An Interview with Gerry LaFemina
by Kyler Lacey
Gerry LaFemina is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College with an MFA from Western Michigan University. He writes poetry and fiction and has taught at several schools including West Virginia University, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Sarah Lawrence College. He has been published in Rock & Sling 9.2 and many other venues. His most recent books include Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist (2013) and Little Heretic (2014).
Kyler Lacey: I read your poems “Divinity, Pennsylvania” and “On a Photograph Beneath the Headlines” in Rock and Sling issue 9.2 and was really interested in some of the images that you use, particularly the ones with the woman wrestling the Dalmatian into the minivan and the fireman that was either perspiring or crying. The whole setting and everything about the place in “Divinity, Pennsylvania” is really intriguing. Is this town based off of somewhere you have actually been or is it a construct?
Gerry LaFemina: Well, I’m interested in place and how we exist in it: personally, emotionally, spiritually. “Divinity, Pennsylvania” got its start driving through rural western Pennsylvania between readings. I drove by several churches, two different cemeteries, and several gas wells within a couple of miles. So the key landscape images came from that. The woman with the Dalmatian didn’t appear till later: that image evolved from roadkill, to an accident, to a lot of other things—I wanted ambiguity there though. Is the Dalmatian dead? Hurt? I wanted to suggest a possible rebirth.
And no, there is no place named Divinity, Pennsylvania—at least not that I know of. Pennsylvania has a lot of interesting names though (Eighty-four, Laboratory…) so I thought Divinity sounded like the name of a city Pennsylvania could have.
“On a Photograph Beneath the Headlines” came from my imagination: there had been a fire in town in which a couple of kids had died, and I tried to write about the ruins. The poem didn’t quite open up that way, so then I started to focus on people who might have been there. When I settled on the fireman, the poem found itself.
Most of my poems are constructs. I work with what’s possible. Richard Hugo says in The Triggering Town that it’s important to leave one’s triggering subject as quickly as possible. That seems right. So whatever I observe becomes mediated by the imagination or else it’s just reporting or worse, solipsistic. My life seems pretty boring—I lived it, I’ve told its stories, so I’m much more interested in the life of what’s possible.
KL: I was also interested in your section in the contributors note’s. There are a couple of questions I have based on what you said, but first, if you don’t mind me asking, what did you do to get thrown out of the catholic school?
GL: I went to a Christian Brothers school (as opposed to say a Jesuit school) and the Brothers were less than open minded. There were five types of kids at my school: jocks, stoners, Guidos, preps, and homeboys. They all hated each other. There was also one punk rock kid—that was me. And whereas they all couldn’t stand each other, they all hated me. After one fight too many, the principal—a good Christian Brother—told me that I chose to get beat up because I chose to be different. When I pointed out his hypocrisy, noting that Jesus was also considered a malcontent and rule breaker, I was told I could change or leave. I used some good four letter words and was told I’d made my choice. I remain convinced that his sense of Jesus was ill conceived.
KL: You have a really good way of describing your relationship to faith in the note, as well as talking about an interest in “poems of doubt” and a willingness to be the “little heretic.” I would like to know more about this and the way you see that coming out in your writing.
GL: I have no interest in writing a dogmatic poem. I have no interest in writing propaganda. Every poem, for me, is an attempt at understanding the universe and my role in it. That means asking questions. I write what I know, but only insofar as it helps me explore what I don’t know. Although there are stitches of autobiography in my poems, I’m much more interested in exploring the imagined life. The imagination is one of the things that separates us from other species. Whatever “god” there is is surely well beyond the human (he’s no good uncle that we pray to for ten dollars, and he gives it to us—that makes god human) and human comprehension.
More, I distrust blind faith. Faith only matters in the face of doubt. St. Thomas is my favorite saint. Love is only powerful in the times its challenged. So is faith.
KL: I noticed that in some of your poetry, there is a distinct difference in place. What is the importance of geographic setting in a poem for you? Could a poem like “The Sacrosanct” have taken place in another major city like Seattle or Detroit?
GL: I’m very much a poet of place. I started the poems that inevitably became Little Heretic by wanting to write New York as an adult. I had moved out of the City at the age of 22, and it had dramatically changed in 20 years or so. I moved back to NY part time, and started to write the City as I saw it, complete with its ghosts.
“The Sacrosanct” could have taken place in DC maybe or London. But it would be a different poem in other regards. That poem is entirely a construct: nothing in it is based on an actual event, but it comes from my understanding of those locales.
That said, my poems have always moved around. Vanishing Horizon has poems that take place in the Caribbean, in West Virginia, in Michigan, and in New York—all places I’ve been. I can’t help but be influenced by my landscape. The next book will be less grounded in a literal place but more so in an emotional place.
KL: In doing poetry set in places like Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, how important is in-person research and experience to your work? Do you go to a particular place before writing something there?
GL: I split my time between Western Maryland and New York. So that’s my research. But I tend to travel with a little notepad, and I’m always jotting down images and lines that might become something. Still, I don’t really consider it research. I don’t go places with the idea of writing about it. I go places and if I see something that catches my eye and ear, I might write about it.
But the landscape is always a reflection of the emotional landscape or the spiritual terrain I’m in. Our moods and obsessions always affect what we “see” and how we interpret what we see.
KL: How did your career as a writer begin? I mean, when did you start to write for your own enjoyment?
GL: I’ve wanted to write all my life. I was raised before things like Head Start, so I went to a daycare in the Brooklyn Public Library. I was surrounded by books as a young child, and I wanted to be an author all my life. In the scrapbook of my childhood that my mother kept, in kindergarten I said I wanted to be an author or an astronaut. In eighth grade, I wanted to be an attorney or an astronaut. I wrote stories, poems, and songs my entire life. I wrote punk rock songs and performed in bands; I wrote poems for girls I was too scared to ask out (but I was too scared to show them the poems, too) and I wrote a lot of bad fiction. I actually went to college to be a fiction writer, but I fell in love with poetry and began taking it seriously at the end of my freshman year.
KL: Where was your first publication?
GL: My first publication (that wasn’t a high school thing) was in a small magazine called Williwaw. It’s a magazine that’s long out of print now. But I remember thinking, because the envelope was so thick (they had sent the poems they hadn’t accepted back to me in the SASE) that it was a rejection letter. I was having a bad week so I put off opening the envelope for two days! It was a terrific feeling—I remember going to Thomas Lux (my teacher) and telling him immediately. And when the poem came out finally in the journal, it was a bit like a first kiss. I wanted more.
KL: How did you find out about Rock & Sling?
GL: I’ve known about Rock & Sling for awhile. I co-edited an anthology called Evensong: Contemporary American Poets of Spirituality, and in doing the research for that, I discovered new journals of spirituality and faith, and Rock & Sling was one of them. When I was at the Festival of Faith in Writing at Calvin College last year, I became reacquainted with the journal and met some of the editorial staff. I really liked the poems and the poets in the issues I picked up there, so I decided to send. It’s often a challenge for me to send to places that have a spiritual bent because I don’t think of my spirituality as mainstream in a particular way.
KL: You’ve published several books of poetry. Tell me a little bit about the experience of not only being published, but being published multiple times. Is the first time as good as the third or fourth time?
GL: Hmmmm. They’re different experiences. My first chapbook, Rest Stops, was very exciting—of course. It was a part of cooperative effort and the press did books by several of my friends, too. My first full length book, 23 Below, was published by a small press, but it got little support. Each book has had a different experience—all of them good, but each unique. It’s almost like asking which ex-girlfriend was “better.” I dated them all so I must have “loved” each of them, but my understanding and experience of what love is was different with each one—in part because of what I learned from the experiences dating the previous ones. So too, each book has had its own unique and very exciting experience in the world. That said, some editors and some presses have made certain experiences more pleasurable or more rewarding than others—and there are many factors that go into that. I don’t regret any of the books, and am happy with the presses I work with now.
KL: When you are putting together works for a book of poetry, do you write poems specifically for a book, or do you write the poems and arrange them into a book?
GL: I have no project in mind. I write poems, and whatever my unconscious obsessions are, they bubble up. I knew, with Little Heretic, I was writing a New York book, but I had no other parameters for choosing the work other than it would be the New York poems written between 2008 and 2013. I was trying to see New York as an adult. But even then, the process was the same: I knew it was time to “move on” as it were. So I pulled together all the poems and then started sorting through the poems that were keepers, the poems that surely weren’t and the poems that might be able to fit (maybe they needed work, maybe they needed to be re-envisioned, or maybe some could be combined). Then it’s a matter of finding a structure, of finding how the poems talk to each other, and how to create an arc of tension within that dialogue between the poems.
I’m just starting to work on a new book manuscript, tentatively titled The Story of Ash. It has lots of fire imagery in it, which is different for me. There are probably some 200 pages of poetry that I’ve written since Little Heretic (and maybe some poems that weren’t New York based that were written previously). I’ll have to cut that down to about 80 pages. Now it’s possible once I have that arc, once I have the order of the poems, I might discover (and I have in the past) the book needs poem to fill in the gap. Then I have to write that poem.
For instance, when I was putting together Vanishing Horizon I decided to separate these short lyric poems titled after tropical fruits and to use them as subtle chapter breaks. Well, in order for those “chapters” to be roughly the same length and to make sense, I needed another tropical fruit poem, and it had to move the book a certain way. So I wrote “Pineapple.”
KL: How long does it take you to write a poem from start to publication? Do you usually take a long time and sit on it before sending it out? Or do you mail it off once you feel like it is ready?
GL: I’m in no hurry to finish a poem. It often takes months from initial line to final draft. A lot of times I have just a fragment of a poem for several weeks. Once I decide to type it up, then I play with it. I have a few people who see typed poems and may give me some feedback. At a certain point, though, the poem’s got to get off my desk.
I won’t deny, though, certain poems, for whatever reason, excite me to keep working on them: maybe I’m doing something new, or else hitting some subject or some spark of language that feels “new” or fresh and I want to explore it more. Those tend to go through early drafts much more quickly than others.
I don’t know how to decide a poem’s “finished.” Even poems that have appeared in journals may get edited before they get in a book, and in all the copies of books I regularly use when I give readings have handwritten edits in them.
KL: Is there a particular medium that you prefer to draft in? Pen, pencil, computer, typewriter, or something else?
GL: I write poems in longhand, preferably in a black, medium point, roller ball pen. There’s something about the rhythm of my hand writing that feels essential to the rhythm of my poems. But also, I don’t want to see the poems looking like they’re “in print” too soon. When I look at a poem that comes off the computer it looks so clean—I can even put it in a font I like, etc. It looks too finished, too polished, so it’s easier to miss some of the flaws.
KL: Do you feel like you feel like your teaching career or your time as a student has been more beneficial to your writing?
GL: My time as a student prepped me for my time as a teacher. My years doing an MFA helped solidify my foundations as a poet. But it’s my work helping others build their foundations that reminds me to ask myself the tougher questions about poetry—to keep pushing, and to remember that there’s still so much to learn.
Kyler Lacey is currently an undergraduate at Whitworth University on the road to graduating with his B.A. in English at age twenty. When he isn’t fixing typewriters or working on his pink ’57 Chevy, he likes to spend his time out hiking in the woods near where he lives in the Pacific Northwest.