Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review recently sat down with poet and educator Gillian Wegener, Spring/Summer 2019’s Featured Poet, to discuss poetry, teaching, literary activism, and poetry’s responsibility to our rapidly changing larger world. Valuable and sometimes unexpected insights followed.
Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief
MockingHeart Review: Hi, Gillian. Good to talk with you, and I wonder if we could discuss your poetry from our latest Spring/Summer issue. In “How to Handle Americans,” which appeared in MockingHeart Review 4.2, you write, “Please read the directions before / handling your Americans. / You’ll find an Allen wrench useful. / There will be parts left over.” These lines are good aphorisms to observe. In poetry and life, what parts of ourselves become extraneous—unused or unsung in some way? How can we address them?
Gillian Wegener: Oh gosh, what an interesting question. I think that we Americans are quite good at using only parts of us that are most needed at any given time, sometimes because it is safer to leave a part of us out of the tumult and sometimes because we dive in head-first and don’t think. It seems like often we leave our logic behind, or our emotions, or our compassion. Perhaps this is a fault of humanity in general. Jack Mezirow, a philosopher in adult learning, said that often adults are quite good at overlooking that which makes us uncomfortable; we sort of let that part of our lives blur over and we are able to ignore it even when whatever it is really requires attention. This is a sort of survival mechanism, but I’m not sure it allows us to fully experience the world around us. Poetry helps with this. It needs its own kind of urgent attentiveness, and it doesn’t let us ignore the uncomfortable. Poetry calls us out and connects us to each other through its urgency.
MHR: You cofounded the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center. Can you speak to your work with the organization, and how poetry influences your life?
GW: I live in a town (Modesto, California) in a largely agricultural area that some people have considered a bit of a cultural wasteland. This could not be farther from the truth. We have incredibly vibrant theater and visual arts and music scenes in our area, as well as poetry. I helped found MoSt Poetry Center to help bring poets in the area together, to give them a shared sort of identity as poets, and to help promote poetry in our county. So, we do a lot of community events, readings, and workshops that help bring poetry to children and the elderly and to places people would not always think of poetry like juvenile hall and craft fairs. One of the things we do that gets people the most excited is Poetry-on-the-Spot. We bring our typewriters to an event and based on three to five words a person gives us, we write a poem for them right there, on the spot. We’ve probably written hundreds of these poems and every single time we do this, there are people who find meaning in poetry when they have previously thought of poetry as not for them. It is such a pleasure to do this for the community and to see the joy people get from these poems. I often tell people I work with that I truly believe poetry makes the world a better place, and I do.
Poetry is such a huge part of my life that it is really hard to say how it influences me. It has certainly influenced my teaching, my identity, what I read, and how I choose to spend my time, and contribute to my community. I’ve been writing poetry since I was in junior high, so it has always been a big part of who I am. Images stick with me and metaphors help the world make sense to me. Poetry is everywhere around us, and I feel lucky to be tuned into that.
MHR: Your poem “An Aspect of the Apocalypse, Alive but Just Barely” includes the lines “Because the hearts are piled in the corner / we can continue to delay and delay.” Can you speak to how emotional awareness figures into this poem, and perhaps others you’ve crafted? How do you suppose we interact with the world through our work in emotional ways?
GW: I do think that poetry is inherently emotional, and so I don’t think there are poems that can ignore emotion. Maybe some very experimental, fragmented work attempts it, but even that evokes emotion the reader, so emotion is just part of what we do when we create any kind of art. This poem was, obviously inspired by Brooks’ poem, but is deeply informed by my own reaction to our presidential administration and how helpless that has made me feel — helpless to stop Trump from being elected in the first place and helpless now to stop what is happening to our democracy and even to our language. And now all those hearts, our hearts, are piled in the corner while we wait this out. This is very emotional for me and for many I know, even as I watch people who are pleased with this administration have a different kind of emotional reaction. As a citizen, I can do little, but as poet, I can write my distress and share that with the world and hopefully connect with others. I think a common thread runs through some of my answers here in that poetry (and other art forms as well) create connections between humans that we need in order to be fully human.
MHR: As a longtime educator, have you found your creative and pedagogical interests working together? Also, would you share a bit about your teaching interests?
GW: I am very lucky that in the work I do now as an academic coach (I work with new teachers and on various district initiatives) I have the chance to teach poetry to students of all ages. I’ve written poetry with students from pre-kinder programs to junior high students, and I’m able to work with high school students as they prepare for Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation contest. I also do workshops for adults a few times a year, so I keep my hand in teaching even though I am not regularly in a classroom anymore. I also teach creative writing classes weekly to teens in juvenile detention, and I feel very lucky to be able to do this with them. All in all, I get to introduce people of all ages to new concepts or ideas or poetry or forms that they haven’t worked with before, and this is a pleasure.
As far as my teaching interests go, I really love teaching junior high students especially, and I love teaching writing — not just poetry, but all writing. Writing is one of those challenging areas of school for a lot of people. They either consider themselves okay at writing or not good at writing at all, and once that self-image is created, it is very hard to change. One of my main areas of interest is working to break down those barriers to writing with teachers so that they can help their students feel better about it. Children are pretty creative writers from early on; we teachers have to tap into that and grow their confidence and ability, so that they know writing is something they can do.
MHR: In your Poet’s Statement, you discuss how one of your favorite activities is to respond line-for-line to a given poem, and to that point, you mention that “An Aspect of Apocalypse” was inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks. Whose work do you imagine would be the most difficult and/or rewarding to respond to in this way?
GW: I find that some of the more challenging poets from the canon are good to play with in this way. I’ve worked with Wallace Stevens’ poetry and Ezra Pound’s. Part of the joy is simply paying such close attention to the masters’ works—their line breaks, their word choices, the movement of ideas in the poem. So much can be learned from that. Because much of poetry reaches for a universality, playing with a poem in this way can reveal that universality in a different way. Wallace Stevens may have thought about how the world changes when we place a jar on a hill, but how does responding to his poem line by line reveal our own ideas about how nature is changed by our presence or how we are changed by nature? Not every poem written in response to another becomes a poem worth sharing, but there is almost always a line or an idea or a phrase worth salvaging and taking forward. Rewarding is exactly the right word for this exercise.
MHR: Our current world is fraught in a number of ways—politically, climatologically, financially, and so forth. Your poems address some of these concerns to varying degrees. In your estimation, how can poetry bring awareness, and perhaps even response, to larger issues like these?
GW: As has been said so many times before, poetry makes the personal universal and the universal personal. My experience with climate change may be expressed in something as personal as the devastation of the Camp Fire last November in Northern California, which hugely impacted members of my family, but someone else who does not have that personal experience may read the poem and make meaning of it in their own life and therefore, make the poem their own. I think that is the way poets bring awareness to these larger issues. I can try to write a wide-ranging poem about abstract concepts like economic inequality or immigration or political chaos, but if I can get specific about those issues and write from personal experience or imagination tinged with the personal, I think that is going to be much more meaningful for readers.
MHR: Your sense of the lineation is intriguing—choices to enjamb or endstop a line subtly or radically impact one’s poetry, and the fourth stanza of “Apocalypse” is a striking example (“You, prone. All / curmudgeon, you . . .”). How would you describe your relationship to the poetic line?
GW: Well, in that particular poem, the poetic lines all come in some way from Ms. Brooks, and I cannot take credit. The line that inspired the one you have above reads “You rise. Although / genial, you….” So, deep gratitude to Ms. Brooks for pushing me to think about line, and in this particular poem, tone in a different way than I might ordinarily have done. In general, though, I do spend a lot of time thinking about line. Left to my own devices, I have tended to write long lines which has everything to do with the rhythm created when reading the poem aloud. In more recent poems, the rhythm has been more driving and so the lines have been shorter in order to accommodate that. I try to end a line with a word I want ringing in the reader’s brain for the split-second it takes to move to the next line, but other than that, my relationship to the poetic line is sort of that of minion. How can I craft a line that is going to serve the poem as a whole?
MHR: Do you have any projects in the hopper or already underway? When can readers look for the next Wegener collection?
GW: Hmmm…good question. I have three chapbooks sort of making the rounds of various contests and submission calls, but I don’t have a full-length collection ready to go. I recently started a doctoral program in education, and so my first thought was that poetry would have to be on hold for a couple of years. What I have discovered is that it isn’t so easy to put poetry on hold. It bubbles up, whether I am making time for it or not. I’m so grateful for this. It is such a terrific feeling to know that poetry will find a way through the din of academics and make room for itself.
MHR: I can speak to that poetic persistence as well! Though I’m in a Rhetoric and Composition PhD program, poetry is a constant companion. Could you tell us a bit about the process surrounding your writing? What environment do you find best suited to creative work? Creativity is often ritualistic (for instance, I often work best when writing to jazz). Do you have any sort of writing custom, or ritual?
GW: For many years, I have done most of my writing at local coffee shops. My family and I live in quite a small house and having a family buzzing around, while joy-inducing in all kinds of ways, does not make for a good writing environment. So, I’d go out for a few hours on weekends and write. I prefer writing in the morning, and I almost always start my writing by reading some of my go-to poets: the late Jane Mead and the late CD Wright chief among them, but also Brenda Hillman and Charles Wright and the late Larry Levis. Reading before writing puts me in the right frame of mind and often points me in the right direction for the few hours I can give over to my writing.
Gillian Wegener is the author of two collections of poetry from Sixteen Rivers Press, The Opposite of Clairvoyance (2008) and This Sweet Haphazard (2017), and a chapbook, Lifting One Foot, Lifting the Other from In the Grove Press (2001). A winner of the 2006 and 2007 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, Wegener is co-founder of the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center, has served as poet laureate for the city of Modesto, and volunteers to teach creative writing to girls in juvenile detention. A long-time educator, she lives in Modesto, CA with her husband and daughter.