A Poet of Ecology: Talking with Kate Gaskin

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Amidst the constantly changing landscape generated by household moves required by her spouse’s service in the US Air Force, Alabama native Kate Gaskin has successfully grafted an academic and literary life. During her family’s earlier stint at Offutt Air Force Base, she completed a masters in creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Having again returned to the American Midwest, she is now pursuing a doctorate in creative writing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, while also keeping her active grade-schooler engaged during the pandemic.

In her debut poetry collection, Forever War, published last year by YesYes Books, Gaskin explores what it means to be connected to the world, to each other, and to the US military. We recently spoke by video-teleconference about the new book, place, resilience, military life, and more.

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The Rumpus: Given that the military often moves families every couple of years, I know the following question can feel a bit loaded: Where are you from?

Kate Gaskin: I grew up in Alabama—Central Alabama, near Montgomery, in a small town. And then I did my undergraduate at a school that was in an even smaller town. That’s where I met Dominic, at Troy University. Dominic was prior-service enlisted, a mechanic on airplanes. After about seven years of enlistment, he participated in an Air Force program through which he completed his degree, and he was commissioned as an officer via ROTC. I moved with him to San Antonio, to Randolph Air Force Base, which is where he did his training.

Rumpus: You have poems that refer to loading bombs and that sort of thing. Did he ever deploy as ground crew when he was enlisted?

Gaskin: He did. He spent a year in South Korea actually, and then several other times to Middle Eastern countries.

Dominic’s title now is “Electronic Warfare Officer.” I usually talk about poetry with people who have no affiliation with the military. I always tell them that he’s a navigator. Because I think that’s the best way to understand it.

Rumpus: My father was a navigator on C-130s in Vietnam and ended his career after Desert Shield—doing the same job on the same planes. In between, he was on the EC-135, the electronics version of a civilian Boeing 707, which has a huge, forward-facing radar dish in the nose. They look like the character Snoopy from the Peanuts comics.

Gaskin: Dominic’s plane is an RC-135. His unit is based out of Omaha… I don’t know if it’s more properly called a “detachment.” Even though I’ve been a military spouse for sixteen years, I still don’t always get the terminology correct. [Laughs]

Some of that is on purpose. A little bit is me just being contrary, because there are so many acronyms and so much vocabulary. You feel like the military can just completely take over your life. So I have these little rebellions, where I push back and try to assert some kind of autonomy.

Rumpus: What about “home”? Where would you be if you weren’t where you are right now?

Gaskin: I still call the Southeast home. We were stationed in Pensacola eight years ago. And we were there for the better part of four years. That’s the longest time we’ve ever stayed put. We actually bought a house on Perdido Bay, which is the other bay—not Pensacola—in that area. We still own the house there, and our long-term plans are to retire—”retire” in quotation marks, in the military sense of “retire”—and move there for good.

The house is five minutes from Alabama! In fact, the pet name for that area of Florida is “LA,” for “Lower Alabama.” It is a very Southern part of the country.

Rumpus: That must be a navigator-family thing, too. I suppose there’s also a navigational aspect to the way I approach poetry collections as well. “Name three points and triangulate the poet’s position.” What three themes would you name in describing Forever War?

Gaskin: I think probably: Love. Place. And complicity in violence.

Very deliberately, I wanted the book to have a kind of narrative shape to it. Some of my favorite poetry books are not “narrative” necessarily, but they offer a sort of journey between two people. I wanted it to essentially read like a love story. I found that very challenging as a poet, because I don’t know that writing love poems is really all that easy.

Rumpus: I think you capture the steamy, romantic side of young love really well. How would you characterize your work’s relationship to place?

Gaskin: Being grounded in a physical landscape is important to me when writing poetry. In Forever War, I was really writing out of three separate places: I was writing out of Omaha, of course. I was writing out of central Alabama where I grew up. And I was writing out of the panhandle of Florida.

Rumpus: You do a wonderful job of going beyond geography, however. You explore the less-expected, the dirt underneath. I wonder if you consider yourself not only a poet of place, but a poet of ecology?

Gaskin: Oh, definitely. I like the term “poet of ecology.” It sounds more sophisticated than “nature writer!”

I grew up in one place in a small town. I spent twenty-two years in the same state. I guess I probably have that feeling of hunger, of wanting to really get to know where we live, even if it’s just for a year. And so I do try to get to know the ecology of wherever we happen to be stationed. It helps me feel grounded. It helps me feel like a part of that place, at least for a little while.

I like getting to know native plants and trees and wildlife. I like knowing which plants are invasive—what’s not original to a place. For example, there are these beautiful Mimosa trees in Florida that have these frothy, peachy blossoms every spring, but they are invasive and they take over and kill the native plant life. But they’re so beautiful! It’s an interesting tension. There’s so much that we can learn about human behavior from plants and wildlife, and how they have been impacted or changed.

Rumpus: How do you find that natural world, when you can’t just up and go, given the constraints of academic life or family life—or Midwestern location?

Gaskin: The Midwest has been the hardest nut to crack, probably because I live in a city of 500,000. Also, the rural landscape of the Midwest has been so changed by big agriculture. It can be hard to stumble out your door and find something that hasn’t been altered. That’s the case for everywhere I’ve lived, but it’s easier to see that change here.

When we lived in Pensacola, we lived on basically a teeny, tiny little peninsula. The bay is on one side, the Intracoastal Waterway is on the other. On the other side of the Intracoastal is the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, Florida is known for its development, and the ways that development has changed the state’s ecology. But there are pockets of wildness that you just can’t beat back. Where we lived, for example, it was very easy for me to wander out my door and be exposed to all of these different wildflowers. There was also an amazing amount of sea life in our backyard. Even jellyfish “blooms”—although perhaps those are indicative of climate change. I mean, these jellyfish are beautiful, but they’re present more than they should be.

In places like Colorado Springs and Boulder, it’s also very easy to walk out of your backyard and just be like, “Wow, this is gorgeous.” But even my favorite tree from the Mountain West, from our time stationed in Colorado, is problematic. Russian olives have these yellow flowers in the spring, and the smell is just enchanting. I think it’s so wonderful, but it turns out it’s invasive. It does not belong in Colorado. It’s regarded as a trash tree. People there don’t like it much.

Rumpus: You also mentioned complicity in violence. Is that because, no matter how you dress it up, the military is an organization that is ultimately designed to “break things and hurt people”?

Gaskin: That’s something that I was interested in exploring throughout Forever War. How do you exist in a relationship in which you just love this person so much, but reconcile it with the fact that you’re mutually connected to an institution of violence?

In our country, there has been this culture of frothing patriotism—from which, for the most part, my spouse and I have really benefited. It’s nice that most people are grateful for what Dominic does and often say as much. But that strident patriotism, it covers up more dubious, sinister things. When I’m writing, I’ve got my shovel out.

One other thing that concerns me is that, if you’re writing from this “military-adjacent” perspective, you’re always writing as someone whose life circumstances are prescribed by outside forces. It’s very difficult to be the actor in your own life as a military spouse. It can feel very powerless. It was important to me to reframe a role in which I have felt very passive.

I believe in what Dominic does and what Dominic is. He’s a first-generation college student. He’s also not white—he’s a person of color. The military has been instrumental in helping him achieve as much as he has. He started out as an airman basic, and now he’s a lieutenant colonel. The Air Force has been so good for him. And the Air Force needs people like him, too, because he’s got a humanities degree. I am adamant about that. But how do you reconcile all these things? I’m interested in exploring those tensions.

Rumpus: Through your words and actions, you’re also demonstrating that the role of “military spouse” is far more complicated than how it’s often depicted in television shows and movies.

Gaskin: The military can be surprisingly progressive, historically. With gender roles, however, especially when it comes to military spouses who are female, it can still be very regressive. That’s something that I have been low-key been rebelling against for sixteen years now. Sometimes, in kind of a petulant way.

I do understand the importance of community-building for military spouses. Our families are put under so much pressure, because of what our spouses do, and how they spend so much time away from us—oftentimes under dangerous, stressful conditions. But those communities can become regressive and harmful, I think, when they begin to dictate what a typical military spouse is or should be like. I think that my poems are a response to that—to add agency and humanity back to a role that many people see as being very static. We’re definitely more complex than how we’re portrayed by media.

Rumpus: Speaking of gender and families, some of the most striking writing appears in your postpartum poems. Specifically, I’m thinking right now of the metaphor of digging yourself up like a bulb and moving back home. For me, it really speaks to that primal question of military-family experience: Where are we from? How do we “put down roots”?

That idea of bulbs—which can be planted and replanted—I think it’s far more helpful to a military person than other metaphors might be. That it’s not a matter of “roots”; it’s a matter of coming back to life in a new place, in another season.

Gaskin: Moving so much requires a lot of resilience, way more than I often feel like I’m capable of. That’s a hard lesson being a part of the military system has taught me. It’s been valuable, but there are sacrifices.

When I married I was like, “We’ll see the world.” And that did not happen. We’ll never be stationed overseas, which is too bad. But I also know that living in different parts of the US has been good for me, mostly because I just don’t think I’m the type of person who would have been able to do that on my own without support. As far as our country’s military footprint around the world, however, that’s different. In some places, our military is definitely an unwanted interloper.

Rumpus: What poem would you love to have someone yell out as a request? “Play Free Bird!”

Gaskin: My favorite poem to read out loud is “Fuck, Marry, Kill.”

Passages North is the journal that first published that poem. They did a launch party for that particular issue and they filmed it. One of the graduate students who works on the journal read that poem out loud. And people laughed. I realized, I wrote a funny poem! I had no idea!

It’s about my “old-timey movie boyfriend,” Marlon Brando. [The poem also references actors Paul Neuman and Cary Grant.] It’s lighter, but it still goes to some dark places.

Rumpus: Charade, by the way, is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I was really sorry when Cary Grant didn’t make your cut. Also, given my family’s history with the C-130, I wanted to mention “Elegy with Whale Fluke and C-130s”! Lots of “elegies,” by the way—what’s up with that?

Gaskin: They’re probably not real elegies, mostly because the spouse in the book doesn’t die. However, the nature of war is so elegiac. There’s a feeling, in separation during a deployment, of how vulnerable you are to death.

In my experience, I was lucky. I never felt like Dominic was in real danger. His job was to fly very high over combat areas and to provide support for ground troops. He was never “boots on the ground.” But I do think there’s a feeling of loss and grief that’s central to the book, and so using the word “elegy” felt natural in order to single out a feeling I want readers to have.

Rumpus: I find “Elegy with Whale Fluke and C-130s” an incredibly hopeful poem. I think that seeing a fluke is somehow an optimistic image to me—as I understand it, they’re not always easy to spot. You have to be an optimist to even look for them. Maybe also because, while the cargo plane is an ugly-looking aircraft, it is often involved in disaster-response missions. Remember the Mr. Rogers quote? “Look for the helpers.”

Gaskin: Thank you. I’m glad that it felt like a hopeful poem to you, because I think for me, writing it, it also felt a little futile.

Rumpus: Well, you do start the poem with a mention of the International Whaling Commission.

Gaskin: Yeah, exactly. We’re screwing up the planet so badly. But we can also help each other. Like you referenced Mr. Roger’s helpers.

Rumpus: It seems to me that the military is trained to never give up. Even in seemingly hopeless situations, somebody’s still trying to do something. That was where I was seeing the positivity in the poem, I guess.

Gaskin: Yes, definitely. A feeling of futility doesn’t mean that we don’t try.

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Photograph of Kate Gaskin by Dominic Gaskin.


Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. A 20-year veteran with a one overseas deployment, he subsequently authored the 2015 poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. He also co-edited the 2019 anthology Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War. He is a three-time poetry finalist in the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Writing Awards. Find him on Twitter at @FOB_haiku. More from this author →