INTERVIEW WITH GRACE (GE) GILBERT
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love the cascading quality of the language and format of “Today Is Shrouded in Lavender.” How do you make decisions about form and structure in a poem?
grace (ge) gilbert: I operate quite often within the realm of micropoetics, and within this realm I believe there is a sort of need for ruggedness, expansion, and instinct (among many other things). I’ve written micropoems that take up nine to ten pages due to the way they fall and sputter down the page—and I’ve written micropoems that take up two or three lines. I call it all micro because it exists within the spatial pseudoscience I’ve come to associate micro with. The micropoem demands an attention to its own weight, but also the weight around it—does the white space perform an opening gesture? Is it a chokehold against language? And, in thinking of these things, these strange laws of micro-physics, I’ve become pretty anti-revision, anti-polish. At the same time that every formal choice is an intentional craft move, it’s also an instinctual habit. I honor this instinct, even if (especially if) typos occur and ‘rules’ are broken—I guess I believe in the ways the poem organizes itself before we tinker too much with it. This leads to a staggery, cascade-y unfamiliarity in some of my work—it’s all fresh out and mostly undealt with (in some way, at least). Really what I’m saying is that I’ve grown very bored of poems that I see published in traditional places—instinct seems to be sacrificed many times for the sake of polish and neatness (especially in form, but this is reflective of content by nature). It often seems like formal pandering, which is sad to me, but it makes sense in terms of the way poetry and capitalism interact. As a teen poet I often fell down that well. Now I try to work against this lean toward creating something palatable. I try to remain with the instinct until it does not serve itself. I like when a poem shows its kinks, its failures. I prefer when a poem requires them.
RR: We’re interested in your use of white space throughout the poem and how it creates a sense of suspension or pause. How do you use spacing as a tool to affect the meaning of the piece?
GG: I love white space questions! As I said before, it’s really necessary to consider what kind of gesture white space performs, especially in micropoetics. White space is so loud. The interaction between white space and text is like that of muscle and fat, respectively. Density is a huge question when dealing with micropoetics—what holds? A mentor of mine commented on how “skinny” my poems are—I think in the way I have grown into my own voice I’ve become obsessed with stopping at it. I like to create an airy staccato that provides a strange texture when read (in the head and out loud)—I like to pause time and/or explode it if I can. Something I do often is travel within my poems—between conversational modes, between places, between images. I’ve taken a lot of influence from Eileen Myles, Lucille Clifton, and Jorie Graham, which means I’m not super interested in linearity or narrative sense, and this is reflected in the sort of airiness that floats in and around certain poems and in my line break choices. I like the look and feel of suspension in motion—if I could make my poems move slightly I would. I even like my punctuation to float. By clouding, cushioning some micropoems in white space I can provide the kind of dreamscape I believe allows me to do the traveling I do. Poetry, to me, is another space where an internally rendered world straddles reality—where a parody of the real self interacts with a parody of real objects. And then, you know, meaning. The realest thing there is. You need a lot of white space, a lot of constructed and natural pause, to contain all of that.
RR: The poem gives us an intermixing of archaic language and more contemporary or casual conversational forms of speaking. How do you approach the voice of a poem while still drawing from these different styles and traditions?
GG: If you made a word cloud of my poems, the words “like” and “so” and “lol” would probably appear a lot. I am very interested in colloquialism as a device—because it is a mode of language that we use on a daily basis, and I don’t think a poem needs to carry a certain aura of high-falutin’ speech in order to be profound. I want the poems I write to sound like what my thoughts and speech sound like, I want them to be genuine in their unpretentiousness—but I also want the tingling images and observational language-work that “poems of antiquity” have employed. Ariana Reines is an iconic example of this sort of mix—a classicist, genius, and New York tradition poet who throws in colloquialisms as a device in her work. Her poem “fkn ziggurats” is an incredible example of this. Eileen Myles and Jenny Zhang, too. I guess I really value modality in my work—the way my speaker interacts with certain situations, intimate or otherwise, and how this affects speech and thought. Considering queer poetics has opened me up to these possibilities as well—the ways you switch modes and body language when interacting with different groups of people. I am not from *the* New York, I’m from bumfuck Upstate, but I think I fall into the New York School tradition with these modal choices—valuing spontaneity, instinct, the surreal. As a twenty-three-year-old, though, I’ve grown up in the digital age, so these New York School facets are often expressed through modes of digital social spaces, media reference, text speak, etcetera. I’m in a place now where I’m excited about the possibilities and intersections of colloquialism and tradition—a lot of young poets are doing cool shit with it. I’m also in a place where I’m so bored of very traditional modes of speaking and moving in poems, as seen in the behemoth poetry institutions that have their fair share of issues. It really is the age of indie lit journals & small presses—I truly believe that’s where all the best and most avant-garde stuff is being published. In fact, I’m making that claim. Check out HAD (Hobart After Dark) for example—how can you look at a journal like HAD and not believe in the future of writing?
RR: In some of your other works we’ve seen, you pair the language of the poem with a visual background. Is this a technique you intend to continue exploring? How do you see text and image enhancing each other on the page?
GG: Oh, yes! I have a micropoetics chapbook in NAILED Magazine called “no sharp things,” which is about the twenty-four hours I spent in a psychiatric hold while in the trenches of a really abusive situation in college. It was such a desperate time. I wrote all of the poems in the direct aftermath and then packed up my stuff into my beloved VW Bug (named Bernice) and moved to Pittsburgh to start my MFA. In Pittsburgh I went with my mom to the Phipps Botanical Gardens, where she took hundreds of lovely photos of flowers—my mother is a wonderful photographer and avid scrapbooker (which is how I learned to collage). This time with her was one of the first times I felt like I could heal from that abusive situation—so I learned how to use Word to create collages of these floral images and put them behind my poems. The effect was really cool and also meant a lot to me—it added some retrospective hope. Since then, I’ve been toying with Word and Photoshop to create hybrid work and use image/text in new ways. My mentor, Diana Khoi Nguyen, is obviously a huge inspiration to me when it comes to hybrid/digital media—her book Ghost Of really showed me what is possible when you work with image, text, and family archives. Currently I’m working on an experimental nonfiction manuscript called “holly” which is about my grandmother who was murdered in 1976, and my ensuing relationship with and understanding of my father. Initially I spent about twenty-four consecutive hours scanning scraps of text, Emily Dickinson poems, homemade newspaper collages, digital collages, and archival material for this project and have been tirelessly toying with Word and Photoshop to make it all work. I’m very excited by the ways new media can enhance poetics—and I’m in awe of the ways graphic novelists have been employing these techniques for decades—Alison Bechdel changed my life. I love reading hybrid/experimental text and image books—and telling people that, yes, it is possible to create beautiful things in Microsoft Word!
RR: If you were to sit down right now and write another poem with flower imagery, what flower would you choose and why?
GG: Oh, great question. I love planting flowers in my poems. I’m guessing nearly every poem I’ve written has some sort of nod to flowers. I think I would choose Queen Anne’s Lace, my favorite abundant weed—I’ve been planning a big Queen Anne’s tattoo since I was old enough to get one. I used to teach art classes near the base of the Adirondacks, and I had this one watercolor/nature walk activity where I had the kids arrange native wildflower and leaf bouquets in mason jars. Then we painted the arrangements. There was so much Queen Anne’s Lace, and it was so hard to paint—harder than clouds. I love its simple difficulty. I love the ubiquity of it. Other than that, perhaps mums—when I first started dating my partner, Boen (whom I dedicate “Today Is Shrouded in Lavender” to), it was a weird transition because we were the best of friends for quite some time. One night during this awkward friends-to-lovers period, I went to pick him up at his apartment and he was already standing on the porch, looking a bit sheepish, holding a bouquet of red, slightly wilted mums from Trader Joes. They were in a clear plastic Coke glass. I nearly cried—never felt that in love. Now, whenever we get in some sort of argument, he’ll go out and return to me with a bouquet, a coffee, a bottle of wine, you name it. I’ve written about a hundred love poems (a shock to me) since meeting Boen Wang, and many of them are flower-based—I always have at least one bouquet that I get to put in little thrifted vases around my apartment. Man, I love that guy.
grace (ge) gilbert’s work in Issue 8.2: