Mariela Griffor is a poet, editor, publisher of Marick Press and diplomat. She was born in the city of Concepcion in southern Chile. She attended the University of Santiago and the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. She left Chile for an involuntary exile in Sweden in 1985. Mariela Griffor and her American husband returned to the United States in 1998 with their two daughters. They live in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. Mariela Griffor is the co-founder of The Institute for Creative Writers at Wayne State University and Publisher of Marick Press. Her work has appeared in periodicals across Latin America and the United States. Mariela Holds a B.A in Journalism and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New England College. She is the author of Exiliana, House, The Psychiatrist and more recently Declassified. Mariela Griffor is Honorary Consul of Chile in Michigan and has also been recognised with numerous awards. Please enjoy my interview with Mariela Griffor.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say: I’m a writer. When they ask what you write about, I say: I write poems. Then, people ask: Are you a published author? I say yes! Then, I go on and I talk more about my next book of poetry. Right now, for example, I’m working on a new collection of poetry. I tell them that I studied Spanish Literature in Chile and I studied journalism in Michigan. I have an MFA in creative writing from New England College so I was able to experiment with different types of writing. But poetry is my biggest challenge and passion, etc. I want to write better poems every time. At that point in the conversation, they tell me they also write poetry and they also wanted to be published, they also wanted to study creative writing, etc., etc. It is always an experience in itself when people ask what I do for a living.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Rocket Fantastic which is a poetry collection by Gabrielle Calvocoressi that a friend from W. W. Norton & Company sent me. I’m also re-reading a wonderful book called Strong Words: Modern Poets in Modern Poetry edited by W.N. Herbert. This year I subscribed to several poetry publications like Academy of American Poets and Poetry Magazine from the Poetry Foundation so I see a lot of new names and new poems every time they publish their journals.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I was so lucky in the way I was introduced to reading. My grandmother taught me the alphabet with a book called “El Ojo”, (“The Eye” in English), and she bought those big, enormously colorful children’s books for me. So I could not wait to get lost in the stories of the books. I still remember the feeling of excitement when I was reading I was probably six or seven years old when I started to read. I’m planning to read as much as I can in 2019.
There are many books that have made a big impression on me, so to pick one book, in particular, can be very difficult. But I would recommend Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. It is very interesting to see how the characters, that are so distant in time and can appear dissonant, are so relevant today.
Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
I can remember the first poem in English. “Prologue I”. But I’m not sure about the first poem in Spanish. It must have been in high school, but I don’t remember the titles of them. In college, I wrote poetry very often but I didn’t publish in journals and magazines until I left college.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
My worst job ever was in banking. I worked in a large bank in Troy, Michigan, which was and still is the business district in the Detroit area. Despite being very good at it, I was very unhappy but needed the job to pay my bills. I didn’t like my office and the bank culture but I did like the people working at the bank. I didn’t have a lot of time to write and after work, I was so tired that my writing was almost non-existent.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring poet?
My two pieces of advice for a young poet would be to write, write, write. Write as much as you can! Whenever you can! Then, publish your work. And most importantly, read, read, read as much as you can.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
Yes. I do read a lot. I have more books than I can read which is a great challenge. I also publish other authors that have a unique voice, as a publisher I read a lot of new material every month.
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?
Poets need to read the classics and also modern poets. They need to be able to understand that poetry is an art, despite its abstract nature. I would recommend: The Ars Poetica, The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, Poetry by Marianne Moore, Sonnet XVIII ( Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?) by Shakespeare, Canto General by Pablo Neruda, and Desolacion by Gabriela Mistral.
All these books are so compelling, so beautiful in their uniqueness and cultural baggage that they bring to the world a new perspective, a new world of experience or imagination. All these books will enrich the lives of poets and readers for generations to come.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
Yes, but I have more than one book that I revisit. Books that I read constantly are all of the above mentioned and my complete list, of course, is very long, and that list includes writers from all over the world like Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Bolano, Vicente Huidobro, Nicanor Parra, Cesar Vallejo, Kjell Espmark, Goran Malmqvist, Per Westberg, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Silvia Plath, Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, Yusef Komunyakaa, W.S. Merwin and many more. I go back and re-read them because every time I learn something new.
If someone whose never got into poetry asks you for a tip on a good poetry book to start with, what would you recommend?
I would say that I’m not the best person to give tips on how to understand poetry, but I would recommend these books to “enjoy” poetry: The Seven Ages by Louise Gluck. ‘The Armadillo’, a poem from The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop which is one of my favorite books for the moment. I lived almost my entire life a city life and now when I’m living in the country, all these poems seems different to me. I love the poetry of Chilean Poets who are very attached to the Andean landscape and those poems that I read 25-30 years ago when I studied Spanish Literature are completely different to me now. The sense of nostalgia for that landscape brings me a pleasure that I never experienced before. I would recommend poets like Diamela Eltit, Enrique Lihn, Jorge Teillier, and Neruda and Mistral of course.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I have recommended dozens of times and I will continue to recommend books to read to friends and family including Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, La Araucana by Alonso de Ercilla, Canto General by Pablo Neruda.
Who would you say are the three poets that continue to inspire you?
Three of the poets that continue to inspire me are Neruda, Mistral, Bolano. Bolano is tremendously influential and inspiring since he was able to write poetry and fiction. He was a good writer and a greatly underappreciated poet.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
I like non-fiction and fiction books. But surprisingly I read a lot of technical books as well.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
A world without books would be awful: empty, colorless, meaningless. It probably would be a world based only on survival. I cannot possibly imagine that kind of world. I don’t want to live in a world where books do not exist.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
There is such a writer that, even if he is not the most well-read writer in the world, I would read everything he releases: Michael Ondaatje. His poetry is subtle yet unforgettable and his prose is poetic. The lines are ‘handmade’. His writing is artisan. The sentence is not highly stylized but enough to be understood by all kinds of people. I want to be a writer like that. One that can write poetry and fiction but can keep a unique and distinctive voice in fiction and poetry.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
No. I think digital books have their charm. They are very practical, weightless in your luggage! But nothing can compare to the magic of reading a book. I’m the kind of person that writes a lot of notes in the borders of my books. Some people hate me for that, but I think they are my books, I’ll do what I want with them. I think digital books will be a great compliment to reading. Who cares if people buy more or less digital books or paperbacks as long they read them.
There is a book that is profoundly different from any reality I’ve experienced in my life. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. Even if Canto General changed some of my ideas on Land, Country, Patriotism. Don Quixote, changed my ideas on religion, imagination and culture, Man’s Search for Meaning changed my ideas on why survival or pleasure was not the ultimate goal of life. Meaning is that ultimate goal, and we human beings strive in that search for meaning in the most horrendous circumstances. Even when the only thing we are surrounded with is the darkness of the soul and mind that imprisons us and robs us of all our humanity, we are still thinking there is a possibility to move forward, to cope with tragedy and find new meaning in our lives.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I just translated Canto General by Pablo Neruda for Tupelo Press. The book is out already. More than 500 pages, it gives us a Pan-American vision of the American continent. This is a book that should be mandatory if only for its visionary embrace of an American identity that includes the entire continent. Look around now and tell me that this book that was written 50 years ago is not necessary reading today!
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
There are many books that I was not able to mention previously in my list but if I had to compile a list of highly recommended books I would add these books: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, one of my favorite books, and 1984 by George Orwell.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Next year I plan to read more of contemporary American writers. I feel I need more poets to be able to comprehensively absorb American Literature, especially poetry.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
If I were to write an autobiography, which I think is unlikely now, but you never know, it would be called “Pacific”.