I’m interested in how the body reacts to the rug constantly being pulled out from under it.
Welcome, Gaby, to The California Journal of Poetics. Thank you for taking time out of your grueling schedule to share the world of your poetry with us. You have a remarkable way of tapping into the lives and psyches of others. In your second collection, Apocalyptic Swing, which was nominated for a 2009 LA Times Book Prize, we see through many eyes and into many hearts. How have you been able to realize and inhabit these figures and their experiences so entirely?
First, thank you so much for saying that. It’s something I’ve worked really hard at: to inhabit instead of appropriate the experiences of others (even the voices I’ve “made up”!). So that means a lot to me.
I think the first thing I ask myself is where the story of another figure and my story meet. My teacher, Lucie Brock-Broido used to talk about persona in terms of a kind of Siamese twinning. Where is the place on your (my) body where one can tell where I start and the other voice begins? Often it’s not the most obvious place. I may write a poem about a circus fire and folks might think that I’ve done that because the idea of the event is the main thing that compels me. That may be true to some extent but in order to write a poem that interests me and the reader I need to be in touch with the deeper kinship. Perhaps it’s the way small communities experience loss or the way normal people get caught up in events that are much larger than them. Or maybe it’s something as simple and impossible as a little girl who dies in the fire and goes unidentified for fifty years and how that might resonate with a certain part of me.
Perhaps a clearer way to say that is that I really try to be in whispered conversation with the figures I speak about and through. I imagine our heads close together, working it out.
A number of poems in this collection—“Jerusalem Baptist Church,” “Fence,” “Blues for Ruby Goldstein,” and “Temple Beth Israel” to name a few—address hate crimes and other despicable events in America’s not-so-distant past, that seem to have been swept under the rug. What has inspired you to dedicate such tremendous creative and compassionate energy to these tragedies in your writing?
I think the word compassion is a really important one for me. I’m deeply interested in not so much what leads people to knock others down but what makes people get up. That sounds so cheesy as I write it but it’s true. I’m interested in the moment where someone has terrible odds against them and probably should stay down but makes the decision to get up or look up. In all of the poems you mention (even Fence, which speaks of Matthew Shepard) there is the notion that the body has a kind of legacy that continues on beyond itself.
And there’s the notion that forgetting is not the optimal solution. That (in my view) the more important and even compassionate action is to live alongside the horror and know that everyday one has to interrogate what we’ve done to and with the bodies in our midst. And that can bring great pain and also joy. It’s like the moment you step outside after a storm. You don’t forget the storm, if anything you appreciate the sun more because you have such a vivid memory of all that rain.
Sports, athleticism, strength, and endurance—of the body and mind—pervade these poems. The message that the body “can take a worse beating than most / can imagine,” and that “Nothing breaks a guy’s spirit / like a skinny kid getting up off the floor,” speaks specifically to bar fights and boxing while at the same time highlighting, in a much broader sense, the tremendous heart and determination of the underdogs and the oppressed. Is this relationship one that emerged organically in your writing through your love of sports and a passion for social justice? Or was it a more researched and intentional labor of love?
I think the answer above gets at this a bit. I think it arose organically in the work, although research and story are a huge part of my life and process. I do think it’s as much about people who are being oppressed as about the people who ignore oppression (which is a real form of abuse). I think I’m also always aware that in many of those poems and situations people who would consider themselves good people are looking on and doing nothing. I’m interested in that silence and what it does to us.
And I’m interested in thinking about people who aren’t so obviously oppressed. The idea that getting out of bed and working a tough job is a form of “getting up.” Or taking your kids to school everyday. I spend a lot of time thinking about the term “hero.” I think so often we try to be the hero of our poems and that often goes wrong and ends up making the work feel forced and not how we meant it. I’ve been reading Great Expectations and The Legends of King Arthur and today I’ve started Don Quixote. In all of those stories I’m really interested in the way the notion of the hero is subverted. The figure of Arthur is particularly interesting, the way melancholy and a sense of duty comes into play. Hero. I’m not sure I understand the traditional meaning of that word.
The speaker’s voice feels consistent in tone throughout much of the book. However, it seems (based on the range of eras, addresses, and locations) that there are perhaps numerous speakers throughout the book, or a single knowing and penetrating speaker. Even in the more personal poems, like “Acknowledgement, 1964”—which address the speaker’s father on his journey to becoming her father—refers to “Chaney, Goodman, / and Schwerner safe in their beds.” This seems to foreshadow the future violence that will surround both the father and the Civil Rights activists. Is the speaker the voice of small-town triumph and tragedy? Of the abused?
One of the things I’m really trying to do in that book is get the reader to think a bit about what we want from a speaker. Why do we want to know who is speaking? Is the gender of the speaker important? One thing to notice is the fact there are almost no personal pronouns in the book. That was a conscious decision. It allows (or doesn’t) the reader to find their own space in the narrative. It makes the reader think about the act of readership and textual engagement as much as anything else. I think there are a lot of speakers in that book or a better way for me to say it is that I think there are a lot of conversations the reader can walk into the middle of and join.
The speaker is often gender ambiguous. This is a brilliant approach in a book that explores sexuality and self-discovery. Many other lines are blurred in the gritty worlds of these poems between sex, religion, death, music, and violence/brutality. Each offers its own ecstasy and pain. Would you talk a little about these relationships in your writing?
We keep anticipating each other! I think the most interesting part of this question has to do with the idea of “blurring.” I think a lot about that because I think the really interesting spaces of activity are those in which boundaries (of whatever kind) are not clear. I think those are the places where we feel destabilized (which can fill one with pain and ecstasy and all kinds of things) enough that we have to really interrogate our own complicity in being there. That’s as true of a political situation as a personal one. Why does one end up watching a church being burned or a boy being teased mercilessly or in love or in a dark alley making out with someone they don’t even know? I’m interested in how the body reacts to the rug constantly being pulled out from under it.
Your language is very lyrical, and yet you are able to take full advantage of the narrative. Could you talk a little about this?
I think [the aforementioned] is also the space where lyric and narrative meld together and push against each other in fascinating ways. There’s the story but also the sense that everything is happening at once. The lyric idea that within this narrative there is no separation between the self and experience. I’ve been interested in that for a really long time. It was the great lesson Frost and Bishop taught me. That one could be uncertain as to what was out there or what one was seeing and how that uncertainty could create a really heightened reality. We see it in the remarkable persona poems of Frost and in the constant re-visioning of Bishop who says, “I like the place; I liked the idea of the place” and then enacts that same duality again and again in the poems. What’s real and what isn’t and how does the act of living in the question make a world of its own.
Finally, in regard to the underdogs, what under-recognized poet do you feel we should be reading? Why?
Oh! I think James Schuyler is coming back into vogue and I’m pleased about it. He writes complicated, adult poems that feel so breezy that one doesn’t always recognize their depth. Which is to say, he does something that’s really hard to do.
In terms of younger writers I’m not sure why everyone isn’t talking about Sean Singer. His new poems are absolutely extraordinary. He won the Yale and then people kind of stopped watching him. I don’t think he’s so concerned with being watched and so the machine of poetry kept moving. Sometimes it will take a poet along with it, but I feel he’s been left behind a bit. And that’s too bad and I hope his second book gets taken and he’s picked up again because what he’s up to is very important.
Interviewed by Carrie Moniz.