The Bookshelf: Poet Rebecca Kaiser Gibson
The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features Rebecca Kaiser Gibson. The Marlborough, New Hampshire poet's new book of poems, Opinel, is named after a knife designed in the late 19th century. It seems fitting for a collection that cuts through the ordinary surface of the things and gets into what lies beneath. She'll be reading Saturday, September 19th at the New Hampshire Poetry Festival in Manchester. Take a listen to Gibson's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below her book picks.
Rebecca's Top 5 Book Recommendations:
1. Twenty Poems That Could Save America by Tony Hoagland. “Tony’s casual tour belies the breadth of his knowledge. Who else can so convincingly title an essay ‘Je SuisEin Americano’—an essay on the extraordinary variety of languages that are available in our experience and in our American idiom. His frames of reference could not be less pedantic, more contemporaneous or more stimulating. His embrace of our experience, all of it, not just what’s considered literary is more than refreshing, revolutionary.”
2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. “The precision of observation, the layers of careful construction not only in the maps and miniature cityscapes the father makes for his blind daughter, but the same precision in each gorgeous elaborate sentence made this book simply spell-binding.”
3. The Chapel by Michael Downing. “Such delight in the language and so jam-packed with witty observations playfully rendered that I teetered between wanting to linger and laugh and wanting to find out what happened next—all swiveling around the paintings by Giotto in the Arena Chapel.”
4. World Enough and Time by Christian McEwen. “Christian comes at the challenge of facing into the present and stopping our apparently endless drive to distract ourselves with a cornucopia of wide-ranging information that supports the case for gifts that come in the presence of the present.”
5. Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World by Jane Hirshfeld. “Hirshfeld manages to transform my experience of the poems she discusses by the steadiness of her study. For instance, her quest to find the window of a poem involves noticing how windows themselves work, how they open up from inside to outside, how they frame a scene, let in air, change the atmosphere, etc. Her approach is unusual and exhilarating.”
How did you come to name your book after the Opinel knife?
It was a little bit accidental. It was sort of—my first reason for naming it that was the sound of it. It just sounds wonderful. Opinel. Especially if you don’t associate much with it. But the more I thought about naming it that way, the more I thought it was right for my book. I realized, finally, that my book was in three parts. The little knife has a wooden casing. The blade fits in the wooden casing. Then there’s a hinge and the blade opens out. So it seems like my book was in three parts: the wooden casing of home, the hinge of moving out a little bit, and the blade of being out in the world and functioning, and suddenly all the poems fit into one of those three categories.
And I must confess I didn’t see—I mean, I was just reading for the pleasure of the poems, but if you know that about the Opinel, that adds an extra layer.
It added an extra layer for me, too, because it taught me how to make the book, which was pretty wonderful. I was really—it feels like a sort of talisman for me.
Well, we’d love to hear one of these.
How about “Useless Now”?
Victrolas, formica, mothballs in garment bags,
ball-gowns netted in silver thread, olive shoulders,
cigarette fingers in opals, our report cards,
locust shells, mimeography,
dinner menus scrawled in leather travel books,
whiffs of Chesterfield tobacco flakes,
hankies creased inside each purse,
prescription specs in cases. She’d posed
poolside, in a two-piece snakeskin print,
slouching ropey arms, and with local girls
who scowled beside some cart with urns.
She wore new suede jackets, Franck at Fils, her favorite.
The French perfume turned acidic.
Mice have gnawed the leather gloves.
She’d shed, or never knew regret.
When I lift the stiff ripped cloth
to finger the palomino leather I used to sit on
to help her shut its bulging,
mothballs clatter across the floor, scentless.
What inspired that one?
My mother. And the attic.
Cleaning out her things?
Yeah, all the things that seemed so important when we were growing up that lost their importance and faded and the sort of shrinking of her—she was a pretty overpowering person—into these things that just didn’t have that life anymore, and that I at least for now am living.
And I feel like even though it could sound like a mere list, it’s more than that. At least it was to me when I was reading it. Just the sound of those words together, and the way they were arranged on the page, but it seems like the emotion was just infused into this just by the order.
Is that what you were going for, or am I way off base?
That is what I was going for, but I was less conscious of it than maybe you were as you thought about it.
Well, it’s so hard to figure out what the reader’s going to see when you’re writing one of these things.
There’s lots of “ohs.”
Yeah. Victrolas, formica, mothballs—lots of sort of mournful.
It’s a mournful sound.
I wanted to ask you about your time in India. You’ve received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach India and you also teach at Tufts. How does it compare, teaching poetry in America and teaching it in India?
I decided ahead of time that I was going to try to do the exact same course at Tufts to see what happened. And what happened was fascinating. Partly even just talking to people, if I said I was teaching a poetry course, there was kind of what I thought was disbelief in their faces, because poets in general, in the general population, they’re dead. [Laughs] They’re someone you’ve memorized or heard about in your childhood life, and they’re epic, huge. Contemporary poetry is just sort of mindboggling as a concept for most of the people I talked to. And the way I saw it operate in the classroom was, well, first of all, the very first day, everyone in the room talked all at once. I’d been told ahead of time that people were trained not to speak in class, so you’re going to have to work hard to get conversation going, and the opposite experience happened to me. I had to slow them down because each one—they were completing each other’s sentences. So it was like a group effort. So it took me awhile to understand that this wasn’t happenstantial, this was a frame of mind that is collective. They have collective—even though these were all engineering students by chance, they have a collective memory of information about the mythic poems of their own past. So, when I’m trying in America, no problem with getting people to write about themselves. In fact, everyone is about individuation. “I’m different, and this is me.” Whereas there, it was, “I’m part of something and I barely show.” So the poems were much more sort of epic and historical witnessing, caring for the traumas of India and not about my life. So that was really interesting.
You said that Indian students tended to complete each other’s sentences, and that suggests to me there’s a lot of listening to one another. Did you find that same level of listening in American classrooms?
I guess not, exactly. People are busy trying to figure out what they want to say, more than they are trying to respond or to complete something else, to be part of someone else’s thought. But there are—I have to say, my students, especially by the end of the semester, are incredibly supportive of each other, not competitive. But it is a different kind of listening. That’s an interesting point.
So you’re going to read at the New Hampshire Poetry Festival. What can we expect to see you do?
I don’t know! I’m going to surprise myself.