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Daring to Live in the Details

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham finds her voice somewhere between the intuited and the observed

By Timothy CahillSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 24, 1996

Poet Jorie Graham says she is never far from a sense of herself as a "reporter" and of her writing as "a kind of news." As a child, the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winner for poetry grew up in the border country between the realities of journalism and the verities of art.

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So while Ms. Graham remembers her father, the Rome bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, leaving home to cover wars in distant and dangerous places, she was also influenced by her artist mother, who introduced her to the frescoes of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and other Renaissance masters that adorn the Italian capital's basilicas.

"I understood that news was not only important, it was mortal and critical," she says of her father's work. Yet "the stories on the walls of the church are [also] news," she adds, "crucial news that continues to be news."

Born in New York City in 1950, Graham grew up entirely in Rome, where she attended the French lyce (secondary school) there. She was fluent in Italian and French when she arrived at New York University (NYU) in 1969, but spoke only "broken English." A film student at the time, Graham had no aspirations toward poetry the day she was called to her vocation.

Raised, as she puts it, at "an intersection of secular and sacred versions of reality," Graham's own art presents a view that "trills or slurs" between opposing forces - public and private, observed and intuited, evanescent and eternal.

Graham won this year's Pulitzer Prize for "The Dream of the Unified Field" (The Ecco Press, 1995), a selection of poems spanning 20 years and five previous books. The winner of a 1990 MacArthur Foundation grant, she lives with her husband and daughter in Iowa City, where she teaches at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop.

She spoke recently with Monitor contributor Timothy Cahill by phone from her home. Excerpts follow:

Timothy Cahill: How did you become a poet?

Jorie Graham: I got lost one day in the corridors at NYU, and heard the words, "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me" floating out of a doorway. I was so taken that I went into the classroom for a minute and sank into a seat in the back row. It was M.L. Rosenthal reading [T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred] Prufrock." I sat there for the whole semester.

He spent most of the time reading poems out loud. Sometimes I think I actually learned English by listening to Rosenthal read those poems, that my transition into English - into thinking in English, feeling in English - came almost entirely through Yeats and Blake and Eliot.

What was it about poetry that drew you away from film?

I began to feel that film wasn't giving me a context large enough to understand how I was supposed to live my life. I was turning at night to [poetry] and finding a complexity and an ambiguity in which easy decisions were not possible. It was much more satisfying. It's very important for me to feel like I'm going through life, not accidentally slipping around it. That's something that can happen very easily to all of us. Through poems, I've struggled to make sure I'm in life, as opposed to merely understanding it.

One of the problems with having a strong conceptual intellect is that one can very quickly convert experience into idea.

How does poetry keep you "in life?"