The River Twice: VCU professor publishes empyrean new collection of poetry

Katherine Noble, Contributing Writer

Kathleen Graber’s office is a writer’s dream with a classic fireplace, vintage decorations and stacks on stacks of books. The walls are lined with them — from thick, antique encyclopedias to thin poetry compilations in every color imaginable.

Graber is the author of a new work of poetry titled “The River Twice.” She previously authored two other works: “Correspondence” and “The Eternal City: Poems,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Her poems deal with themes of grief and yearning, often focusing on physical locations such as Assateague Island or a local bustling thrift shop to ground the emotions they convey.

In addition to her writing, Graber is a professor of creative writing and poetry at VCU. But for quite some time beforehand, she was a middle school English teacher. 

Kathleen Graber, professor of creative writing and poetry at VCU, is celebrating the release of her new book of poems, “The River Twice.” Photo courtesy of Kathleen Graber

“I got really tired of the hall pass,” she said jokingly. “Yeah, I worked with great middle school children, I really enjoyed working with them. They were gifted and talented, but I became interested in writing poetry and I wanted to go to graduate school to do that, even though I was almost 40.”

It would have been difficult for her to be a full-time teacher and a graduate student in a residential MFA program. 

Graber loved stories from a young age, but wasn’t always sure about turning them into a career.  

“I remember telling my second grade teacher that I wanted to be a writer, but I’m a very bad storyteller,” Graber said. “It never occured to me that the alternative to being a bad fiction writer might be a different genre.”

Graber didn’t hear contemporary poetry until later in life, but once she did she was immediately drawn to it. 

“I thought, ‘Oh I want to learn to do that,’” Graber said.

Graber said the life of a writer requires commitment to observation and that the hardest part is the need to find something fascinating.

“And unfortunately, everything fascinates me,” Graber said. “So I’m just constantly distracted by things.”

As if to punctuate this statement, she abruptly stopped talking and hopped up to turn on the air conditioning.

Graber’s writing method is rather informal. She pays keen attention to the world around her throughout the day. Toward the evening, she sits down and recalls one of the things that might’ve grabbed her attention, jotting down a few sentences about whatever it was.

“I never know what I’m going to write. I don’t recommend that,” Graber said. “I sort of just begin by describing something. What have I seen lately that has captivated my senses? And I’ll just describe it to the best of my ability, and then I will start to think about why that interested me.”

Graber gave the example of a dead frog she found on her driveway. Something about his death struck her. 

“I just thought, you know, how odd to just be there and then not be there,” Graber said. “Like, instantaneous. You’re just sitting there being a frog, and then, you know, you’re nothing.”

Unlike a lot of modern poetry books these days, Graber doesn’t have one particular storyline to advance in her work. 

“I just wait for the frog to fall from the sky,” she said, referencing her curious metaphor. “So it doesn’t have a unifying theme, although I believe that we only have a few fascinations.” 

The title of her book comes from the Heraclitus quote, “You can never step in the same river twice.” This theme of constant growth and change is present throughout most of her poems. 

“It has a kind of meditation on impermanence and how things change,” Graber said. “You can go back to the same place but it’s not the same place. And then, even the self, across time, feels like a different self. Your life can feel like a different life.”

To learn more information about Kathleen Graber’s new collection of poetry, “The River Twice,” visit the Princeton University Press website.

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