September 19–25, 2016
Born and raised in North Carolina, Madeline Gilmore moved to Brooklyn after graduating from Williams College in 2015, when she was awarded the Hubbard Hutchinson Memorial Fellowship for writing. In the last year and a half, she has traveled to numerous countries including Vietnam, Japan and Iceland, interned at Poets & Writers and worked as a nanny for two boys. She received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship this year for a summer workshop with Patricia Spears Jones. She currently works in the New York office of arts publisher Artbook | D.A.P. This is her first publication.
You walk to the river, not because you want to
but because your body pulls you.
You want to say, oh river, I surrender,
but that is something you could never say.
So you want to say, river, consider me
a friend, tell me what moves you.
It has been a long summer. Several times
you cried while listening to songs
that never made you feel before,
with words you’re just now recognizing.
You wish you could sing them
to the rocks in the river
that consider the water around them.
The sandstone knows the water and loves it,
and hates it for cutting it down,
and loves it for forming it.
The way you never have been able
to know yourself, it knows itself.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem actually started out being about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s this great episode in the first season in which all of the main characters’ nightmares become reality. Xander, the token doofus, steps out the doors of their high school and sees a cemetery, all dark and foreboding, and he just says, “How’d that get there?” I thought that was great. But basically I was working on a dairy farm that summer in Vermont and the landscape kept creeping in to the poem. By the time fall came around, all the Buffy was gone and it started to be about how the summer can feel particularly disjointed. The nightmare is still somewhere beneath everything. I was taking a class on Hamlet, so the title came last. With the river, it felt like a perfect fit.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a long poem right now, partly about losing someone and partly about this Swedish children’s story called The Brothers Lionheart. It’s this crazy story in which two young brothers die and then have all these adventures in the afterlife. Then they die again. Trying to process a broken relationship with someone can feel like grieving, but I was fascinated by the idea that a person can die twice. There’s loss and there’s comfort because nothing, not even death, is final.
What’s a good day for you?
Coffee, a run, some TV with my roommates, some reading, some writing, a lot of walking, a good shower and a good coat.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My roommates, actually. I knew I wanted to move to New York after I graduated from college, and I knew I wanted to live with my roommates. One of them found our apartment in Brooklyn, and I said sure, okay. I had never been to Brooklyn until the day I first saw the apartment.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there?
I live on the Gowanus side of 4th Avenue, right off the Union Street R stop. I’ve been living in the same apartment with my two roommates for about a year now.
What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
Gowanus is the best. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be anything yet, which I know is probably changing. They’re building those condominiums towards the canal. I keep thinking that once those are done all of these quiet areas are going to be claimed by something louder, so to speak. But Gowanus is a great location: smack dab between the Park and Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill, which is such a neighborhood-y neighborhood. Plus the canal can actually sometimes smell like sea breeze. The last place I lived was the most beautiful middle of nowhere in the Berkshires. Very different, but in Brooklyn I’m reminded of how I felt there in the mountains (very fortunate).
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
This spring, I went to Japan to visit some good friends. When I came back, I was jetlagged and I couldn’t sleep. By the time it got to be 4:30, I decided to get up and go for a walk. I walked towards the canal and watched workers unloading caskets into a warehouse. I walked all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge and waited on it to watch the sun rise. Then I got a coffee and went home. I had a really hard winter, the hardest I’ve ever had. But that morning felt like something on the road towards the Greek eudaimonia—not happiness per se, but something like contentment. It’s like I could smile and go home and get some really good sleep.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
This has always been a tough question for me because writing is such a solitary exercise. There are obviously many people in New York writing and reading poetry. But I’m not sure that I would say just showing up to readings or using the same library constitutes a community. I didn’t feel like I found a meaningful poetry community here until my Brooklyn Poets workshop. A workshop, I think, when it is made up of smart, respectful and insightful people, creates the kind of meaningful exchanges around poetry that I believe make up a community.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
On that note, I’d have to say the poets in my workshop, including our teacher, Patricia Spears Jones, are definitely some Brooklyn poets that I look up to and from whom I have learned a lot. It is always enlightening to see how the same environment can create vastly different, but equally engaging, writing.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My first mentor was Lawrence Raab, who was my professor at Williams College. Larry quite intimidates some students because of his no-nonsense approach, but as someone who was just discovering poetry in undergrad, he helped me to learn to take my practice and my work seriously. The thing about Larry, though, is that he absolutely loves the fun and the strange. He taught me how poetry can be playful. Actually, he taught me everything. You should read his chapbook A Cup of Water Turns into a Rose, one of my favorites.
At Williams, I also came under the guidance of Jessica Fisher, another brilliant poet (read her book Frail-Craft) whose sensibilities often differed vastly from Larry’s. Jessica operates on another plane: she is always ten leagues deep in meaning. She taught me to question my motives for writing the way that I do, but to ultimately trust my own voice. She also helped me to see how poetry can have a place in a community. It was really important for me to have a mentor that was a woman. Even today, when I think of the type of poet I want to be, I think of Jessica.
As a student of poetry, it could be really frustrating to turn in a draft of my thesis and see that my two mentors had underlined the exact opposite lines of a poem and written “cut.” But it helped me to discover what I really wanted to write.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I have kept coming back to the collected poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay over the past year. I think I have learned a lot about tone from her. But most recently I have been savoring Nox by Anne Carson. I was given a gift card to BookCourt and I knew exactly what I was going to buy. Anne Carson is such a smart poet, and Nox is a beautiful document on grieving.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which my dad gave me for Christmas one year. I’ve stuck my toe in, but I’d like to do the whole thing. I don’t know, though—does anyone do that?
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I am definitely the type to dip in and out of books, but I tend to stick to a few books at a time, trying to get to the end of each. I actually don’t usually read too many poems at a time. I get too emotional and then start writing on my own. If I’m not getting emotional, then it’s probably not holding my interest. My reading is all over the place, but I’d like to take a more systematic approach at some point (hence the Norton Anthology). I like to underline, so I need a physical book for that.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Ekphrasis. Well, I suppose I’ve tried it once before, but it wasn’t a very sincere effort. I spend a lot of time around art (I work at an art book publisher) and museums, but I don’t often remember to bring a notebook along.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Definitely coffee shops. I used to work at one, so they feel very comfortable and productive. A good blend of background music, conversations and movement around me is the right level of distraction to write something surprising. Some of my Brooklyn favorites are Ninth Street Espresso and The Annex.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Prospect Park. When I was having a hard time adjusting to my new life in Brooklyn, I would come to the park almost every day and run. My other favorite park is the small one in Cobble Hill. It’s lined by houses and it feels like I’m in a completely different city. I kind of love Brighton Beach as well. Everyone asks me, “Who are you going with?” but I like going alone. There’s a stock set of characters there: the water and beer guy, the lifeguards, the old women who swim back and forth in the ocean, the men who never go past knee deep, the smokers, the girls on their phones and the people who bring their radio. I used to babysit at the edge of Red Hook, so the walk from my apartment down to the water, all the way down Union Street, holds a special place in my heart as well.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate reflections,
And what I do, you do,
For every thing: me as good as you.
Brooklyn is my home.