poemoftheweek poemoftheweek.com poemoftheweek.org poem of the week
Christian Anton Gerard
You Fell in Love with Her Elbows?
We were outside she asked if I like zippers I said I had
to go that you-my wife- waited at home
I called you twice to prove it but you didn't answer and
she asked what I was afraid of
Merwin had just closed on this poem, "Peire Vidal"
and she was next to me not wearing pants
just Eighties-like black leggings, a thin zip-up sweatshirt hooded
zippers over each elbow unzipped
Sounds insane I know but
her elbows were like
two North Stars fighting for a sailor's attention
I remembered an Italian fashion designer I heard on BBC Radio
who said every year the industry covers one female body-part
and reveals another in order to keep intrigue and interest
and I looked stared at her elbows
I could've been seven or eight pressed
against F.A.O. Schwarz's glass front façade drooling like I did
at twenty-two in Barcelona when
that Australian girl
Ashley, Alex, no Margaret--
she said MAR-ga-RET-
jumped on me the morning after I pissed in this Malta girl's boots
who said she couldn't wake me so she prayed to Mary I'd stop,
but I was "like shower eternal"
Apparently Mary couldn't wake me either I was a bad oracle
so the Malta girl wouldn't sleep with Josh
who I'd traveled with for thirty-days who's still pissed
who'd brought her a rose in the club
and Margaret held the one I'd brought her
in her teeth She was Juliet
and I was so hung-over I couldn't
remember my lines but she kissed me and
kissed me tickled my neck with the rose The petals fell off on my skin-
The point is Jesus I fell for elbows
I told her so after the reading
I said I don't mean to be creepy
but you have beautiful elbows and she looked at me like
the German girl I accidentally dropped on some discotheque's dance floor
in Munich who made me kiss her cheek and bow before
she'd keep dancing but
the elbow girl
I must be insane nobody looks at elbows
Then what's with your shirt I said and
she said she had a thing for zippers
liked to play with them
It's cliché fucking cliché she came like a hurricane she was
what you hated in your father what he couldn't resist
The storm drinking your mother to death
What I vowed not to be
I showered then before coming
to bed to you and she came to me again in sleep reaching like she did
for my zipper in her backseat I was crying I left my body and you
She liked that I cried
She said it would feel good and it did and I let her and she let me and
your father was right about me Farmers feel the rain two days away
Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella; or Soliloquy to a Bartender
Salinger's a recluse who built a vault
for his first amendment rights. He built
a life on absence and doesn't have my number,
but I need the way he reaches inside my chest,
massages the hurt-sponged heart I didn't know
when the girl with gorgeous elbows walked into
my life and Stella Amtraked to British Columbia.
The west is still the heart's frontier.
My Midwest soul is a two bedroom
apartment with great neighbors,
everyone dreaming of a bigger world, but
nobody leaves. We're scared of big.
I've set my cell-phone to ring the doorbell
sound so incoming calls will feel
like someone wanting to come in.
Sitting in my skin's sauna, I forget
how to function on the street. I've lived
too long only looking in the mirror. I've lost
my glasses on purpose so there's no out
in sight, just the doorbell and me inching
around my heart's chambers for a ghost.
Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella; or Synecdoche
It chaps my ass to run
out late for work in the rain
forgetting I own a waterproof coat
The store only takes cash I've got plastic
I'm out of smokes and the bums smile
getting me back for the times I didn't
have change tinkling like bells
in that pocket I've got the deep
anger involved in the meatloaf dream
I can't wait to taste But lunch comes
and I forgot to pack I scream
for dramatic effect but thick air cloaks
my throat I cough like smoke
I wish I had remembered
the ATM The bar that serves my favorite
suddenly runs out The guy next to me
bitches about politics and God in a way
better suited for Sunday The phone
rings from the hook like the fish
that got away last Saturday
and all day long our bed calls
my name listless and low
Like a sick cow I'm stuck
in meetings tie cinched noose-like
I spend each breath
introducing myself as if
I remember who I am
-from Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella
BIO: Christian Anton Gerard is a poet and Early Modern scholar. His first book of poems is Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella (WordTech, CW Books, 2014). He has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Prague Summer Program, Pushcart Prize nominations, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the 2013 Iron Horse Literary Review Discovered Voices Award. Gerard’s creative and critical work appears widely in national literary and critical journals. When he’s not working, Gerard can be found fishing (usually just standing next to oceans, lakes, or rivers), learning to work wood (avoiding the ER), or indulging his love for home improvement projects of all kinds (after watching hours of Do-it-yourself youtube videos). Gerard lives in Fort Smith, AR, with his son, where he is an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith.
An Interview with Christian Anton Gerard by Michael Palmer, first published by Iron Horse Literary Review
Michael Palmer: Correct me if I’m wrong about any of this, but I believe you have been the editor-in-chief of Grist for nearly a year now. Is there anything you have gleaned from that experience that has changed the way you submit work as a writer?
Christian Anton Gerard: I’ve actually had the privilege to serve as editor-in-chief for two years now, but I have also served in every capacity I can/could on Grist: The Journal for Writers’ staff, from general reader, to assistant poetry editor, to poetry editor, to managing editor, to my current position. This experience has fundamentally contributed to my sense of citizenship within the literary community by helping me to see writers and editors as a united group working to promote the production and exploration of contemporary literature.
My editing experience hasn’t really changed the way I submit, but it has changed my attitude about the process. I’ve learned that submitting work for publication is not a quest for personal glory, it’s a way to support the magazines I enjoy reading. Even if my work isn’t accepted, by submitting (AND SUBSCRIBING) I’m supporting the art–and participating in the process of being a writer–to which I’ve devoted much of my life.
MP: What advice would you give a new writer sending out work for the first time, now that you’ve been on the other side of the submission process?
CAG: 1. Editors are human beings. Editing is often a process of simultaneously being overwhelmed with the amount of work received, the astonishing amount of writers vocally hating you for not publishing their work, the challenge of working to keep a journal or magazine afloat economically, the pure joy of reading so much wonderful work and the wonder of putting together each and every issue, and the accompanying exhilaration when it’s finished.
At the end of the day, editors (who are almost always writers as well) are working for you and with you, not against you. They often work for no other reasons than they love reading and writing just like you, and they want to serve the literary community. They aren’t better than you. They often just have more experience reading and writing. New submitters shouldn’t feel intimidated–let your work speak for itself, because editors love new voices. Participate in the literary community. Read journals. Send your work to the ones you love.
2. “Rejections” (I really hate that word in the writing world), aren’t personal. Most journals, Grist included, begin creating a conversation that begins when the first piece is accepted during the reading period. You can’t know what has already been accepted for a given issue or if what you submit is participating in the conversation already taking place within a given journal’s reading period or not. I’ve learned that when I receive a “rejection,” it’s not always because I’m the worst poet ever, sometimes I’m just too late to the discussion, and sometimes what I’m talking about has already been said, or someone else is saying it in a way that resonates more strongly with readers and editors.
The most important aspect of submitting work, for me is to take the submission process as one providing the opportunity to read the journals I send to, to let myself enjoy being a reader before being a writer, and to engage submissions as a possibility for conversation and engagement with the literary world. Being a good citizen in that world is often much more rewarding than being the ungrateful writer (no matter how many pieces she/he publishes) because it teaches us that we’re part of something much larger than just ourselves.
MP: What kind of work is Grist looking for?
CAG: You can take us at our word. We really are always looking to publish the largest cross-section of contemporary writing that we can find. We may have a rotating editorship and staff (because we’re graduate student run), but we remain open to writing of all forms, styles, and aesthetics because Dr. Marilyn Kallet (our Director of Creative Writing and the Grist faculty advisor) and the rest of the University of Tennessee’s Department of English faculty have worked to create a community thriving on its own diversity, which is something Grist benefits from in a very big way.
MP: What do you receive too much of, and what do you wish you would receive?
CAG: You know, honestly, there’s nothing we receive too much of. We’re not one of those “don’t send us your cat story” or “don’t send us your medical equipment grief poem” type of journals. We’re not trying to be hipsters in the literary scene. We don’t want to be too cool for school. In fact, we think school’s cool. We’re trying to be a journal that writers love to read and readers love to write for. We’re not upset that the majority of our readers are also writers; we love it, which is why we’re “the journal for writers.”
As far as what I wish we would receive, though, I do wish more writers would believe that we really do want to publish more craft essays and send them to us unsolicited. About 95% of each issue is unsolicited, but we almost always have to solicit craft essays. Of all our genres, we receive the fewest unsolicited craft essays, but the second you say to someone, “Hey, I really love your writing, do you have any craft essays about such and such?” they almost always have seven in the lineup or become excited about the prospect of writing one for us. So, um, SEND US YOUR CRAFT ESSAYS!
MP: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
CAG: No. I mean, I’ve always been a reader, and I started writing poems in high school, but mostly they were (failed) attempts at wooing the opposite sex. Interestingly though (at least in my mind) I did start writing a dialogic series of poems in high school in which an older character was talking to a younger version of himself, which might have been when I feel in love with narrative dialogic poems.
But anyway, after a couple years at Miami University (OH) I decided to show my poems to James Reiss (if you’ve never read him you should look him up now). I scheduled a meeting with him and took my poems to his office. We sat cross-legged in his small office (our toes were almost touching, and the only reason I learned to cross my legs in the first place is because he did and so I believed that that’s how poets should sit), and after a while and many sighs, he looked up at me and said, “Christian, have you read a poem written after 1650?” “No,” I said, to which he replied, “if you have any aspirations of being a writer, you should take my contemporary class in the spring, and we’ll look at your poems next year. We generally don’t use “thee,” “thou,” and “shall” these days.”
I did take his contemporary class, and then all of the literature classes I could, but I always figured that I would go back to my hometown and learn to run my parents’ small plumbing, heating, and air conditioning business.
When I called home, though, for advice about picking a major (my advisor was breathing down my neck), I proposed business, and my parents (who are some of the hardest working people I have ever known) said, “why would you do that? If you love this thing and there’s a way to make a living at it, you should try it.” So I guess I’m still “trying it,” and I’m ridiculously lucky to have parents and a partner who are so supportive of the whole shebang.
MP: If you weren’t writing, what would your profession be?
CAG: I like to believe I’d be a cowboy, or a lumberjack, or some kind of hybrid lumberjack-cowboy, or maybe a pig farmer (though I’d fall in love with all the pigs and never be able to take them to slaughter, so I’m probably better suited to be a dairy farmer, which might work out because I really, really love cows (farm animals of all kinds, really). In reality though, I’d probably be learning to run the family business, apprenticing under the HVAC techs and plumbers so I could learn everything about the trade and receive the proper certifications. Or, I’d be a home appliance salesman. I’m pretty minorly (or majorly, depending on who you talk to) obsessed with home appliances, and I could probably sell the hell out of them.
MP: What are you reading, currently?
CAG: Currently circulating between my desk, nightstand, and bathroom are Richard Jackson’s Out of Place, Shara Lessley’s Two-Headed Nightingale, Dexter L. Booth’s Scratching the Ghost, Linda Gregerson’s The Selvage, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil & Stella, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Joe Hall’s The Devotional Poems, Luisa A. Igloria’s The Saints of Streets, and Marilyn Kallet’s The Love that Moves Me.
But then there’s also Divya Srinivasan’s Little Owl’s Night, Todd H. Doodler’s Bear in Underwear series, a suite of Winnie the Pooh stories, Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, and every Dr. Seuss book available.
MP: What/who are you listening to?
CAG: I wish I could blow your mind here with a list of sweet new artists I’m into, but I’m notoriously stuck in a circle of the same artists, which looks something like this (in no particular order): Prince, The Cure, Ryan Adams (solo, with the Cardinals, or as part of Whiskeytown), James Taylor, Michael Jackson, Run DMC, Wilco, Notorious B.I.G, George Straight, Joni Mitchell, Counting Crows, Jim Croce, Neko Case (with or without her Boyfriends), Cat Power, Neil Young, David Bowie, Digital Underground, Hall & Oates, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Bob Seger (definitely with The Silver Bullet Band), Taylor Swift (yes, seriously), Bob Dylan (electric and acoustic), The Fruit Bats, Simon and Garfunkel, Kenny Chesney, The Talking Heads, and Van Morrison.
MP: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
CAG: Haribo gummy bears chilled in the refrigerator (it really makes them amazingly chewy). Pizza crust dipped in milk (sounds weird, but it’s the only acceptable way to finish off a delicious piece of pizza). Playing board games with my wife. The fact that I can watch season after season of a TV series in the span of a day or two thanks to Netflix and On-demand TV (just finished Sherlock, just started The Americans, and I’m not going to lie here, I really love that show New Girl). I also really love doing home improvement projects of any kind (I’ve always been terrible at working with my hands, so I’ve used our house as an opportunity to learn how to make things), which has translated into my fascination with learning how to work wood (I’m totally an amateur, but I really love the trying). And, if I’m totally honest with you, which I will be, I have a minor obsession with shopping for home appliances of any kind, large or small. My wife is a horticulturalist, so we have a wonderful garden, which I am also always loving, and my little corner of it is a collection of carnivorous plants that I’ve fallen in love with learning how to maintain and watch grow each year.
I could go on listing my “guilty” pleasures, but on a more serious note, in thinking more about this question, I’m kind of fascinated by the fact that I’ve just listed some of the things I love and love to do in my life when I’m not researching or writing. For this writer (and many I know), it seems that talking about/doing things other than writing falls into the “guilty pleasures” category. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years learning how to (and often failing at) NOT feeling guilty about loving and doing other things I love to do besides writing so that my “guilty pleasures” just become “pleasures,” part of who I am as a person.
I’m really lucky to have the family I have, to have a wife and son that are continually helping me see that “not working” is not only fun, but also good for me. Don’t get me wrong, I, like every other writer, scholar, and teacher, work my pitoot off, but that’s just one thing I do, and I have to learn to see that. I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful to have a career that affords me the pleasure of doing what I love on a daily basis work-wise, but I’m also quite fortunate and grateful, like I said, to have a family that helps me separate “work” and “home” and not feel guilty about it. My son will be one year old by the time this interview is published and he has no idea what “guilt” means; he experiences the raw emotions that I often translate into things that make me feel “guilty,” for not working. He doesn’t “put off” learning about spatial reasoning to enjoy dropping toys into boxes or blueberries off his highchair for our dog. He does them simultaneously, which is something I’m working to also do. So maybe, in the end, the biggest “guilty pleasure” I have is (learning to) not feeling guilty, to walk into the office on a Monday morning and say “I had a productive weekend not being productive.”
MP: I know from your bio that you currently live in Tennessee. Where are you from initially? How has living in Tennessee changed your writing?
CAG: I was born in Canton, Ohio, but we moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, when I was three or so, so I guess Fort Wayne is where I’m “from” because I grew up there. Living in Tennessee (and previously Virginia while I was working on my MFA) has changed my writing because I’ve realized what a Midwesterner I am (the Midwest that includes Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa) and how much I love identifying as such, and how I can’t stop writing about it.
I love living in Knoxville, and eastern Tennessee is a place I could happily stay forever, yet I find the longer I’m here, the more the Midwest creeps into my work. There’s something about the flat land (which is weird because I love big rolling hills), the farmhouse in the middle of the field, the cornstalks grown to seven or eight feet (which block everything on the country roads) and then suddenly the stalks are razed and the world is wide open again. That gets me every time.
The longer I’m away from the Midwest, the more family I could never meet because they passed before I was born become central figures in the characters and speakers I write, and I’m always imagining the places they lived, rural Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana, as the settings for my work, even if the poems don’t explicitly state or need a geographic setting.
I’m the kind of person who could be happy living anywhere, but I used to think I had to be somewhere to be able to write about it. Living out of the Midwest for eight years, however, has taught me that the land I’m most connected to in my work can continue to live in my work, maybe even more so than if I lived there, because being away means that here I’m kind of an outsider. People here comment on my wife and I’s “accents” or talk about our vernacular, the way we talk about things in general, and all of it makes me think a lot about who I am and how I identify because of my Midwestern roots (which are always creeping into my work).
MP: In your genesis statement, you wrote about the way the form of your poems took shape based on the way the characters speaking to each other sounded in your head. Indeed, when you look at the form and spacing of “Her Parents Offered Twenty Large,” the line breaks and indents look something like dialogue in prose. Of course, it isn’t exactly like that; it’s more tousled, with a very distinctive rhythm. How did you come to this final shape? What did you try before?
CAG: I tried all kinds of forms before arriving at the present one. For a long time this poem actually looked more like “Taking Stock,” but it never felt right to me because, as you say, “Taking Stock” is only Wilmot’s voice, and I needed something for “Her Parents Offered Twenty Large” that could accommodate both voices.
One summer when I was fortunate enough to be a work-study scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Ellen Bryant Voigt said to me that she thought I had a large formal appetite; that is, I would draft in compressed forms and not know how to get the poems out of those forms to better serve the poems. I went back to her thoughts when I was revising “Her Parents Offered Twenty Large.” I also looked back to some of Frank O’Hara’s poems where he allows himself that longer, more prosaic line, like in “Having a Coke With You” (which is one of my favorite poems ever). I went back and re-read Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” and this passage seemed to align with Ellen’s words and my re-reading O’Hara:
“the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment he writes, and thus is, it is here that the, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending–where its breathing shall come to termination.”
While “Her Parents Offered Twenty Large” isn’t the perfect example of “Projective Voice,” isn’t a perfect imitation of O’Hara, and doesn’t exactly get me away from my impulse to formal appetite, Ellen and O’Hara helped sort of mentally translate Olson’s line about breathing into “the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the [people in the poem], at the moment [they speak],” which made sense to me for this piece.
Looking at the whole book (Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella) now from which these three poems come, Stella’s a much more rational speaker, in control of her emotion, and Wilmot has a tendency to let his emotion dictate the way he speaks to her or himself. Stella seems able of to act, whereas it seems to me that Wilmot can often only react. Thinking about the way they both breathe when they speak helped me fit (I think) both of their voices and tendencies into this piece, while simultaneously taking a risk for me (in terms of the line and structure), while also satisfying my formal appetite.
MP: The other two poems here, on the other hand, seems more like monologues, or anyway seem to involve just one character’s thoughts and words. “I’ve Been Angry Before” is cleaner, with the cascading shape of the poem affecting the way we read the words, and the separate lines requiring a different kind of attention than a paragraph of prose would. Did that shape come to your right away?
CAG: I think I got kind of lucky with this one. Stella and Wilmot are both readers, and often what they read makes their way into these poems in some way or another. There’s another poem in the book, “Note Stella Taped to the Fridge,” that makes use of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say,” that uses Williams’ sparseness, but does so using the cascading line, with it’s downward pushing effect, to arrive at a tonal conclusion similar to the sensitive love felt in “This is Just To Say.” “I’ve Been Angry Before,” on the other hand, works as a formal counterpart to “Note…” but allows Stella to be the assertive, confident woman that she is. This form also, I think, allowed me to riff off of Time Seibles’ poem “Trying for Fire,” in which he writes “And now, the city is crouched like a mugger / behind me.” The feeling in Seibles’ poem felt right for the way Stella feels about Wilmot and his infidelity, and the cascading form lent itself to using that feeling to push toward the poem’s resolution. The original drafts of “I’ve Been Angry Before” do use this same shape, though it took some time to get the lines the way they are now.
MP: “Taking Stock” seems to be Wilmot’s voice, but it’s more frenzied than Stella’s in “I’ve Been Angry Before.” It shifts without clear breaks from war stories Wilmot has been told to his own memories, which also seem to be haunting him. How were you visualizing Wilmot’s state of mind as you wrote that poem?
CAG: You nailed it with the word “frenzied.” In “Taking Stock,” I imagine Wilmot working back through his life and relationship with Stella and trying simultaneously to make some sort of amends to her, while also proffering some kind of explanation for his actions, while ending on a note suggesting that perhaps they could be the way the were when “they didn’t sleep that night,” and I think the best words to describe his state are “frenzied,” “desperate,” “remorseful,” and “terrified.”
It took me a really long time to find the final form for this because, as I noted earlier about my formal appetite, writing without punctuation meant the lines had to do all the work, which was quite scary and difficult for me. I sensed that this is how the monologue would work both in his mind and as he spoke it to Stella, but pacing was a huge problem for me forever! I ended up going back to W.S. Merwin’s book The Vixen because he’s so good at using the line in the same way in that book. I read the book several times, and specifically read and re-read his poem “Peire Vidal” about ten thousand times (because it’s so good I sometimes forgot I was studying it, and just ended up reading it over and over).
I had to read “Taking Stock” out loud many, many times (revising almost every time) before I was able to arrive at a line that was able to be taut and do the work the poem needed it to do in order to enact Wilmot’s mental state, while keeping him consistent with the characterization he establishes elsewhere in the book.
MP: All of the poems come from your forthcoming book Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella. You mention in your genesis statement a fascination with love stories. Can you talk about some of the ways your poems about Stella and Wilmot use conventional love story tropes, and ways they might subvert them?
CAG: Wow. You might have got me on this one. I love love. I love it when love wins, and I love it when love is too much for characters, and I love it when love sometimes isn’t enough. I love how complex love can be, how messy and unclean it often is. I guess, in thinking about traditional love story tropes, love either wins and the lovers end up together, love isn’t enough, and the lovers don’t end up together (but even in those cases I’d argue love still wins because the characters and people are still in love or at the very least love each other). Maybe the only way to subvert a love story trope is to not have love be in the equation at all? I don’t really know! But I do know love makes us do incredible and sometimes amazing (and amazingly devastating) things. It often reveals, I think, so much about human nature, or at the very least, individuals’ thresholds for both pleasure and pain.
It doesn’t really matter to a reader not familiar with these texts or people, but the book’s and Stella and Wilmot’s characterizations are based in Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil & Stella (from which a version of Stella comes to my work) and the notorious Restoration Libertine and poet John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. In Astrophil & Stella, Stella doesn’t speak often, but when she does, she’s strong, assertive, confident, and knows what she wants and needs (which doesn’t seem to be Astrophil). My Stella is quite similar in that way. Yet Rochester (John Wilmot) provided an interesting and complicating counterpart for me. As a historical figure, his poems are often outrageous in terms of diction, but also, often, incredibly smart. He, like my Wilmot, was incredibly emotional and that emotion comes through in the way his poems react. Yet when I read all of his correspondence, a different, more sensitive and caring side of him came through in his letters to his wife and mistress. The complexity with which the historical John Wilmot both enacted and spoke of love is dumbfounding, and I think he might be the best historical example I can think of as a figure who both is a traditional love story trope and is simultaneously constantly subverting his own narrative.
I’d say in my work, these poems, and this book, Stella and Wilmot use conventional love story tropes because they are in love, and remain in love, but love also makes them not win even though their love, in my opinion, does, but I have no idea how they might subvert them, which I’ll probably, now, be trying to figure out for quite a while!
MP: When will the book be released, and where can we get a copy?
CAG: I had initially thought the book would be released right now, around early April, but it actually came out in the middle of March! It is available, of course, through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most other online booksellers, but I’m also selling it through my website for $15 including shipping (twenty cents more than the retail giants), and if interested readers purchase it directly from me, I am signing and inscribing it before putting it in the mail!
I can’t thank you enough for your support of my work, but more importantly for contemporary literature at-large. I’m so grateful to you all for including me in your conversation! It has been more than a pleasure to work and speak with you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your generosity, and for all you’re doing for the literary community. I’m more than honored to be a part of Iron Horse Literary Review.