The ‘Secular Religion’ of Jennifer Grotz

“March” previously appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review

STONINGTON — “What I say instead of ‘I write’ every day is ‘I scribble,’ which to me lowers the stakes,” said poet Jennifer Grotz. 

Grotz has published three books of poetry and is at work on her fourth.

“I like to just scribble to just slowly accrue language. If I have a phrase that pops into my head, I might literally just write down those three words or if I’m at a bar and I’m eavesdropping and somebody says something funny, I write that down, or a memory. I collect all of that,” said Grotz (pronounced (Grōtz), the James Merrill House resident poet for the month of November. 

Grotz, who will give a virtual reading on Nov. 21 at 5 p.m., sits on the faculty of the University of Rochester and serves as director of Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences.

She earned a PhD from University of Houston, studied literature at the Sorbonne and is known for her work as a translator of Polish and French poetry.

“I have always been someone who likes to do that deep dive, like if you give me a month or a place where I can go into a retreat, I can be enormously prolific. It takes a few days kind of throat clearing, a few days to get into the rhythm, but then normally it’s gangbusters for me and it’s so thrilling,” she said. 

She said she started writing poems when she was five, as soon as she could write. She became an avid reader and fell in love with language early on, using what was available to read and write. 

“We had the Bible, the dictionary and the phone book and very few other books,” she said. “I would pick up the newspaper on the ground or I remember finding forms, the ones in the grocery store, and I would just fill out forms. That’s probably not a normal thing for children to do, but clearly language was my medium.”

A poem can begin with a phrase or a “some sort of little clump of language” that she begins to play with, “not really even paying attention so much to what it’s saying but making a rhythm or a rhyme or both.” 

Or, more often, she said, a poem will describe something in the world. 

“I really am quite drawn to looking at things. My mother aspired to be a painter and really taught me how to observe how painters paint still lives and portraits and landscapes and that making art is about learning to see — and that’s an overriding aspect to all my poetry,” she said. “I’m always looking at something. I describe it using language instead of oil paint to describe it.”

She said writing poetry is sometimes the only way she can process some experiences. 

“It’s true, I also write poems, to be honest, because I have to. I don’t even really feel like it’s optional,” she said. 

She reads other people’s poems for the company and the insights they provide.

“While I’m here right now, I’ve been re-immersing myself in James Merrill’s work. I’ve never sat down and read him cover to cover, his whole work. I’ve always read him in bits and pieces. But it’s really fun to be in a writer’s home and having the same vocation and looking at the books, noticing the same books that we have on our shelves. And then reading his work here. It’s incredibly special,” she said. “Ask any writer when they go to a writer’s house — the first thing is their eyes go to the bookshelves. It’s just this way you immediately learn a great deal about someone.”

Grotz said that she wants people to listen to poetry in a relaxed way, like listening to music, without feeling pressure to instantly understand the meaning — instead, listeners should enjoy what sounds good to them or makes sense to them. 

“I tell my students, when you’re driving  and a song plays on the radio and you hear the lyrics and they make no sense, you don’t wrack your head and be like, I don’t get this song. You just go on with it, you wait till the next song comes for you or you laugh because the lyrics are hilarious or stupid. Or, it cuts you to the core and you start crying at the red light. You just don’t know what a poem is going to do. Just let it do it. What it’s going to do,” she said. 

Two practices will help with poetry “anxiety,” said Grotz. 

“One is there’s no reason to try to read a poem in a hurry. Don’t read it the way you scan the New York Times, give yourself the luxury of slowing down and just reading it as if you were reading something out loud. A lot more can be absorbed that way,” she said. “It’s like the difference between what you see when you’re walking down the street, how much more you can absorb, than when you drive down it.” 

The second is to feel free to reread the poem because it’s impossible to get it all the first time, she said. 

“Any poem that you can read once and get everything out of isn’t really a poem,” she said. “Poems are packaged to be really condensed and the mind has to unpack them a little bit, so that takes a little time and space.”

Grotz said there are poems she has read hundreds of times that she never gets tired of. 

“I never stop seeing new things in them. I just love that the meaning in a poem, in a good work of art, is sort of inexhaustible,” she said. “That might intimidate you, that’s one way to think of it, but the other way to think of it as it is an inexhaustible wealth — you’ll never be bored again.”

“November” previously appeared in The Literary Review.

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