Interview with Gabrielle Calvocoressi on Rocket Fantastic —
October 15, 2017
Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of Apocalyptic Swing, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, winner of the Connecticut Book Award. Her poems have been featured in The New York Times and Washington Post, on Garrison Keillor's Poet's Almanac, and in numerous literary journals, including American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Paris Review, and Poetry. She is Editor-at-Large for Los Angeles Review of Books, and teaches in the MFA program of Warren Wilson College and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is currently Assistant Professor of English and Walker Percy Fellow in Poetry. She lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.
Nelson: Your note at the beginning of Rocket Fantastic explains some of the complexity around the Bandleader and the special symbol you created to represent that character. Because this innovation is central to the book, can you tell us about what you've done and why that was necessary for these poems
Calvocoressi: The symbol itself came really late in the process. It was my editor, Gabe Fried, and the design folks at Persea that came to me and said, “What do you think about this?” I had known—not just in the book but in many parts of my life—that there was no pronoun or, more importantly, no easily read vessel—which is how I think of pronouns—that did a kind of justice to the figure of the Bandleader, who is me and not me and is and is not other people in my life.
Over the course of writing three books, I’ve thought a lot about persona and what it is to speak in other voices. After many drafts and many failures and a lot of fear and nervousness, this book asks, “What if it’s not that the I is speaking through the voice of a character, but what if we think of all of these voices as a kind of evocation of the self?” And my ability, my gift, my challenge is to have many different beings inside me. So the Bandleader defies definition and is a super-complicated figure—and what I mean here isn’t just a human figure because in some ways that is the least interesting way the Bandleader is embodied—but a figure of awe, desire, need, and power in all kinds of ways, a raw and naked power, the kind that allows one to do what they want. How they choose to legislate that or not can have a lot of different effects.
The thing that’s interesting to me about the Bandleader poems and that symbol has to do with power and how we relate to power in ourselves and others. I think for me in my own body that’s had a lot to do with what I think of as my male body, which is how I identified until I was about seven (and still do in many ways), and how I relate to my feminine body. There’s a quote at the end of the book, “Depending on the day, the Bandleader is this or that”—and I don’t mean that in a trite way; I really mean that. So the Bandleader and the symbol and the intake of breath are me trying to allow the illegibility of my understanding and my need for understanding of my body and my physical space in the world to become apparent—to myself first and then to others. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Nelson: It does, and I like how you’ve articulated it.
Calvocoressi: We’re in a real moment in history when we’re supposed to know everything. We’re really supposed to know and to be aware. We’re supposed to know who is good and bad and know the absolute of what one’s body is, even if the body is neither male or female. I live in North Carolina where there’s the horrible bill that says, “Identify yourself!” or “I want to be able to identify you, and my identification of you and what I say that you are dictates where you get to do something as intimate as relieving yourself.” So the symbol is also not separate from the last years of me living here. I’m really allergic to being legislated like that.
Nelson: And even built into our language there’s something inherently reductive about pronouns, right? When we label, when we say “he” or “she,” aren’t we reducing the possibilities of someone?
Calvocoressi: Well, if I really want to hold onto “he” or “she” I should absolutely be able to do that, no matter what I look like or how I biologically present. At the same time, no one should be allowed to place that on me, no matter who they are. It’s not so much that I’m against the idea of the pronoun—even though I think it’s an insufficient vessel for many people—it’s that there are always people who live outside of that state. People will ask me, “What is your pronoun?” I don’t know how to answer that always, so they’ll say, “I’ll just use ‘they.’” But I don’t know why “they” should be the default. There are times I don’t feel more comfortable with “they”; “they” does not describe me anymore than “he” or “she.” In the book the Bandleader is always linked to the word “whose.”
Nelson: “Whose” is what I wanted to ask about next. The Bandleader’s symbol is the antecedent for “whose,” when we would normally expect “his” or “her.”
Calvocoressi: “Whose”—sometimes people will use that when introducing me. And you can just say my name again and again, or you can just be silent. But “whose” is interesting to me because it holds within it a question, and it doesn’t say that I am part of some specific binary; it says, “Whose,” which could be “whose?” or “who is.” And I’m okay being an answer and a question at the same time.
Nelson: It’s fascinating what it does syntactically in those poems. There’s a delight and a dissonance when we don’t expect it. It does present a question or uncertainty or an additional possibility when we wouldn’t normally think of that occurring in a line.
Calvocoressi: Another main thing in the book is nystagmus. There’s a voice or character (however you want to think of it) that has nystagmus and talks about the shaking eyes and the null point. My eyes are in constant spasm—I mean I don’t see the world moving unless I’m exhausted. But anyone with nystagmus has what they call the null point.
Nelson: And the null point is in one of the first poems.
Calvocoressi: Yes, and it is throughout the book. The null point is where your eyes naturally go to be in their stillest place, where vision is the stillest. Hitting that null point is like being in a trance. One of the things my eye doctor used to say to me was, “Get loose and double.” It’s this moment where you let go into it, and it becomes like meditation. It can be both deeply focused and unfocused at the same time. There’s an unbelievable stillness; it’s like a gong. There’s an interesting perception that goes along with it. It’s been a big part of my life—thinking things are something and then they are not. It’s why I love Elizabeth Bishop very much; she’s always saying, “Oh, it’s that. No, it’s that!”
The “whose” also lets that in; it’s the meditative space of the null point—and I’m not sure my gender and my sex and my visual difference are separate from each other. It’s interesting, another poet who had nystagmus is Lorine Niedecker. Nobody talks about her nystagmus, but it’s very interesting to me. She is an author who really embodies the null point, that depth charge of stillness she can get, and at the same time there is real revelation. I would love to know how much she thought about her eyes. There are a lot of people who say to me something like, “My mom just found out she has nystagmus, and she’s fifty, and she’s never had good balance and never been able to see well.” So I wonder. Niedecker knew she had nystagmus; it’s in various documents. Who knows how aware she was of the makeup of it, but I’m always fascinated by how in her work it feels familiar to me.
Nelson: That’s fascinating. I didn’t know that about her. It’s interesting to think how that might have shaped her style.
Calvocoressi: Or just the way she looked at the world. There’s really no way I can perceive the world without it having something to do with my nystagmus. It’s super interesting. Anyway, the “whose” is part of all of this too. I don’t know how I feel about the word “disability,” but to be accepting of all aspects of my body that are differently made, shaped, or envisioned than other people’s.
Nelson: Thank you for sharing about that. I love the mythic aura of Rocket Fantastic. The hermit, the stag, the fox, the Major General—everything feels of the world while also extending beyond it. At a certain point while reading I thought, “How has she made the falcon more than a falcon?”
Calvocoressi: I made a world, whether or not it’s a world that anyone is interested in. Or what I should say is I was interested in making a polyphonic book that worked like a medieval tapestry. That sounds really predetermined, which isn’t how it happened. I started out with a kind of story in mind—a really thought-out story set in the 1960s with a bandleader. And I wrote that book. Then I went to Marfa, Texas, where I was lucky enough to have a Lannan residency, and I reread that book. It was really not good. It was the extreme edge of persona, when persona becomes really locked down. It was really flat because I had grounded it in all these things. For most of my life I have been interested in—and guided my poems by—who is speaking to whom and for what purpose and through what mouth. The ways we had to ground a reader in a poem—clarity had to do with content; the reader had to be able to identify the speaker and the speaker’s motives. I think that’s fine, but there’s something strange about it that feels very American. Like no matter what our politics are, those are the main things we think are important in a poem.
So I was sitting there in Marfa—really just sitting—in this beautiful house, looking out a window into a distance that is hundreds of miles, just a giant sky. And once in a while a turkey would walk by, which was perfect. I’m being proud of myself with my poems and reading my Russian novels, and I’d turn my head and a turkey would be staring at me, mirroring me. That’s what I am. But I had to figure out if I was just going to scrap it, or was I going to figure out why I had protected myself so deeply in this book that I knew was not just some set piece. I already knew that something big was happening in the book; for me—whether or not it speaks to anyone else—it was the greatest thing I had ever worked on. So I decided in Marfa I was going to stare at the sky for six weeks, if I needed to, and figure out what I was up to. I was lucky to be in Marfa, where there is all this largescale art and land art—Donald Judd and the Chinati Foundation. And I started to look at this art and read about it and think, “What if I’m not interested in stories, and what if I get rid of these main ideas, and what if I stopped thinking about poems as things in series—which felt like an idea that had been placed on me—, and what if I started thinking what is it to write a largescale poem?”
At the same time, I had been reading Hilary Mantel, and I read a review of her work in the London Review of Books. The author was talking about history—how history is just people living their intimate, personal lives, even someone you think of as already historical, like Barack Obama. How history is lots of small stories coming together. Looking at American history, I would say the thing is power and how people manage to love one another even if they’re doing violence to one another. But that idea of history was really helpful to me, and I started thinking, “What if I stripped away the dates and the names and the places? What if I could find other things—started repeating phrases, textures, colors, animals, leaves? What if I could find other things that connected people so deeply and made them feel intimately engaged?” This is a long answer, but I think that’s where myth comes in. I allowed the book to become my own hallucinatory vision. I allowed myself to get loose and double, and I allowed all the figures to come up. I allowed the animals to start talking. I allowed all the voices inside myself to start talking.
And I also wanted to do this thing, like a medieval tapestry—you can step up really closely and there are all these things happening: some kids are cooking a goat; someone is at war with a man touching him and finding comfort in that; some little girl is watching her sister and her father not get along. So that feels intimate and personal, and then you step back and it’s something in the tapestry where it’s all happening at once. So there’s death and life and love and violence, and then there’s the fox looking at you. Another thing about the book that I think is mythic is it’s a book full of animals just being themselves—outside of good and bad. That’s what the gods do. It’s not good or bad; they’re just themselves; they are the energy they are. The fox killing the chickens isn’t a bad fox; the fox is simply being a fox.
Nelson: You mentioned love and violence co-existing. The Dad poems in Rocket Fantastic are fascinating to me. He’s usually, apparently, doing nice things for the kids—taking them for walks in the woods, looking at the stars with them, dancing with them in the yard—but he’s simultaneously an abuser, a petty tyrant. Was that double nature something you sought to examine, or did that emerge as you wrote the poems?
Calvocoressi: I would say that people should perceive that figure however they want to perceive it. What I would say is that he is doing nice things and he is violent. And he is wounded, and he is cruel. And he is wielding power over the other bodies, whether he’s being nice or not. I would say that he is an animal who is not in touch with himself. I think of those poems as being about power and violence and fear.
There are parts of my life where I grew up in very violent spaces—I think because other people in my life had grown up in very violent spaces. As I got older I became aware that someone can think that because they know they love you, you do not think that they will kill you. That is not true in my experience. And I wanted to think about that in this book, and I wanted to think about a certain kind of man who I meet over and over in my life— everywhere from a home setting to a dinner table when I’m a visiting poet somewhere—a man who can use the phrase “I’m joking” when it’s connected to violence and humiliation. You know, “I’m going to beat the shit out of you—I’m joking, come on!” I heard a lot of that when I was growing up. I think a lot of the poems examine that. Somebody asked me last week, “Is it okay that I think this poem is funny? Because I think it is really scary too.” And I said, “Yes!” A lot of the book is like that. But there’s a razor’s edge between “I’m joking” and “I’m going to kill you.” And I think we have a president who is like that, who really thinks his words matter and doesn’t think they matter at all. I think that line of assuming other people don’t think you’re serious as a way of letting yourself out the back door when you terrorize people—that’s something we should examine more.
The book also examines how much violence you can do to someone without laying a hand on them, which is something I’ve thought about a lot in my life. I have been at various times in my life terrified to such an extent that I was on my hands and knees in the corner begging God not to let me get killed—and no one even had to be in the room with me.
Nelson: You’re describing the possibility or threat of violence as actual violence. I agree, it’s so important that we examine that. Violence does simmer throughout the whole book, but it boils over toward the end in “[You can hold a duck down on a rock and cut its head off].” And it is shocking violence in that one poem, but the violence felt almost inevitable or understandable or reasonable at that point in the book. Did that outcome feel cathartic, and did you struggle with arriving at that violent response?
Calvocoressi: That was a poem I wrote in Marfa after I had decided to let the voices of the book come out. There really are poems where, you know, you’re a vessel and it comes through you. That poem was an oracular moment. I feel that it’s one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever written. And I feel like I can say that it’s remarkable—I’ve had enough failures when writing the book. After I wrote it I had to go for a two-and-a-half hour walk. There are the animals and the violence—but also where it ends up, which is that place where the speaker says, “I can’t fight anymore,” but then finds out they can.
We haven’t talked about how this is also a book about war. There’s the line in the poem that says, “everything stops fighting if you look at it right.” In that poem there’s an evocation of terror and what it is to really be beaten. I find it really terrifying—that and what it does to you. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the speaker can now say, “I know what I will do, theoretically, to the person who did that to me: I’d bash their fucking head on a rock”? What is that outcome? What happened to a person for them to come to that place?
When I read that poem aloud people laugh, and then they stop laughing. Once when I read that poem a very well-known male poet in the audience came up to me afterward and said, “You can’t read that poem at a reading.” And I asked why not, and he said, “You can’t come back from a poem like that. They won’t look at you the same way again.” First, I don’t agree with that. What does it even mean—that you can’t reveal things like that about the self? I think it’s a really terrifying and cathartic poem, but the book also turns toward joy.
Nelson: I agree. That poem is toward the end, but it isn’t the final poem; and where we go after that is really important.
Calvocoressi: Without that poem you couldn’t have “Praise House” or the little poem at the end. I feel like until you know your potential for violence and joy, it is very hard to get to a life of health.
Nelson: I felt in these poems a real desire, need, and enactment of healing. For me, it was one of the most powerful aspects of the book.
Calvocoressi: There are so many secrets in the book—not bad secrets, but the book is coded in all sorts of ways. My mom was not well; she took her life. In 2004 I had a panic attack, and it led me to a period that was pretty close to a nervous breakdown. I was always told that at my core I was very healthy, but I was really unwell for a while. Then I started meditating, and I took medication for a brief period of time, and I had a remarkable analyst and a very good psychiatrist. I got into a place that I thought was better, and I moved to Los Angeles—and I love Los Angeles. But between the years of 2008 and 2012—I thought I was doing fine, but I look back now and I see that I was not doing fine. I was really depressed; I was making a lot of bad choices that were hurting other people—choices that were bound up in capitalism and some idea about touring and I don’t even know. I’m still working through what that period was.
I think a lot of the writing of Rocket Fantastic—particularly in 2012, which is when I started reworking the book because it was just as self-involved as I was. In the first four or five years of that book I had become an essentially uninteresting person who thought they were incredibly interesting. I was in a lot of pain that I wasn’t able to work with. I had shut out a lot of things that could help me. And then I stripped a lot of things from the book, and I thought, “Why not deal with your central fear, which is going crazy, and being alone, being broke, and dying? Why not let that in and hold it? Use your meditation skills, use your deep sadness, and hold it alongside the real joys you’ve built every single day?”
The one thing that I held onto from my panic attack that was so helpful was this phrase: “Turn it into joy.” I have this understanding that all energy is kind of the same. There are certain intensities of energy, and they can be horrible or joyful, but you can kind of move one register to the other because they are basically one part of a spectrum. I think the book does that a lot. I had started to think in Marfa and beyond that the idea of turning it into joy is the ability to hold two things at once. To hold the absolute horror of sadness and loneliness and to look at it and be aware of it and also eat soup dumplings or an amazing goat—that was a real thing that was cooked in the ground by these beautiful kids in Marfa, and they would put it on tortillas. It doesn’t mean that people aren’t killing each other all over the world or that I’m not in some way. But you can hold both things.
Healing for me was an ability to stop defining everything and everyone and every part of my life and let it all be there at once. To be my whole self. Something I really worry about right now—across the board—is the inability to hold two things at once. We’re either entirely resentful or entirely grateful. We have to be completely happy about this or completely upset about it. I think about this in terms of capitalism—why isn’t it okay to be aware of the things you want at the same time you know it’s okay you don’t have them? That’s something I’m trying to be okay with. My wanting, my avarice, my envy, my jealousy—I can have these things inside myself while I’m a loving member of a community.
I also think these poems are against shame. The book interrogates what it means to shame and humiliate—and it looks at that hell. The father figure in the book—what he’s doing all the time is humiliating and shaming people, making them small. We all have that in us, so how do we recognize that and say, “Let’s not have that happen today.”
Nelson: I appreciate that. Thank you for being candid. One of my favorite poems in the book, one that is particularly powerful for me is “The Sun Got All Over Everything.” In that poem, the speaker has made a point to grieve, but the day is so lovely and it has other plans. I wanted to try to connect that poem to something you said when I heard you read in Grinnell a few months ago. It stuck with me. You mentioned that you set out to not write about your mother’s death, and then you wrote about your mother’s death. I’ve done that so many times; I’ve set out to not write about my dad, and then dad shows up in the poem. What does that mean for us as poets? And what does that mean about our art when we are only somewhat in control?
Calvocoressi: Yeah, we don’t necessarily get to say what our poems are about, or we don’t get to say what our poems are not about—maybe that’s more accurate. There were a lot of reasons I said I don’t get to write poems about my mother anymore. Part of it was shame. Part of it was the shame that came from the idea that I could only write about one thing. Also on basic levels, it was hard for my family that I wrote about her all of the time. I think it was hard for my dad. I’d turned her into a kind of mythic figure, but what about him? That’s a very human thing to feel. She was an experience he lived through as well. My grandparents thought I was hurting people’s feelings and making people uncomfortable.
I was also concerned about taking advantage of her. She was very poor; she was very ill. She was also a wonderful artist and a beautiful person and gorgeous—all kinds of things. But she was someone who did not have a voice, and she was pre-internet. So no one is really experiencing her outside of my experience of her, and that’s complicated, right? She had her own life, and it is very often the poorest and the weakest among us—because we weaken them—who don’t get to tell their stories. But—and—it’s also true that she is the great mystery. I dreamt about her last night; I hadn’t dreamt about her in so long, and then I dreamt about her last night. I’m never going to stop wanting to know what would have happened had she lived. I will never stop wondering who I am in relation to her, and if she loved me. You know, basic things. And it’s also true that life moves on. I remember her and I forget her in different ways on different days. It’s happened that I forgot the anniversary of her death, and I felt terrible the next day, but I can’t even explain why I felt terrible. That poem is about that—and the lure of Los Angeles, a place that is so beautiful that you can forget things, even the real horror that was going on inside myself and the world.
Nelson: Similar, I think, is my experience with my dad who passed away some time ago. Maybe parents are just unavoidably mythic; they’re our first gods. And in examining them we are trying to understand who we are and what we might become.
Calvocoressi: Totally. I feel like I know a lot of people who will say that their best friend is their mom or their dad, and maybe they really do know their parents, but I guess I’d say that my parents are essentially unknowable to me on some level. I spent a lot of time trying to conceive of my dad’s life before me because that’s when my mother was in his life. We all never really lived together as a family. It’s actually really useful; we’ve done a lot of healing through me trying to imagine his life before me. But, yeah, parents are like the forest I’m looking out at right now: I know my way, but I could also get totally lost.
Nelson: I love that metaphor. You mentioned that you think of Rocket Fantastic being a book about, among other things, war. There’s a figure who recurs, the Major General; he’s probably the most overt manifestation of that subject.
Calvocoressi: Those poems originally were written to Captain Lovell, the astronaut, and in a way they read as more hopeful. Originally the book actually took place in the 60s. There was a notion of a boy or girl writing to Jim Lovell as he’s in orbit, but that got totally stripped away, partly because I didn’t want to locate it in time. It also added a character and a psychology that I ended up not wanting. But I had to ask, “Do I want the poems not addressed to anyone?” I realized that the point is to have the child’s voice writing to someone who may or may not be listening. Similar to when we pray, when we talk to God or whoever, we tell our specific intimate stories to a powerful being who supposedly wields enormous power over the world, who also rules from silence. There’s never an expectation of a verbal response, “a letter back.” Maybe what’s going to happen is that I’m not going to get sick or my tomato plants are going to grow better or I’ll have money to fix my car—maybe that’s how God’s going to speak to me. But I don’t really think of God that way; although I talk to God all day long.
Near the end of the book, there’s a moment of realization about all of these men that are put in positions of power and who are in charge of the lives of so many people, and in that way also in charge of the future of the world. What is it to reach out to the power supposedly keeping us safe by putting bodies in permanent danger? Some of the Major General poems have been published, some haven’t. They are sort of hard poems to publish. Poetry published a few of them, but they are sort of secretively some of my favorite in the book. I think that a lot of work gets done in those poems, and I think they’re pretty vulnerable poems.
Nelson: The epistolary tone is great too, and they are woven throughout the book, so we come back again and again to this circumstance where the child is speaking to somebody who’s unknown, and there’s this evocative history to the “conversation,” even if it’s one sided.
Calvocoressi: One of the things that happened in the last four years is that the infant son that my mother gave up for adoption and never told me about found me. So in those poems, there’s also the imagining of the brother and trying to make that imagined figure more human, whether or not the child is aware of doing that.
Nelson: Wonderful story. Thank you, Gabby, for the beautiful book and the conversation.
Calvocoressi: Thank you. I’m grateful to you for sitting down with the book and for getting lost in it.