Gabrielle Calvocoressi is a poet and poetry editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her latest collection, Apocalyptic Swing, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She has been a fellow and a lecturer at Stanford, among a bunch of other awards, and recently concluded a writer’s residency in Marfa, Texas, a town that reminded her of growing up in Connecticut, and made her instinctively start waving to people again. Prior to her appearance at the University of Idaho, we called her up expecting to talk about her childhood in Connecticut or her adulthood in Los Angeles, and we ended up talking a lot about her time, last year, in Spokane, which she recalled with a photographic — or perhaps poetic — clarity of detail.
INLANDER: Can we just start with a little biography? You grew up in Connecticut and your family owned movie theaters?
CALVOCORESSI: Until I was seven-and-a-half, I grew up with my grandparents because my mother was terribly mentally ill and my dad was too young to take care of me. So it was my grandparents who owned theaters. But by the time I was little, there was really only one left. It was a drive-in.
I grew up in a really small town [near Hartford, Conn.] and in towns like that, the reason you would have a drive-in is because someone’s land didn’t work as a farm. So they were always connected to a kind of cycle of poverty. So there were drive-in movie theaters until people decided towns like ours should become bedroom communities for Hartford — which was a terrible idea — and they started using the land for that. Then the highway came through and they built a big multiplex theater and the drive-ins went away.
And really, life in a small town kind of feels like a movie. You’re so intimately engaged with everybody. On the one hand your impulse is to make it bigger than it is, but you are so intimately connected [to everyone] that it feels cinematic and vast.
You wrote that people say “your work is so American,” and that you accept that being American means “someone who grew up in one place and dreamed of living in another.” Can you talk about that longing for other places?
Well, it means different things at different times for me, but I think America, because we’re so new, is a space that’s still built on the imagination. It’s not like England or France where the imagination is to go back. You can go back here — back much farther than white people coming here — but there’s still this idea that, anywhere you can look as far as you can look there’s a way of looking forward.
It’s thinking of the next place as a place that’s going to be better than the last. And I don’t know if one could say that, if you live in Italy. I think we’re always putting ourselves up on screens, which are like canvasses. And there’s something about looking at a blank canvas and placing yourself on it. It’s this really interesting act of placing yourself in front of yourself.
We’re living right now in Denton, Texas. We live not outside of town, but on the other side of this street that separates the walkable part of town from like, these housing developments. It’s the first place I’ve ever lived that’s hard to walk. I’m going to find a way to walk, but this neighborhood is like living in a space station. It’s really institutional, it’s almost meant to not feel like home. It’s a huge thing for me to be such a big walker and to have to figure out how to walk here.
That’s a lot like some neighborhoods in Spokane. Everyone just gets in their cars. What does that do to you?
I was actually in Spokane last year, for Get Lit!, and it reminded me so much of Hartford, Connecticut. I was staying at the Red Lion and I had to walk to Madeleines — which, PS, I loved — and I thought that it is so much like an eastern city. Not New York, but like a northern Eastern city. The downtown feels empty, but you get a sense that it might have once been a really prosperous place — with industry and really wealthy people that aren’t there any more — but then you go inside a place like Madeleines and it’s busy and you can tell the people are local, and that they think of these places as their place.
You could tell what a town did by what it looks like. St. Louis and Detroit are like that. You can walk through the bones of those cities and know, by the color of those building materials, what neighborhood you were in and what those people did. Spokane is definitely like that.
And I think that if you let it, paying attention to cities like that can teach you to write a poem. My grandfather was one of those people who would point out everything as he was driving. He taught me to pay attention to everything. To see everything and really, you know, note it.
And that’s why I think the line between lyric and narrative is a thin one. Lyric speaks to a kind of investment and narrative is how you build the city, and where I grew up there wasn’t a line between the stories of the place you grew up and the place itself.
You said that learning to write is learning “to push against and work with silence.” What does that mean?
Growing up I was always interested in the things that weren’t said. Particularly growing up with a mentally ill parent who didn’t live with me. It wasn’t talked about a lot. And I think in any situation — but especially situations where maybe you live with a lot of violence, or you live with dread — you become a really good weather person. You have to know there’s a storm that’s coming before it’s coming. It’s like barometric pressure. In some poems the barometric pressure is the whole poem, and how you modulate the weather behind it and how the person is going to feel reading it and what they’re going to think is not being said.
And that’s where they’re going to find themselves in the poem. The place in the body of the poem that touches their body.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi • Wed, Nov. 7 at 7:30 pm • Law School Courtroom, Menard Law Building on the University of Idaho campus • Free admission