Jorie Graham’s new book of poetry, “To 2040,” confronts time and mortality and the many crises shadowing what she calls “the human project.” But we still have the humanities, says the acclaimed poet and Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric. Graham emailed answers to our questions about the new book, her students, why she’s on Twitter, and more. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: Your work has always been informed by the personal, but the writing of this book coincided with several grave moments, including your mother’s passing, your husband’s serious accident, and your own cancer diagnosis. How did you find clarity amid all that grief and fear?
GRAHAM: I had thought, after most of half a century of inquiry, I knew something about the nature of time. After all, lyric poetry’s most insistent querying regards the nature of time — how limited human time is (as lived), how surprisingly long it is (in imagination), how mysteriously it prolongs itself (in memory), how overwhelmingly fast it can bear down on us and break into reality (in war, in climate chaos), the fathomless actual extent of it (deep time), and its illusory nature (does it exist at all?). You’d think ( I certainly imagined) I’d covered a lot of terrain. Well, it takes little more than coming up against the absolute shutting down of time when a loved one has passed out of it, or a rip in the fabric of its still strangely sturdy illusion, and a quick glimpse through that tear — such as a drastic diagnosis might provoke — for one to feel one has to start from scratch.
GAZETTE: You confront your mortality in this book. Can you talk about how poetry gave you the space to do that?
GRAHAM: Mortality got my attention. And it was — as we are told to believe but rarely do — a gift. I mean, we are here to learn something. And I realized I had a lot left to learn, and, too, that I had, in poetic form, an astounding instrument by which to encounter “deeper” truths. The whole thing is a mystery. The book — one I never imagined I could write — formally in particular — was a surprise. The reality is, we all have so much left unlived, so many questions we have not yet known to ask. And we are graced if we have a skill or a vocation which can help us across the rapids when they dissolve the illusion of hard ground underfoot. I have poetry. I guess even I, after all these years, underestimated what an astounding tool kit poetic practice and form provide up against a crisis — such as illness or disappearance. Even the power of poetry’s imagination — under those circumstances — shocked me with its bolt-like intimations. Poetry’s capacity for curiosity slowly infiltrated fear, and its quickening of imagination tempered grief. Or some of it.
GAZETTE: The fear and the grief — in the book you are experiencing these feelings in relation to both your own predicament and the Earth’s.
GRAHAM: The crossing of tipping points toward an extinction scenario, the explosion of wars which seem unending — even newly “imaginable” nuclear wars — the fires, droughts, losses of habitat, extinctions, the looming dissolution of the democratic project, the rampant inequality increasing under the cover of COVID — the gun insanity, the microtargeting insanity, the surveillance capitalism nightmare — the coming yet more viciously to the surface of our racism, misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism — the fear of the other — the raging of all of these, felt like evermore over-expressing cells taking the human project out. So all of it is in the background (and sometimes the foreground) of the poems. It’s all one fabric unraveling. Is the crisis primarily spiritual, ethical, political? It’s hard to feel where one piece ends and the other starts — cancer scans, satellite images of the heating earth, the warming oceans, national maps of mass (and police) shootings, global maps of refugees, heart-stopping charts of poverty, income inequality, homelessness, incarceration. The loss of opportunity for whole generations. …
GAZETTE: Every day, it seems, we hear about the death of the humanities. How do you see the situation, both as a teacher and a poet?
GRAHAM: Perhaps the death of the humanities is exaggerated? Gen Z, we are told, appears to love books again. They apparently don’t want to read on screens and tablets. When interviewed they say — to my amazement — they love “the smell of books.” Bookstores (which we were told were going extinct, remember?) are opening and thriving. When I look at the University, I see a huge desire for the study of the humanities — more than I’ve seen in years. Does this equate with the desire to commit to certain “concentrations”? I’m not sure. I do sense that interdisciplinarity beckons. Perhaps because cross-pollination is more like life itself these days? The students who meet up in my workshops — graduates and undergraduates — no doubt benefit from “concentrating” in some discipline. But besides English, they reach my classes from law, public health, divinity, computer science, physics, economics, math, design, the Medical School, and from our labs. Their individual porous imaginations, as they meet the communal interdisciplinarity, provide the spark, as I see it, for the success Harvard is having in this arena. The publication record is extraordinary. Few MFA programs in the country match it. Writers, artists exist all over this University — so finding and connecting them, making their network live — creates the high-voltage current of imagination we call the humanities.
GAZETTE: Why do you think the humanities have this kind of drawing power?
GRAHAM: Because humans — even those privileged enough to be at a place like Harvard — know that life has some pretty major curveballs in it. You are not getting a pass. Will the future be secure? has never been anything but an unsettling question. Will the crop fail, will the newborn survive, will there be rain, will I find love, will my people survive, will justice prevail, will war come again. … The humanities teach us many things we crave more than ever now. They teach — don’t laugh at me — virtues. They teach us to have courage. They give us a way of understanding that we are not as alone as we think. They help us reckon with our mortality and that of those we love. They help us grapple with whatever we mean by fate, accident, chance, luck, miracle. They help us grasp cruelty, greed, brutality, evil in the human heart. They help us intuit the difference between being saved and being spared. They ask us — in the deepest way possible — do you really want to be spared? Our first answer is most often — mistakenly — yes. … Young people alive now are going to need — as much as each generation has needed — and in some ways perhaps more — courage. And the wide aperture on the human I have just alluded to is where courage is nourished — where its capacity can be awakened. They will also need imagination — more than ever. Imagination is a form of courage, as courage is a form of imagination. The humanities are not in trouble. I wish people would see that.
GAZETTE: You are active on Twitter. Can you talk about your relationship with social media and how you think about that space?
GRAHAM: Actually, I had never done any social media. But I began asking my students, a few years ago, at the start of class, to share an important story they had gleaned from the news that week. The silence which often followed concerned me. I also felt they might start down some rabbit holes which were unnerving. I assigned the reading of news (I suggested they choose their own outlets), but we didn’t get very far. This followed upon my shock at discovering how few of my students had voted in 2016. So I thought, “If I get on Twitter and curate trustworthy news they will perhaps listen there.” Today such a move might not have been necessary. My current students are much more politically engaged — as we all can tell — but it turns out my little curated news each day helps a few others as well. So now I see it as a civic duty. Perhaps even a minuscule form of activism — a drop in the bucket. Of course I am also aware of what’s at risk — what Shoshana Zuboff describes in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” — which should be required reading.
GAZETTE: Are our students ready for their futures?
GRAHAM: That’s the question isn’t it? How do we help them face this future. I am always being asked about hope. How do we instill hope. Are we promoting a “hopeful” point of view. How much “reality” can we expect young people to shoulder? I have come to feel that the question is, rather, how do we instill courage. There’s a big difference between hope and courage.
GAZETTE: So what would you tell your students?
GRAHAM: What I tell my students, when they feel singularly unfortunate to be born in this moment, is this is your moment, the moment your soul showed up incarnate. In this world. It is an astonishing moment to be alive. You could have been born into a lull — instead you were born into a tipping point. It’s your one life and you’ve entered it at a flexion point — a point when everything you do matters. How often in history does a soul get to live in such an era? Don’t waste it. Show up for it. With everything you’ve got. Some will invent, some will organize, some will witness, some will grieve, some will console. Live this life now. Even if in fury and grief, live it. You don’t want to die not having lived. It’s incredibly easy to find a way around experience rather than through it. But you will have cheated yourself out of your only possession: your life. You are here now. Now is the time to live fully, not hide, not escape.