Benjamin S. Grossberg is the author of Space Traveler (University of Tampa, 2014); Sweet Core Orchard (University of Tampa, 2009), winner of the Tampa Review Prize and a Lambda Literary Award; and Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath (Ashland Poetry Press, 2007), winner of the Snyder Prize. His poems have appeared widely, including in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies, Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and the journals Paris Review, Southwest Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, and The Sun. Ben works as Director of Creative Writing at the University of Hartford.
Geosi Gyasi: First, your new book. What inspired the “Space Traveler”?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: A childhood spent watching Star Trek! I have a life-long love of science fiction, so it made sense that, at some point, I would experiment with integrating that love into my poems. It took a while. Somewhere along the way, I had learned to separate science fiction from “serious writing”—and certainly from poetry, which seemed to qualify as the most serious writing. But once I got over that silly idea (and it took me twenty years of writing to get over it), I discovered in science-fiction imagery a method for exploring a lot of my concerns, my “serious concerns” about desire, aging, and loss. There’s something addicting about finding a method that lets you express your truth fully and honestly. When I understood that the Space Traveler poems could help me do this, I threw myself into them, writing more than twice as many as ended up in the book.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I wrote the first poems in January of 2007, and the last poems in summer of 2011. So that’s about four-and-a-half years. The quickest I’ve written a book. But it took another couple of years, off and on, to revise the poems and order them. My previous books have contained far fewer poems. I finally whittled Space Traveler down to sixty-seven, but ordering sixty-seven poems felt like a monumental task. Friends helped immeasurably.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you write – notebook or computer?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I write on a computer, almost exclusively. It’s very helpful for me to be able to accurately judge line length as I go. I believe it shapes my language in an almost subconscious way . . . shapes it toward effective line breaks, interesting enjambments, all the ways that poets play with space and the movement of the eye. I also type very quickly: the one really useful thing I learned in high school. So if I get on a roll, the words can come very fast. And, of course, typing has the added benefit that it can be understood later. My handwriting is frequently illegible.
Geosi Gyasi: How many drafts do you do before arriving at the final manuscript?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I polish poems carefully: every word, every bit of punctuation gets examined. Before I send a poem out into the world, I have read it—read it aloud—fifty times, perhaps as many as a hundred. But that said, I don’t tend to do major revision, such as moving stanzas and rewriting large swathes of texts. I simply write many drafts of the same poem, ply the same project a dozen times (or dozens of times), until I get it right, or nearly right, and ready for polishing.
Geosi Gyasi: How is the publicity for “Space Traveler” doing?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: So far, sales are going well. I have a university press, and they’re terrific about working with me on book design. But, like most university presses and small presses, they rely on me to take on much of the publicity work—which I have diligently done. The book has been out six months now. I’ve done many readings, and reviews are starting to come in.
Geosi Gyasi: Was it difficult finding a publisher for “Sweet Core Orchard”?
Benjaming S. Grossberg: It took me over five years to find a publisher for my first book, Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath. During those five years, I sent the book to dozens of presses and book publishing competitions. Often I was a finalist or received notes of praise from the publishers, which was encouraging and very frustrating. It seemed like I’d never find a publisher for that book—or for any book. So when I sent out Sweet Core Orchard, I expected a similar process: five or six years of painful waiting. But Sweet Core Orchard found its publisher in about six months. I’ve been in this business long enough to know this was very lucky. So with this book, it was not difficult.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you break down the title: Sweet Core Orchard?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: This book begins with a poem that runs a kind of thought experiment: how would I have fared in the Garden of Eden. Faced with Eve’s choice to eat or not eat the apple, as tempted by the Snake, and then faced with Adam’s choice, as tempted by Eve. That is, tempted by the devil, and then tempted by love. Would I have done any better; would I have been less frail than they had been? The poem ends, as you can imagine, with me kicked out of Eden—but alone, unlike Adam and Eve who left together. The poems that follow include many explorations of desire and loss.
Toward the end of the book, there is a series of poems that describe the planting of an apple orchard—actually, the planting of the small Granny Smith orchard I started in central Ohio. Although the phrase “Sweet Core Orchard” never appears in any of the poems, it is the name of that orchard, the Eden I made myself in Ohio. So “Sweet Core Orchard” is an answer to being kicked out of Eden; it is the paradise we can make for ourselves here, the joy we can build. But, as it turns out, I was kicked out of that paradise, too. The place where I worked in Ohio shut down, and I had to move out of state to find other work.
Geosi Gyasi: Were you surprised when you won the Tampa Review Prize for “Sweet Core Orchard”?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I was very surprised—and very, very glad. The University of Tampa Press’s Tampa Review Prize is one of the competitions I had most hoped to win because they make beautiful hard-cover books. Like many of us, I’m still deeply attached to the physical object of the book, despite the convenience and easy circulation of Ebooks. And, as I mentioned above, the good news came much more quickly than I had been expecting.
Geosi Gyasi: What entails in your work as a book reviewer?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I review between six and ten books of poetry a year, usually for the Antioch Review. I’ve been doing this work for the last eight years, so I’ve developed a method. I read each book cover to cover, straight through, five times. The first few times, I read simply to understand the poems, and to let them begin to speak to each other. During the third and fourth readings, I read with a pen in hand and take notes. And finally, I reread with a highlighter, looking for quotes to pull out of the text, to crystalize the poet’s vision. What message do the poems constitute together? What is the relationship between the textures and strategies of the individual poems, and the book’s overall vision? This is a labor-intensive process; I live with each book for a month. But many of the books I review are by celebrated authors: Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award winners. And I have never received recognition of that caliber. So by what authority do I offer an opinion of the books? The conclusion I have come to is that hard work, diligence and thoroughness, is in itself a platform.
Geosi Gyasi: I am also interested in your work as the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Hartford? What do you do?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: All kinds of things! This position involves administration of a small undergraduate creative writing program. As Director, I run a reading series—which is great, because it allows me to meet many first-rate writers—hire part-time faculty, work with the full-time creative-writing faculty to choose their courses, and administer a number of programs for students such as annual writing competitions. I love the work, though it can be challenging to stay on top of everything.
Geosi Gyasi: Growing up in suburban New Jersey, did you participate in anything literary at the time?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I do recall one literary program my senior year of high school, which let me spend two hours each day studying writing with a small cohort of my peers and a woman named Ms. Smith, a published novelist. That was, in retrospect, an extraordinary opportunity—though I’m not sure I used it to its fullest. But really, most of my literary activity took place at home, the simple act of reading.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you decide to do your MFA in poetry and not in any other genre of literature?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I’ve wanted to be a poet since I was very young, but it wasn’t until my third and fourth years of college that I thought seriously about pursuing an MFA in poetry. I had teachers who helped me believe that this was a realistic choice for me, that my poetry was strong enough. I want to mention their names: Laurie Sheck, Alan Michael Parker, Ron Christ. They are extraordinary writers, and I feel blessed to have had their guidance.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re vegetarian? What does it mean to be vegetarian?
Benjaming S. Grossberg: I have been a vegetarian since I was twenty-two, so that is over twenty years now. Some vegetarians eat fish. I don’t eat fish or anything made with gelatin (derived from animal bones) or rennet (from animal stomachs). So I’m pretty careful about it. For me, there were many reasons to make this choice, from my tastes (I’ve never much enjoyed meat) to the real horror that characterizes the various meat industries in the United States. But that said, I don’t judge others for what they do and don’t eat. I have no shortage of ideals that I regularly fall short of, so I do my best not to judge the behavior of others—especially on matters of personal choice such as diet.
Geosi Gyasi: The title of your poem, “God on the Treadmill” is quite interesting?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I have been a runner for many years. This poem was inspired by a moment at the gym, when I was running on a treadmill in front of a mirror. I was struck by the image of running toward something—a vision of myself—that was also running toward me, though the two would never meet. I was also surprised by how I looked on the treadmill, how easy my movement looked—versus how it felt to actually do it. (It felt hard.) So the poem is about the idea of approaching, running toward, an image of your own perfection, knowing that you will always fail. No matter how hard or fast you run on a treadmill, you’ll never meet the reflection running toward you.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favourite poem among all the poems you’ve written?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: An impossible question! May I name one poem from each book?
Geosi Gyasi: Sure!
Benjamin S. Grossberg: “Icarus Considers” from my first book . . . “Terro Ant Killer” from Sweet Core . . . and from Space Traveler, maybe “Space Traveler Sex.” It doesn’t happen often, does it, that we find the words to say exactly what we mean? A teacher of mine once said that even the greatest poets usually write only five or six great poems. I’m not sure if that’s true, but the idea strikes me as very moving—that even for the most eloquent among us, an utterance is almost always compromised. A thought or feeling is almost always diminished in its translation to language. It seems a little heartbreaking.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I run, and I like to work around my house: gardening, fixing things up. The short answer is: not enough. During the term, I work long days . . . grading, reading, writing. Don’t get me wrong: my job sure isn’t like breaking rocks in the sun. I know I am lucky to do the work I do. But it doesn’t always leave much time for relaxation.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your main interests as a writer?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: I love myth and imagination—those stories and images that seem to expand what we can see. I’ve now written three books, and each explores a different kind of mythology. The subject of my poems is often desire and loss because that’s what troubles me. But the method of the poems is usually keyed into the imagination, the color and vibrancy of its imagery, the power of myth. That power gives me the energy to make something, to make poems, of my troubles.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your main interests as a teacher?
Benjamin S. Grossberg: Close reading and carefully expressed passion. I want students to love writing, love poetry, and I want that love to burst into how they speak about it. And yet, at the same time, I want their language to be precise, measured, and balanced. You can only love what you really know, right? And knowing something means knowing its flaws, too. Tell me why you love a thing in a way that lets me know that you’re really, fully seeing it—seeing its subtleties, strengths, and weakness—and you will win your “A.”