Rachel Eliza Griffiths, a creative writing instructor at Sarah Lawrence College and at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), joins the 2017 Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers for the first time to lead the workshop, Eyes, Breath, Witness: exploring and using visual art as a means to inspire, expand, and explore new ways of seeing our personal narratives. A Cave Canem and Kimbilio Fellow, her poetry collection Mule & Pear was selected for the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Griffiths’ most recent full-length poetry collection, Lighting the Shadow, was a finalist for the 2015 Balcones Poetry Prize and the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in Poetry. The poet and photographer is also known for her literary portraits and lyric videos, including P.O.P (Poets on Poetry), a series of micro-interviews with close to one hundred contemporary poets that can be found on the Academy of American Poets’ website.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Writer, editor and blogger, Stephanie Nikolopoulos interviews Rachel Eliza Griffiths about her exciting cross-genre creative work.
SN: You are both a literary artist and a visual artist who creates “literary portraits, fine art photography, and lyric videos.” Do you consider yourself both a poet and a visual artist, whose passions and creativity inform each other and coalesce, or do you think of yourself more as an artist who doesn’t make a distinction between the art forms? How do you choose when to merge media and when to create work that rest solely as written word or visual art?
RACHEL: I’m all of these things. I leave it messy and fluid right now as long as possible. The moment I begin boxing and binding my work to one or two spaces or spaces I limit myself. I’m concerned that I may inadvertently affect the potential and vision of a work before I’ve actually spent enough time and energy with it. So I like to see what will happen, how long a work can go, before I begin naming it. It’s always evolving. I may have to work at something across a number of genres before I pick one and even then it may not just be one. It may be the same material in two or three different incarnations. I love that multi-dimensionality. Some projects have a clear shape right away. Others can take years before I realize what I’m building, what I’m seeing.
SN: The Poetry Society of America asked you to curate the Poetry Walk, which featured Octavio Paz’s poetry, for the New York Botanical Garden’s exhibit Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life. Can you tell us a little about your curatorial process?
RACHEL: This was one of my most favorite curatorial moments ever! I read the Collected Poems of Octavio Paz: 1957-1987 and selected a number of poems that I felt spoke to Kahlo, her contemporaries, and her sacred understanding of plants, flowers, fruits, and animals. Several years ago I visited Casa Azul and so that helped me visualize how Paz’s poems would work against Kahlo’s landscapes. I’ve loved Paz for many years. This was a beautiful opportunity to sing his praises! I love how Paz considers the entire world and then other worlds. Much like Kahlo’s challenging of how we create self and identity. And like Paz, Kahlo’s paintings embody these artists’ worship, need, and appreciation of the natural world. I, too, share a similar feeling about nature. I also worked with the wonderful community at the NYBG to create a body of poems that were in powerful dialogue with the life and energy of Kahlo. I think the NYBG did a profound job with this exhibition. It has been one of their absolute best!
SN: You teach creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the Institute of American Indian Arts, write poetry, are a photographer, and create video projects. How do you make time in your schedule to do so much? Do you have a set schedule where you chip away at each project every day or do you work more on a project-by-project basis?
RACHEL: It’s a combination of chipping away, prioritizing, and using my time in a way that allows me to stay present and engaged with whatever is right in front of me. When I was younger it was different. My mind can go in any direction (sometimes all at once!), and jump between ideas or projects very quickly. Being mindful and focused allows me to actually complete projects with the quality and care that is deserving of the work. Slowing down has been really good for me. I’ve just completed a novel and the demands of it actually meant that I had to shift my teaching obligations, decline various invitations to share other writing that wasn’t fully complete or ready for publishing, and revise my social life. Working on a novel has meant lots of nights in and self-care.
SN: What do you want writers to get from the workshop you’ll be conducting at this year’s Hobart Festival of Women Writers?
RACHEL: I want writers to leave our workshop with questions that sends all of us to the page, or a new medium, that makes us uncomfortable. I want writers to spend some time in that intimate tension of discovery so that they can make language and stories grow. Burst into something startling.
For more information on the fellowships Rachel Eliza Griffiths has received and the esteemed literary journals and magazines in which she has been published, visit http://www.rachelelizagriffiths.com.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT FESTIVAL 2017: http://www.hobartfestivalofwomenwriters.com