Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Out-of-Town-Authors: Kerry Gilbert

I don't think I've met Vernon-based poet Kerry Gilbert before.

I know several people in her writing group and in the broader northern BC literary community. Partly that's because I read in Vernon and Kelowna back in 2013.

Partly it's because I value my relationships with women writers who live outside of of the 'poetry hotbeds' of Toronto and Vancouver and especially women writers who have children.

Over the last ten-fifteen years, I've befriended women/writers and then writer/mothers at conferences, at joint readings, and at retreats. And I've worked to maintain those relationships, not just because I admire their writing but because I like the idea that we're all writing in tandem.

I like that we can swerve into each other's paths as necessary. For a quick and dirty edit, for midnight chats on Facebook about everything and nothing, for commiseration when things get hard. And when there's something to celebrate, like a shortlisting for a contest or a residency or a new book, I'm loud/proud.

So, when Kerry 'friended' me and then asked for my advice on promoting her latest book, Tight Wire, it quickly became obvious that I should interview her. Because even though we've never met, I recognize her.

Hey Kerry. What do you want people to know about Tight Wire

Tight Wire came out of a place of imbalance. I was trying to manage that illusive parenting / working / writing balance and it wasn’t going well. I wasn’t writing at all, actually, and many of the poems erupted from that lack—a rebellion.

Speaking of rebellion, the circus and the carnival are central to this collection. They had a very particular idea of the feminine, didn’t they? Women were either exaggeratedly or transgressively feminine: the tightrope walker (“beauty. sequins. perfection. poise.”) or the tattooed lady (“how could this happen to you?”). Tell me how you found yourself at the circus…

I was/am really interested in the arbitrary nature of gender expectations and of the feminine on display. In the circus we normalize and celebrate abnormal behavior, which served as a fantastic metaphor for these things. There is something about the show of outward appearance—of holding things together—versus an inward falling apart that has always interested me. While trying to balance the work / writing / family life, I felt suddenly submerged in a kind of circus and yet everyone just kept smiling painted-on smiles as if everything was just fine.

This collection is also about women in danger. Women—mothers—sacrifice themselves for their children, for children who in some cases are “already saved.” Women find that their bodies are made of clay or seaweed. Is this a nod to all the transformations, all the transmogrifications, of pregnancy and mothering?

Yes, it’s a nod to the contortionists in most of us. I know some of the women in this book. Some of them are me. Some of them are women that I’ve never met, but their own anecdotes echo as a warning of what happens when we spread ourselves too thin with expectations, trying to put on this lovely, grotesque show.

What were your goals for Tight Wire?

There was a moment, very early on in the manuscript, where I was feeling really, really frustrated / stagnant / resentful / burnt out as a person; the poet in me said: what does this look like? The poem “with a tiny scalpel, she carefully cuts the skin just underneath her blouse line. down the sides to her hips. to her ankles. around and up her inner thighs—both sides” came out of that question. For me, it captured all of my abstract “angst” into something concrete and tangible. The rest of the collection 
was a succession of different versions of the same question—what does this look like?

Which leads me to my next question. In addition to the ‘what does this look like’ moment in “with a tiny scalpel…” there are all kinds of surgeries in the book, all kinds of interventions, from childbirth to hysterectomies. There are also a number of hearts in jars…

All of the surgeries and interventions and scalpels are really about loss. I don’t think we can truly find balance without letting things go. Cutting things out. Having things taken away. Faking the real thing and hoping it’s good enough.

What does guilt do to your writing? Feed it or starve it?

In the case of Tight Wire, it fueled the manuscript and the urgency I felt to write at the time helped create the style/tone. If I take myself too seriously, though, guilt (and fear) could certainly starve it.

In terms of craft, tell me why you’ve gravitated towards the prose-poetry form. Does a prose-y line have more bounce for you than a standard line of poetry?

This is the first time I’ve worked in all prose for a collection. The theme and tone needed the denseness of the form, for me. And, because balance became central, the juxtaposition of the single line on the left side of the page made the prose all that much more important on the right.

Now that Tight Wire is out, have you found your ideas around balancing your time between teaching AND raising a family AND trying to write have changed?

This is a work in progress. I’m getting better at valuing all of those acts equally, which is going against the grain (society only truly values the one that makes money).

What is the arts community like in the Okanagan compared to the other places you’ve lived?

The Okanagan has a vibrant writing community, and many talented writers calling it home, but you have to work at outwardly finding it here more than other places. Maybe that makes it all the more rewarding and special when you find it.

You’ve found a writing group within that community, yes? Tell me how being in a group influences your process. In the case of this book, did it help that the people giving you feedback were also writer / mothers?

Yes, I am very grateful to be part of a seven woman writing group, called Spoke. It is absolutely central to my process, in that it keeps me accountable, productive and humble. As a group we share the ups and downs of this whole writing business, which is a great reminder that there are both. I value their feedback and support for this book and for many other things. These talented women inspire me to keep writing, no matter what.

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

I’m reading Hannah Calder’s Piranesi’s Figures for fiction and Lorna Crozier’s The Wrong Cat for poetry. I’m working on two different poetry manuscripts—one on fear and parenting and one on women and education. I’ve said too much. :)

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