Interview of Frank X. Gaspar in The American Poetry Review (Jan/Feb 2014)

    by Ellen Bass

1. Ellen Bass — So, I know we can't discuss every poem, but I can't help wanting to begin with the first one because so much of what I love about your poems introduces itself here. Could you talk a little about the voice of the poet, or would you call it your voice or your mind? We are allowed to see the workings of the mind so intimately. I remember you talking in our letters about how much this interests you and I wonder if you could talk about that? That intimacy, that sense that you open the window of your mind and let us look in, is so compelling.

Frank X. Gaspar — Well, you get right to the heart of the matter! In my case, voice was a bit of an evolutionary process. I mean the first poems I wrote were tentative and hesitant and frankly unsure of themselves, but in evolutionary terms I’d say the genetics were there, the germ of the voice that I eventually reached in Field Guide and Blossoms, and continued in Late Rapturous. Allen Ginsberg said something in his sometimes flip way of uttering fundamentally profound advice: Write your mind. Don’t make things up; catch yourself thinking. This notion was an enormous influence on how I approached poems. So that first poem in Rapturous does that, as I think all my poems do to greater or lesser degree. This doesn’t mean that they are “inspired” or “spontaneous.” But they are always grounded in the moment of their creation, and they always mirror my mind working, as exactly as it works, given that I’m using language as a medium. It takes some effort not to use standard poetic utterance. I don’t like standard poetic utterance—or lining, or other ubiquitous ways of signifying a poem on the page. I pay for this, I know. I’m not out on the margins because I try to be. There are plenty of interns, judges, editors and so forth that find my poems strange, even uncouth in their claiming the page and in their jumping and wrenching turns. But there is a strict formality to them. It just isn’t everybody else’s. The voice is mine, or stands for me, because it is me thinking, musing, remembering, juxtaposing, using my ear a great deal with the vowels and consonants, creating cadences and rhythms, busting up long lines, in exactly my own way—not a willed way, not something I thought up to be cute or clever, not a “ technique”—it’s just my mind and brain—the neural wiring and the experience I am stuck with. The me that I can’t escape. It’s how I stand in the world and how I witness the world. I would never want to write differently than I do. It’s the same mind that makes me unsuitable for, say, investment banking, or flying an airplane (dear god). It’s a mind I’m very happy to have for writing, but it does come with its heavy baggage and shadows. I placed that poem at the beginning of Late Rapturous, by the way, because of that image of the ship banging into darkness. That’s like starting a book. And under the blaze of some mysterious celestial light. That’s like starting a book, too. Or so I think.

2. EB — And another question, or thing I'd love you to talk about it the way you talk about writing in the writing. How you invite your own writing to be part of the poem.

FG — I don’t have a smart answer for that. It just seems to be part of the process. But I will say that, as you know, I grew up in Provincetown. So a part of me will always be that scruffy little Portuguese kid from the west end, benighted and poor in spirit. But I was surrounded by art and artists in summers. Nothing I understood. But we’d break in to studios in the off season and, you know, just look around. Kid stuff. But those spaces may as well have been hidden universes, so unlike our own. The sights, the smells, the tools, the odd cast-off canvasses and objects. So, it sank in: Art is important enough for these people to come here and work hard at it. They are grown-ups, and this is what they do. I mean it wasn’t fishing or working in the packing houses. This is a marvel. I think I absorbed, at an early age, that art is hard work, honorable work, and probably more enjoyable than any other kind of work I ever knew about. I remember once when I was a kid, after diving for money at the wharf, I used some of the money to go to this little store in a basement in the East End, an art supply store, and I bought a tube of paint. I don’t know if it was oil or watercolor or what. But paint in a tube! It was t oo wondrous not to touch. One color was all I would spend that kind of money on. It was cadmium yellow. I don’t think I actually did anything with it except squeeze it. What I’m moving toward here is painting, the way the New York School, virtually all of whom painted, lived, or drank, in Provincetown at one time or another, made the process, the technique, part of the subject of the painting. And I never thought of this in an articulate way until just now, but their minds were also being painted. That was the expression in abstract expressionism. And they claimed the canvas! Edge to edge, big, bold. This is all intuitive for me; I don’t wish to give the impression that I know a lot about art (and I couldn’t if I tried). But all this is inside me. I’d be a painter if I could, or if it counted as much as it once did (ha—says a poet!). It’s that urge to express, to be bold, to claim the page, to let the process be part of the art. For that group the paint and painting were part of the “subject.” The process was on the canvas. I do believe I internalized all that at a very young age, and in inarticulate wonder and mystery at the time, but it comes forth now. Recently I went to the extraordinary street art show at the MOCA in Los Angeles, and the top of my head came off. These street and wall painters, outlaws, might be the inheritors of modern painting. I’m talking about well-known artists like Swan and Banksy, but also lesser know figures, and anonymous wall-writers. Nothing in a museum matches their energy and sheer power. They know what to do with white space: fill it! Take it. Claim it. Speak out. Say something. Paint the freeway overpasses! The rail cars! The naked walls! The sidewalks themselves! I was in dizzy raptures and felt like I was in the presence of brothers and sisters, even though I could never draw as much as a crooked line. But it was the spirit. I’m still reeling from it. I would like a poetry of that bold and muscular announcement. And a poetry that is not afraid to actually say something. It’s not all sheer power, of course. If there were no great beauty to it, it would all be pointless.

3. EB — And then the wide wide sweep from Isaiah and Ezra in the wilderness to the iced beer to the arroyos and canyons and desert hen, and back into the cramped room and the ship (and again, inviting the writing in--How a ship will fit into the poem at this juncture) which becomes your old ship--One hundred thousand tons of death and empire. Onto that gorgeous and dangerous we are all living as we bang forward into that darkness. Under that blaze. ...... Can you talk a little about gathering into the poem with such long arms, how you sweep it all in onto one small page?

FG — Oh, I like that, Ellen: Gathering into the poem with long arms. It’s so visual. Okay, I’ll accept that, the long arms, it’s talking about embracing, hugging, pulling in. Of course it’s all in there anyway. I do often type very long drafts. I might have six pages of lines, most of them bad, without sound or shape, but circling around, looking for the currents to rise on. Then—and this is important for me—at some point I turn the poem over to the poem. Poems are smarter than I am. They know what they want to be. I stop and take a breath. Or a lot of breaths over many days. And I see what I have given myself. Where does this poem want to go? What is hidden, occulted in here that is the deep thing that wants to be expressed? The thing that does not take direction from my feeble conscious mind? Sometimes there is just a debris field of seemingly random words and phrases. So you have to find out if there is a secret logic to them. If there is, then you must subsume your will to it. Aid it in its coming out. Stay out of the way with your crummy language and listen to how it has to sound on its own terms. Because the mind writing itself doesn’t sound like you writing. We are full of dead language. The mind makes its own logic. Like in dreams. So you have to bend. Then you have to bend the poem! It’s hard to explain. Oh, it’s a tango. Two parts wrestling for control, both being essential. So a cold beercan condensing water out of the desert air can appear to fit perfectly with a ship of war coursing through the seas. You might even say, in terms of the poem, they need each other. This isn’t magic. It’s a lot of work. But it’s a certain kind of work, moving through registers and tones of language, through levels of consciousness. I do not explain it well. It is very pleasing to do, though.

4. EB — Can you talk a little about the way you work to make these poems. (I do already know some thing about this, but I'd like you to talk about it for the interview because I think it's wonderful).

FG — Well, I think I mentioned that I often start with long, long drafts. They aren’t really drafts, actually, because I’m not forcing the language to write “about” something. I think many poems fail because of trying to write about something. “I saw this dead cat in the street, and I’m trying to write a poem about it.” That sort of thing. I find that’s more like approaching an essay or a news story. So if I did see a cat in the street, I would not try to bully a poem to be “about” it. I would put it down and see what happens next. I’d watch my mind. I have heard it said that we have about eight tracks running constantly in our heads. It seems to be about right for me, at any rate. So all that stuff might go down in the “draft.” Yes, there was a dead cat in the road, but right now the refrigerator is making a weird noise. The unconscious mind might be humming along and connecting the two (though you must never say that in the poem!). Eventually, I will try to distill things down to essentials. It doesn’t matter if they are not linear. What are the “hotspots” the deep psychic “gifts” coughed up from the underworld of consciousness? Pull them forward and get them together. They don’t go together. Who’s in charge here? Where’s the key? What is trying to take over? That’s when I step back, so to speak, and observe what’s in front of me. This could take a day, a week, or several months, after the “start” of the poem. Or it could come very quickly. Often, after some period of time I come up with a poem. It’s a poem. A real poem. Then I am in love with it. I could send it out to someone. A magazine. To you. So then I start looking at it differently. Where is the better poem hiding in this poem? This is when I revise. I do this with at least half of my “finished” poems, possibly more. And I want to stress that I could pass these off as poems, could read them at the microphone, and so on. But these poems, the ones I’m talking about here, are too easy, too conventional, not right somehow, though they look respectable enough. This is a hard step to explain to some. I believe in radical revision. So the poem gets savaged, blown to pieces, nothing is safe, nothing is sacrosanct. It’s a very aggressive process, because you are strip-mining what looks like a good, finished poem. I try to get students to understand this process, but I have learned that it is not suitable for everyone. Again, I guess it’s something agreeable to my mind, who I am, how I operate. I do not believe revision is simply fretting over line breaks or white space or adjectives here and there. That is all very important, a kind of house-cleaning, a kind of polishing, but that won’t transform a good poem into radically better poem. In radical revision you wind up with a poem that is unrecognizable to its original. Or seems like a half-child. Or a long-lost relative (with a trust fund, if you are lucky). I remember greatly offending someone who sent me a revision of a poem, and I wrote back, the only honest comment I could conscionably give, “I don’t really see any significant difference between this one and the original.” It wasn’t a sarcastic comment. I believe in this kind of work utterly. I have found poems that I did not know I could write, that I did not think I could ever have written, that were simply beyond me, by going through this step. It isn’t a step, really. It’s a long process of change and evolution. I think, given my faith in the power of the unconscious (that sounds rather clinical--there may be something much larger involved), that much of the time a deep, significant, even prophetic message to the poet (that is, a deeper, stranger, more artful poem) lurks somewhere beneath the “finished” poem sitting on your desk. I suspect many poets go through this process, really, and I would bet that most of them could talk about it better than I can. It is hard work because there is no light at the end of the tunnel. You have no “goal” you are working toward. There is no “toward.” There are some influences for this kind of application. Two that come to mind are Tennessee Williams and how he worked on his plays. It’s profitable to know that “A Streetcar Named Desire” was once a play called “The Poker Night,” set in Chicago. You can imagine the incredible differences. Also Willem de Kooning’s work ethic with his paintings. The hair on my arms stood up when I read those passages of his working on those huge canvasses. Sometimes a single painting took a year. Destroying what was there, starting again, painting over things, scrubbing things down, slow, deliberate. I felt immediate resonance with these work habits, and I would go back and read about them from time to time for reinforcement. (And it is not lost on me that both of these geniuses spent time in Provincetown, ate fish free from the Portuguese fishing boats—at least Williams ate—I’m not sure about de Kooning, though his biographers talk about his getting drunk in the Old Colony Bar, a fishermen’s bar in those days.)

*(#4 continued) EB — Last night I read Late Rapturous to Janet and she sat listening with her eyes closed and when it was over, her eyes were still closed and I could feel how she was still in NYC with you. When she finally opened her eyes she said, it's so sentient. And then, he's so vulnerable and yet he never loses that keen observation. Can that be a question? Can I ask you to talk to that combination of vulnerability and keen observation?

FG — I wonder if this idea of vulnerability and observation going together actually might mean they go together. I’m feeling my way into this question. One never speaks eagerly about his own vulnerability (notice the impersonal pronoun up there! What’s to be done with me?). It might be a question of personal boundaries. I’m told my boundaries aren’t good. I guess that means that things penetrate my “space.” I would say consciousness instead of space. Things get to me. They overwhelm me. Often objects can suddenly mean something with absurdly profound echoes or intimations. Pencil shavings in a wastebasket. A tiny spider scurrying along the back of the couch looking for a place to dive into. A man with his arm around the shoulders of his son. These seem to present whole universes, and I guess if I try to get them just right, the image might have the same effect, or its analog, on you, the reader. It’s almost a plea sometimes: do you get this? please get this. It seems so important! Of course the moment passes, and whatever you thought was the deep meaning vanishes, but then it sits in the poem, somehow not the same, but the best one can do. I think our great poets create a whole new experience, a new order of the image that approaches, maybe surpasses the thing itself. I think Heidegger wrote about this, but this just might be my own limp riff on something he said.

5. EB — And perhaps also, thinking about that poem, about the place of art in our lives? In your life? When you talk about needing the full brunt of the de Koonings, needing to curl up next to them at night instead of trying to sleep. (I know this is a huge question. but I think of other poems of yours as well. One of my favorites, "The One Art", for example). I'm thinking in Late Rapturous about the relationship of the painter/paintings to the people on the street, in the soup shop. You're so close to both the paintings and the people. And you bring me, the reader (and Janet, the reader and all the others) right onto the street, crowded into the museum, in that soup shop I experience the steam of the soup, even though you don't mention it. You bring me in so precisely, you don't have to tell me everything because I'm there. Well, I know this is too huge a question and of course art/poetry is at the center of your life, but can you talk about this relationship between art and life (just a little)?

FG — This is a risky answer, because it might sound a bit too precious or mannered, but I’ll say what I believe. I believe art makes life bearable. I don’t arrive at this from study or high talk in the university quad. Books have saved my life. Painting has made the world seem hospitable to me. Music seems to speak to me, as I think it does to everyone. I remember going through a terribly bleak and depressed period in my life (not the first or last of these). I was a little crazy and alone and hadn’t yet begun to struggle into who I would become. I was lost. And then I bought a bound book that comprised a number of issues of the Evergreen Review, which was one of the ultimate hip literary journals of the sixties. I bought it in Molly Cook’s bookshop in Provincetown (I didn’t know Molly then, and I didn’t really know about the Evergreen Review too much) and carried it to California with me in one of my fits of bicoastalism. And when I was as low as I thought a human could get, I read a poem called “Smashed.” The central image was a plate, of course. It was a translation. I felt suddenly as though a lifeline had been thrown to me. The writer of the poem knew this abject state of depression. And he made a poem out of it. And it spoke! And then I knew that I was not alone, that despair could be turned into something beautiful (however terrible that beauty might be), and that things were what they were. You managed them. Art rose from depths. This was a great moment. It’s been thirty or forty years since then, and I remember the aesthetic experience (for that’s what it was) vividly still. So art, I guess, is many things, has many qualities, but it is something valuable and life-saving when it’s at its best and it occurs to me that maybe separating the two terms into implicit opposites is only one way to think about them. Maybe there isn’t really a line between art and life. Maybe art is just another kind of life. They don’t have to fight. We live in books and poems, don’t we? I’ve read that our brains, when the work is good, can’t tell the different between an experience in a book and an experience in the world. The same regions light up. Maybe that’s why art saves us.

6. EB — And this question is about the person speaking to us in your poems. To me you always sound so much like you. Is this you? Is there a persona? Is there any distance between the two? And in a poem like "I Changed My Clothes with a Beggar Once" it is Saint Francis who speaks, and yet, it seems you've become him. Is this a way to embody another person or a way to talk about yourself more honestly or express a part of yourself or all of the above?

FG — One of my tiresome wisecracks is that when I go to bed at night, I never know who is going to wake up in the morning. Which me. This all gets into strange territory, and I don’t want to “art-ify” it too awful much. It’s no secret that Fernando Pessoa was a path-changing influence on my poetry (one that is quite buried in it, I hope), and we all know about his heteronyms. But I don’t sense anything like that. It might be a carry-over from novel-writing, using various narrative points of view, but I find that I, that is “I,” speak from different parts of my self—different characters, as it were. The guy fussing and questioning in Night of a Thousand Blossoms for instance, is a kind of nebbish. He reminds me of a Woody Allen Character. Everything overwhelms him, and he’s awed when he’s overwhelmed. It’s a good thing. He’s not “wise” in any traditional or historical sense. He’s a modern man in a post-modern world trying to find out where all the good roadside diners went off to. In Late Rapturous, the person speaking (sometimes it’s a she, but it’s the same person as the he) has a bit more worldly knowledge. The questions are more like challenges to a reader. The introspection has turned outward. At least it feels so to me. I’m not the same person I was five years ago, but that person is still on file inside the person I am now. We all rattle around inside something—maybe an old city bus with aluminum foil over the windows—together. I don’t make any claims for this; it’s just something I’ve had to get used to. Why would I shut any of that noise off to try to write a poem? Why would I try to write a poem that would look like a poem by someone I’m not?

7. EB — I'd love to have you talk a little about some of the things we talked about the last night at Pacific U. Your early experience with the life of an artist/poet, the lovely young woman who lived at your house, how you saw that there was a life you could choose, not just a life you were stuck in. I may be putting this badly, but you talked about this introduction to the life of art, and how being poor was different for an artist. I guess this would more formally be called "early influences". Would you write about that?

FG — Provincetown! Can you imagine what it was like to be born and raised there? Of course the town I grew up in no longer exists, but in some strange vestigial ways, its character perseveres. I grew up at 119 Commercial Street, the West End, which at that time was almost 100% Portuguese, most of us Azorean. It was like a foreign country. Most of the parents were completely bi-lingual, as was my mother. Most of the grandparents spoke only Portuguese in the homes, and many spoke English with accents, and many spoke it only haltingly. The old ways persisted. There wasn’t a supermarket yet when I was small, and everyone walked to the stores. There were five markets between Conant Street and Cottage Street counting on the back street and the front street (as we called Bradford and Commercial). The A&P was across from my house. It’s now a little gallery. My mother worked cutting fish in the Cold Storage behind my house (there is a Coast Guard station there now),and later as a chamber maid at a small motel before getting a nurse’s aide job with the town. That last job came much later, and we were dirt poor, for the fish-cutting and the housekeeping were seasonal. There was no father. We did not have hot running water in the house for many more years than I will admit to. I can go on about those days forever, but to get to your question, we augmented our living by taking in “roomers” in the summer. These were various “People From Away,” as we called them, and we had several artists who lived with us. Some lived upstairs under the unfinished eaves of the little house, and some lived right with us downstairs. Do not picture a hallway, or a large house. The rooms were small and you could hear breathing through the walls. We lived on top of one another. It was deliriously wonderful for a little kid like me. These people may as well have been from the moon, they were so different from us. They were mostly gay, of course, but no one ever made any big deal about that. The difference was that they knew so much, lived such larger lives, valued such different things. The first time I heard classical music (unless you counted church) was from them. The Carter Family, too, now that I think of it. And they brought huge books into the house and read them. They told us their stories and drew pictures. It seems like there must have been a hundred drawings and paintings of my grandfather, a local character, who happened to run with a bunch of the bohemians in summer. But they lived just as we did. No hot water, cooking on the little kerosene stove in the back room, getting free fish from the boats when they came in to unload in the afternoon. Everyone downstairs shared the one small bathroom. I don’t mean to convey a bullshit picture of poor but happy, of easy living. The poverty was humiliating, dangerous, debilitating, and winters were unspeakable. But one truth about those times was that, indeed, the summers were rapturous. I have written, in Leaving Pico, about two wonderful people, steady tenants for our little upstairs for a number of years, would not only bring boxes of books for me from New York, but they would actually send me huge boxes more in the winter. I made this couple a small part of the fictional plot in Pico, but the part about the books is not a fiction. This kindness brings tears to my eyes even now. Books. All of them stamped by either the NYC Library or by the School System. They were decommissioned and ranged all across grade levels, and I couldn’t stop reading them. A lovely young woman—a girl, really, in her twenties stayed downstairs with us for a couple of summers, right about the time I was starting high school. She was a songwriter and folksinger and played the town’s most notorious club. She had a slender boy’s figure and a boy’s haircut, and her skin was just a shade darker than ours. She was beautiful, and she was worldly, and we sometimes shared each others shirts and shared my old bicycle. I had just started working at the hotdog stand down at the foot of the wharf, and we’d trade the bike off going back and forth to our respective jobs. Her name was Leah [I am not using her real name here] and her free and easy way in the world, her dedication to being an artist, was something I absorbed from her, as I absorbed—if that is the right word—her sexiness and generous way of teaching me things without making me feel inferior, which I can tell you I clearly was! She had chosen a life in the arts, and lived every minute totally in it. I had never dreamed such a creature could exist. This was nothing so simple as a crush on her—I wanted a life like hers because it seemed to allow her to be what for me would be a secret inner life, cramped and stunted at best. Yet there she was in the world, seeing, thinking, speaking, creating everything differently than any other person I had ever really gotten to know. I was never the same after that summer, but I had other help, too. Another couple stayed upstairs for several winters, and this made a great impression on me, for they chose to live as we did, cold and poor, without luxury and creature comfort, barely able to put food on the table, a life that I could only dream of escaping some day, and they chose it for a high purpose! Art! They were artists, and poorer than we were even. They ate mussels from the beach all winter, and we shared buckets of flounder whenever a boat went out. I was ashamed that I had to go down to the wharf and beg fish, but they were not. That was because the center of their lives did not include a space for shame. They dressed ragged—not as an affectation but because they had no money for clothes any more than we did—and they worked at their paintings and collages. This was part of that turning point in my life. It was not point, actually. It was more like the whole road to Damascus opening out. Something leaped over to me. Art, reading, writing, music, the life of the artist was larger than our lives, and it was a life of great value. It made everything fall into place. It didn’t matter that you were poor; you lived for a higher order of things. Really, all I did in school from then on was to read madly and write. It worked well for English classes, but for others, not so much. I even took typing with the business kids because I knew then that I would be writer. What leapt to me was the idea that being an artist—for me, specifically, being a writer, was a high calling. It was the highest. More sacred, more meaningful, more important than anything, than law, medicine, politics, engineering, all the words I would hear when the college-bound kids talked about what they would do. But art was more than something one did. It was a life, a way of standing in the world, and though I had no idea how hard it would be to find the place where I would stand, I knew it wasn’t a job or a career—or an academic discipline, for that matter. I saw men and women who lived and breathed and sacrificed the standard middle-class coziness t for the sake of art, and I have followed this model through many very hard times. Through comfortable times, too, I’m happy to say. What I’m trying to get at here is something else, too. Something harder to express. I keep erasing lines as I type here because I can’t quite get it right. But it’s as though this life of art was there waiting for me as a haven, and I was always meant to find it. Well, crash my way into it, at any rate. This is a huge, huge question for me, and I understand that I have only grazed its proper answer.

8. EB — I'm reading "The Early Revelations" and thinking about how your poems insist on praising everything. I'm thinking of Rilke saying:

     “O tell us, Poet, what you do? – I praise.
     But the dark, the deadly, the desperate ways,
     How do you endure them - how bear them? -
     I praise."

I think of your lines,

     "This gloom and the glorious flogging of the shingles, the battering at the gutters."
     And "Not so bad/all told, but dark angels again, sitting on my chest, so exhilarating,
     even as they pressed me down."

Can you say something about this concept of praise?

FG — I am a bit overwhelmed by the Rilke!  You know he is someone I often harken back to.  As I read those lines, I get the sense that that final “I Praise” is a kind of rejoinder to the other voice.  A bit of irony, a closure to the confrontive tension in that passage.  But cantilevering from my own experience, I wonder if Rilke isn’t on to something else as well, some mechanism in the human heart (or working in the chemical vats of the brain) that somehow automatically bridges the two.  That is, that the despair and praise are not so much a call and a deliberated response, but the rising of two wings that beat together.  I know in my own life I can be stunned by some cruelty or swept away by some unearned sadness, and just in those moments the grandeur of the earth comes roaring across a parking lot or a wooded path, or some clouds commandeer my attention, or a stranger’s face tensed in a certain way touches something in me, and I am left stupid and stupefied with a simple but overwhelming praise of the creation, the whole thing, and my being here at all—against what odds?—alive, witnessing all of it, being a part of it.  This doesn’t seem to me like a willed act of positive thinking, or an artistic move to bend a poem to.  It seems to be two parts of the same whole. I’m certainly not in charge of it. I would plead a kind of a priori wiring here.  But reflecting on the question above, I don’t know what I would do in such moments, with such feelings, if I were not a writer or reader or some friend of the arts.  It frightens me, actually, to think about not having found this place to stand in. There is nothing grand about this.  I don’t want to make more of it than it is.  But I just don’t know what would become of me without this sweeping move to praise that comes out of darkness.



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