An Interview With Gerry LaFemina
Gerry LaFemina’s most recent book is the prose poem collection Figures from The Big Time Circus Book/ The Book of Clown Baby. His book The Parakeets of Brooklyn received the 2003 Bordighera Prize in Poetry and was published in a bi-lingual edition of English and Italian. His other books include Shattered Hours: Poems 1988-94, Zarathustra in Love (prose poems), Graffiti Heart, (winner of the 2001 Anthony Piccione/MAMMOTH Books Prize in Poetry), and The Window Facing Winter (New Issues, 2004). He’s also co-translator with Sinan Toprak of contemporary Turkish poet Ali Yuce’s Voice Lock Puppet, co-editor with Dan Crocker, of Poetry 30, an anthology of thirty-something poets, and co-editor with Chad Prevost of Evensong: Contemporary American Poets on Spirituality. Currently he directs the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University where he is an Assistant Professor of English. You can also read his poem Identity Theft here.
Alfaro: What are your three favorite books?
Gerry: Novels? Books of poetry? Prose poems? I’ll assume that “collected poems” books are out of the question….
I’ll start with contemporary novels–no need to have me rattle off three classics– though not in any particular order…. The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter, How All This Started by Peter Fromm, and I Get on the Bus by Reginald McKnight.
Books of poems gets really difficult. Damn, really difficult. Winter Stars by Larry Levis, Dark Blonde by Belle Waring, Hurdy Gurdy by Tim Seibles, The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World by Galway Kinnell (I know I’m cheating a bit here because this is a brief selected poems–but I made the rule so I can break it), and Towns Facing Railroads by Jo McDougal.
Realize if you asked me this question again I could give you five different books. So ask again in a few minutes….
Alfaro: Wow. Looks like I have some reading to do. Did you aspire to be a poet or was it a natural progression?
Gerry: I always wanted to be a writer. My earliest memories are of my mother reading to me and going to a type of preschool/daycare at the Brooklyn Public Library. So I read a lot. I wanted to be an author (or an astronaut or an attorney)…. For awhile I wanted to paint–I was terrible. And for awhile I wanted to be a musician–I still play music, actually–so I wrote some really bad lyrics. And of course, like a lot of high school guys I wrote a lot of bad poems about girls which I never showed to the girls in question (gratefully so). I didn’t know what a poem was in high school–it’s taught so poorly for the most part; but when I discovered poetry at the end of my freshman year in college, I was hooked. It allowed me to be musical, to paint images, and to use language–all things I loved.
Alfaro: Awesome. How did you get into teaching?
Gerry: Thomas Lux, one of my former teachers, once wrote that “no poem ever bought a cheeseburger/or not too many,” so I don’t know what sort of viable option I had to make a living. I could have done something else–no doubt–; I could have worked office jobs or used my skills working for a think tank. I was once asked to run for state office when I lived in Michigan…. But really, I love talking about poetry, and love getting people to think about literature differently.
It became apparent to me pretty early on that I should teach, so in my junior year at college I did some classroom work at the NY High School for the Humanities, and then when I was considering grad school I had to choose between teaching and writing or just writing (University of Montana had offered me the Hugo scholarship which was money just to write), but ultimately, I wanted to have a skill that would pay the bills–so getting the experience teaching at Western Michigan University seemed the smarter bet. As it turns out, I love teaching–the students give me such energy.
Even now I’m at a writers conference teaching a poetry workshop. Well not this very second, but this weekend–that’s where I am.
Alfaro: Sounds like the life- doing what you love. You said you “love getting people to think about literature differently.” How do you accomplish this?
Gerry: Well, I think I get students excited about literature in a few different ways–one, I talk about literature like I’m in love with it. I’m excited to talk about poems or stories–and I make sure I pick work that the students can relate to. I also get them talking without fear of being right or wrong. I want their responses first. Once they feel like their opinions matter, then we can dig deeper into how poems or stories make them respond that way.
But when it comes to teaching creative writing I think I maintain high standards with an open aesthetic sensibility. In other words–I don’t want students to write poems that sound like or look like mine on the page, etc., but I want the poems to do what their writers intend for them to do at the highest possible level. So in an introductory class, we start with an aesthetic baseline, with students going through the anthology and choosing poems they like from it, and sharing them with the class. This sets standards for what the students’ tastes are. Then we move forward. In upper level classes they’re required on the first day of class to bring two favorite poems to share with the class. That way someone who loves Jean Valentine and someone who loves Jim Daniels will have a sense of what type of poems the other person loves, and that allows each student and me to calibrate my responses to their own poems.
Alfaro: I see. What are your thoughts on the state of poetry today?
Gerry: Well, I think that poetry right now is a very healthy art form–I mean there are more poems being written–more small presses, more websites like yours, more readings. All of this is good. And there’s a great diversity of poetry being written–spoken word, avant-garde, LANGUAGE, the traditional lyric, the meditative, etc.–and there’s a lot of cross-genre pollination going on. None of these things are bad things–there’s a lot of basketball being played in America, and that’s great for the sport….
All that said, I’m not sure what to make of much of what I read. There’s a lot of poetry that leaves me mystified–which I don’t mind–or cold, which I do mind. There’s this whole school of poetry of hip-irony which when done well (ala Tony Hoagland), I like quite a bit, but when it’s just hip and ironic for the sake of irony, I’m left to ask “who cares?” It just seems like a pose. And there’s also that poetry that seems to be just an anecdote with no soul–poetry that I think I would write if I ended up taking my cues from my family when they tell me some story and then say “You should write a poem about that.” Both of these poems can be well crafted, sure, but ultimately they’re donuts. I like a good donut. I enjoy them, but I couldn’t have them for dinner–they can’t sustain me.
And I won’t go on too long about LANGUAGE poetry or the hip avant-garde in which the poems seem to alienate the reader. This notion of disrupting the foundation of language just seems to me an act of arrogance or smugness–the educated few can get it (and often the “educated few” has nothing to do with schooling, but rather has to do with whether you’re in the writer’s inner circle and so have access to what he/she is doing)–and who cares about the rest of you….
I guess I want a poem that makes me feel like Dickinson claimed a poem could make a person feel: as if the top of my head had been lopped off.
And I want a poem that feels like something was at stake for the writer–not personal info or something like that–but rather that the poem had to be written, and not just to fulfill some poetic “project.” (And what’s up with this??- So many students tell me they need a project–each poem is it’s own project and it defines its parameters, not the other way around….)
Alfaro: I agree with you completely. What is LANGUAGE poetry? Is that like those people in chat rooms who type with caps lock on because what they are saying IS MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN PEOPLE WRITING IN LOWER CASE?
Gerry: LANGUAGE poetry is sort of the direct descendent of Gertrude Stein’s work. The words are there to deconstruct how we think of language–detangling words form what they signify. Or trying too. It’s terrible stuff–too heady, too intellectualized, etc.
Alfaro: I guess this is along the same lines as the disrupting of the foundations of language and how you find this to be arrogant? I see this idea as analogous to literary criticism. Personally, I see literary criticism as the antithesis of literary art and I find no value in it. How do you feel about literary criticism and what do you think is its purpose?
Gerry: When I was in grad school taking a literary criticism class, I said to the teacher that I felt like critics were vampires sucking the blood from what we were reading and from the authors themselves. I think, now, that I oversimplified things, but I say that with trepidation.
I think that some critical viewpoints can open up the text in interesting ways–I know a lot of writers are deeply connected to new critical ways of reading stories and poems–the close reading, the understanding of authorial intent, which I think is crucial, and I think we all balk at notions that suggest authorial intent doesn’t matter (isn’t that wonderfully ironic, too: if authorial intent doesn’t matter, then it must be assumed we can say the critical reading of the given poem or story is moot because whatever the author of the critical piece intended doesn’t matter either….).
I also think that some of the critical observations are just ridiculous: we can give feminist readings of Hemingway all we want and it will not enlighten us any more about the text, though it might make some statements about Hemingway or about the society of its time. Ditto, feminist readings of Adrienne Rich seem to over simplify Rich’s work–as if she were only ruled by this particular feminist agenda, which she obviously transcends.
Alfaro: Right. What are your writing habits? Do you write daily?
Gerry: If you mean do I put pen to paper (and when I write poems I work with pen and legal pads) everyday. No, I don’t. But I don’t consider that the only aspect of writing. There’s a large part of my life that is dedicated to my writing–image gathering, listening to language and how it sounds as people around me talk, reading. All of that IS writing as far as I’m concerned. And when I’m “not writing,” I am looking at my poems in draft, etc. etc. all of which are crucial to the process.
Usually a poem takes shape these days when language–usually a line or two– connects to an image. When I’ve noticed something and language is connected to it, usually there’s a reason for it–it’s reverberating with my internal sensibility of the day/week/month. Once I have that line I might write it down or I might repeat it to myself over and over, but eventually it attracts other language and whatever the emotional X factor is, it finds itself in the language choices.
I love not knowing what’s going to happen next, love the tenuousness of that process. And I love editing–love the honing process, love reshaping the poem, moving things around, defining and clarifying for myself and the reader what the poem is “about” on the meta levels.
Alfaro: Can you talk more about ‘image gathering’ and its process?
Gerry: Well, I’m a firm believer that imaginative writing requires an image–and that the relationship between abstractions and image is crucial to poetry. Consider, for instance, Charles Wright’s work: the landscape he describes is often a metaphor for the internal landscape. Or at least it seems so to me.
So I look for images and usually image comes connected to some aspect of language that makes it compelling to me. For instance, about a year ago I was walking through Frostburg and saw that the chestnut tree in front of the Catholic church had been shedding its nuts. And the husks had cracked, squirrels had come, etc.
So I ended up with the line: Open husks of chestnuts on the streets by St. Michael’s. I liked the rhythm, the “uh” sound of husks and chestnuts.
But then I have to ask: Where is this taking me? So I have to pursue, running with the idea of hollow spaces. In early drafts, then, I followed it in this way:
the empty space like a mouth agape
like her spot in the bed now that she’s gone,
like the tomb of Jesus on the third day.
Now I had no idea I would get to this! Of course, the Catholic church setting helped, as did the word “agape” which is also agape–the term for Christian love. But one has to have these images gathered in order to shuffle them up. One has to trust the leaps one makes.
I’m reminded of Robert Bly’s great book LEAPING POETRY in which he talks about the importance of imagistic leaps to successful poems. I trust my instinct and my eyes and ears.
Alfaro: That could pass for good advice. Do you feel that your body of work displays any reoccurring themes or anything that you keep returning to?
Gerry: I don’t know about themes–per se. I mean, my obsessions are my obsessions, and they have changed over the years, but surely I have some images–birds, snow, the work of painter Joan Miro, and other things that return. The goal, of course, is to not have those returning images do the same work.
Alfaro: Is there something you have been working on lately? A new collection perhaps?
Gerry: I have a new manuscript finished. It’s called THE VANISHING HORIZON and it’s a bit different structurally from the others. It opens with a poem that returns home. Then there’s the bulk of the book, which is a series of mini arcs that travel all over the place. The book then ends away. There are also a bunch of really short lyric poems in the book–each titled with the name of a tropical fruit–that demarcate these arcs.
And really it’s a book that examines a kind of vagabondness that I’ve felt recently. I left Northern Michigan, where I lived for a long time, and haven’t really found a niche for myself since (despite landing a good job, making myself part of a community, etc.)–so I feel a bit alien. So this quest for some sort of grounding even as the book moves geographically is central to the book. Hence its title.
But I’m also working on putting together a full length collection of prose poems (tentatively titled Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist) and a book of stories….
Alfaro: Very cool. I enjoy the prose poems of yours that I have read. Prose poems seem to be getting popular these days.
Gerry: I love the open field of the prose poem–it’s a place to run into the chaos, to play in ways I don’t play in my lineated poems. I remember one teacher in grad school–William Olsen–saying the problem you have when you find your voice is that your stuck with it. Prose poems seems a way for me to become unstuck with my voice–I can be funnier, loopier, crazier, more surreal, more playful, so it allows me–whether actually or just in my head–a different vantage point with which to play with words.
Alfaro: You mentioned going to the Brooklyn Public Library when you were very young and also, teaching at Northern Michigan and now at the Frostburg Center. Can you give a geographic history of places you have lived or traveled to? Is there some place that you have visited that you have become particularly fond of?
Gerry: I was born in Brooklyn and lived in NYC (Brooklyn, the Lower East Side and Staten Island) till I was 18. I went to college at Sarah Lawrence, which is practically in NYC, but I also lived briefly in Bucks County PA, and I toured the country playing with a punk band though you don’t really see America that way.
I went to grad school in Kalamazoo, and lived in rural northern Michigan for years with my first teaching job. Now I live in the Western Maryland mountains, but I get to DC and Pittsburgh (both cities I love) quite a bit as they’re only about 2 hours away. And I get back to NY often, too.
By now I’ve read all over the country, and traveled quite a bit: I love London and the Caribbean. I like Chicago. And Asheville, NC. Many of the poems in the new book take place in the Caribbean or NY–two places I feel quite at home in.
Alfaro: Do you have any advice for poets or writers in general?
Gerry: Read. Read a lot. Write about what you read. Don’t heap praise willy nilly.
Pay attention. To the world. To your use of language, etc.
Don’t rest on your laurels.
Read Gerry LaFemina’s poem, Identity Theft.