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The body naked: Hannah Gamble.

BRANDON LEWIS Last fall we were chatting before your reading at KGB Bar in NYC and we stumbled on a thought: What is the body doing in your poems? It's definitely doing something, often exposed but not there to be sexy.

HANNAH GAMBLE I want to start with the idea of humor, because comedy in general has been so important to me over the last 3.5 years and has been one of the top guiding forces for my second book of poems.

So, okay: I spend a lot of time around guys. Many of my best friends since I was 4 years old have been guys. One thing about guys is that they can use their bodies for comedic purposes: I had two friends in grad school who would sometimes walk out of the bathroom with their asses hanging out of their belted skinny jeans and just stroll by while I was reading to see if I'd notice.

I wish that I could use my body for those kinds of jokes. But my feeling is that if I were to do the same, it would make everyone uncomfortable, largely because there would be so many questions as to my motivations in doing this.

I've seen Molly Shannon (of SNL fame) say in an interview that she loved the physical comedy of guys like John Belushi and Chris Farley, and that she really wanted to make a space for women in that tradition. Shannon belongs to a group of female performers who all choose to make themselves as frumpy, awkward, and even grotesque as possible for the sake of laughs: Kristen Wiig, Amy Sedaris, Melissa McCarthy, and Cheri Oteri come to mind first.

So I want my poems to be able to go forth into the world with this kind of spirit: funny over sexy, awkward over lyrical, true over "smart."

BL What turns you off with 'sexy'?

HG You know, I guess it's more the thought that someone had the chance to give me a complicated emotional experience and chose, instead, to basically play only to the same part of my brain as does an iPhone dick pic. Or rather, sexy stuff in writing is great, but there also has to be a story outside of the speaker's desirability. Here's something by the ancient poet Archilochos that I found sexy (but that also gave me something to think about after):
    I said no more, but took her hand,
   Laid her down in a thousand flowers,
   And put my soft wool cloak around her.
   [...]
   I caressed the beauty of all her body
   And came in a sudden white spurt
   While I was stroking her hair. 


That last stanza is the one I really like. The first line is gentle, the second line is sudden, sharp, and frank, and the third line is gentle again--and, it doesn't permit the reader to envision vigorous humping. It says, "I was just stroking her hair and that was enough to make me come really hard."

What I had to think about afterwards was this: So many of the poems before and after these lines were about war and violence; I realized I had no idea whether I had just read a poem about a man getting to take a nice break from killing by having sex with a sweet girl in a field or a poem about a man having what amounts to non-consensual sex with some girl in his village.

BL Was there ever a period when you avoided writing poems that touched on sex or love or the body?

HG Definitely. For I long time I couldn't even imagine how to do it well because I hadn't read any poems written from a female perspective that talked about those things in a way that I liked and/or didn't find limiting/embarrassing/kind of insulting to women.

I remember reading some poems written by a woman who was teaching at one of the graduate creative writing programs I'd been accepted into; the poems I remember were something like this:
I was smoking in a French cafe.
    The man put his hand on my knee.
   His touch was gentle, but his intentions were not.
    


In my mind, this type of poem seemed to be offering the following things to the reader: (1) voyeuristic pleasure (I mean, being desired/a hot young girl getting ready to fuck in a back alley is de facto sexy, right?), (2) opportunity to pity/empathize with the speaker (if she didn't like the man), (3) some kind of comfort/voice/sense of solidarity for women who have unwillingly had their knees touched in French cafes.

I think these are mild offerings.

Then in grad school I remember reading an early poem by Sharon Olds that drove me to the point of at least one angry Facebook post:
THE TAKERS
    Hitler entered Paris the way my
   sister entered my room at night,
   sat astride me, squeezed me with her knees,
   held her thumbnails to the skin of my wrists and
   peed on me...
   [...]
  ... I lay
   crisp and charred with shame and felt her
   skin glitter in the air, her dark
   gold pleasure unfold as he stood over
   Napoleon's tomb and murmured This is the
   finest moment of my life.
    


This poem recounts a very unsettling, creepy, and (I would think) traumatizing thing. This is a story worth telling. But why isn't this story delivered on its own terms, with confidence that the event itself (a girl dominating her sister by holding her down in bed and peeing on her) is enough to stir the reader? Why oh why do we have to compare the urinating sister to Hitler, invading Paris and standing over Napoleon's tomb?

This poem came out in Olds' second book, The Dead and the Living, in 1984. I'd assume that she and her poems have changed a lot since then, but who knows--maybe you can tell me more about your feelings on this poem/Sharon Olds?

BL After reading the Sharon Olds poem, I think you're right--it's heavy-handed when the moment she already has gives enough. Also, what more could have been gained from keeping the uncomfortable focus on her young, bullied body?

HG I actually think the poem would have been more (I mean this in a positive way) brutal if the poet had not allowed the reader to escape the bedroom and the urine-smell into the relief of the open air where a man (a distant, mythic figure) is atop a horse.

BL In regard to your point on female comedians and your own position as a female poet: absolutely, men can bare their bodies and get a laugh out of it. But doesn't that open the way to other restrictions? When a male poet writes about his naked body, it's difficult for it not to be humorous, or over-sharing, or creepy.

HG I see what you mean; maybe the male body is less likely to be taken seriously as something to be treasured/savored/gazed lovingly upon? Then again, the flip sides of those experiences is being objectified, fetishized, and patronized, so maybe it all adds up to I could do without it and maybe men aren't missing much. But no, no; I think that male poets must have a challenge when it comes to writing about sex without seeming creepy or braggy. In fact, a guy I went to grad school with was fretting about that a lot in our first year: he thought men really weren't allowed to write about sex anymore because it just couldn't be done in a way that would not seem aggressive or oppressive. I argued with him at the time--I brought up writers like Mark Strand and James Tate who write about romantic relationships sometimes. But when I heard Strand read "Old Man Leaves Party" at AWP in 2008, I saw that he was performing the lines "It was clear when I left the party /That though I was over eighty I still had / a beautiful body" comedically, though when I read the poem on my own I hadn't registered those lines as anything but sincere.

BL I was at that Mark Strand reading, too! But is there any reason why we cannot go back and forth between the serious and comic or ironic?

HG No; in fact, I think the going back and forth between the two makes the experience of each sharper/more impactful.

BL Which has a better chance of making it into a good poem, a flaccid penis or an erect penis?

HG I love this question. I'll say first that I think that failure and good-hearted/unintentional impropriety make up a lot of what turns out to be funny. Honestly, though, those things lead to many of the richest tragedies as well. I know it's possible to have a good poem without straight-up comedy or tragedy, but in the absence of those things a good poem certainly needs something for the reader to be surprised/puzzled/disturbed/ delighted/fascinated/haunted by. I think a flaccid penis would be great in a poem about how someone doesn't want his penis to be flaccid, because disappointment and humiliation are interesting, or even in a poem about how a woman loves her boyfriend's flaccid penis because (something interesting!).

There's a Frederick Seidel poem called "Sex" that I think is a good example of how a straight, white male can write about sex without being braggy or creepy:
SEX
    The woman in the boat you shiver with
   The sky is coming through the window at.
   We will see. Keep rowing.
   You have
   An ocean all around.
   You are rowing
   On bare ground.
   The greasy grassless clay is dead calm.
   You love your life.
   You love the way you look.
   You watch a woman posing for you.
   How awful for you. There's no one there.
   Inside the perfume bottle life is sweet.
   The glass stopper above you is the stars.
   You smell the flowers,
   Some far off shore.
   The slaves are chained in rows rowing.
   The motion back and forth
   Is the same as making love.
   You fuck infinitely and that takes time.
   It's a certain way of talking to arthritis
   That isn't heart disease or trust.
   You can't remember why
   Your hands are bleeding back and forth.
   The thing about a man is that--
   Is what?
   One hand reaches for the other.
   The other has a knife in it to cut the head off.
   The fish flops back and forth
   In the bottom of the boat.
   The woman pulls the boat along
   By its painter that the king slash slave is rowing. 


Note the first line: "The woman in the boat you shiver with"--for me, this reads like "we, in the midst of this sex thing, weather the discomfort together"...

Seidel is often thought of as a misogynist. When I read his poems that deal with sex, however, I don't feel that he despises or even dislikes the women he writes about, but rather that he sees them as players in a game that entices but also wearies him--keeps him young but also will kill him. In these poems, Seidel is just as hard on himself as he is on any woman.

[For an interview with Seidel in which he speaks to this exact issue, check out: http://www.theawl.com/2009/10/frederick-seidel-women-areobjects-sexual-and-otherwise]

BL Let's think a sec about the body in visual arts. Have you heard of the sculpture currently displayed at Wesleyan College? It's called "Sleep Walker" and depicts an almost naked man clad in tighty-whiteys with arms outstretched and eyes closed. There is currently a petition with thousands of signatures to have it removed because it disturbs many students. Do you think representation of the body in poetry is able to cause shock or outrage as well as it can through the visual arts?

HG I love the sculpture. Here's the "conclusion" it leads me to: It's really hard to tell when someone's about to cause trouble vs. when they're in some serious trouble and need help. I guess if I saw a man in his underwear on a university campus I would think something was very wrong--still, would my first thought be that the man wanted to hurt me, or that the man was seriously hurt, himself? Maybe both?

Honestly, it's hard for me to imagine any representation of the body in poetry causing as much trouble as that statue. Most public poems (carved into stone in a square or painted on a building) are inspirational or memorial: country, community, human spirit--not soft middle-aged men in unflattering underwear. But I tell you what: I wish it were otherwise, because soft middle-aged men stumbling helplessly toward the cold woods is what humans are, just like my 78-year-old grandmother in her wheelchair with lipstick on her teeth and her stomach sliding out from underneath her sparkly Christmas sweater is what humans are. Humans are frowny bellybuttons and sagging labia and attractive cheek moles and fluffy earhair and pale eyebrows and really white fingernail moons. I want public poems to accurately represent what humans are.

BL I understand that you've been posing for painters. Does this make you feel more or less self-conscious about your own body?

HG When I started doing it, it was because I had just moved to Chicago and needed money. I felt protected by the fact that I didn't know anyone in the city--no one to judge me for doing it, and no one I know unexpectedly showing up in a session. I also thought it would be a great motivator for me to stay in shape.

What ended up happening after just a few months of modeling was that I became much less concerned about the state of my body; I saw that some artists drew me much thinner/more beautiful/younger-looking than I thought I was and some artists drew me much heavier/less attractive/older-looking than I thought I was. Everyone was seeing something different and everyone's levels of skill and styles were different.

BL Let's talk about the last couple lines in your poem "Growing a Bear," published in Poetry: "Past the age of athletics, most friends don't even know what each other's bodies / look like, flushed, tired showering, cold." Where do these lines leave us, as far as intimacy? How could we know each other's bodies?

HG I think I was thinking that it might be okay for people to see each other's bodies outside of a sexual context--healthy, even! Modesty is a thing, you know... and I guess that's fine. But the idea of being modest kind of reinforces the idea that something bad will happen if you let people see your ass or your nipples or your dick. So we protect our bodies as if they're some treasure (in the way that an atomic bomb is a treasure). And listen: I think bodies are treasures, but in the way that lots of natural things are--plants, animals, etc. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that I know I can be alone in a deserted warehouse studio full of 100% men during a power outage and there will be no gang-bang (Platform Studios, July 2012). And once I accidentally saw my friend's balls in his shorts and it was fine. I don't think that visually knowing people's bodies is required in order to be very close with someone. But I know that being actively afraid to even accidentally see someone's body is sad, and I think a lot of us kind of are that thing.

BL In your first collection, your poem "We Can Walk Towards the Future as Towards a Luminous City," you write a series of imperatives, including: Dress yourself in the dark. / Undress yourself/when he's out/getting the mail." From another poem in the collection, "In a Time of War," we hear "birds have tiny penises" and cats have barbed penises. Do you see an element of fear or absurdity in both of these poems?

HG Absolutely. Let's talk about the fear: In the first poem you mention, the fear at work is the fear of someone looking at "my" body and not liking it. This was a fear I had, myself, until my late twenties. Until then, only one person had seen my body, and he was in love with me. I'd disliked my body since late high school, and had concluded in college that only men who were in love with me would like it. Oddly (wonderfully!), the promiscuity of my late twenties helped me do away with this unpleasant way of thinking very quickly.

Now, the kind of fear present in the second poem has to do with the threateningness of penises. I definitely was afraid of penises when I was a child/teen, because I didn't even know what they looked like, and the thing you don't know about but are taught will hurt you is a scary thing. When I was about 15 I tried, in a very safe way, to learn more the thing I feared by summoning a naked man while lucid dreaming. However, at that time, I still had no idea what a penis looked like, so my brain gave me a naked man with a baby carrot for a penis (we made do).

BL Last question. What word do you like best: nude, disrobed, naked, buck naked, bare, garmentless, unclad, au naturel, or peeled?

HG NAKED!

HANNAH GAMBLE is the author of Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast (Fence Books, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Believer, Rattle, and elsewhere. In 2014 she received a Ruth Lilly/Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and also began sending out her second book of poems.

BRANDON LEWIS lives and teaches in New York City. He received an MFA in poetry at George Mason, and his writing can be found in The Missouri Review, Salamander, Spork, apt, and Poet Lore.
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Author:Lewis, Brandon
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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