Gary Copeland Lilley: Going For It

Gary Copeland Lilley

Gary Copeland Lilley is a North Carolina native whose publications include four books of poetry, of which the most recent is “Alpha Zulu” from Ausable/Copper Canyon Press. He has been a poet-in-residence at The Poetry Center of Chicago, and a visiting writer-lecturer at Colby College and at the Institute of American Indian Art.

Gary will be on faculty at the 2013 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference from July 7-14. He was kind enough to share some of his thoughts with us on writing and other writers.

Let’s start with Centrum. What attracts you to teaching here? What are highlights from the past years, and what are you looking forward to in 2013?

My main thing attraction to teaching at Centrum is the workshop dynamic. Every group of poets I’ve worked with have embraced a non-competitive craft driven environment which brings the most constructive focus to each writers work. That’s the kind of workshop I’ve always liked. That’s the kind of workshop I try to create. It’s not the pressure-cooker type, its more like a farm.

I’ve got quite a few highlights from the two summers when I’ve the morning workshops. Discussions with many other writers, that first summer, 2008, doing a blues and poetry with Kim Addonizio (last summer, too, with her and Sam Ligon as The JuJu Band), the Dorothy Allison reading last summer. All those were great, but that first summer, when my workshop organized that participant reading at the bunkers probably moved me the most. They’d gotten frustrated because they didn’t get a chance to share their work. What an event that was. Now there are participant open-mic readings every night. I dig the way Centrum addressed that need for the attending writers.
What do I expect for the 2013 summer? Ha, pretty much more of the same but different and better. I’m looking forward to experiencing the whole PTWC environment again, meeting old friends and making new friends.

Also in 2012, you gave a craft lecture at Centrum about narrative modes in poetry. I remember that craft lecture generating more conversation and buzz than any other. Can you talk a little bit about the narrative, the lyric, the meditative aspects of poetry? Where do you find your “pocket”? Conversely, what do you notice in the work of contemporary poets, or in student work?

Wow, I might have gotten a bit long-winded in answering that first set of questions. I’m going to restrain my natural impulse to run my mouth and try to have some brevity from here on out. I’m a storyteller (ain’t that true of all southerners?) so I lean toward the narrative mode. I think most poems contain all three operating modes: lyric, meditative, and narrative.

One mode is usually in the poem than the others, but generally they all are there. The lyric is the stilled moment, like a photograph let’s say, where the poet can describe in detail everything captured in that moment. It is very sensory. The meditative is a movement into a rhetorical statement or question that will establish some principle essential to the poem, to create an effect more than to elicit an answer. The narrative is different from the lyric because story requires some some movement in. It also requires the conflict, the dramatic shift, and a resolution. In a poem I think the elements of story can be implied as well as given more directly. Even though much of my past work is dominated by the narrative, in each poem I give attention to all three modes. But I was drawn to the narrative by my focus in creating voice, the character speech of those who peopled the poems I was writing, letting them tell the particular situation was the engine of the poem. For awhile in contemporary work I was seeing poets move further away from the narrative. Everyone goes where they feel they need to for a particular poem, or set of poems. And like everybody else I experiment and discover, too.

At Centrum, you often collaborate with Kim Addonizio and/or Sam Ligon in performances that not only blend the narrative, the lyric, and the meditative, but also blend genre—music, poetry, singing, and story—into one performance. How do these collaborative fusions lead to telling stories in new, heightened ways?

First off, I really like their work as writers. I first met Kim Addonizio in Atlanta in 2007, and met Sam Ligon the next summer at the PTWC. Kim was there that summer, too, and she’s a terrific harmonica player. Used to hear her blowing. She should have her own blues band. Likewise, Sam is an accomplished guitar player and has played in bands. I love to sing, and I play a little bit of guitar, too. I think we all are drawn to the storytelling, poetry and prose. And our musical tastes overlap. These kind of things, the collaboration, always start with just jamming, and then discussions on those arts. Music is a wonderful bed for the story, it establishes tone and mood, accents on images and details, showcases shifts in pacing and dramatic tension. I think it hails back to the old campfire times and ballads, and we can put our modern stories, often dark and sometimes funny, into that renewed frame. Sort of like creating myths. And the feedback with music is immediate, creates this tremendous loop of energy from performer to audience and back. I think maybe The JuJu Band, our collaboration, besides just being writers who love to play together, are junkies for that.

In addition to Centrum, you’ve taught at Warren Wilson College and other places. How important is community for writers? How important is solitude?

I earned my MFA at Warren Wilson College, and later was awarded their Joan Beebe Teaching Fellowship which gave me the opportunity to teach in their undergraduate program. I actually taught there 3 years. But the MFA community is very tight, and a group of us, four poets who had crossed workshop paths during the residencies, continued to workshop as we were all creating our second books. This was possible online, even though we all lived in different time zones. Except for now, because I just moved back to North Carolina, I have sought a writing community. In DC it was the Black Rooster Collective, in Chicago it was the Chicago Wally, in Asheville I worked with Holly Iglesias and Sebastian Matthews, in Port Townsend there was close friend Terry Persun. All these areas also had a vibrant open-mic scene where the various poets tribes could be found. Once upon a time I used to bounce poems with Kim Addonizio, too. Basically we create in solitude, very important to me to have that too. I need to be able to close the figurative, and literal door, in my writing space. But I love having that tight community of people I trust, friends who know what I’m trying to do and will give that honest tough (and nurturing) love, the craft analysis, to my poems. I think most poets and writers want that, too.

Eleanor Wilner wrote, upon the publication of The Subsequent Blues, that you are the “master bluesman of letters,” and the “troubadour for people doing hard time on the planet.” Could you talk about the connection between the narrative impulse and the musical impulse?

Eleanor Wilner was one of my MFA professors. She is also a mentor (I have several) and she saw the development of that first. I remember our discussions on diction when I started riding the DC city bus loops listening to riders: their vocal rhythms, vocabulary, their situations, how they dressed, markers of culture and class. I took copious notes, believe me, because I wanted to discover how to replicate the voices of common people, developing the archetypes in The Subsequent Blues. Remember I said vocal rhythms, well there are vocal rhymes, too. Repetitions of sounds that I was interested in. It’s the subtle music in the poetic line. Putting that literary music there, and shaping narrative situations around issues of class and culture, urban or rural, to help me create poems that reflected the music I grew up listening too. That’s the project that led to The Subsequent Blues. All my books are results of such projects.

William Faulkner famously wrote, in Requiem for a Nun, that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Thinking specifically about the literary cultures of the United States—what obsessions do you see poets working with? What elements of the American past are poets still engaging in conversation with? Are writers reaching for difficult topics or retreating?

The writers I have enjoyed the most are those who reached for the difficult topics. The writers I connect with now are those who don’t stay within the safe operating envelope. I was in the submarine service and we once had a group of riders from the Pentagon on board evaluating us. They gave my captain a scenario requiring him to use tactics as if we were in a war situation at extremis. The first thing he did was take the boat at full speed down to a depth that greatly exceeded our test depth. He scared the hell out of them. I like writers who go for it. Faulkner is one of my favorites. His quote is so southern. Our American culture is so diverse, and so are the writers. The past is always with us, whether we’re saints or scoundrels. In North Carolina, like other southern regions, everything is tainted by race. All our history is entangled with that. We also have the same issues found everywhere else, but that bedrock of race, has shaped our responses to just about everything. I was once asked, as an undergraduate writer, if I was a black writer or a writer who was black. I was stunned for a moment considering how to respond: Before I took my first breath I was black, and I’ll be black even after I take my last, and I write. What I’m saying is everyone has a situation they are born into that influences the way we experience and see the world. Maybe this is more readily seen with people of color, or women writers, or gay writers, but everyone has their bag and their particular obsession is somewhere in it. Oh yeah, I don’t think that Americans like to discuss race. And then there’s Faulkner, who bravely and beautifully addressed the intersections of race and class and family in Mississippi.

What is not being written about enough?

Now this is the easiest question you’ve asked, or at least the one with the quickest answer I can give. The political poems are few and far between. I think poets avoid them. Except for women and people of color mostly. Those poems run the risk of pushing buttons that get the poet attacked. But I think the political poem is supposed to push those hot button issues. America has a history of political poets (or poets who also would write with the political perspective); Carl Sandburg, Muriel Rukeyser, John Beecher, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forche, Etheridge Knight, and Langston Hughes just to name a few (yes, I’m leaving out a bunch of poets here). These are some of the poets who responded to many different types of oppression. I think the political poets are still here, creating work, but maybe it doesn’t make it to print. Maybe it’s a publishing problem because it ain’t like social repression has gone away.

Where do you see American poetry headed?

And this would be the hardest one. I really don’t have an answer for this question. I mean I see writers experimenting with so many different things that I find interesting. I don’t want to be able to give a prediction on where I see poetry going, but I want to be in on the discovery.