Interview with Alice Gilborn

What’s the first poem that made you feel it belonged to or in Vermont?

alice_gilborn-smallIf I could pinpoint a particular poem that made me feel that it belonged to Vermont, it would be “Hands Deep,” about a moose that trotted out of the wetland behind our house in Mt. Tabor and across our yard. Although I’d lived in the Adirondacks for 28 years before moving to Vermont, I’d never seen a moose, only tracks once; they were rare, unlike black bears. Coming to Vermont was like sliding south from wilderness to rural, and sometimes there seemed to be little difference. “Hands Deep” was actually published in Blueline, a literary magazine that features writing about the Adirondacks. A second  “Vermont” poem was one I wrote not long after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 called “Apples and Stones” and published in Bloodroot.

From where do you think this notion of Vermont-ness arises?

My particular notion of Vermont-ness came at first from what I read and then what I noticed. Stories and poems described landscape, climate and community–and of course those Vermont icons, maple syrup, Holstein cows, and autumn colors. I realized, though, when we moved here, that Vermont was not necessarily represented by Vermont Life or the Vermont Country Store, nor was it the Vermont of John Gardener’s October Light or an Annie Proulx novel. Gentrification of small towns and villages often disguise poverty; behind a genteel second home sometimes lurks a trailer park. The hard bitten, independent native Vermonter has his or her counterpart in the native Adirondacker, even down to the accent, and indeed, many in the two regions came from the same Yankee stock. But there are differences in place; the Adirondacks seems isolated and wild; Vermont, lonely and pretty. The mountains are rounder here, towns more numerous, lakes fewer (if we don’t count Champlain), there are more farms, and more trees have leaves rather than needles. Just as many rocks. There’s a greater sense of community in Vermont than in the Adirondacks, probably because more people come from all over, though ethnic diversity is not a main feature of either place.

Does your experience of Vermont arise from anything that might be called “a tradition” of regional poetry? Can Vermont give claim to a “regional poetry”?

Vermont seems to have a tradition of regional poetry beginning with Robert Frost, but I’m sure there were poets before him who could qualify as regional poets. There are lots of poets in Vermont, and poets writing about its people, landscape, and events are certain to convey a sense of Vermont as a region. Sometimes the term “regional,” though, is a convenient way of organizing the literature of a certain piece of geography, the South epitomized by William Faulkner, or New England by Melville and Hawthorne. On the other hand, because a poet happens to live in a particular place, doesn’t mean he’s a poet of that place.

What the two volumes of Birchsong are attempting to do is to explore the very questions you ask: Is there a tradition of regional poetry and can Vermont claim one?

There’s that saying in Vermont: Just ’cause a cat has her kittens in the oven don’t make ’em biscuits. By this the old nativist means: Just ’cause you’re born in Vermont don’t make you a Vermonter. To which I’ve always responded: Just ’cause there’s a biscuit on the table don’t mean it come from your mother’s oven. But I suppose the same could be said for poetry. Just because a poem’s baked in Vermont, doesn’t make a biscuit. Some of what you’ve written goes some ways toward answering this next question, but what poems do you find yourself choosing from the many submitted?

At this point it’s too early to see a particular pattern or to display an editorial preference in our choices. Based on our experience with the first volume of Birchsong, however, we leaned toward poems with original imagery, not too abstract, and accessible to a variety of readers. We steered away from overly abstract, philosophical, edgy, academic and obscure poetry in favor of those poems that reflected nature (Vermont), situations, or character with new metaphors, whether lyric or narrative. All forms of poetry were welcome, whether free verse or formal, as long as poems were well written and had emotional appeal. One thing noticeable for its absence, though, was humor. I may be going off on a tangent, but I think the distinction between light verse and serious poetry is a false one; after all, poems all arise from the same source–human expression, or an attempt at it. The vehicle for this just happens to be a poem, whatever its form or intent.

As the manuscript began to take shape, we had to consider other things, such as balance, and this was tough when we had to throw out four perfectly fine poems about blue herons because we already had one perfectly fine poem about one. Then there was layout; sometimes it was necessary because of space to break a line, or to break it in a place where the poet did not intend. We always asked the permission to do this. A poem with each line centered created its own problems–it’s not to be encouraged. And there was always the decision about how much blank space we should leave. Could we devote a whole page (mostly blank) to two haikus by a single poet, when each page cost roughly $10.00 to print? Some journals print poems by different poets on one page–we didn’t want to do that. Choices were/are myriad.

Any thoughts on the late John Ashbery?

I really can’t say much about John Ashbery because I’ve read very few of his poems. Some lines resonated; others were a puzzle. I liked his mix of the homely and sophisticated.  As happens, his death makes me want to read more of his work, which I should have read when he was alive.

What then, are your feelings regarding trends in poetry? Are you satisfied with the current state? Status quo? Negatives? Positives?

It seems to me that poetry is already going in many directions and that’s good. More and more people are losing their bias and fear of reading it, and more and more poems are being written. If you don’t like them, there are others that mirror your preferences and experience.  At the moment, formal poetry and rhyming poetry are out of favor, though still available if you look hard enough (especially poems for children), and trends will change. Of course there’s a great range in quality, from bad to excellent. There seems to be an ample amount of confessional poetry, a trend perhaps started by Sylvia Plath, and many poems featuring the poet herself or himself as star attraction. These have been around for a good part of the 20th century and beyond, more of a school than a trend.

My suggestion to anyone wanting to write poetry, as well as to read it, is to find some poems using a traditional form, such as a sonnet or a villanelle, and write a poem in that form. After enough imitation, you’ll find your own voice and the style you’re comfortable with. Writing a poem is like building a boat–eventually you’ll have a finished vessel which you hope will float; you won’t see all the parts it’s made of, but you know that they’re there.

A trend to oral poetry is also good, I think; it goes back to its roots. I don’t have much experience with poetry slams or mixed media presentations, though they sound interesting. But I do think poetry should be read as well as heard. The best solution is to have both: the poem, and the poet reading it. Readers vary, however–they can be riveting, or they can be flat, overly dramatic, hard to hear, or inclined to stumble. Their written work is often a better representation of their skill than their spoken words.

Lastly, your thoughts on the current state of publishing? Internet vs. traditonal publications?

Judging from what I see at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, poetry in book form seems to be thriving. Many journals publish poetry (Poets and Writers prints periodic lists). There are also contests that offer cash prizes and publication though you must pay an entrance fee. It’s wise to research these. My observation, however, is that traditional literary magazines and small presses are in short supply in Vermont, thus Birchsong is trying to help fill the void. Internet publications help; the Vermont literary magazine Bloodroot, formerly a print journal, is now on line. Poetry published on the internet may have wider circulation than traditional publications, especially to a dedicated readership, but linking up an audience with the poems they want may be harder. You can always have a copy of a print publication on hand. My own preference is to read poems in traditional print form rather than on line because I don’t like looking at a screen–I enjoy the feel and heft of a magazine or book, turning pages at random, and putting it on a shelf where I can find it. But that may change.