Miami Book Fair: Poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi on Miami and Bee Charmers

Born in Central Connecticut, poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi now lives in Los Angeles and teaches. Her accolades are numerous--Stegner Fellowship, Jones Lecturer, Rona Jaffe Women Writer's Award, Bernard F. Conners Prize, Connecticut Book Award--but even they don't prepare a reader for the richness inside her debut The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart (2005) and her newest collection, Apocalyptic Swing (2009), both from Persea Books.
My interview with her on October 30 was incredible.  Enjoy.

On Miami
I used to go to Miami all the time with my grandmother, in order to visit my aunt. It was so different from the rural places where we lived on the east coast. I was in Miami when Reagan got shot; when the pope got shot; when the American hostages in Iran were released. I have all these poetic-type memories of watching television in a typical Miami home for these historic moments. Even though I'm in L.A., I think about Miami all the time. People have said to me, if you love LA, you tend to have a tremendously great time in Miami. Both are cosmopolitan cities; American but not American. LA's also a Spanish-speaking city. Whole groups--Hispanic, African-American--moved to L.A. after the war, so some parts have the feel of a Southern city to me.

The idea of Miami is still so exciting to me. When I was little, on one of those visits to Miami with my grandparents, I went and saw a bee charmer out near the Everglades. The bee charmers let the bees cover their full body like a blanket. Later I learned how they do it is they take the Queen bee, put her in a box, and put the box in their mouth. So all the bees are trying to get at the queen. But that day I was there something must have gone wrong with the Queen because all of a sudden I knew--even though I couldn't see what it was--that something had gone wrong, and my grandmother quickly turned me away and got me out of the there. Much later, that image of the bee charmer got into one of my poems. [In her first book, The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart.]

On poetry and boxing
I grew up in Connecticut with my grandparents, and my father would come and visit on Saturdays. Do you remember Wide World of Sports on ABC? My father would watch the fights and the track events like the shot-put and the hammer-throw. (Boxing isn't on television anymore.) It was that era when there were a lot of lighter fighters who were stars--the Spinks brothers, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Boom Boom Mancini--and I liked watching the lighter guys. It was a point of connection with my father.

I grew up in a world that was violent. My mother was mentally ill. I felt little and isolated a lot of the time, and something about the nature of those fights--get knocked down; get back up--was interesting to me. I became completely obsessed with the idea of it; the idea of being strong. Particularly at that age, I didn't have a lot of control. I wasn't super safe and watching the fights touched on that.

Eventually my grandfather gave me a speed bag and put it up in the basement; put a milk carton under it so I could reach it, and I would stand there for hours hitting it. He--my grandfather--was a lawyer and he owned a few drive-in and second-run theaters, so I also watched a lot of movies. And I realized that a boxing match is just like a film in that there's an arc to it. It was a story I was watching over and over--for however many rounds, you'd watch the episode play out in the larger narrative. My poems operate like that--like movies. You can write about anything. It's all about obsession.

But I was nervous that the boxing poems [from her new book, Apocalyptic Swing] were going to shut out a whole group of readers. I was in Berkeley, California recently, reading to a group of women over 65, and I decided to what would happen if I read a bunch of boxing poems. As soon as the Q&A period started, one woman raised her hand and said, "I don't like boxing but for a long time, I had a job by myself and it felt just like that." Everything is metaphor in a way. When I'm writing poems based on real people and events, I'm already asking myself, Where is the place on the bone of that historical body that fuses with me? And if I write from that space, I feel like I don't need to tell the whole story. What I'm really interested in is the energy of it.

I want to start doing fight nights where you host a fancy dinner and everyone gets super-dressed-up and watches it on the big screen. If I was going to a blog, it would be about boxing and food.

On Los Angeles and the poetic process
Living in L.A. has opened up a world of writing to me; it's allowed me to think about a new kind of tone, which I think comes from the fact that there's a different kind of light here because of the ocean and the heat.

We live in mid-Wilshire, on San Vicente Blvd, four or five blocks south of the La Brea tar pits, near Little Ethiopia. The center of LA is extraordinarily walkable, as it's built for the Orthodox Jewish community. When I was writing my second book [Apocalyptic Swing], I did an 8-mile walk a day through the neighborhood to get my work started. One day when I stopped to look through the fence at an archeological dig they were doing at the La Brea tar pits, and a guy had just pulled something out--a 40, 000 year old mud turtle shell. He let me put my hand through the fencing and hold it, so there I was, standing with my burrito in one hand, and a mud turtle shell in the other. And I thought, is this a poet's paradise or what?

It's good for my writing day to walk into these Orthodox communities where life is about the communal nature of ritual, where commerce is built around the community and not necessarily dependent on the larger system, because I'm also engaging in a ritual. So it's like I'm walking into the meditative space. And I'm also listening to music in order to prepare my head for the poems.

I have a whole playlist of horribly wonderful pop songs for each poem. One wouldn't guess, reading Apocalyptic Swing, that Neo figures very prominently in the world of that book. Also Lenny Kravitz and a lot of Jay-Z. Taylor Swift did something profound to my poems. I like thinking about the good aspect of cliché. When I'm walking in the neighborhoods, that's the kind of music I'm listening to, at a volume that allows the city sounds in, too. Pop is highly cinematic; it begs for overwriting, which I think is important. I think at first you need to see the poem in a bold and romantic way and write that down. Then afterward you can be the muscle that pushes against it and makes it do something.

In December, I was in a cab in New York, and the driver drove off with my laptop and my tiny iPod that had the playlist for the book. I didn't realize it at first. I was sick at the time, and I went in to take a nap. I woke up alone two hours later with a feeling that something was really, really, really wrong. I found the cab driver and called him, but he said there was nothing in the cab. So I ended up losing both, but I was actually more devastated by losing the shuffle playlist. Luckily, my book had gone to the publisher and was in galleys. If it had not been in galleys, I don't know what I would have done.

On formal structure
I used to be terrible at the craft, which is funny because I studied music for a long time, but [form] just felt like math to me. Then I went to Stanford and took a class with Ken Fields. He was able to talk to me about form in such a way that I began to understand the physical implications of it, where iambic pentameter resided in your body, its psychological and emotive possibilities. For instance, the villanelle is a poetic structure that has an obsessive possibility. Gradually, the public and private aspects of poems made sense to me. I understand now why you'd have no other choice than to turn into a poem into, say, a pantoum.

I wrote my first pantoum for this new book [Apocalyptic Swing]. It's about the Evangelical preacher/baseball player Billy Sunday. For that one, I was actually anticipating the form, not the poem, and I decided I would try to make it longer than any pantoum I'd read. In other words, I was giving myself the chance to write the worst poem in America. I also thought about the meaning inherent in the repetition of the form. What if the poem became about the fallibility of memory? How, when we keep saying something, we end up interrogating the self? How does saying something over and over implicates the self? I'd actually held out reading it publicly for awhile, but I read it last night and it's interesting to hear how it builds.

A poem, after all, is an architectural space, and it's a place where you can do so much destabilizing of the reader because the form itself can serve as the stabilizing element. [Form's] the great shape-shifter; it allows you to find parts of the poem that you wouldn't have been able to find otherwise. I love how formal poems un-do me. I like to think about dangerous they are. It's good to think about where Shakespeare's finding the danger in the forms he's using. And where is he finding the problematic? The beautiful?

Calvocoressi reads from Apocalyptic Swing on Sunday, November 15 at 1:30 p.m. in Auditorium Pavilion C (Parking Lot #9), along with fellow poets Kelle Groom, Stacey Lynn Brown, and Helen Pruitt Wallace.

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P. Scott Cunningham