The Colorado Poet, #19, Summer 2012

Interview: Janice Gould
Doubters and Dreamers, (Univ. of Arizona Press, 2011)

Bob King:  Doubters and Dreamers is in two sections, “Tribal History” and “It Was Raining.” I will say I smiled at that purposeful tension between the historic past--the first section involves Native American history and experiences growing up in a family--and your own personal present involving jobs, experiences, lovers. How did that two-part structure emerge?

Janice Gould Janice Gould: I have to think back quite a way to remember, but I believe the two-part structure came about for exactly the reason you detect.  I realized I had poems that dealt with what I call “Tribal History,” poetry that focuses on family matters and growing up.  The poems in “It Was Raining,” however, convey experiences away from my family, having to do with work and relationships.  I don’t know if this is true only for me, or if my sisters experienced the same kind of seclusion of intimate emotions and ideas as I did, but I seldom shared with my family any of my feelings of love for women and my deep friendships.  Probably this “split” in poetic content reflects a kind of split in myself.  There’s a part of me I feel it is safe to share with my family (with whom I am close, nonetheless), and there are stories I likely would not share.  Now, of course, some of these experiences are recorded in poems and stories—a literature—and so are available to my family and others.  

BK: The notes say this book--it’s your third, the second, Earthquake Weather, coming out in 1996--was “years in the making.” Was that a good thing or a distressful one?

JG: Both good and distressful, I think, but tension can be productive.  Good because it gave me time to grow more as a poet.  I wrote what I considered some terrible poetry in the years since Earthquake Weather, but once I collected this writing, and started thinking about and revising those poems that seemed to have promise, I worked on them as if they were serious pieces.  Many of them became the nucleus of the manuscript for Doubters and Dreamers

Though I was writing, the feeling that my work was not very good made me ambivalent about it.

At the same time, I felt a certain distress.   Though I was writing, the feeling that my work was not very good made me ambivalent about it.  I also felt ambivalent about my career teaching literature.  I turned my attention to music, a kind of creative work that has accompanied me all my life.  I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time.  Two musician friends, a flutist and a guitarist, and I started a trio, which we called “Pan Dulce.”  I played guitar and accordion and did vocals for our group.  The other guitarist and I also began playing accompaniment (on guitar) for a group of flamenco dancers in Portland.  It was a lot of fun.  Poetry, meanwhile, continued in my life.  I was the Chair of Creative Writing for three years at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, so I was teaching and reading poetry, doing poetry readings at various venues.  But I have never been as involved in “the life of poetry” as many poets enjoy being.  I feel cautious about claiming to be a poet, though I think poetry is my calling.  I suppose this reluctance and caution may again reflect the ways I have secluded and protected myself; it’s an old habit.

BK: It’s perhaps difficult to use the word ‘nature’ these days but you do seem to have a close connections to the physical world--rivers, mountains, deserts, the landscapes you’ve inhabited. Has that always been true for you? How did it come about do you think?

JG: I love the natural world and have always felt comfortable being outdoors (and around animals).  My parents very much enjoyed camping and hiking.  They would take us on long road trips, and to save money, and for the pleasure of travel, we would camp along the way to wherever we were going: the beach, the mountains, or the desert.  As girls, my sisters and I joined Girl Scouts and Mariner Scouts, and I also joined the Sierra Club when I was fifteen.  We did a lot of hiking, backpacking, and sailing; we rode horses, skied, and learned how to rock climb.  We were tomboys, preferring to get into our jeans the moment we got home from school. 

I grew up in the San Francisco bay area, in Berkeley, and growing up in an area like this presented both urban and rural experiences.  In addition to being outdoors, I loved going to classical music concerts (I studied oboe as a teenager), operas, art galleries, and museums.  As a teenager and young adult, I was strongly influenced by photographers like Ansel Adams (and later Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Paul Strand), whose eye turned the natural world into a landscape that could be contemplated, studied, and deeply regarded.

BK: Many of the poems are in a kind of measured free verse, at least to me, but you also include a few sonnets--some rhymed, some only lightly so--as well as a pantoum, villanelle and five prose poems. What’s your take on the uses of form in poetry for you?

JG: Formal structures are fun to work with because they present some lovely challenges.  I have to admit, though, that I was not as enthusiastic about using “form” as my partner, who kept suggesting that I try my hand at “form.”  After awhile, I gave up resisting her and thought, “Why not?”  I like the constraints that formal verse demands, but I certainly do not feel accomplished at using a formal device, like the sonnet.  Still I would like to continue studying “form” and will probably challenge myself to write more sonnets and possibly try the villanelle again.  Another “form” I love is the prose poem.  I’ve included a few of them in the manuscript I’m currently working on. 

BK: The poem that gives the second section its title, “It Was Raining,” seems to me to exhibit one of your approaches. It presents a personal moment, holding a lover, but also describes the rain and moves to things happening somewhere else—a lizard darting under a rock, a mother calling to her child, the child singing, and on to “in the universe a meteor was falling” and then back to "But here the apples had ripened.” Other poems do this same kind of thing or combine different perspectives as in one of your sonnets: “Above the falls where the Shoshone went to pray / we soaked our feet in cold water, and I observed / the arch of her brown foot.” So in three lines we have tribal history, a personal experience, and a private emotion. How aware are you of these shifts of perception? Or is it all one experience for you?

I try to be aware of my own poetics, cognizant of the way I employ poetics.

JG: Yours is an interesting observation about my work, and now that you’ve pointed it out, I have an opportunity to think about it.  I try to be aware of my own poetics, cognizant of the way I employ poetics.  In “It Was Raining” (and also in the “Crossing the West” sonnets), I consciously used “shifts in perception.”  I was reaching for a kind of universalizing of experience by being able to claim how everything is/was happening around us (i.e. around my girlfriend and myself), if this makes sense.  I wanted to enlarge the landscape around us, make us part of the life of the world, our being in love part of a landscape, a history, a natural and fecund world full of rain, lizards, starfish, birds, mothers and children—lament and joy.  As a lesbian, I know that, for some, mine is a “forbidden” love and believed to be “unnatural,” “bad,” “crazy,” “not normal,” even “degenerate.”  Obviously, I reject those notions.  At the same time, I am quite aware that my partner and I do not (or, in the past, my girlfriend and I did not) enjoy the same privilege to be out and open about our relationship as a heterosexual couple would.  We must still be careful in some communities about making our sexual preference public and apparent.

So this comes back to the notion of secluding, of privacy.  In both of the poems you cited, the protagonists are “protected” either by being inside a vehicle, or by being able to seek refuge within a car—an enclosed space that can convey one away, that can allow for an escape from a sometimes unkind reality.  But the vehicle can also convey us to a place of beauty; it can present a space for Eros to manifest.  The poems are a celebration of that possibility; rain makes things grow.  But the poems are also laments because of how difficult it is to fulfill the demands of Eros.  The world presents its limits.  Rain is also for tears, for weeping.                  

BK: This may not be important, but, according to your poems, your mother taught piano and you can play the oboe, guitar, accordion, and perhaps other instruments. Have you found a connection between your appreciation for music and your poetry?

JG: Yes, I know there is a connection.  I love working the poem musically.  In an earlier question you used the words “measured free verse” to describe your perception of some of the poems in Doubters and Dreamers, and that’s accurate.  In free verse, we work with line length when we don’t have a rhyme scheme to constrain us, but it is tricky trying to determine the line, especially where a line of verse should end, or break.  It’s one of the hardest features of free verse writing to convey to a student.  The line in free verse, I think, may have to do with one’s internal rhythm-making; not the heartbeat, exactly, something else—like the rhythm of walking or running.  The rhythm you keep while dancing, playing music, or doing Tai Chi, the rhythm of work—sawing, hammering, sweeping.  The kind of internal (or external) nodding we do when we’re thinking.  Finding the line could be about finding the right rhythm, the rhythm that feels right.

Finding the line could be about finding the right rhythm…but another factor is sound.

But another factor, of course, is sound.  I’m aware of the musical possibilities of English, things like alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, slant rhyme, ways of playing with words that add texture and tonality to a poem.   When I’m working on a poem, I consider the sound of the language of primary importance, but that’s because I work in the lyric tradition.  Other schools of poetry are not as interested in sound and sense, but more interested in, for example, how thought moves and transforms.  As you probably noticed, Doubters and Dreamers also utilizes a form that some call the prose poem.  In these poems, the musical play of language gives way a bit to the concerns of the brief narrative, how to shape and constrain it, how to employ turns and achieve a certain surprise.  Possibly we should be working for the surprise offered by musicality, if we write in the lyric tradition, seeking ways to satisfy the ear while, at the same time, leading the ear to note something new and thus to expand and challenge our poetic expectations.

BK: In the last poem, which contains the title of your book, you speak to yourself or to ‘the poet’ (“A thin voice calls and you rise”) who then wanders “through plazas and mazes” and many other places to end with “You wander among stars and clouds / doubters and dreamers, certain/ children who understand cruelty / but rely on the heart’s / unreasoning support.”  This seems to sum up a lot of the book’s material, “cruelty” being a reference to childhood poems earlier plus a final personal statement of affirmation all this while wandering among stars and clouds. This seems like a mystical experience. Is that how it seems to you? Or is all poetry one or another kind of mystical experience?

JG: I’m fascinated by magical realism in literature, and the work of painters like Remedios Varo.  Varo’s work, in particular, strikes me as emerging from the realm of the fantastic rather than the surreal.  The last poem in Doubters and Dreamers, titled “Somnambulista,” employs a dark palette and images suggested by Varo’s work, something like she might do if she were writing.  But it’s odd, because I was constructing this poem from a faint recollection of that artist’s oeuvre; it’s not that I sought access to it.  But somewhere in memory, I had a glimmer of a world that could be like a dream world. 

I’m fascinated, too, by sleepwalking—not that I have ever done this—but with the idea that if one could walk in one’s sleep and go out in the world, one would see a dreamscape, something like the real world, but more nebulous.  So I imagined such a walk through a city.  Sleep makes the walker light, almost like a soul, so much so that she or he does not disturb the drowsing birds and the “natural” world does not feel threatened by his or her presence.

My dad died when I was living in Tucson—we moved there from Portland so I could return to school and study for a Master’s degree in Library Science (though I have a Ph.D. in English).  I wrote “Somnambulista” in Tucson, and later, when we had moved to Colorado Springs so I could teach at UCCS, it occurred to me that perhaps this poem was about or for my dad.  I had written elegies about losing my mom, but not about my dad’s passing.  The sleepwalker enjoys a kind of freedom she or he does not feel in daily life, but the city opens in a new way for one who sees it as a dream.  My dad experienced cruelty as a young person, but I think (and hope) there was for him somewhere the heart’s “unreasoning support.” 

Not all poetry reflects a kind of mystical experience, but certainly there is a tradition of poetry meant to relay, depict, and/or explore dimensions of the mystical.

Not all poetry reflects a kind of mystical experience, but certainly there is a tradition of poetry meant to relay, depict, and/or explore dimensions of the mystical.  In that kind of poetry, the poet accepts that some things in life cannot be rationally explained, that some experiences arise out of a mystery, and that this can transform us inwardly in a profound way.  “Somnambulista” has elements of the mystical about it, as do some of my other poems.  I like to believe that there are other dimensions of experience (reality) that are non-ordinary.  The imagination allows us to enter those realms, to walk through them, observing and learning, acquiring a different knowledge.  It seems to me that some forms of poetry, just as some forms of prayer, can help us “access” these other realms of knowing, another epistemology.  This may enlarge our capacity to feel and understand a wide range of experience.  Imagination is important to us as human beings because it is central to helping us develop compassion, which, to my mind is an element of Eros, an energy that connects us, that creates a sense of relatedness and relationship.  In the western world, we have a poorly developed sense of relationship and connection to the natural world and the world of the spirits.  We channel Eros primarily through sexuality, (perhaps because our access to what is natural and wild is so limited these days, and we are suspicious of the untamed, especially what may be untamed within ourselves).  But Eros is larger than that.  Perhaps one reason people turn to verse is because poetry can sometimes help us find a way back to that deeper and earlier sense of being linked to one another, and to the powerful and ultimately loving (and forgiving) presence of the earth, our mother.