January 7, 2013

Hearing Voices with Gibson Fay-LeBlanc

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc
Death of a Ventriloquist
Vassar Miller Prize, Texas A&M University Press
2012, 80 pp.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc is–in addition to being a poet–a teacher, father, novelist, and a significant figure in the field of literary education in Portland, Maine. As a former director of The Telling Room, a children's nonprofit writing center overlooking Portland's Old Port, Gibson's efforts have added to the appreciation of writing and reading in a diverse, international, and beyond-emerging literary city.
     In 2012, his first book of poetry Death of a Ventriloquist was selected for the Vassar Miller Prize from University of North Texas Press, judged by Lisa Russ Spaar. A reader quickly acknowledges that the book is a great testament to the practice of voice and persona in poetry.

How did Death of a Ventriloquist come about?
I worked at most of the poems in the book for several years, and then there were another two or three years when I was sending it out and it was very close. I never stopped tinkering with it up until the moment it went to press. It had a number of other titles and configurations, and there are probably five or ten poems that never made it in the book for every one that did. There were several times when I thought it was done and then figured out it wasn’t. It was a long road, but I’m glad it took a while—it’s a better book for it.

In your poem “The End of Reading,” it says, “The reader and the text / together make a third thing.” Does poetry have its own effect on a reader compared to, say, a newspaper article about the economy?
There’s nothing like the way a poem can grab you by the shirt collar and make you listen to it. A poem creates its own world, and we have to participate in that world—feel it in our bodies, taste it in our mouths, and add our own brains and hearts to it—for the poem to work. There are probably times when other kinds of great literature can make something similar happen, but a good poem has it in its DNA.

Is there a secret weapon to really engage students who have difficulty reading poetry?
That’s a good question, and one I’m always trying to answer. I’ve worked with all kinds of students on poetry: Pre-K through college, adults, at-risk teens, immigrants and refugees, etc, etc. I try to give as many different ways into poetry as time and my audience allows. I read as wide a range of poems aloud as I can. I try to create a space where folks can get over their fear of poetry and experience it. I say things like, Where is the heat in the poem? What does that line feel like inside your mouth?
     We don’t feel the need to analyze every song we like on the radio, so why do that with poems? Just as with songs, once we find poems that we are drawn to, that’s the time to dig into them: memorize, analyze, discuss, etc. When we’re starting out, it’s great to just enjoy them. When I’m able to create space to do that—to notice and enjoy great poems—I find it’s not at all hard to get students engaged. I think it’s actually easier to teach poetry than prose. The text load is so much less, and a great poem takes us straight into the heart of things. 

What are your favorite things about teaching writing?
I had some life-changing writing teachers and some terrible ones. It’s gratifying to give back, to help light a student light his/her fire. It’s wonderful to go back to work that moved me and read and discuss it with students. My students always teach me things; they always inspire me.

Can you tell me about your work with The Telling Room?
I directed The Telling Room from 2006 to 2011 and am still involved there in an advisory capacity and as a teacher. It’s great work—very all consuming but very gratifying to work with kids and help them find inspiration and get their voices on the page. It’s great to help build something with some momentum, something that hopefully will last and inspire generations of young writers. One of the things we say at the TR is that our best prompt is simply: Go. We all have it in us, especially kids.

What are your current projects?
I have some new poems I’m working on, and I’m working on a long fiction project, a novel. I hope to get it out into the world soon. 

“Learning to Wait” rushes to appreciate the tangible and intangible alike: to write about the fleeting shade in a partly known tongue; the cliffhanging thoughts of blown branches with ellipses. But with an idea that can only “mouth its ending,” inspiration seems outside of our scheduled life, particularly when it comes to sitting down to write. 
Indeed. That’s certainly there in that poem. It’s the oldest poem in the book, and it comes from a time when I was teaching myself to spend time waiting around for words and for inspiration.
     I believe in waiting as long as one needs to wait. I write as much as I can—every day if possible—and I try to stay open to inspiration. I carry my notebook around. I read new things and re-read things I love. I walk and run and hike. The lightning does strike from time to time if we walk around in a lightning storm. Sometimes it feels like lightning and sometimes it feels like stepping into a river the same temperature as your body—you barely know it’s there. We have to pay attention and stay ready.

There's an echo of the poets Theodore Roethke and James Wright in your work, especially the poem “Explanation Beginning with a River”: “at home, I listen to the pipes knock inside / our walls. I don’t know how to be alone.” Who are some of your favorite poets, and how do they inform your writing?
I’ve certainly read those guys and that echo is there, not in any conscious way, but it’s there. Or it could be Lowell or the Larkin of “Aubade.” Favorites are always hard, but here’s a few: Gerard Manley Hopkins for his sound turned up to 11. Robert Hass for a thousand different reasons but mostly his fiercely intelligent, lyrical voice. Jack Gilbert for his gut-punching courage. Bishop for her economy and detail. Frost for the way he pulls the spoken voice into form. I could go on and on, way back, way forward. I’m not sure how they influence me except that they taught me how to write. I’ve read and memorized lines and poems, scanned them and tried to figure out what makes them tick. That’s bound to filter into my work somehow.

In “Ventriloquist on the Moor” the speaker considers the ventriloquist’s own decay in the peat and acknowledges a multitude of voices. “Will he / decay once for each of them…” Ultimately, readers understand the idea of lacking an identity, because “His heart is not his own.” How would you describe your voice as a poet?
Yes, the book struggles in many ways with what it means to try on different voices or to find one’s own voice, if that can be said to happen. I was lucky to stumble on the Paul Klee sketch that’s on the cover of the book one day—that helped me create this character of the ventriloquist, who’s kind of an alter ego. I’m not sure how I would describe my own voice as a poet. Perhaps I’ll leave that to others.
     The sonic qualities of a line or group of lines is important to the voice(s) in my poems. Certainly love and becoming a father have pushed me into writing some poems in a more plain voice, but I’ll go to my grave insisting on taking on other selves too. I go to literature—reading and writing—both to go deeper into my self and also to step into other selves.

The concluding poem, “The Nots,” details the things not spoken. The speaker has not “spread my arms wide as they would / and said, Do with me what you will.” Has this always, in the different drafts of the manuscript, been the last poem?
It came later, so it hasn’t, but once I wrote and revised it, I thought, this would be a good way out. I love the idea that we’re responsible for what we haven’t written. Especially at the end of a first collection, I know I feel the pull of all the things that didn’t make it in. A book has a life of its own and, at a certain point, the author has to let it be what it’s trying to be.

This TNP interview originally appeared in January 2013.

For more, check out Gibson's Q & A in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Poets & Writers, page 67.

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