BIOGRAPHYGayle Lauradunn is a long time and key figure in the Albuquerque writing community, particularly the poety community where she has just completed a two year tenure as Chair of the Albuquerque chapter of the New Mexico Poetry Society. Under her leadership, the membership increased dramatically. I first met her when I began my gradual relocation here in 2011. In Summer 2013, we both participated in a workshop with Louise Gluck at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Gayle workshoped several of the poems from Reaching for Air at that workshop, and they were well received. Until we all got too busy, Gayle and I were members of a five person poetry writing group. The following biography is from Gayle.
Gayle Lauradunn reinvents herself about every five to seven years. Along the way she was co-organizer of the first National Women's Poetry Festival, a 6-day event held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1974. While there she earned a doctorate based on her dissertation for which she used 20th Century American poetry to create a curriculum to teach high school students about race, class, and gender. She learned about the crossover of race and class while living in the poor Black ghetto in Nashville, Tennessee. For five years she participated in the editorial collective that published Chomo-Uri: A Women's Literary and Arts Journal.
After earning a B.A. in English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, she became a feature writer for a weekly newspaper, and over the next 20 years worked as a free-lance journalist. Her anti-Vietnam War activism led her to being the Executive Director of the Veterans Education Project, a group of Vietnam, Korean, and Desert Storm veterans who spoke to high school students about the realities of war and military service.
As a single parent, she travelled extensively with her son throughout the United States, camping, backpacking, white water rafting, exploring museums and historical sites. An avid traveller, she has been to all 50 states and more than 20 countries, Bhutan and Antarctica being her favorites to date.
Her poems have been published in numerous journals, anthologies, and online. The poem "Telling" has been included in numerous anthologies, most recently VEILS, HALOES & SHACKLES: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, published in Israel.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview. I have to say that I am just blown away by the poems in your book. After this, my 3rd reading I think I’m ready to ask some questions. Your book reads like a memoir, partly of a time forgotten by many in our affluent and urbanized society. In fact, for me, the stories the poems tell personalize, even as they recall, scenes from The Grapes of Wrath. Here are my questions to you as the poet.
Caroline: Would you speak about any autobiographical qualities of this book of poems? Do you regard it as a memoir in verse?
Gayle: Thank you for the opportunity to address some issues I hope the book raises for people. I did not think about it as a memoir until the publisher put it in the double categories of Poetry/Memoir. This caused me to look at the poems differently. Of course, they are memoir, but I didn't set out to write memoir. It had never occurred to me to write one because I didn't want to re-live the pain, the ugliness, the hatefulness of my childhood. The poems began at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference in July 1991 where I spent the week working with Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, C.K. Williams, and Sharon Olds. We were required to have a new poem every morning by 7 a.m. (which we learned after we arrived). I panicked as I had never written a poem a day. The house I shared with five other participants had three floors and the top floor had a balcony just big enough for one chair and a small table. I would sit there and look out across the valley to the mountains in the distance and let my mind go blank. An image, a vague memory, an incident would occur to me and I would write. Of the seven poems I wrote that week, four are in the book, two have been published in journals, and one I threw away.
Since my childhood is post-WWII, I've never thought to make a comparison to The Grapes of Wrath. In my mind, my family was not the Joads. But, of course, we were in many ways. However, I see your point and you've made me think about the comparisons. Which, actually, I prefer not to do.
After leaving Squaw I continued to write these poems over the next several years. What shocked me time after time was how each poem turned out, what each poem revealed to me. I realized that I had carried a burden all my life, that these images were constantly in my head and weighed on me. Since the book has been published, the burden has eased. Unfortunately, there are many more images; I could probably fill another book with such poems, and they occur to me frequently, but I need to move on to other content in my poetry so resist writing them.
Caroline: Some poems are written in first person, some in third. Would you say something about how you chose which voice to write in, and perhaps give us more insight into that choice by illustrating with a poem from each voice?
Gayle: I had to write in third person for the childhood poems as a means of gaining distance. It was much too painful to write them in first person with the exception of the few more light hearted ones. The adult voice is in first person because I had both time and geographical distance that allowed me to cope with the images. By the time these poems began, I had not been to Texas for 38 years and had been away from my family for 30 years, living 3,000 miles away in Massachusetts. A good example of a third person poem is:
On the porch of broken boards
the child arranges stones into patterns.
Inside her mother wanders
from room to room. She leaves
the house only to stand
on the porch. Rubs her hands.
With slow feet the child
enters. Dries the dishes,
flowers faded and chipped
as though ants had dined.
Watches the hands. Feels
the first sting on her cheek.
Feels the hard leather
on her legs. Long curls snatched
in the hand. She dances a high
jig against the belt.
Tears and pleas will break
the silence. She refuses.
There is no way I could have written this poem in first person. I was always told the slaps were love pats, and I was ridiculed for crying about them. The belt was almost an everyday occurrence. Hence, my desire to escape, to go find the sheep and rattlesnakes.
An example of a first person poem is "Heritage". It takes place more than 16 years after leaving home.
In the photograph my son and I stand
in Great-Great-Granddad's corn crib
built of poles glossy from years
of corn-husk polishing, ears fresh picked
to age for cattle feed, side by side
we face the camera, my arm across
his shoulder, my hand rests lightly there.
We stare beyond, as though to see the people
in sun-faded overalls walk the whispery
rows in west Texas heat, and I like to think,
in his child way, he understands what we do,
that he hears them call to each other
down the rows, that he brings their voices
with him into his music, those inward
songs children make of their world.
Since my family no longer lived in Texas and I would have no interference, I took my son who had just turned six to visit for the first time. He still remembers some things about the trip and tells me that these poems help him to recall other aspects. The poem "The Visit" reflects his ambivalence at the time. The focus of the trip was to show him locations and to let him know the contrast between the environment of my childhood and his in western Massachusetts. Also, I wanted him to meet his quite elderly great-grandparents since by then I could protect him from the harshness of my maternal grandmother.
Caroline: The poems in Reaching for Air do indeed leave one breathless in the way they portray the emotional brutality of grinding poverty and a confusingly duplicitous religious, yet cruel, outlook toward life—particularly from the child’s point of view. Roughly in what years are the poems set: for the young girl in the beginning of the book, for the adult returning with her son and to visit her aging grandparents?
Gayle: Most of the poems for the young girl are set in the late 1940s; those of the woman 30-35 years later.
Caroline: Travel, animals and imagination figure large in these narrative poems. They seem to offer a promise of relief and escape from the prison of poverty, drought, desert and sex-role expectations. Would you say that is an accurate perception, and if so, share your thoughts about it?
Gayle: Yes, I agree. I took every opportunity to go outside the house, to be on my own, anything to be away from my mother, and my father when he was not working. I was 13 when we moved to Seattle and that was definitely a culture shock: from rural to city, from my Texas twang to the Northwest dialect, from all white (and a few "Mexicans") schools to a school with a mix of African-Americans and Asians, very few of which I had ever seen before. And, worst of all, no space to walk in, no open sky, no horizon to look toward, and no wild animals to relate to. I felt hemmed in with the tall trees and mountains. And, worst of all, very little sunshine. My way of leaving the house was to become involved in many organizations and to sign up for every committee both at school and with various organizations such as Girl Scouts.
I don't know where it came from, but at that young age I desired, absolutely craved, something different. It was more a gut feeling than one I could articulate. I felt there had to be a better life, a better way of being.
I started writing "poems" when I was nine and never stopped. These writings mostly expressed my frustration and anger and feelings of helplessness. I didn't know the word 'power' then but I felt powerless in the most extreme way.
Caroline: Despite the harshness of much of the content, compassion rings through for the various characters in these narrative poems. How did you, as the writer, find your way to writing in such a factual, yet non-attacking manner?
Gayle: I let the facts and images speak for themselves. I try to write poems that tell a story, that paint a picture. I want the reader, or listener, to see and hear the story. I want readers to decide for themselves, based on the facts and images, how they feel and think about the various characters. We all like stories, whether they make us laugh, cry, or cringe. Stories are what we all remember. I want my poems to communicate to a broad audience and stories do that.
Caroline: How long did it take you to write this book? What did the process of writing it entail for you?
Gayle: It was written sporadically over a period of 15 or so years beginning in 1991. I wasn't trying to write a book, only poems as they occurred. In Massachusetts I was a member of a critique group that met weekly. Timothy Liu (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/timothy-liu)was also a member for about 3 years and he was the person who said the poems make a book. I was surprised, but Tim insisted and created the first arrangement of the poems. The final arrangement is close to what he suggested although I did delete some poems and wrote new ones later that are included.
Until recently I have never been able to write consistently yet never stopped writing. Being a single parent with no money and poor health, I struggled through graduate school and numerous part-time jobs. My son also had health issues and between the two of us I spent a lot of time in doctors' offices. When my own issues were finally diagnosed in 1988, I was then able to work full time and not worry constantly about money. Writing was a compulsion, an obsession, something I needed to do that was all mine. I always wrote in a hurry and, therefore, wrote a lot of bad poems, never having the time to revise. I have stacks of those poems that I have looked through to determine what could possibly be salvaged. Very little, yet I hang on to them because, I think, they remind me of my journey.
Caroline: Please tell us of your journey to get Reaching for Air published?
Gayle: I sent the manuscript to about 40 publishers over some eight or ten years. During that time I continued to revise. In 2013 I took a workshop with Louise Gluck whose help and support were invaluable and gave me the courage to force the issue and self-publish. Over the years of this journey I began to realize from the comments that editors made, that they either didn't understand the poems or were in denial about the issues of class the poems raise. As a country we love to talk about, lament about, debate about, rant about racism. But we don't like to even mention class. I've noticed that when it is mentioned on the news, it is quickly passed over. As a child, I was painfully aware of the difference between my home and that of a few friends whose middle or upper middle class homes I was invited into, but I did not understand that this was part of the class difference. People don't like to admit that white people are poor. In 1976 I was invited to apply for a Danforth Foundation Grant for Women to help finance work on a graduate degree. The application form was lengthy and required several in-depth essays. On the third line of one of the essays I stated that I am white. Yet, when I arrived at Harvard University for an interview, the self-satisfied pompous white woman who had summoned me took one look at me and said "I thought you were black". End of interview. She couldn't imagine a white person having the experiences I had had.
In 1967 I was living in Nashville where my husband taught at Fisk University. We lived in the faculty housing that surrounded the campus that sits in the midst of the poorest part of the black ghetto (I don't know if anything has changed since I've never returned there). A few houses up the street Robert Hayden resided with his family. He asked to see my poems and I invited him for tea. Sitting in the living room the conversation turned to the location of the campus in the midst of such poverty. I'll never forget Bob's words as he gestured to the surrounding area "I have nothing to do with these people". That was my first instruction that class crosses racial and ethnic lines.
He was a wonderful man with whom I had a number of stimulating conversations. I was extremely pleased for him when he was named U.S. Poet Laureate. And, I will always be grateful to him for being the first to publish my poems. At the time he was poetry editor of the Baha'i journal World Order. About a year later two of my poems appeared in the journal.
Later that spring I had further instruction in the vagaries of class when I participated in a door-to-door survey conducted by a group of doctors who were determining whether to build a low-cost or free health clinic in either the poor black ghetto or the poor white ghetto. The questionnaire required about 45 minutes to ask people questions and record their responses. I was assigned homes in both ghettos. The residents had no idea I would be knocking on their doors. What a revelation! For the most part the white homes were a mess with clothes thrown everywhere and dishes piled up in the sink. The rooms were often filthy. The people spent a lot of time ranting about how they were better than the blacks (of course they used a different word) because they were white. By contrast, the black homes were poor, sometimes no better than shacks, but neat with clothes hung up on wooden pegs on the walls and everything clean. The people were polite and gracious although a bit uncomfortable with the white lady who came calling. These experiences reflected my own uneasy but not yet fully acknowledged awareness of and experience of the class divide.
Thanks to the pervasive denial about class in our society, I don't think Reaching for Air would ever have seen the light of day unless I published it myself. I was gratified when it was named a Finalist for the Best First Book of Poetry by the Texas Institute of Letters.
Caroline: What are you working on now?
Gayle: My second poetry manuscript is completed and looking for a publisher. The title is All the Wild and Holy: a Life of Eunice Williams, 1696-1785, a book-length narrative poem in the voice of the historical figure of Eunice Williams. I was pleased that it received an Honorable Mention for the May Sarton Poetry Prize by Bauhan Publishing. Currently, I am writing a series of travel poems to reflect my passion for travelling to learn about the world and other peoples in more than a superficial manner. Another project is to write poems about the pre-historic Greek goddesses who were worshipped before the northern patriarchal invaders arrived and destroyed the power of women that threatened the warriors.
I have a number of poems stashed away that I've long thought of as singletons. Recently I pulled them all together and discovered that about 50 of them could comprise a manuscript. Over the next few months I'll be revising these and writing a few more that fit into the three sections I've divided them into.
On a completely different tack, I'm excited about writing my first novel. Since it is such a different process from writing poetry, it is a very steep learning curve. But I am enjoying it as well as the frustrations involved. The story is set in the late 18th century in the Scottish Highlands, then, through many misadventures, proceeds to Iceland, and ends in the Boston. It follows the woman's journey based on Joseph Campbell's hero's journey. It is the first book in a trilogy.
Caroline: Thanks for your time, Gayle. I look forward to seeing your manuscripts in script.
Caroline LeBlanc, former Army Nurse and civilian nurse psychotherapist, has had her essays and award winning poetry published in the US and abroad. In 2010, Oiseau Press published Smokey Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle, her chapbook about life as an Army wife and mother, and the descendent of 17th Century Acadian/French Canadian settlers in North America. As past Writer in Residence at the National Military Family Museum, she wrote the script for the museum’s traveling exhibit, Sacrifice & Service; co-produced and co-created the script for Telling Albuquerque and 4 Voices stage performances; and facilitated Standing Down, a NM Humanities Council book discussion group for veterans and family members. With Mitra Bishop, Roshi, Mountain Gate Zen Center, New Mexico, she offers veterans and women military family members day long Mindfulness Meditation/Mindful Writing Retreats. She also serves as clinical staff for Mountain Gate Regaining Balance residential retreats for the same individuals. Before leaving the Fort Drum, NY area, in 2012 she offered Writing For Your Life programs to wounded warriors and military family members. In 2011, Spalding University awarded her a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative writing. Her art has won awards in New York and New Mexico. She is a member of Albuquerque’s Rainbow Artists Collective, and a founding member of the Apronistas Collective of women artists who regularly mount community art shows highlighting women’s rights and ecological issues.