Artist and social activist, an interview with Shaun T. Griffin

by Joe McCarthy

“One of the beautiful things about northern Nevada and this region is that in the last 10 years it has just come alive artistically … unlike many other places in the country, we are still grappling with how this place is going to be settled. Who’s finally going to have the last word on what remains. Like it or not, artists are stuck in the middle of that argument. If you’re a painter, you’re going to represent what you see … ditto for literary artists, we find ourselves in that dialogue, however, we choose to articulate it … That’s a gift.”___Shaun T. Griffin 

More than 30 years ago, Shaun and Debbie Loesch-Griffin co-founded Community Chest, Inc in Virginia City to bring essential services to underserved children and families in their community. Shaun served as its executive director from the beginning until recently – finally handing over the reins to Eric Schoen.

 Shaun’s capacity for work is a story unto itself.  He was the director of the Homeless Youth Education Office and he also served on the board of directors for years of Healthy Communities Coalition in Lyon County

Beginning in the early 1980s, he taught creative writing workshops at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. He edited Razor Wire, a journal that showcased Northern Nevada Correctional Center prisoners’ art, essays, and poetry. 

Image provided by Shaun T. Griffin

Shaun received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1995. He was awarded the Silver Pen from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 1998 and became a member in 2014. 

Griffin has a long list of awards and credits.

I had a talk with Shaun at his home in Virginia City last week. 

It’s been said that poetry anticipates what’s going to happen. Poets are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, sensing what’s in the air? I asked him what he believed was poetry’s function in today’s world?

“I think it has a couple of functions. One, people think of poetry as the way we articulate what we can’t really say in common language … as artists, we have a social responsibility to say what it is that’s going on. And that’s not always been the case across time. But I think it’s certainly the case now. And Lord knows, there’s more than enough to be shaken by, I think we need to speak up as loudly as we can … it’s a humbling process. You never really get the words right, you get close. As long as the journey is meaningful … I’ll be taking it.”

Image provided by Shaun T. Griffin

I asked what informs his work today?

“I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the border and the situation there. Poems finally came to me after months and months and months of thinking about it … at some level, the subconscious informs how I work, what I am, what I’m thinking about.  My work and my life are not separate. I gave up trying to resolve that contradiction or that separation a long time ago. They’re one and the same. 

“I am very much informed by the place we live in and the landscape. I think overall, its people and how we treat each other’s people.”

What are his daily writing habits?

“Almost always, I’ll write poems in longhand, wherever I am. I usually carry a journal with me and I write in that … or I’ll just write on a napkin. I don’t have to have a fixed routine to write. I can write standing up or sitting down. When I’m working on a book, I have to put all that together, and really massage it, rewrite and revise and edit so that that kind of hard revision work takes place on the computer over many months and years.

“I can’t possibly know when I’m affected by something that’s going on in the world. It will settle with me even if I don’t write about it, as … with the border. I keep thinking about it. I keep marinating on it till I know what it is I want to say.”

How has his literary work changed over time?

“I’ve grown a little bit, matured a little bit. I think I have finally learned how to write.  That took a long, long time. I’m not as anxious to see the outcome of the work … I love the challenge of trying to make it as best as I can. It’s a continually humbling process.”

I asked about his recent book of essays – because the light will not forgive me.

“This was a book that I thought I could put together relatively easily. That was the first mistake. I started writing these essays probably 25 years ago. When I had enough of them, I started putting them together in some kind of order. And then I wrote several new ones. What I realized very quickly is that the book was just a bunch of different essays, they didn’t have any connective tissue. I had to rewrite the whole book many times, and then order them in a way that made sense to the reader.  I had to rewrite the preface many times. 

“The book is divided into three sections. The first is the American West. The second is poets and poetry. Lastly, the places beyond our borders. Thankfully, I was able to include wonderful illustrations by one of my guys at the prison workshop who’s been out for five years. His beautiful drawings of Raymond Carver, Hayden Carruth and Garcia Lorca preface those three sections. I think it’s a kind of arc, the concerns that I have as a person, as a writer, as a poet and an activist. I long ago let go trying to figure out why I’m both things. I just am. They inform both my work and my art.”

What about the current state of arts funding? 

“I struggle with that. The guys I’ve been teaching at the prison for these many years, several of them are out and I’d like to nothing more than to be able to help fund their education so they can get out of the rut of a menial job … they are really good artists … In my own life, I must know 50 really fine artists no one knows. That should not be the case. Their work should be as widely known as others, It’s difficult to always understand the paradox of how good work whatever the field can be sidelined. 

“To give one example, Jeff Nicholson is one of the finest painters in the Great Basin. He chooses not to be a public artist, meaning he chooses not to market his work in an active fashion. Consequently, he is not widely known. That’s the reality of the art life of the artist. We have incredible stuff going on in the West. We understand that there’s more  going on, exciting, and wonderful, and maybe even more relevant.”

What’s the best piece of advice he’s received?

“I remember Carolyn Kaiser said to some young poet who asked her ‘what can I do to become a poet.’ She said, ‘keep your job.’ That’s also what I would say because it grounds you, it keeps you on the earth. You don’t take yourself so seriously. The artworld is just ladened with the wreckage of people who stopped writing or stop painting or stop dancing or performing. I wish there was a way to sustain all those people that did not get the support they needed on the way, financially, emotionally and spiritually … that they can continue to create good work. Find a way to persevere as long as you can, within reason. My kids and my wife probably don’t ever want to be artists, because they watch me. You just have to say, at some point, damn the consequences, I’m going to write, I’m going to be the person I would need to be on the page or paint or draw or whatever it is, because Lord knows there are a million people that are going to tell you it’s wrong. You just gotta do it anyway, and let go.”

Tell us about the books that you give as gifts?

“The last books I’ve read were given to me by my younger son, Cody. He gave me The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which is a knockout. And he gave me There There by Tommy Orange, also a knockout. I’ve shared them with everybody. I think they are the best novels written in the last 20 years … Tommy Orange is a young Native American kid out of Oakland. I think most of the great writing right now is not in the white male midstream. 

Nevada Capital News’s Arts Beat interviews explore the roles that art plays in contemporary life, and the intersection of art and pressing social issues. We explore artists’ work in relation to the dimensions of art’s power and potency.

Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so the conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other. ___W.E.B. DuBois 


Joe McCarthy

Joe McCarthy is a contributor to Nevada Capital News. He reports on the arts, the environment and politics. His life’s work includes economic development, redevelopment, education and arts administration.

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