Interview with Gabriel Cleveland, recently published poet

1) You have recently had your first poem published. What inspired the piece? How long did it take to write it, and find it a home? With whom did you publish it?
My piece, “When I Look in the Mirror,” is one of those brief moments of surreal horror that I feel like everyone has when they’ve allowed their mind to indulge in imagination. Eventually it happens reflexively, in sudden flashes. I was getting ready one morning in early 2011 and my mouth opened to a bloody naval scene, something out of Moby Dick. The image stayed with me and a week later I was able to pin it down on paper. It’s gone through about three major revisions since then, and it’ll finally have a home by the end of the month amidst MUSH/MUM’s second issue.
2) How long have you written poetry? Do you have goals in mind for your poetry career?
I’ve been writing since high school or even right before that, which is somehow fourteen years already, but if I’m going to be honest with everyone, it wasn’t until halfway through college that I was certain I even wanted to give it a full commitment. If I’m gonna be even more honest, I didn’t really start writing the kind of stuff I could reasonably call poetry until my senior year of college in 2010. It’s been long and convoluted, but I’ve gotten to the point where I recognize poetry as an amazing opportunity for me to share my experience in navigating life with others – a way of giving others the chance to step out of their worlds and into mine, and so my goal is to share that chance with as many people as possible, preferably by achieving further publications and eventually getting a few solid books out there.
3) Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has inspired you the most and why?
Oh man, this one’s gonna be all over the board, so bear with me: TS Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Albert Camus, Roger Ebert, Bob Dylan, Jeffrey Harrison, and Li-Young Lee, the last of which originally set me on this path to begin with when I first read “I Ask My Mother to Sing” and “The Gift.” All of these writers have a deep sense of searching, of trying to peek behind life’s many layers of mystery and come to some sort of understanding. And even where there’s no understanding to be found, there’s always this sense of profound appreciation for the very attempt at it, and I aspire to match the clarity with which they tackle even the most unknowable. Jeez, and that’s not even to mention Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Meg Kearney, Kathleen Aguero, Dorianne Laux, Teresa Sutton, and Dzvinia Orlowsky, all of whom taught me so much about how to reach to the depths without getting lost in obfuscation and to embrace the joys and brightness of life through their writing.
4) As a newcomer to publishing, is being published what you thought it would be? Did you feel accomplished?
It’s a total rush, and I can’t wait for more, but at the moment it’s just the newest precipice that I stand on the edge of, like Cortez in Kurt Brown’s poem “Cartology,” or like me when I first saw the Grand Canyon. It’s awesome, in the traditional sense of the word.
5) What best describes your style of writing?
I try to shoot from the hip without too much pretense, letting my thoughts and feelings sprawl out on the paper with as much clear and evocative imagery as possible to indicate my frame of mind, while also not going overboard. I want to capture my readers’ imaginations without railroading them or leaving things unclear, so they can have a good sense of my world and make an informed conclusion about the commonalities and differences in our lives.
6) What is your academic background?
I spent four years at Wells College, where I majored in English with a Creative Writing concentration while minoring in Japanese and practically everything else I could take classes in. I went on to complete my MFA in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College’s low-residency Solstice program.
7) Do you participate in other arts? Do they help you become a better poet, and more in tune with yourself?
Absolutely. I recently changed jobs and have had the opportunity to learn more about painting and drawing, and I’m certain that the fine attention to detail sharpens across mediums. Not only that, but it’s incredibly therapeutic! In addition to that, I’m starting to get involved in film production and collage art as well, both of which are great ways of learning how to look at things from different angles and capitalize on the brain’s ability to reorganize even things it took for granted it knew inside and out.
8) Where do you see your poetry writing taking you in five years?
When I think back to where I was five years ago, I was still very much a follower in terms of how I wrote and motivated myself to keep writing. It’s only been the past couple years that I’ve truly been able to write for myself because it was something I could genuinely pursue without feeling beholden to anyone else. That was a big breakthrough for me, and I can only see myself becoming more prolific and inventive, taking on bigger challenges like the Poetry Postcard Month Paul Nelson runs every year in August and the heroic crown of sonnets I inflicted on myself a couple years ago. And like I mentioned earlier. Those books gotta happen sometime.
9) Do you read contemporary poetry? Does being published inspire you to look for other contemporary poets to read?
Of course. There are so many spectacular writers out there and it’s inspiring, intimidating, and enlightening to see how other people are making it through this new millennium so far. There’s nothing like reading a poem from your own time period and feeling like the writer held out their hand and welcomed you in.
10) What book is your personal favorite?
I think the answer I’ve been going with is Jeffrey Harrison’s “Incomplete Knowledge.” It encapsulates all those things I mentioned above which are obviously incredibly important to me: the searching, the insight, the clarity, and the willingness to say, “Here’s my take on life, in all its crazy, beautiful terror and wonder”
11) Do you feel your surroundings play a role in your writing?
Certainly. If I’m somewhere I’d rather not be, whether it’s occupation-wise or location-wise and I write a poem, it’ll come out a lot more rough, aggressive, or gritty. But I always try to capture the wonder and complexity of living, so it actually helps to have the juxtaposition of different places and frames of mind when I’m writing a poem. Sometimes I’ll even hold off on the second half of a poem specifically to write it when I’m somewhere that will draw a desired feeling out of me.
12) Please feel free to share inspirational words for other poets seeking to be published.
This process so often feels like yelling into the vacuum of space or, less dramatically, yelling at your vacuum cleaner. You put your heart and energy into a passion that few people share or even care to talk about and it can get incredibly lonely feeling like you’re seen as the one fool who thought getting a degree in poetry was a good idea, but at the end of the day, it was a good idea. It seems like a lot of people live life reactively without a great deal of contemplation or appreciation for the inner workings of being. Then they hit a certain age and that wall of questions about the meaning of it all hits them with the full force of every brick. As poets, we get to consciously build that wall through life and know each brick intimately. We get to develop a stronger foundation of understanding and insight, and, even though it doesn’t always seem like it, there is life out there somewhere, waiting like the space station for your newest transmission or, less dramatically, like a dust mite waiting for the next time you vacuum the carpet.
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