Interrogate the Slow Jam: A Conversation with Gabrielle Calvocoressi
What I’m Reading
All sorts of stuff! The thing that is totally blowing me away is Henry David Thoreau’s Canoeing in the Wilderness. It’s gorgeous and unexpected and just a small miracle. I’m reading tons of things for this new book I’m researching. Some of the books are: Waiting For the Sun by Barney Hoskins, and a number of books on the Vietnam War. Yesterday I read So You Want to Build Your Own Planetarium! (exclamation mark is the author’s).
I will also say that I am not someone who has really ever been into fantasy, but good gracious the Game of Thrones books are incredible. It’s amazing I ever make it out of the house.
Why I Started Writing
I think that I had the same experience as many people who make anything, which is that I had things happen to me when I was young that seemed somehow unspeakable, and I was trying to put voice to them. The most obvious is that when I was thirteen, my mother took her life and that was so vast and something that we didn’t really talk about in the house. I just went to school the next day. I couldn’t figure out what to say or how to explain how I was feeling or what was going on to anyone. So, I began writing. I wouldn’t have called them poems at first—I wouldn’t have known to call them that. But I began putting voice to something that was going on. It wasn’t until later, when a camp counselor said “oh, those are poems” that I realized “oh, those are poems.” Even before that, I was aware of this dynamic between this silence filling the world and me wanting to push into it and up against it and be in conversation with it, and that drove me to both read, then later to write, and also to look towards people and be in conversation with them.
I grew up in a very small town; my eyes are not great and I did not walk well for a long time, so I spent a lot of my childhood sitting and listening to other people talk about their experiences of the world. My grandfather was a lawyer in a small town in Connecticut, and people came to the house to tell their specific stories—“Someone is keeping this on the lawn and I don’t like it there!” something like that. But every single person who came to tell his or her story told it differently. That became a very big force in my work. There were these events that happened and everyone felt very intimately involved with them; they felt passionate about them; they felt angry about them. Yet, no one experienced events the same way. That was one kind of music.
Moving alongside the other part of my life was my mother, who was very mentally ill. She did not live with us, and she gradually became increasingly poor, and increasingly marginalized from both my own life and society in general. I think that from a very early age, I was trying to figure out where I stood within all of these different kinds of silences, both actual sonic silence—people not talking about things—and the silence that comes from a society allowing someone to get as sick and as degraded as my mother was. I wanted to know how these things work in the world. All of that is still a very big part of my life and a part of my writing process—thinking about this other unspoken space and how can I be in conversation with it.
From very early on, both music and film played a huge role in my life both as an artist and as an individual. Part of that comes from the fact that my grandparents owned second-run theaters and drive-ins. There was this world of movies in my life that was really profound, and because my eyes are so bad and the movies so large, I really got lost in them. Movies were the only things I saw clearly, so my relationship to reality was different; it was cinematic. Music is like that, too. I played the saxophone from the 3rd grade until I was about 17 years old. Initially, it was music that I went to to express myself, and that continues to play out. All the poems I read for this relay have to do with music. The first poem, “Acknowledgement, 1964” was inspired by John Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement” from his 1963 record A Love Supreme. My second poem, “Rosary Catholic Church” speaks to a larger secret, which is that I was listening to Coltrane’s “Alabama” while writing my second book. I listened to it again and again and again and I couldn’t really figure out what it was that was calling to me or what I was thinking about so much. We know that song is an elegy, a reaction to the Birmingham Baptist church bombing where four young girls were killed. Coltrane actually follows the intractable speech pattern Dr. King uses throughout his eulogy for those girls. And that speech pattern combined with the music and this formal rigor—the idea of two artists working together for convergence—became a huge part of the second book. That speech pattern—Coltrane, who’s really at a crossroads in his own musical life, is working with it; he’s not playing along to it, he’s working with it. He’s about to have this huge break, this huge shift in his musical vision. When you listen to Dr. King’s eulogy, there’s a moment where it feels as if he’s going to break from his message of nonviolence. You can hear the chatter in the background; you can hear the crowd really beginning to respond to that. There’s a pressure in that moment that can happen in the best poems. And in that moment in “Alabama,” Elvin Jones, the drummer, begins to go berserk; it’s just so incredible.
Music is something that continues to really push me in my own work. I have these long listening days that are in some ways close to religious practice and prayer practice and influence my work on a day-to-day basis.
I have been so lucky to have teachers who are not only remarkable poets, but also really remarkable citizens of the world and the world of poetry. When I say teachers, I don’t just mean people I studied under as a student in workshops, I mean people like Greg Pardlo, who named me as an influence—which amazes me because he is such an inspiration to my own work.
But no one has influenced me or my poetry as much as my first poetry teacher, Mark Doty. I was a freshman in college and writing these dreadful, dreadful poems. I don’t even think I understood how lucky I was to show up in class and have Mark teaching my workshop—even now, this is staggering to me. I was the only freshman in his class, and Mark struck an amazing balance between being rigorous with me—he never shied away from saying, “This isn’t working”—and having compassion and incredible patience. He would say to me, “You have a voice, you just haven’t found it yet.” He was very generous with me. I see that in his work too; he has compassion for the world without ever closing his eyes to the darkest and most difficult parts. And he remains a generative force in my life in all sorts of ways.
One of the great gifts in my life over the past couple years is being able to read as much as I do. I love Adrian Matejka and have gotten to know not just the work, but the person as well. He has an incredible book called Mixology. We are both deeply invested in contemporary culture and popular culture: How can the things that people don’t always think of as “art” be filled with so much beauty and potential and be a charge and power in our lives as writers? And how can we make things out of those beautiful, everyday objects? I have this line in one poem about interrogating the slow jam—Lie back. / Interrogate the / slow jam.—Adrian and I have talked a lot about that. Who knew that Al B. Sure! would be such a great influence? There’s this feeling to the music we were listening to in the ’80s and ’90s that continues to influence our poems. Adrian is in constant conversation with everything he takes into himself, every part of the world. He is a democratic poet in the best sense of the word—there’s no one who is not welcome into his vast and remarkable imagination. And from all of this, he creates poems that are incredibly rigorous, challenging interrogations—and also commentaries—of the world we live in. He is a great poet for our generation. His poems manage to be powerful and beautifully wrought enough that they are timeless in a way that they will be read for years and years after he and I are both dust.
The Best Part About Being a Poet
I get to meet people like Adrian. I get to be in conversation with so many incredible poets, so many incredible musicians and writers and maybe even more than that—I was a lonely kid—I get to spend so much time talking to people. In the past week, I’ve read at a bar for the River Styx, then in Southern Illinois, where I was given a Tim Riggins jersey for Friday Night Lights because people knew that I love that show. Then I went to the University of Maryland and at the same time got an e-mail from a librarian in a tiny town in Texas (Denton, Texas), who had been writing to people all over looking for me because one of her students—this is a school with 235 kids between kindergarten and 12th grade—had read one of my poems and was writing an essay about me for the state-wide writing competition. I wrote back to her and now I’m going to Denton, Texas, to talk to this group of students in this tiny town, which is like the town where I grew up, and that’s what I love. It’s not so much that I have a lot to say. I just really, really like to listen. I want to listen really hard for the rest of my life. And maybe I will have things come out of all that listening that I can speak about.
Favorite Line of Poetry—Ever.
I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place.
—Elizabeth Bishop, from “Santarem”
I think it’s central to her work and also to mine and perhaps even to my way of being in the world. The space between reality and perception, believing one thing to be true and then having to rework that notion. That’s very important and interesting to me.