David Groff, Editor
David Groff is a New York-based editor, writer, and teacher, among many other talents. His award-winning poetry, often addressing the ongoing crisis of AIDS, is a joy to read even in its seriousness and gravity. As an editor, he’s worked on everything from Pocket Billiards to the entire four-volume series of Wicked (!). And as a teacher in the MFA program at City University of New York (CUNY), he is helping to foster the next generations of writers. Above all, Groff is a wonderfully engaging, dazzlingly informed, and remarkably generous fellow. Lunch Ticket was grateful for the opportunity to speak with someone so well-versed in all the different aspects of how books and writing and writers can show up in the world, as well as in how the literary landscape has evolved (and continues to evolve), life beyond an MFA program, what it means to be a literary citizen, and how we, the artists, always win in the end.
This interview was conducted by phone on August 13, 2019.
Buffy Visick: To get right into it, when did you come to writing? What took you into editing? Did those intertwine? Let’s talk about all the things you are.
David Groff: Like a lot of writers, I had a couple good teachers. One in high school who really encouraged me and read contemporary poetry, which was rare. I went to college wanting to be President of the United States, to be part of the Woodrow Wilson School [of Public and International Affairs at Princeton]. I thought, This writing thing, that’s nice, but I think mostly I wanted people to stand up and applaud when I came into the room. So—and again, I had some great teachers—I had some really dreary politics courses, and then came across another wonderful teacher my sophomore year in college, named Stanley Plumly. He was, for me, this big, bearish person who was utterly in love with poetry. He was a pretty amazing poet himself, really open to different styles from all of us, not overbearing in his bearishness (again, to me), and opened up for us a whole world of poetry by living people. I can remember reading Robert Hass in his class, and Ethridge Knight, Joy Harjo, all those people who were emerging or had emerged at that time. And by then, there was no turning back. My senior year I worked with Stephen Berg—he was a poet and the editor of the American Poetry Review, and my thesis advisor. My thesis was also read by Maxine Kumin, an amazing poet and Anne Sexton’s great survivor. And then from there I went straight to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. My joke is that I shouldn’t have gone straight to grad school, that I should have spent a year doing heroin in the East Village, but I didn’t…
BV: A lot of other people did that for you.
DG: Yeah, right, right! I should have waited tables or something, afterwards. And partied and been part of the scene. So anyway, I ended up at Iowa at that point.
“What’s really new about poetry is not necessarily the forms that it can take—because most of that’s been done one way or another—but the power of producing new content, new things.”
BV: And so when you came to writing, it was poetry, and it’s been poetry. I mean, I know you write in other genres, but poetry really was your gate?
DG: Yeah, poetry was kind of my gateway drug, and I stayed pretty much in the gateway. I’ve written fiction and nonfiction, but something about poetry—and I feel a renewed commitment to this actually, in spite of the small audience—there’s still stuff being done in what we call a poem that I’m not sure is being done in, say, the narrative essay, or other things. There’s a way of connecting that has even more adventure in it. Poetry can drive you nuts, because it’s such a vacuum at times, but it still seems a real opportunity for me. And I love the small field of it, generally. You know that you’re working within a page, or maybe ten, but not more, unless you’re an epic writer. And something about that, within that field, has always been good for me.
BV: And I sense that in your book, Clay, which I absolutely loved. It’s an outstanding collection. But generally, poetry can be tough, like when you say it’s a vacuum—it can feel exhausting, to me personally.
DG: Well, a writer once came up to me at some kind of commercial event that wasn’t only poets and said, “So, you’re a poet, huh? Isn’t that like throwing a rosebud in the Grand Canyon and listening for an echo?” That’s actually a line from a poet who did the Archy and Mehitabel series, but I still had some nasty words for him in my head. Not that he was wrong. And there is an echo to be had, if you listen carefully, so…
BV: I love that. To delve deeper into your poetry, in the seminar you gave at our residency, you talked about radical writing, and the word radical coming from root. Reading your poetry, I find it somewhat formal yet radical to me, and—forgive me, it’s been a long time since I talked about poetry, so I’m just going to flounder around here—but would you say there’s a rootedness in certain traditions?
DG: Radical is a very interesting word, because it does come from the root, and some notion of that. I’m very aware of my progenitors, and as far as I’m part of a line or a flowering of poets, going back to people like Larry Levis, but at the same time Wallace Stevens, who was a man urgently and desperately afraid of death, which, you know, is my kind of guy. And of course Whitman, and the Romantics. Your main topics are love and death, even if you speak to the polity and to what’s going on. I have an essay in an anthology called The Manifesto Project that, I believe, is called “The Power of Radical Content,” and the premise of that, which I pretty much still hold to, is that what’s really new about poetry is not necessarily the forms that it can take—because most of that’s been done one way or another—but the power of producing new content, new things. Sexuality, race, religion, science—all of these things as topics, as subjects that poetry has really not always admitted itself to when we write about love and death. Part of the excitement is to see what poetry can include, in whatever the formal ways are. That, to me, is radical, whether it’s politics—ideally for me, radical politics—or whether it’s just this startling-ness of being able to write a poem about neutrinos, or a poem about children in cages. All of which are not necessarily the stuff that we’ve defaulted to, although I think we are moving more in that direction.
BV: With that in mind, I was hoping you might discuss your work as a writer and an editor, maybe especially in the context of community. And also to hear a little bit more about something you referred to in the seminar as “culture work” and the role it plays in the life of a writer.
DG: When I left Iowa, I had a choice either to go teach somewhere at a community college maybe, or to come back to New York and the East and go into book publishing. I could have gone into law school, or been a napalm manufacturer or something, but I didn’t want to do that. To be honest, I didn’t have enough published to be able to get a job—I’d published as a grad student, but I was not going to be on the list of anybody in Oklahoma as a top person. My mother was an editor, so I did kind of the default thing and went straight into book publishing at a very commercial publishing house, where the literary books we published were basically supported by The Joy of Sex, and Willie Mosconi’s Pocket Billiards, and Judith Krantz. So, even as we were doing literary stuff, we constantly had to pitch and focus on what readers wanted, whether it was the cover of a book and how it would grab a reader as they walked by, or how to edit a book so as to grab a reader who’s standing up in a bookstore and reading the first five pages. That’s a tricky thing because you don’t want to pander to that reader. It became very compelling to me to think not about markets, really, and not about audiences even, or consumers, but readers and creating readership. That’s been part of what I do, or I’ve tried to do, as a book editor. To frame things for a writer in terms of how a reader will see them, in a way that remains true to the integrity of the book and the honor of the project. I’ll think a lot about, hmmm… We have a lot of readership for poetry here, what do readers need from us? How can I speak to that in a way that’s true to myself, and true to my mission?
That spills over some into what I do as a writer. My father was a minister, an Episcopal priest. We came from a family that had the evangelical urge. That may be a more aesthetic thing for me than a religious thing, but there’s still that default to evangelize for works, including my own. To convert people to the resonance and depth of a book, and be willing to devote hours to it, whether it’s the study of a poetry book, or a memoir, or something else. That’s one thing that’s overlapped in how I try to work as a writer, and how I try to work as an editor, and also as a community person. You know, I’ve, yeah, I’ll stop there for just a second.
BV: No, keep going! If you don’t mind sharing, community is a big part of what we do at Lunch Ticket, and it’s definitely interesting to our readers, so…
DG: One idea I learned from a rabbi whose book on the Kabbalah I was editing is that we all need a mission statement. His was to spread light, and mine was to engender resonant words. Whether I’m writing words or I’m helping someone else write them, or I’m working with a student, or in some kind of community thing, to do words that are worth having, worth resounding, and seeing how much you can make them heard over a great distance.
Then for the last twelve years I’ve been teaching at the City College of New York MFA program, which is in Harlem. It’s an incredibly diverse program. A third of my students are people of color; a lot of them have non-traditional educations and non-traditional vocations. People who are often extremely politicized already by virtue of their situations, who have grown up in the south Bronx or in Harlem or Baltimore or Virginia, no matter what their race, are coming to this [program] without the sense of entitlement that certain other writers can have. So that, I think, awakened a lot of energy in all of us who teach there, about how to serve this constituency and empower them to get the stuff that they may not feel born to, or a legitimacy in believing they ought to have. So, I’m gung-ho about that program even though we have the ugliest classrooms on the planet. We’re a public university, so… I would kill for audio-visual, I would kill for heat. That’s the nature of the City—the CUNY program.
I’ll just say one other thing, too: that being a gay writer, and having been so shaped by AIDS and the movement of resistance and the battle against tragedy that we were all part of—whatever our particular ways of reacting, whether on the page or on the streets—has also shaped me, and it’s been a great gift to be a gay man, a queer person, in this era, when this identity is emerging and constantly changing. There’s a moral responsibility for me in having responded existentially and poetically—and I hope politically—to the continuing epoch of AIDS and HIV. So that, I think, alerted me even when I was a boy editor trying to figure all that out.
BV: You’ve been writing and editing through tremendous changes over the past few decades. Politics are wild, the industry is wild; obviously technology has changed everything. Could you give us a bit of context as to how you see things now?
DG: [Online mega-bookselling] certainly has changed so much, and concentrated things even as it allows us to get books and backlist from that long tail of stuff that’s still there. Entire genres of books have disappeared. Maybe not literary ones, but hardly anyone uses cookbooks, relatively speaking; nobody uses travel books. To some degree this change in how and what sorts of words we consume spills over to the competition among literary works. There are essentially the big five of major publishers that pay advances, and the gate is straighter and narrower than it ever was. There are a lot of imprints within those five houses, but they control a lot of the means of production, and you have to stand out in really major ways. So a lot is devolving to small presses; it remains challenging to figure out how those presses can be sustained and do sustainable work, and how writers themselves can.
BV: Would you say you could compare these challenges writers face to the ones actors currently have as artists, where they often make their own productions to show what they can do and who they are, rather than just auditioning? I’m wondering, do editors want to see that from writers? Not self-publishing exactly—but it’s like, it seems you can’t be a hideout type of writer anymore.
DG: I mean, I think you can. Certainly, if that’s your nature, if you need to be a Thomas Pynchon or a Salinger, that’s who you need to be and that needs to be honored. But I think your task is much harder if you’re not out there in the culture one way or another. Speaking in publishing terms, it really, really helps if, as a fiction writer, you also have a “platform,” the platform being all the stuff that you’ve done, on which to stand, so that you can be seen. It’s much easier to have, obviously, already been published in the New Yorker, or in Story magazine or something. But also to have been out there as a presence. I think we’ve seen any number of writers who did that from the beginning, even before they first published a book.
My line is that publishers don’t want to publish books, they want to publish authors. And the corollary to that to me is that readers don’t want to read books—I mean they do—but they want to read authors. They want that intimate connection, which has always been a way of creating great power. We read in solitude, and we connect with someone else’s words, and with the author photograph, and with the story, and often the story beyond the book. We want to connect with other human beings in this intimate, even seductive act, and, I think, to acknowledge that, and move forward into that, is a way to be empowered as a writer. To say, hmmm, I am connecting in an intimate way; how can I be more known to my reader through who I am in the world as well as to who I am on these pages?
“We read in solitude, and we connect with someone else’s words, and with the author photograph, and with the story, and often the story beyond the book. We want to connect with other human beings in this intimate, even seductive act, and I think to acknowledge that, and move forward into that, is a way to be empowered as a writer.”
I think there’s other kinds of culture work as well. Finding a reading series or working with a press—whatever you’re capable of doing within the strictures and demands of your life. I mean, look at Toni Morrison. She was a book editor, she was a culture figure even as she became a novelist, and she was quoted in these amazing eulogies for her nonfiction mostly, even as her fiction was being celebrated. There are a lot of people that we don’t necessarily think of in these terms but who are doing that work now. Garth Greenwell, Alexander Chee, Ocean Vuong—all to one degree or another are out there as cultural presences. And some of those people are doing essays, some are reviewing, some are writing in different genres, the way Ocean writes poetry and fiction. Some are marching in the streets or running arts organizations.
At the same time, I recognize that it’s an entirely different lobe of our brain. It’s an entirely different skill set to move from the solitude and crankiness of the cramped writing room into this other space, where you have to be more expansive and socialized—and god knows a lot of writers aren’t socialized; they’re often people who are at their most social on the page. So I respect that, and yet I think for those people, too, there may be ways to figure out what authorship and connection might mean with them. Through other forms of writing, even if they never leave the house.
BV: I’m curious about how someone develops as an editor. Were there skills that came into play that maybe surprised you? You’ve done so many great things—was it difficult for you at all? What did you find were the challenges?
DG: As an editor, I learned pretty quickly that you can’t have too much ego in this, and very often, you’re not right. Sometimes, you’re just mistaken. There’s almost a Zen thing of knowing when to give up. To me, editors have to recognize that they’re not the author, and they’re not the manuscript, and they’re not the dictator. What they are, ideally, is a lens that’s going to help the writer see the manuscript more sharply. You’re a lens that ideally will be removed when the author’s vision of the work becomes his or her own, their own. So, of course, how do you get to that?
Practically speaking, I believe that every novel is a mystery novel, and every memoir, every narrative is essentially a mystery novel as well, even if it’s factual. I’m constantly saying, hmm, how can this be more suspenseful, how can there be a question here, a tension or a conflict that needs to be resolved? I think my minimal acting training around the idea of characters in scenes having motives and conflicting agendas has informed how I edit, and that’s as true if you’re writing a memoir about growing up in Montana wilds as it is if you’re writing a novel where a butler is found dead in the library on page five. I’m interested in books that start faster, because I think we need that.
At the same time, it is still all in the writing. I mean, agents always say that, especially when they reject you, they love the writing, but it still does really come down to the amazingness of sentences. And for me, it comes down to the ability to work with an author on not only this developmental and conceptual work, but the line edits and stuff that would make a book really crackle. And god knows we all need that, including me. So, those things kind of got honed over practice, and again, with a certain awareness of what the reader wants.
BV: I love this idea of suspense, because, it’s so true! If you don’t care what happens next, then…
DG: Yeah. And I think that’s true even for the most literary short story and even for people who are working in new forms. There is still some opening tension, question, provocation that pulls us through. Sometimes it’s formal. But I think even in poems it’s true, that there is that initial tease, even, that kind of gets us through.
BV: So how do you decide what types of projects to take on? You’re a literary scout as well, and pardon my ignorance, but do you scout people and then edit them? Or?
DG: I work as a scout for the agent Rob Weisbach, and have brought in various projects for him. He has to, of course, fall in love with them himself because he’s going to represent them, and I’m not an agent, and don’t like having lunch or asking people for money. So, that’s his job, and he’s great to work with.
The main thing I do is work as an editor. A lot of my work comes from publishers who need a book doctor for various reasons. An editor has left, or the book needs more intensity, so they bring in someone like me. Often authors who have contracts already will come to me and say, hmmm, you know I need more editing, or, I need to deliver something perfect, can you help me? You want to put your best foot forward for the editors in publishing houses because they control not just the purse strings, but the enthusiasm strings for a book, and there’s often less patience for an author’s many drafts, especially for newer authors. Then a lot of authors come to me from those authors, or they come via agents who are looking for contracts already. Sometimes it’s a book proposal, but often it’s a full manuscript: it’s a memoir, it’s a work of narrative nonfiction of some kind. I’ve done books on everything from nuclear power to how to beat the SAT and get a perfect score. But mostly, I focus on big idea books. I love doing memoir—it’s a really challenging, changing genre. Because there are so many, the memoir has to be new. I try to bring people forward for that, even as I’m concerned that there’s not enough small press commitment to the memoir and personal creative nonfiction. We have a superstructure now of MFA programs that do it, but I think we need even more literary outlets for serious nonfiction work.
And then for literary stuff, for fiction, I love everything. I’ve got a thriller right now with a high body count that I think is also a moral, fun book. I’ve got a number of literary novels set in real places. I love novels that get out of the house, that are existing not only in bedrooms and kitchens the way so much literary fiction does, but in the agora, in the political sphere, even in the clan of family. I’m happy to do books that are more intimate, more on one or two stage sets as it were, but I love the ones that have panorama, that are epic. I’m doing some compelling work on a hugely long novel now about “Freedom Summer,” the summer of 1964 in the South—it’s very personal, but it spans a whole lot of great turf. So, I’m kind of a generalist, but I love the stuff that just resonates. Like, who doesn’t? But that resonates on all levels from the intimate and existential to the larger worlds of contention and possibility.
BV: Well, and to look at that with your poetry, with your writing—how do those different endeavors work together, or how don’t they?
DG: I’m a compulsive reviser, I think to a fault. Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned,” and I will not abandon them very often. And there’s the need to do for myself what I tell my authors to do, to get the work out there and wave the flag for it. So, that’s certainly an issue. And, we are culture workers because it improves our writing. We are culture workers because the world—because it gets us out there, and it gets us an identity and a presence and a persona that benefits our writing and gets us readers. But, we also do it for the good of the culture. However egomaniacal we may be, we do want to have an impact.
My teacher Larry Levis said that poetry has an amazing audience, it just takes 400 years to develop. And I do believe that, especially in these trying times where we have so many toxic and disposable words being used. We are creating art in this hideous era that is going to outlast the perpetrators of all this trauma and upset, even as that has a permanent cost. So I take some comfort in that: that artists—artists and scientists I think—get the last word. They bat last. When we think of the 1920s, we think of F. Scott Fitzgerald. When we think of the ’70s and ’80s, we’re going to be thinking of Toni Morrison much more than George H. W. Bush, or even Reagan. We may not own the present, but we own the past, which means we own the future.
“Let me just say though, that I don’t want to be too prescriptive about this, and say that there is only one path, and that you have to be a great social hostess or be whatever. You do what you need to do, and ideally the rest comes through what rises to you naturally. Even a little bit of the span of things we’ve talked about can sustain one’s writing and one’s presence in the world.”
I feel this particularly for me, as a writer, around AIDS and HIV. There are certain things that have happened in our times, whatever our times may be, where the world thrusts its meanings at you, and you have to rise to that occasion. One of those for me is definitely AIDS, because it was not only a huge trauma in my life that caused incredible loss and is still a major factor in my relationship and in everything else. It was something that I knew that, as a writer, I had to be among those people to respond to. It is an amazing metaphor for every issue of life and death and justice, class, love, sex—it’s up there with Walt Whitman’s America, it’s up there with Adrienne Rich’s notion of the dream of a common language. So, we, as writers, whatever our skill, can choose to be people in history. I wish AIDS had never happened, but I think all of its meanings have been essential, and even as the epidemic changes its form and changes who it’s affecting, it’s still a massive summons for us as writers. It’s a reality and a metaphor, and a cause all at the same time. And it is for me, and for certain younger writers too, as much in 2019 as it was in 1989.
BV: Do you have any additional key advice for new writers? Any editor pet peeves?
DG: This isn’t really a peeve, but to me one of the great challenges of being a writer occurs in the first two or three years after you get your MFA. You’ve had this intense community, and all this intense reaction to these people. Then suddenly you’re air-lifted out of that and plopped back in your home, whether it’s a low-res program, or Iowa or Arizona or whatever, and then you’re on your own, with no community, no deadlines, no audience, no immediate readers. I have seen so many writers fall away from writing not from lack of talent or commitment, but because they just don’t seem to have the structures that they need to keep going. Life intervenes, you suddenly have family demands or a job. It’s often the people who can create a new sense of community—create readers, create deadlines for themselves, get residencies—that are the ones who ultimately get published in a major way. I believe there should be halfway houses for recent MFA grads: they’re all together in some real world connection, and they’re allowed to leave and find new readers, but they have to come home at night for six months so they can transition back to society with the tools they need.
I think a low-res program [like at Antioch] fosters so much independence and demands it, and often the students are older and wiser already, and in different life places. Even though I think also it’s something that writers individually have to cultivate. That may mean bringing in editors and other people to create a sense of a team, one way or another—specific deadlines, or creating your own literary community. If you’re back in Fresno and there needs to be a reading series, you can get Buddy from the county culture division. There are different ways to do this, and I’ve witnessed a lot of City College people do this. There’s a writer, one of my students, JP Howard, who graduated and is now one of the biggest culture presences in the poetry scene in New York, with a series called “Women Writers in Bloom” where she focuses on writers of color, women writers of color, poets, and (I think) prose writers. They get together every month. From that she’s built a real presence for herself not only as a poet—her book has come out—but also as somebody who’s creating community that nurtures her even as it nurtures back. And all of it was a whole roll-your-own project that she did from scratch, even as she is an attorney and has two sons and a wife. So yeah, I want to grow up to be JP Howard.
Let me just say though, that I don’t want to be too prescriptive about this, and say that there is only one path, and that you have to be a great social hostess or be whatever. You do what you need to do, and ideally the rest comes through what rises to you naturally. Even a little bit of the span of things we’ve talked about can sustain one’s writing and one’s presence in the world.
BV: People like [Howard] always amaze me. But sometimes I’m like, I’m glad you’re you because I can only be me, but…
DG: That’s the thing.
BV: And you, David, are just phenomenal. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful, deeply informed, and helpful knowledge, stories, and insights.
DG: Well, thank you, thank you so much.