Writing Poetry And Investigating The World With Poet Eileen G’Sell

 In Culture, Feature

“Enough will be the lot you inherit/ Less will be the branch at your feet,” writes poet Eileen G’Sell, also an ALIVE contributor, in the poem “The Lonely Art Of Collecting Olives.” The poem appears in her first book of poetry, “Life After Rugby,” released this year by Gold Wake Press.

“The art of collecting olives refers to the aesthetic impulse of feeling lonely and creative at the same time—kind of like the act itself of writing poetry. It’s definitely one of my more meta poems,” says G’Sell during an interview over a pot of coffee in St. Louis at The London Tea Room in the Tower Grove South neighborhood. “In that line, about the ‘lot you inherit and the branch at your feet,’ I was thinking about how I never think I have enough; I always want more—always. So these are the kinds of adages I tell myself: ‘enough will be the lot you inherit.’”

Composed of poems gathered over the years of G’Sell’s work, the pieces tackle much of the human experience: existentialism, excitement, pain, romance and the journey of coming to know oneself. “I wrote these poems for the beauty, hopefully, and for the language of them. But also grappling with different parts of life and trying to tell myself things that would help me get through them,” she says.

To feel a little less lonely and a little more connected to your creative self, purchase a copy of the book at GoldWakePress.com and get inspired.

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The cover depicts a black-and-white image of a ballerina layered with the title, “Life After Rugby,” over the top. How did those choices create a sufficient umbrella under which the work could live?
There are so many themes circulating throughout the book. One of the challenges was to think of a way to make the themes cohere. There are love poems in the book, poems I wrote about matters of faith, traveling and social experiences that honor the itinerant life I lived in my 20s.

As a theme, one of the things that was surfacing again and again—maybe even polyphonically—is this idea of different voices. I feel like I have, as a human being and as a thinker and a writer, an interest in both the hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine voices, meaning an appreciation for that grit, ruggedness, confrontation and aggression, but also an appreciation for the most elegant detail, and the history of femininity in cinema, in dance, fashion and all sorts of performing arts.

As a title, I thought “Life After Rugby” could have a lot of power in its pithiness when conflated with an image of some type of classical ballerina in a situation of danger or risk. Something that conveyed how brutal and tough ballet is, and how strong this dancer is. I played around with maybe half a dozen titles to thematically anchor the book, and that’s ultimately what I decided on.

Tell me about this first poem, “Follow The Girl In The Red Boots.” What was your thought process behind this poem, and what led you to put it first?
Originally I wrote this poem because, frankly, I like red boots. And I was thinking of different images of myself in my life that felt pivotal. I wrote it hoping that someone would read it, obviously, but I wasn’t writing it thinking, ‘This will be a guide map for my first poetry book.’ I wrote it more thinking, ‘This is a guide map for myself.’ I was thinking, what memories do I have of myself when I was at my strongest?

About eight years ago I went to Ireland over spring break. I just went by myself, and I’d never been before. I had this amazing pair of red snow boots, and I wore them the entire time I was there. It was of a memory of myself when I was feeling really fearless, mobile and hopeful. I wrote it to remind myself to follow the girl with the red boots. You have that person in you. It ended up being the best poem—I hope—to orient the reader in a certain way.

I was also playing with quatrains, which are really big in this book. Form is always really important for me. In certain cases, the stanza itself calls attention to itself formally. So in this poem, even though it doesn’t rhyme and it’s not necessarily metered, the variation of the final line in each quatrain was conscious. I don’t think I have any other poems that are necessarily this rigorous in terms of repetition. But I decided to put this poem first because it’s not didactic in a literal sense. I felt like it could be read as kind of an instruction guideline for readers for what to expect in the pages to come.

To really break it down, the next line in the poem is, “This place is weird, sexless and white.” What are you getting at there?
That’s a way of calling attention to my own background. People don’t necessarily see these themes in the book of class and race—and they are subtle, but they’re there. I am from a conservative Midwestern Catholic background where many of my childhood experiences were very prohibitive, particularly around sexuality. Anything sexual that came up was really hushed and avoided. Like if a Heart song from the ’80s came on and the lyrics were like, “All I wanna do is make love to you” or something like that, it was turned off immediately [laughs].

I was very attuned to that: that anything with sexual content was really consciously—and in the case of radio, literally—dialed down. I began realizing, ‘This is weird.’ That was not normal, in a lot of ways. It might be the default for certain communities, but it’s not actually normal. It signified the realization, for me, of growing up in a community where I really didn’t feel like I fit in in a lot of key ways. So that’s a very literal line, but can mean a lot of different things to different people.

The speaker seems to really be wrestling with that repression, because sexuality is a part of being human. And as we move through the poem, we get introduced to more sensual imagery.
Exactly. And the poems that follow are not oriented in any type of chronology as far as when they were written. I like the fact that a reader actually doesn’t know at which phase of my life they were written. But I know. The ones that are grappling with sexuality are more from my 20s and early 30s, because—I think the more I was out in the world and the more I thought about myself as someone with power and less afraid of resisting that, I became more open to creating a life that isn’t necessarily dictated by heteronormative standards of a nuclear family. I began questioning that default.

What other kinds of themes do the poems explore?
Hmm. Some of the poems are deliberating on the difference between being Type A and very logical and more left-brained versus being more right brained, spontaneous and creative. I’ve gone back and forth between those two ways of thinking. Empiricism appears a lot; logic appears a lot. There’s language related to the act of reasoning, which I like. I like having language that alludes to different parts of how I’ve thought.

It also explores the complicated relationship between capitalism, enterprising and competition. Instinctively, I am an extremely competitive person, and I kind of love the idea of a survival of the fittest. The whole rat-race idea is a huge turn-on, but it’s also kind of disgusting. I can see it for what it is: something that enervates the human population, and also strips people of their identities. But there’s something about the process of working hard and meritocracy and competition that has always been very seductive to me. That’s something I’m questioning in the poems, and acknowledging that I’m also a part of it.

There’s one called “I Like That You Don’t Care About Money,” which is a prose poem that’s really true to me. Because I actually am really good with money. On one hand, I’m really proud of that, and on the other hand I think, ‘Ugh.’ But why not write a poem about it? There’s a lot about that vacillation between the interior and exterior: what do I love about myself? What do I loathe about myself? And then thinking about how that relates to the public and the exterior, and how that relates to going from the deeply interior to the very macro.

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How did that process of questioning defaults evolve for you and manifest in your work?
I grew up with what is really, in some ways, a fantastic moral anchor and a firm sense of right and wrong. Much of what I grew up with I completely represent to this day. But in terms of sexuality, in terms of thinking about the larger network of power in the United States, structural violence—even knowing what that is, or acknowledging that it exists—that’s where I’ve really drifted and chosen something else.

It’s been a life-long process of questioning, ‘Why is this normal?’ Like the hyper-masculine versus hyper-feminine dichotomy. Why is it that a boxer comes across as so tough, and a ballerina comes across as dainty when in fact, pound for pound, she’s just as strong, if not stronger? How do we aestheticize violence? How is violence also a part of what we enjoy aesthetically? (Because, I think, it is). If something seems really soft and sweet, where is the hard edge? Where’s the dark thread going through it? For something that might seem hyper-masculine (I have a poem called “Ode to Clint Eastwood” and one called “Ode to Taxi Driver,” for example) what aspects of those archetypes are vulnerable?

How do these poems tackle your thoughts on religion?
A lot of my poems bring up heaven. Being raised in a religious household, heaven was described as the literal place we were going to go. Forever. So heaven was something I spent a lot of time imagining as a child, and it kind of freaked me out. I just kept thinking, “I can’t imagine any place so wonderful that I would want to stay there forever.” I was always thinking about how to get out of wherever I was. I’m a very peripatetic person, and I just remember thinking that everything about it sounded horrible. I thought, “Where have I been happiest? Probably at Chuck E. Cheese’s or ShowBiz Pizza. But what if I was at Chuck E. Cheese’s forever?” I couldn’t even imagine. So it’s playing with this idea of eternity. And I don’t do any of this consciously. I don’t think, “I’m going to write a poem that deliberates my relationship to heaven,” [laughs]. It just shows up.

Are you religious today?
No. I describe myself as an optimistic agnostic. By which I mean I don’t really believe—I don’t have a strong faith in a traditionally conceived higher power. But at the same time, I don’t feel like I don’t believe. And I don’t feel a sense of contempt or derision, or even confusion around people who have great faith. There are some spiritual people I really like being around, because I feel more at home with them and their approach to the world than someone who’s like, “There absolutely is no God.” That’s a dogma of its own that can swallow a life and make you an asshole.

There’s a great quote from Emily Dickinson that’s something to the effect of the fact that she would rather her life end in a question mark than a period. As somebody who’s so invested in punctuation, that has always appealed to me. I would rather live my life asking questions and being open than shutting things down and being like, ‘This is what is.’

I do believe in a sense of grace, of human beings rising about their own instincts. But I don’t know if I’d call that God. Some people call that God. But I think readers of faith can take things from the poems and not feel excluded, as well as those who are happily agnostic.

I’ve noticed you also pair really specific images with larger topics, like in “The Lonely Art Of Collecting Olives” we discussed earlier. Can you speak to that?
I’m a very independent person, but I also love being around crowds of people. I’m a raconteur and kind of a ham. And there are also times in my life, like the summer I turned 25, when I went to Berlin to see art and explore the universe, by myself. It was great that I did that, but I was also extremely lonely. And thinking about different types of loneliness is a way of intellectualizing a painful emotion.

There’s a line in the poem about Mike Tyson poem that says, “freedom is only lonely if you let it be.” It’s alluding to the idea that freedom can be lonely, but it’s also a choice. Which, I don’t know if that’s actually true. I don’t think we can necessarily control if we feel lonely. It’s almost wishful thinking, to think it’s a choice. It’s not that the poem is a lie, but it’s ruminating on how certain emotions can be navigated. It might even be empowering, in some way. You might look back at the loneliest time of your life and think, “That was the time I was most myself.” Or, “I was lonely, but I took the most risks.”

Cover image photo courtesy of Dan Gold.

All other images courtesy of Eileen G’Sell.

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