NEA Literature Fellowships

Michael McGriff

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(2009 - Poetry)


The summer's gone, now
           it's the gray machines
of the rain. 5:30, November,
           the sun breaks through
long enough to open something
           along the ridge,
then darkness
           and more rain. 
A woman sits in the middle
           of her living room
surrounded by stockpots
           filling with the ceiling's
brown rainwater and chunks
           of plaster. Her eyes
are the milk of blue granite,
           and blind as a salamander's. 
Earlier, a man came with a lawyer
           who came with a letter
from the city, a letter
           condemning her 3½ acres
for the new pipeline.
           She believes in many things.
That cayenne should be sprinkled
           along the thresholds,
salt along the windowsills.
           That the pulse should be taken
each night before entering
           the kingdom of sleep.
She believes in her hands,
           that the sand scraped
from beneath each nail
           contains a desert
where a family of refugees
           discusses who will eat
the last of the dried fish.
           She keeps
the shadows of her hands
           in a jewelry box
beneath the sink. 
           She keeps
the thoughts of her hands
           in a jar of raisins. 
She thrusts two fingers
           beneath her jawbone
and counts her pulse
           backwards from 100
as the sound of water and metal
           ferries her into sleep.
She keeps the dream of her hands
            in her dream,
where she climbs a rope
           into the tree of sadness.
Hands that wind the clock
            and hands that divide the fish.

Michael McGriff was born and raised in Coos Bay, Oregon. He is the author of Dismantling the Hills (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008) and Choke (Traprock Books, 2006). His poetry and translations have appeared in Slate, The Believer, Poetry, Crazyhorse, Field, and AGNI, among other publications. He is a former recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from The Poetry Foundation, a Michener Fellowship from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He is a 2008-2010 Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.

Photo by Mary Ann McGriff

Author's Statement

One of my go-to comments regarding the creative process comes from the poet Philip Levine, and it goes something like this: "For me, inspiration is nothing more than a form of extreme concentration." Art is work, and work takes a clear head, time, space, and support. As a writer I get spiritual support from friends and mentors, and from the books I love. Spiritual support is one thing, and spiritual support tempered by financial ease is quite another. Programs like the NEA are vital to artists like me, those of us who view an artist's grant not as a feather in the cap, but as an opportunity to set aside an unburdened chunk of time to focus, concentrate, and produce. I plan to use my NEA Fellowship to continue work on a second full-length collection of poetry called Landscape with Origins. This book focuses on the exterior and interior lives of working-class, rural Americans. In our current recession, many philanthropic institutions have been forced to scale back or cancel funding for individual artists. An NEA grant is a gesture of faith, faith that supporting the artistic voice of the individual is an important social investment.