Live in Suspense: A Conversation with David Groff – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

David Groff is a poet, writer, independent book editor, literary scout, and teacher.

His book of poems, Clay, was chosen by Michael Waters as winner of the Louise Bogan Award for Artistic Merit and Excellence and was published in 2013 by Trio House Press. His previous collection, Theory of Devolution, was selected by Mark Doty for the National Poetry Series, was published in 2002 by the University of Illinois Press, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary and Publishing Triangle awards. With Jim Elledge he coedited Who’s Yer Daddy?: Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners, from the University of Wisconsin Press; with Philip Clark he coedited Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS (Alyson); and with Richard Berman he coedited Whitman’s Men: Walt Whitman’s Calamus Poems Celebrated by Contemporary Photographers. He completed the book The Crisis of Desire: AIDS and the Fate of Gay Brotherhood for its author, the late Robin Hardy (Houghton Mifflin/The University of Minnesota Press).

David’s poetry has appeared in American Poetry ReviewBarrow StreetChicago ReviewCourt GreenGeorgia ReviewGreat River ReviewInkwellThe Iowa ReviewMargieMead, Phat’itudePoetry, and other magazines. He has received residencies and fellowships from The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, The Hall Farm Center, Hidden River Arts Foundation, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Ragdale, the Santa Fe Art Institute, the Saltonstall Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Wildacres Retreat.  

David received an A.B. from Princeton, an M.FA. from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and an M.A. in English/Expository Writing from the University of Iowa. He teaches in the M.F.A. creative writing program of the City College of New York.  

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your newest book, Live in Suspense, has just launched from Trio House Press.  What would you like readers to know before they delve into the work itself? 

The more of these poems I wrote, the more I found myself feeling that I was living in the middle of things, in a kind of suspension, waiting for the next mortal thing to happen. There’s a poem in the book called “Suspense,” which recounts an exchange I had dining with a friend in a restaurant, when I realized he was about to tell me something that would forever change our friendship, putting it on a more mortal footing. In the moment before he spoke, I felt intently focused in my not-knowing. It was a precarious, precious, profoundly alive, even sublime situation. The restaurant was loud, the espresso machine was hissing, but this moment had a kind of transcendent quiet. 

Later, well after my friend told me what he had to tell me, I thought of that moment of not-knowing. It seemed like a place where so many of us come to dwell, with a piercing awareness of what we’ve traveled through, what we’ve had and what we’ve lost, and what mortal thing might happen next. It was also in a kind of poised balance of anticipation. I saw how my poems were exploring that tipping-points state. Those moments occur on bridges and in aubades (like the title poem), they reside between the seasons, and they push the grieving person into the present and the prospective. The poems have a sense of survivorship in them but also anticipate more mortality. 

I’ve always felt this suspense in my relationship with my husband Clay, in our own threesome with chronic illness. I saw that suspense manifesting in poems about HIV and AIDS, with their befores, durings, and afters. I found that suspense in the elegies for my parents, who keep reappearing as ghosts, with things they have yet to tell me.

So I hope readers will encounter a delicious precariousness in these poems, along with some wit, color, and pushback. I also hope that, after reading all the elegies, the retold Bible stories, and the replies or retorts to Cavafy the poet, they’ll arrive at a different place—a place where we can rest in suspense. The book’s later poems are what I like to call Buddhist-adjacent, with a sense that we can be like snowmelt, “be the disappearing/into the disappearing” and anticipate that condition with some joy.

KMD: What is the relationship between writing and social justice for you as a creative practitioner?  

I grew up as the son of an Episcopal priest, outside of Newark, New Jersey, at a time of great racial contention in the pursuit for justice. My father’s church was wonderfully diverse for a time, before white flight. My father wasn’t a directly political man, and in fact he was quite conservative around the liturgy and church structure he so loved. But he was liberally engaged with people, moving past his fear of the new to relate to his parishioners eye to eye. While I don’t feel that, as a white person, this early experience earned me a special perspective, it did open me up to some possibilities of difference and connection. 

Beyond that, my family’s protestant faith instilled in me a kind of subtle evangelism, one that I found myself applying not to religious faith but to the arts: that literature, which makes my life better, could make other people’s lives better as well. Any notion of human betterment through the arts can certainly be didactic and dreary, and I don’t feel I’m a poet with a betterment agenda. But I do feel we are all here to increase the amount of life in the world. I believe that art advances our aliveness. Wallace Stevens of all people said that the poet’s role “in short, is to help people live their lives.” 

So I guess I feel that if more of us stopped and took deep breaths and read poetry, we would be deeper people, paying more vibrant attention to each other and the planet. The more we do justice to life, the more we evoke and convey its apprehensible mysteries, the more justice is done. And in that sense, I think that art is here to help us do justice in the world by doing justice to the world. 

But the question of justice involves me more directly.  As a gay man who came of age in the era of HIV,  I was profoundly affected by the systematic and pernicious neglect that created the massive injustice that is AIDS, which has killed millions around the world and in my own country. There was such murderous contempt for what Paul Monette called “my pink people.” Gay men were among those otherized and shunned, along with so many women and so many people of color of all sexualities. As someone who does not have HIV, but who lost so many, and who has a husband with HIV, I may not be a survivor with AIDS, but I am a survivor of the AIDS era. 

AIDS and HIV are still with us. It is not history; it is a past that is present. It remains both a reality and, contrary to Susan Sontag said, a metaphor. HIV is about possessing and losing immunity; it’s about survival, race, class, money, and the stuff of live and death. It’s also about being people in history, and rising to the occasion of history. One of my vocations as a writer is to help ensure the witness of AIDS and HIV, of life and dying and how they manifested, of bravery and loss. 

I’ve explored these concerns in my first book Theory of Devolution, in my second collection Clay (named after my husband), and now in Live in Suspense, which brings Cavafy’s nostalgic yearning and retold religious stories into the mix and approaches AIDS within a larger context of elegy, while also memorializing my mother and father. 

KMD: In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are a celebrated teacher. What has mentoring others opened up within your creative practice?  

My career as a book editor shaped the way I act as a teacher. After MFA school, I got a job in New York publishing. Even though I found I was pretty good at pitching and marketing books, I realized I was at my best and happiest when I was engaged with the actual content of a book. So I became an independent book editor, working with authors who come to me via their publishers or agents, or working with authors directly. I do developmental work, line editing, and a lot of overall consulting on book projects—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. 

I found I was able to integrate my own writing practice into my vocation as an editor. Being an editor is service work, as is teaching. The focus is not one your own words but on the words of others. But such service can directly support our purpose as writers—if we have an inclusive enough notion of the overall worth of words. I often say I have a mission statement: to engender resonant words. On some level, it doesn’t matter who is writing those worthwhile words. I’m really glad that Live in Suspense is out in the world, but when one of my authors sends me their newly published book, I jump up for joy.

In working with other writers, I learned that the best editor creates a lens through which an author can see their book more sharply, as it might become. Whether they are assembled in a classroom or working one on one with an editor, I realized just how viscerally vulnerable writers are. I feel that vulnerability when I share my own poems in my peer workshop, or with my friends. 

As I started teaching, at Rutgers, NYU, and for the last sixteen years in the MFA creative writing program of the City College of New York, I tried to respect the student writer’s vulnerability—whether in my poetry and nonfiction workshops, in a course called American Poetry Mentors, or my prepare-to-publish seminars, which I teach both at City College and at other MFA programs and conferences. 

Sitting around my workshop table—recounting our stories around our campfire, like ancient nomads—we begin by noting the language we love. I want my students to value giving and receiving praise and appreciation, which I think can lead us to greater openheartedness and interactive rigor. I learned this practice from the late Marie Ponsot, a brilliant poet and a genius teacher, who would ask each of us in a workshop simply to observe what we had heard in the poem we’d just heard read aloud. This practice cured me of some acidic habits I’d developed in academic workshops. It also let me re-embrace poetry at a time when I was overwhelmed by the commerce and drama of book publishing. A couple of the poems in Live in Suspense were first published in chapbooks celebrating Marie Ponsot’s writing and teaching, and when I talk about other people’s poems, or revise my own, I hear her encouraging, scrupulous voice. 

In our workshop discussions, I want to ask poets up front what their intentions were, to make the workshopping process more interactive from the start. I also do a lot of teaching in workshop—for example, exploring the linear poem that unfolds over time (the narrative poem) and what I call the linear lyric, as well as poems that are more associative than linear. I propose and describe lots of prompts, some of them formal and some subject-based. Recently I have focused even more on surprise, on taking risks. With both the authors I work with editorially and my MFAers, I tell writers they’re more likely to succeed if they take big chances. No matter your genre, the  world doesn’t want your pale derivation; they want the bold particular thing that only you could write. I think the most intimate connection between writers and readers happens when writers risk everything they can.

In a poetry workshop session late in the semester, I bring my cowboy hat into class, which I allow myself to actually wear for about ten seconds. (After ten seconds, it just feels too silly.) I tell each poet to write their name on a slip of paper and put it in the cowboy hat. Each poet then picks a name out of the hat. Then I reveal their final assignment for this semester: blurb yourself, blurb your fellow poet. 

Each poet rereads all the work of the poet they’ve picked, and then writes a blurb that shows what that poet is doing, that quotes from the work, and that tells us why we should appreciate that poet’s poems. I also ask all the poets to blurb themselves, ascribing that blurb to a poet, living or dead, whose praise they’d love to have. (Because it’s so hard for us to define and praise our own work, it’s easier to pretend some other poet is doing it.) 

Then, in our last session, each poet reads aloud the blurb they wrote for the other poet, and then that poet reads what they wrote about themselves. This exercise lets us pull the camera back for a wider view of our poetry and shows how each poet’s perception of their writing relates to ways another reader experiences it. When they see the cowboy hat and learn the assignment, my poets freak out, but they generally find it illuminating to have blurbed and been blurbed. 

As a mentor, I want to do with my students what I do with my authors, which is to help them find a readership for their words. As an MFAer at Iowa, I had a pathway into the literary world that hardly needed to be pointed out to me, Iowa being Iowa. No matter our feelings of imposterhood, we generally felt we had a license to travel that path. But City College attracts students who often have not had much relation to the literary establishment. They don’t presume that they should have access to the gates or those who keep them. So I want to give my MFAers the means they need, and the confidence they require, to venture out as savvy professionals. I tell them that the gates may not be open, but they are unlocked. They may have to push hard on the gate, using all their body weight.  

KMD: Relatedly, can you speak to the value of literary citizenship?  

Literary citizenship is at the core of my prepare-to publish course that I teach at City and offer as a single-session seminar called “From Writer to Author.” How do you move from writer to author? I think there’s a certain zen to it—that the more you’re a writer, the more likely you are to become an author. And by this I mean not only writing your novel, or your memoir or poetry collection, but doing the actual work of being a person of letters, someone who is committed, as much as time and energy allows, to all the work of fostering words in the world. So I tell my students, and I tell every writer I work with as an editor, not just to focus on The Book, but to undertake all the other work: writing reviews, doing interviews, running reading series, and just showing up for others. 

There are three great benefits to this kind of literary-citizen enterprise. 

First,  it improves the culture. The more we have talented writers in the agora, doing reviews, interviews, essays, op-eds, and feature pieces, the more resonant and diverse our discourse will be. 

Second, culture work makes you a better writer. When you write across genres, or when you write to convey the gist of a book or a film or movie and your opinion on it, or when you engage with other arts-people or write about your community garden or your dad’s pecan pies, your writing grows. You’re writing to publish, writing to communicate. 

And the third benefit: the more stuff you write, the more you’ll build a platform that will allow your own work to be seen, and the more likely that your book-length project will be published and find readers. 

And while “literary citizenship” is something of a loaded term, in a world where the literal citizenship of so many people is denied or denigrated, there is value in creating a kind of cultural citizenship that transcends borders, that is empowered across boundaries. The term culture worker, one I prefer, nicely suggests that we are all laborers in the vineyard, doing all of this together, part of a community of cultivation.

KMD: What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?  

Right now, after the intensity of Live in Suspense, I’m trying just to play: with form, with prose interactions, with new subjects. But I also am starting on a new project, called Messenger, using as a touchstone my relationship over the years with my first lover, Mike Messenger, a poet I met in a workshop at Iowa, and what his story represents to me: the evolving, continuing cost of homophobia and social estrangement and the persistent and pervasive trauma of HIV, and what those syndromes have to say to us all. As a poet and a person, I’m a survivor, at least for a while. I feel like the messenger who escaped to tell the story. It’s a kind of executorship I find to be a summons, a burden, and a metaphor. I’m working to discover how all of us (of every identity) can thrive in bodies weighted with historical memory. 

KMD: Last but not least, will you share a writing prompt with us?  

Sure! I love writing prompts that activate the right brain and insinuate themselves into us. We poets can start out thinking that we know what we need to say, and that all we have to do is find the words to declare it. But as Mr. Frost put it: no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. So I want my fellow poets to surprise themselves. Of course, many prompts do this, where we create some formal constraint that liberates. 

So here’s a prompt that it works for every age, from fifth graders to fifty-fifth graders: think of a word that functions as both noun and verb. The English language is full of them, and so many arise from the gut and reverberate in the throat. Here are just a few: fire, drive, lie, promise, tear, scar, cover. Pick fifteen of noun-verbs, maybe from a written source that you want to respond to. Or if you’re in a workshop, each of you can select one word. Now, write a poem using all of those words, in any form, in any verb tense, maybe with a prefix or suffix, and see where those words lead you. As you puzzle out the words, figuring out which one ignites you and getting hung up on one or two, you’re going to find yourself going down a path you hadn’t charted when you started.  And before you know it, you reach a poem that surprises you. And that surprises your readers.

When we do this prompt in workshop, the poets invariably come up with poems that are some of their most resonant, mysterious, and delightful over the entire semester. And when I do it, I find myself—dare I say it—living in suspense about what I’ll discover.