A Conversation with Reginald Gibbons
By Laura Liu
Reginald Gibbons has published ten books of poems, most recently LAST LAKE (U of Chicago Press 2016). Among his other books of poems are CREATURES OF A DAY, which was a Finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, and SLOW TRAINS OVERHEAD: CHICAGO POEMS AND STORIES. His novel SWEETBITTER was a co-winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His most recent book of fiction is AN ORCHARD IN THE STREET (BOA Editionss, 2017). He has also published a book about poetry, HOW POEMS THINK (U of Chicago Press 2015), and translations of Spanish, Mexican, and ancient Greek poetry. He is a Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, where he is the director of the new Litowitz MFA+MA. He has recently completed a volume of translations of poems by Boris Pasternak, with the noted Russian poet Ilya Kutik.
I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask Reginald some questions. Read on for the result!
Laura Liu, Interviewer: You have been involved in the literary community for many decades and are currently a board member of the Guild Literary Complex, which you co-founded. To kick things off, what do you think is the greatest change in the community, perhaps triggered by technology?
Reginald Gibbons, Writer: In my view, the biggest changes in the literary culture & scene of Chicago don’t have to do with technology. Yes, literary websites and various social media have made it possible for many more writers, event organizers and cultural organizations to announce and publicize what they’re doing, and where and when. But also, in the meantime, we have more independent bookstores that are strong local centers of our literary culture, more writers live in the city and surrounding area, there’s more teaching of creative writing in high schools, colleges and universities (young people want to be heard, and poetry can be such a powerful medium). Also, poetry has become a stronger part of the music scene as well. In the nearly 30 years since the Guild Literary Complex began to create more opportunities for writers to find audiences, and especially for writers of color to be seen and heard, many organizations all over the city have added a huge range of readings and spoken word performance to the city and the area. Also, nationally there are more small presses in the U.S. publishing poetry and fiction than ever before, and creative nonfiction too has grown as a genre. These changes have been produced by our history as a nation of social diversity and diverse creativity, and Chicago has been a tremendously fruitful site for all of this, in all three genres.
LL: You have published a book every year for the last three years, and each one in a different style, so to speak—How Poems Think (University of Chicago Press, 2015) is informative and analytical, Last Lake (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is a book of poems, and An Orchard in the Street (BOA Editions, 2017) is a book of very short stories. How do you juggle writing these different styles, and at what point in the writing process is genre decided?
RG: I follow what I think a poem or an essay or a story seems to want to do, bringing to it as much energy and openness as I can. I can’t put everything I want to do into poetry alone, or only into fiction, or into writing about poetry and translating poetry. All of these modes of writing are necessary to me. Each project, small or large, makes something possible for me that I can’t do in another genre. Maybe it’s that I don’t have the gift of being able to focus only on one mode of expression, and trying to perfect my way of doing it.
LL: Aside from English, you also studied Spanish and Portuguese in college and worked in those language departments for a time. How has being multilingual affected your writing?
RG: I have learned so much from reading poetry, fiction and nonfiction in other languages. Regarding poetry in particular, when I read a poem even in a language I don’t know at all well, a bilingual edition helps me learn more of what poetry itself can do and wants to do. Poetry wants to use all its possible resources, but it can’t do that in any one language. Poetry is created across the whole universe of human beings, and in each language, poetry and poets make use of different aspects of language and of the history of poetry in that language, and of social and political history and conditions, geographical location, and ecological qualities and changes—wherever people live, whatever language they speak. Poets and whole literary cultures have always brought in additional poetic resources and practices from other languages. Poetry is a democracy that cherishes literary immigration. No literary translation is ever entirely adequate, because it loses so much of the particular interplay of language and customs and the specific practices of writing of the original work. Poetry spans the whole range of languages and poets. Both poets and readers are poetry’s practitioners. And all its practitioners may enrich the life of poetry, from the greatest poetic geniuses to those whose everyday lives simply include reading (and writing) poems. It’s a great loss, though, that so much great poetry is forgotten or discarded.
LL: You have published nearly ten collections of poetry and both short stories and a novel. Do you ever struggle with burnout, or lack of inspiration? How do you deal with the dreaded writer’s block?
RG: The impulse to write, and the energy for it and the ability to do it well, and the vision for it, can vary from stage to stage of a writer’s life. That seems natural to me. Who doesn’t envy literary writers whose creative energy seems to remain strong throughout life, and in some cases even to increase with age? Like every other writer, I’ve had periods of not being able to write much, or write it well enough. But I have mostly felt there was more work in me, waiting and wanting to be written, even if I wasn’t able to achieve it fully, or at all. Part of me is almost always inside an unfinished book—or even an unfinished stanza or paragraph. Some of what I’ve written took many years to finish. That’s partly because I have to revise so much and so repeatedly in order to finish it.
LL: Lately, many poets have been tackling social injustices, including issues of race, LGBT+, and women’s rights. There, of course, have been many poems in the past that have fought for equality, but—with social media and inflamed politics—nowadays they seem more common than ever before. Some critics of this shift have noted a loss in tradition—what’s your take?
RG: Traditions are always being abandoned or lost, in every language. The passage of time, to say nothing of the ravages of conquest and colonialism and the immensely powerful lure of manufactured objects, and the sad realities of public education in the U.S.—all of that is sad reality. (As is the even sadder one that whole peoples, and their languages, and their songs, and thus their ways of thinking and feeling and living, continue to die out under the relentless pressures of tyrannical rule and corruption of one sort or another, the mostly heedless exploitation of natural resources, ecological change, racism, and the unchecked power of corporate influence on towns, farms, cities, rivers, seas, everything.) Somehow, all of that too is the context in which so many poets in each modern generation lose interest in most of the poetry of the past. Or never have the curiosity or the hunger that would happily absorb more of what has been accomplished in the art. So yes, I agree that there is a continuing loss of awareness of older poems, and of admiration for earlier poets, and of pleasure in their work. Which is like voluntarily giving up an enormous treasure. From such treasure, anyone may take whatever is interesting, affecting, imaginatively inspiring, without the treasure ever being diminished. At the same time, there has been a thrilling growth of interest in poetry, which came partly from the rising effect and value of performance, beginning in the 1960s. The poetic skills, craft, and vision of earlier poets will always be among the greatest achievements of human culture. But a new dimension of the last thirty years and of our own moment is that spreading wish to speak, through the little ceremony of a poem, in a memorable way about what we live, think and feel. What may (or may not) prove to be memorable in much of today’s poetry, of all kinds, will be up to future generations. But this desire to speak in a more-than-everyday way is partly why our own poetic age is so enormously rich with almost countless voices. Much more of human life appears, with each human generation, in “creative” writing (as opposed to analytical or instructional or technical writing or in political rhetoric). In articulating new realities and newly felt human responses to those realities, new writing can be inspiring to readers and listeners. It can still be, as a great literary critic said long ago, “equipment for living.” Since social justice will never be completely achieved, many artists work at imagining what it can and should be. This kind of imagining helps all of us perceive reality as what it is.
In response to this question, I do think of an effect of social media/technology: for much of the whole history of “lyric” (personal, individually voiced) poetry in European languages (I have no expertise in Asian-language, African-language, or Arabic literary heritages), poets hoped to create work so well-made that even if only a few of their contemporaries might hear or read it, it might endure in memory or in print well beyond their lifetimes. In our era, many poets hope to write a poem that will be noticed and gain wide circulation now—that’s much more possible because of social media and the web and the vast digital archive. Our wish to communicate with a mostly anonymous audience that is culturally and geographically broad seems to be our version of the earlier poets’ ability to communicate with an unknown audience that would be temporally extensive. Yet so much of the great poetry of the past is already in the digital archive. I hope more readers and poets will wander around in it.
LL: To end on a lighter note, what was the first poem you read that really had an impact on you? What about the most recent poem you’ve read and loved?
RG: I’ve read too many poems over too many years to be able to answer this question. The poems that are most important to me, I keep discovering and re-discovering in new books and old books. No matter how busy my day may be, I try to make sure that a little of it is spent participating in the life of poetry itself—reading, writing, translating, teaching, or in conversation… and in the past, for many years, I edited a literary magazine, which was an especially intense way of participating.
Laura Liu is a senior at Conestoga High School, and has been writing her entire life. As an editor for her school's literary magazine, The Folio, she is always looking for ways to help herself and her peers develop mastery and voice in writing.
Laura is a 2019 Merit Award Winner for Writing (Poetry) from the National YoungArts Foundation, and has won top prizes in competitions such as the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) Student Contest, and the Central League Writing Contest. She was also published in NFSPS' annual poetry anthology, Encore, in 2017.
Header Image: Reginald Gibbons