“Another Me Exists in a Cabin by the Lake: A Conversation with Andrew Grace about Sancta” — curated by Tiffany Troy and Emma O’Leary

Andrew Grace taught at Stanford University, Washington University and the University of Cincinnati before recently joining the English Department at Kenyon.  His books of poetry include A Belonging Field (Salt Publishing, 2001), Shadeland (Ohio State University Press, 2008) and Sancta (Ahsahta Press, 2012).  His poems have appeared in Poetry, Boston Review, Iowa Review, TriQuarterly and Prairie Schooner.  He has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford and the winner of an Academy of American Poets prize.  

Sancta, a collection of 70-word prose poems about sadness and nature, was originally published in 2012 by Ahsahta Press, is newly released by Foundlings Press in 2021.

Emma O’Leary: Tiffany and I were talking about images that stuck out to us a lot from Sancta. One interesting imagery is the tongue. It recurs throughout the poems, like the “tongue is a muscle that needs conditioning,” or “the “struck flint of my tongue gave no flame.” I’m curious if that was something you were thinking about throughout the collection or and just an impulse you followed.

Andrew Grace: I have to say I love those moments where you gain self awareness as a writer. I don’t think I even realized that I was using a lot of tongue imagery until this question, because I don’t sit around reading my own books a lot.

One thing I remember is describing someone’s tongue as larval. It was not an intentional image that I wanted to have as a motif that ran throughout, but I was clearly preoccupied with it. When I originally wrote Sancta, probably a decade ago, I was a Stegner fellow. Remembering my way into composing these poems takes some time traveling.

I feel like the speaker of Sancta is a version of me if my life was a lot worse. A lot of what’s going on with the speaker is being in a cabin by oneself and trying to find a new chapter and how to move forward. For the speaker, there’s a lot of silence, and a lot of loneliness. So the tongue needing to learn to talk again is kind of what I was thinking about in that image of the “tongue is a muscle that needs conditioning.” If the tongue has been silent for a long time, the only way you articulate is reading to oneself and not speaking to others, then it becomes like a muscle. The tongue talking is like exercise for the body. That’s where I think that that particular tongue image came from. Imagining if I was actually the speaker of Santa and I had been sort of secluded in a cabin in the woods by a lake for a very long time, how to reapproach the world.

Tiffany Troy: Can you describe the process of writing this collection?

AG: I was lucky enough to get a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford which was absolutely just life changing and so affirming. It’s a two-year program and during the first year that I was a Stanford, the book that I was working on Shadeland got accepted for publication which was absolutely thrilling but it also posed a challenge for me because I had been writing that book for quite some time, and when you get under contract, there is of course that moment of absolute elation, like oh my God, I’m going to have a book published. But there’s also a moment of mourning. Oh well, I was writing that book for 5, 6, 7, 8 years, what do I do now?

I knew that it was quite possible that the writing time that something like the Stegner fellowship allows one might never come in my life again, because you’re getting paid to write. They asked not very much of you. I didn’t want to spend the second year at my Stegner fellowship twiddling my thumbs and imagine how cool my book cover is going to be. I wanted to like hit the ground running on the next project because I wasn’t sure that I would have that type of freedom and time again. I wrote Sancta quickly, in a matter of 3, 4 months. I wrote two hours a day, one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening and every day I would write one poem for Sancta. Every poem in Sancta is exactly 70 words long. I had a daily writing exercise of writing a little tiny prose poem that was exactly 70 words. If I banged it out in the morning, I could take the evening off. If the morning sucked, then I could make up for it at night. I wrote one of those sections every day for 100 days, and I picked my 80 favorite so I cut the you know the 20 that I was least confident in, and that was pretty much the book. That came together very quickly.

I didn’t have an opening. I went beyond my 100 days to make sure I had an opening section that I was really confident in. But other than that, it was super rapid and much more so than anything else I’ve ever worked on. Something about the word count, like the limit of the word count was so helpful. It was almost felt like I was cheating or something, because it kind of like that almost fell too fast. But that was the process that came out of sort of an urgency, not to waste the time that’s something like a fellowship like that can afford one.

TT: It’s time so well used because when I was reading I really had to slow down and think about the world that is created in each of the prose poems. It felt the narrator contained in the cabin in terms of the geography, but it also felt that the containment felt infinite and the imagination and longing. It felt to me almost like faith. You have this wonderful chapter which ends: “I almost believe God cannot be unkind to us”

AG: I remember writing that and riffing off something that Charles Wright has said before, I believe in belief and for that I will be damned. I’m not quoting that correctly, but that’s the sentiment, if one isn’t a Christian and does not have faith, but believes in the process of faith, that is almost salvation. But not quite. The “almost” there is the key word.

EO: Hearing the process is so fascinating, with the urgency of I’m going to do this by writing every single day. To hark back to our first question, I’m sensing repeated imagery or wordplay. I feel that strong impulse even in the repeated imagery with the tongue, the father, and the knife. The father has a smile like he has a knife in his mouth. The moon is snitching on the skunks and then that light is being stitched. There’s really fun wordplay in the repeated images and themes and ideas that are expressed.

I love reading poetry for the lyricism as a novelist. I love the musicality, like chopping wood. When I was in your class long ago, we talked a lot about musicality and language. I’m wondering on a craft level if music is part of your process, whether listening to music or being informed by it, and how much thought goes into the creating musical language?

There just seems to be such an acute attention to rhythm and meter even within a prose poem. Tiffany and I were teaching prose poems and our students are asking, What’s the difference between prose poems and writing within stanzas and meters, so what are your thoughts on that?

AG: For Sancta, because brevity was such a self-imposed mandate with the 70-word cap on every section, I felt like I could take a bigger swing at indulging myself with the music with the sounds. In my drafting process I tend to overwrite; then, I pare back. Because I was working in a spare type of form, I was like okay if you only have 70 words, it’s got to give the reader something, not only challenging the reader. Emma, what you were just saying, it’s a prose poem, and not just straight up prose. So I kind of let it rip when it came to the Sancta sections, because you can’t really overwrite them because of the word count.

I had been in workshops, where I had turned in work into a workshop—I’m thinking of a particular teacher—where the teacher was like, you’ve been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, haven’t you. And I had and I love Hopkins he’s one of my absolute favorites but he’s a lot sonically, very rich and dense.

I was like, Yes, I’ve been reading Hopkins, and he said, Reading Hopkins is like eating fettuccine alfredo for breakfast, it’s too rich.

We did not get along from that point on, but I did and still have that impulse of prioritizing the richness of the sound too much, because that’s where I get a lot of my pleasure from reading.

I have totally come to terms with the fact that it can be over the top for some folks. So I felt one of the real pleasures of writing Sancta was finding the sweet spot of not straining myself in terms of the richness over-the-top music, because I knew that each individual checks each individual section was going to be short enough that I wouldn’t like short fuse the reader by doing it.

EO: I always overwrite and I love paying such attention to detail to the sonic quality of the language. In workshop, it’s always too much, too much. So I really have to cut down. That’s so interesting with Hopkins; I said to a teacher that reading Flannery O’Connor was like over eating at a buffet.

AG: Yes, she’s indulgent. To an ear like mine, I love that. I can see if you have a minimalist aesthetic, it can become too much.

EO: I just love Hopkins and O’Connor, so that’s so interesting.

TT: My next question is tied to how as you just discussed the 70-word limit allows for the musicality to really come through for the reader. I was also thinking about how in some poems you call your poems “chapters” like a metaphor of life, history, or self. How does the prose form inform your collection?

AG: That chapters thing was me being a little bit cheeky or winking because setting things up as chapters makes it sound like you’re reading a novel, when obviously you’re reading a book a very short prose poems. That was me playing around with the idea that I’m writing in prose so it’s like I’m writing a novel, but of course I’m really writing like a collection of poems. There was something attractive about like that novelistic approach that each section, progressing in some sort of consecutive, chronological order. I think it loosely is, but not like linearly progressing through a narrative.

A lot of people that have read it have asked like why 70 words is the magic number of words per section. I don’t have a great answer other than like it seems such an arbitrary and artificial limitation to just pick 70 words, but I did arrive at it in an organic way in that for whatever reason for all the poems I write, I checked the word count. I don’t do anything about it, but it is something that I’m interested in as I’m drafting things so I always count words.

One day, I do pre-write or warm up stuff before the real writing, and sitting down and wanting to write and I wrote this thin strip of prose and I did a word count and it came out to be exactly 70 and I just kind of liked how it looked on the page and I liked how much space it gave me. So I just did it again, and again, and for 100 days straight.

I came to realize 50 words is too little, 80 words is too indulgent. So there was something about that sweet spot of 70 that gave me enough space to make each section. I was sort of paranoid about this, but I wanted each section to have enough merit to be its own thing, so I didn’t want to feel like I’m writing aphorisms, fragments, or vignettes. I wanted each section to have enough like readerly stuff to do, so a reader would be satisfied if they just read a section on its own.

I sort of stumbled upon 70 words as my limitation but as a very indecisive person, form helps a lot, because once I set myself the assignment of everyday you write the 70-word little thin prose strip, that was so much more easier than just sitting down to a blank page and saying write a poem.

EO: We tried doing something similar and putting seemingly arbitrary on our students during a craft exercise.

My next question is about nature imagery. I just love in all of your poems, the Midwest imagery in Sancta and beyond. My family used to actually drive from the Northeast to Chicago every single year, so I spent probably 25 days of my life just looking at cornfields from the car windows, and you capture that so well. My family has a farming background so your poem “Silo Boys” is very impactful for my family. Tiffany and I were talking about Wendell Barry earlier, who we both love.

I have a strong impulse to write about the lands and the Midwest in general. It’s so funny having grown up here and now I’m in New York City. But I find myself called to that space so strongly, having spent so much time there as a kid. The reeds and the lake at the beginning was such a beautiful image. So I’m curious, you do such a beautiful job of writing about the land, the space, and just nature in general, if you want to share any thoughts on that or honestly any advice about writing about the natural world.

AG: Thanks for the question. The landscape of the Midwest is what I want to write about. Not a whole lot else holds my attention. Grief holds my attention, I want to write about my father who passed away and my grandparents, but other than that, when I sit down, I want to capture the Midwestern landscape.

In terms of Sancta, the cabin and the lake are a specific place in northern Michigan. I married into a family that has a lake house on Lake Charlevoix in far northern Michigan, not quite to the Mackinac Bridge, so approaching Canada. The place I’m writing about in that book is that cabin. I didn’t want to name it, and that’s the reason why it’s called Sancta not Sanctum. Sancta is the plural of sanctum, a holy or revered place for someone. Making it plural, what I had in mind is that it could be multiple place or any place. But it was Horton Bay, Michigan that I’m talking about. I had the great advantage of being able to go to that cabin once or twice a year and observing it deeply and being able to talk about the lake and the reeds and having that deep landscape knowledge. In all of my books, it’s the landscape of the Midwest that I’m interested in.

I grew up on a farm like corn and soybean farm in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. When I first started as a poet, I assumed the poems had to be about cities or have some kind of drama. I felt like the background I was coming from was the most boring possible background. I felt that was an impediment to me wanting to be a writer. I was like, what can I write about: corn, silos, tractors, barns? Nobody wants to read about that, people want to read about “real places.”

Part of my journey from being a novice to now was, No, actually those landscapes hold just as much magic and are just as evocative as any sublime landscape. It takes that deep attention to it to enter. It really is coming out of having a chip on one shoulder being a Midwesterner and having what being told that where you come from is flyover country, the place people fly over to get from one interesting place to another. You hear that enough times and you really just want to get revenge and make the Midwest seem as gorgeous and sublime as anywhere else.

That was part of what I had to learn when I was becoming a writer. That there is no place that’s inherently more poetic than, then the next, even though where I came from is absolutely flat and a prairie, and is just full of perfectly spaced-out rows of corn and soybeans, that there is a beauty to that also.

Emma, you’re asking about like advice, and my one advice is to be ferociously parental about where you’re from, even if you might think of it as not like inherently poetic or as the most interesting setting for literature. It is. If you look at it deep enough, of course it is.

I mean you talked about Wendell Barry, pay that type of attention to where you’re from. I love his mad farmer poems especially. If you have that type of perspective, you can make Kentucky seem like the epicenter of the universe. I hope I can make East Central Illinois, Northern Michigan, and where I’m at right now, rural central Ohio, that.

To be a poet of place means that you are elevating your place and pay the type of attention to it that you assume other people pay towards New York and Paris and London. Your own acre is just as deserving of a poem.

EO: I never write about my hometown. Instead, I find myself just writing obsessively about Illinois where my mom’s from and I spent every summer as a child there. She went to the U of I and I was obsessed with the sky and how big it was because I grew up in the woods in Connecticut, but we also had farms. I grew up on like you know farmland area lots of trees, but I love that advice, and I think that’s important for my students to hear too, because they all feel called to write about grand things. I’ve never left the country. I am really contained in where I’ve seen, the furthest I’ve been is Chicago from Connecticut. So I think that’s good advice as a writer. I see kids writing these days, and they want to write all about what they think is cool or whatnot, so I think that’s important.

AG: It comes from those ideas of what you think is normal and boring, and we all assume that where we come from as normal and boring. I remember, being an undergraduate at Kenyon with a lot of coastal kids and I would tell them about my farm and what a combine is and they were just completely baffled, like they didn’t know farmers existed. It’s like farming is an anachronistic occupation, like a poet. Like if you tell someone you’re a poet, they’re like there are poets these days, aren’t they all dead.

The idea of permission to write about where you’re from is something I talk about my students about. You can write about where you’re from and where you’re from is actually really exotic to people that didn’t grow up like you did. Clearing that simple hurdle sets people off fabulous paths once you realize your own upbringing is weird.

TT: My question goes back to what you said a little while ago, which is that you really had to go back and work on the first poem of Sancta. How does the first poem, which does not follow the process by which you wrote all of your other poems, set up the collection?

AG: What I did in that case was take an old grad school poem that didn’t work, that I kept in a leftover’s pile. I brought it back out and re-worked it and that became the first Sancta poem. That poem was from almost 20 years ago, when I was getting my MFA at Wash U. I turned into a poem for workshop, got feedback on it, and it wasn’t totally working, and I just shelved it. It was one of those poems where you like the first half and the second half just resisted you perpetually. So I lifted out the first half of that poem.

I do keep just like a leftovers file of all the stuff I cut from anything. I just plop it all into this Word document and sometimes when I’m stuck, that’s where I go. Because even though you scrap something, you know there’s some portion of it that’s worth salvaging.

In that case I went back and found that poem that I knew I liked a couple of stanzas of, and I squeezed it into the Sancta 70-word format. I can’t imagine anybody besides me would notice the difference, but to me I’m always like, does it fit the thing? Because I wrote that way before and Sancta was such an all-at-once project. So for that one piece, I was like how man I hope it’s not just like karaoke where I’m like trying to sound like myself too much and it’s not really authentically part of the book, but I hope that it that it seems like it’s coming from the same cloth.

That was one of the times right sort of relearn the lesson of don’t throw anything out completely. Don’t delete something to the point where it’s gone. If something has any merit at all just plop it into some other document and save it because it could be just the thing to get you to the finishing line.

EO: Some of the images that recur throughout in Sancta are presented upfront and I found that so fun to track throughout the collection as a writer trying to read to figure out how can I write this too.

Even just the sky imagery like this white sky, what is it resemble? And then keeping track of that, even just subconsciously, to interrogate, what I can do in my own work that works in this way, it’s just exciting as a reader.

Some writers actually keep track of different images they want to recall throughout. Do you do that? Or is it something like an impulse, I’m compelled to write about these landscapes and grief, and these are things I’m interested in writing about?

AG: I didn’t keep track in any sort of conscious way. I felt like things recur, because coming back to that idea of that deep attention to landscape, I was thinking about this one cabin by this one lake in Michigan. There’s only so much: there’s a sky, there are these wetlands, there are squirrels, there’s a pretty finite set of animals, the lake, the stove you have to keep wood in if you want to be warm. The world I was describing was so small that things recurred out of necessity, because there’s not really a whole lot else to talk about. That’s where a lot of why I’m writing about the sky or so much, or why there are so many racoons or deer. Because that’s what there. I do remember thinking about whether the world is too small.

One of the pleasures that I hadn’t writing this book, more so than anything else I’ve written, was trying to invite other things in. So I have references to Kurt Kobain and Iggy Pop and Emerson, and I felt like I wanted to allow the stuff I was reading and listening to into the work. Part of it is just fun and porous to have that sort of layer between one’s life and one’s work. But I also thought I could use those things to my advantage in terms in terms of not making it too insular.

Making it so that the four walls of the cabin and that square of woods and lake doesn’t become suffocating. That was part of the fun of writing that: working and reworking and reworking that same place, but also trying to like incorporate the outside world and pop culture and what I was reading and adding that to the equation.

I did very much have Thoreau’s Walden in mind, with the guy in a cabin in the woods by himself. And I know a lot of people have been patients with Walden and that they think it’s boring and like growing beans for 200 pages, or whatever. But going back to the Charles Wright quote, Thoreau achieves transcendence at the end of Walden: “The sun is but a Morning Star.” My guy doesn’t, but I feel like their journey is similar even though one leads to the transcendental and the other one doesn’t.

TT: I feel though you use the same recurring images, the reader always gets to look at it in completely new ways. I was blown away with the imagery in: “Better than reading a tree’s rings to learn its history is to see its torn roots after it has fallen in wetlands, its pale foundation laid bare by untenable mud.”

To me, that brings home what you’re talking about, which is that you could find beauty and interesting if you only looked carefully enough. You also bring in mythology, pop culture and just this voice that is at once trying to achieve omniscience but also friendly and irrelevant at times.

Do you have any closing thoughts, you want to share with your readers of the world?

AG: Look deeply at where you are and where you’re from and don’t assume you have to go to the Parthenon, or the Louvre or Times Square or Golden State Park. If you just sit with it for a long time, the Lake District is wherever you are. You can discover the bizarre and unique weirdness of your landscape if you just allow yourself to sit with it and think of it as poetic.

I think so much of how we approach poems comes from this like inchoate weird time of our childhood where we somehow glean what a poem should be like. Once you’re writing poems proper, you are coming with that baggage.

For me, a big part of my journey as a poet was just learning to invest in the world at hand that I had. And that world has usually been in the Midwest: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio.

I would say for everybody, don’t assume that you have to travel. This is getting a little more serious, but that’s a thing of privilege and class. So travel the world and write poems about the richness of your global experience. Not everyone can do that, I can’t do that. So I had to make hay where I was and I had so much joy doing so.