Interview: Samantha Grenrock
Hello Sam, Thanks for doing this interview with Middle House. I know you from the University of Florida, where you were my first creative-writing instructor, but can you introduce yourself to the readers?
Hi! Thanks very much for asking to interview me. I’m Samantha Grenrock, though people who know me call me Sam. I’m a poet living in Florida. It’s a weird place, but I like it.
You are originally from California. Has moving to another presumed-beachy state influenced parts of your writing? How do you write about place having transitioned coast-to-coast?
Yes, and let me just say, the beach in California is very different from the beach in Florida. The Pacific is cold. In comparison, swimming at the beach in Florida is like a nice bath. I never actually “went into” the ocean until I moved to Florida. On the other hand, I never really “saw” a mosquito until I moved to Florida, so there are trade-offs.
Anyway, to your question: both California and Florida have strongly influenced my writing. They are both experiencing some of the more visible effects of climate change—drought and fires in California, stronger hurricanes and sea level rise in Florida. These contrasting yet linked signs of climate change inspired my first book, Bloodmeal (which as of this interview is looking for a home). A bloodmeal is the blood an organism, like a mosquito (probably a Florida mosquito), draws from its host. The book expands beyond the bloodmeal as a biological concept, reconfiguring it as many things, from the violent thirst for gold, oil, land, and water in the western U.S., to the rising seas and monstrous hurricanes of Florida.
You write poetry. Have you always been committed to that form?
No, my earliest writing projects were short stories. But my characters were always poets in disguise, moodily observing the world. The stories would inevitably turn into a bunch of vignettes that were probably just poems. So, I think my writing tends to veer toward poetry.
What is your first memory, or project, where you committed yourself to writing?
My first introduction to poetry was freshman year of high school when my English teacher, Mr. Sigafoos, had us read “The Waste Land.” Our assignment was to write our own poems in Eliot’s style. Mr. Sigafoos was probably asking a bit much of us 14-year-olds. He also had us write Shakespearean sonnets. We had to do the rhyme scheme, iambic pentameter, turn at the end, everything. It was in that class that I discovered playing with language and rhythm and meaning was thrilling and something I could do for hours.
What is a lesson about the writing life that you wish you knew then (as an undergraduate) that you know now (as a writer)?
My earlier poems were really spare, restrained, and overly controlled. I thought that was how to be artistic and poetic. I didn’t allow my personality to come through in my writing. I was performing “poetness” because I thought that was how to be a poet. It was only later that I realized I was holding back. Now I allow myself to be a bit weirder and funnier in my poems. It’s much more enjoyable. I think the lesson there is, don’t peg yourself to some pre-formed idea of what a poet or writer is supposed to be.
Who was your most important professor and their lasting lesson?
That’s a hard one. I’ve taken away important lessons from all my poetry teachers. My first poetry teacher, Jae Choi, showed me that poems are malleable, evolving things—your first draft and your last draft will probably be quite different. Sydney Wade showed me how imitation and translation can help you try on new voices and get away from your default speaker. Michael Hofmann has brilliant insights into a poem’s whole sweep—I learned a lot about how to critique poems from him. Finally, William Logan demonstrated the power of the line edit, and he trained me to ask the questions: where does this poem actually begin, and does it actually end earlier? The answer to that last one, for me at least, is usually, yes.
Major influences to your poetry writing?
I’m quite drawn to specialized knowledge and to poetry that engages with the unfamiliar language and ideas that come out of that knowledge. As with the term “bloodmeal,” the language of the sciences becomes strangely evocative and weird when threaded into a poem. The same goes for details from history and myth, as well as artworks and popular culture. I’m very curious about a lot of things, and I like to get deep into the research. Whenever I come across a detail or fact that’s weird yet poignant, I go, that needs to go in a poem.
As far as influential writers, I’m often turning to Karen Solie and Monica Youn, in part because of how they are able to take a very specific concept, place, history, or character and spin it out into whole poems or even whole books. Their books are the ones I turn to when I feel stuck or need to warm up my writing muscles.
Best New Poets, what an accomplishment. Can you speak on what that was like, your narrative arch coming into that moment as a writer and poet?
It was a great honor to be included, and thanks to the series readers and Natalie Diaz for choosing it. The poem selected is called “It Is Known to the State of California,” which starts by riffing on the Prop 69 warnings—those are the labels you see on products that tell you California knows this or that thing is carcinogenic. The poem meanders out through the state, its landmarks, history. Writing that poem helped me establish a method for writing longer poems, which isn’t something I’d really done before. I learned to let the poem “exfoliate,” which is a term I heard Michael Hofmann use once in a workshop. This is exfoliation in the sense of pushing out more leaves and branches—“ex” for outward, “foliation” like “foliage” (did I mention I love etymologies?). Whatever language you put down on the page is a kind of scion. It always has the potential to exfoliate, to put out new shoots to new connected but distinct ideas and pathways. This for me is the method for writing a longer poem.
Do you think poets are open to the line-editing process like prose writers become accustomed to?
I think that probably depends on the teachers you’ve had and what their feedback style was. If you’ve always gotten more abstract, general feedback, then line edits are probably going to be jarring, and vice versa. I myself like getting line edits because they are concrete, and they give me options. They are also a good reminder not to be precious about things, that there is often a stronger poem in the poem. For me, poems are all about the raw material of language, and how you manipulate that material, so line edits help me envision what other directions the poem can take.
I’m really interested in this question from an MFAer’s perspective. Poets who are in an MFA or have received an MFA had that time where they are getting attention by someone on the line level (probably someone they came to trust). But it has been my experience that poets very much resist being edited and prose writers, majority of them welcome it.
I haven’t myself experienced this distinction between poets and prose writers. I think each person responds in their own way to critique, and that probably evolves over time. Part of anyone’s development as a writer is learning how to be honest with yourself about the poem, story, etc. That’s what critique from others, and the critique you give to others, trains you to do for yourself. Any critique is an opportunity to learn something about yourself as a writer, about your craft, and how various readers respond to your work. In my experience, most people will home in on some part of the piece that was already on my radar as something that needed reworking, but I wasn’t sure how to do it yet. This is the kind of critique I’m most interested in, the kind that can shift your perspective enough to get you to a place where you can improve that weaker stanza, scene, whatever.
I’ll also emphasize that you don’t have to take all or any edits; however, pay attention to them and reflect on what that person was responding to in your work. It’s all information—you get to decide what is going make the writing better and truer to what you were trying to accomplish (or now realize you want to accomplish). Furthermore, there will be moments when feedback is filtered through someone’s position of privilege—their race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality, native language, education—and those critiques ask the writer to change their work so that it speaks to the privileged position and subordinate’s the writer’s. This is a power dynamic anyone in a workshop or giving critique must recognize and disrupt.
Speaking of the MFA, you have been out-spoken about fees in these fully-funded programs. Could speak for a moment about the situation of fees?
I’ve been out of school for a while now, so I can’t speak to the current situation, but for those considering an MFA or any kind of graduate program my recommendation is, do your research and be informed. If your program provides a tuition waiver and a stipend for you teaching or doing other work—which, by the way, is a great way to avoid taking on student debt for grad school—find out if you’ll be expected to pay student fees and if there is a graduate union at the university. Like unions for university faculty, graduate unions work to negotiate not just fees but also stipends, health insurance, and the like.
Who are reading lately?
I just started reading Paradise Lost by John Milton.
If it’s “what film helped shape you,” I’d have to say the Lord of the Rings trilogy (okay, that’s three films, but you can watch them as one very long never ending film).
I’m also a big Miyazaki fan, and Princess Mononoke is probably my favorite film of his, though Spirited Away is also great (the scene with the little soot sprites gathering up the star candies gets me ever time!).
In all these films, there is a sense of awe and of the sublime, which is enhanced by the music and visuals. They give the viewer a sense of being part of something great, a larger universe still full of mysterious powers. I like any work of art that can offer that