Interview with Gaia Thomas

WG: Gaia, in the presentation that you gave at the Disability Poetics Symposium at the University of Pennsylvania recently, you described how an accident and the subsequent aftermath affected your poetry. Since one of the main interests of Wordgathering readers is the effect that disability has on poetry, I wonder if you could talk about how it has affected your writing.

GT: Before the accident I wrote free verse poetry in the first person. I was completely identified with myself as the narrator of these poems. And also, I was pretty wrapped up in my own life story and little epiphanies. I kind of saw myself as this heroic character in my own life story. I was hit by a large truck on the eve of my departure for grad school. This compromised my sense of self both neurologically and psychologically. It also called into question my view of the world, and my relation to it.

I didn't write for about 6 months after the accident. What did come out were strange epigrammatic fragments. There was something kind of off about them, like milk gone bad – only the milk was medium of reality. Something had soured. Then I tried free writing, long passages of leggy verse in a notebook. Around this time I got a copy of Verse The Second Decade (ed. Henry Brian & Andrew Zawacki), and in it I stumbled across some Language poetry – not knowing what it was yet.

The idea of writing sentence-lines with little conceivable connection to each other appealed to me. My attention span was was short, compromised by the injury. I couldn't hold the small cohesive world of a poem in my head the way I could before the injury. Instead, I could give my brain the task of writing one good line a time.

The free verse I wrote was limp. It lacked turgor pressure, like wilted lettuce. I said interesting things, but the lines weren't crisp. My editing brain was still quite strong, and it simply hacked these lines to bits when it came time to revise. Without that hard vision behind the work, it couldn't stand up against the editing process.

I have to credit Stephen Ratcliffe at Mills College for giving me a different was to write. Stephen doesn't really revise very much. Instead, in this zen-like manner, he puts the editing brain to work doing the writing: don't put lines down on the page if they aren't good.

I invented a form to teach myself to write again. This became a 60 segment crown cycle called The crinea. Each segment in The crinea has 12 lines and one repeating line. The repeating line comes in the middle and is called the rubar, or ghost line – it haunts the poem. The rubar for The crinea is, "I am the touch that rains from absence." It is meant to be a log of grief time. In the form, there are 6 lines above the rubar and 6 below.

The last line of each segment becomes the first line of the next. I wanted to find a way to write individual lines that have the strength people usually reserve for their closer. I would begin by numbering lines on the page and inserting the rubar. Then I would very patiently wait for a line to come to me, and repeat this process until the form was completed. I had a rule for myself that once the line was written down on paper it could not be changed, so often I would go through several iterations in my head looking for the one that fit my poetic sensibilities. This really is how I taught myself to write again: by listening in for my poetic sense in my head, and without compromise waiting for something that fit.

Instead of narrative about my life, the lines came from a feeling in my body. I would listen to some sensation, and often it would take me to thought. There was a sense of articulation, or branches reaching out. Objects in the room or outside could also trigger thoughts. I was writing The crinea during the 2016 election, so there is period of dark contemplation about our nation that The crinea also captures.

WG: In discussing the function of the rubar for The crinea, you said, "It is meant to be a log of grief time." Can you elaborate on what you mean by "grief time."

GT: The form of The crinea was inspired by Neanderthal stalagmite circles found in a cave in France. These circles are over 176,000 years old. The process of writing The crinea involved sitting in silence for about 10 minutes before each session. After doing this for maybe 30 days, I had the feeling I was moving mentally to the place where The crinea lived in my mind. I imagined being deep within this cave, and the voice coming from this cave. I think the repetition allowed me to build pathways in my brain, to kind of heal and myelinate access to the poetry-making part of my brain.

I imagine the 12 lines of each segment as stations on a circle, and the big wheel of 60 segments forming a crown. The time in this language is not straight, but cyclic, reiterative. I imagine this cycle of The crinea as part of a long spiral, with an adjoining cycle above and one below. The rubar, or ghostline, from the previous revolution appears in the first segment, and the rubar of the next revolution appears in the last. So nothing goes away completely. Grief revisits itself, and retains.

There's something too about the sobbing cyclic nature of the breath in real crying. When you're wailing, it's almost like the body becomes a wheel with the head moving in a circular motion. So I wanted to create the sense of something like this stalagmite circle that stays. The form holds you, even as the current of calendar time carries you forward.

In her essay Hopeless Cases: Queer Chronicities and Gertrude Steinís "Melanctha", Elizabeth Freeman talks about the recurrent time of chronic conditions, a perpetual present. Even three years after the accident, I still struggle with chronic headaches. The pain doesn't go anywhere. There is such an emphasis on "getting over" and positivity in our culture. I had suffered a serious loss due the injury. One most people will ever have to know, but very familiar to most TBI survivors: the loss of self. We never really know how precious we are to ourselves until we have to survive the loss of this being. It wasn't something to be accepted or overcome. It needed a home.

Dr. Pauline Boss studies Ambiguous Loss. This happens when the fate of the beloved is unknown or uncertain. Children experience it with parents in divorce, the family and loved ones of POWs have to grapple with it. After the brain injury, there was a possibility that my self as I knew it might come back, I waited and waited but this never happened. There is a certain strain on the heart that happens from keeping a candle lit and never having it answered.

The crinea created a place where I could visit this loss and safely make a testament to its reality. I think perhaps the fact that I envisioned it in a cave, in an ancient place, kept it sheltered from glib modernism and platitudes on Facebook. It was one place where no one would shut me up. Where I could tell it like it was.

WG: Iím curious as to how the sense of loss of self that you describe fits with the cyclical conception of time that you describe your poetry as inhabiting. In such a paradigm is self-transformation possible or is the whole conception of self illusionary as, for example, some schools of Buddhism posit?

GT: I think the cyclic circling has something to do with the inability to accept the absence of center. It's almost circling as if in disbelief, or haunting the place where the center once was. It's a way of slowly imbibing the loss, or absorbing it into the bodily form.

The rubar that comes after "I am the touch that rains from absence. " – the rubar of the next cycle – is "Black water snake with scales made of loss. " In this ghostline the I has disappeared. New knowledge of the world has been absorbed. A new ruling god has been established, or a new order if you will. This force moves through the world making subtractions and has a body comprised of absence itself. It is a negative presence.

I'm interested in forms now that include disappearances. That are not necessarily building to anything, but are subject to the process of decay, erasure, erosion. I want poems that are more like our bodies and minds. Poems that are open, vulnerable.

And also poems that are intruded upon. Landscapes are always undergoing these types of transformations. They don't hold one fixed identity. There is always some new agreement coming to assert a different sense of character. A locality does not necessarily hold its identity centrally. It's communities and disaster and pollution and colonization of different sorts, as well as migrations, trends, small wars, appetites: land is subject to all these types of modifications. It doesn't necessarily have its own heroic identity, just a series of consensuses that shift over time.

WG: I am interested in hearing a bit more about your pursuing forms that include disappearance – and landscapes that are intruded upon. Would you be willing to cite some lines from you work that conveys these approaches?

GT: It's a work in progress, so I feel more comfortable talking about the process. It's a set of about 10 poems that include layers of erosion and decay. I'm using the term loosely because no one iteration is the definitive poem. Each poem has 4 layers: the draft, erosion, decay, and amendment respectively. The draft layer is handwritten and fills the page of notebook exactly. From that 8 fragments are selected of 8 words each. Those fragments are arranged on a typed page in a spatially pleasing manner. This layer is the erosion. The next layer is the decay. This is constructed by copying the erosion onto a separate page, setting a timer and then fucking it up in every conceivable way I can in the span of about 15 minutes. The amendment layer is created by someone completely different. This aid, takes the erosion with the instruction "Fix this poem." They are free to do whatever they want to the erosion. When finished, their document becomes the amendment layer.

WG: That is an intriguing process. Is it totally you own creation or was it influenced by the work any other specific writers? I am also wondering how this might fit in – if you think it does – with the ecrippoetics that George Hart was trying to formulate in his talk at the symposium?

GT: The process really comes out of an evolution of my own thinking on disability poetics.

  • I wanted the process to be formulaic and allow for a body created by hand on the page. The handwritten portion I would actually call a corpus or body. There was an attempt to treat this original document as whole thing, entire to itself, although not "finished". Each corpus took up one full sheet of notebook paper edge-to-edge. Then I would sketch over the words, almost like a tattoo on a body, to further create a sense of integrity within the page.

As the series went on, I would do different mild corporeal experiments while completing these drafts. I sat in a graveyard, I stood in the shower, I sat in the bright sun and took my medication. The idea of incorporating somatic elements definitely comes from CA Conrad.

  • I needed the process to have discrete time-bound segments because my condition often limits the amount I can work.
  • At the time I designed this project I was thinking about "leaky bodies": bodies intervened upon by accident, violence, medicine, the state, chronic conditions. I was thinking of the porous boundaries of the body. And how there's this myth of self-determination inherent in the lyric form. I think there's a strong relationship between confessional poetry and this idea that we were all going to go to the therapist and get better. But so much is out of our hands. Out of the hands of the poet, out of the hands of the poem. The poem doesn't get to realize the ideal version of itself. So I wanted a process that obviously reflected that. A process where chaos intervened. A poem that was subject to corrosion and corruption. I wanted a poem that was as vulnerable as I was.
  • In its ideal form this process troubles the idea of the author. The finished product is out the author's hands. The author is forced to accept whatever has been laid upon her by the outside world. This is like an art document of erosion. And the poem is simply giving you a body on which you can see these outside forces act.

I think I have a minor interest in what parts of the poem-body resist erosion. And to what extent that will be violated by the intervention of outside forces.

I was influenced by an interactive sculptural piece by Yoko Ono of a woman lying down. Observers were invited to touch the form anywhere they liked. As the exhibit wore on, you could see small holes gouged over the nipples. Ono had an opportunity to reiterate this piece and constructed the next body out of a harder substance, a metal. [This is as best I can remember, from a book I read a while ago: Reaching Out with no Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono.

Oh, and Hannah Weiner! Hannah Weiner's Clairvoyant Journal definitely influenced me. A lot of automatic writing out of thoughts there. The part (the decay part) that's just a scrawling out of thoughts, dumping out whatever's in my mind unedited onto the page – was definitely influenced by Hannah.

WG: As I listen to you describe your process, I wonder if the role of audience is ever a consideration in your work. Do you imagine who might be reading your poetry or is that beside the point?

GT: Okay so here's the deal: Here's why I avoid the narrative aspect of lyric poetry. Why I take issue with it: I think we fall prey to streamlined mythoi that allow us to sleepwalk through our lives. We don't think enough about what life actually is. Before the brain injury I believed very much in a system of reward for good behavior. I thought my life was a heroic journey that would end triumphantly. But life is so chaotic. I don't think there's any sense in the town of Paradise burning to the ground, for example. Those scores of people and animals that lost their lives.

We don't exercise the free capacity of inventive meaning-making enough. We swallow narrative tropes and then try to fit everything else into them.

If you are in an environment that doesn't make sense you suddenly have to exercise that capacity. We should be asking all kinds of questions all time. Life is so raw and open and chaotic: we should be confused. We should be thinking new things about the world and critically. We should be pulling apart our old ideas. Everything is so small, and it will only open up if we learn to question the narratives, structures, and institutions we have been given.

Ann Lauterbach has a formula:

Subject Matter + Form = Content
Reader + Content = Meaning

The meaning is totally out of the poet's hands. The readers are completely tasked with the responsibility of meaning making. It is an exercise. And one that should have as many iterations as there are readers and readings.

What looks like abstraction is really about restoring agency. Fred Moten talks about creating intervals. And what I take this to mean is poetry's ability to create momentary gaps in the status quo. I see these as openings where air comes through and we can get a fresh perspective. These are times when we are outside of what we know. We must invent or be receptive to new ways of seeing the world. Accident and disease create these kinds of gaps too. Anytime we are impaired we must reinvent our way of being in the world. By not handing the reader an easy meaning I create a kind of impairment in my poetry. All I want from the reader is openness. I just honestly want them to tread water with me for a minute in waters of deep uncertainty.

WG: We began this interview by my referencing the recent symposium that you participated in on Disability Poetics. Before winding up the interview, Iíd like to return to the general topic of disability poetics and ask if there any writers working in this field whose writing particularly interests you or that you would recommend others reading.

The poets I admire most predate a critical idea of Disability Poetics. But I definitely consider them crip compatriots. Three women come to mind. Josephine Miles, Hannah Weiner, and H.D. For more on crip-ness in the work of H.D. and Hannah Weiner I would see these articles:

I'd really like to highlight the work of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (in addition to the poets I mentioned). Her new book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice is out, and I would recommend it to the readers of Wordgathering.

WG: Is there anything else that you would like to add to what you have already said about your writing, disability poetry or poetry in general?

Just that we need new models for the world. And I think crip poetry gets it right.