GABRIELLE CALVOCORESSI’S latest book of poems, Rocket Fantastic, is both her strangest and her most immediate — at once overtly narrative and startlingly discontinuous, thoroughly kind and streaked with violence, proper to a specific moment and alluringly out of time. It is also a book that I took far more personally than most. Even though most of the poems feature characters (Calvocoressi refers to them as “vessels”) who are overtly fictional, the book also seems to me, as someone who has had the privilege of knowing her for several years, to be a remarkably direct engagement of the person I know with me, as the person (a person, I have to remind myself) reading them.
Even if professional ethics hadn’t precluded me from reviewing the book, I’m not sure I could have written about it without smearing myself all over the review. Talk seemed far more appropriate, and so talk we did, first at a coffee shop in the narrow downtown corridor of a small town about a half hour from Carrboro, North Carolina, where she lives, and then a week or two later, for the record, at her place. As we did, her cat Kekoa presided over us, a mostly disinterested presence, but also a reminder of all the other kinds of life that lurked outside the air-conditioned rooms, even in the middle of a suburbanish collection of townhomes.
JONATHAN FARMER: There’s a lot in this book about reality, including that moment in “Praise House” where you — and it feels like you — talk about “the real me.” And I want to ask you to talk a little bit about “the real me,” because that’s not a phrase that gets used much in literary conversations these days. What makes a person real?
GABRIELLE CALVOCORESSI: I have no idea, and that’s something that is the central issue or gift or even “reality” of my life. And because from the earliest age, partially because of my visual disability, partially because of how I grew up, I wasn’t ever sure what was real and what wasn’t.
My favorite line of Elizabeth Bishop’s — ever — is in the poem “Santarém,” where she says, “I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place.” It’s one of the reasons Bishop became a really important poet to me. She’s the same in “In the Waiting Room”: Oh, it’s my Aunt Consuelo, no, it’s me! I started noticing through her poems that there was a dynamic of Oh, this is the reality. Oh no; it’s not that at all. It’s this whole other thing.
In that poem and in this book, but also just in my life, right now, the real me is the me who has finally allowed themselves both in their personal, physical, and political life and in their poetry, to open to the fact that I don’t always know who I am. And that unknowing allows me to have a more joyful existence.
An important part of reality in this book is that it includes fantasy. It includes things that are made up. That’s part of our reality. The phrase “the real me” actually comes at the end of these lines: “Boxer briefs and packing socks / in jockey shorts. Strap ons. / Soft and hard. Welcome in her hand / and in mine as I greet the real me.” And so it’s coming right after this moment when you’re talking about manufacturing a body in some ways, and so that reality — that “real me” — encompasses self-creation.
Absolutely. And the wished-for self. And the self you assume people see. But then they don’t — even sometimes your closest people. And so the moments in which you — I don’t know if bravery is the right word, but you finally are like okay, let’s do this thing. Let us see each other. See me in the way I think that we both see me.
And seeing each other seems really important as well. The speakers in here are very conscious of an audience, and they address the audience directly. They negotiate with the audience to make sure what they say is understood. Sometimes the audience is a single other person that they’re writing to. But even then, in spite of the fact that there are all these different characters, I, as someone who has gotten to talk to you, who has gotten to be around you, always had the sense of you there as a presence as well, that you were talking to these people, and this sounds incredibly vain, but I always had this feeling of being spoken to …
… even when I knew it was this character speaking to this other character.
I always want you to feel like you’re in the room.
I am someone who has written in persona a lot, and yet I don’t use that term for this book so much. I think of all of those as voices and beings who have their own voices. I wanted to create something where those vessels, those figures, could sound both entirely like themselves and also like me — because they are me, and to say that they aren’t is not true.
I think of these poems as being variously voiced and profoundly interested in communicating and being in the room with the reader.
And there’s so much about loneliness in here — and so much that feels like it’s written in response to loneliness, as if loneliness is the given that this book is trying to answer to. At times, it’s almost an inheritance. You can see it being passed on from generation to generation.
I think of what I recognize as a kind of lifelong loneliness that can also be joy, but there is also a kind of queer loneliness — the loneliness and grief of not having the body you wanted to have. I think a lot of people have that — not inhabiting the body that I envisioned for myself when I was small, which was a male body. My voice is cracking as I say this. That body doesn’t exist in the physical world for me right now.
And I developed an imaginative life in a way because I spent a ton of my time imagining my body in a world where people wanted me around — but also in my home, that people in my home wanted me around, because I did not always feel that they did. I wanted to talk to people. And I think my poems want to talk to people.
And I also don’t like leaving people out.
Your point about not leaving people out reminds me of an essay I read recently, from a writer named David Joy. He’s talking about poverty and addiction, and he says,
Sometimes the greatest gift we can give someone is just to keep our mouths shut and let them empty themselves into our hands. When they’re finished, we don’t need to do anything with what they’ve given us. We just need to show them that we’re holding it for them till they can catch their breath.
I kept thinking about that when I was reading your book — that it was trying to create this place where people could hold something for each other, where there was room to breathe.
Yes, absolutely. This book has gone through so many drafts — really disastrous drafts, horrible, really horrible, locked down narratively, like real stories really.
And at some point I read this great review — I think it was in the London Review of Books — of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. This is going to sound surprising to no one, but it was incredibly surprising to me in the moment I read it. The author of the review was talking about history, and he said that in Mantel’s books, history is a series of events happening to people in different places who don’t know that it’s history.
And I think her books do that. And I thought as someone who writes a lot about American history or writes in the voice of American history, whatever that means, “What if I wrote a book that actually felt sort of polyphonic or like a tapestry where all of these things are happening all at once and nobody knows that what’s happening is part of a larger world?” And yet. If all those voices are allowed to speak at the same time, some of them might hear each other. Some of them might not. But if you can hear all of them, there’s a kind of loneliness that’s been healed a little bit. And I wanted to do that. I wanted to think how many voices I could hold and how much breath I could hold. And it was also a book that came … Oh, I’ll just say it.
My last book came out in 2009, but I didn’t really deal with the fact that around 2004 I had a very serious panic attack, one that I was not going to come out of for a long time. I was very unwell for about a year, and it changed my life. It was an incredible period of learning to meditate. This book really is the book of that period. And what I learned to do during that period, which saved my life, was I learned to breathe and learned to breathe through things.
And there is a poem that ends, “And I let it go. I just let it go.” There’s this awareness — this conviction — that you can’t wait until things are perfect before you heal. There’s so much violence in here, and violence is so tied up with beauty, and it feels like you’re going to have to go ahead and use this beauty because you have to go ahead and heal.
And that we can use both of those together. That people can take it, the body can take it if you can also be compassionate with yourself. There are certainly plenty of kinds of violence that just destroy a person. But there are other kinds of violence that are meant to destroy you, but if you can breathe through it, if you can, they will not. I don’t like the word “brave,” although that’s what I use with myself. I say to myself every day, “Let me be brave.” Because I’m not brave, and there are kinds of violence that you think you will never survive.
There are a lot of poems like that in this book, including a poem about killing a lot of animals, about the ability to do violence to many, many things. And I read that poem somewhere, and there was a very famous poet in the room — super-famous, iconic — and he came up to me at the end of the reading, and he said, “You can’t read a poem like that that close to the end of a reading.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because no one is going to be able to look at you after.”
And I was like, “That’s the best thing anyone ever said to me,” because it was so foolish. I think there are a lot of people who think that kind of thing. But then I don’t know how you live in the world. That poem is happening at the same time that “Praise House” is happening. If you can’t hold both of those things, that’s how you become a destroyer of people.
Going back a step, being looked at is so prominent in here, too. The characters think a lot about looking at others — and being looked at. There are moments when someone gets to see a person or an animal when they don’t think they’re being seen. And then sometimes those characters just go on to inhabit that state even after they know they’re being seen. That ability to be seen and unseen at the same time seems really fundamental to a lot of these creatures.
The beauty of seeing people and animals in moments when they don’t need you, when they think nobody is looking … I’m really interested in that moment, and I think it’s because it’s a moment that, more and more, we are deprived of because of things like social media and the ways in which we’re constantly taking photos. We’re deprived of our deepest privacies.
A lot of these poems feel, to me, like another place to be. Another place to be private and public at the same time. And going back to what you said a while ago about not feeling like you were in the right body: we talk about poems embodying things, and, hopefully without stretching the metaphor too far, poems are kind of alternate bodies. It feels like an attempt to create a body in which you can be more available, where your breath can be held and where someone else can hold your breath.
Yeah, like a democracy. If people at the end of this, whether or not they like the book, thought it was a democratic book, that would be really interesting to me. A book in which all voices can be heard.
That’s always been something in my work. When you’re younger — I’m 42 — there can sometimes be a moment when you say, “I’m going to write this persona, this really horrible person.” And then you can’t really understand why it isn’t “Herbert White.” It’s because it’s not a trick when Frank Bidart does it. What’s most horrifying about that poem is when you find out about the violence this person has suffered at the hands of their father. It’s not: “When I hit her on the head, it was good,” the first line. That’s not actually the worst part of all.
That’s a democratic poem, you know.
And I think that living here in the South has been going back to a small town, after growing up in a small town. Even though this is a small college town, there are towns very close by that are very much like how I grew up. Being in the South where we, you and I, are sitting politically right now. And in this country where we’re at right now. I would like to think that I make a kind of democratic poem in which everyone can be heard.
And again this idea of reality that kept coming up for me. A lot of these poems are also interested in a part of the United States that’s carelessly referred to as “the real America.” And all the things that come with those complacent assumptions about what’s real seem to be there in the book as well. You — and your characters — seem to be reckoning with those.
Yeah, absolutely. And throughout the whole book there is a war going on, because we’ve been at war forever. Now we’re always at war, whether or not we call it that. I’m sort of thinking this through because it’s an important thing to me, this idea of the United States and American poetry. And it’s because it’s something my poems get called a lot, “American.” “A uniquely American voice.” What does that mean? There’s no such thing as a uniquely American voice.
And I do think that there is something American about the book. There is something deeply American about the book. And I don’t mean that in a patriotic way, although I don’t mean in an unpatriotic way either. But I think the part of the United States that I always was interested in when I was growing up and I identified with — because I grew up with my grandfather for a long time, who was a World War II veteran and also clearly had PTSD — was living in a country where you could imagine the life you wanted and then maybe you could go get it.
That is a kind of dissonance that I think is incredibly dangerous and incredibly damaging and heartbreaking. And I think sometimes our imagination of the life we want allows us to not think about how that life is on the backs of so many people and destroying so many people. I think that this book in particular is, if it is American in some way, really reckoning with what it is to want things very badly. And what you will do to get them, and who will be hurt.
This seems like a good moment to bring up the Bandleader. I’m curious not so much what the Bandleader represents for you, though we can talk about that, too. I’m curious how you feel about the Bandleader.
I love the Bandleader, and I also really hate the Bandleader. The Bandleader is the animal they are, and you have to figure out how to deal with them, in yourself, in others, because if you don’t, the Bandleader will destroy you and not care, not because the Bandleader is bad, but because the Bandleader is not capable of that.
You know the Bandleader is neuter. The Bandleader is your deepest desire for yourself. My deepest, not yours or the reader’s, but my deepest desire for myself. If I don’t figure out a vessel or a shape for it, or how to live with the vessel, then it’s unleashed and it’s going to do the damage it’s going to do. I mean jealousy, envy, you know, all those things. Joy. Ecstasy. High capitalism.
There’s a lot of sex in the book and there’s a lot about bodies being entered, and they’re not just entered by other bodies; they’re entered by the light. In some ways that seems to get back to the idea of a vessel. But it also feels more complicated than that.
I’ve written poems before that people have said to me, “That poem is sexy.” You know, the drive-in poems in my first book about the pornographic drive-in and women having sex, but it’s always something like a speaker watching people having sex. I mean, I love sex and I love sexual life. I also have a really complicated relationship to that, in no small part because my body is a different body from what I relate to imaginatively, and also because I was someone who felt real dread my whole life growing up about my ability to stay alive, and nothing belonged to me.
I was not sexually abused, I should say that, but nothing belonged to me and I was not safe. Ever.
I had a very active sexual imagination when I was very, very little. I shock myself sometimes with the things I thought about. I always thought of being a boy.
And so this book is exactly that because it’s also about faith. You let all kinds of things in. You let God in or you let desire in or you let someone physically enter you or you enter someone physically.
What is it to not have a penis and your whole life to imagine having sex with someone, with a penis? You know, what is the feeling of being allowed inside someone like that? That is something I thought about when I was tiny. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about sex in the opposite sort of way.
And that’s one of the reasons having this book in the world scares me so much. It feels so personal. There were actually two poems that we didn’t put in the book because I was just like, “I can’t,” but there are still poems in there where I think, “People are going to laugh.” Are people going to be like, “This is so absurd”? This is so lame to say, but I’ll just say it: I haven’t been with many people, so part of me is just like, “Oh my God.” But I think it is a book in which the bodies are entirely permeable.
Animals are everywhere in this book. And they seem to be creatures that are potentially very healing to the imagination. They are capable of violence and are subject to a lot of violence, and their beauty never seems to be far away from risk. You talked to me once about this idea of recognizing that we’re animals. And I wonder if you could talk about what it means to you to be an animal.
I started doing this thing maybe five years ago, as part of a meditation exercise, when I was having difficulty with people. I think of myself as a generous person, but I am also, to be fair, a true Scorpio. Jealousy and envy are something I really have to work with in myself profoundly. It’s my gauntlet that I run.
I realized that it was going to eat me alive, and I was also going to not be a citizen in the way I wanted to be. So when I saw something happen that I didn’t think was fair or I felt like someone was being kind of a jerk, I would think to myself: “What kind of animal is that person?” And it actually works. If you just look at the person and think, like, “Oh, that person is taking all my shit because they’re a squirrel…”
There are people who are squirrels. Not that people don’t need to take responsibility for themselves. But it is helpful. It also got me thinking of animals in a really different way. Animals are just themselves. Kekoa the cat is lying right here next to us on this sofa. He is looking so sweet and he is so great — he’s awesome — but it’s possible that something could happen and he would get frustrated and he would swipe me with his claws. He’s not bad. He’s just being himself. That’s how he responds to conflict. The fox is going to eat my chickens if I don’t put a fence up. Not because the fox is an asshole, but because the fox is a fox.
I think sometimes I’m like a greyhound. I’m pretty loyal, and I’m pretty nervous about things. But I wanted to be a stag. I really did. And, at some point, what I realized was that I’m a herd animal. I’m not a predator; I’m a herd animal. I was invited to a wonderful ranch that my former student Sarah Williman runs, a horse ranch, and all of these horses came up to me and they enclosed me. Have you ever been enclosed by horses? It was all the yearlings, and they came up and they pressed against me, and I was in the center. I felt so safe.
I really thought to myself, “I’m a herd animal, and maybe sometimes I want to be at the head of the herd, but I am not a predator.” And that was a very useful thing.
I think one of the answers to loneliness in this book is the sense of bounty, of abundance. And animals feel abundant. Company is a kind of abundance, including the company of animals, and things coming up out of the Earth are a kind of abundance. And the poem “I was popular in certain circles…”
You know, I wrote that poem the day I didn’t get the Guggenheim.
I didn’t get the Guggenheim. I felt devastation and rage in the midst of understanding, like, lots of people don’t get the Guggenheim. And I decided to deal with that as I often do by reading a Paris Review interview. I read the interview with Grace Paley, and she was talking about her stories, and Grace Paley taught at Sarah Lawrence, which is where I went …
There was that line from her story, which I had read ages ago, “I was popular in certain circles,” and I went downstairs and I wrote the poem. And so while there’s bile in it, somebody who totally doesn’t understand my poetry wrote and said, “I love that poem, it’s so mean,” and I was like, “I don’t think so.”
So I think there’s bile and an edge to it, but I actually think it’s quite a joyful poem. Because most of us are popular in certain circles.
I don’t know if I told you I shared that poem with a friend. She just, just wept. And I think that’s because …
Because the fox shows up.
… and because it feels like some weight is being picked up, lifted away. It’s picked up with humor, but it also feels like an attempt to hold something.
I think it’s true, and it’s also because that poem is me trying to be honest about myself, to say that it’s okay to feel those things.
And we live in a moment right now where, like, nobody is supposed to feel jealous or envy, ever. We’re all just supposed to be happy for each other all the time. That’s insane. Nothing drives me crazier than Facebook, the moment after some big award is announced. Everybody in our community knows some people got it and some people didn’t, and immediately people are up there chastising people for feeling bad, and I just want to say, you can hold two things at once.
You talk about having two things in mind at the same time. There are all these different vessels — these different characters — in the book. But also, the way to get to something else, the way to get to something beautiful in this book, is to let yourself become double. You have to let yourself be more than one thing before you can encounter wonder and beauty and vision.
I do not want to be the hero of my poems. I just don’t believe in a certain kind of heroism where the “I” is at the center and is not complicit in anything and everything that’s horrible or good happening around them.
So that idea of loose and double … I mean, this is the big theme in the book. I have nystagmus, which is this visual neurological difference, and it affects my balance and my perception sometimes: real, unreal, What am I looking at? And this is the first book that’s really dealt with that, and the spacing on the page is actually me trying to approximate that. In nystagmus there is something called the null point. If I move my eyes to this one spot, that’s the spot of stillness. And so people with nystagmus, you’ll see they have a natural head tilt. I was trained out of it, but that’s where the still point is, and the still point is the closest thing I can think of to what the oracle must have felt, because it’s like a trance, like when you’re little you would stay in your still point all day if you could. The null point comes into the poems, named. But I wanted to see if I could create in the moment a feeling of a null point, that kind of stillness.
What my eye doctor would say to me is “Get loose and double.” It’s something I tried to do in this book, too.
So let’s take a moment to talk about some of these characters. You’ve said, and you allude to it in the book as well, that you were reading a lot of Russian novels when you were writing this book, and I thought at times about those novels with elaborate family trees drawn in the front. Would you mind kind of giving me a map of how these characters relate to each other?
So I’ll give you little maps. I don’t ever want the reader to feel like there’s one way to read the book. But I will say that when I first started writing the book there were set characters and there was a set story that was going to happen, and that no longer exists.
For much of my life as a poet, I’ve gone by the three tenets: who is speaking to whom for what purpose and through what mask? And that was very important in this book in the beginning. And then I thought, “What if you didn’t need those things?”
There’s clearly a brother. There’s clearly an older sister or an older sibling who is with the Bandleader. There is a younger sibling, who, if there is something as close as a narrator of the book, is that figure, I think. I mean, they’re all me, but in some ways that figure reminds me the most of my childhood self, my childlike self. Then there’s the Bandleader, who you hear speaking but doesn’t … And then, toward the end, there is, in “Praise House” and “Darkness in the House of Pleasure,” an “I” who could be all of us, any of those people, and is me, what we might call the integrated or unified me at the end.
And I think this was something Gabe Fried did. He’s a brilliant editor. He said we have to have a space between all of those poems and then “Darkness in the House of Pleasure” and “Praise House.” Although the last poem in the book is very much going back, and that is, that was, a move I was very proud of, that going back. And there’s the voice of “Stag.” I mean, there’s the voice of “Shave,” and there’s the voice …
One thing I worry we’ve missed about the book is how funny it is.
I wanted that, because I’ve never written funny poems ,and I … Talk more about that. That makes me really happy.
I feel like there are a couple kinds of humor. One involves playing with a folksy voice, a certain way of speaking that shows up a lot in the similes: “Optimistic as a dachshund,” “the birds / on the phone wires, chatting like barristers.” And then there’s this kind of broader pleasure, like in “I was popular in certain circles,” where it’s inside the fantasy and outside at the same time. And there’s this really interesting mix of something very childlike and very adult at the same time. It’s another kind of doubleness. All throughout here, this is kind of this room to play amid all this violence and all this potential for loneliness. There’s also room for delight, including delight in language.
I think that’s true …
I have sort of two paths I could go down on this.
One is that this is the book where I felt like I learned to write sentences that felt like me. I think what’s funny, if I can step away from it, about the book is its syntax. Like sentence length. I really did not know how I sounded as a human being until, like, this book was going to be a failure, and then I was like, “Just write the sentences like you say them out loud.” I would say them out loud, and then I would punctuate them that way even if it wasn’t proper punctuation. It was using punctuation to score the poem. And all of a sudden I was funny. I think of myself as someone who, to some extent, is kind of funny in real life and has a sense of humor. But my poems were never funny.
And I also think there is this queer thing. This is something I learned as a gay person. I’m not saying other people don’t know this. But when I when I was at Sarah Lawrence and studying with Mark Doty and Michael Klein and Marie Howe, it was in the guts of the AIDS epidemic.
People were losing their brothers and their partners.
My teachers were losing their partners. And there was like this whole group of poets who were teaching us and were also like really close friends and family to each other and taking care of each other. And many of them were gay, and those who weren’t gay, their brothers were gay or their sisters were gay, and I think not enough has been written yet, although it is being written now, about being the generation that watched the people you idolize lose their partners.
And to watch them go through that. You weren’t in their intimate daily life, but you were watching this. And I loved Mark Doty so much. I still do. And like I said, there is no word for the gratitude I have for Michael and Mark and Marie. What they did for my life as a person and as a poet, watching them suffer when I was at an age where, all of a sudden, I started to understand being an adult, that you could lose … I mean, I’d lost my mom, but there were so many people dying. And yet, they were funny, and they kept living, like they really kept living.
The greatest gift that Mark Doty gave me — it’s hard for me even to talk about without crying — the most amazing gift he gave me as a poet was he kept teaching his class when his partner was so sick, and he allowed us to watch him be a human being.
I think that this book is the place where — I don’t even know how to say it because nobody would see it in the book — I was a young person during the AIDS epidemic, a young gay queer person during the AIDS epidemic. That’s also like war, you know: that’s also part of this book. I watched people be compassionate. When there was no reason to be compassionate at all. And I learned to write poems and be a citizen because of that.