Time-Trails and Travelled Roads: GALE RENEE WALDEN with Rod Kessler
Gale Renee Walden
Where the Time Goes
(GusGus Press/Bedazzled Ink Publishing, 2017)
In her recently released Where the Time Goes, Illinois poet Gale Renee Walden moves the reader in various ways, including along the time-line. Sometimes wistfully (but not so sweetly as nostalgia), and sometimes with incisive frankness, she shuffles the decks of the different decades of a woman’s life and deals—and we are swept along for the ride. (Another motif in these poems is the ride—Walden’s narratives also visit America’s roadways—motels, eateries, gas stations, and all.)
It’s been eleven years since Walden’s last book, Same Blue Chevy, appeared in 1996. In between she has published both fiction and poetry—she won the 2004 Boston Review fiction contest, has completed a short story manuscript, Men I Don’t Talk to Anymore, and is at work now on a memoir. But one has to wonder if raising a child as a single parent—her daughter just went off to college—drew her away from the writing desk. That and preparing the classes she taught at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. The little girl of hers here and there pokes her head into these pages. Her students? Not so much.
I met Gale Renee over three decades ago, back in her undergraduate Tucson days, when she was taking writing courses at the University of Arizona, and where I was finishing up in the MFA program. We were both in Edward Abbey’s nonfiction class. Years later she showed up around Boston, giving readings and working part-time teaching gigs, including at Salem State where I was a stalwart on the creative writing faculty and sometime adviser of Soundings East. (The student editorial board selected her as one issue’s feature poet.) While we haven’t been in frequent touch over the years, I know from Facebook that (like me) she’s caught the political activism bug that seems to be going around and (unlike me) is even contemplating a run for office.
The appearance of Where the Time Goes gave us an opportunity—via the Internet—to get caught up.
Rod Kessler (Rail): Where the Time Goes—the title itself invokes the idea of the passage of time, and in many poems we shift through layers of time—or examine them, like the layers of strata we might see driving through a landscape. In one of your longest poems, “My Elegant Universe,” a poem that revisits events of decades passed/past, you close with the speaker’s—your?—daughter breaking into the present moment. The past and present are mutually alive in WtTG, often in conversation with one another—or declining that conversation, suggested by the repeated image of waiting for a telephone call from the 1990s that never comes. Is there a story to your arriving at this perspective—is this book what happens when the past comes calling with a new urgency?
Gale Renee Walden: My daughter does break into that poem as children are wont to do; they keep bringing you back into the present. I did study string theory a little, as that poem suggests, because I like scientific theories that postulate that time isn't as linear as we think. But the world really likes us to live in a linear chronology focused toward future time. Kids, young kids, are almost always in the now, and that's a place of psychic relaxation most adults don't allow themselves to go. The child in the poem is requesting a bedtime story bringing the speaker (me) down off that mountain, cycling out of the past into the present where there is a story with a bus whose wheels go round and round. In the bedroom with the child, I stay in the present; that’s what is required of me as a parent—which, during those years, made the time-travel that poetry allows even more compelling. There I wasn’t required to stay in any one location or any period of time.
I don’t know if I have any new urgency about communicating with the past, but maybe there was more of an awareness about it when my mother developed Alzheimer’s—she still remembered the past vividly, but not what she had just said. The “now” in conversation sometimes required entering the past.
Several people in the poems have died during the time period I was writing this book—my mother, my friend David, a neighbor, Louisette, whose elegy is included in the book—and as I was revising, I loved being able to re-enter times when they were still alive.
I ended up writing a lot of elegies over the past decade.
Rail: The poem “Good Friday (Yaqui Reservation, Tucson, Arizona)” begins, “These are the faces of Semana Santa mashed / from flour and water into warrior cover.” Unsure of “Semana Santa,”—I turned to Google, only to discover that our Internet service had crashed. No sweat—I got it that the poem was about holy dancers wearing masks they’d pasted together. And, later, I saw that the phrase means “holy week,” obvious in retrospect. But there were occasions when your book sent me to look things up (the Duncan Phyfe table in “Mosaic”; St. Lucy in “Summer Night”). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that WtTG is obscure, but I wanted to ask what you expect of readers, what you consider the fair work of your readers to be. In “Oracle,” after remarking on “the irony inherent in names,” we read “how Gertrude was destined to be beautiful:/ a joke that, when true, lasts almost a lifetime/ until the turn, like in a sonnet,/ when Gertrude grows into herself.” I didn’t get the reference. Who was Gertrude? Should I have known?
Walden: Ah, yes. Well you always find out something about your own writing through other people’s questions, and you've pointed out here that I do require something of the reader, although it’s optional. People either read through references or need to look them up and as you’ve discovered most things can be googled and defined.
Yet there is the deeply idiosyncratic reference that you have hit on with Gertrude. It is my personal contention that Gertrude is not a melodious or lovely name and that someone bearing it might look a little like Gertrude Stein, and so a beautiful woman with an unbeautiful name is her own juxtaposition, until age turns you a bit. In Gertrude’s case, I’m depending on the idea of “the turn of the Sonnet” where the content either turns away from itself or deeper into itself to make itself known to the reader. But I suppose the joke doesn’t work (in a way that jokes often don't) if the reader/listener isn’t coming to the name Gertrude with the same prejudice I am. It is one of those names, for me, that gets better as I myself age and part of the turn there, for me would be this—as the woman gets less classically beautiful, her name grows into a different type of beauty. She’s inhabited it long enough to turn it.
Rail: That's funny about "Gertrude," and it's likely that plenty of readers conjure up the image you intend. But what was nagging at me, I realize, is the recollection of a poet by that name, not Gertrude Stein, but another well-known and well-admired one—Gertrude Himmelfarb. I had to google her to be sure of the spelling. Reading your poem, I must have wondered vaguely whether you meant her—and further wondered if I shouldn't know whether she was homely or not (not especially, it turns out).
But this line of inquiry reminds me that there were other names in your poems that I had questions about. There's the Tony in "My Elegant Universe," the one whose photo appears on the backs of books. You begin the poem:
The night I met Tony
—twenty years ago in Arizona—
I didn’t know
the ways he would pop up
in the future in books without pictures.
And later in the poem:
I know approximately where he lives
Because the back of his books say so
And sometimes I’ll see him wandering a conference—
a ghost of English Departments past.
My pleasure in reading that poem was only enhanced by my thinking—oh, that must be the poet Tony Hoagland, who was at the University of Arizona in Tucson at the same time you were. Do you expect readers to read between the lines and figure out which Tony, or was the possible identification on the part of readers irrelevant to your intention? My question is only racheted up by the "David" mentioned in "Road Trip":
…David was still in Illinois,
waiting for that blue Rabbit to resuscitate itself
I don’t know which of us got the romantic idea
that two broken cars limping across the desert
would be better than one, but for once we didn’t argue
and in “Grief”:
When Jonson rolled in tar as a puppy,
David and I were happy in comic nuisance:
A dog covered in tar!
Who wouldn’t be happy?
Can you imagine that these poems work the same way for readers familiar with your life who know the David you mean, a figure of staggering cultural import, as they work for those who don't? Were you tempted to invent names instead?
Walden: So, well no, I don't expect people to know who the names refer to, but I will say that Tony Hoagland (whose work I admire) was one of the first poets I noticed who often put people's names in poems. I asked him once if he felt he had to check with people before their names went in his poems and he said no, which gave me a little freedom to insert him in a poem. But I think, in general, I like that there could be stand-ins for Mary or Phil or Tony. I do write personal essays too and in that case, I always check with people if they want me to change names, etc., but in poetry, everything doesn't have to be so contextualized and in that way, privacy is more protected. A common name can serve as a character, without having to identify a specific person, in which case you need characteristics of that person. Several Davids have entered my life and two of them appear in this book, but the David you are talking about in "Grief" and "Road Trip" is David Foster Wallace, and I guess I feel a little more free to note that now, this many years after his death, because that does give a different weight to the poems (both of which were written before he died) for me. Because David was very protective of his privacy, I'm not sure I would have published those before his death with the name in them, and also because, at the time, it might have been giving away too much of my own privacy. I didn't send those out for publication, but I did show the poem "Grief" to David. He was my very best reader. That's a hard poem for me. I never read it out loud.
Rail: And what about the names—John Braumgartner’s, for instance—that don't ring a bell. Should readers by trying to figure out who's who?
Walden: You bring up a very interesting point about John Braumgartner, who is a real person, whom I haven’t seen since we were thirteen and whose name I maybe should have changed. But when I’m thinking, Why did you use his first and last name? Why so specific? I think it has to do with the age we were. In elementary school and high school we often said people’s first and last name—there were many Johns, many Davids, many Marks, many Marys in my neighborhood. I've noticed that thinking through time back to those people, I also think of both names.
Rail: In your comment about Gertrudes, you brought up how the turn in sonnets might work. Can we discuss how form comes into your writing? Many of your poems use a narrative, almost prose-y cadence, especially the ones that seem autobiographical or auto-chronological (“Road Trip,” “My Elegant Universe,” “Restaurants”)—but not all. “Curtain Call,” the book’s penultimate poem, is of all things a villanelle, and a masterful one at that:
Floating beyond the light of the city, in glory
of desert, coyotes were howling an unapproved rendition
of America The Beautiful. Everything was a story.
In the details of Santa Ana winds there was a worry
permeating creosote, sending post-it notes of perdition
floating beyond the city lights into the quarry.
They said odd things, these notes: He was sorry;
the scene had gone wrong in the kitchen
of America, where everything was a story.
In the kitchen, the domestic was almost starry:
teapot, radio, clock. The tarot magician
floated beyond the lights of city, beyond glory.
The characters were changeable—the woman, an inventory
of loves and maroon; men who dressed in tuxedoed fiction.
In America the Beautiful, everything was a story.
And then, in a quiet quarry, the curtain floated
up and down. The lights of the city flicked off.
In America, the story was the glory.
The story was everything. Everything was the story.
Elsewhere in Where the Time Goes you change things up. In “Romance” and “Healing” and “The Call” you adopt the hoary convention of beginning each line with a capital letter, something you pretty much eschew otherwise. What’s up with that?
Walden: These poems were written over a period of twenty years, and I went through one phase when I think I thought it looked more serious to capitalize the first word of each line—as if—“look, this line could be its own sentence." I also went through a bad stage with Microsoft Word where I just couldn't get the caps to stay off. But then I started reading over the poems and decided mostly that didn't work and decapped most. I have a lot of play in poems and some solemnity, and I didn't want to take away or overindulge in that. I can't be sure because a lot of this is intuitive, but those I left with all lines capitalized, I felt a little more weight to the poem was appropriate. I sometimes make a choice to capitalize a word that normally would not be capitalized and that choice is definitely for emphasis.
You ask about form. I teach a class on forms. It was my favorite class in grad school. Jon Anderson taught it, and I believe it was the class where I learned the most about poetry. For years, I used form as an exercise to get a poem going, but there are very few sestinas or villanelles I've written that hold up as decent poems. “Curtain Call” was one I was forced to maintain as a villanelle because I was entering a villanelle contest. I had another one about Abraham Lincoln's hat that just didn't hold up, but I kept working on “Curtain Call” and the form called me into the meaning of it.
Rail: You mentioned that you sometimes have a lot of play in your poems. Can I ask about the humor? In “Pink Flamingos” you situate yourself as one of the “final Baby Boomers,” arriving “too late to open history.” Here’s your take on having been too young for (presumably) the Vietnam era marches, the Civil Rights movement, the tear-gassings in the streets, not to mention the Summer of Love:
We were going to miss everything
except The Brady Bunch
Reading this, I laughed, as I did again reading “Restaurant,” in which you report that the frat boys lumbering into Tucson’s capacious beer joint Gentle Ben’s thought that “Happy Hour… / was an actual time.”
What about the role of humor in the poet’s tool box? It’s been years since I attended one of your poetry readings, but am I right in supposing that the surface of your thoughtful, serene presentation is interrupted by laughter?
Walden: A certain kind of wit will show up in my poems, and I always welcome it when it does (since I think humor is kind of divine, I’m not taking the credit). I’m also delighted whenever I’m reading anything by others that makes me laugh out loud.
And, yes, people do usually laugh some at my readings, which I also welcome because it means they are listening. People laugh at surprise. I have also taken to doing sing-alongs at some of my poetry readings, and one of the songs we sing is the theme to the Brady Bunch. Most people know the words.
Rail: Yes, the words. Can I bring up a question about words that could be touchy—about words and commas and the way things at the level of mechanics can sometimes go awry? It wasn’t my intention to mark up the book, but in places I wanted to add a comma or move one, and once or twice I wondered whether a homophone had somehow sneaked in. Assuming that none of us is flawless and that typos and glitches in a manuscript are inevitable, should the presses available to poets these days be providing more plain-old copy-editing? Was there a role that someone at Gus/Gus Press should have played but didn’t? Do you agree, especially for poetry, the publishing world’s shoestring budgets are wearing too thin for our winged feet?
Walden: I think this is a good thing to address. Happily, there’s already been a second printing of Where the Time Goes, tidying up some of the blemishes you noticed. But infelicities are problems that ultimately come back to the author, because, yes, a lot of small presses lack the editorial staff of large presses. The good thing is these editions are printed in small batches—maybe fifty at a time—so that they can be corrected more easily than with a print run of a 1000, which is what my first book was (and which featured, incidentally, a typo on the back cover).
So, typos. They are even more noticeable in poetry where there are fewer words. Ultimately, the blame must reside with the author—and in this case that would be me. The many small presses that don't have the kind of editorial staff that would be ideal? It's a labor of love just to keep them open—just to keep them publishing and providing a format. I have a lot of sympathy for that. GusGus is a new literary imprint and I'm glad they took a chance with my book.
It's also true that people aren't good at proofing their own work—and I did send this out to multiple people—none of whom found the typos spotted in that first press run. And even with big established presses, you are likely to find a typo or two. Librarians say that the library copies always have the most errors because they are first editions.
Commas—they’re a different story. A lot of punctuation has a rhythmic quality, and I am always fighting people about commas. I see them not only as a clarifying mark, but also as a rest note. I sometimes in poetry insert or delete commas by ear rather than by grammatical rule.
Sometimes I can be convinced I was wrong.
Rail: What is it about the thought of someone maybe, just possibly, being convinced of perhaps sometimes being wrong that makes me think of politics and of our historical moment? What about Gale Renee Walden, the potential candidate and activist? In one of your poems, you write:
All across the country
the weather has been putting people
in their places or taking them
and setting them down someplace else.
Timely? That poem is the aptly named “The End of the World Weather,” and in it you contemplate the worldy beauty ironically produced as a side-effect of climate change. The poem ends with “it’s lovely the way we destroy ourselves.” In this work, you bring up world weather change, so timely in the destructive wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Yet your poem on this political topic strikes me as unpolitical, if not anti-political. Do I read you right? Is it because explicitly political poetry is likely to be polemical—no real poetry at all? And, if so, where does that leave you Gale Renee Walden the individual? (How) Can the poet be political? Must you separate Gale the poet from Gale the activist?
Walden: So, as you have alluded to, I have considered running for Congress. I think we need a lot more creativity in looking at solutions and legislations and in the way we campaign. At some point you get so frustrated you think, “Well, maybe I just have to do it myself.”
I volunteered on campaigns in my early life and then became a journalist covering them later. I love Democratic conventions, but I park those considerations at the essayist/ journalist door.
I have three spaces in my life that I consider to be politics-neutral: church, poetry, and the classroom. All of those places I want open for everyone, no matter what their political beliefs, and I also want to leave myself open to—I guess—the Holy Spirit, my favorite muse. I have a poem where I'm considering the Holy Spirit, and I think maybe politics is antithetical to it.
Of course we are destroying mother nature and of course climate change is real, and there is real work to be done there that I feel is a duty. But in that poem, I'm just concentrated on loving the damaged world. That's what I think a lot of poetry does.
Rail: That sounds like a good note to end on. Amen.
ROD KESSLER, after thirty-one years, retired from teaching creative writing at Salem State. Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he now lives in Salem, Massachusetts.