Molossus is a proud partner and collaborator with the forthcoming Silver Lake Jubilee, and has assembled literature and comedy line-ups for its monthly lead-up show, Serenade Sunset. The show will take place on the last Wednesday of the month at El Cid (4212 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026).
The first event features Timothy Green, Megan O’Reilly, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and Sesshu Foster, as well as a comedians J. Chris Newberg and Iliza Shlesinger, band The Denouement, and other entertainers.
As Gabrielle Calvocoressi was nominated just this week for the Los Angeles Times Best Book Prize 2009, for her collection Apocalyptic Swing, we’re proud to feature the below interview. Find earlier conversations with Timothy Green and Sesshu Foster by clicking their names.
A Conversation with Gabrielle Calvocoressi
Gabrielle Calvocoressi was one of my first serious poetry teachers, and she introduced me to many of my favorite poets of the past and present, including Robert Hass, Marie Howe, and Richard Hugo. In fact it’s probably fair to say that without her influence Molossus might not exist. She lives with her partner in Los Angeles and her second book, Apocalyptic Swing, was published by Persea in 2009.
How was the process of writing your second book different than the first?
Well, I think for many people the first book is a tremendous and also fairly overt testament to the people who’ve taught. I have been blessed with so many incredible teachers and I think The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart was a kind of homage to all they had given me. Mark Doty, Marie Howe & Michael Klein nurtured my love of poems and helped me see the possibility in myself. They taught me that a person could write a rigorous poem that was also compassionate. Perhaps a way of putting it is that they taught me how one could be a good citizen in a poem, how the poem could be the polis. That’s the not the same as being a “good guy” so much as it’s about how we need to be honest with ourselves about the difficulties and the motivations and the pressures of the poem.
Lucie Brock-Broido gave me permission to find the poem I felt but thought I could never write. She showed me the poem, “The City” by Cavafy and challenged me to get spare as a means of getting wilder. That was one of the great gifts of my life. And Richard Howard taught me how to speak through other voices as a means of making myself a symphony. Eavan Boland taught me about taking all those gifts and shaping them into the poet I wanted to be publicly and privately. She taught me about standing at the intersection with bravery and vulnerability.
So the first book is me singing my teachers and doing my best. Apocalyptic Swing is still a testament to all I’ve learned and it also a really concerted effort to let myself see what I sound like if I’m on my own. It’s a real love poem to Los Angeles, a city I came to where I didn’t really know many other poets and where I didn’t have teachers in the sense I had before. It’s sort of like Elton John coming to Los Angeles and writing these amazing songs that he’s never recreated again. Not that I’m saying I’m that good, just that I understand how the light and hills and beauty and threat of this city can push you toward a personal music that opens and surprises you at the same time.
Your poems integrate history—often even narrate it—without becoming overburdened by facts. What’s your process like? How much research do you do?
I do a lot of research and I also make a point of stopping right before I stop having questions. I want there to be enough mystery left in it for me that I have to go searching in myself for what is really pushing me to write about or alongside these subjects. So I don’t want to become a reporter in a traditional sense and yet I feel it’s very important (particularly in the case of persona) to know that I am writing from experiences that aren’t necessarily my own. I need to know enough details that it doesn’t seem like I am patronizing anyone or that I presume to know their experience.
In terms of history I am most interested in events where the “viewer” has to consider their own level of responsibility and culpability. And a lot of times there are no easy answers and if there are answers they certainly aren’t found in the newspaper. In terms of research I do all kinds of stuff. One of the great gifts of being older and having some kind of success (whatever that means on a given day) is that I don’t question where my gut leads me in terms of research. So, if I wake up and something in me says, “Today, you’re going to read comic books” or “Today, you are going to listen to the same Regina Spektor song on loop for hours as you walk” I know there’s something in there for me. And I think that keeps my work surprising to myself. I think it makes it a living and changeable thing.
Similarly, I wonder what it is that incites your historical poems. Do you watch a lot of the History Channel? Or do you understand your own narrative nested within those larger historical narratives? (That may not make sense.)
Amazing! This speaks to what I was just saying and it totally makes sense. And I love that you talk about the History Channel because my work is really deeply influenced by media be it movies or music or television. I grew up in a family that owned drive-ins and second-run theaters and my eyes were terrible. So, until I got glasses, the only thing that was really clear to me was the movies. Really. I am convinced the way I live and love and look at things is so influenced by genuinely not having a real boundary between the movies and the world for much of my childhood. And a movie or a song is a larger narrative that (at its best) creates intense intimacy. That’s something the encyclopedia couldn’t do when I was little (though I loved the encyclopedia and now that you can access it online with videos it may be different). So. Yes. Yes, I always think of the poem as standing at the intersection of the public and the private. Or I think of it as a room in the afternoon with the blinds shut just a enough that it’s a bit dark but the light from the outside can still trickle it. Funny, that’s a real Los Angeles image that I probably got from movies when I was little. But it’s right. Being inside the intimate space and letting the world come in. Not the other way around. Is that also voyeurism? I guess, maybe. The idea that the public poem is one that can be watched no matter what kind of intimacy is going on.
There’s also a physicality, something that reminds me of what B.H. Fairchild calls our “fear of the body,” but with a simultaneous fascination, a sort of tugging at the boundaries of that fear. Any thoughts?
Yeah. I love that notion of tugging (or I might say pressuring) the boundaries. I’m not sure I would characterize it as fear of the body but perhaps. Perhaps “awe” in the oldest sense of being terrified and also ecstatic. I like trying to think about the puzzle of the body and the dream of bodies together. Particularly as a queer writer who has been so warmly welcomed in the mainstream world with my first book, I’m interested in how one might take that gift and talk in a public space about the mystery of the body and gender. What is to be a woman who is a feminist and a lesbian and also really understands the way men love and sometimes even objectify women in romantic movies? What is it to cop to the fact that one loves to love beautiful women? Alternately, how does one chart the particular queer heartbreak of loving someone who will never love you because your body is not the body they need. I think so much of those years in middle school and high school and college. How there were those ecstatic and deeply painful (ah. Awe) moments of love and loss happening at the exact same time. And that’s a queer experience and also universal. Reaching for the thing you may have for a moment but will not ultimately be in concert with.
And pronouns are a mystery to me. They’re like the library at Alexandria.
What are you reading, listening to? What projects are you working on?
Let’s see…. what will I admit to? I’m secretive about this stuff and yet Los Angeles has this effect of pushing me out of my shell because it is a city where creative life is so much about collaboration.
Okay. Well, I’m reading the Taylor Branch trilogy on Martin Luther King, Jr. And I have a nationwide book group of artists and thinkers doing that with me and anyone can hit me up on Facebook and join. There’s a whole mellow and cool system.
I am reading Torah and Art Green’s work on the more mystical aspects of Judaism (my use of that word quite possibly indicates the degree of my newness on this path). That’s every morning and means a great deal to me and my work.
I’m reading, Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian and having my freakin’ mind blown.
I’m listening to lots of music from the late 60s and early 70s that was recorded from Los Angeles. That’s part of the project for the third book.
I’m listening to Girls In Trouble, which rocks my world and will totally rock yours. Honestly. Poet/Songwriter/Composer/Biblical Scholar Alicia Jo Rabins. It is unrealistically good and the most profoundly real thing I’ve heard in a long time.
Today I’m falling in love with the innocence mission all over again. Just the earnestness and beauty of them:
I had hopes for my music.
And I imagined their faces said,
Well you can’t do that, you silly thing.
God, He gave me a brave heart.
But God, He gave me a chicken head.
And I felt I’d failed.
— “Beginning the World”
In terms of new projects. Come follow me @caracaraoriole & look around on The Owls wordpress site. I’m thinking out my new project (which includes but is not limited to the third book) in those places. I’m seeing what happens if I think of this next big thing as conceptual art. I’m excited and terrified.
I’m also writing sports commentary at The Best American Poetry. Look under Sports Desk.
And I’m walking around the city. A lot.