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Interview with 2018 Poetry Prize Judge: Gabrielle Calvocoressi

The 2018 Poetry Prize is open until March 31st. In this interview, final prize judge Gabrielle Calvocoressi discusses vulnerability and changing as a reader, Amazon algorithms, experimental poetry, and much more.

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Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s first book, The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, was shortlisted for the Northern California Book Award and won the 2006 Connecticut Book Award in Poetry. Her second collection, Apocalyptic Swing, was a finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her awards and honors include a Stegner Fellowship, a Jones Lectureship at Stanford University, and a Rona Jaffe Women Writers’ Award. Her poem “Circus Fire, 1944” received The Paris Review’s Bernard F. Connors Prize. She teaches at the MFA programs at California College of Arts in San Francisco and at Warren Wilson College. She also runs the sports desk for the Best American Poetry Blog.

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1. What’s a poem you’ve read recently that has been haunting you? What do you love about this poem?

You know, I just read “The Seafarer” for the first time and was blown away. I read a basic translation (that is not the Pound translation) and it was that experience of finding a whole new way of thinking about landscape and “quest,” which is something I’m really interested in. I immediately started doing work around it in class. I had a wonderful experience at U of Wisconsin where I got to be in Lynda Barry’s drawing lab (Thank you, Oliver Bendorf!) and we made maps and wrote our own Seafarers. What is it to write a queer quest poem, a dis-poetics quest poem? It’s really been extraordinary.

Here’s the poem. Just these first lines get me so deeply:

I can make a true song
about me myself,
tell my travels,
how I often endured
days of struggle,
troublesome times,
[how I] have suffered
grim sorrow at heart,
have known in the ship
many worries [abodes of care],
the terrible tossing of the waves,
where the anxious night watch
often took me

3. Have you changed as a reader in recent years? If so, how, and why?

Do you mean in terms of giving readings or reading books? I suppose the answer to both is “Yes.”

In terms of reading publicly I am trying to be more vulnerable. To let the true vessel of my body (with its unnamed gender and its nystagmus and balance issues) be totally present as I make my way through poems. I am trying to answer questions deeply and honestly when asked. Which I suppose is about being more compassionate with myself and also being open to make mistakes and misspeak and know that’s all part of human life.

In terms of books I’m always trying to be a new reader. I know some people think reading super widely is not a sign of seriousness, that one should find one’s area of interest and keeping opening to that. I understand that and am also always getting so much out of things I don’t know. For instance, I am reading so much fantasy fiction right now. JY Yang and Ursula LeGuin and Zen Cho come to mind. I like to know about what I don’t know.

Of course, as a reader of poems, I feel I always need to have a beginner’s mind and go looking for new poets (or poets who are new to me). Joan Naviyuk Kane’s new book just came in the mail. I’ve read her poems in various places but I have to say I have not read that work as deeply as I could. What a gift to get to read all the books now. And I also love how one writer leads me to another. I have to say I like the Amazon algorithm that shows other books that one might like if one gets a certain book. If you go deep into the list there tend to be amazing surprises. I don’t always buy the books there, but I do use that as a road to new poems.

So. Yes. Always changed. Hopefully.

4. The gasps of breath that appear as dal segno symbols on the page–did sound or symbol come first? I’m tempted to call this series of poems experimental, because it engages my senses in so many different ways. Do you think of it that way?

I think of it that way in that it is deeply unknown to me…the sounds I’ll make, the way those sounds will be received, the shape I am on any given day. I think the poems risk a kind of failure I have never risked. And I guess they also risk ridicule…some people just laugh or think they are a “trick”…and that’s something I have a real old middle school fear of.

The sound came first and then we (Gabe Fried and I) went looking for a way to make that space on the page. Yes. I think of these as experimental. I feel proud to use that word.

5. What album did you listen to the most in 2017?

Let’s see…I listened to Alice Coltrane a ton. Huntington Ashram Monastery and A Monastic Trio.

Also Moses Boyd, Rye Lane Shuffle.

And Max Richter, The Blue Notebooks.

6. What books are you excited about reading in 2018?

Oh gosh. So many. I am so deeply anti-list right now.

What I hope is that in a year of great poetry books that have already found their way onto lists, I manage to find a ton of books to read and champion that no one is noticing right now. Come back to me next year and I can tell you all the books I loved and hopefully I’ve been able to love them loudly enough to drown out the lists that didn’t include them. Or. I hope every single person makes a list that includes all the truly great books. So we become a public library instead of an Olympic event. It would be great to have a thousand lists with different books of poems on them. That would be so cool as a resource.

This past year I’ve loved books by:

Tyree Daye,
Jennifer Firestone,
Kiki Petrosino,
Jennifer Chang,
Adrian Matejka,
Nicole Sealey,
and so so so so many more.

I will say I am deeply looking forward to Monica Hand’s new book. That’s a book I have been waiting for. And she passed away recently so it will be in every conversation I have.

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The deadline for the 2018 Poetry Prize is March 31, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. Click here to submit your poetry and receive your year-long subscription to Indiana Review!

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