Lisa Gill is the recipient of an NEA fellowship in poetry and author of five books. She founded the Local poets Guild and lives near Moriarty, NM with her dog.
You’re doing a lot of your writing away from Albuquerque – out in nature. What is the experience of being removed from the noisy city like? Do you feel your writing voice connecting to the new imagery and sounds?
I’ve actually spent most of my life living rural. As a child, we moved frequently, sixteen states and countries before my family arrived in Albuquerque when I was twelve. Most of those residences, even for the six years in Europe, were on the “edges” of small towns where I could hop out into nature whenever I liked. Which was often. In New Mexico as an adult, for the most part I’ve continued to hover around the edge of the city, safely cloistered in rural communities: Carnuel, Alameda, Cedar Crest, and now I’m back to the high desert near Moriarty. I like living at the margins. Edges teach you things in ways I appreciate.
I prefer a different kind of engagement with the planet. The manuscript I wrote while living in Albuquerque for two years won The Red Mountain Press Award for Unique and Extraordinary Achievement—but for me the achievement was with language and sound, the actual form of the poems. While some of the themes persist throughout the body of my work, the subject lines and urban imagery field I worked with are not ones I’d willingly return to. Of course, writing doesn’t always give you a choice as to what’s going to rise up. I know I’m not done grappling with violence but my own survival comes first and for me right now that requires hermitage and land.
I find myself returning to your book Caput Nili often, the story you tell through your verse is so affecting. A line that has stuck with me is, “I knew: legs matter” because you assert a truth and make no apologies for your search for answers from a largely apathetic medical field. Can you speak to how your writing has been shaped by (or in spite of) the diagnosis of a chronic illness like MS?
Caput Nili was my third book, though it was published much later, fourth, almost fifth, after delays caused by the complexities of working on a poetry and prose hybrid with illustrations. In general, writing and various types of revelation don’t cause me fear per say, at least not during the process. Since childhood, language is a place I have considered “home,” perhaps more home than any of the thirty-eight structures where I’ve resided. Language, however, can also be a place where I sometimes process delayed fear. Undeniably I have complex PTSD, from multiple violent traumas and medical challenges. When you are whittled down to baseline survival, actually having to fight literally or metaphorically for the basics of breath or movement, sometimes the emotions of the moment go underground, play second fiddle to the essentials of staying alive. Later, sometimes years later, they rise. Belatedly, terror can become fiercely present, begging for a sort of delayed ratification: “Now I must acknowledge that yes, that was a heinous time of great fear and terror.”
That was the case with Caput Nili, I couldn’t ignore what had happened or the actual logistics of how I got my diagnosis. My body did not give me the option to stay mum with those stories. A person shouldn’t have to threaten to hold up the MRI clinic with a sawed-off shotgun in order to get basic medical help. Bias against poverty or mental health labels should not preclude medical care for the body. Even though I “won that war” personally, I also know too well that my story is not actually unique.
There are times when the words don’t come for writers. What would you offer those who are struggling with a serious case of writers block?
I have incredibly mixed feelings about the concept of “writer’s block.” Sometimes, quite frankly, I would prescribe a good hefty case of writer’s block. Recently I wrote a fairly elaborate essay to that end titled, “In defense of Writer’s Block, or How to Advertise a Garage Sale in 1,150 words.” In the essay, I suggest wearing brightly colored knit mittens and physically preventing the hands (or mouth) from writing. I really do believe that not writing is a vital tool and as important to the process of writing as any application of language.
To the beginner, I’d say, “Discipline matters. Get as many of your tools as possible and learn to use them. Write around the clock. Don’t short yourself on the full vitality of the potential relationship you can have with language. Don’t let fear hinder you.”
To the more established writer who thinks they’ve mastered their craft, I’d say, “Think again. Stop writing for a day or an hour or a year, and ask yourself how you can go deeper, what you can still learn, how you can push farther. Ask what language and life can teach you. Let something besides your own proficient intellect be the guide for a while. Don’t let confidence (or the desire for control) stultify your work.
What books are on your nightstand right now? Any great books we need to be reading?
Read the mystics of all traditions. Or any tradition. Read anything that can wake the mystic in you. Or anything that can wake you. I have more faith in language than people—think any language is bigger than we are as humans and can guide us if we read and listen and fully engage words. To reawaken joy, I’ve been returning to old loves: Hildegard of Bingen, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Villon, Li Po, Lao Tsu, Solzenitsyn, Czeslaw Milosz, and sometimes I toss in a bit of Hafiz or Subcomandante Marcos. Up next, I’m trying to track down the only Clarice Lispector book I failed to read in my twenties, a text loosely about communion with god and bug eating. Can’t wait.
Rosanna Cordova is pursing degrees in English and Psychology at UNM. She and her significant other are avid cyclists and participate in fundraising for the MS Society. She’d love to have her very own penguin. Currently she has a rescue dog and a kitten named Pema. She is a reader for Blue Mesa Review. Her life is full of verbs.