Interview with David Gunton

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “To the Veranda,” the speaker experiences a wildfire, a cantankerous mole and seems to struggle to interact with their peers—did these come from your own experiences, and how did they come together in the poem?

David Gunton: With respect to struggling to interact with peers, I confess I have plenty of personal experience to draw upon, and I was in New York last year when the Canadian wildfires turned the sky orange for an afternoon. That said, I rarely begin a poem with much of a plan, usually just a first line or image, and then I will see where it goes. The poem is smarter than the poet, as someone once said, maybe several people, based on my recent google search. I’m happy these various images came together in this poem.

RR: The images in the poem evoke larger themes of alienation and confusion with the lines, “You told me you would teach me/To play chess, but I couldn’t master/The rules, each of the pieces behaved/Differently, and I hated taking turns.” Can you talk a little about how you develop the images in your writing?

DG: I’m devoted to the school of thought that a poem, at least a lyric poem, is foremost an arrangement of images, as opposed to an arrangement of words or sounds. The images are the building blocks, and they are what the reader is left with, if they are left with anything. With these lines, I was having some fun. We assume the speaker is an adult, but they can’t master the rules of chess, and they don’t like taking turns, as a child might feel. So it’s a violation of expectation. But also: chess really is kind of confusing to the uninitiated, and lots of people don’t like taking turns. So maybe there is also a hint of truth here, which I think is essential for anything comic.

RR: We noticed that despite how the speaker references other characters, they never explicitly interact with each other, and we’re interested in how the isolation plays out. Were you thinking explicitly about the themes of isolation and inclusion as you wrote this poem?

DG: The speaker of a poem is rarely getting along well with the other people in the poem, now that you mention it. Here are other people going about their lives, and then we have this person over in the corner with their head in the clouds, offering some metaphors. I don’t recall that I was explicitly intending to address themes of isolation, but it is probably fair to say that it is a recurring theme or interest of mine. The ways we relate to each other are very mysterious.

RR: There is a sense of dichotomy within the poem, the simplicity of needing a mole removed and beach volleyball in contrast to environmental destruction from wildfires. Is there any particular literary or cosmic philosophy you were drawing on?

DG: Yes, thank you for noting that dichotomy, it’s the heart of the poem for me. There’s a trail I walk on during my lunch hour sometimes, and apropos of nothing, there is a beach volleyball court behind a warehouse facility along the trail. This is in the suburbs, wedged in between an interstate and a parkway. Some days there are people playing volleyball as cars race by at sixty or seventy miles per hour all around us. So I liked the idea of the beach volleyball game as an example of the quotidian, and then placing that in juxtaposition with signs of the impending climate apocalypse. I think in that tension between the macro and micro there is a glimpse of what it is to be human. To only consider one is to only get half the story. 

RR: Last year, you released your collection of poems, Notable Moons—congrats! Are you working on any new projects now?

DG: Thank you! Yes, I am working on a poetry collection that takes the form of a dream sequence of a train conductor. It’s about movement and stasis, and there are several cameos by the Roman god Mercury and by Eleanor Roosevelt. It may all be truly bad, it’s hard for me to say. But I have probably spent more time on this manuscript than any other, so I am looking forward to sharing it soon and hearing what people think.


Read To the Veranda” by David Gunton in Issue 11.2