The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Gabrielle Calvocoressi about her new collection Rocket Fantastic, the fluid nature of gender, and the reader as collaborator with the text.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Talk to me about this choice to use a symbol to represent the Bandleader. You write about it in your introduction, but I’m curious about how the idea evolved over time and affected the book.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Well, you know this book took me almost a decade to write. I’d started some of the poems before Apocalyptic Swing came out. When I first started working on it I had a whole sort of story in mind, personae, an arc… basically the recipe for a disaster.
Eve Linn: Could you comment on how you conceived of this as a narrative?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: And then in 2012 I had the tremendous fortune of getting to go to Marfa, TX for a Lannan Fellowship where I got to sit in this house that just looked out at this giant sky.
Sarah Fowler: Building off of the Bandleader question—I am wondering when the use/manipulation of breath came in to play? Was it always a part of the equation with that character?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I was in Marfa and what I realized was the book was so locked down and not at all what I had wanted or hoped for. I realized I’d started to use this strategy of persona to not work into the deeper issues of power and voice and the vessel of the body that I’d been working with and struggling with in my own life.
So, I had to decide whether to give up on the book or to have the existential crisis I needed to have and just start figuring out what it was I was really trying to do. This also coincided with a time that I really began to accept and want to open to the fact that my own relationship to my gender and my sex has always been really fluid.
When I was young I identified as a boy and then I was told that if I wanted to go to the Catholic school my parents planned to send me to I had to be a girl (the nuns said this, not my parents). During 2012 and beyond I began allowing myself to understand what that had done to me and how it had shaped me.
This is a long answer… sorry if it’s unclear.. it’s oddly vulnerable for me to talk about. Anyway, as I worked into this book and began working into the figure of the Bandleader I allowed myself to try and make a space for the shape beyond pronoun that my desire might make. Sonically. Physically. Lovingly and problematically.
I didn’t know how to mark that. I knew a pronoun did not work. Was not adequate. And there were many awful iterations. There was a whole S/He phase that I am grateful to never have to see again.
Eve Linn: It seems like you have a very literary relationship to Catholicism, in terms of symbol and text. Would you say something about that?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: When I gave my editor Gabe the draft we began to talk about what else might work… what I felt and how I saw it. And I said that maybe some kind of symbol… and gosh I think anyone but Gabe would have talked me out of it (which would have broken something in me that was still really fragile) but Gabe being Gabe said let’s think it over and he’d come to me with ideas.
Sarah Fowler: LOVE the “Sonically. Physically. Lovingly and problematically.” Could you speak to the idea of confluence in relation to your readers enacting the exercise/space of inhalation (what breath holds and does as both a feed to the body and an engine of spoken word)?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I had begun to give readings where I just started making the sound that I felt went with that vessel that body. And so I talked to him about breath and that intake and also letting the reader find their own breath for the symbol, to be invited to do that. I’m still thinking these things through for myself.
Eve Linn: It’s really hard for me to figure out how to speak and breathe at the same time, or maybe I’m just confused. I kept saying “whose” as a marker when the symbol appeared but that didn’t feel right to me.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I love the word confluence as it relates to this book and these poems. Because merging is something this book does. An essential part of this book is me stopping thinking of persona as character or named body and starting to think of it as various voices that may all live inside one vessel.
Sarah Fowler: The invitation (honoring) multiplicity is so important, vital, generous, and needed at this moment.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Eve! I think what I would say is try not “speaking” or trying to find a word for that symbol. Just make whatever sound, even feel free to say He or She. “Whose” would be something like the possessive pronoun. So breathing the She He They You Name it and then just saying the Whose as you would say Her, His, Their.
But it may also be so confusing. Confusion is something I had to be okay with… or… the possibility one would have to learn to read this book. Just as I had to learn.
It is a book that I think is collaborative in some way. But that can also mean it is a book that is easily turned from just as I hope it’s a book folks will stick with. I’m grateful to people reading it and coming into that world. For sure.
Eve Linn: Thank you for that insight, Gaby! I had to get comfortable with not understanding, trying to get comfortable in a different role as reader.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: YES. Eve! As always you get it. Yes. The role of the reader is something I’m also interrogating here.
Brian S: I imagine there had to be a worry that the symbol would be dismissed as a gimmick or a distraction.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Yes. There was and there is. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared and that I’m not still scared.
I’ve never made myself more vulnerable in a book or worked more deeply at something. And yet. We are in the age of the “project” book and I’m known for working in persona and writing longer cycles. I am terrified it will just be laughed off or discounted in that way. That’s a strange admission to make. But I am.
This is in some way a book that is about breaking down my rigid notions of persona. And also trying to figure what it means to speak in many voices, to inhabit many bodies.
Brian S: Honestly, I think you’d have more to worry about if you’d written another book with persona and cycles. And I suspect you knew that on some level which is why you fought with the book for so long.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: But I think there will certainly be readers who just don’t want to stick with the book. But I hope many do! Yes. So much of this book was me finally letting go of the rules I’d set for myself in various ways. For instance the notions that you had to be able to know: Who is speaking to whom. For what purpose. And through what mask.
Sarah Fowler: My experience of reading the book (so far… not through the whole thing yet) is that the gravity of the experimentation—the fully-committed inquiry into persona—rings true. It is very compelling. I am grateful that it demands subtlety from the reader, and patience, and compassion, and a lot more.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Those had been central to me. And then I thought… why? What if there were other points of clarity? What if there were other ways to create intimacy?
Brian S: It’s interesting that you say “trying to figure what it means to speak in many voices, to inhabit many bodies” because that’s kind of what you do in The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, but the difference here is that there’s no real historical context or framework bounding the voices. And so that has to be kind of terrifying I think.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Yes. In other books of mine, history is the scaffolding. In this book history is something that accumulates when people are living their lives and not thinking about themselves as part of history. This was very important to me. Could I make a book that felt like a medieval tapestry looks… there’s a huge world with all of these scenes, these lives happening. When you stand at a distance you can see it all happening. But step up close and there are intimate worlds where no one sees the larger picture.
Eve Linn: It seems like the interrelationship between the different voices acts as a very strong scaffold, although completely different in nature than history; it seems much more elemental.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Elemental is a word I love, Eve. It’s also the first book I’ve written where animals and nature play such a huge part. And I think that’s part of it. That elemental world beyond rational human experience. I should say this book also in ways is my way of working through a period where I really was very close to a nervous breakdown. 2004 to be exact.
It was a time where I was scared of losing my mind that I held on so tight. This book is an exploration of letting go and letting that period heal. Of thinking of the gifts that time gave me. Learning to meditate and also learning to be okay with the unknown.
Brian S: But here, because the whole thing is invented to a greater degree than your earlier work, there’s more of a chance that the reader will read the I as you as opposed to some created character.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Brian: YES! In this book I think all the voices and bodies are mine. I’m fine with that reading.
It is a variously voiced book where I am letting my breath and voice make whatever form they make at any given time. It’s also a book about war. And power. And capitalism. And what all those things do to the body.
Brian S: Capitalism worms its way into everything.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Yes. It is the worm.
Sarah Fowler: Is the book a laboratory that thinks about the relationship between agency and trust (and more)?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Absolutely! Oh yes, Sara. It is absolutely that.
Sarah Fowler: …for these reasons, I think it is essential that the book be set in an historical era.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: It’s a book about contracts and free will and the times when one gives over (in various ways) to an other. Sometimes that. Meaning it needs a year marker or meaning you think it is set in a historical era? I think it is.
Eve Linn: I think the book is set in the near past; there are clues!
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: There are clues, Eve!
This conversation rocks. Thank you!
Brian S: It’s my favorite part of the Poetry Book Club.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I always love the chats.
I do think (in terms of time) that I used to have a very set time in mind. A BIG shift for me was letting go of all overt references to time.
Sarah Fowler: I think I mean that the generation currently in power moved through that time with passion or grace or fear that solidified a lot of sensory memories too. All of these things get worked over over time, and historical memory is enacted in policy, activism, the arts…
Brian S: What’s the last poem you wrote in here? That’s a dorky question, but I almost always ask it.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Um… “Praise House: The New Economy.” I didn’t actually know if “Praise House” would go in but then I felt it was really important. “In the Darkness of the House of Pleasure” was also a very late poem, a poem that explains the Bandleader in some way.
Sarah Fowler: The book is helping me think about Our Moment by virtue of a history I did not live through, and that’s rad.
Eve Linn: Could you clarify what Our Moment is?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Yes! Sara, talk about Our Moment.
I think of it as neverending and yet “Our Moment” is always what we look back on or often I think how we make some kind of sense of what is unspeakable in a certain time.
Brian S: We’re definitely living in one of those now.
Sarah Fowler: Perhaps I also mean My Own Moment: Living in 2017 as a twenty-nine-year-old coming to terms with the political situation and all the pain to be reconciled in this country and beyond… and beginning to come to terms with what it means to be an artist and citizen right now.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Yes. To all of this.
And what does it mean to have a body and a gender and a sex in the face of all that?
Sarah Fowler: I go to a question of healing. That is what I’m seasoning right now.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: What do those forces do to the “shape” and form of my body? Of my idea of my body, gender, sex.
Brian S: And a race. Gotta tangle with that one, too.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Yes. Absolutely. What does my whiteness do to my form and the forms (bodily and otherwise) of others? How do I do harm? How does my unwillingness to voice my own fluidity and uncertainty do harm? I think a lot about that. And I think this book does to.
Sarah Fowler: I think about art and platform (or microphone). I think transparency is essential to model and I value candor.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Yes.
Sarah Fowler: Is silence faceted? Are there more than two sides to it?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: But also how do we define candor? And what is it to take the mask of the self off?
Oh yes. I think silence has many sides and many levels. The book also is very much about that.
Brian S: Even (especially?) unwitting harm. And it’s something that honestly most white people have never thought about until recently.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Yes, unwitting harm is often the most damaging, I think. Because we refuse to see it as damage. And we let ourselves off the hook by saying “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t mean to.”
Sarah Fowler: I so appreciate and love the rumination the book does on the characters and uses of silence. It will be teaching me for a long time because poets use both—I am compelled by the way “listening” and “refusal” are the same (aurally).
Brian S: What’s your favorite poem from the book to read at an event? Or have you gotten to that point yet?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I really love reading “I Was Popular in Certain Circles.” And there needs to be the right space to read for the symbol but I do love doing that. Because it’s scary and open.
Brian S: Will there be any kind of book tour and will you come at least to Iowa City?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I’d love to come to Iowa City and Des Moines! I’m doing a lot of readings for this book and am happy to do more. I’d love to go to the Bay Area and I’d love to go to the Midwest. Right now it’s tons of East Coast and a little Texas and a little LA.
Eve Linn: If you have time, could you speak about the title?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Well. I have always had titles of books come to me (ALWAYS… how silly… I only have three books!). And for ages, this title was just in my brain. In the original version of this book there was an actual band called Rocket Fantastic. But also there was this sense of everyone looking up at the stars. Now I think of it as a psychedelic title that contains joy and awe and terror. And that’s something the whole book contains, I think and hope!
Brian S: Who are you reading right now?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I’m reading a ton of great stuff. I’m reading Jennifer Chang‘s soon to be released Some Say the Lark, which is amazing. Dana Levin’s Banana Palace is a book I keep coming back to. Love new books by Kaveh Akbar (soon to be a Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection!) and Nicole Sealey. Ife-Chudeni Oputa’s book Rummage is amazing. Heather Derr Smith’s Thrust. Tyree Daye’s book River Hymns is fantastic. I’m also reading Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, which is amazing. And Jeff Vandermeer‘s trilogy. Lots and lots of great books coming out this fall.
Brian S: Have you started a new project yet or are you letting this one sink in a bit?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I’m working into some new things. Right now it wouldn’t make sense to anyone. I tend to write poorly for a few years after a book is done. Which is fine. I just move around inside the world of it until it becomes clear to me. That’s a nice thing about me being older. I’ve gotten better about not knowing. About trusting I’ll find the threads. And so far I seem to always find them. If I let myself wait I’m more likely to be surprised in ways that are generative for me and the reader.
Eve Linn: Getting older and you’re not does have some advantages!
Brian S: Thank you so much for joining us tonight Gaby, and thank you Eve and Sarah for joining in, too. I hope you’ll keep coming back.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Thank you, Brian! And thanks to Eve and Sarah and anyone else who was listening.
Eve Linn: Thank you Brian and Gaby, so much! Really inspiring!
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Night Eve! Love to you!
Eve Linn: Night Gaby, will be in touch soon, much love to you!
Leigh: Thank you! I enjoyed it so much just as a listener.
Brian S: Good night!