Gary, after publishing a number of collections of poetry with relatively small, independent presses (Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps, David Robert Books, 2008, The Velocity of Dust, Salmon/Dufour Editions, 2004, After the Drowning, Finishing Line Press, A Cool, Dry Place, White Eagle Coffee Store Press, and Walking Back to Providence, Sow's Ear Press), your latest volume, A Glossary of Chickens, was recently selected by Paul Muldoon for the resurrected Princeton University Press Contemporary Poets Series. First, congratulations! Second, how are you feeling about it all? I mean, it’s a series that has produced books like Alicia Ostriker’s A Woman Under the Surface: Poems and Prose Poems, Jorie Graham’s Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Kathleen Graber’s The Eternal City, and two volumes by Robert Pinsky, An Explanation of America and Sadness and Happiness, among others. I imagine there must be something like a sense that you’re turning an important corner in your life as a poet.
I sometimes feel a bit like a stowaway on a ship, like I’ve sneaked onboard without having paid passage. Then I remember that I’ve been writing poems for almost a quarter of a century. Still, there’s this fear of being discovered. What if I get thrown off? The poem that opens the manuscript, though that may change before it goes to press, explores this idea a bit, and the kind of insecurity any writer must feel in having his or her work go off into the world. In the tradition of Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book” or Dickinson’s “This Is My Letter to the World,” the opening poem, entitled “Oyster,” is a kind of pep talk to myself and to the collection. However daunting, I guess I’ll be taking deck passage on this next journey, feeling whatever storm, whatever sea-sickness might come my way.
What is it about your work that you think attracts Muldoon to your work? Other than choose A Glossary of Chickens for the Princeton series, he has published two or three of your poems in The New Yorker.
Paul has published two of my poems in The New Yorker, and I’ve often wondered what it is in the two poems that he liked, since the two are so different. He has eclectic taste, and must have a vision of what the magazine should present to readers each week. Something in my two poems must have met his criteria for what makes a good New Yorker piece. If I had to guess, though, I’d say he likes the rhetorical strategies in my work—attention I pay to how a poem might sound and to the images, diction and figurative language that I help my poems to find. Paul also seems to appreciate an acknowledgment or a subversion of form, an awareness that a poem is part of a tradition. Though the two poems he published in the magazine don’t necessarily do either, some of the poems in the PUP manuscript do. For instance, there’s a crown of miniature sonnets. And a handful of other poems in the collection employ rhyme or slant rhyme.
Of the poems that appear in this month’s edition of the Congeries, I’m particularly fond of “Biding Time in an Open Boat.” Of course, this is at least partially true because it comes out of a poetry assignment I gave to students several weeks ago at my old high school, Clarkstown High School North in New City, NY. I was there to participate in Sticky Notes Day, a day when a variety of students from Clarkstown North, as well as from several other nearby high schools, get together to celebrate creative writing. It was both a surprise and delight to learn that you were there for it, too! We’ve sort of known each other from afar for many years, but I had no idea that you lived in my old stomping grounds or that you taught high school at Tenafly High, just across the border in New Jersey. Anyway, you sat in on one of my workshop sessions, and it was then that I introduced to the world a new form I had invented the day before, the Personnetelle. I provided a lame example I had written the night before, but I was thrilled to receive an email from you a week or so later that contained history’s first GOOD example of the Personnetelle. What can you say about the poem, the form, and how content and form came together?
I’ve always loved the challenge of a poetry workshop prompt, however bad the result often is for me. I use writing prompts in my own teaching. I like to think of them as ways to start writers writing, but where they go with it is part of the process of discovery and creation. I encourage my students not to stick to my prompts too closely. Your invented form appealed to me because it was a blend of the sonnet and the villanelle, and it also demanded a narrative and an invented voice. I think I wrote the subjunctive first line before thinking of the whale ship Essex, which was sunk by a whale in the Pacific in 1820. Then I decided to write from the point of view of one of the survivors. That story has fascinated me since I studied Moby Dick in a National Endowment for the Humanities Institute and afterward read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. My poem, like his book, asks the reader to consider what it might be like to know you’re going to have to resort to cannibalism.
I surely cannot name another poet of note who teaches high school. It’s an extraordinarily demanding job and not one that allows for a great deal of artistic time or that particularly encourages much in the way of an outside artistic life for its teachers. Or maybe I’m wrong. How is it to be a high school English teacher and a poet?
I remember the fine poet Rhina Espaillat admonishing me about pursuing a career teaching high school English when I first started teaching fifteen years ago. She had taught for many years in the New York City public school system, and she said that it had robbed her of a poetry career, that only in retirement had she found the needed time to immerse herself in poetry. Admittedly, it’s been a challenge. Maybe this is why I’ve not found a wider readership sooner. I know I frequently resent the job because I don’t have time to think, to read, to write. Then again, I spend every day thinking and reading, and if not writing, then trying to teach kids how to write. Teaching English and creative writing in a good school, I’m still immersed in poetry more than I would be if, say, I sold insurance or drove a forklift or practiced law. I’ve managed to eke out poems in the little time I’ve been able to make, and there is always July and August.
But you don’t stop at poetry. You are also, in fact, a cruciverbalist with crossword puzzles have been published in The New York Sun, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the Mecca, The New York Times. How did you get into this field? The first name most crossword enthusiasts probably think of is Will Shortz. I can’t imagine that the world of cruciverbalists is very big. Do you and Shortz, like, hang out or anything? Are there conventions or parties? Does your skill as a poet translate into something useful as a crossword puzzle maker? Or, vice versa?
Making a crossword and writing a poem aren’t all that different, if you think about it. Both involve swimming in words, piecing together a structure, making lines with language. I got into crossword construction about eight years ago. I’d been solving them on my free periods in the English office at Tenafly High School with my colleague, Stan Flood, and I got hooked. But I’m usually not content to just be a passive participant, so one day, I said to Stan, “I’m going to make a crossword. How hard can it be?” Of course, I made all the classic mistakes—two-word answers, unchecked letters, obscure vocabulary. I submitted my puzzles to Will Shortz, who very kindly replied and pointed out the errors I’d made. He sent me the guidelines, and I tried again. And again. And again. Then I sent some puzzles to Peter Gordon, an extraordinary puzzle maker and then crossword editor of The New York Sun, a small city paper now defunct. Peter published my first two puzzles, both of which I’m still pretty proud. After many rejections, I finally landed one in The New York Times in early 2006. I remember how good it felt to walk into a Starbucks on the Upper East Side on the day my puzzle came out and to see a man sitting at a table and solving my puzzle. “How’s the puzzle today?” I asked him. “I’m doing pretty well,” he said. I told him I’d constructed it. “Are you Will Shortz?” he asked. I think I’ve had ten or eleven puzzles in the Times, and others in The L.A. Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Games magazine. I’ve joked with friends that it pays more than poetry and has a wider audience. Sad truths. When the documentary Word Play came out, I was thrilled to think that Bill Clinton or Jon Stewart or Natalie Portman might be solving my puzzle. I felt a bit the way a poet might by having a poem come out in The New Yorker. I’ve met Will Shortz on several occasions, helping out with running the annual Westchester Crossword Tournament. The first time I met Will, he invited me to join some other constructors at his home in Pleasantville, and he was kind enough to show us his extensive collection of crossword memorabilia. I’ve wanted to play Will in table tennis, his other passion, but that hasn’t happened yet. I probably won’t score a single point anyway. I hear he’s good.
As if this still wasn’t enough, you are also a painter who typically works in oils. I can certainly understand how the visual and textural elements of painting are transferrable to the page—indeed the influence of painting on poetry has been well-documented—, but I’m curious about how you decide that, okay, today it will be painting and this subject matter and tomorrow it will be poetry and this other subject matter. Is there any formula? Is there a particular sort of subject that you feel is better considered under the lens of the poet rather than the lens of the painter?
I enjoy the meditative quality of painting. Like most of my other pursuits, it’s something solitary that I can get lost in for hours. The urge to paint comes and goes. Most often, it comes after a museum visit. There’s really no schedule. If I’m in a mood to paint and have the time, I’ll paint. I often work from some reference material, too, usually a photograph I’ve taken, found or manipulated, so if I shoot something or find something interesting, it spurs me to set up the easel. I’ve done very little painting en plein air, mostly because it’s harder and I can’t bring my dog along.
Like one of our previous contributors, Keetje Kuipers, you, in 2004, were the recipient of the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency Award and spent April through October, 2005 in a secluded cabin in the woods of southwestern Oregon. Please tell us about that experience and how it may have influenced your work.
This question might best be answered by reading my essay, “A Heaven I Knew Once,” in the 2012 issue of The Chautauqua Journal, due out any day now. I wrote that piece at the tail-end of my stay in the remote cabin, and it details my time there. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to reside at this unique writing residency, and I recommend it for anyone with an appetite for solitude and a big dose of nature. The solitude was trying at times, especially in the heat of summer, but I had the company of my dog and the characters in many books. While living and writing at the cabin, I read some formal poets, among them Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur, and I wrote a good deal of formally structured poems. I think I came to realize that I need not always write that way, that open forms encourage the departure from artifice I seem to be straining toward. It was also an opportunity to let loose the divorce poems that were waiting inside me and to realize that—after disastrous events like Hurricane Katrina and the London transit bombings, the occurrence of which I was unaware at the time they were happening—my own wounds were negligible.
Summer break is almost here. How is Gary J. Whitehead—poet, cruciverbalist, painter, high school teacher, etc.—going to spend those precious weeks?
I have my garden in, so I’m looking forward to salads. With any luck, I’ll write some poems, hit upon a good puzzle theme, make a painting. I’m planning a trip to Paris with my wife, Betsy. And, whenever possible, naps. Short ones.
That looking forward—from bloom of youth
to wilt of death—must have, indeed, tapered,
yawning widely at the start with breath
pushed past another’s tongue, must
of tousled sheets on an imagined marriage bed.
Narrowing then, but not much,
with slapping of small feet on a stone floor,
with grins of syrup on a table of oak.
Within this mise-en-scene neither a stern look
nor a raised hand, neither the grunting weight
nor the plume of a huge cigar. A gathering
and focusing of the light of many days.
And all that time ahead like a tremendous
heaviness she could not yet feel,
the irritant necessary to make a pearl,
years in the darkness. Or did she know already
that marriage is a lens-bent search for distant objects,
their apparent brightness, nacreous and iridescent,
and that, rising to his requirement,
she’d be looking through a spyglass backwards?
Owl Pellet I Show My Students
A gray loaf full of tiny bones,
a curious present on the park road,
like something a car drove over—
once mouse or mole but now
a skeleton sewed into one
No more than half an ounce,
this used-to-be whiskered skitterer,
who once engaged in noctural pleasure.
Not so unlike you,
reckless, reckless youth:
scapula, fibula, tibia.
What is it that surrounds all your bones?
In truth, I cannot say,
just as I cannot say
what will one day gulp you down whole,
my soft little mousies, my tender moles.
In a flock on Market
just below Union Square,
the last to land
and standing a little canted,
it teetered—I want to say now
though it’s hardly true—
like Ahab toward the starboard
and regarded me
with blood-red eyes.
We all lose something,
though that day I hadn’t lost
a thing. I saw in that sad bird
no antipathy or envy or vengeance.
It needed no pity, but just a crumb,
something to hop toward.
Biding Time in an Open Boat
If, in the end, we walk on land again
beneath the shade of maples, the sun
no longer punishing, we might forgive
ourselves for what we soon will do—
a thing unspeakable but spoken
still in the open boat of one's own
hunger. Ship-stove, sun-blistered,
sea-sick and starved, we drift in this
Pacific. Sharks, dolphins, pilot fish.
No hook and no harpoon. We will soon
do a thing unspeakable, though our wild eyes,
alight with sun or moon, whisper
to salted flesh the whispered deaths
of you, of me. How do I look to you,
who, like me, swoons to feel his belly full?
We will soon do a thing unspeakable.