GETTING TO KNOW GAIL THOMAS AND HER NEW BOOK WAVING BACK
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
As a child, I loved the rhythm, whimsy and spunk of A.A. Milne’s poems which included a recording that I listened to over and over. In school we memorized and recited poems, and I started writing in my early teens after my grandmother’s death. Those poems were published in the high school paper under the pseudonym Robin Christopher because I was too shy about what they might reveal about my inner life. As an English major in college in the late ‘60s, I studied poetry by Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas. In classes we read mostly white, male poets, but I sought out contemporary feminists and writers of color whose work spoke to me. These writers gave me the courage to read my poems in a basement coffeehouse for the first time. Yes, I found my voice, and as Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” My world split open.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I don’t have a writing routine, but my alter-ego does! Often I jump-start my writing by walking first thing in the morning before I’ve spoken to anyone. There’s something about going directly from a sleep-state to physical and mental activity that fuels my creativity. Since I find cafes and public spaces too distracting, I prefer my clear desk or kitchen table with a view of the birdfeeder and gardens. When my children were young, writing time was hard to get; it’s much easier now, but I still crave solitude, a cabin in the woods, a beach shack. A number of years ago, I was fortunate to spend a month at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and at Ucross in Wyoming which were ideal environments for inspiring new work. Making time to write in the midst of everyday distractions and necessities continues to be my usual condition. As someone who has been writing for many years, I have come to trust the ebb and flow of creativity. When there’s a dry period, I don’t panic any more. Turning an image or one line into a poem feeds me like nothing else.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Finding the kernel of a poem often emerges from randomness -- observing, listening, feeling. I gather scraps of ideas from reading the news, gardening, bird watching, interactions with strangers, family gatherings, driving, walking, listening to music, playing with children. Those scraps live in a notebook where they compost, often for a long time, until something rises to the surface and creates a connection or metaphor. Also, I’m drawn to stories, whether told at the kitchen table or overheard in the grocery store. In particular, I pay attention to the natural world – morning light, a pattern on water, an old pear tree. Another source of inspiration is history; I enjoy writing poems that incorporate story and voices from a particular time and place. For example, my second book, No Simple Wilderness, was inspired by the drowning of towns and villages in Western Massachusetts during the 1930’s to create the Quabbin Reservoir to satisfy Boston’s thirst for water. My research included interviewing old-timers who were born in the Swift River Valley, viewing artifacts and photographs, and hiking the 85,000-acre wilderness area.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
In the early years, I was influenced by Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell. Probably the most influential over time, however, were Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Olga Broumas, Judy Grahn, Lucille Clifton and Ellen Bryant Voight.
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.
The title, Waving Back, captures the movement towards and away from family, aging, loss and regeneration that is similar to the way waves move backwards and forward at the same time. I write about bodies, sex, class, family, caretaking, and grief, as well as the freedom and joy that may come with age. The poems in one section deal with my mother’s progression through Alzheimer’s disease, our reversal of caretaking roles, and how that affected our difficult relationship. I’m interested in ways we can challenge and enlarge our experience of aging in a culture that instills fear and self-loathing. I wrote these poems over the last 14 years – adding and subtracting, tinkering, re-ordering, submitting various incarnations of the manuscript to book contests. Although almost half of the poems had been accepted for publication in journals and the manuscript was a finalist and semi-finalist for several contests, the process was discouraging. I was almost ready to give up when it was accepted by Word Tech’s Turning Point imprint for narrative poetry. A good lesson in perseverance.
Read a sample poem from Waving Back here:
I wish what remains was
graceful as the curve of a shell
hollowed by salt, that when
I put the spoon to your mouth
you know me.
the present amazes you. Not
a blessing this wrackline
of wheelchairs in the day room,
aides who call you hon. You hum
to birds you see on the floor,
one hand gripping the other.
More than the week
counting each breath,
whispering, Let go,
go home, stroking your arm, more
than you’ve ever been touched.
The work of death began with
an apple seed, tiny black bead fallen
to earth, encoded to bear fruit, to
fall again. Before dawn
in the orchard, deer drift like shadow ships,
eat what’s left, then scatter
silent as ghosts.
To your grave I bring
a white stone soft
as the skin of your hand.
The cool oval grazes my palm
and ring finger pale from
the absent band.
I reduce you to this shape,
complete as an egg,
tumble you in my hand, mother,
a small weight.