People often draw unflattering comparisons between Los Angeles and Miami. Traffic, corruption, vanity — both cities excel in all three. It is less common to hear someone cop to having a crush on the two metropolises. A poet, rarer still. But Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart (2005) and Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist Apocalyptic Swing (2009), isn’t your run-of-the-mill poetess. “I’m kind of in love with Miami,” the boxing aficionado, sports(ish) blogger, and award-winning poet told me.
In fact, she loves it so much she’s due in this weekend for the start of the O, Miami poetry festival. On Friday at Boater’s Grill, she and L.A. gallery owner Heather Taylor will host Eating Our Words, a combination of two wondrous phenomena: pork and poetry. Starting at 7 p.m., the event is a traditional Cuban pig roast with readings by poet Tracy K. Smith. Then, on Saturday, Calvocoressi and FIU professor-poet Denise Duhamel will do readings at the Abe’s Penny Live opening at ArtSeen Gallery in Wynwood. That event also starts at 7 p.m. and features photographs by Beached Miami’s own Robby Campbell. (Learn more about both events on omiami.org.)
I recently spoke to Calvocoressi about the “beautiful mess” that is Los Angeles, self-discovery as an erotic act, and what songs are making it onto her LAX to MIA playlist.
In an interview, you called Los Angeles a “poet’s paradise”. Why is that?
GC: Los Angeles is a city that continues to surprise me everyday. I think there’s a lot of similarities between Los Angeles and Miami. Both are cities that are constantly surprising. They’re truly international cities, and in that way they’re truly American cities because there are so many different people making this beautiful mess and in the midst of it making beautiful art. A lot of people have the wrong impression that there isn’t a real artistic and intellectual life in L.A. That’s absolutely not true. One of the things that I love — and I think this is true of Miami — is that there’s a sense that anything is possible and that you can dream in this incredible way. So in L.A., the one thing I found as an artist is that things like poetry and food and film and comics — all of this stuff can live together in an exciting way. I think it has something to do with the movie industry.
You’re coming to Miami to host Eating Our Words — what is the intersection between food and words?
GC: We hear so much about right now about things like sustainable culture and being green and artisanal acts related to food. It seems to me that writing a book or a poem is also kind of an artisanal act, both in terms of the kind of care it takes and also the support it requires from your community in order to keep being able to do it. So we [Heather Taylor and Calvocoressi] feel really passionately that, whether in food or poetry, we’re talking about what it means to be involved in artisanal aspects of your community. Saying you are part of a sustainable system is supporting your local bookstore, supporting your local writers, supporting the people who are cooking in your community. It’s a way of thinking about the importance of public action and how that relates to everything we put in our body, whether it’s food or literature.
I read that you used to come to Miami as a kid. Did you have family here?
GC: My grandmother and I would come every February and we would stay at my aunt and uncle’s house in Miami. She [the aunt] worked at Viscaya. In some ways, I think part of the reason I love L.A. so much is I have sense memories of things like palm trees and blue, blue skies from when I was little [in Miami]. It feels very magical to me, and also comforting.
But some of the strangest memories of my life are from Miami. I was there during the hostage crisis with Iran. I have such a memory of sitting on the floor of my aunt and uncle’s house, watching the people walking with the black masks over their eyes. I was there when Reagan got shot. I was also there when the Pope got shot. So I have the strangest memories of being in Miami when these giant cultural events happened, staying in a ranch house with this wall of windows looking out at these green, green, green trees, and aquariums all over the house.
And these strange things would happen in the outside world when I was there, but then we would go outside and — for a kid from Connecticut, I cannot explain what it was like to go out outside and pick a guava. It was a totally other planet for me. Strange, but amazing.
Since someone seems to get shot every time you come to Miami, I’m sure you weigh the decision to come here heavily.
GC: I know! Like, what is the deal?
Seeing as you had all these intense experiences in Miami, does the city factor into your poetry?
GC: Miami does function in my artistic life now. I don’t necessarily think of it as, I would go to this place and these dangerous things were happening. But I felt like I was going to a place both foreign to me and really magical. It looks different, it smells different. Even when I was little, I could look at Miami and realize there were places that were really different from where I grew up. It seemed that there was so much possibility.
The things that were happening on screens while I was there — whether the screen of a television or the way a window can look like a screen when you look through it — those had an intensity and a tenor that I think really affects my work now. The way, for example, that color saturates my work, and the way media and political events figure in my work. I think my relationship to that really did being in Miami.
Your poem “Conversion Theory With Canyon” begins with the line, “Any way I look at this city, it’s clear my life is changing.” How is your life changing, and what does it have to do with Los Angeles?
GC: That poem is about the conversion process [to Judaism] that I’m going through. That is something that has been a huge part of my life in Los Angeles. I live in a neighborhood that’s very close to a number of orthodox Jewish neighborhoods and … recently became a part of a remarkable synagogue.
But the poem is also about how you can move to a place and come to a greater understanding of yourself, and how that in itself is a form of desire, a kind of erotic act: finding a new part of yourself and opening up to the possibility of really profound change in your life. L.A. has definitely been a huge part of that.
In an interview before the 2009 Miami Book Fair, you said “I like thinking about the good aspect of cliché”. I wouldn’t expect a poet to say that. What is the good aspect of cliché?
GC: It’s kind of like talking about really good pop songs. I think cliché comes from the most pure, emotional response that has very little to do with thinking. Like when you see someone and you fall in love, the feeling of your heart exploding into your chest. If you can get that feeling into a poem or into a song — that’s the kind of thing that changes people, makes them feel an incredibly close connection to your work.
So I don’t think it’s the cliché that’s the terrible thing in the poem or your song. But when you have that, you create this responsibility to create an equal opposite force that pushes against that and challenges it. It seems to me that those moments of cliché in a poem are really the greatest moments of artistic opportunity. The real challenge is, how do you get that into a work and then find something that is strong enough to hold off the freight train of that emotion. When cliché is doing its job, it’s evoking a feeling and then it’s being pushed against by something that is contradictory or surprising in a way that has more depth. And then it creates a really interesting engine, a really interesting muscle in any kind of writing or art.
I always think it’s funny when people say, “That’s cliché — get rid of it” or “Your work should be entirely devoid of cliché”. I think that’s easier than figuring out how to turn cliché into something remarkable.
Speaking of pop songs, I read in Memorious that you were obsessing over a particular section of Regina Spektor’s “Dance Anthem of the 80’s”.
GC: That’s something I’ll do — I’ll find the hook I’m interested in and just loop it over and over and over again, working through it. In some ways it’s like working through cliché. I work from the surface and the most beautiful part of the hook, and then go deeper and try to figure out what it is that keeps calling to me.
Very often I incorporate it in ways that I don’t think the reader knows but can feel. I’m working on a big work right now about architectural folly, so I’m listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin. With pretty much any poem I’m working on, there will be a piece of fairly challenging, non-vocal classical or jazz music that I’m thinking about. And then there will be a pop song that the reader will never know about. But there’s a moment in the song that in the most irrational sense evokes a feeling that I find very true.
I’ll listen to that song very intensely — very often I’ll put on my headphones and go very a really long walk and imagine the movie of the poem. I’ll let myself have the most emotional experience I can have with that song, paying particular attention to the way it rises up at me. Then I’ll go home and spend the rest of the day working against that. I’ll look at this moment of joy and unadulterated feeling — which is what I think really great pop songs can generate in you — and then I’ll hold my hand up against the moments and say, “No, you can’t keep coming toward me. Now I’m going to push against you.”
That’s what I do. Pop songs give me a great gift in that way.
On Twitter you said you were making a Miami playlist. What’s on it?
GC: There is absolutely going to be some pop music on it. I’ve been listening a lot to John Coltrane’s Transitions. I’ve been thinking about flying to Miami listening to that. There’s a great Cuban hip-hop group, Oreshas. I’ve been listening to their first album [A Lo Cubano] quite a bit. There’s a lot of Rolling Stones, because I remember my father went to the Rolling Stones concert right around the time I went to Miami once when I was little. And I was constantly trying to figure out what that song “Start Me Up” was about. I was like, “What do you mean, ‘You make a dead man come’?” And the picture of that album cover with the tattooed head — that was very much on my mind when I was in Miami at one point.