennial (2011, Harmonia) opens wonderfully with a zoologist lecturing his date about the dung beetle, its diet, and abiding joie de vivre. The narrator then goes about trying to “re-ignite” the doubtful other’s “faith in fallen males”; the poem then partially resolves with a contrast between ground and sky.
In addition to harbouring little envy for the narrator, I wonder if you’d talk a bit about how your sense of the dynamic between the characters in your work, and the relationship between writer and reader, has evolved. Also, your most recent collection trumpets the inscription “This book is for you.”; though in some sense all poetry––at least all poetry published by its author––is written to be read, why be so explicit?
Andreas: I think my characters have aged a bit and the themes have moved out of the high school and college campuses and into the fabric of older, more grounded relationships such as that of married couples or of parent and child. It's all been a progression through the past 15 years or so, and perhaps the dialogue less cynical. I think there's a little more hope in the stories and that life overall is being presented in a more positive light than before. That's not to say that the rapport between my characters, or that of the narrator and his subject, isn't without challenges and difficulties (for without those things it couldn't be an accurate portrayal of what it means to be alive) -- but there's much less "wrist-slitting" happening in my 2016 poems than what occurred in my earlier work. And thankfully so -- I think it's important for a writer to embrace balance, and to cover all facets of human experience and not get bogged down in a single stream of thought. As for my dedicating my poetry "for you" -- what this means for me is that I write with a general audience in mind -- everyday people who want literature to speak to them in some personal way -- as opposed to trying to craft a poem that will appeal to a CanLit editor, publisher, or contest adjudicator. I know this sentiment isn't popular among the local literati, but I think there's too much "writing to win" as opposed to "writing to share." Poetry today is this big competition -- pitting poets against one another in the attempt to win a prize or a book contract or some kind of grant. I don't want to "compete" (hence my avoidance of all things slam up to this point), and although the poetry world and poets involved in these things would say it's not about that, I'd respond that CanLit's obsession with grants, awards, and what imprint appears on a book's spine says otherwise. Competition results in boasting and bad feelings -- I only want to convey my writing to people without all of that ensnarement, hence I'd class it as "peoples poetry" which isn't likely to win any awards of any kind being that it's scribed for the "common person" and not some literary elite.
Open Mic: The poems “Intellectuals” and “The Professor” from the books The Better Kiss and Skeptic, respectively, depict the literati as “full of falsities and jealous sex”, erudite but dispassionate. There’s a kindred line by Buk from On the Fire Suicides of the Buddhists, goes:
who lay back and
make statements of explanation,
I have seen the red rose burning
and this means more.
Many of the quotations that stipple the covers of your books, from Conrad DiDiodato and Chris Morgan for example, seem to echo this feeling. Share a few words, if you would, on your view of the tweeded minority, the champagne handful, the Grecian earners––wherein the distaste?
Andreas Gripp: I suppose this goes back to my answer to the previous question -- my dislike of competition and, as it were, "wine and cheese poets." Pretension in the arts is echoed in my poems dealing with academia and the cutthroat manner that the privileged fend off those who don't conform to their manner of thinking. I feel that in all of their outward knowledge and their pursuit to impress, they've lost what is truly beautiful and has the deepest meaning ("the red rose burning," as you've cited in the stanza by Buk). What this has resulted in, as far as poetry is concerned, is a general populace who have little or no interest in the genre, as much of it simply doesn't speak to them, and the emergence of the slam scene, which might very well be the other extreme in that it's big on entertainment and reaching out to school-kids but offers minimal literary reward to readers when presented on the page. Now this is not to say that there aren't exceptional poets in Canada -- there certainly are (many in fact) and their work has made an invaluable impression on me. And it also doesn't mean that there isn't amazing spoken word being created in this country (and in our very own city) -- again, there is. However, it's sometimes difficult to find for people unless they are deeply attuned to the present scene and what is available in their local bookstores or on a pub stage. I just don't think it's been as accessible for folks to find as it perhaps could be.
Open Mic: Relatedly, the forward to Anathema: Poems Selected & New concludes with the blistering “...there is no shortage of detractors who might concur with [the title’s] appropriateness when measured to that standard of conformity that CanLit has upheld for decades.” Citing the recent nomination of George Eliot Clarke as our national laureate, I wonder whether I might encourage you to further articulate the standard of conformity in our national literary landscape as you see it. Is such a standard, in your view, strictly Canadian, or internationally ubiquitous?
Andreas: I'd have to say that although I can't disagree with what I wrote in Anathema's foreword 6 years ago, I think I've softened my critique of Canadian literary culture. Yes, there still is (and likely will be) all manner of conformity in both poetry and fiction -- a melting pot of voices who need to sound a certain way in order to ensure publication. I wrote about it extensively in my essay "The Problem With Poetry" which I've shared in my blog in the past -- however, being that I no longer wish to contribute to negativity, I've chosen to withdraw the essay and have endeavoured to be far less critical of poets and publishers -- it really doesn't make things better to publicly scold and only enforces hard feelings on both sides. What this means is that I'll be avoiding an elaborate answer to your question. I do, however, applaud the continuing of the national poet laureate program and Mr. Clarke's ascension to the position. I hope it will give birth to a greater enjoyment and appreciation of poetry.
Open Mic: The cover of your first book of poems, Gullible Skeptic, bears an image of a young woman reading Rousseau’s “The Creed of A Priest of Savoy” beneath a chalkboard across which is scrawled the titles of the poems in the book, “Salvador Dali Had it all Right” prominently among them. Comment, if you would, on how oneirocriticism/surrealism has informed your work.
Andreas: I think it's played a larger role in my more spontaneous poems (much of which is found in my book "The Penitent, or Cannon Foster's Dissonance Revolution"). There's been more than one facet to writing for me -- and the "unbridled stream of thought" that allows work like this to emerge has always been exciting. It's like you don't really know where you are going as you type and you're not really sure where the words are coming from. These days, though, I'm finding the process much more calm and meticulous -- maybe this is what happens as you get older (at least for me anyway).
Open Mic: If the internet is to be believed, your wikipedia page credits you as the creator of “a new haiku form” called shan-zi, written “in 7 lines with breaks of 2, 2, and 3” and containing 31 syllables. Discuss, if you would, how you arrived at this form, and what the hokku tradition as you see it has that other forms don’t (or can’t) match.
Andreas: The internet is to be believed! At least in this case. Shan-zi is an eastern-inspired form I came up with at a time when I was writing lots of haiku (as well as Tanka and Sijo). I guess I was searching for something that allowed a little more "breathing room," so to speak, while maintaining structure and meditative qualities inherent in Japanese and Korean verse. I don't quite remember how the 4-5 5-4 4-4-5 scheme won out exactly -- perhaps it was merely the sound and flow of the first one which I'd written and that it appeared to me at the time to be ideal with regards to what I was endeavouring to do which was expand on the haiku (even allowing for it to be titled) without it becoming too long. I released a chapbook of Shan-zi in 2007 -- the first poem in it is an example of the form itself:
Backyard in June
In the garden,
butterfly and moth
by quiet flight
and my breathing
embrace the silence
Anyway, it's kind of neat that people I don't know from around the world have written a Shan-zi since I posted what it was a decade ago. I imagine the aforementioned internet gets credit for that.
Open Mic: The first poem of Anathema contains the stanza:
I said there was no god
and that droughts and rains
don’t depend on deity,
but on currents
and jet streams.
Similarly, “Apocrypha” notes:
Tell them that a Book
is only a book,
that saying so
that truth is fluid,
on slabs of stone.
The spirituality of your work, demonstrated in part by these excerpts––as well as “Coda III”, a meditation on the profundity of nothingness––seems to have shifted to a Christianity diluted with, or enhanced by, an eastern sensibility. Apocrypha feels like a more spacious collection than much of your previous work––more neutral, even; it reads like the work of a poet unafraid to make large statements about experience, yet favouring the hint to the declaration.
Share a few words, if you would, about how your exploration of transliterated Japanese verse has influenced your sense of space in the poem, and how you reconcile two forms of religion that are usually considered separately.
Andreas: I think the brevity of eastern poetry has played an influence on my compression of language and for leaving many of my poems more sparse. Meanwhile, one of the missions of a haiku is to simply state and not to interpret, hence my avoidance of the didactic. I also gravitate toward the shorter line, in tune with the breath, and this in turn aids in finding the cadence which is really important to me. This results in more "white space" on the page and to me it makes the poem a little more inviting to read. I agree that there's been a shift in the spirituality of my poetry. A few years ago it was often very Buddhist and Christ was a figure habitually becoming present but with no clear verdict about Him revealed in my writing -- Leonard Cohen had a habit of doing this on a regular basis -- so much so that I often wondered if he was a Christian Jew or at least open to that notion. Well since then, after years of searching and investigation, I've reached my decision, and, like C.S. Lewis (a former atheist), have admitted that God is God and is revealed to us in his Son. Even most of the Buddhist stuff I read always seemed to mention Jesus. So it's been a natural progression for me to cross the bridge and leave behind the agnosticism infusing Buddhist philosophy and fully embrace a spirituality that's grounded in a personal relationship with the Lord. I think Thich Nhat Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ helped me to open my heart to the possibility of God again; so while it may seem odd to become Christian while studying Buddhism, I found that the unanswered questions that still remained in Dharma practice were met by the only solution to the problem of sin that's ever been offered (in both ourselves and the world) which was Christ taking it upon Himself -- the ultimate reconciliation.
Open Mic: The narrator of “Before It All Gets Read in Books” (Anathema) maligns the poets who preceded him as the thieves of nomenclature. According to this view, why would one continue to write, everything having been named––and named well?
Andreas: Now there's an outstanding question! Yes, it's all been said before (and probably much better) by others. And as I've alluded to in other poems, there is simply too much poetry in the world -- too much published and too many books and periodicals of verse. I suppose that all I am doing is adding to the great big slag heap. Nevertheless, we are all unique beings with a unique life experience -- there's never been a person who has lived in the exact same way or with a precisely identical perspective as you, as me, as anyone else. So the challenge for the poet is to convey that one-in-7-billion point of view in words that will ultimately birth something beautiful; unprecedentedly beautiful.