Interview with Gabrial Scalaon AngelSpeak (5/6/2011)
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When did you begin writing poetry in earnest? How has your process evolved and what does it look like today?
My process was serious from the beginning; I published my first poem at age 9. By 12, writing was an established part of my life. In the earlier years, my poems were a running response to things I experienced in the world, a way of thinking life over in images and rhythms. Now I feel more as if I serve the poems, rather than them serving me; it’s more that I go to their world, instead of drawing them to mine. My writing process is highly irregular and varies widely; each poem is unique. Some take seconds, some months, some years or even a couple of decades.
Your third collection, Calendars, has an almost cult-like following. What do you think it is about the poems in this particular collection that readers find so engaging? Also, it was seven years after Calendars before you published another collection. Many writers talk about the negative impact success can have on the writing. Do you feel the success of that book had an impact on the work you completed after it?
Calendars is organized around a series of rituals written for performance; that level of sound-intimacy–the fact that these are poems meant to be apprehended aloud, to resound inside your mind if not in the air around you—affects the book as a whole. I would like to think that readers are responding to the connection with sound in community, which is the taproot of poetry. More specifically, I think of my poems as talismans worked thoroughly through form for optimal power, like polished stones endowed through veneration with mana, with a kind of inner life. The Readers’ Guide to Calendars shows 15 different meters. Readers may be energized by the kind of holographic completeness of form honored in its living state (as opposed to imposed from outside). Also, I specifically wanted Calendars to be life-affirming, as the “mother” book in a “maiden-mother-crone” trilogy (Eve is the “maiden” book). So maybe readers, especially now in this culture when so many of us are starved for life-affirming energy, are responding to that nourishing quality, that warmth of heart.
How could I send quiet through this resonant, strange, vaulting roof
murmuring, sounding with spores and the long-simple air,
and the bright free road moving? I sing as I terrace a loaf
out of my hands it has filled like a long-answered prayer.
from “Wild Yeasts”
As for the second part of your question, actually the two books published after Calendars (The Encyclopedia of Scotland and Among the Goddesses) were written long before the last poem in Calendars. Publishing was tough for me for many years, with long lapses of time before publication; and the poems in Calendars, like the poems in Eve and those in my next book to come as well, span over 20 years (this circling relation to time is one reason I now sign my books with a spiral in the front!!).
But even so, I don’t think Calendars’ success affected other poems. The truth is I think of my poetry as inhabiting a timeless realm; I hear the poems in my mind before I write them, and it seems there is no time in the place some of them are sounding from. The same voice that dictated “Caribou Kitchen” to me in 1970 dictated my latest poem to me this morning. The Muse doesn’t really think about “success.” In order to keep creatively alive, I have learned to do the best I can not to think about such things anymore but to keep focusing my creative attention back into the center of whatever poem I am writing.
Among the Goddesses has been described as “a monumental work of art, an opera…a vibrant mix of theatre and epic.” You have a strong connection to the theatre. How does this collection break the lines of contemporary poetry and cross the boundaries between performance and the written word?
Among the Goddesses began 17 years ago as a narrative poem, an epic. Eventually I translated it into a dramatic libretto format, and then finally chose to weave the two together, using the rhythm of the interweaving itself as a poetic device. So—somewhat like the poems inCalendars—Among the Goddesses is meant to be heard, performed, inside your head as you are reading it. And in this way, through the route of dramatic poetry, I feel that it paradoxically achieved the original epic quality I had been searching for all along—not just a narrative poem or verse novel, but a story spiralling back, through the repetitions of the interweaving, by way of an archetypal, communal storytelling voice, into the roots of oral tradition and performance.
You’ve been a strong advocate for poetry for many years. In 1997, you started the WOM-PO (Discussion of women’s poetry) list and moderated it for the next eleven years. Can you tell us a little about why and how you started it and also how you see the list functioning today in terms of its original aims and impact on contemporary poetry?
I started WOM-PO because I wanted to know what women had to say about poetry, and because there was at that time no civilized and courteous forum for poetry discussion on the web where women’s voices could be heard without being drowned out by duels and arguments. Starting it was a simple matter of sending out some emails to a small but diverse group of women poets and critics I admired. Facilitating the list, on the other hand–building and nourishing the culture, especially for the first six or seven years–was time-consuming and intellectually and emotionally demanding, as the listserv archives show. It was also a very rewarding commitment; I dedicated my collection of essays on poetry, The Body of Poetry, to the listserv, because discussions there had such an effect on those essays. Although there are now so many other women-centered literary groups online, from Pussipo to Shewrites to Vida, it seems that WOM-PO still has a role to play. Although I have different kinds of projects going on now and have passed the list ownership on to Amy King. I still hear from women across the U.S. and the world to whom it makes a huge difference to be hooked into that kind of community. WOM-PO has birthed dozens of smaller groups, numerous events and panels, and an anthology of poetry from Red Hen Press, Letters to the World. I believe D’Arcy Randall is starting to put together a collection of posts, which would certainly make an amazing book.
It seems more and more the concept behind MFA programs and the writing workshop has come under attack. As the director of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, how do you respond to the challenge that MFA programs produce cookie-cutter writers more interested in getting published than writing a really good poem?
Having attended one kind of graduate creative writing program and now directing an entirely different kind of graduate creative writing program, I believe that the MFA structure, like any educational institution or program, can assume a gigantic range of incarnations and levels of overall quality. At Stonecoast, I have made a point of emphasizing a wide acquaintance with literature of all centuries, not just our own; keeping the focus on nuts and bolts, from meter and form to plot and scene; and fostering a climate of diversity, tolerance, and utter respect for differing aesthetics with an aesthetically and culturally diverse faculty. Our faculty is amazing, there is a much larger choice of faculty than in a residency program, and of course far more individualized attention. I am truly excited by the low-residency format, which offers deep community support combined with a uniquely individualized course of study. I think the education Stonecoast offers writers is pretty close to ideal.
If you could offer only one piece of advice to young poets, what would it be?
Read your poems aloud over and over as you revise.
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