Language Is Sensational: A Conversation with Eileen G’Sell


It was, my friend, a good story. Very, very, very romantic. Several people died. It was black and white, and then it was color. A man got sad, and then he got angry. We all got laid, agreed it was fun. What you thought the story was really about, it wasn’t.

This excerpt, from the prose poem “Like Good News from a Pretty Girl,” encapsulates the spirit of Eileen G’Sell’s debut poetry collection, Life After Rugby—contradictory, tongue-in-cheek, familiar. Whether G’Sell, who is a teacher, Rumpus Features Editor, and a regular contributor to Salon, VICE, and the Boston Review, is delivering a wry witticism or basking in the sheer Stein-ian joy of sound and language (“a tinking thing, a thinking sting, a star / that follows after”), it is clear G’Sell is having fun—and it is impossible, as the reader, not to join her in that fun. But playful does not mean light or fluffy; G’Sell’s poems are serious and urgent, critically engaged with questions about the role of narrative, the separate-but-equally-strong pulls of hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity, both the fragility and surprising durability of the body, and the aestheticization of suffering.

These poems are tense, tender, and true.

We spoke on Skype in mid-December. Her dog’s barking occasionally interrupted our conversation.


The Rumpus: I thought we’d start with the title. That was one of the first things that really surprised me about the book. It’s unusual to have anything to do with sports in the title of a book of poetry, and rugby is an unusual sport. When I googled the phrase, all these articles about players whose professional rugby careers had ended came up—so it’s pointing to a big transitional moment in a player’s career.

Eileen G’Sell: One practical reason I chose that title for the collection is simply that there was a great challenge in finding a concept or idea that could cohere so many different types of poems and so many years of poetry—some of the older poems I wrote about ten years ago. With “Life After Rugby,” I was trying to speak to a sense of violence and of spectacle, a sense of the body being challenged. One of the things I was trying to navigate in the book—and that I’ve always been interested in as an intellectual but also definitely as a poet—are the extreme poles of masculinity and femininity.

I’m a consummate tomboy, and I’ve always gravitated towards the spectacle of aggressive sports. But at the same time, like probably any thinking person, I have great ambivalence about what it means to be in a position where you’re essentially destroying your body for aesthetic display. For that reason, I really wanted the cover to have an image of ballet; ballet is a fantastic example of a very traditionally feminine performance art that, like rugby, is very destructive on the body. So I wanted to juxtapose the more masculine title “Life After Rugby” with a more feminine image of toe shoes, which are at once very graceful and beautiful but also have a sense of danger. I’ve long been invested in questions like “What is the difference between something that is performance and something that is just destructive and violent?”

Rumpus: It’s like a meeting place between those two things. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

G’Sell: Precisely. I’m talking about opposites, but I do think some of the things that are considered hypermasculine or hyperfeminine have a lot in common, and so I definitely see it as at once violent and spectacle.

Rumpus: You play with conventions of storytelling and narrative, in addition to talking about various movie stars, and what is “cinematic.” Could you speak to the influence film has had and also maybe the role cinema or narrative plays in your poems?

G’Sell: They’ve played a huge part. I absolutely love fiction, and I wrote a lot of fiction as an undergraduate, but at one point I realized that I was more interested in the extravagant minutiae of detail than I was in the story itself. I’m more invested in the “scene,” if you put it in cinematic terms, than in the plot. So, for me, the narrative trajectory is usually less important than the visual details, the auditory details, the sensory experience in something taut, condensed, distilled—a poem.

At one point, I was in a PhD program to study film and visual culture at the University of Rochester, and that was actually one of my most prolific periods as a poet—not only because I was grappling with a lot of “big life” themes as a young person but also because I was flooded with a new sense of cinematic theory and history. That program along with teaching film—both historic and contemporary—has had a big impact on the way that I live in the world but also experience language in the world. When I’m writing a poem, it can trigger an image from a film. Or, quite often, imagery in film prompts the poem itself. I’m inspired a lot by language itself but also quite a lot by the image.

Rumpus: Could you cite a specific example?

G’Sell: There’s a line in one of my poems: “I refuse to make this beautiful.” That phrase was catalyzed by Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line. At the time, I was going through pretty serious heartbreak in my own life, and I found watching war movies surprisingly therapeutic. They abstracted suffering in a way that felt depersonalized to my own suffering, and the spectacle of it appealed to me. So I was watching this film—and I remember watching this gorgeous crane shot of the battlefield, and I thought, He’s making this beautiful, he’s making the suffering beautiful. This is a gorgeous scene of tremendous, mass-scale violence. There’s an ambivalence I have toward that, but at the same time I was thinking, What does it mean to make something beautiful? What does it mean to translate suffering into something beautiful?

That poem that line comes from doesn’t actually incorporate any imagery from the war film, but the idea of refusing to make it beautiful was triggered directly from Malick. And so this question of “How do we aestheticize suffering? How do I aestheticize my own suffering?” is one that deeply interests me. How do filmmakers, artists, and poets aestheticize really dark periods in history and also personal suffering?

Rumpus: Could you talk about sound? One of the things I noticed, especially in your lineated poems, is that they were moving not so much through traditional logic as through sound.

G’Sell: I came across the New York School and Gertrude Stein and some of the older poets that really influenced my style my first time in grad school. The idea of jumping associatively from one image to the next is something I’ve always gravitated towards in film but also love to experiment with in my poems.

As far as sounds: some of my earliest memories were writing songs. I still remember some of the songs I wrote then, and it’s like I’m emulating the pop songs of the time. I was always a songwriter. I think in a way there’s a connection between those two.

There may also be a connection to growing up in a very Catholic family and having some of my first experiences with language be with prayer. Prayer involves so much tradition and so much reliance on sound and rhythm and cadence to grant a sense of gravity—of incantation, something magical. So even though I’m not religious anymore, I still feel like that period of my life did influence the way I hear and think about language.

To me, what was exciting when I first discovered Stein—and is still exciting about Stein—is how she compels the reader to stop focusing on the literal meaning of the words and to enjoy them for the sensation that they are. Language is sensational—words create a sensation in your mouth when you say them, and a sensation in your ears when you hear them.

When I was discussing Stein at the prison I teach at, one of my students who had never heard her before said, “What is this? I don’t understand this at all” and then when we read her “Portrait of Pablo Picasso” out loud together, he said, “This poem is really sexy.” And I was like, “Yes! It is!” And it’s sexy even though we don’t understand what it means, or maybe slightly because of it.

By no means do I feel like I’m as experimental as Stein nor am I attempting to be, but I definitely feel that impulse has proven consistently inspiring for me—just thinking about how the way something sounds in and of itself can capture an emotion or an experience just as much as describing narratively or describing it in a kind of mimetic way can.

Rumpus: There were at least a couple of poems in the manuscript where I knew for sure that it wasn’t “Eileen” speaking—it was either a persona, or at least a couple other voices were coming into the poem.

G’Sell: Some of the poems approximate my own manner of speaking—my own regular, everyday voice—and others are more persona-driven, for sure. There are some poems I wrote while I was living in Berlin—and I was so alone living in Berlin, I didn’t know anybody there, didn’t speak German—and many of the poems I wrote then, I wrote almost in this beleaguered old man voice. I felt like, why can’t I write a poem in a beleaguered old man voice? I feel like, as a woman, I should be afforded all of the creative liberty as a man, and of course, men experiment with persona all the time and have historically in poetry. So the idea that my work is necessarily dictated by a female perspective—well, of course, it is because I’m female. But that doesn’t mean that sometimes I’m not adopting a persona that I feel is more fitting to my experience even though it might not sound exactly like I do in real life.

Rumpus: What influence has teaching had on your work as a writer?

G’Sell: It doesn’t have any direct connection in that I don’t write about teaching very much at all, but it is important; my students have been a big part of my life. One of the things teaching has done for me, for example: when I was getting my MFA, I didn’t write any prose poems, and I felt like I didn’t understand how they worked. But after teaching so many prose poems, and reading prose poems aloud with my students and unpacking them together, I began to understand how they work. So I found myself writing prose poems in my thirties.

Teaching introduced me to new writers as well. When I was doing adjunct work in my twenties, I taught a lot of courses on subjects in which I had to school myself rapidly in order to teach. I was exposed, in teaching, to so many new voices from across the canon, outside the canon, and that opened up what I thought was possible in poems.

Rumpus: What is “Hawaiian-flowered logic”?

G’Sell: I love that question because that phrase is one of the oldest poems in the manuscript [“Last Night Alive”]. I was trying to approximate the division between the left and the right brain that isn’t really a division. I’m someone who is very analytical but also very creative. There’s a part of me that really loves causality. I was pre-med in college; I wanted to be a doctor—I love the elegance of a mathematical proof. But at the same time, my sense of logic is “Hawaiian-flowered.” It’s a little zany. It’s unabashedly aestheticized.

I’m also a pretty irreverent person, and so, while I take the poems really seriously, I don’t take myself as a poet incredibly seriously. “Hawaiian-flowered” logic also maybe gestures to this idea of being irreverent toward logic and toward what it can do.

Rumpus: Shoes play a pretty big and interesting role in your book. One of my favorite moments is when you write:

Sometimes I like to have feelings just because they are so impractical. They are electric-green Mary Janes on a hike and they are my favorite color. Sometimes they make my calves sad, but my heart is tauter for it.

G’Sell: So, the toe shoes are on the cover, and that’s important to me because they’re this very feminine display and yet they’re the part of fashion, of our apparel, that is covering up the part of our body that’s also getting beat up the most and is moving the most and is doing the most labor. Shoes get worn out, shoes reflect where we’ve been, they get scuffed up. They have a different way of displaying what we go through in life. I think for that reason some of the shoe imagery reflect the shoes I have actually, literally worn during difficult periods of my life or during really exciting, wonderful periods of my life. I guess they’re a metonym for larger questions of beauty, but also of labor. As a tomboy, I always had bare, dirty feet growing up, and yet I also loved—and love—really fancy shoes, which again speaks to the tension between what is often considered masculine and what is considered feminine.

From the example you read, with the Mary Janes—they aren’t practical shoes to wear on a hike. And yet there’s something fabulous about indulging in them, just as there’s something fabulous in indulging in some superlative feelings that are not practical.

Rumpus: It was interesting to hear you talk about the tension between masculinity and femininity in your poems because to me they felt not feminine, but mostly very feminist.

G’Sell: I do think there’s something inherently feminist in challenging gender categories, and that’s part of what my project is: to undermine and to press against the idea that something is categorically masculine or feminine—and that is a feminist project. One of the things that is beautiful about feminism is that it can have so many iterations. It can mean writing about your personal female experience and having that on the page and that’s fantastic, but it can also mean writing in the voice of an old man or writing a poem that is a dialogue between Mina Loy and Mike Tyson. In my poem, “Ode to Mike Tyson,” there is a direct quote from Loy right next to a direct quote from Tyson, and they sound almost exactly the same! I love that, that Mina Loy in 1914 sounds like Mike Tyson in 2008. That’s the kind of stuff I find really exciting—how can we challenge how we think about persona and gender, and how can we push against that?

Rumpus: I really liked how the book was paced, with prose poems early on. They were a nice constant, an anchor.

G’Sell: They’re kind of a break, too, because the prose poems are usually more accessible. I felt it was important to give readers a place to land, and the sentence is familiar. One of the things that was exciting about revising this manuscript was that some of the poems that had been lineated for maybe eight years, I decided to make into prose poems, and they still worked as prose poems because the cadence was so strong in the lineation. Carl Phillips said something to me once about how trochaic my poems were. Spoken English is, of course, supposed to more approximate the iamb, but for some reason, I like my syllables to come first, so a lot of my work was in trochees—sometimes it was relentlessly trochaic. Even though I did try to steer myself away from the monotonous trochee, I do think the rhythmic insistence on the level of the foot made some of the poems easier to convert to prose.

Rumpus: Is there anything I didn’t touch on that you wanted to discuss?

G’Sell: Something I think is really important, especially when considering women writers and artists, is not to assume that just because something is playful—on the level of sound, form, or imagery—that means it’s not serious. I’m from St. Louis and wrote a poem in response to Ferguson, a movement that continues to be important to me. I wrote poems that have references to the drop of the atomic bomb, and to political uprisings. And even though there is by no means a conspicuous political message of this book, I think a lot of times if a female writer dares to have a sense of humor or dares to write in a way that isn’t mimetic or literal or narrative, it’s easy not to see it as having either gravity or any kind of political worth. I don’t want to sound didactic as I don’t think there’s any one right way to read anything, but that’s something I’ve tried to press up against, especially in my more recent work—to write work that is more openly political but doesn’t lose the sense of joy I take in being playful with language. I don’t feel that one has to come at the expense of the other.


Author photograph © Joe Angeles/WashU Photos.

Emma Winsor Wood is Editor of Stone Soup, the magazine for kids by kids. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA and tweets @emmawinsorwood. More from this author →