The Rumpus Original Combo with Gabrielle Calvocoressi


“The opposite of transcendence (to me) is simply anyone who just makes pronouncements or qualifies themselves without doing the deep, ongoing work of inquiry. And that’s a kind of hell to me (who doesn’t even believe in hell) and must feel terrible most days.”

Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of two books of poetry, The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart and Apocalyptic Swing, both from Persea Books. She was a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and currently runs the sports desk for the Best American Poetry Blog. The Rumpus conducted this interview via email over a period of two months in late 2009.

The Rumpus: So, Apocalyptic Swing is the title, and knowing your work and your love of both jazz and baseball, that opened up a few avenues for me. Would the title refer to music being danced to at the end of the world, or Big Papi smashing one over the Green Monster? Since there wasn’t a title poem to give me a hint, I went looking elsewhere and found the simultaneously delicate and brutal poems about boxing, among other forms of violence. Is the Apocalyptic Swing the killing blow thrown by Boom Boom Mancini, among others? And why isn’t there a title poem?

Gabrielle Calvocoressi: The title does have lots of different meanings (and probably more than I even know). I think the first is musical or it has become the first. I wanted to write poems that were as formally rigorous as the first book but also had enough confidence in what I’d learned to let the muscle work in a new way, to let the poem swing out and risk rupture. I’m thinking of the way Bach sounds when played on period instruments…how the music really brings them to the limits of what they are capable of doing and how that’s a sound too.

I think more than baseball (more! how is that possible?) boxing played a role in the title. I’m interested in the science of boxing of the fact that we call it brutality when really there are far more brutal things going on right in front of us that we choose to ignore. I am interested in the body’s capacity to get up. The swing of that motion of rising and maybe swaying a little but getting up all the same. In the first book I realized everyone is looking up and in the second everyone is getting up, even if it is smarter to stay down. And the few people who don’t get up are the ones who get killed, that being the only thing that can keep them down. It’s not about heroism so much as the body’s natural tendency to rise.

And there’s the summer of 1964 that moves through this book in all kinds of ways. The church and synagogue bombings. Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and his remarkable “Alabama” that follows the cadence of Dr. King’s eulogy for Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. And my own mother’s mental illness and how that made everything into metaphor, particularly the way God moved through my world.

Rumpus:One big thing that stands out in both books is this push to tell an extended story–the Circus Fire and Amelia Earhart poems from the first book and primarily “Training Camp: Deer Lake, PA” in Apocalyptic Swing. One big difference in “Training Camp” is the move to the second person voice, the direct address to the reader. Was this a natural evolution from the first-person voice of “Amelia Earhart” and third-person of “Circus Fire” or did the poem just happen that way?

Calvocoressi: I think it was. I think the transition began with “From the Adult Drive-In”, in which the lyric “I” began to push against the idea of perception and story. I think of that poem as having a speaker that is watching the rest of the poems in the book as much as she is watching the pornographic movies. In this book I wanted “Deer Lake” to really open in a different way. I wanted it to be a pretty still poem and to work with silence a good deal…sort of the opposite of what one thinks of when considering boxing. I trained very briefly a few years ago and I really loved those moments when John or Martin would wrap my hands or talk about taking punches, it felt so intimate. And I read a lot about training camps and, it seemed to me so much like working on a book. That moment when you are so deep in something and you have to turn from other things to get there. And it’s a love poem, too. I wanted to play with gender a bit (well, the whole book does that) and let the fighter sit in a liminal space in all kinds of ways. The “You” makes it more intimate and more ambiguous all at once, I think (I hope).

Rumpus: The formal aspects of this collection, like your last one, combined with the extended sports metaphor almost demand that I ask if the two are related. I’m thinking of the famous Frost notion that writing free verse was akin to playing tennis with the net down. Does the subject matter inform your formal choices to some degree? Or would you make those formal choices regardless of subject?

Calvocoressi: Well, the thing I really admire so much about sports (and athletes in general) is the way really consistent hard work leads to the appearance of effortlessness. I think that’s true in any professional sport and, it seems to me, that poetry is the same. I love the idea that you need a lot of raw talent and energy but there has to be a lot of work put in too. And like sports you spend most of your time training. So, I want my poems to be as rigorous and also exciting and athletic (I suppose) as a great game or match of anything.

Rumpus: I’d like to ask about the project you’re doing with Alicia Jo Rabins for The Owls. What’s the project and how did it come about? And whose idea was it to make Twitter such a big part of it?

Calvocoressi: I’m really trying to understand Twitter but just can’t seem to get my head around it. So I decided to just make it into another genre and a tool for getting my ideas down in as little space as possible without losing lyricality and sense and rigor. The Owls asked if they could follow me for the month of September. I was excited because it seemed like a chance to really work on the Twitter form I’d been thinking of. A big question I have is can Twitter feel intimate?

In addition to being a dear friend, Alicia Jo Rabins is a poet and musician (her forthcoming album/project Girls in Trouble is already getting a bunch of attention) and Biblical scholar. In a world where we talk about the increasing distance between people, Alicia and I write to each other almost everyday and discuss all kinds of things, faith and art tending to be a thread that weaves its way through most of the conversation. I thought about going for my run and how I pass by windows with folks living their complicated and intimate lives inside and I wondered if Twitter might serve as a window that we could crack open for those ten days and let people hear the snippets and also to see how conversation might work in that form. The result was a revelation for us and lots of folks responded and seemed really excited and moved. I think Josh Tyree and The Owls have started something really special and I’m honored to be part of it. It’s rare to get to play like that.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →