Rachel Eliza GRIFFITHS
Michele Lesko interviewed Rachel Eliza Griffiths for IthacaLit in December 2017. Griffiths generously gave her time and heart to these questions, while also seeing to the difficult task of judging the Lauren K. Alleyne Difficult Fruit Poetry Prize for 2017. Her striking photography appears in the header for each page that features her biographical information, poetry, and many more works of Griffiths' art appear on her Featured Art page.
Michele Lesko: Thank you, Rachel, for taking the time to answer these questions. Your work in both mediums is powerfully rooted in the female or, if we consider gender norming, the body of the disenfranchised. The work embodies Dickinson’s truth told slant in many ways. Your images of women grouped in trees is especially haunting and elicits a powerful layered narrative that connects, is a thread woven through, with Fitzgerald’s haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit” and Lauren K. Alleyne’s collection “Difficult Fruit,” which inspired IthacaLit’s poetry prize, highlighting the poetry of adversity. What moves me is the way your voice and vision represent women as autonomous individuals who are psychically connected.
ML: Working as both a photographer & a poet, does your consciousness reveal its message in a more unfiltered way with the visual of photo realism or the language of poetry?
REG: My process is messy and non-binary. I'm struggling to explore and to revise fractures in language and seeing. Blind, black spots. Black holes. Apertures and voided grammars. I try to take visions apart and reconstruct them so that I can see myself and darker bodies, similar to mine, through narratives of desire, value, visibility, and invisibility. My inner life is wild and wildly littered with both imagery and language that is challenging for me to separate or filter. I like for things to feel intuitive, impressionistic, and raw. So I'm always asking myself questions about how language, silences, and images rely (and lie) on the forms that require them. Lately I've been thinking a lot about how sound also is an inherent part of language and image.
ML: The photography lends itself to questions regarding reversing the gaze as you place the African American female at center. Do you set out to reverse the gaze?
REG: 'Reversing the gaze' is something that's made me consider how I define the center and the frame. For me, “The Gaze” isn't something to be reversed, which would mean that I am not necessarily interested in switching the energy and power of those who maintain the gaze and those who hold its center. There are quite a few ways to close-read the notion of 'the gaze' and the verbs that accompany and oppress it. Ultimately, I'm looking at myself, at women and peoples and cultures that have always held my body, my image, my language at their core. Who clearly saw me before I ever touched a camera or alphabet. Who offered their shoulders and their suffering (and their joy!) so that I could stand and see over, beyond the jails and plantations and graveyards and governments where my community has been buried in the roots of this country. Sometimes buried alive. That center pulls from many directions - the entire world joins there in some fashion, however distant or immediate. I wish I could say, without a doubt, that I have some deliberate agenda in regards to my photography. I don't. I can use language, or sense the politics of the compulsion, after I've first allowed myself to wander, to get lost, to wonder, to ask questions, to receive a full articulation of imagination before I try to frame it. Which means I don't try to frame or control or repress anything in the beginning. I'm in a state of wonder, of intuition, that I have a particular way of looking and being seen for who and what I am in my own imagination as well as the imagination of others. If I happen to reverse the gaze, it's a side-effect of the work's intention, which is about what is known and what is rendered invisible.
ML: Through your lens, we glimpse allusions to the historical foregrounded in the contemporary. What does the female taking back the narrative identity in the mode of reaching out, flowing through, grouped together and alone, reveal in your images?
REG: When I'm working inside the images I don't always know right away. It arrives in such a blur and bleeding of narrative, faces, voices, and voids. It may be months or years before I can look at something and actually articulate the full compass of my intention. I’m joining unknown parts of me to the parts of me that are knowledgeable about histories, myths, and imaginations. The known and unknown narrative work together, intuitively, at the center of the image to create something from fragments of a text I'm recovering and revising.
ML: As a teaching poet, do the voices of young women infiltrate or inform your language?
REG: Yes, sometimes. I think a lot about young women. I love them, question them, defend them, and appreciate the freedom and truth they bear. I admire them and how they negotiate their vulnerability and their power. When I was younger I remember how meaningful it was for me to have the friendships, support, and sisterhood of young women. (And as an older woman I still need the presence of young women in my life. I always will). We all taught each other and learned from each other. More and more I believe my role as a teacher is to listen to them and help them resist any force or voice that attempts to silence, dilute, or assault them. They've got to find their songs and it's exciting to me. And there are moments when the song is off-key but it's not about that. It's about us speaking and hearing each other. It’s about the sweetness of what we earn and share when we love and challenge each other.
ML: Is the revelation of a lost narrative an individual representation or more attuned to blending your narrative with the broad social narrative?
REG: For me, it's blurry. There are distinct boundaries that make each of us individual but there is also always a greater sum or span of lost stories that are attached and/or buried within the body of the larger society.
ML: In “Small Prayer” these lines
& so you were the waters, pulling
dead weight up. Broken words could float
if breath was complicit
are packed with what is located in the female. The water, words undone, and breath lend themselves to images of creation in a broken landscape “if breath was complicit.” Is there ever a moment when you are challenged by complicity in your art?
REG: I'm constantly challenged by complicity, and it's not just in my art. It's the way the world conditioned me to define myself and those peoples who are kin to me. For me, art is a way to resist that as much as possible. Sometimes I fail. I love this anthem from June Jordan: "Sometimes I am the terrorist I must disarm." Also, as an artist and someone who is constantly revising and exploring meaning and identity through language, it is incredible to me to examine how complicity functions within individuals and their societies. This is beyond challenging. Sometimes, complicity reminds me of what guns can do, you know. Complicity can kill or wound or get taken up as a defensive tactic. But it can also be used as an agent of change and growth when applied constructively as an alliance. I think the problem with it is that the word is often defined as something nearly criminal that occurs from wrongdoing or social apathy. I want to reassign that so that we can't keep using the meaning of the word or its behavior to damage and harm others by refusing to acknowledge our own agency as both individuals and as communities.
ML: In your play with light and shadow, do you sense a release from the absolute?
REG: Sometimes. It depends on the work. I don't use the idea or word 'absolute' because I haven't lived long enough to begin to define it in any sort of fixed, static way. The notion of anything being deemed 'absolute' seems profound and elusive to me.
ML: Has the darkness brought to light recently with the “Me Too” campaign entered your thoughts for future work?
REG: I've been both haunted and liberated about what's happening across these accounts. I try not to judge something like 'Me Too' because I don't have enough time or information yet to see what will happen next. It hasn’t gone nearly enough close to the bone. But it seems to me that if it helps anyone come forward to speak and to have others listen and hold space, I think it's worthwhile. I'm a survivor. I don't feel that it is appropriate for me to narrate, police, or critique what anyone may or may not need in order to cope with trauma, no matter what the degree or nature of it is. I do have the right, however, to ask hard questions about intentions and privilege. 'Me Too' feels like a certain kind of entitled shorthand that must honor and open spaces for those, mostly privileged at the moment, who claim to want to engage in having real and difficult discussions about these issues. Issues that women who look like me have dealt with on every continent. With the rapid gunfire of punishments and retaliations, I'm curious to see what grows next from these fires and will it truly grow on the behalf of those it professes to honor. 'Me Too' is also about those who don't know what 'Me Too' means but stood by, silently or uneducated or unwilling, to believe or value us. Certainly I know I can't immediately begin to trust a social construct that assures me I am safe now. I haven't been safe since I was a small girl. That is knowledge for me because I survived it and now this knowledge helps guide me in being both protective and vulnerable.
What's interesting to me right now too is how the word 'campaign' and politics of this issue have come into play, arriving yet again at a standstill when we talk about whose bodies are valuable. Using the hashtag and the word 'MeToo' shuts out scores and scores of women's narratives who deserve to be defended, protected, and listened to. It's the technology, media, and industrialization of these hashtags that contribute to a certain immediacy that can often be callous, reductive, and limited in terms of inclusivity and intersectionality. Once again, I'm suspicious of the parsing of terms, especially when these 'campaigns' rarely grow past the next campaign or issue that will replace it. Some campaigns are more psychic in nature, but I'm an admirer of change and am aware that this education must span many countries, both internally and across the culture, before there is any true sense of change that I can recognize. If you have only been recognized as 'the darkness' or 'the dark,' you are mostly still there. And where the light is being carried in the name of outrage and justice and shared has still not found your wound deserving of that light, outrage, and justice. So, I can't say that 'Me Too' has entered my thoughts in some way that suggests it hasn't existed in my thoughts, and my sense of always being at risk or in danger before. I'm more interested in the quality and scope of what the light threatens to keep in the dark by those who proclaim themselves the owners, stewards, and sole victims of these widespread, unacceptable, dehumanizing acts.