Gabrielle Octavia Rucker on the Power of Decentering Human Experience in Poetry
Peter Mishler Talks With the Author of Dereliction
For this next installation of Interview with a Poet, contributing editor Peter Mishler corresponded with Gabrielle Octavia Rucker. Rucker is a writer and editor from the Great Lakes currently living in the Gulf Coast. She is a 2020 Poetry Project Fellow and 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her debut poetry collection, Dereliction, is currently available via The Song Cave.
Peter Mishler: I’ve noticed you describe yourself as self-taught. Could you talk about what you mean by this?
Gabrielle Octavia Rucker: I don’t have an MFA. I don’t have a college degree of any kind. My highest level of completed education is high school and that used to be a point of shame and embarrassment for me. When most of my friends were in school, I was working as a janitor, and I was jealous of the opportunities being in a classroom gave them.
I was reading a lot during this time of my life, more than I have probably ever read before and I had no syllabus. I had no steadfast guides. I read whatever I liked on my own timetable, and while that might sound extremely simple, it was not something my friends who were in school could do.
Everything they were reading had some exchange rate attached to it that my reading practice didn’t. If I didn’t like a book, I could stop reading it and pick up another—I didn’t have to waste time writing a nine-page book report on something that didn’t interest me. There was no penalty of refusal or failure. For better or worse, my formative years as a writer were not shaped under anyone’s poetic ideals but my own.
That’s not to say I didn’t have people in my life who I saw as important teachers who helped shape my work. I spent my late teens to mid-20s in Chicago and was very much a recurring character in the DIY poetry and open mic scene, two of which I frequented the most (and can actually remember the names of) being Real Talk Live and Westside School for the Desperate.
So many of the poets I encountered in those spaces made a great impression on me, and I learned how to perform and breathe through my poetry. For the first time, I got to share my writing, get feedback, and talk with people about their own, which was something I had been deeply craving that I couldn’t create for myself. I found Chicago and its people to be great teachers of poetry and it was in that city, working and socializing, that I learned the true and everyday traditions of poetry.
PM: Could you name some of the poets who were most meaningful to you during this time? In what ways do you notice their presence in your work?
GOR: I was very enamored at the time by the writing of Frank O’Hara, Jorge Borges, Louise Erdrich, Jamaica Kincaid, Roger Reeves, Milan Kundera, Banana Yoshimoto, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and John Steinbeck, to name a few.
I was also reading a lot of Louise Glück at that time in my life, a lot of Yusef Komunyakaa too. I admired how fixed Glück’s voice could be, how well channeled the speakers of her poems came through and onto the page. It seemed to me she had the ability as a writer to transcend scenery, and even character, so that the voice and the tone of the poem took precedence over its other ingredients.For me there has always been another side to life, one that operates not on reason or colonial logics, but in feeling, sensing and intuitive recognition, modes of inquiry or knowing that are shared between human and non-human entities and are often discredited as unreliable forms of information.
Reading Komunyakaa had an opposite effect. His poetry has a different gait—it’s more melodic and feels good in the mouth while reading aloud. Often, I find myself describing his poetry as something nearing architecture, not necessarily in form but how they are designed sonically. I can only hope that in my own writing I’ve been able to strike a balance of these.
PM: Is there a moment or image or memory or feeling from your childhood or youth that – thinking about it now—in some way presages that you would become an artist in adulthood?
GOR: It’s hard to say, as most of my childhood memories aren’t so much about what I liked or any talents I might have shown or hobbies I gravitated toward. The majority of my childhood was observational, at least as I lived it. I liked to stare out of the window—I liked to watch other people and eavesdrop on strangers. I also, for the first two years of my life, had no one my size to play with besides our pet cat, Son (sometimes spelled “Sun”) so I spent a lot of time paying really close attention to my cat and working to notice whatever the cat might be noticing.
When I would go outside to play or something I found I was always trying to see through the eyes of the things around me: birds, bugs, trees, the people up in the plane flying overhead, etc. I could handle the macro and the micro with great ease and was constantly throwing myself around and into all these crazy shifts of perspectives. Obviously, at the time, I wasn’t thinking about it so hard, I was just like, “I love to play!”
In hindsight, maybe that lack of boundary between myself and the external presages something. Saying that, I’m also the type of person who has a natural sense and conviction about what I want out of life. I knew from a young age I wanted to be a writer, and more importantly I knew that I could (and would!) be a writer. When you’ve been writing poetry since you were seven years old, that’s an easy thing to believe. Especially if you take yourself as seriously as I do myself.
PM: Your description of your childhood makes me think about some of the poems from the collection that seem to capture this childhood observational stance. Would you want to talk about that in some way—the nature of your work in relation to private language and private seeing that seems to take place in the book? Another way to ask might be this: to what extent is your childhood a subject of your writing?
GOR: Childhood is certainly a central theme of the book, whether it be my own or a more general atmosphere of childhood. Beyond that, childhood here takes shape as a kind of knowing, an intuitive technology if you will. As a child I experienced a lot of unexplainable shit and while that sometimes surprised me, it was never so strange to me that I was unable to incorporate it into my personal understanding of how the world worked. In that way I approach childhood in a kinda Studio Ghibli-esque way throughout the book: “young girl unknowingly crosses the line of reality and into the spirit world,” you know?
PM: Yes—and I wanted to ask you about your epigraphs. I’ll reprint the first one in its entirety, from Aimé Césaire: “In the current state of things, the only avowed refuge of the mythic spirit is poetry. And poetry is an insurrection against society because it is a devotion to abandoned or exiled or obliterated myth.”
The second is from Walker Evans, and begins: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing here.” Could you chart how these came about in relation to the book. Have these phrases stuck with you over a period of time? Or was there some occurrence where they felt right for a collection of your work?
GOR: The epigraphs function in a few ways. The first is citation. I’m thinking of citation here as Kameelah Janan Rasheed describes it, as a form or aspect of storytelling. In that way, the epigraphs are like pit-stops on a road map. They are places in my personal reading and writing where I stopped to get out and stretch.
The epigraphs also function as directions, clues, or suggestions to how the narrator of each section approaches the book. In that way they are a bit like notes for the actors (readers), they help convey a certain kind of atmosphere.
PM: I wondered in particular about your relationship to Aimé Césaire and your interest in the mythic spirit described in that epigraph, which for me, always ties into the surreal. So, I’m curious about your perspective on all three of these things: your reading of Césaire, what he calls the “mythic spirit,” and surrealism.
GOR: I’ll start by saying I’m in no way a scholar of Aimé Césaire or his wife, Suzanne Césaire, who’s work I’ve actually read more of than her husband’s. I’m merely an enthusiast so excuse me for any potential misreadings of their work.
The epigraph in question is from Aimé Césaire’s 1944 essay, “Calling the Magician: A Few Words for a Caribbean Civilization” in which he states that, “The true manifestation of civilization is myth,” and that, “[c]ivilization is dying all around the world because myth is dead.” For me there has always been another side to life, one that operates not on reason or colonial logics, but in feeling, sensing and intuitive recognition, modes of inquiry or knowing that are shared between human and non-human entities and are often discredited as unreliable forms of information.
Mythmaking, of course, is founded upon what the modern and globalized society views as unreliable or illegible and is always in direct communication with the natural world around us. “We have lost the meaning of the symbol. The literal has devoured [us]. Scandalously.” What Césaire is giving language to is not something unique to him, nor did he create it. The mythic spirit lingers over this world torn asunder by quotidian colonialisms, globalization and Eurocentric logics, and it existed long before European domination, Christianity, or any other standardized religion.
The mythic spirit has many faces, many names, and many homes—as many homes as civilizations possible, as many homes as there are tribes and villages, outposts and cityscapes. And its vehicle of choice is and will remain poetic.
PM: And surrealism?
GOR: In Suzanne Césaire’s essay, “Surrealism and Us,” published in the journal Tropiques (October, 1943) she calls surrealism “the tightrope of our hope.” I’m not sure how hopeful of a person I am, at least not for or toward the agendas and prolonged duration of humanity as it now exists. Instead, it seems whatever hopefulness I do harbor is reserved for the non-human participants of this reality: animals, fungi, landmasses, bacteria, and the like who will, in all likelihood, outlive us.For me, surrealism is an instrument that speaks beyond the language of the human and allows for the decentering of human experience.
It’s important I think to acknowledge that, not in a nihilistic way, but a practical one. For me, surrealism is an instrument that speaks beyond the language of the human and allows for the decentering of human experience. It is literature’s closest gesture to the masked ceremony and acts as a facilitator of non-human possession.
Application-wise, I feel that surrealism is more of a disposition than it is a genre—you can’t really teach someone how to be a surrealist and the general tenants of the genre are malleable, personal, and often evade even the keenest of readers in meaning so as to remain impenetrable. In that way surrealism is just a title for a sensibility shared by the connective tissue of all things, living and otherwise, that colonialism tried to eradicate from us. It is the first and the final imperishable ritual of us all.
PM: This makes me think about something you mentioned earlier—your critique of academic reading as having an exchange rate attached. To what extent do you think of poetry as an anticapitalist force?
GOR: I think poetry is only as anti-capitalist as the poet writing it. Late-stage capitalism has managed to turn almost everything, everyone, and every type of hobby into a commodity. The poet and their poetry, of course, are not immune.
I see many poets (and authors, and publishers, and editors, etc.) of varying generations indulging in or aspiring toward the realm of the “literary micro-celebrity” to raise their value and push forward their personal brand. And I don’t entirely blame them—this nation has a horribly underfunded arts endowment, and no one should have to be a starving artist—but publishers and publishing houses, big or small, reward writers for this behavior and that creates a delusionally competitive and dangerous hierarchy that, to its core, mirrors capitalism in every regard.
As a result, you get poets interested in profit, or even worse, people interested in profit claiming to be poets. And more importantly, you end up with a population of brilliant and gifted writers who, for whatever reasons, are not deemed valuable or legible enough to support, and so we lose them to the machine and the cyclical noise generated by publishing systems and best-seller lists.
PM: I also wanted to ask about the division of the book into sections. Is there something you’d be willing to articulate about that decision—how that came about?
GOR: Ben Estes, one of my editors and co-publisher of The Song Cave (alongside Alan Felsenthal) made that suggestion. I was really insecure about the shape the book was taking and was having a really difficult time even conceptualizing a structure for Dereliction. Looking for reassurance, I sent in my most recent draft of the manuscript which included a very early draft of “Murmurs.” “Murmurs” at the time was much more episodic and functioned as a one long poem.
Ben wrote back to me suggesting “Murmurs” enter a bit earlier and actually open the book. I hadn’t even considered that, but it made sense, “Murmurs” really wasn’t operating in the way the other poems were. After I separated it from the rest of the manuscript, I sort of let “Murmurs” unravel and go wherever it wanted to go. I’ve often described that section of the book as breech.
The second section, “Dereliction,” is much more traditional and was a lot easier to organize. It all occurs in a familiar universe and is a bit more relatable.
PM: When you look at these two sections now are there ways that you see them communicating with each other? How do they talk to each other from your perspective? Is there anything surprising about their relationship that you didn’t expect to see?
GOR: I think I’m coming to understand that in each section there is something extremely dissociative and instinctual going on. The material worlds of each are largely unreliable and the scenery of each often shifts suddenly. The speakers or narrators of the poems often feel unmoored, unsafe, and are constantly sorting through and reanimating potentially false memories, some which even take the form of past-life regressions, in an attempt to place themselves.
The relationship I see is one of shared conflict, that nothing experienced within either section is truly verifiable. What we get is a fragmented involvement with one’s reality and no matter how observant the speakers of the poems seem, or how carefully they consider the objects and symbols they encounter, a faithful narrative cannot be constructed.
PM: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
GOR: Poetry is not a talent – it is a gift. Talent here meaning inclination or desire. Gift meaning that which is given. If we lived in a different kind of society people might recognize this. Poets, true poets, not the mass-produced type, should be heeded with great respect and caution.I think poetry is only as anti-capitalist as the poet writing it. Late-stage capitalism has managed to turn almost everything, everyone, and every type of hobby into a commodity. The poet and their poetry, of course, are not immune.
PM: What is a caution that should be heeded in the poets you tend to return to as a reader?
GOR: Immediately I think of the opening lines from one of my favorite Ed Roberson poems, queue (or the night traffic signals:
it is for your own safety you must stand
back from the window. outside is about to go
But also, I’m thinking of Edgar Garcia’s chapbook Boundary Loot (Punch Press, 2012). I’m constantly rereading it. Garcia’s gaze is so wide, and the landscapes and spirits the channels are so carefully adorned through his language—right down to the spacing.
That kind of ability, to recognize and make oneself available to the ancient and the intuited, is no easy thing to endure and I have great reverence for writers that are clearly being led through that space. What they are bringing to us in their writing, what they are interfacing with, is an excavated wisdom, something I think demands a cautionary and open-minded engagement.
Dereliction by Gabrielle Octavia Rucker is available via The Song Cave.