Alex Dimitrov interviews Gabrielle Calvocoressi

I met Gabrielle Calvocoressi at a dinner for John Ashbery last fall. Her much talked about second book, Apocalyptic Swing, had left a big impression on me and I was happy to finally have a conversation with her and find out that she’s just as generous and smart as her poems. One thing I admire about her, and which you’ll see in this interview, is that she doesn’t shy away from talking and thinking about the big issues: our secrets, obsessions, histories, identities, the polarizing world we live in, the gods we worship, etc.  Apocalyptic Swing was a finalist for this year’s LA Times Book Award. Calvocoressi has also been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including a Stegner Fellowship and Jones Lectureship from Stanford University, a Rona Jaffe Woman Writer’s Award and a fellowship to Civitella di Ranieri in Umbria. Her poems have been featured in the Washington Post and on Garrison Keillor’s Poet’s Almanac. She also writes the Sports Desk column for The Best American Poetry blog and is the Virtual Editor for Broadsided Press. She tweets @gabbat, @broadsidedpress and may be writing her third book @caracaraoriole. She lives in Los Angeles.

Alex Dimitrov: I’m in love with your new book, Apocalyptic Swing, and one of the reasons is because it speaks of, and to, so many different moments in our collective memory and history as people living today. It feels contemporary yet tinged with a kind of American nostalgia—there’s Elvis and boxers, Matthew Shepherd and the quarterback down the street. Can you talk about the concerns which the poems were written from and how you thought about the historical and personal narratives we’re all working through?

Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I think nostalgia is a great word, both in the way it takes in memory and the way in which it refutes it (or speaks to the fallibility of the idea). This book is in many ways taken up with the notion of what could have been. It begins by imagining a world in which my parents each go west to Los Angeles without each other, thereby saving themselves from their marriage and (to some extent) from me and the complications I may have caused.  And as the book goes on it considers all manner of desire and longing: the longing for an other, longing for community, the longing for a body that makes both of those things possible in the way that one dreams it.

For me history is important and it’s also simply another story. I’m interested in the stories and figures that we are drawn to and those that we tend to shy away from. Elvis is fascinating to me both because my mother and I both loved him and also because he is so deeply androgynous. I think of all the drag kings that work within what I might call “the Elvis body.” The way he is so traditionally masculine with the pompadour and the leather outfit or the soldier’s suit and yet there’s a clear feminine flip side to that. Or perhaps, more interestingly, he is actually not as easy to identify as he initially seems.

That’s a big concern of the book. What if you simply can’t tell. Or what if you simply allow yourself to not be able to tell what someone is? Does that change the rules of desire? Does it even the playing field in terms of desire at the same time that it makes the world more dangerous.  I think of history as being so much about bodies. What does it mean when we allow ourselves to think of history as a kind of drag we slip in and out of. Maybe I’m Elvis and maybe I’m a fighter, maybe I’m a woman pilot, maybe I’m a boy in Wyoming. Maybe I’m one of those figures outdoors and someone else entirely when the woman I love takes me inside.

Dimitrov: That’s a great way to think about history. I guess I’m interested in the relationship you have to your “I”, the lyrical “I”, in terms of a queer identity. And I know this is a very loaded and complicated thing to bring up, one which we discuss a lot at Wilde Boys, the queer poetry salon I run in New York. Obviously desire and identity are always coded, and coding itself is incredibly queer, but how do you approach thinking about queerness in your writing, if at all? And when I say queer I’m thinking more than same-sex desire, as I’m sure you are. I’m thinking of the politics and power and outrage that were behind that term in the late 80s and early 90s. I think many of the poems in your new book are incredibly political, like “Fence” for example.

Calvocoressi: You know, it’s funny. Queer was a word I was really uncomfortable with for many years and now I use the term much more than “gay” or “lesbian” in terms of my artistic and political life. I get a bit nervous about saying that because I believe deeply in the importance (at least for myself) as identifying as a gay or lesbian person. I think those words need to stay in the language because they’ve been fought for and people continue to die for them in literal and symbolic ways everyday.  So. I’m a lesbian writing this answer. I’m also a queer person and a queer artist.

And the book is a deeply queer book. And a lot of that has to do with the “I,” which in this book, is a pretty cagey proposition. One thing that was important to me was to try and have as few identifying pronouns as possible in the book. As I say that I worry it will sound like some kind of parlor trick. It wasn’t meant to be that at all except perhaps as a kind of formal challenge to myself. Instead it had to do with the notion of desire and yearning and how we as a culture tend to assume that men and women experience desire differently. I actually think this is particularly true of the culture’s notions of the way lesbians and gay men experience desire (one group being so highly sexualized and the other being desexualized in ways that makes us both caricatures). I began working on this idea in my first book with a series of poems about an adult drive-in. What does it mean to be a woman who occasionally objectifies women. What is to identify with the male protagonist in the movie and want to love a woman that way or be loved in that way?

I think this is where the notion of queer identity begins to come in for me. When you make it difficult for the reader to identify the gender of the speaker you really destabilize the poem. You also bring the reader to a place where they have to interrogate their own idea of both readership and desire. And also power.  The poem (to me) is a contract as much as anything else. That means we both have a responsibility in our engagement with it. To me a poem that is successful brings the reader to a place where they are involved and perhaps even complicit in what is going on. “Fence” is like that. I don’t say that the boy is Matthew Shepard because it matters and it also doesn’t. What matters to me is that some people know that poem is about him and an increasing number of people don’t. I am interested in that because not recognizing the poem is about him may speak to a positive change in the culture in terms of acceptance but it also (and I believe this deeply) indicates our capacity for forgetting which aids our capacity for violence of every kind. I think queerness has to do with memory and vigilance. The understanding that making people uncomfortable or making it difficult to assign labels of any sort is a way of forcing them to be part of the contract of the everyday, if for no other reason than they are having to find a way to keep standing as they look to get a foothold. They have to be present and vigilant as a way of keeping safe. Which, I may add, is an experience many gay and lesbian and trans people are deeply familiar with.

Dimitrov: I want to talk about God and spirituality because I feel like we’re not supposed to. Or rather, it’s another complex relationship we have as queer people—how we understand transformation in relation to any kind of belief system. I’m interested in the queer self thinking outside of and beyond the queer body. In Apocalyptic Swing there are prayers and psalms and epistles, as well as a series of poems titled after churches bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. How does faith operate in these poems, and in the book in general, which as you say, is deeply queer?

Calvocoressi: Amazing. Yes, it does feel like we are not supposed to. “We” meaning: queer people and thinking people and people who’ve been shut out and people who don’t vote with the Republican block in this country. For much of my life I grew up in a home where saying I believed in God and prayed every day would have been much more troubling than saying I was gay. Though the moment I walked out of that house the exact opposite would have been deeply and dangerously true.

To me, faith is the other great silence in so many of our lives. Silence in terms of its meditative capacity for deep revelation and compassion. And also silence in the way the closet is an enforced silence. It has been much more challenging for me to talk about my spiritual life in public than to discuss my sexuality. Part of that is because I’m in flux in terms of my path but there’s also the fear (and I really mean that word) of being misunderstood or categorized in ways  that aren’t accurate. That feels a lot like it felt when I was in middle school and the kids were yelling things at me on the bus that I knew recognized some vital part of me and completely debased it at the same time.  The desire to keep quiet as a way to keep safe and also to somehow protect something that in one’s own life is really beautiful and often confusing.

I’m using the word faith because it’s a word I am really engaged with both in my private life and in the book. I think “spirituality” is a great word and works for a lot of people. For me personally I use the word faith because it is such a challenge to myself. Every time I say I am a person of faith or even a religious person I have to interrogate what that means. I have to press against the sharp edges of the parts of those words that really don’t rhyme with me and the way those words are used to limit the freedoms of myself and so many others. To say I am a person of faith is to both make a statement and ask a question of myself. It is to place myself in the conversation of a complicated world that has room for me and would also like to see me kept quiet. That is very much like being “out” in the world. Queer is a good word for this. I could make an argument that to be a person of faith, particularly in a western sense in the world you and I tend to move through is pretty queer. It’s one of the places where “queer” doesn’t necessarily align exclusively with same sex desire. It makes some people very uncomfortable when I talk about faith and queerness as linked but I believe it.

In terms of the book I think faith is also the right word. There are prayers and praise poems. God is in evidence in various ways, perhaps most obviously through silence. In the book so many people get knocked down. People get beaten and debased and dehumanized and they keep getting up. That’s a kind of faith. They get off the mat. They get up off the street. They get up off their knees. Even when they shouldn’t, when it would be safer and maybe even smarter to stay down.  The two figures who don’t get up have been literally or figuratively beaten to death. Which is worth remembering and honoring. Because remembering is another thing queer people do well. It’s another way we rise.

Dimitrov: You begin the poem “Box Fugue” with a kind of postmodern adaptation of Rilke: “For here there is no television/ that does not see you”. American culture is overstimulated with media, to say the least. And I know we’re both on Facebook and Twitter, and probably a hundred other things. How do you think these new forms of media have seeped into our lives as writers? Twitter seems so intriguing to me, like it’s modern day haiku with an an incredible immediacy and ability for access. I’ve tweeted random notes before that have ended up as lines in poems, or sometimes someone else’s tweets will take me halfway across the world and under some bridge I never thought I’d be standing under—and I’ve found that inspiring. What about you?

Calvocoressi: I really dig Twitter. I think it’s a place to make art and think about intimacy and the public and private voice. I find it to be a very queer space; figuratively in terms of the way anonymity and immediacy is worked out and literally in terms of how many queer theorists and drag kings and queens and queer artists are up there talking and linking and making work. Like so many people, I started on Facebook and I like it a lot in terms of all the people I meet and reconnect with.  It also feels like a space that actively discourages the making of art and as a result I am deeply suspicious of it at the same time that I enjoy it. I think it is increasingly becoming an advertisement and I do think the games and the farms and the virtual gifts are part of a consumer culture that is pretty insidious. Fun if you can manage it but I think lots of people can’t.

A question I ask a lot about all sorts of things is, “What’s the experiment and what was the hypothesis?” I wonder that about Facebook. I have no doubt that all these roll outs we see were planned at least in some way from very early on, maybe before the site even became available to most people. My feeling is that the experiment has to do with the lengths we’ll go to feel popular/liked and what we’re willing to give up in terms of privacy to attend to our loneliness in some way. That makes me pretty uncomfortable. It’s an amazing site and I also wonder. Twitter (at this point) seems less about making friends. They don’t use that terminology, which I like. Twitter is about listening in and watching and following people. That is problematic in itself and can get downright creepy in terms of its relationship to voyeurism but I think that also is what brings it closer to the world of making art. The ways in which Twitter seems a bit dangerous (at this point) seem to me to be similar to anything one makes: it can be solipsistic, poorly written, unnecessarily cruel, poorly thought out, just a lot of useless noise, dumb. But that’s more interesting to me. I figure I have to wrestle those angels everyday when I sit down at my desk. And I like the 140 character limit. And I like the way you can build a story there. There are plenty of people just chattering up on twitter but there are other people who see it as a new genre. And I love that. I like any space where I can watch folks think.

I don’t think privacy is possible on Facebook. Even in the inbox. There was a period where I would say I was able to have an intimate conversation in my Facebook inbox but that doesn’t happen anymore. I can still be private on Twitter. I can create a feeling of privacy on Twitter in terms of tone. I can genuinely have a private interaction in terms of a tweet that might say one thing to most people and something more layered and specifically parsed by the person I’m directing it to. Even though the word Twitter evokes a sort of restless sound I think it’s possible to be quiet up there. I can’t do that on Facebook, which is to say I can’t be creatively generative. Which may be my own limitation. And may just not be the point of Facebook just like it’s not the ice cream sundae’s job to nourish me. I’ve got a garden full of kale for that.