Nimrod has published quite a few of your poems, and many of those are ekphrastic or use art as a frame for the poem. What is it about visual art that so often draws you back to it as inspiration?
Art and photography are my second loves, next to poetry and prose. The colors, the texture, the juxtaposition, the intricacy. When I see how the Old Masters could paint lace, I am in awe. I’m not a nature poet, but I am able to get some nature in my poems when I write about the Impressionists. I never thought I could write about lilacs, roses, numerous flowers. Their beauty inspires me. I knew why they inspired Monet when I went to Giverny. As for photography, I am most fond of the human face, and all it tells about joy, sadness, hard work, grief, war.
Do you have favorite artists or artistic periods when it comes to finding inspiration for poetry?
I love the Impressionists most of all, but I also like the Post-Impressionists, the Old Masters, and the Abstract Expressionists. My last full-length poetry book was about the work and lives of Van Gogh and Monet, titled The Braided Light. I did extensive research. Earlier on, I was happy to come across a book of children’s art titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” with drawings and paintings by the children who were interned at Terezin Concentration Camp. I did a chapbook based on that artwork, and those poems were later included in a full-length collection with poems about art, sculpture, and photo-journalism.
What’s your writing process like?
I tend to carry ideas in my head for a while, rather than rush to write them down. At times, I have whole poems in my head, which is scary now as I age. I do first drafts in longhand, and then head to the computer. I look at the poem daily for a while to see what might need to be changed. When I am satisfied, I take copies to my workshop group. At times I’ve nailed it, but often, not. I rely on the group’s knowledge.
What is your tactic for revising and refining a poem, usually?
I don’t usually do numerous revisions. There are times my group has suggested minor word changes, and sometimes the poem doesn’t work at all. I haven’t gotten to the heart of what I wanted to say, a lack of focus. Some poems I try not to give up on, but this may mean placing them in a drawer for a long time. I may be able to salvage the entire poem, or only a line or two. The more emotion I have invested in the poem, the harder I work to save it. And I just finished a poem I worked on for forty years! For whatever reason, I decided to title it “Aubade,” and then things fell into place. It was about the day my husband left for Vietnam.
What tips would you give to aspiring writers?
Read constantly. Take some classes in creative writing, perhaps Adult Education. Be willing to have your work critiqued by people you trust. Be willing to revise. If you read your work in public, practice reading, have your work organized before you start reading. If you take your reading seriously, others will.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Big question. Some of the poets I return to over and over are Stanley Kunitz, Linda Gregg, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Alberto Rios, Sherod Santos, and Claudia Emerson. I like to support alumni from the Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program, so I buy their books.
What are you working on now?
My past few books have been ekphrastic except for a chapbook about my mother’s life and her death. It has been strange to wait for a bit of inspiration rather than have a book on my coffee table I can go to and find an image I can write about. I did some work on family photographs but got stuck. I plan to go back to that, as there’s a built-in narrative, but I’m trying not to repeat myself. I am stubborn and don’t give up easily—being a Capricorn helps.
Postcard, France, 1960 (Circulatory Systems: Current and Connection, Spring 2015)
One cat plays a harp,
another holds the music.
Cat 3 has died of happiness
stretched across the floor.
I name him Champagne.
Diana writes to Courtney—
“Thank you much Christmas,
fair, foul weather love,”
as if a cost for every word.
“Don’t leave Tangier without
giving me a chance of impeding
you with a hat I must have repeat of.”
I color the hat green,
attach three ostrich feathers.
It will sit atop Courtney’s
satin hair she brushes daily.
In Tangier it’s one of a kind,
but more suited to Diana
whose face she sees
each time she sticks
the hatpin in. Then
it all comes back—
the wound they never speak of.
Gail Peck is an award-winning poet who has published eight books of poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals.