Poetry in a Coastal Setting: An Interview with Greg Gregory
by Neil Leadbeater
Greg Gregory was born in Washington, DC and raised in Los Angeles. He lived for fourteen years in the San Francisco Bay area, attending San Francisco State College in the late sixties. He worked in educational media for over 30 years. He and his wife now live in Sacramento, California. His poems have appeared in many literary journals in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. ‘Blue Tin Sky’ (published by Avenafatua Press, 2020) contains a selection of his poems that he has written over the past 25 years.
Greg, tell us something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I was a young reader. As a child, I felt that I lived in the experience of each book that I read. Their stories enveloped me in the worlds that each word and sentence created. Later, as my reading broadened into history, philosophy, the sciences, and other more objective writing, I always felt the pull back into the way I experienced writing when young. When I was ready to write about my own experiences I was drawn to poetry as the genre of writing that let me best express that core sense of involvement. I feel that to successfully write poetry over the long term, you have to have an emotional connection to words, and that begins early in your life.
What moves you to write? What subjects are you most passionate about?
I tend to be drawn to the movements and rhythms that I observe and experience in nature. The low sound of waves coming into the shore, the pulses of the wind, swaying trees, the pour of clouds across a sky, the shadows moving across a still lake - all seem to unlock a subconscious connection to subjects that have been living just below the surface in my mind, and that prompts me to write about them.
Several of your poems are based around a coastal setting. Do the places where you have lived on the West Coast color and influence your poetry?
Definitely. I grew up in California, have spent most of my life there, and at various times have experienced its cities, its deserts, its mountains, its valleys, and its coasts. I feel connected to all of these places, and I consider the northern California coast to be one of my most inspirational settings. I have sometimes written poems while on the coast that have nothing to do with the coast and the sea, but the experience of being there often unlocks the ability to write.
How much time do you spend on a poem before you consider it to be finished?
That depends on the poem. Shorter poems, maybe 8 lines or less, usually take about a week or so. Longer ones may take three months or longer, depending on how well I am able to weave the words, and how many transitions I may have difficulty working through. If I have a good grasp of the theme and direction of the poem it goes much faster.
Name a poem that you have written that you consider to be a personal favorite and tell us why it is so special to you. Give us a little bit of the background to it and what you were hoping to achieve by writing it.
One of my favorites is Along Drake’s Beach. My wife and I were beachcombing there once, and I was fascinated by the shells that we found. The theme of seashells resonated in my mind. I researched a few books on seashells and was enchanted by the names that many had. Those names began weaving themselves together into the implications of shells, their growth, their shapes, the evanescence of the beach we found them on, and how that growth, those shapes, and those names related to our lives. The poem was born out of the combination of that knowledge and that experience. [The full text of this poem is printed at the end of this interview].
Thoreau believed that there was a subtle magnetism in Nature which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. How do you view this statement in the present moment?
I read somewhere that when we write about nature, we are really writing about time. Natural processes that are not interfered with by man expose how intimately every living thing is connected to time. Modern civilization gives us a thousand ways to be distracted from that fact. Focusing on nature strips away these distractions and puts us in contact with this primal fact of our lives. It lets us connect with the deeper significance of that core and that of every other living thing that travels through time with us.
When you set out to write a poem, do you have a specific purpose in mind? Do you already know how it will proceed or do you write out of the heat of the moment?
Usually, when I begin to write a poem the theme has been percolating in my mind for some time. I have a feel for where the gravity of that theme is pulling me as I write, and I may have an image of how the poem will conclude, but that journey and process is always a discovery, and it often takes many edits and much honing before I see that the poem is completed to my satisfaction.
Who are the writers who have influenced you the most? Can you see their influence reflected in your work or in the manner in which you approach your work?
The writers and styles of writing that resonate most with me include both novelists and poets. The novelists would include Faulkner, Hemingway, Michener, and Joyce at the head of the list. The poets would include Galway Kinnell, Pablo Neruda, Robinson Jeffers, and Seamus Heaney. Although the prime inspiration for beginning to write I would give to the poetry of Galway Kinnell, it is difficult at this stage to isolate one or two of those writers who I could point out as influencing my style of writing over the others. My style has changed and developed over the years, but these writers continue to have a lasting influence.
What are you reading now?
I am actually re-reading two books now that I read many years ago, The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, and The Outermost House by Henry Beston. Although Steinbeck writes of the Sea of Cortez on the west coast, and Beston writes of the shores of Cape Cod on the Atlantic, both writers have a gift for evoking the feel of their respective environments. They involve their readers in the larger implications of their experiences through the poetic quality of their descriptions. I am always keen to read other writers who are as drawn to the seacoast as I am. The writing in these books seems as fresh and alive now as it did when I originally read them decades ago.
Do you feel positive about the future of poetry in our present age?
In spite of the panoply of technological processes that are now available to us, I believe that the deepest and most personal expression of all of our relationship to the places we live, our deepest thoughts and feelings, our environments, and each other is always rooted in language. I feel that poetry, when well-written, has a longevity in this regard. I believe that the need people have for this deep expression will always renew itself throughout cultural, linguistic, and technological changes going into the future. As a poet, I am staking my own time and work on this.
Along Drake’s Beach
tracks of ourselves in sand
washed by ocean. Waves grab
our paths, our footsteps, erasing
our soft traces among
All shells, the remains,
the final poems
protecting their soft parts,
like us -
the wonder shell, living in amazement,
the rosy harp, lost in its music,
the fool’s cap, serene in its ignorance,
the telescoped dove, searching for interior hope,
the spiral Babylon, confused in its tongues,
the casket nassa, buried in itself,
the matchless cone, thinking itself the summum bonum,
the rough pen shell, working on drafts,
the blood-stained sanguine, drenched in vendettas,
the oblong trapezium, escaping its fate in geometry,
the forked Venus, seductive and treacherous
the angel wing, surviving through holiness,
the cat’s-tongue oyster, mewing for pearls,
the moon shell, living in mystery,
the anomia, living without a name -
all reaching down through spirals
into their incurved birth, the shells
we live in, twisted into our
own final forms, protecting our soft parts,
leaving our shells in
the world to be
wondered at, the whorled
Janus gates, our own
entrances and exits.