10 Questions for Stacy Gnall
- By Abby MacGregor
"Up out of the trailer, the apartment in Harlem, the estate of the estranged
circus stars— All lit true
by the glint of a tooth, you are ending.
With the black bear doped and posed at the country fair. To prove
There's a god, a snake
Held in prayer. You are ending."
—from “Some Curious End,” Summer 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was maybe 7 years old, I wrote a "book" called Poems, Poems, and More Poems. I think it contained 6 poems. The opening poem, called something like "My Bad Day," was just a litany of rough things that had apparently happened to me. The final line was: "And my hamster died." I'm pretty sure I never had a hamster, but I like to imagine that I understood something at the time about emotional vs. literal truth.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
That's hard. Because I think everything we read as writers has an impact, whether we're fully conscious of it or not. But I can say (perhaps because I'm coming off of completing a degree) that I've been thinking a lot lately about what Stevens said about poetry "resis[ting] the intelligence almost successfully" and what Lorca said about intelligence being the "enemy of poetry." For me, this bears out in many ways these days—but most importantly by letting the language lead.
What other professions have you worked in?
Well, my first job was in a magic and costume shop called Mr. Fun's. I worked in back in rentals. During Halloween season, I'd dress up as something different each day. In the winter, I'd suit up Santas, setting fake white beard after fake white beard in foam rollers. I'd take regular naps under the racks using plush mascot heads as pillows. It was the best job I'll ever have.
What inspired you to write this piece?
The Animal Planet docuseries Fatal Attractions, which tells the stories of people who have kept exotic animals as pets—often to tragic ends. I'm fascinated by the human-animal connection, and I wonder at the psychology behind exotic pet ownership. That's what the poem is about. It's part lament and part pursuit—after an understanding of what leads someone to, say, allow a 400-pound Bengal tiger to freely roam their New York City apartment, or to all but forego participation in the outside world and to secretly share their trailer home with a menagerie of venomous snakes instead.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I like to talk with my students about how, in many of the best poems, there's usually more than one thing going on at once. This can be narratively, sonically, visualy, etc. But it can also be that the poet is working in more than one emotional register. I think I'm influenced most when I'm awash with nostalgia, specifically for an experience from when I was younger in which I felt a complex of emotions. As a kid, for example, I found the "hall of heads" scene from "Return to Oz" frightening and beautiful and tragic and empowering. And to experience all of those emotions at once felt ultimately wild–like something wildly new was possible. If I re-watch that scene now, for instance, I find that I can at least somewhat tap into that same complex of emotions, and become receptive to creating something new. I experience this nostalgia almost physically, as though I've been physically transported to a different place.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I mostly work in the quiet since I'm easily distracted by sound. But I think I've learned lessons from music that translate to poetry. This may be an odd example, but I've often thought about these pop/rock songs, many from the 60s, that were maybe a minute-and-half to two minutes long. And I've always admired that quality about them. They've always struck me as wonderfully quirky and off-kilter, even brave, for their brevity. I've been writing shorter poems lately. And I think there was a lesson lurking there in that music about the inherent quirk of being quick that I internalized and is now surfacing in these newer, shorter, and, I think, quirkier poems.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My dog definitely gets the first listen, since I'm constantly sounding things out as I write. If I'm embarrassed when she hears it, I know I'm in trouble.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Music. I just think it has a way of cutting through the circuitry more quickly.
What are you working on currently?
I'm wrapping up a poetry manuscript about the breakdowns and blurrings between humans and animals. I'm also working on something entirely new to me: a collaborative project in prose for young readers. We'll see what comes of that.
What are you reading right now?
Virginia Woolf's Flush, a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Cocker Spaniel. It narrates Barrett's courtship with Robert Browning in part, but it's really more of a love story about a poet and her dog, which won me instantly. One of the things that I admire most about it is how Woolf describes the Browning-Barrett courtship without naming it, but instead tells it entirely through Flush's perceptions—his sensory detections that a new color has come to her cheeks, a new sound of excitement has come to both her voice and to the black marks that she scribbles across her papers each day. I just think that it so lovingly captures that acuity of dogs.
STACY GNALL is the author of Heart First into the Forest (Alice James Books, 2011). She holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Southern California, and is also a graduate of the University of Alabama's MFA program in Creative Writing and Sarah Lawrence College. Her most recent poems are either published or forthcoming from Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, New American Writing, and Third Coast.