The Rumpus Original Combo with Gabrielle Calvocoressi

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Rumpus:I’d like to continue down this path with faith and art. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with religious faith, in large part because of my experiences growing up in a fundamentalist home, but I still seek those transcendent moments in life and hope to recreate them in my poetry. Faith has traditionally been both a uniting and dividing force, but in contemporary western society, it seems to be less a part of peoples’ lives today. It’s probably too much to ask poetry alone to fill that void, but do you think poetry has a role to play in the search for the transcendent?

Calvocoressi: Well, I think it depends on who we are talking about and what we think of as faith. There are still plenty of people in this country for whom faith plays a huge part in their life. I think this is a really interesting and important issue (it’s a big part of my artistic life): the effect class has on people’s faith, or I think more accurately, people’s willingness to discuss their faith (whatever it may be).

I grew up in a house where the most highly educated people were perceived by me to be really virulently anti-church and anti-religion. The less educated (and in the case of my mother less healthy) people were religious and believed in God. I’m not sure that at that point I was able to discern between being anti-religion and not believing in God. I think my father does believe in something like God but when I was young I couldn’t see past his (understandable) skepticism and even disgust with the Church. So I grew up feeling like if I was going to be an intelligent and respected and not crazy part of the conversation in my home and in the world then I couldn’t really cop to believing in God. I think I submerged that part of me and it wasn’t until someone asked me what I did instead of keeping a journal and I said, “I pray” that I even realized that I’ve had the same prayer practice everyday of my life since I was little. It was a big moment for me. Personally and politically and artistically.

I mean, religion was always a part of my life. I took tons of religion classes in college and would have certainly gone to divinity school had I not gone to get my MFA. I’m glad I didn’t because I would have wanted to go to seminary and now I am no longer Christian and I think I would have come to that realization at some point and I’m glad I came to it slowly and in the midst of everyday life so it was a real awakening instead of a crisis. A really beautiful extended moment in my life.

I think this is all part of the question you are asking. Anyway. I think lots of folks could be qualified as people of faith but choose not to be or don’t allow themselves to be or are forcibly kept from it because they don’t fit into a specific category. What do you do if you don’t believe in God but you do believe in prayer or miss prayer? What do you do if you believe in God but don’t believe in Heaven or Hell? What if you love church or shul but don’t believe in God? What if you love to sit zazen but do not resonate with the Buddha? These are all real issues. And there are many more. I think one advantage that my grandmother had was that the church was so much a part of the community and the civic life (and truly not in a proselytizing way) that one could go to church and think about faith in a really holistic kind of way. And this wasn’t a New Age church at all. But God lived in your actions and what you made of your life (that could include art) and so that actually could fit all kinds of views and ways of being, even in that very New England Episcopalian space. I think of her going back home and my grandfather laughing about “Bible thumping” and it makes me feel a little sad though I think she was pretty fine with it and perhaps that was because she had a clearer understanding of the space than he did.

I don’t think anything can be everything but I do think poems (and all kinds of making) are part of that search. I can say the word void but I choose to think of it as poems attempting to speak towards an enormous silence. Not in an attempt to fill it so much as an attempt to speak alongside it and perhaps to get an answer and also to push into the possibility that silence is the answer. For me that is why writing and prayer are not so different or at least the practice. I don’t expect an answer when I pray.

I know plenty of people who think prayer is futile or ridiculous. I wonder if that has to do with their expectation of response. For me praying is not about asking for things just like writing a poem isn’t about asking for things. It is about the asking. Period. Not asking for but simply asking. The way the voice goes up at the end of a sentence when a question is asked. When I write a poem and when I read a poem that really pushes me and when I pray I am moved into the deepest space of questioning. I am thinking of who is speaking? Through what mask? For what purpose? Those are the three questions Lucie Brock Broido told us to ask our poems. I am implicated in the silence. I think that is a tremendous gift and kind of freedom. I don’t need God to be my friend any more than I want a poem to just give over to me and please me. That’s what I have Glee and Crunch and Munch and Katy Perry for (God bless her. Seriously).

To me real transcendence comes from speaking alongside the unspeakable and pushing into it and doubting. In that way I think most serious artists I know could be qualified as people of faith. And conscious atheism is a kind of faith too. Atheism that is deeply thought out and pushed against and considered and studied. 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.

Gosh. I’ve gone on. Yes. The answer to your question is Yes.

Rumpus:One of your recent tweets said “I know folks hate to travel but I love this intersection of language and food and friendliness. Liminal world. I dig it.” That’s great for 140 characters, but could you expand on it a bit?

Calvocoressi: It’s probably fitting that I’m answering this on a plane and also sitting next to Alicia Jo Rabins (a big figure in this interview that started by asking about all those twitters) as we make our way to Miami for the Book Fair. We’re both answering interview questions and thinking about things. At the same time I’m sort of in this other world where I’m remembering going to Miami when I was young and how my grandmother used to get really dressed up for the flight. It’s bumpy and I’m remembering the bumpiest flight of my life was a Miami flight. So I’m in a lot of different worlds. And I like that.

Of course, I got the question ages ago when I was sitting in the San Francisco airport eating Japanese curry and listening to this young Hispanic maintenance guy laugh and chat with the older Japanese guy working behind the counter of the curry spot. I love moments like that: the mix of languages, the way places that aren’t supposed to be about community at all actually have deep communities if one looks a little deeper. I had gotten to the airport a bit early and I love it when I can really sit and have a meal. I was on my 7th or 8th flight in two weeks and I got to thinking that I actually find airports really comforting. It’s this liminal space where I can actually get a lot of thinking done and also dreaming, I suppose. It’s a place where I don’t necessarily have to think about the administrative business of the day (although I also like that I can get a lot of that done there). More than anything, I just love the idea of people headed somewhere and how many different stories there are in that one place. And, at the same time, everyone is pretty much focused on the present moment of getting to the plane.

It’s not much different from the walk I take everyday in Los Angeles. The ability to be in a busy space in a meditative way. I think that was what I was getting at somehow…

Rumpus:Back to the Twitter thing. I’ve noticed two tendencies in the pieces you post–some will be enigmatic moments, asides almost, while at other times you’ll drape a narrative across several posts. From my perspective as a reader, it’s interesting because I’m never sure, at least at the start, which one I’m reading, so I’ll scroll furiously down the list populated by political links and Rumpus posts and personal notes from students to try to piece the narrative together, and often as not, there’s nothing more than the single post. How much do you plan these pieces out, and do you think they’ll become something larger? Or are they meant to exist only in the ephemeral space of social media?

Calvocoressi: I love that you are asking these questions about Twitter because it makes me realize that, for me, Twitter is one of the spaces that I feel is oddly most private and allows me to “play” and dream and think about my process. Part of it is that I don’t really know how to use Twitter and I don’t have many followers so I feel like I’m either talking to myself or to a larger nameless other or sometimes I’m talking to someone specific but not in a way that most people would know. I like the word “Twitter” because, for me, it is a little like birdsong: it seems like just a bunch of sound (sometimes very beautiful) but really there is something going on underneath. There’s a system.

As opposed to Facebook, which I also love but in a more water-cooler, social kind of way, Twitter is a place where I have little dream projects. I owe a debt of thanks to Sean Hill and J.M. Tyree for that because the site The Owls asked to follow my Twitter feeds for a month and that gave me a push to make a project. It’s also true that The Owls itself uses the internet format in a really interesting way, a place that acts like a canvas for makers. So I was inspired by The Owls (more birds!) and began making narrative tweet projects. And then, as I discussed earlier, I asked Alicia to come join me for a bit and I found that deeply moving and interesting.

Some days I’ll just post what I’m up to. And that can be fun but it also doesn’t seem to push the form, which I’m just interested in no matter what I’m doing. For the book release I posted the whole secret playlist for the poems in tweets. That was cool. Over Christmas I became obsessed with Adele and the fact that she makes me daydream about snowy days in London, kind of a movie. And so I started talking about that but then (and this is interesting to me) I started wondering what would happen if one really began to dream on Twitter and, let’s say, there was an actual romantic or erotic part of the narrative. And it’s funny because that felt intimidating to do on Twitter and also like it could perceived the wrong way, the wrong kind of dream. So. That was a moment where I realized there might be a boundary (both artistic and personal) that I couldn’t push past there without beginning to have to think about the public perception.

As I write this I’m realizing that a better word for what I’m doing on Twitter is “film.” I think I’m taking the movies that always run in my head (those sort of grainy hand held films) and putting them somewhere. So over Christmas I had Adele (Hometown Glory) as the soundtrack and the bird in me was tweeting and filming the dream scene where I (or some version) have ended up in London over Christmas and it’s snowing and it’s evening and I’m walking along a street of beautiful apartment buildings with a bag in my hand that holds some gift that’s meant to open some door. And then it goes on and I didn’t tweet the rest. There’s a whole movie about Paris that is slowly getting played out over months, those tweets are far apart. And there’s the dream of God. And then there’s my garden. And there’s me sending messages in bottles.

Rumpus: Last question. Put on your sportswriter had for a minute. Assuming Mayweather and Pacquiao get past their beef and get in a ring, who do you like?

Calvocoressi: Okay. First, I think they will get past it. I know it looks bleak and I think there’s been real damage done to the promise of the fight in terms of what it would do for boxing but I bet the fight will happen in September like some folks are speculating. It’s a bummer but I think it will still create so much excitement. And it will (hopefully) be a great fight for people who don’t love boxing to get a real taste. Everyone talks about heavyweights but it’s just more fun and interesting to watch guys with the kind of dexterity and speed of these two. It will be great. And the cultural aspect. Pacquiao’s incredible fanbase. Just. It’s amazing.

That said. I like Floyd. I think he will win. The odds have him winning and I haven’t watched enough boxing in the last few years to be able to speak super intelligently but I love watching him fight. And I think he can just do a kind of damage. I must say, the moment before Floyd Mayweather knocks someone out will do something to your whole body. Really. You can just feel it, “This man is about to do something very beautiful with his body very quickly and someone is going to get knocked down.” You just feel it rising in you. He’s an artist. In a way, he really is.

And he has paraffin treatments on his hands to keep them from just falling apart. Imagine. Going to the physical therapist and having paraffin treatments on your hands. Incredible.

I know people don’t like Mayweather as a person. I think there are reasons for it and I also think we could have a whole discussion about the way black men and women athletes are demonized. You look at Serena Williams, who behaved poorly, but (in my opinion) is being treated terribly unfairly in terms of fines. you think of what she has to deal with from fans at the French Open. Barry Bonds having people threaten the life of his child and commentators alluding to lynching. Anyway, I think Mayweather is an easy mark. I personally don’t care if he throws money around and acts sort of immature. I think if you watch that HBO De La Hoya/Mayweather series there are some very telling moments that reveal him to be a guy who survived a pretty brutal childhood and who has a remarkable gift and is using that gift. Anyway, I think he’s the better fighter and I am also one of the minority of fans.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t like Pacquiao. I love him. I think he’s tremendous. And he may be the best fighter of this generation. I’d be happy to see either fighter win. I think it’s a fight where, if it’s fought well, people will have a chance to really see great boxing. And that’s a really rare and special thing.

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You can follow Gabrielle Calvocoressi on Twitter at @gabbat and at @broadsidedpress, where she’s the Twitter editor. And check out “Every Person in This Town Loves Football” in Rumpus Original Poems, the other half of our Original Combo.


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 →