Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In the poem “I couldn’t Throw Dirt on Your Casket,” you touch on themes of spirituality and the idea of life after death. Are these ideas you find yourself addressing often in your writing or just in certain pieces?
Donna J. Gelagotis Lee: I often return to themes of spirituality and religion in my poetry, and probably more frequently place and time. I’m also interested in religion in relation to gender and sacrifice. My book, On the Altar of Greece, explores these themes, among others. I’m interested in myth and reality. Death of a friend or loved one can be a surreal experience. And grief is often untidy. Throwing dirt onto a casket is an action of “grounding,” accepting finality and death as much as one can rationalize it. I’m challenging ideas. I’m challenging meaning in ritual. I’m not opposed to ritual or custom, but I’m saying, listen to yourself. Make room for your grief. It’s okay to question.
As for life after death, I am more interested in our perceptions and in our beliefs revolving around death. I was raised Roman Catholic and was practiced in the traditions of the Church until my early teens. My friends and family have held various religious and spiritual beliefs. In Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church prevails and is very much a part of everyday life for many people, with name days, festive holidays, and even altars in homes and lit candles in roadside boxes for those who have perished in vehicular accidents, and churches dotting the landscape, even in seemingly remote places. I also learned about the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was in Greece that I began to question religion, patriarchy, and gender roles rigorously. How do our beliefs about death, religious or otherwise, impact our lives?
RR: We’re drawn to the personal sense of voice in the poem. Can you talk about how you developed it, and whether it stems from your own experiences or something else?
DJGL: The idea of voice in a poem, especially of “finding a voice,” as if one had lost it, has always intrigued me. I do prefer “personal sense of voice.” I’m very glad that no one ever insisted that I “develop” a particular voice. One “has” a voice. From there, it’s a matter of learning and developing craft. One discovers how to “use” voice by enabling it. I’ve written many different kinds of poems. Some “sound” very different from others. I like to stretch, to experiment. One could say the voice is different. But what is the “I”?
Yes, of course, voice is personal, even when the experience conveyed is not or the text does not appear to be. A poem may sound “personal” or not, depending on content and structure. It’s an exploration and sometimes a discovery. Perhaps it’s what we hope for through religion or spirituality, a kind of reaching, even transcendence. How to make sense of the mortal experience? Create an immortality, an “essence” of some kind? Seems almost contradictory. But what is faith untethered? So there is an intimacy in this poem that feels very personal, based in the reality of experience.
RR: We understand that you attended Sweet Briar College, and as editors we are also undergraduates at a small Virginia school. We’re curious as to how you were able to hold your ground as a writer after undergrad. What have you done to keep your writing life alive?
DJGL: I love the phrase “hold your ground,” as if determination or possession of something “of earth” were necessary to continue as a writer. It speaks to my experience as a student at Sweet Briar. For me, it was a place of extraordinary beauty and an academic and a literary “grounding.” It was at Sweet Briar that I discovered a love of poetry. To spend four years studying and writing in such a supportive yet academically challenging environment secured the foundation for a lifetime of professional and creative writing. I doubt if I would have ever written poetry if not for that first creative writing class freshman year and the professors in the English and creative writing departments who so enthusiastically opened up a world of literature to explore. I remember spending hours in the stacks discovering literary works. To be able to read and write and study amid thousands of acres of nature for those years was an opportunity I’ve been grateful for ever since.
After graduation, I began working in New York City at CLASSIC: The Magazine About Horses & Sport. I wrote articles and continued to read poetry but wrote very little poetry until I went to live in Greece. But I had the intuition—I knew—that I was going to write. I was a consummate explorer and observer. Upon returning to the States, I began writing poems that would lead to my book, On the Altar of Greece. Each year, I continued to write and explore. After decades, I have compiled numerous manuscripts and written thousands of poems with various speakers and personas, different forms, and even different languages. To “hold one’s ground” perhaps is to continue or even to persevere. I’ve generally found writing quite free flowing and in that sense easy. Revision can be, however, work. Adding publishing to that requires perseverance. I’ve found readings and book signings positive and memorable. But they require a different focus and energy than writing does. To continue to maintain focus is for me simply a matter of knowing yourself and being confident in your work. I don’t experience writer’s block. When I’m not writing, I’m revising and reading.
RR: Were you always attracted to Greece before you lived there? What sparked your interest in the country, and how did your experiences there influence your writing?
DJGL: Yes, I was interested in Greece before I lived there. I knew several people closely connected to Greece. I had a strong desire to travel. I had read about Greece. I traveled there alone and spent a month visiting Athens, Mykonos, and Lesvos. The trip changed my life. Within two years, I was packing to return for an extended stay. Months turned into years. When I eventually returned to the States, I began writing poetry far more frequently. My time in Greece largely influenced my work for the next decade. My book, On the Altar of Greece, explores a number of themes in the setting of modern Greece. Greece still informs my poetry, but many other themes now preoccupy my writing as well.
RR: Who are some of your favorite poets?
DJGL: That changes. In college, it was Rich, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Frost, Eliot, Larkin. You could probably add Hopkins, Plath, and Blake. My tastes are eclectic. There are thousands of poems I’ve read over the years and so many contemporary poets. I heard Ginsberg read at Dodge and at Princeton. Loved the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, in particular Bells in Winter. I’ve been interested in the work of Ashbery. That said, there are a few poets I have returned to over the years. Yannis Ritsos is one. I discovered his work in the 1980s. Ritsos in Parentheses is a book I took with me when I left for Greece. The poems are in Greek and in English (translated by Edmund Keeley). Having the Greek to read, especially while learning the language, was a plus. Neruda is another. And Merwin. I still have, and occasionally flip through, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry that I bought for class at Sweet Briar.
Donna J. Gelagotis Lee’s work in Issue 5.3: