Gabrielle Calvocoressi@Grinnell

Writers@Grinnell is back with quite the fall line-up! Earlier this month, I attended poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s roundtable with the Grinnell College community. Times being what they are, this was a virtual event, and it was my first time attending a virtual author event (although I have done virtual events myself, before they became an absolute necessity). I don’t know if Calvocoressi is just exceptionally good at setting the tone and making a mosaic of faces on a screen feel somewhat like an intimate gathering, but the roundtable was great.

They started off by asking everyone to write in the chat what they could see from their window. Or if there was no window, what they could see where they were. The responses started accumulating, and soon after Calvocoressi began reading the chat transcript as though it were a poem (you know, with those poetry reading cadences and intonation). As they read, answers were still popping up, but I was dithering about whether or not I wanted to participate. In my hobbit hole of an apartment, there is exactly one window on the outside world, and all I ever see through it is a square of sky (or, as I learned this week, workmen and their ladders on the roof). But then the responses stopped, and the poet was reading their way down, and I knew if I submitted my patch of sky now, it would be the last line of the poem, which sounded like way too much. So I never said anything. Maybe I was the only one! In any case, I thought this was such a neat idea: it was the first reading of the evening, and the poem was a collective act of creation, and now somehow we were all bound together by how magical and atmospheric they’d made the views from our windows sound.

What followed was a sometimes meandering discussion, punctuated by poems and questions from the audience (“Gender, poetry, and God–are they friends or something else?”). Calvocoressi was always genuine and open and thoughtful. They talked about growing up in New England, raised with the rigidity of the Pilgrims (the first person to fall off the Mayflower was in their family). The inner Pilgrim was a recurring motif during the roundtable, a part of yourself that you know is wrong but that can still reprimand you and make you feel shame. Calvocoressi said the work of their life was to not be ashamed of themself all the time.

In recalling how they started writing, they talked about their writing coming from a place of silence. Their poems always start as fantasy and in daydreaming. And they compared writing poems to playing the saxophone (they’d played music for many years). Someone asked whether they kept a journal, and they said they kept a notebook but not a journal (and they use their phone a lot for poetry purposes!). They also like to draw and have a watercolor pad, and they find art very helpful to writing. They added that sometimes their brain is their notebook, as they have a better memory than they should. Someone else asked how to stop the stream of consciousness in writing a poem, and Calvocoressi said they actually use stream of consciousness a lot in their poems. They like a poem that feels like it never ends, that keeps leaping and leaping along associative connections, and the only way to get that is if the connections are really tight. Calvocoressi also teaches poetry writing and explained that they teach from a place of praise, which can be hard for some of their students. This is an approach they learned from their first poetry teachers.

They had some interesting things to say about revising poems too. They’ve tried to stop thinking of it as revision and to think of it as variation instead. What else does the poem seem to want to do? What are the other things the poem can do? One thing they’ve tried is making variations of a poem without changing any of the words, instead changing only the punctuation and seeing whether they can change the power dynamics or priorities of the poem.

Finally, I scribbled down a quote from towards the end of the roundtable: “I was hugely popular with the gravestones.” But to be honest, I’ve forgotten what this was about. Hanging out in graveyards? I suppose that’s a good way to usher in October.

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