“I am not seeking to articulate a political position. To make poems I seek paradox and contradiction: the opposite of an ideology.” — David Gewanter
This Sunday, October 21, at 8 p.m., ASP’s Rose Solari is reading with acclaimed poet, essayist, editor, and professor David Gewanter in a new poetry reading series at Second Story Books, 2000 P Street NW, Washington DC. In preparation for their reading, Rose talked with David about his work, particularly his most recent collection, Fort Necessity. Here is a part of their discussion:
Rose Solari: I first got to know you when we both participated in a reading of excerpts from the book, Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, edited by Joelle Biele. I was playing New Yorker fiction editor Katharine White, and you were the magazine’s longtime poetry editor, Howard Moss. I remember the enthusiasm with which you dove into your part, and wondered if perhaps there is something about that era of American poetry — the 1950s through the 1970s, when Bishop and her contemporaries, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, and others were flourishing and, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, “making it new” — that has significance for you in your own work. Are you as a writer influenced at all by that period in poetry?
David Gewanter: My literary background? I didn’t know of any poets in college, didn’t know of Lowell until reading of his death-in-taxi, 1977. Then I snuck into grad school to study with Thom Gunn, seemingly a formalist and anti-confessional poet, who wrote a hard review of Robert Lowell. But there also at Berkeley was Frank Bidart, Lowell’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s student, supporter, and friend. Years later, Bidart asked me to help finish editing the Lowell Collected Poems — “it will only take six weeks” he said. It took us five years.
Bishop once said that confessional poems were like stuff scooped up from the bottom of a fish-tank. She was Lowell’s great friend. I like the fractures and inconsistencies between modes, and the troubled dinosaur steps of big-deal poets.
RS: Your latest collection, Fort Necessity, may be the most political of your career, but a sense of social and political history runs throughout your work. I wonder, do you think of yourself as a political poet? Do you feel an obligation to speak to the times we live in, and to the political power structures of the past?
DG: I’ll try to answer for my book, and ignore DH Lawrence’s warning: “trust the tale, not the teller.” Fort Necessity has poems on the body’s fate, the corporeal costs of making objects, or art, or inventing the self. The title poem comes from my childhood, once “helping” my dad do an autopsy on a working man. Part of his life, part of his work, had killed him. That leads me to explore factory work, accidents, violence, convict labor, assassinations; and to make documents into formal poems. But I am not seeking to articulate a political position. To make poems I seek paradox and contradiction: the opposite of an ideology.
RS: Finally, one of the poems I am most moved by in your new book is “Stick the Landing,” about the American gymnast Kerri Strug in the 1996 Olympics giving her body up to certain injury in order to help US women gymnasts win the team gold medal. Your depiction of the girls who
“…live inside a peter pan curse:
our never-grow-up darlings, waving brightly
in track suits, fresh, unstained: no blood on the leg
to announce the woman in the body…”
is immensely powerful and so deeply and disturbingly observed. I wonder about the origins of the poem, how you came to write about this topic. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
DG: I remember Kerri Strug’s crippling jump, and the judges’ sudden, iconic gesture of alarm: hand over the mouth. This was in 1996, and a year before my first book came out. I knew there was a poem in that moment, but the ‘writing moment’ came 20 years later, when I had a kid. And — corrective recall — I might have over-remembered it: this video shows only one or two judges cracking her mask.
David Gewanter is the author of several collections of poetry, including In the Belly(1997), winner of Ploughshares’s John C. Zacharis First Book Award, and War Bird (2009). Gewanter writes a layered, lyrical poetry of ideas that often explores themes of family, nature, and reason. Reviewing The Sleep of Reason (2003), a finalist for the Academy of American Poets’ James Laughlin Award, poet David Orr described Gewanter as “a writer who seems to possess that most curious and necessary of literary attributes—a moral vision.”Gewanter’s honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award and a Witter Bynner Fellowship at the Library of Congress. His poetry has been included in The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology (2000, ed. Michael Collier) and New Voices (2002, ed. Heather McHugh).
Rose Solari is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, The Last Girl, Orpheus in the Park, and Difficult Weather; the one-act play, Looking for Guenevere, in which she also performed; and a novel, A Secret Woman. She has lectured and taught writing workshops at many institutions, including Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing; the University of Maryland, College Park; St. John’s College, Annapolis; the Jung Society of Washington; and The Centre for Creative Writing at Oxford University’s Kellogg College. Her awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, and Academy of American Poets’ University Prize, The Columbia Book Award, an EMMA award for excellence in journalism, and multiple grants.