The Colorado Poet, #25, Winter 2013-2014

Interview: Wayne Gilbert
from the ashes

Bob King:  My wife remarked, when she saw the back-cover photo on from the ashes “He looks like a preacher.” “Funny, you should say that,” I replied, mentioning you were educated for the Christian ministry although, as you wrote, you “long ago gave up formal religion of any kind.”

I mention this because there are certainly lots of references to Biblical literature, most frequently the Psalms. We can get to your ideas in a minute but I want to ask if you see a connection between preaching, or Biblical or ministerial rhythms in your own style, unique as it is? Or how did you develop this style and how would you characterize it?

Wayne GilbertWayne Gilbert: I grew up in what used to be called the “mainstream” protestant church.  The hymns, sermons, bible readings and litanies of Christian worship are part of my brain chemistry and in my heartbeats.  I love their rhythms, their imagery, and their passion.  I believe they are primal.  The Psalms, in particular, are just ancient Hebrew blues! 

I’ve always been a kind of preacher-man.  The sermon is a powerful and effective educational tool, and it was my introduction to both “voice” and “word,” in the most spiritual and literary senses.  A sermon is rich in language and emotion, rhythm and pace, imagery and meaning.  The best ones were always a transformative journey. 

When I first heard Walt Whitman, I knew I had found the first, truly original American Soul Man who could preach up a storm.  His ecstatic spirit took me even further than the best preachers I’d ever heard, and awakened the righteous mystic in me.  Walt was also the first jazz poet! 

Walt was also the first jazz poet!

When I began to listen to jazz in my late 40’s, especially avant-garde free-jazz, I found the same edgy ecstasy—and it carried me away. 

When I finally decided to “go public” with my poetry (not until I was 50 years old), it was with what I called my “jazz” poems written under the influence of Miles Davis (especially “Kind of Blue” and “Bitch’s Brew”), and I looked for months to find an improvising musician who would/could work with me in the ways I “heard” my poems.  I did not want “accompaniment.”  I wanted the poem to be an instrument in the band like any other instrument, and I wanted it to change and grow exactly the way music did in a jazz group.  I found Charles Rourke, multi-instrumentalist, master saxophonist, and all-round brilliantly creative artist.  We cooked together for several years.

Most people miss this religious aspect of my work, even though it is not subtle nor even discrete.

Most people miss this religious aspect of my work, even though it is not subtle nor even discrete.  People always comment on my dynamic performance style.  I’m just preachin’ it, bruthuh!  That’s all. 

I want to make clear I am not religious!  Still, my Christian upbringing and education are quite meaningful, if in ways it was not intended to be. 

BK: One characteristic of your style is the use of jam-packed phrases, sometimes adjectival (“This was not cheap grace tv Hollywood pop-culture tear-jerker fare”) and sometimes to give us  all the words involved in an action (“She insists then pleads commands prays”) and sometimes to fully list what you mean (“my heart has nothing to do with aortic integrity ventricular function average blood pressure adequate pulse nothing to do with delivering oxygen vital nutrients to distant body parts carrying waste away…” I imagine from such single lines, and I’ve heard other people say, that you’re a good reader of your own work. Does this style come from an emphasis on oral performance? I also hear a tone of, say, Ginsberg, or that kind of excited extension of the line.

WG: Each of my publishers has complained about the length of my lines, and they have had to work hard to break my long lines into printable ones.  Haha!  To be honest, I HATE comparisons to the Beats.  It usually feels like a way of discounting what I’m up to and invites finger-snapping (ugh).  We have many common influences, but I did not read them much until I was already performing my own work. 

My long-lines come from listening to free-jazz saxophonists.  Sun Ra is a major influence on my work—and Fred Anderson.  My main literary influence is Walt Whitman, of course, but also hearing Amiri Baraka and Quincy Troupe.  I re-read Walt regularly. 

To be honest, I HATE comparisons to the Beats.

I’m also fascinated by free-association and the flow of consciousness and unconsciousness.  I love how certain words can be connected to other words and objects and even planets—it’s a conjuring act.  I think of my poems and the performance of them as a kind of shamanism.  Poem and performance are linked inextricably to me.  And imagery is vital, too.  As a result, every word is a sound and a picture, an audio pictograph or petro-glyph—and each is interlocked and inner-linked with thousands and thousands of others.  I love to watch them play!

Finally, one last shamanic ingredient!  For me, all this is no mere intellectual literary post-modern theoretical experimentalist manifesto.  It’s all loaded with emotion—and I hope to shake the reader/listener in some way.  If I get too far out there, I listen to the blues to bring myself back! 

BK: Now to the subject matter, which focuses on feelings and events before and after your mother’s death These poems are certainly not sentimental but, after going through the negative and at times heart-rending situations and events, you do end up on the side of love and if not life after death, certainly love after death. What was your own emotional experience while writing these poems?

WG: I was shocked these poems found an audience!  They were part of my personal and private bereavement.  At first, they were simply my own way of expressing my grief and making some kind of meaning of that pain.  I know creative expression is transformative and healing, but I just thought all the poems I wrote in that first year following her death were too particular to my own experience!  Then I shared one, and then another.  And the response was overwhelming!  “A Walk with Mom” is now one of my “greatest hits,” and most requested poem.  I am so pleased and proud that they speak to the pain of so many.  Loss is, of course, the most prevalent theme of this life, so it isn’t really surprising.  Nevertheless, I was surprised. I think of this book as a collection of love songs.  Their anguish is real, but so is their beauty.  I love to share them, although it is still sometimes quite “emotional” for me to do so. 

Finally, these poems were a way for me to look back on my mother’s life, on our relationship, on my birth family’s history, and all the ways my Mom is part of me.  They’re a celebration, but it takes some courage to get through to that.  Maybe reader/listeners value that, too. 

BK: You’ve retired from full-time college teaching and you’re very active in wriing and performing your own work, but you also lead workshops on some of the same topics as this book: grieving, healing, living with pain, and writing as spiritual practice. How does your work in these areas interact with or influence your writing, and vice versa?

WG: I wish I did more of this kind of work.  I’m poised to do it, but have had few opportunities for it.  I’m a lousy marketer.  I am quite serious, however, about the healing powers of poetry, and meticulously plan each and every “set” for each and every performance to promote maximum healing! 

I am quite serious, however, about the healing powers of poetry.

I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2005.  I take no medication and have very little to do with western medicine.  Writing, especially poetry, is an integral and essential part of my living with that disease (as well as a vegan diet, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, meditation and lots of naps).  P.D. is devastating, as you can imagine.  I am currently working on two performance projects that I hope to “take on the road” which will speak to anyone dealing with chronic and/or terminal diagnoses and their care-givers.  I have a collection of P.D. poems I’d love to find a publisher for, and hope to give more performances about living with loss and pain and disability.  

I’m also working on a collection of Magma-Elder Poems about aging well, rather than just getting old! 

BK: I didn’t get to interview you about your Magma Mystic that came out in 2011 from Rogue Press but are there differences between this book and that? And where did your sobriquet “Magmapoet” come from?

WG: The poems in that little chapbook are a hodge-podge of poems that I selected because I thought they showed off my range.  They are also poems I absolutely love! 

I’ve always said I started writing because I didn’t know how else to know all that churned and burned, swirled and whirled within me.

Magmapoet?  I was vacationing on the Big Island of Hawaii late 1999, just before the turn of the millennium, and hiked all around the active volcano there.  I’d always said I started writing because I didn’t know how else to know all that churned and burned, swirled and whirled within me.  I’m a 60-some year-old white man, which means I was taught nothing about any emotion but anger, so writing helped me learn about feelings.  When I saw magma belching into lava-flows, I saw the perfect metaphor for how writing had always felt to me.  Also, I felt like I was a witness to Genesis, and hope my poems came from such a raw, honest, and deep place.  When Magma Mystic was published, I decided to take on that name instead—and gave it to my website as well.