Graffiti Calculus, a Poem


Barbara Goldberg writes in this insightful review: “This is a complex and ambitious book. Yet we willingly follow Willis’s hunt, the pebbles she leaves to mark his trail–her fertile imagination, her striking language.”

Read it here: Poet Lore — Goldberg review


The estimable Rose Solari says: “For me, this is an emotionally devastating and an aesthetically satisfying ending to one of the best books of contemporary poetry I’ve read in a long time. Wherever Willis goes in her next collection, I’m ready to follow.”

Read the whole review here.


Rosalynde Vas Dias tagged me for this—thank you Ros! She is the author of Only Blue Body, winner of the 2011 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize and selected by Terese Svoboda. She also grows carnivorous plants. Check out her interview here:  Ros Vas Dias Next Big Thing

What is the title of your book?

Graffiti Calculus

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

At the beginning of the 21st century, a mother hunts for her teenaged son through the city of Washington, DC, by following his graffiti tags.

 What genre does the book fall under?

Poetry. It’s a book-length poem.

 Where did the idea for the book come from?

When my son was a teenager he made himself scarce, but he was leaving his tags all over the neighborhood. Around 2003 I started to track them when I was out walking the dog, and photographed them, going into unfamiliar alleys and streets. I did the same thing a year later, noticed some fading, new ones up. I made a map of his range and I realized I was plotting the graph of his journey away from me, though I could only approximate his trajectory. The poems would perform a kind of calculus of our relative motion over time.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the book?

I began it in 2006 as an essay with photographs. Then some poems. The bulk of it was written in 2007 in Wood cabin at the McDowell Colony, when the poem veered suddenly from the streets of DC into Paleolithic forests and caves. Then showed it around, sat on it for a while, did some more research, and wrapped it up around 2011.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I give my son full credit for launching this project by driving me crazy for a few years. Then I researched the hell out of it. R. Dale Guthrie’s The Nature of Paleolithic Art showed me that, based on handprints and footprints left in caves 40,000 years ago, it was teenaged boys, hunters, who tagged those walls. I remembered Kilroy from my girlhood. Bruce Chatwin on nomads; Michael Polan, Tom Brown Jr. and Ortega y Gassett on tracking and hunting; Denis Duton on the art instinct; Sheppard Fairey’s website musings on Heidegger.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The publisher is CW Books, an imprint of WordTech Communications. Due out in November 2013. Parts of Graffiti Calculus were excerpted in a chapbook, Caveboy (Artist’s Proof Edition), as a limited edition art-book in collaboration with my son, and as an iBook for iPad. Also in the Southern Poetry Review and forthcoming in the Cortland Review. I am grateful to all for taking a chance on a book-length poem.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?

Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, about a mother with a son at risk. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red influenced the form of the poems; also her book Nox about yearning for an elusive family member. William Matthews’s poem “Cheap Seats, Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1956,” containing the phrase “boys in molt.”

 What actors would you choose to play the characters in your book?

My son sometimes looks like Dougie Howser, with Lyle Lovett hair. Or like Banksy. Maybe Bansky would play him.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

The true identity of Kilroy; what happens when you have an under-developed frontal lobe; the adaptive value of playing, dreaming and art-making in evolution; what Robert Rauschenberg and Captain Ahab did in common; Odysseus visits his mom in the underworld; graffiti lingo; Paleolithic tattoos.

Thanks for the opportunity to dilate a little about this book. In return I am tagging poets Lee Sharkey for her new book Calendars of Fire, and Tracy Youngbloom for her forthcoming book, Growing Big.


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