Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of the forthcoming Rocket Fantastic. She is editor at large at Los Angeles Review of Books and a founding curator at Voluble, a digital makers’ space from Los Angeles Review of Books. She teaches at UNC Chapel Hill and is a queer lesbian living in North Carolina. Her poem “[I like it when]” can be found here along with a reading by the author. It appears with two other poems in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review. In addition, four more of her poems appear with recordings on KROnline here.
Can you talk a bit about inventing the symbol to stand in for third-person singular pronouns? Poetry editor David Baker called this, “a pictorial body, a musical sign, a split and multiple inscription, a primal gasp.” How did this idea first come to you? Have you used it in other pieces?
Well. I didn’t invent it, which is important for me to say. It’s a musical symbol that my wonderful editor Gabriel Fried and Persea came to me with when I came to the conclusion that I just could not use a gendered pronoun in those poems.
In my second book, Apocalyptic Swing, I didn’t use personal pronouns in most of the poems because I’m deeply interested, as a queer person and artist, in what vessel we put ourselves in when no one is looking. That can be in relation to desire or power (maybe those things are one in the same for some people) or other aspects of the self in relation to others. I was interested in that. And I remain so.
In this new book and in my life, I am less and less comfortable categorizing the vessel I live in at any given moment. I can talk about that in terms of grammar because grammar is, like form, only of interest or use to me when I think of its most organic function . . . the way it shapes and destabilizes bodies (sentient and not). So perhaps what I can say is Persea listened when I said, “These poems are not accurate with any pronoun I can think of or make a sound for.”
I think this is one of the really great things about having an editor that I’ve worked with for so long. And of being at a smaller press. I don’t know that anyone else would have helped me find a way to articulate what I was trying to articulate. But Gabe did (he always does). And so we came to the dal segno, which gets really close. The body of that symbol feels open to me and many-bodied, which is how I think of myself. I think it’s a vessel that any body might be able to drop into or put on. Or not! I have to admit I’m terrified of what people will think. It is a terror that feels so much like being young and not able to make clear who I am. It’s an old fear and this book works into a lot of that.
The vessel moves throughout the book and when I read aloud (I think you’ll be able to hear this on the KRO site). I let my breath make the sound that best suits my vision of my body that day. And if everyone did that as they read the book, it seems to me it would be very beautiful: to not let anyone tell you how to read it, to just be whoever you are in that moment.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
In some ways it’s changed a ton and in many ways it’s stayed the same. I am a huge walker and daydreamer. I might say that I’m a professional daydreamer. And that’s always been the case: the desire and ability to send my mind elsewhere and make new worlds.
So a lot of my process still has to do with giving myself the space and time to just open to making a world in my mind long before it ends up on the page.
Giving myself that time and believing in the importance (to my process) of going slow is something I’ve really had to learn and that I keep learning. I am someone who needs to fail (silly word) a lot before I come to the final incarnation of the poem. I need to have time to figure out what I’m actually trying to make. In some ways this isn’t so different from my day-to-day life with a visual-neurological difference (nystagmus). I’m often wrong about my first perception and so I have to breathe and let my eyes get loose and double and see what it is I’m truly seeing.
I’ve had poets tell me that a person needs to have a book come out every three or four years so they won’t be forgotten. The world moves so fast that it seems like, yes, a person could be forgotten. But. I have had to come to terms with and then be liberated by the fact that in order for me to make the art that surprises and challenges me I have to take as long as I take. I have to risk being nobody too. Which I am anyway and always will be.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Music. For instance, Rocket Fantastic would be nothing without Alice Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, and Room Full of Teeth. And also my contemplative life, which consists of everything from sitting meditation to prayer to picking figs off the tree in the morning. That sounds precious but it’s really true. The ability to slow down and also listen to rigorous things that won’t allow me to simply live on the surface of experience.
And, of course, reading. Always reading. For my new book Russian novels were the thing that influenced me so much. Just getting lost in them. And then reading the work of so many poets I admire: Oliver Bendorf, Jennifer Chang, Adrian Matejka, and Ross Gay. Right now I’m reading the new Joanne Kyger compilation and it’s blowing my mind.
If I can spend three hours a day inside books and contemplative practice and then get jolted into the world through activism and being really present with my partner, my students, and my fellow citizens? That’s the recipe for more poems. And just a deeper and more fulfilling life.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I mean. Seriously. I was never the top of my class or the person everyone though was the “one.” Thank goodness there’s never the “one.” Or if there is then there’s also lots of the rest of us who just keep working.
After college, a poet I really admired invited me to their office and very kindly told me that I was extremely smart and had no talent as a poet. And that I should save myself the trouble and stop.
That was the best and worst piece of advice I ever got. Because I did stop for a bit. And then I didn’t. And then my life happened and it’s been a very lucky life that’s come from hard work and chance and not giving up.
That poet changed my life in the best way. And taught me exactly the kind of poet and teacher I do and don’t want to be.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
Um. I am thinking about:
(Which is why I never get grants I apply for! How does one make that into something that seems like a project? But I know there’s something there. I’m off to go find it.)