In January of 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting poet Hannah Gamble at Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN, for a reading of her collection Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast. She signed my copy of her book, wishing that all my “MFA dreams will come true,” as I smiled nervously and tried not to embarrass myself with the impatient line of people behind me.
Now, in finishing up my MFA, I still think of Hannah Gamble daily—not so much out of sentimentality, but out of following her Instagram posts about handcrafted hats and various dog adventures. I read through her collection again and was just as taken as I was two years ago with her images, moments of complex truth, and undeniably unique voice.
Through the wonders of social media, Hannah agreed to answer questions I had (after poring over other interviews online) about her poetic relationship with the South, music, teaching, and launching into the writing world, particularly post-MFA.
Hannah Baggott: In an interview with Keep Louisville Literary, you talk about how your interest in animals and body stem from being raised in Nashville, Tennessee’s conservative Christian community. Your work pushes up against this culture. For example, in your poem “Group Meditation Post Allison,” you write:
“I wrote in a letter that day
that we were not the body of Christ,
but we were some kind of body.”
How else has Southern culture, which I often feel is grounded in conservative Christian culture, influenced your work? Do you or would you identify as a Southern poet?
Hannah Gamble: I think growing up in the conservative Christian south made me very interested in true, unmediated speech/radical honesty; as a kid (and even now, really) nothing makes me more uncomfortable that not knowing whether or not a person really means what s/he is saying; once my great aunt asked me if I would like to join her and my uncle for a Bible study and I said “No, thank you!” and then she was angry at me and I cried while loading the dinner dishes into the dishwasher. I really didn’t understand that sometimes offers are not offers and choices are not choices.
I would identify as a Southern poet if it meant that I could enter a good contest or get a good fellowship. I don’t really feel a kinship with the South, and I think I’m able to remember I’m from there mostly because there’s an enjoyment payoff when I do: it’s funny that I’m from there because I don’t feel close to it at all.
Of course, none of this is to say that I don’t love many people (including all the members of my immediate family) who live in the South; I just prefer the dynamics of a big city—public transportation, the mixing of all (most) peoples, street performers, mandatory dog-poop pick-up, so many festivals and concerts in the parks and street fairs, trashcans on every corner, more Lyfts and Ubers, more people who are single into their late 20s and 30s, so many active artists, excellent thrift stores, so many different kinds of food, and the sense that something will always be new or different and that I will never have exhausted all the city has to offer.
HB: I’ve been thinking about what is means to be a poet raised in “Music City,” as I’ve realized that I value the oral/aural art of poetry—the performance of it, if you will—as much as its on-the-page reading experience.
You are a musician and poet; your poetry readings feel well paced, purposeful, and sonically pleasing. How much do you value sound and performance in your own work?
HG: Anything that helps the reader connect more effectively with the audience is good, and sound, performance, musicality, theatricality definitely are connective tools. I hate being bored at poetry readings, and I’ve sadly seen some Starbucks first-day -orientation-presenters who put more work into connecting and being engaging than so many poets I’ve seen read. Truthfully, probably a lot of that is nerves on the part of the poet, but we all need to get over those (the basis for which is basically ego, because otherwise who cares?).
Maybe it’s thought in some academic circles that a poet shouldn’t be too much of a show—that she should let the work speak for itself. I remember feeling that I shouldn’t ham it up or seem to be having too much fun at my first few readings.
To remedy this (at least, what was the remedy for me), poets should go to all kinds of performances (comedic, burlesque, musical, theatrical, dansical) to see how other performers of art do it. It would be a mistake to think that poetry readings as they generally exist now are fun. If you do think they’re fun, then you probably have been doing nothing but fretting, grading freshman comp papers and writing a paper on Milton all year.
HB: In “Disrespectful Poem,” you write about your students—your experience sharing poetry with them. It’s incredibly powerful and provocative to address your intentions and hopes with their resistance.
There’s the phrase “Docendo Discimus”—or “through teaching, we learn.” How has teaching creative writing contributed to your craft?
HG: To teach well you have to get good at listening well. Listening well leads to writing. Well, maybe? What I mean to say is, my own writing has most been affected by reading wonderful things written by my students (most of them probably in 3rd or 4th grade or that one person from a class I taught in the fall of 2012 at Rice University, Amanda Mills, from whom I stole the phrase “I, myself, am a marriage” which makes up the last 2 lines of the last poem in my book) and then trying to do what they did.
HB: What are you reading right now? What’s on your to-read-very-soon list?
HG: Right now I’m reading Laodicea by Eric Ekstrand, and I suggest you all do the same. It’s really unlike anything I’ve read before, and I find it very beautiful and very moving and very imaginative and strange.
Being Dead in South Carolina is a collection of short stories by Jacob White that I plan on reading next. I saw Jacob read part of one story at a lit fest at Ithaca College and I was completely charmed and engaged—I didn’t immediately understand what the story was about or who the people were, so/but I was totally on board. Jacob is also really good at reading his work. Check him out!
HB: Do you have any advice for post-MFA poets and creative writers?
HG: Don’t lose sight of how big the world is and how much it has to offer you. Don’t feel like you have to give up all the other things you like and are in order to be a good poet. Maintaining a strong tie to all the other things you do will make your poems stand out—and maintaining your sense of enjoyment of and interest in the world will shine through all of it. People want to be near a person who’s having fun, even if it’s having fun by viciously articulating your misery.
Hannah Baggott is a poet and Lecturer of English at UNC Pembroke. She holds an MFA from Oregon State University. She is a regular contributor with PDXX Collective and winner of the 2015 Jan & Marcia Vilcek Prize for Poetry and the Joyce Carol Oates Commencement Award. Her work can be found or forthcoming in Passages North, [PANK], Ninth Letter, HOBART, and through her website hannahbaggott.com.