National Poetry Series Winner Hannah Gamble Gets Intra/Inter – spective/personal

Chicago poet Hannah Gamble will give a house reading to celebrate her debut collection Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast(Fence books, 2012; winner of the 2011 National Poetry Series) on Friday December 21st at 8pm hosted by Speak Social at the curators’ residence: 1259 Eastern Parkway.

[Note from them (John and Sarah): “Please try and carpool as parking is limited. Take a left on Barret, left into the first alley and park out back.”] RSVP Here.

Keep Louisville Literary utilized the awesome power of the internet to pick at Hannah’s brain for clues to the nature and origins of her book:

Keep Louisville Literary: Aesthetic aside, poets are ever aware of the specific and the universal. How do you approach weaving your personal experience with broader allusions?

Hannah Gamble: I don’t think I ever consider it in quite that way (I mean, I never think “How can I talk about myself in particular and human experience in general at the same time?”). I mostly think “Am I enjoying writing this?”

It seems to me that the writer should think about herself first. If she’s not enjoying herself, then something is wrong, and that poem won’t move anyone the way it could or should.

Of course, the poet enjoying herself (or at least being really interested in, really caring about, what she’s doing/ saying in a poem) is only the first step in the making of a good poem. When going back to revise a first draft, it’s important to ask, “Have I articulated this in a way that someone who doesn’t have access to my brain and my history will be able to understand/ connect with?” [That phase is usually the phase wherein I take out all the puns I made in the first draft.]

KLL: Though you write mostly about urban-scapes and people (as opposed to the pastoral), you poems seem to deal often with the concept and feeling of loneliness, even when the speaker is not physically alone. Could you elaborate on this recurring theme?

HG: Pretty easy answer here: I get lonely a lot! Though less so now (now that I realize that being with myself is often less lonely than being in the company of people who don’t think that what I think is important is important, for example, or don’t understand me, or whom I don’t understand).

A story that I hope you’ll see as relevant: Here in Chicago there’s a very old orthodox catholic man named Matthew who has an office in the Fourth Presbyterian Church downtown. He does healing energy work (like a mix of Qigong and praying to the saints) for the seniors (people from the community, age 60 and up) who take classes in the building. I was teaching a creative writing/ memoir class there and (in the late spring when a lot of things were happening in my life that were exhausting me so much that I got out of breath just holding my head upright on the train) I went to see him.

At the beginning of our first session he laid me on a table and turned out all the lights. He put on a small crocheted hat that looked like the ones that Muslim men wear. He put his hands on my shoulders, feet, and head and, at some point, I just completely went away. It wasn’t like sleep. It was just going away and being nothing. And while I know that people usually have negative associations with the word “nothing,” it was wonderful, peace-inducing, and restorative. I “woke up” mystified and grateful and feeling much better.

Matthew asked to write about my experience, and I wrote that the best thing was that I had reached a point where there was nothing. Matthew said later, “I think, when you wrote ‘there was nothing,’ you meant ‘nothing else’.” (Nothing, in other words, besides the me that wasn’t thinking about being me, nothing that I was aware of needing, because when you lose your identity you lose all the awareness of intra- as well as inter-personal deficits.)

Being in a city can be lonely. Being with a person who loves you but is so angry that she doesn’t want to look at your face is lonely. But forgetting who you are is not lonely. So I try to think about myself less these days, and when I do that, I am less lonely.

KLL: At times your poems compare humans to animals or reference people as “animals”, either blatantly or by insinuating. Can you tell us more about this repeating metaphor and why you are drawn to use it?

HG: I think it has a lot to do with way I was raised, which was in a very conservative Christian community in Tennessee. [Let me just explain where I’m headed by saying that, for me, bodies are the most animal thing about humans]  In Nashville, Tennessee it seemed that no one was supposed to show their bodies, or talk about the things they wanted to do with their bodies, or with other people’s bodies. I remember going to a summer camp where a woman delivered an afternoon lecture on how girls shouldn’t wear solid-color shirts with horizontal striped across the chest because it made boys looks at our chests.

At the time, I didn’t value my body because my body was a natural thing that often did or wanted to do things that animals’ bodies do. I was constantly being told, in effect, that my body was the thing I should be fighting against, and that my mind and my soul were the good things. Essentially: “We are not animals. We are better than them. We rule over them. We might have bodies and certain survival-based instincts like them, but with the help of God and moral advisors/ supporters, we must overcome (rule over) those parts of ourselves.”

I’m no longer a part of that community, but even in a community of academics, you’ll notice that what being adult is, what being sophisticated is, is having some design, some cunning, some savvy about you– knowing what to conceal, what to reinterpret to make yourself look good, how to rationalize your brief moments of unfiltered hurt, fear, or libido. If a person is honest even most of the time, we might view them as clueless [or think], “Why don’t they understand that they should keep those thought and feelings to themselves?”, or [consider them] crazy. I’ve been judgmental in that way and I’ve been judged in that way.

I love the people who recognize that they’re animals: they cry when they are hurt; they fight back when someone threatens their family; they are unashamed of wanting sex; they want to sniff each other and tackle and nuzzle and muss the hair of the people they love…

Of course, the tricky thing is that I really value cunning and savvy and tact as well. I think, in the end, that it’s great to be human; I just want to be a human who recognizes that I’m part of the natural world, not better than it.

KLL: In an issue of Gulf Coast (where you used to work as an editor), you ask several poets how they feel when their work is labeled as “surrealist”. The resulting conversation waxes a bit on the origins and use of the term, and also addresses things that the author’s consider “surrealist” in their own work. I also see in your poems surrealist qualities where something physical defies our laws of physics, and I think the result is an altered reality which takes hold of or otherwise changes your character(s). To what purpose do you employ “surrealist” elements, and how do you feel about the label?

HG: One of the things I love best about that interview is that someone (I think it was one of the Matthews) is very insistent about how “surrealist” is not a synonym for “weird,” though that’s pretty much how everyone uses the term these days.

I haven’t thought about surrealism in a while, but I do remember that when I first read about it in college I was pleased to learn that “surreal” didn’t mean “unreal” (as someone looking at paintings of giant clocks melting in the desert might conclude), but instead “extra-real,” or “real-in-a-way-that-trangresses-what-most-people-accept-as-the-limits-of-the-real.” In my poems I’m trying to say the truest thing, and often this means trying to let subconscious things bubble up– a situation in which things can get (quote-unquote) wacky.

KLL: In your poem “Think About a Knot of Twine”, the knot of twine is immediately likened to the female sex organ and subsequently becomes the womb, at one point even addressing an umbilical attachment to one’s mother by “a length of twine”, assumedly unraveled from her womb. This is the most striking, as well as the most direct and the longest surrealist trope I saw in your work. Could you tell us a little about the function of surrealist images in this poem and how they may tie in with specific life experiences as well as the universal?

HG: You know, I guess this poem is surreal, at least by the provisional definition I gave that word in my previous answer…Hopefully the poem feels extra-real (by using images that come from my subconscious so maybe are truer than more filtered/ tampered with images or ideas?)…Though some of the things in that poem are just flat out, journalistically true: I had a boyfriend in college with whom, before he was my boyfriend, I went camping. At some point, I fell asleep sitting at a picnic table, and when I woke up there were white ducks all around my feet because he (Paul) had put breadcrumbs around me so that I would get to wake up surrounded by a large number of really attractive water fowl.

On the other hand, there are other things in that poem feel true because the part of my brain so-deep-and-hidden-in-me-that-I-don’t-even-know-what’s-going-on-in-there thought them up, like the part at the end of the poem where the newborn talks to the mother to whom she’s still attached by cord and says that her (the newborn’s) organs appear to be on the outside (which, I think, is what I would think if I were a baby with fully developed consciousness, and I slid out of my mother’s vagina and saw a placenta come out right after me– but I really wasn’t aware of that thought until I saw I’d written it).

I recall now that I wrote the poem in a manner that maybe the actual French surrealists would have approved of, in that I had no idea what I was going to write when I started; my friends and I were hanging out in one friend’s living room writing imitations of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but with things assigned to us by one another. So I think one of us had to write about a kidney bean, but I got lucky and was assigned twine.

KLL: Perhaps one day we will have express-train service between Chicago and Louisville, but until then I bet more than a few literary Louisvillians will make the trek up to your city. What enticing/exciting things can you tell us about the literary community in Chicago?

HG: There’s a ton of great reading series here. Honestly, Louisville is only about 5 hours from Chicago, so why not head up here sometime and hear some great poets read?

Dolly Lemke, Holly Amos, and Ryan Spooner curate The Dollhouse reading series which is fairly new to the scene but got national recognition pretty quickly.

What I like about it:It’s in an apartment, my friends go there, and everybody’s all squished together on the floor/ coffee table/ windowsills; before and after the reading it feels like a big ol’ house party. Recent readers include Zach Schomberg, Jenny Zhang, Anthony Madrid, Marcus Wicker, Matt Hart, Cathy Wagner, Adam Fell, and Glenn Shaheen.

I’m also a big fan of the Danny’s reading series curated by Joel Craig.

What I like about it: It’s in a very low-lit tavern with orange-ish floral cloth stretched over the windows and nice bar tenders; mostly everyone in the bar is there to hear poetry, and the setting is very calm and intimate; Joel is incredibly tall and verbally economical.

Recent readers includeCathy Park Hong, Sandra Simonds, Nick Demske, Gabriel Gudding, and Ashley Capps.

KLL: Now for the generic wrap-up question: Literature is a (if not the) powerful, transportive medium, formative and informative to us all. So, what books/author’s have had your attention lately?

HG: Okay, did you know that the advice columnist Anne Landers wrote her own encyclopedia? I bought, at a thrift store, Volume 2 (which starts with Hiccups and ends at Zoonoses, which are, apparently: “diseases of man which are transmitted to him from animals”. Some of her entries include “Marriage Between Jew and Non-Jew,” “Sex for the Handicapped,” and “Thin People.” I’m hoping that this book will be kind of like Pliny’s Natural History, but with more rigid hairstyling. 

I’m also reading Twice-Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorn (who I’ve been told is very cynical, so I’m looking forward to that), little erotic poems by Gāthā Saptaśatī, and also poems written by the kids I used to teach through Writers in the Schools (WITS) in Houston. All of their poems have been bound in these little anthologies with very colorful covers, my favorite of which has a sloppy drawing of the earth “on fire with coolness.”


Hannah Gamble has received writing and teaching fellowships from Rice University, The University of Houston, and The Edward F. Albee Foundation. Her poems and interviews appear or are forthcoming in APR, jubilat, The Laurel Review, Indiana Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere. She teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and lives in Chicago.