Joshua Gray was born in the mountains of rural Northern Virginia, outside Washington DC. He grew up in Alexandria VA, two miles from the nation’s capital and spent most of his adult life in the suburbs of the city. He attended Warren Wilson College in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he also spent the first few years of married life. Always in love with the mountains, he spent two years in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India from 2012-2014. He now lives in the DC area with his wife and two sons. He can be found at: http://joshuagray.co/
Interviewed by: g emil reutter
GER: You recently returned to the United States from Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India. What was your experience in India and how has it influenced your writing?
JG: I moved from Washington DC to a rural part of India, and while the town I lived in could be noisy and unpleasant, especially during tourist season, for much of the year it was relatively quiet. I also lived in a wooded and more secluded area. Indian Bison and monkeys were common in my yard. I was 7000 feet up in the mountains. There were calls to prayers several times a day. The quiet beauty, the wildlife and the culture were a collective means to be more creative. During this time I published a chapbook on living in India as well as a book-length poem that I had been working on for a couple decades.
GER: Tell us about the development of the collection, Beowulf: A Verse adaptation With Young Readers In Mind, how it came about and why?
JG: I first wrote my Beowulf adaptation when my older son was six – he is now almost 18. He was into dragons, knights, monsters and heroes – the Beowulf story was an obvious read; however, I looked everywhere to find not only a children’s adaptation of the epic, but one in verse. I felt this was a crucial piece. The story loses a lot when read as prose. The epic was written in Anglo-Saxon verse, and I felt I needed to read it to him in the same manner. When I found no children’s adaptation written in verse, I decided I had to write one myself. The problem was I had never written in Anglo-Saxon, so I had to research the form as I wrote. I boiled everything down to the action, and was able to come away with a ten-stanza poem.
After the encouragement of family and friends, I decided to try and get it published. The problem was the Internet was still in its infancy, so making connections wasn’t easy, and the children’s publishing industry didn’t like violence in children’s stories, so I had a difficult time finding it a home. But as the Internet became more the force it is today, the poem was accepted in an e-zine, and the e-zine’s guest editor, Alex Cigale, made a bunch of line edits to the poem to better reflect the form.
But I can’t really end this story without mentioning that once I was more confident in looking for a publisher (thanks to its initial publication), the children’s book needed an artist who could turn the stanzas into visual life. I was very lucky to have found the artist I did, Sean Yates, and would not have asked for a better set of images. His art really helped with the publication of the book.
GER: You grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and attended Warren Wilson College in the hills of North Carolina. How did this effect your view of the world?
JG: Immensely. I grew up in Northern Virginia, and the entire Washington DC area was a blue state. My mother, my step-father and everyone else I knew were Democrats. It was the Reagan era and everyone was pissed off, politically, all the time. I felt a need to understand the conservative point of view, just so I could make educated decisions, but when I joined a Republican group in high school, everyone there was pissed off at all the Democrats. And in Washington DC, people talk politics and little else. When I went to Warren Wilson College in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina, a big town but not yet a city, it opened up an entire other world. Warren Wilson College is known as a hippie school, and Asheville is known to be liberal, but outside of Asheville, the area was red.
Asheville had a huge flea market every weekend, and I remember how the hippies and the rednecks walked side by side. You could go to one stall and get incense and peace earrings, then go to the next stall over and buy a hunting jacket and a confederate flag. Nobody seemed to care; nobody looked down on anyone else. It was the first time I really saw the people who disagree can still live harmoniously.
I had to move away from Asheville, but one can say I have been searching for that kind of harmonious living ever since.
JG: This is actually a hard question to answer. I prefer the term “admire” over the term “influenced by”, but some of the poets I’d put in this list include Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, Ezra Pound’s translations, Homer, and ancient Chinese poetry.
GER: Your collection, Principles of Belonging, is a mix between modern and ancient poetic forms. How did you come with this unusual concept?
JG: Principles of Belonging started out as a short story, then became a novella, then was scraped altogether, and was finally brought back to life when I thought about writing it as poetry. After I decided to write a book-length poem, my next task was to read book-length poems and get an idea of the style. What I discovered was that there is no set standard of what defines a book-length poem. Each one I read was different from all the others. This allowed me to get creative.
One thing I don’t like about books of poetry is that the poet tends to write in the same style for all the poems in the collection. This structure tends to bore me. I like variety. This was the first reason for the varying forms. Second, when I sit down to write I find the form is often defined by the subject. I was writing four very different characters; to use the same form for all of them didn’t feel right to me, so in the beginning of the book I assigned them each an ancient form. Then for the last part I wanted to highlight some similarities between them, so I employed the sympoe (as well as sonnets), a form I created myself. The middle part was merely a break from the structure of formal verse, a way to take a break so to speak, so I played with free verse.
GER: Tell us how the Gaiapoetopia Project came about and what direction do you see the project going?
JG: I wish I could say. It came about out of the cultural and global lack of understanding for poetry. Talk shows don’t have poets on as guests ever. Poetry books are seldom if ever reviewed in mainstream media. Poets in oppressive cultures are imprisoned, and no one knows about them. Poetry is added on at the end of the school year as a one or two week unit, rather than teaching it throughout the year. If teachers marginalize poetry, why wouldn’t students? And remember, those teachers were also once students – so they don’t really know how to teach it themselves. On more than one occasion I have been asked to come in and be a guest during poetry units because, in the end, teachers don’t understand poetry either.
There are other sites out there, but their focus is usually more specific, such as geared to local poets, or as only a resource; furthermore, I have an issue with some of them, because they take on a sort of elitist tone.
Gaiapoetopia was founded as a way to change all that. The problem is, I don’t have the time to devote to it. I want it to be a huge resource, a political eye opener, and a cultural game-changer. Gaiapoetopia exists for the masses, for the Everyperson.
GER: Mera Bharat was released in 2014 and was developed from a visit to India in 1994 and your later move to the area 18 years later. Tell us of your inspirations for the collection?
JG: This was another collection of poems I have been working on for years. I’ve always felt I had a lot of unique or uncommon experiences in India, and wanted to share them. I married into a family that is Indian on the father’s side, I have done a lot of traveling in India, and I have lived there for a couple years. It was only natural for me to write about them. India is such an intense place. I tell people who go to visit that they will either love it or hate it – there is no in-between.
JG: My uncle by marriage was a recluse. He was outgoing, but awkwardly so. He used to tell me that he wrote poems, and I would nod, but never really was as interested as I should have been. When he passed away, his friend typed up all his poems in a single document, and when I read them, I was really kind of taken aback. No, he wasn’t a Robert Frost, but he had a style that was at once both humorous and full of pathos. As a tribute to him, I decided to give the works a collective shape and publish them.
GER: After two years in India how are you and your family adapting to your return to the U.S. ?
JG: It’s been difficult. We never intended to come back to the US, at least not so soon, but had to because of medical reasons. We never had a bill to pay, never had a single piece of junk mail, never got caught up in the mass consumerism that exists here. But at the same time, we are American, and there have been some things about coming back that are well-received. We’ve been back for two months now and the power hasn’t gone out once.
GER: What projects are you currently working on?
JG: In 2015 I have a chapbook coming out called Steel Cut Oats, which is more or less about food. Half of the book is a collection of short poems, what I like to call ditties, based on the memoir/recipe book Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection (http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/full_moon) by Jessica Prentice. When I first started the project my poems were far too didactic, and I had a hard time writing them, but I wanted to write a sort of poetic companion guide to Prentice’s book. So I stuck with it, and realized that what I needed to do was honor the chapters, not reiterate them. Once I figured that out, the writing was easier. Secondly, food originally played a big part in the story that became Principles Of Belonging, but never really made it into the final manuscript, except in the epilogue. So there was a missing for me, which made me that much more determined to finish Steel Cut Oats.
Right now I am working on my first full-length collection. It will be more autobiographical, or memoire-like, in the sense that it will be poems about me as a child, then as a parent, and as a Melanoma survivor.
You can read the poetry of Joshua Gray in The Fox Chase Review at these links: http://www.foxchasereview.org/11June/JoshuaGray.html and http://www.thefoxchasereview.org/w14jgray.html