Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16!
Now, let’s chat with Celeste Gainey!
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write poetry?
I came upon poetry as soon as I could read. A poet is the first thing I can remember ever wanting to be. I committed favorite poems to memory, many I can still recite. This early love of poetry and entreé into the land of literary imagination was assisted by the likes of A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Seuss, and, most definitely, my alter ego, Kay Thompson’s and Hillary Knight’s Eloise. Sadly, as I progressed through grade school, junior high, and high school, poetry did not follow. For college, I opted for film school over a liberal arts education. Then a life of working with light, first as a gaffer in film, then as an architectural lighting designer, became my existence. During all this time I did not write poetry, I did not read poetry. Flash forward to a mid-life crisis where I found myself writing what I like to call “attempted poetry.” It felt so vital and necessary that I quickly found myself pursuing an MFA in creative writing. My very first mentor, poet Jan Beatty, hammered in the bedrock of who I am as a poet. Her poems continue to remind me when I’m writing to be authentic, grounded, yet reach beyond myself. Poets whose brilliance of craft and personal singularity now inspire me to keep writing comprise a long list indeed, but must include Eloise Klein Healy, Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, Claudia Rankine, C.D. Wright, Eleni Sikelianos, D.A. Powell, Robin Becker, Brenda Hillman, Aaron Smith, Frank Bidart, B.H. Fairchild, Terrance Hayes, Sheila Carter-Jones, Joy Katz, James Wright, the New York School poets, most especially, my totemic poetry brother from the great beyond who keeps telling me, “do this, do that,” Frank O’Hara.
What are you reading?
Right now I’m at a writing residency, so I have a number of books with me at various stages of investigation. I’m beginning a poetry project that calls on Film Noir, so I’m studying Alexander Ballinger’s and Danny Graydon’s The Rough Guide to Film Noir.
For poetry, I’m happily into David Trinidad’s The Late Show. I love his work!
Next up is David Lehman’s history of the New York School of Poets, The Last Avant-Garde, to be followed by Sarah Shulman’s memoir, The Gentrification of the Mind.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
I was a terribly overweight Catholic school kid taught by nuns in the fifties and sixties who grew up to be a closeted lesbian in seventies New York, so yes, most definitely, I’ve written poems that were hard for me to share, let alone write. Some having to do with lesbian sex, which, when I can find it portrayed at all, is often represented in a way with which I find it hard to identify. In writing these poems I discovered the power of releasing my own learned shame and homophobia; in reading them in front of an audience, I discover over and over the power of saying out loud, “I’m no longer afraid. This is who I am.”
Tell us about your favorite experience reading in front of an audience?
It had to be the first public reading from my book, the GAFFER, at The Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, CA. The date was February 3rd__my birthday, my mother’s birthday, and Gertrude Stein’s birthday. It was a knockout lineup of poets: Veronica Reyes, Kim Dower, Terry Wolverton, and my beloved editor at Arktoi Books, Eloise Klein Healy. All popular LA poets, the room was jammed, folks hanging from the rafters. And there I was, an LA resident from long ago, now living in Pittsburgh. Few in the room knew me, or my poetry. I was the first up and as I read my poems for all these new ears it was almost electric to feel their response, hear their laughter. I think what occurred was an experience so totally fresh and unexpected, for both the audience and myself. I can only say it was magical. And the magic continued with each poet that followed. By the time we all finished reading, there was so much love in that room you could feel it beating. And that is the power of poetry.
What is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?
That it has to be “understood.” Why not simply be curious and open to a poem.
Ask questions. See where it takes you.
What is the role of poetry in the twenty first century?
There are certainly many roles for poetry, but one, I think, which has become more vital in this century is poetry as portal into the experience of “the other.” Because of its plasticity of form, symbol, and language, its outlier ability to embrace the new, and its suitability to current forms of social media, poetry is exceptionally equipped to give us numerous windows, at grassroots level, that open into the lives and souls of those not like ourselves.
Celeste Gainey is the author of the full-length poetry collection, the GAFFER, (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press, 2015). Her chapbook, In the land of speculation & seismography (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011), was runner-up for the 2010 Robin Becker Prize.
Gainey was the first woman to be admitted as a gaffer to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the preeminent craft union in the motion picture industry. In addition to lighting documentaries and feature segments for programs such as 60 Minutes, ABC Close-Up, and 20/20, she worked on the sets of several renowned feature films, among them, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Wiz. Gainey went on to become a leading lighting designer and consultant in the field of architecture in both New York City and Los Angeles, designing lighting systems for restaurants, offices, retail stores, and residences in the U.S. and abroad.
Gainey graduated with a BFA in Film & Television from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Carlow University. Her poems have been published widely in journals and online. Born and raised in Southern California, she currently lives in Pittsburgh. For more information please go to www.celestegainey.com.