The Poetry Editors, Rappahannock Review: “At the Wall” describes life after a border wall is implemented. Can you talk about how historical and/or current events shaped the images and the landscape the poem presents?
Gail Giewont: I imagine it’s obvious that I was inspired by the border wall proposed by the current president. In particular, I suppose I wanted to envision some future in which the wall had already been built (and fallen into disrepair), what the emotional and economic ramifications of the decisions our government makes today will be on our tomorrows. I became especially interested in the potential effects not just on human beings but also on migratory species, which helped to form the final image of the poem.
I suppose if I had written the poem more recently, I would have made the wall transparent, though.
RR: There is a strong speaker in the poem, who stands witness to the wall. How did you develop the voice in this piece, and does it have any connection to your own personal experiences?
GG: I don’t know that I really focused on developing the voice of the poem so much as I focused on building imagery. For me, that’s always the impetus of a poem. I did deliberately make the speaker an observer of the wall and the events around it and not necessarily a participant in the action of the poem. I’m not sure how much of a “right” I have to this poem, since I don’t have any personal connection to the situation of the poem outside of my own empathy for those that it would affect, so I wanted the speaker to feel simultaneously disconnected from the events and wounded by them.
RR: More broadly, how do you approach the intersection of the personal and the political in your writing?
GG: To be honest, I mostly avoided involving overt political references in my writing before this last year. Of course, the choice to avoid writing about politics is, in and of itself, a political one. Although it’s in no way represented in this particular poem, I’ve mostly tried to use humor in my poems that touch on political topics. It’s hard to come across as preachy if you’re making a joke.
RR: Some of the images are extraordinarily visceral—“grey guts / bleached white,” the “red-black perfume of rot” from strawberries, letters “decomposing to pulp”—and yet men and women “touch / the wall’s surface as they / would a beloved face.” Can you talk about the interplay of violence and tenderness in the poem?
GG: When I was in graduate school, my professor, Karen Volkman, pointed out to me the interaction of violence and love in a poem draft I had written. To some extent, it’s a default mode for me to explore those juxtapositions in my work, even if it’s not necessarily on a conscious level. It’s easier to locate compassion when it’s surrounded by its opposite, I suppose.
While I definitely see the violence of the images that I created, my focus was showing an environment in decay and the love and determination that survived in spite of that decay.
RR: What have you been reading lately? Are there any poets that have been particularly influential for you?
GG: The last two books of poetry I read were Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong and Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, both of which exhibit such virtuosity I could never hope to emulate them. As a high school literary arts teacher, most of my days are taken up with rereading the poetry that I teach to my students. My Poetry 1 class is currently in the middle of Marcus Wicker’s first book, Maybe the Saddest Thing. I’m really excited to get my hands on his latest.
Gail Giewont’s work in Issue 5.1: