Where Our Memories Settle: An Interview with Gale Marie Thompson

soldier on

Soldier OnGale Marie Thompsons first poetry collection (Tupelo Press 2015), examines the relationship between memory and dwelling. Thompson delights in challenging familiar idioms and rethinking relationships to cultural figures. Her poems search for a place, or more specifically—a home—for memories of both the past and the future.The voice in Soldier On is haunted yet hopeful. Thompson always asks the right questions, such as how can one move forward? And toward what, toward where? The voice of this book is ready to capitulate, but this surrendering is empowered and active; it is a way to reclaim the past. In a wry, hopeful manner, Thompson creates a voice that knows the only way out is forward.

This past June, Lindsay Tigue, who attends the Creative Writing PhD program at the University of Georgia with Thompson, asked her some questions about the book, her process, and other current projects.

INTERVIEWER

One of the obsessions or fascinations I think we both share is writing about structures, especially homes, and how they organize experience, loss, and—particularly in your poetry—memory. Can you talk a little about how you approach this idea in your writing or where it comes from?

THOMPSON

That is a great question. Have you read Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space?

INTERVIEWER

I have!

THOMPSON

Yeah, in the book, Bachelard describes “the house” as our very first “universe”—that “all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home.”  And I’ve just always been really interested in what houses do to our nostalgia and where our memories settle. A large part of Soldier On is thinking about my grandparent’s house—not not necessarily my missing being in their house—but rather I’m thinking about very specific images and events that resonate. These images might not be related to memories of my grandparents specifically, but their house is a place where all of my memories tend to gravitate toward.

I remember this one dream I had after my grandfather died: I was walking through their house and went into their back bedroom, and there was a whole new room that had never existed before or that I had never seen before. In my dream, I kept going deeper into these new rooms. I kept seeing these images—like some pecans and also a bowl of water with flowers in it. This dream reminds me a lot of Poetics of Space and the idea that it’s a real house, but in my dream, it has infinite space and can keep containing memories.

INTERVIEWER

I remember in an architecture class I took, we talked about Bachelard’s “oneiric house” or house of “dream-memory” and for you, in this book, the kitchen is at the center.

THOMPSON

Yeah. I always think of Boyle’s Law, which says that if the same amount of gas is in two differently-sized bottles, the pressure of the gas will be greater in the smaller container. This connects for me, to my thinking about dream-memory. If the memories are contained in this contained space—like the kitchen—then they’re allowed to stay there.

I’ve also been reading The Art of Memory by Francis Yates, which has these stories of ancient Greeks and Romans remembering things—like stories, or any other type of public speaking—by placing them in rooms in their head. So, if you create a palace or a castle in your head and in each room you have a certain thing, you can memorize it better.

INTERVIEWER

That goes along with another question I have. Because we are in the same program, I know you are currently reading many, many books in preparation for your comprehensive oral exams. Can you talk a little about your reading lists and how your scholarly work feeds into your writing?

THOMPSON

Definitely. I’m reading a pre-1900 American list, a post-1900 American list, and one on memory in the 20th century (we’re calling it “Modern Memory”). Right now, I am reading a lot of H.D. because she is bridging both the 20th century list and the memory list. My research on H.D. is informing a lot of what I’m writing right now. For the memory list, I’m starting out with the history of memory—with its Greek beginnings, up to the Enlightenment—which is fairly straightforward—very “I have this memory. After a while, it goes away.” (Laughs). Aristotle calls it the wax imprint. We feel something; it gets imprinted into our brains, and loses its strength with time. But then Freud, of course, completely changed the way people think about memory, with the idea of the subconscious, the ways memory can return—and that every time you remember, you basically re-experience that memory. His work on trauma, repression, and repetition is really important for this as well. So my focus now is the modern memory.

INTERVIEWER

And are you looking at cultural memory in addition to individual memory?

THOMPSON

Yes, I’m looking at both. I’m really interested in the way individual memory shows up in literature, how it gets presented, but what’s really interesting is how that, of course, feeds into cultural and collective memory. So, when you remember something—like how I was talking about the bowl of water with flowers—you often remember an image. Virginia Woolf was famously attached to the image of shells. In The Waves and in her autobiography, she talks a lot about the sound of shells, the idea of a shell. But then, because of the way this image carries on in her work, we connect it to the idea of shell shock and the war.

INTERVIEWER

And how is this research feeding into your poetry?

THOMPSON

Right now I’m finishing up a manuscript called Helen or My Hunger and it includes a lot of my thoughts on these memory texts—thinking about how we remember, who we remember, how those memories get replayed, and how that replaying affects our living experience. My book began as a conversation with H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, a feminist epic that attempts to re-see and rewrite the myth of Helen of Troy—“Hated Helen,” as she calls her. H.D.’s book adds onto Stesichorus’s theory that Helen never was in Troy (to be the catalyst for the Trojan War), but was in Egypt the whole time—that instead an eidolon, or phantom, took her place in Troy.

Unlike Helen in Egypt, my book is writing not as Helen but rather to Helen—knowing that in fact there really is no Helen, that I’m writing to a myth of a myth, an echo. I’m writing to that Eidolon. I’m also using this to think about the feminine long poem, myth-making and storytelling, and I think a lot about memory. I talk about wax tablets a lot.

INTERVIEWER

So, back to Soldier On. To me, the speaker of these poems is uneasy, nostalgic, conversational, grieving, toughened, and hopeful. She confronts the past having gained something, and still seeking “the shape of a home.” Some of the speaker’s unease lies in commerce. In “Hinge” you write “make it not about consumption” and in “Questions of Comets” you say “more delicious things will happen this fiscal year.” How do ideas of marketplace and consumerism play into this book and your poetry in general?

THOMPSON

That is so interesting! I haven’t thought a lot about that as far as poems go, but it is something I come up against a lot. I’m beginning to think that we live in a world where we’re beginning to confuse the object of our monuments with the object of capital, or consumerism. Everything is a collector’s plate.

Also, here’s something that just popped into my head: I was (shamelessly) watching Grey’s Anatomy yesterday, and in this episode from Season 3 the character Meredith is on death’s door. She’s just drowned and they’re putting her heart on bypass, and trying to warm her up and get her heart to start pumping. While this is happening, her best friend Cristina just…can’t deal. So she goes into a dollar store and just starts to grab items to fill her cart. And my first thought was, “Oh, my god, that’s me.”

INTERVIEWER

It seems related to the irreverent tone the poems take. Like perhaps commerce is a good target for that.

THOMPSON

They also come from this idea I have that when one starts a family, they become more capitalistic, more focused on the immediate family unit. Making sure that the family is materially taken care of, maybe a little less community-minded.

INTERVIEWER

In some of the poems, I notice this idea, that in creating a home, some things must be bought.

THOMPSON

Yeah in “Ocean/City” and “Forest/City.” Also I’ve noticed, in Ocean/City, “we are ready to sell, ready to move on” and in “The Most Beautiful Bibles” “Someone is selling us dozens of Egyptian apartments.” Also in “Uplock.” Wow. I’m only now noticing just how many poems have to do with money!

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk a little bit more about the process of writing Soldier On? Did you see it as a book early on? Did it go through many drafts? Were all of the poems written in relatively the same span of time?

THOMPSON

Yes, all of these poems were written around the second and third year of my MFA at Umass-Amherst. To me, they’re very spring in Massachusetts, or the slow departure of snow. When I wrote the long titular poem that ends the book, I figured out that a lot of the other poems I was writing were doing similar things and that a book was coming together. I tend to be obsessed with particular things at particular times—like the repeated mention of Joseph Cornell in the book—and so the poems I wrote in the time span naturally fit together as a book.

INTERVIEWER

Dara Cerv, in her review in Sink, describes your poems as “the hiccups and grappling of active memory.” I was struck by the word “hiccup” in this assessment and the way it refers to your associative leaps, which I admire. Your poems dart around between striking images and declarative statements. In an interview with Banango Lit you described it as “thinking in blips.” So, I was wondering about this associative “blip”/“hiccup” structure and if you think about it in terms of the way you begin a poem? How do poems start for you; do you begin with one of those “blips”? Or is is something else?

THOMPSON

I love that question. I recently spoke to a group of high schoolers about poetry, and one thing I told them is how I have ADD and this is the best way I can put together thoughts and deal with issues because there doesn’t have to be a necessary narrative that emerges right away. And, really, that’s how my memory works. It reminds me of the Proustian idea of memory, from Remembrance of Things Past; it’s—oh I’ve just bitten into this madeleine and this memory is so involuntary! With Proust’s idea of involuntary memory, you are in two places at the same time (the present and the past), which for a tiny moment makes you feel like you’re never going to die. And that is the happiness that Proust is talking about. So it’s allowing those blips to happen in order to later start to put together the pieces.

So, it’s also a kind of backing up and reassessing the memory every time it comes to you. The narrative changes every time. It’s a push and pull of memory and forgetting, or two steps forward, one step back. It relates to my interest in how important forgetting is, that it’s actually so necessary for any kind of narrative to form.

INTERVIEWER

Something has to fall away for the narrative to crystallize?

THOMPSON

Exactly. It’s all related to the narrative of memory.

One of the reasons I am so interested in memory is that my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was a pre-teen, and so a lot of my adolescent and teenage years were spent visiting him in the VA hospital. For most of that time, until he died my freshman year in college, he did not know who I was. This one time, though, when I was sixteen, we went and visited him, took him outside, and wheeled him around and he turned and looked at me and he hadn’t known me for four years and he asked “Gale, when did you get here?” And it was so weird because I had to lie all of a sudden. I told him I drove there. It was so strange because he had never known me and he never would again. It was just that one day.

I think a lot about how memory makes us who we are, how they shape our identities. Who was my granddad? Who was he during that five minutes that he recognized me? Who am I if there’s no one around to remember me or recognize me?

INTERVIEWER

Soldier On contains several cultural figures like John Wayne, John Denver, Sigourney Weaver, and Deepak Chopra. I like the way the transformation of these people into characters lends to the book’s playful sensibility. By using their names, it’s like you make the real unreal. How does this motif connect for you, to the larger questions of memory and home the book poses?

THOMPSON

Well, my grandparents really loved John Wayne and my grandfather looked a lot like him. And so, I have deep reverence actually for John Wayne because to me, associatively, he is my grandfather.

There is a similar emotional tie to Sigourney Weaver. She showed up in a dream once and she was my mother and was very kind. I have these really warm feelings toward her, because in some strange way I associate her with a loving maternal presence. It’s like, I understand how silly it is, but at the same time it’s pretty earnest.

The use of these cultural figures definitely is irreverent, but in no way does it feel irreverent.

INTERVIEWER

I see what you mean. Reading these references, it seems like the poems take a playful, or delighted tone in order to cope with the past. To honor it while moving forward. While doing that, you have to honor all of these associations and reminders, too. Memories of various kinds.

THOMPSON

Yes. One thing I say when people say they don’t love Fleetwood Mac is that “but you don’t know how much they love you.”

INTERVIEWER

It’s like with cultural figures, how we feel we have some sort of claim to them. We feel like we know them.

THOMPSON

Yeah! Of course they have no idea who I am, but I feel like they know me. And I have this sense of knowing what they’re saying and thinking even while knowing it’s false. And that plays out in the poems.

INTERVIEWER

In that same interview with Banango Lit, you spoke of endings, explaining that you “take little steps out of a poem.” I find your endings very striking, and often I see in them a build within the voice toward powerful acceptance. It’s as if the voice becomes more sure of what she’s learned and what questions to ask as the poem develops. How do you understand your ending strategies? Do you often have an ending in mind early on?

THOMPSON

I really don’t have one in mind early on. In “Poem for John Denver” I wrote it because I thought of the line “these mountains are famous because, because,” but that’s really rare I think. In that interview you mentioned, I talk about how my endings have been changing and a lot of that has to do with why I’m moving toward long poems. I need there to be an end, but not so much of an end. I like the space that happens with a lot of the lines I write, but then I’m never sure that they’re the end. There needs to be space instead of the resonating finality that I was drawn to in Soldier On.

I tend to write until there’s something that’s broken. And then I either have to put it back together, or, in the case of the longer poems, they continue breaking. And that’s where it ends up being stepping out of the poem rather than a dismount (laughs). It’s like tiptoeing backstage.

INTERVIEWER

You talked a little about Helen or My Hunger, but I know you have a manuscript in between, Expeditions to the Polar Seas. In thinking about the evolution of your writing over these manuscripts, how have your poems changed formally? You said you are working on more longer poems, and the endings have changed, but has your writing changed formally in other ways?

THOMPSON

I don’t ever feel like I have a specific form. In Soldier On, the form varies a lot, but the voice is consistent. Sometimes I feel like I have to relearn how to write, especially if I haven’t written for a while, and it’s in those moments that my form changes or expands. Even if it’s just a week, or a short span of time, I sometimes have this feeling that I can’t write anymore and that I never learned how, and that the last poems that I wrote were total flukes. And that’s when I relearn how to write and in that relearning my forms adjust. It usually develops and allows for more uncertainty, more (to me) authenticity. I read this New Yorker profile of Merce Cunningham and he said, “I think dance only comes alive when it gets awkward again.” He went on to say, “I remember the only time I saw Ulanova. She was dancing Giselle, that old chestnut, and yet she managed to make it seem awkward and fresh again.”

In Soldier On, some of the poems that are longer and with more space came from that kind of challenge. “Poem for John Wayne” and “Coward Order,” for example, were “relearning how to write” poems.

So, the forms change, but the variety of forms remains consistent.

INTERVIEWER

Who are your poetic influences?

THOMPSON

#1 is Sylvia Plath, as per my epigraph. H.D. definitely. Inger Christensen’s alphabet. Also, a big influence on how I think about memory and the surreal of the everyday is through Elizabeth Bishop.

INTERVIEWER

Who are you excited about reading right now?

THOMPSON

Anne Cecelia Holmes’s new book The Jitters and Caroline Cabrera’s The Bicycle Year, definitely. New books by Danielle Pafunda, Arielle Greenberg, and Natalie Eilbert. Emily Kendal Frey. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women.

INTERVIEWER

My last question. What’s your favorite animal?

THOMPSON

Penguins! I had a good friend tell me that my spirit animal was a penguin because of how much I love to wear turtlenecks.

Gale Marie Thompson and Lindsay Tigue

Gale Marie Thompson and Lindsay Tigue

 

Gale Marie Thompson is the author of Soldier On (Tupelo Press 2015) in addition to the chapbooks Expeditions to the Polar Seas and If You’re a Bear, I’m a Bear. Her work can be found in the Best New Poets 2012, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Volt, Guernica, Sixth Finch, The Volta, and others. Originally from South Carolina, she is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts MFA Program and a PhD student at the University of Georgia. She is creator and editor of Jellyfish Magazine and lives, teaches, and writes in Athens, Georgia.

Lindsay Tigue is the author of System of Ghosts, winner of the 2015 Iowa Poetry Prize and forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in April 2016. She writes poetry and fiction and her work appears in Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Rattle, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among other journals. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and is currently a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia in Athens.

 

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