GALE MARIE THOMPSON
in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW
In one of your pieces in this issue, “[In this small tent men pound],” your speaker declares, “I want to write a poem where / the I is the one always rescuing the other I…” Could you please elaborate on your perspective regarding the “I” in poetry?
GALE MARIE THOMPSON
I got the idea for that line while I was reading some criticism on Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and the fact that there is both the “Marcel” who is the author of the book as well as the “Marcel” who is the main character of the book. The criticism makes it clear that the character-Marcel realizes at some climactic point that he needs to be rescued (by writing his memories down) by the writer-Marcel, who, of course, is currently writing down his memories which include the character-Marcel!
I was thinking a lot about the reality behind poetry—that big and valuable difference between the I of the poem and the I of a real person behind it, the real person with the real body who is either writing or reading the poem, whether it is when we are writing down our memories or using poetry to motivate real social justice and activism. I am interested in how we can bring the reality of the body into a poem, or how the text of a poem can connect us back to the reality of the body. I want those two Is together, and I want them to rescue each other.
The pieces in this issue are excerpted from a longer sequence you've been working on, "Helen or My Hunger”could you tell us a little about that sequence as a whole?
GALE MARIE THOMPSON
Helen or My Hunger is my dissertation that I will be defending this Spring for my PhD at the University of Georgia. It’s a book-length sequence that deals with memory, trauma, the body, and iconicity in writing. It all started when I read H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, her 1961 epic poem that works to revise the myth of Helen of Troy—or, “Hated Helen,” as H.D. calls her. My Helen evolved far beyond that, of course, to include broader themes of memory, power, and violence. The poems in this sequence are almost all writing to a “Helen,” whose form shifts constantly. They know that any “real” Helen gets swallowed up by her own icon-self, that they are talking to an echo of an echo. What questions did I want to ask Helen? Why did I feel the need to ask them? How do I begin talking about something I have no language for?
I also wanted to think about the epic poem as a historical way we grapple with war and violence. Generally, epic poems tend to tell stories of battles and heroes, tackling and defining violence in an episodic, commemorative way. What Helen or My Hunger works to do is access a violence that is not fixed, but rather something far below the surface—an ingrained, often unidentified violence, often toward women and other marginalized voices. There is also a certain amount of violence in representation here, violence toward self, toward body—as icon, as seat of trauma, as walled-up, hungry, living body. To me, Helen is the icon of all of these centers of violence, as she and her beauty are so often to blame for war and destruction.
It was a really difficult book to write, and it sometimes really terrifies me. But I’m also really proud of it; it took a lot of different kinds of work to bring Helen out.
I see that many of your poems—in your collection, Soldier On, as well as the two in Bennington Review—revolve around the domestic and the political. How do you see those two subjects influencing and intersecting in your work?
GALE MARIE THOMPSON
That’s a great question, and one I would have answered differently had I just finished Soldier On. I was really interested in how rooms are often containers of our memories, how space and language contain lived experience. I was deeply into Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and my love for Joseph Cornell was as strong as ever, and a great deal of the book has this undercurrent of the nostalgia of inhabited space. We also tend to associate the domestic space with the feminine; one of the reasons I titled my book Soldier On is because I wanted to highlight this strength in femininity, in the domestic. There’s a militaristic hardness, a dogged “soldiering on” sometimes, in feminine space, that is (all too often, still) looked over.
Two manuscripts later, I’m still interested in how we inhabit private, domestic space, but also about how poetry might work to articulate and connect both private and public pain. I’ve been thinking about how communication happens, how one might speak, responsibly, against silence. How can a writer express and articulate pain—individual, as well as that of others—in a way that is ethical and active? How do I write poems, or speak up at all, if I give my own story so little worth? And should I even speak? Often the answer is no: I know that listening is just as important as speaking. I am also often so paralyzed by self-doubt that I either stay silent, or I throw out a smoke screen of disclaimers to discredit my own thoughts.
I am thinking, though, about Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and her phrase “pluralize and specify,” that she got from Eve Sedgwick (who in turn probably got it from Roland Barthes), as a way to articulate difficulty—to communicate difference and conflict, across boundaries, between bodies. Essentially: rather than stay on the side of silence, write through those difficulties, work to track those specifics. It reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s “Contradictions: Tracking Poems”: “Remember: the body’s pain and the pain on the street / are not the same, but you can learn / from the edges that blur. O you who love clear edges / more than anything, / watch the edges that blur.”
In "[I write to convince the girls]," you write, "The very nature of memory is violent." In your graduate work at the University of Georgia, you've been focusing in part on the study of individual and cultural memory. Could you elaborate a bit on your thoughts about memory?
GALE MARIE THOMPSON
I do spend a lot of time thinking about memory in my graduate work. It’s a pretty big and interdisciplinary field of study, so one of my main anxieties is about where to focus within this huge scope of the term “memory.” I think a lot about how individual memories from the past manifest themselves in literature; right now I’m working on an article about Elizabeth Bishop, memory, and art. I am also fascinated by monuments and countermonuments, structural memorials for the dead. This would be the more “cultural,” “collective,” side of memory. Or, as Susan Sontag says, “strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory. But there is collective instruction. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story of how it happened.”
Memory is never one long, smooth story or narrative. I always think about it like a dream: memories start out as broken pieces, bits of images and information, always shuffling around, fragments bumping up against each other. And those fragments are morphing every time we remember them. Each time we remember, those pieces reshuffle, and a new memory is created from the pieces that come forward. How we look backward, how these fragments get reassembled and re-morphed, changes based on our present situation. And then, of course, how we move into the future is how we look at those narratives we’ve created.
For a long time, the Western convention for thinking about memory was derived from Aristotle: that memory is “like the imprint or drawing in us of things felt,” and forgetting is the deterioration of that imprint. Basically—we are a block of wax, and memories are what are being etched into us. And, as I mention in this poem, Roland Barthes talks about being “lacerated” by certain painful memories, in the months after losing his mother (“…a certain laceration of one of maman's last utterances”). At the same time, the word “trauma” comes from the Greek word for “wound.” Freud even uses the image of a slashed tree trunk to talk about trauma in war veterans, as well, in connection with an old story (Jerusalem Delivered). There is certainly a difference between non-traumatic, narrative memory and actual trauma, actual traumatic memory. However, the metaphor for both is a kind of violence, a kind of ripping of material. Even in creating a narrative, we have to forget some things in order to make meaning out of the others. That’s a kind of stitching, a distillation, a kind of violence. It makes the creation of memory seem so unnatural, when: isn’t it the most natural thing for us to do?
What books have you read recently that have had a particular impact on your writing and thinking?
GALE MARIE THOMPSON
I’ll give you a few over the last year or so: For starters, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue has done nothing less than changed my life. I’ve also been taken over by Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. (“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”). Ed Pavlic’s Let's Let That Are Not Yet: INFERNO. Carmen Giminez Smith’s Milk and Filth. Lily Hoang’s The Bestiary. During my recent residency at the Vermont Studio Center I met the kind and brilliant poet Oliver Bendorf, whose book The Spectral Wilderness I am wheeling through right now. Finally, Eruv by Eryn Green, Diving Makes the Water Deep, by Zach Savich, and—you don’t know about it yet, but Shamala Gallagher is writing a book of essays titled Mooncalf—about embarrassment, failure, and race—that is going to keep us in this world. Keep your eyes peeled for it. On that same note, Caroline Cabrera’s hauntingly, terrifyingly beautiful hybrid sequence, Saint X, is coming out from Black Lawrence Press in early 2018.
Oh! Also: the book Modern Gestures: Abraham Walkowitz Draws Isadora Duncan Dancing has totally revolutionized my approach to movement and time, gesture, abstraction, and to dancing. At least check it out from the library and stare at the drawings.
GALE MARIE THOMPSON is the author of Soldier On (Tupelo Press) and two chapbooks. Her work appears in Guernica, Gulf Coast, TIMBER, Bone Bouquet, and Colorado Review. She is creator and editor of Jellyfish Magazine and lives, works, and writes in Athens, Georgia.
KATIE HIBNER is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.