Getting to know Rebecca kaiser Gibson and her new book Opinel
When did you first encounter poetry?
Here’s the weird truth. I never thought of writing poetry until I was on a plane flying back to Boston after my father’s death. And then the thought materialized, “Now I can write poetry.” It astonished me. Not only had I not known I wanted to, but more startling, that my father, generally speaking, my loyal supporter, somehow stood in my way. Until then I’d first been a high-school English teacher, then a theatre director at that private school and was currently working in a theatre company (Boston Shakespeare) and occasionally directing plays. The thought that came tumbling after was the relief of not only trying to help others realize and express what they were trying to say, and not only wrestling on behalf of what I thought a playwright’s intent was, but actually grappling with my own words. Before the plane landed, I realized that I’d subjugated myself to my sense of my father’s desire for me to work in some sort of community, not alone – and simultaneously that I would be less alone working solo than I’d been in the complicated collaboration that seemed standard in the theatre.
How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
Still, I never exactly thought I wanted to Write Poems. Instead, I started writing poems probably because I sensed that the impossibly logical thought I associated with prose, seemed less insistent in poetry. I could evade or float over the steady rhetorical metronome of my parents’ thought process (my father was a lawyer and my mother a classically trained physician), and swoop around associatively. Or so I must have thought at first.
The first writer I gravitated to was Shakespeare when I was in 7th. Grade. And now I’ll disagree with my first comments here. Probably the very first poem I wrote was a paean to my 7th Grade English teacher, Peter Kline. He’d written the word Why?, Socratically, on the blackboard. But I was so enamored of the words he spoke as he read Macbeth to us, and by he himself that I latched onto the very literal letters of it, as well as the act of writing it. And I wrote a poem called, well, Why? Possible the operative and unanswered persistent question of all my work after. My second poem probably not long after I wrote with my green pen on yellow legal paper and stuffed into an old cinnamon spice jar. It was about cinnamon.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
So I guess from the start I’ve been guided by words, by scent, and by the desire to embrace or inhabit the things of the world. Gerald Manly Hopkins came into my life about the same time as Virginia Woolf, when I studied for a year in college in England. Both came as utter surprises, as unexpected companions. Both thrilled me. I spoke of neither to anyone else.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I never answer questions about whose work has influenced me the same way twice I notice. Perhaps that’s a little coy of me. But I feel sort of influenced by so many writers – many of whom I’ve tried unsuccessfully to imitate. Probably the first was Marianne Moore. Merwin also, probably in envy of the apparent ease with which he moves forward.
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 is a project book? Etc.
I named my new manuscript OPINEL, after many other rejected titles – as it was sliced slowly into shape. It shares with many first full length manuscripts the phenomenon of having poems from many different eras and locations in my own life. I needed a title that somehow united the apparently disparate parts. It was certainly counterintuitive to come up with the name of a little knife from the French Alps, usually a devise for scraping or severing to unify. But I realized first that I just loved the sound and trill of the word. Then I began to understand that my effort all along had been to carve out of confusion what seemed in some way essential, or at least to delineate strands that coexist, entangled. It also felt appropriate that the word, enticing as it may sound, is unfamiliar to many in the U.S. I wanted the title to be precise, but not static or already so known as to be unnoticed.
So this book is about as far from being a “Project Book” as they come. It consists of poems just written with no sense of continuity one to the next, that over time have come to seem to talk to one another as if they had secrets of their own to tell each other. In retrospect, it’s been quite an engaging conversation they’ve had with me.
Read sample poems and view a recording from Opinel here:
IT’S ONLY RAINING
Meanwhile, the #71 lingers, then leaves.
That guy with a wide bandage over his nose,
here at 5am, does school before he works,
big shoulders sloped to a book.
The two cops nod to him, one tall, one wide,
under imitation tulip lamps
on cracked brown counter stools.
Why do I care?
Because of their weight, how they carry it,
slouched, thick-thighed, but feet on the floor,
a little alert, mostly at ease. And the vinyl
seats splitting, accommodating
the wide hind petals, men.
My tabletop, a maple swirl
one inch thick and washable. Not real
maple, that’s the point
that someone wanted to evoke it.
Comforting, they must have thought.
I presume that I'm the interloper, voyeur.
But what if I'm part of it?
The ex-marine at the counter leans
toward the waterfall that is the blond
waitress, high cheekbones, high plans,
who lifts her cup to his
earning tips for a real house someday.
Eric, “glow-in-the-dark bike shirt,” shuffles in
with before-sunrise sunglasses. As usual, I assume.
One damp leaf on the floor flips up
tracked in on a boot, stem arching.
That’s it, the way it’s all related,
unnoticed. Someone will sweep later.
He wants the Grand Slam: Eggs bacon
spuds and toast, no cakes.
On the radio another species is shrunk
in a jaunty morning voice.
Everything works out,
says one painter to the other, adding
packet after packet of sugar to his marriage.
I can hardly eat, I'm so full
of love for those
who don't know I love them.
It’s only raining. Toast is buttered.
The sky grows lighter, slightly.
FLIGHT AFTER DEATH
If in the company of two animal-faced angels
my thin feet straight before, as written by Ezekiel,
my eyes flamboyant auroras,
always, to the Shekhinah,
downcast in the medieval
mind, where snails cure infection –
if having spoken holy, holy, holy over the echoic decades,
holy corridors reverberating in the fretwork
worked metal intricacies of data, dates,
and details, I’d crouched in my bow and readiness to fly
with one on each side, winged
and furred, lifting me by my ever-bent elbows,
as dust to fly,
my heels like a young deer’s,
bent angle of a self –
I’d be empty now, my stories spun out on spindles,
a long tail over the hills.