Getting to know deborah gorlin and her new book Life of the garment
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I had an extraordinary teacher in sixth grade, and later again as a freshman in high school, to whom I directly and gratefully trace my origins, inspiration, and endurance as a poet and a writer. Among other subjects, she taught us the elegant logic of grammar, especially the antiquated process of diagramming sentences. I was terrible at math, but I loved doing this verbal geometry. Too, she was a mystic in her way. One day, when we were studying astronomy, she drew with chalk a nest of circles, increasing in size, on a blackboard that spanned the whole front of our classroom. Those circles were meant to illustrate the earth, the planets, the solar system, the galaxies, the universe, and finally, without circumference, the vast unknown. Waving her chalk she made a tiny dot, the size of a pinprick, in the smallest of the circles. After a dramatic pause, she said, "That's us." I still recall the collective astonishment in the room; my classmates gasped, thrilled to the core by our local Copernican revelation.
Thus began my education in awe and wonder. That same year I had a formative experience. Cutting through my neighbor's backyard to get to my house, I saw a robin perched on a hedge. The afternoon light was waning. Without warning, the world grew strangely small and quiet, as though just the two of us, me and the world, existed within an intimate room. The fabulous freakiness of aliveness swept over me, the sudden fat fact of myself, this individual being within creation. That experience was foundational. Afterwards, I was on fire to write about it, ineffable as it was. When I attempted, in pencil on yellow scrap paper, I apparently bowled over my beloved teacher. She pronounced me a poet and made me copy it formally, with fountain pen, for her to keep and frame.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I had a nerdy-looking English Literature professor in graduate school, who wore your classic Ivy League uniform of buttoned-down cotton shirt, beige chinos, and patched-sleeved tweed sports jacket. He was also a successful novelist. To keep those two identities separate, critic versus fiction writer, he wrote under a pseudonym. But to do the actual work of a novelist, to activate his powers of imagination, he said that he needed props, to dress for the part, to honor his notion of the required outfit. His consisted of a silver lame jumpsuit, Elvis-style, complete with a sparkly cape and shiny rings, and a wig to cover up his bald head!
By contrast, I need no such get-ups; indeed, I'm after comfort, pajamas or sweats. Whereas my poet husband is a nester, man-caver, presiding over his palatial desk, I am more of a nomad, a hoarder of the horizontal, though my terrain is our average-sized suburban house. Mostly, I sprawl in a few select spots, along with my tools, which include my pens ( they must be V-Ball Pilots, black, semi-fine nib), my notebooks and my MacBook Pro. Spread out, I can then alternate among a few sofas, the occasional armchair, and the kitchen table. I put my feet up everywhere.
Time is always an issue. Though I try to snatch a day here or there during the school year, it's hard to pursue writing single-mindedly and without interruption. I write best during the summers when I'm not consumed or distracted by the demands of my teaching job. The last few years, I've been fortunate enough to spend two months in Santa Cruz, California, where I can have my very own solitary writing retreat. I get up quite early, make my latte-- we have an cherished espresso machine that has saved us a fortune in Starbucks— breakfast a bit, maybe glance at the morning paper, and then, GO! I'm at it. Really, truly, at it. With a break for lunch, I work pretty much until mid-afternoon. In the preliminary stages of a poem, I write longhand in notebooks; I indulge and buy those with pretty covers, rather than the spiral cheapies that Natalie Goldberg recommends. When I feel like I've sufficiently "hunted and gathered," I move operations onto the laptop, where the poem is quickening, taking a kind of direction or shape or momentum, or popping in places with lingual promise.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
All of the above, but underlying all those points of origin, is some force or instinct even more basic and inarticulate: I initially feel a poem bodily, in my gut or my heart or my head: it's like an intangible pressure, tension, even an ache; a sensation of incompletion; a kind of inchoate yearning, a hunger, a pestering, which I must not ignore or dismiss or discount or refuse. The impulse for a poem forces me to recognize, to follow it out intuitively, and ultimately to satisfy it through verbal expression, to manifest its lingual equivalent. As I compose a poem, every mode of my consciousness eventually engages in varying degrees, perception, emotion, sensation, cognition, imagination, but its seed resides in my body. I wonder if that's the reason for the belief among early peoples that the soul is located in the stomach.
On a more mundane plane, these days many of my poems come from an interest or an inexplicable fascination with subject matter— for example, a curious attraction to particular objects or artifacts, stories about others in the news, and my own experiences, provided they're mysterious, vexing, complicating, something that needs "figuring"--not just out, but as in "giving a shape." For some poems, perhaps because I was once a feature news writer, I often research, gather information, sometimes via the Internet (though that's a dangerous rabbit hole) or from books and other sources. In Life of the Garment, the sequence of personae poems about dolls is based on a children's book I picked up for my daughter when she was little. On occasion, I do on-the-ground field work, whether it's getting a manicure or facial for the first time, or interviewing textile conservators about the prison uniforms at Auschwitz in the collections at the Holocaust Museum. I try with all my sonic lingual skills to make music of exposition, to write a poetry of facts, personal or otherwise. Admittedly, I am a bit of a voyeur, an experience slut.
Since I'm not a great love poet, by default I suppose my sexy subject is the big "D", aka dying and death. What poet at my age doesn't butt up against this eventuality? So I have a new series of poems about working for a few years as a volunteer in a residential hospice. But over all, if I've learned anything about being a poet after all these years, I now know not to second guess, equivocate, or ignore these inklings, even if they don't seem appropriately "poetic," or fail to create something in the end. My job is to follow those hunches, as wacky as they might seem, and take my chances. Sometimes, in the process, my poetic impulses and imaginings may be informed by the qualities of other art forms. I can feel like a sculptor, concerned with texture and contour; like a painter describing an image, a dancer intent on movement; and an actor getting into character.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
On my top five (or six) list: Whitman, who puts me to shame, with his cosmic embrace of all living beings, his all-inclusive catalogues; Emily Dickinson, who complicates Whitman, to reveal the nitty-gritty, the psycho-spiritual struggles, paradoxes, and difficulties involved in achieving that state of gracious generosity. I have benefitted from the marvelous interiority, the deep mysteries and beauty of Rilke's poetry, and his insistence upon a writer's need for solitude, though I think he took it way too far by refusing to attend his own daughter's wedding because he'd lose his focus! For sheer sensual pleasure of language and image, I have learned from Keats and Plath; and on the opposite spectrum, I admire the plain speech, the wit, wisdom and heart of the Polish poet, Wislawa Symbiorska.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? etc.
My first book, Bodily Course, was a phenomenological investigation into the nature and life of the body itself. A poet friend of mine said that the poems in that book could've been written by a baby who was continually putting things in her mouth that she shouldn't. With Life of the Garment, thankfully, I've evolved from the oral stage! The poems in this new book move out of the immediate locale of the body. Rather than nature, they explore the diverse and multiplying sources of our "nurture," which I metaphorically call "the garment," or that which "garbs or dresses" us: family, history, geography, religion, gender, and class, all of which define the self. The poems are roughly organized based upon the concept of "near to far," drawing from the notion of relative distance, beginning at the point closest to my own actual experiences and memories, and ending with those that are the farthest and most abstract. The first part of the book is a monument in print to my family, my father, my mother, the World War II generation, "my dead," as I call them, and a belated love song to an unlikely place, Hillside, New Jersey, an industrial suburb, juat outside of Newark, where I grew up.
In the middle portion, the home girl extends her reach and adopts different personae, those of dolls from around the world with their differing functions, geographical and historical origins. At the end, the poems metaphorically take their position skyward, placed within the heavens and the vast unknown, and their associations with matters of the spirit, transcendence, the anxieties and joys of our encounters—if we are lucky and work hard— with the divine.
Read a sample poem from Life of the Garment and listen to an audio recording from NHPR here:
The Sorrow of Cars
Cars sorrow too, their glittering
surfaces, metal wigs on wheels,
Like puppets, they need us to animate them,
steer their wheels, accelerate, brake, turn.
Dependent on a tiny key,
homunculus, the god that blossoms them.
their motors run,
follow our every cue,
witless without us.
Poor brooders, parked
insomniacs, alone in their garages,
cattle in lots.
Chronic movement or stasis
means a bipolar soullessness.
Dopes, they desire impossibly:
vehicles that yearn to be tenors,
pant for their own expressways.
They dream of teapots and fireplaces
centered in their engines, a mobile Jerusalem,
where their tires caress the road, where
a pristine soul, despite the grease,
could live in their machine—headlights for eyes—
and no longer disconsolate, they at last can stop
their performance, their fiery march, up down, up down,
becoming stilled wind when they want, or free transport.