Adekunle Adewunmi, Contributing Editor
Interview with Featured Writer
Gail Goepfert, an associate editor at RHINO Poetry, is a Midwest poet, photographer, and educator. She teaches Introduction to Poetry Writing for National Louis University. Her publications include two chapbooks—A Mind on Pain in 2015 and Tapping Roots in 2018. Get Up Said the World will appear in 2019 from Červená Barva. Recent or forthcoming publications include Penn Review, Kudzu House, Stone Boat, Postcard, Poems and Prose Magazine, Origami Poetry Project and Beloit Poetry Journal.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Let’s start with the basics, Gail. Can you tell us a little about yourself, about how you came to poetry?
Goepfert: An elegy upon the death of my grandfather, who died much too young of black lung disease, was the first poem I remember writing at the age of 22 and the only type of poetry, “occasional,” that I had attempted. There was a poem for a 70th birthday, a first nephew’s birth, a friend’s retirement—appreciated but hardly great verse. There’s been no well-planned mapping of my poetic itinerary; partly I came to poetry writing through teaching. Junior high literature anthologies are sprinkled with a poem or two, but poetry was never been a mandated genre to teach. I have always squeezed it in. Two poems stick in my mind. One is well-known—Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son.” A classic. The second, Evelyn Tooley Hunt’s poem, “Mama is a Sunrise.” I stood in front of some rather unenthused faces trying to persuade them of its merits—the extended metaphor, the spark in the narrative, the surprise of “slip-footing” in the line, “When she comes slip-footing through the door / she kindles us.” I wanted so much for them to see the simple delicacy, the choice of each word in this short poem. Only recently I realized that Hunt, who also wrote as Tao-Li, was famous for writing the poem, “Taught Me Purple,” which inspired the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I’m not sure I was wholly successful with the sunrise or the crystal stair poem, but as a teacher of students in those early teen years, I did a lot of pirouetting in front of the room, trying to energize students’ lukewarm bodies.
My background is in English Education—a BA from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, and an MA from the University of Iowa. As much as anything though, I’m a DIY poet. Throughout my education, feedback from instructors and professors was, “Keep writing.” That was a powerful wand they waved. I am a teacher and writer today principally because of them—I loved their hunger, both for their subject and for teaching. I had always thought I’d teach high school, but landed in junior high. I couldn’t be happier about that; I seemed to jive with twelve to fourteen-year-olds. At some point, teachers in our school were given the opportunity to develop enrichment classes for the gifted—the solution for the complaints of teachers that gifted students were being short-changed. I was the only one who raised my hand. The first year, I drew nine eighth graders to a poetry writing group eventually named “Dreamcatchers” after I gently quashed the suggestion of the Pink Cadillacs. Students spent a semester writing poetry, and at the end of that time, we published a sizable book including all of the poems they’d written and revised. Many were good; they are risk-takers, the young. Eventually, students of all abilities and “labels” signed up—from special ed. to gifted, and the program expanded to include a field trip to the elementary school where the eighth graders talked about writing, poetry, and then worked with third through fifth graders using the write/read/encourage model I employed when we met; their visit became a catalyst for signing up future poets. Annually, the writing and publishing ended with an auditorium-reading in front of teachers, parents and peers; the program stretched for nine years, and it was one of my most satisfying teaching undertakings. I’d like to think I piqued enough interest that some of those early poets still write into adulthood. A few years back I attended a funeral for one of these students who was so talented; she had been killed on impact in a car crash. Her copy of Dreamcatchers was displayed on a small podium; her mother said she reread it frequently—sad but affirming.
About ten years ago in an effort to demystify contemporary poetry for myself, I began attending poetry workshops at a local library and networking with other poets, including RHINO Poetry Forum workshops and “Poetry Camp” at The Clearing in Door County, Wisconsin; I became active in the Illinois State Poetry Society. I jotted down the names of every contemporary poet whose name I heard. I’m an avid enthusiast of the natural world; I gravitated to that content initially, often using my photographs as prompts. I self-published a book titled in gratitude for days gone by, pairing poems and photographs. I’ve been told my poetry was reminiscent of Liesl Mueller’s and Wendell Berry’s. I was awarded a three-week residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois, the only poet among other writers, artists and musicians; I began responding to paintings I saw developing daily by writing ekphrastic poetry—a kind of poetry I’ve come to value. Private writing retreats seem to work for me also. I spent a week at the Porches in Norwood, Virginia, which offers writers a quiet, scenic and inexpensive place to work with a view of the James River; on Amelia Island in Florida, I blended photography and poetry during a three-week stay. Each retreat made the idea of writing feel more serious.
Eventually, I joined a group of women poets under the tutelage of Alice George. This eclectic mix of women met for six years to discuss poets and poetry, to critique each other’s work. That group eventually morphed into a weekly gathering of the Plumb Line Poets. It’s been one of the richest experiences I’ve known to meet with these women who coach each other—inspire, encourage, support and celebrate.
In 2013, I was invited to join the editorial team of RHINO Poetry, a print and online journal out of the Chicago area. Each year during our six-month open submission period, editors read thousands of poems. We function uniquely as a team of editors in that as many as fifteen of us gather at a table biweekly to discuss several hundred poems that are forwarded from the submission manager to the table for group consideration—I get a front-row seat in an MFA “lecture hall” as the merits of poems are deliberated. Much of my education comes from such absorption; I take notes, research poets, attend readings and workshops, read, read, read, and then write.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: You have undergone a unique formative experience in your art. And these insights into the processes of an influential poetry journal were very interesting. I notice that you make in your remarks prominent mention of the influence of your teachers and colleagues on your practice as a poet. What more can you tell us about the influence of mentors?
Goepfert: Mentors have been as important in my earnestness to write poetry as they were in my impetus to teach. Robin Smith Chapman, professor, scientist, watercolorist, poet, natural-world lover, was an early influence. Her aesthetic sensibilities seemed to jive with mine. Ralph Hamilton, editor-in-chief of RHINO, has been a wonderful reader, editor, and encourager of my work. My need to draw on the resources at hand has meant that studying in minute detail the poems in Elizabeth Arnold’s book, reef, when I was working on a group of vastly different by similarly-themed poems made Arnold feel like a mentor. The same has felt true of Louise Gluck’s work. Truthfully, each new poet I read becomes a tutor of sorts. Ross Gay, Kay Ryan, Jane Kenyon, Natasha Trethewey and many others have schooled me.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Some artists and writers describe as a very dramatic experience the moment when they understand they have been called to be a writer, an artist. Some find the moment to be only an inevitable next step in a natural progression dictated by circumstances, inclinations, and experience. What can you tell us of your own decision to seek publication and reputation as a writer?
Goepfert: It seems to me that figuring out how to get published is like matchmaking. When I first considered publication, I began with a local organization, Highland Park Poetry. It seemed both sensible and feasible. The thrill of the first acceptance was enough to spur me on. Since then I’ve spent hours studying what journals publish, reading and studying the poets and poems that move them. As most writers experience, what gets turned down handily one place can get picked up with gusto another. At the time of my first acceptance to a print journal, online submission managers were not a thing. I received a handwritten acceptance, stamped envelope and all, from the gracious Peter Leverich, then editor of Avocet. It was lovely, but as we’ve moved toward technology into the online world, such personal contact is rare. As much as possible, I’m toughened by the many rejections, and I’m heartened by the rarer acceptance.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: What is your guiding aesthetic as a poet? What particular characteristics should a reader look for when they encounter one of your poems?
Goepfert: It’s likely that most people write from the mold and matrix of who they are and what they’ve come upon. For me, space, light, and color matter. Years ago I happened upon Renoir’s Two Sisters (On the Terrace) at the Art Institute of Chicago; I was mesmerized by the detail and the color, the light that gave life to every inch of canvas. My poetry is chiefly in that vein, image-centered poems that uplift, that shine light on all there is to see and praise, and the more dimly-lit poems that reflect the stark absence of all of that brightness—something I experience viscerally. That’s not the whole of it, but it’s a key element for sure. Poetry simply becomes a potent medium for depicting and responding to the gamut of one’s emotion and experience.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Some writers have ritualized, strictly disciplined habits of writing. Others work on napkins and scraps of paper wherever they find themselves and at any time of the day or night. What can you tell us about your own practices?
Goepfert: I admire those who have a schedule or daily objective for writing. Stephen King has the goal of getting in six pages a day; Haruki Murakami begins at 4 a.m. and works for four or five hours. Hemingway was said to work mornings, as soon after first light as possible. Jack Kerouac reportedly lit a candle nightly and wrote by candlelight. I am schedule-less, although I typically am more focused in the mornings. I arrive at a poem similarly to a dog circling a spot before she lies down; I may have a poem brewing for days—lines or words coming to me in the shower or car, or on a walk. If I’m particularly determined about a particular poem, and it’s not working, I go for that walk, and the energy I exert seems to come back twofold in my writing—words, lines, direction.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Some writers claim that their important works are the product of an almost mystical inspiration– that these works emerge onto the page complete almost of their own volition. Others claim that their works begin like a puzzle with pieces present but with the relationships between them unclear but discoverable through workmanlike effort testing those relationships through revision after revision. work on napkins and scraps of paper wherever they find themselves and at any time of the day or night. What is the role of inspiration in your creative process? What can you tell us about composing– about how you find the right shape and message for a poem?
Goepfert: I’m willing to try anything. I love experimentation and not unlike the mad scientist, some of my experiments are more or less successful. I have a multitude of inspirations—everything from an encounter at Trader Joe’s to scrolling through Facebook, from a trip on a Chicago water taxi to a heron on standing one-legged by a pond at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I tend to be a very close observer, partly because I’m visually driven, and that means I often witness the “stuff” of my poetry.
Reading the work of other contemporary poets inspires me naturally, and it was part of early advice I received from many people to read, read, read. Math was always a challenge for me, but I recall that the only thing that got me through was to refer to the models of the problems in the textbook. That’s old school now as books are replaced by tablets and software and files, but I think I approach poetry the same way—models. My days are flooded with poems and poets to study, admire, and emulate.
I compose almost entirely on the computer—a desktop. There are times I make notes first on a yellow tablet before transitioning to Word. Because I’m so visual, it seems I need that spatial “view” when writing. The form a poem takes seems organic—I have no preconceived notion about it, but by the end of a few lines, the poem’s adopted or prescribed its own shape—sometimes that will change in revision, but not often. Denise Levertov has said it is dangerous to revise a poem unless “you are hot in it,” but I find that I leave open any file I’m working on (hopefully after saving the work) and click on those files daily for a read through and tweaking. Almost without exception, I change something. What was not the least bit apparent one day is unambiguous the next. Of course, I may return to a poem months or even a year or more later and find myself heavy on the delete key or swift to rewrite. Revision—let’s just say revision is a constant.
I seldom use forms like the villanelle or ghazal, the pantoum or sonnet. Perhaps they take more discipline than I have right now, but I do find myself at times converting ragged-edged free verse poems into couplets or tercets with an outcome that pleases. My practice often includes generating a list of words from an unlikely source before beginning the writing process—for instance, a book like Fahrenheit 451 or non-fiction writing about sea glass. This routine seems to invigorate my language and writing. The most challenging poem I’ve written, “Truth,” part of a Kahlo manuscript, was prompted by the style of a poem I’d read; the poem was written in columns, one or two words in each column both across the page and down; the poem reads in both directions. The writing was like a puzzle; I had to begin in one corner and work my way right one word or phrase at a time and then down—back and forth.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: You have books out now and and at least one forthcoming. Since you are a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, these have people talking. What should your new readers expect to find in them? Can you give us some insights? Some teasers but no spoilers?
Goepfert: I was greatly encouraged by others to write and publish my first book of poems, A Mind on Pain. I had been very reluctant because of a sensed stigma about those with chronic pain—but no regrets. Since my early 30’s, I’ve had a chronic pain condition that went undiagnosed for nearly ten years. The poems in this book narrate the psychological and physical trail in dealing with pain and the medical world, including both doctors and institutions like Mayo. The reception has been gracious, and one learns quickly as a writer that connecting to those who read or hear our work is gratifying. Even if others have a different personal history, they often have either suffered themselves, know someone who has, or had similar experiences in trying to navigate medicine—its miracles and shortcomings. People express that the poems feel like I’m writing about them.
Tapping Roots is a poems-of-origin book—stories about happenings, people, places that influenced my growing up in the Midwest. I have been surprised and pleased by the response to this book. Nothing felt particularly remarkable, but as I’ve been reading these poems and sharing this book, I’ve discovered how connected people were to even the smallest of details—from the encyclopedia salesman at the door to ancestors who were coal miners, from sibling rivalry to playing the game of Risk.
The spark for my forthcoming book, Get Up Said the World, is my love of words. I own a shelf of books about words—urban dictionaries and books about idioms and palindromes, and books bemoaning the decline of language. I’m a logophile or lexophile or both. Early poems in this collection were titled with a word and its definition which became the impetus for the poem. In revision, the word and definition appear on the side of the page in a fancy box, left there to “speak” to the poem and its actual title. Titling seemed more fitting as the manuscript evolved. As an example, the book opens with a poem meditating on weddings and marriage and the idea of aloneness, “Speaking Up for Silent Eggs,” and the word and definition are “wool·gath·er·ing \-ˌga-th(ə)riŋ \noun 1. indulgence in idle daydreaming.” All of the poems in the book are structured similarly. This book makes the swing, however halting, from what discourages us from “rising” to incentives to do so.
My latest collection, just completed, and currently titled Self-Portraits with Thorns, shadows Frida Kahlo, Mexican painter and feminist, from a young age to her death. Many of the poems are personas or reflect on aspects living as she did. I immersed myself in the plethora of details available about her life and art beginning with her diary; I felt an odd kinship with her early in the process—as art-maker, as color and garden enthusiast while embracing the therapeutic nature, as a pain and love-troubled survivor. In a January 2019 article that appears in National Geographic, the author, Karen Karbo wrote about Kahlo, “She forced people to look at her, to share her feelings, when they would prefer to look away.” Though this manuscript has not been accepted for publication, it’s the work that I feel is strongest because of the risks it takes—with language and style and content.
Adewunmi for O:JA&L: We at O:JA&L thank you, Gail, for agreeing to speak with us on behalf of our audience. As we conclude, can you share with us, for the benefit of our followers, any of your important links, any important dates– readings, signings, new releases?
Goepfert: I look forward to welcoming new readers and followers. I maintain a website, a blog, links to published poems, a Facebook page, and a presence on Blurb. As for the rest, I have a list, as follows:
Appearance schedule/scheduled signings or readings
- January 12, In With the New, Book Stall, Winnetka, Illinois 2-4 p.m.
- TBA, Northwest Cultural Council
- April 11, Tangerine Reading, 2451 S Oakley Ave, Chicago, Illinois
- April 27, Highland Park Poetry, Coffee Speaks 610 Central Avenue Suite 155, Highland Park, Illinois
Projected release dates of works in-press
Get Up Said the World by Červená Barva Press is to be released in March 2019.
Images in this article were provided by Gail Goepfert.