Updated: Sep 2, 2022
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets from around the world, celebrating the many creative voices who express themselves through poetry. This week, we welcome back one of our regular contributors, poet and teacher Gillian Kessler.
Gillian was an official Flapper Press nominee for the annual Pushcart Prize for 2021 and has recently published a new book of poetry called Ash in the Tree. As always, we are honored to share her beautiful work. It seems a terrific way to start out the year.
Gillian Kessler can be found dancing to loud music, teaching exuberant teens to appreciate language, writing in the early morning when everyone is asleep and exploring the wilds of Montana with her beautiful family. Gillian studied poetry at Santa Clara University with Edward Kleinschmidt, UCLA Extension with Suzanne Lummis and, more recently, in Missoula under the exceptional guidance of Chris Dombrowski, Mark Gibbons, and Phillip Schaffer. Her poems and essays have been published in Mamalode Magazine, and she writes frequently for Flapper Press. Her poetry was featured in the anthology Poems Across the Big Sky Volume II. Her first collection of poems, Lemons and Cement, came out in 2017. Gillian was also recently selected as one of the poets for the Montana Poetry Series. Her latest work, Ash in the Tree, was published by FootHills Press in July 2021.
We reached out to Gillian to catch up with her work and life here at the new year.
FP: Gillian, a lot has happened in the past year. How have world events, the pandemic, and the state of education impacted you as a teacher and as an artist?
GK: Oh, wow. That's kind of a massive question. I'm going to start with the pandemic. The pandemic hit two months after my mom died. I was already broken and in a place of wild transformation. Then suddenly, I was learning what Zoom was, I was using Google Classroom for the first time, I was trying to figure out how two teachers and two students were to live under the same roof and participate in school all day, at the same time. When the Zoom school day would end, I would have a visceral reaction, a propulsion, if you will, towards the open space above my house. After all the glitches and frustrations, all the screen madness, I would hit the trail. I'd walk for miles and miles. It was on these forays that many of the grief poems hit. I would see a shift in the wind and it would remind me of some gossamer scarf my mom once wore; suddenly, I would pause, take out my phone, and begin madly typing away. It was magical and surreal and totally unlike any artistic journey I've had before.
Later, when the social revolution really ignited, it added another layer to this sense of transformation, of urgent openings and relearning; a shift was everywhere inside my heart, outside in the world, quiet in my home, on the screen with my middle school students. I will say that, as an educator, I have had some of the most brilliant writing come from my students these past two years. They need art, they need words, they need to make sense out of all the anxiety, the fear, the disappointment. They have also witnessed the power of action, the power of speaking up and self-expression and standing up for what is right. It's pretty incredible, really.
FP: You’ve been writing poetry for a long time, and I’m wondering how you feel about the evolution of your work. Do you notice a shift or change in how you approach writing and in the topics you like to write about?
GK: My plan—which wasn't really a plan but more of a deep, intense need—was to write about grief as I moved through it for one year following her death. I felt how visceral the poems were at first, as they really began in the hospital while we were waiting for her to die. Then they came urgently; after six months or so, they quieted a bit; at ten months, they were a gift, the reminder of an old friend. It was a very raw process. Most of the poems I've put in the world before have been through many workshops, many revisions, many eyes beyond mine. This was really a process between my mama, her spirit, and my sisters.
Now that I'm in a more quiet place with my grief, it's almost unsettling how little poetry is coming. I am allowing myself some slack because it was an intense deluge, and drafts turned into a book really quickly. I'm curious to see what poems come next. I'm quite fine if they are a bit less intense.
FP: The death of your mother played such an important part of the poetry that you’ve created in the past year or so. Has the process of writing about it transmuted the pain of her passing for you? Why do you think the act of writing poetry is important—even for novice poets who simply like to write personal poetry?
GK: I can't really imagine what the process of grief would have been like without writing. I'm not sure what I would remember, what images would have stayed from our last days together, what I would recall from that deep cavern of sadness, tears upon tears upon tears. It helped me share the pain and, in doing so, share my love for her, and that felt really essential. It was a place to reflect, to remember, to validate and honor and uphold. It was a true catharsis. And not in the sense that it purged the sadness from me but rather that it was a way to hold the sadness up to the light, really see how beautiful it was, how fragile, how full of grace.
I think for me the act of writing poetry—or really, rather, the act of creating and or sharing in art—is essential in my emotional processing. Everyone has their own jam. But if other humans are looking for a way to move through big things, I say some act of creation could be a valuable tool. I made all sorts of art in honor of my mom after she died. Art I didn't know I could make. I read books that helped me hold my sadness and listened to so much music. The pandemic was intriguing like that because I was so sad personally, but the world was so sad right alongside me. It was quite something.
My mom, being the heady, analytical, go deep or go home powerhouse that she was wouldn't have changed a thing about my process!
"What We're Asked to Do" was written a few years back upon my return to Montana after a few weeks away for the holidays in Los Angeles. The sharp contrast between sunny, seventy-degree winter days and the frigid white of Montana January is always shocking to the system. As we reorganize back into our space, I always chuckle at the mixture of summer and winter symbols—sand inside books, sandals next to snow boots. At the school I teach at in Montana, we take kids skiing as part of their P.E. program. The news had me thinking, once again, about gun violence in schools as I observed a student on the bus, helmet on his head, ready for anything. That brought me back to thinking about the early days of my career when active shooters were not something we were trained for. I remembered a second grader who I kept in the classroom during recess because he was disruptive during a lesson. I asked him to clean out the pencil sharpener. He very carefully used the pencil shavings to make a makeshift play joint out of a paper towel. Simpler times indeed.
What We’re Asked to Do
I cut the last of your lemons last night
and was thinking of you and the thin waistlines of LA.
Instead I search for my skull cap in a sea
of single summer sandals, set out, traverse.
In Montana, elk are settlers moving west, their line perfect
as children evacuating buildings, hands
held high. I wear my grandmother’s bones like a
house dress through the city, words of poems
swirl sometimes and I’m not sure
where they’ve come from. I wear hands of
children, wave them like a diploma or the tip of a
protractor. They might make assumptions about my skills.
The white box reads body fluid cleanup kit. The boy
looks to me: I’ve finished the book. What do I
do now? Some kids wear their helmets inside, ready for
anything. Book boy draws triangles on the frozen window,
ice flies from fingers like shards of something shattered.
I draw a heart. I wear my heart like a hazmat suit as
the yellow bus winds up the white hill. Behind me
all heads are bowed; we pray with digital fingers.
At least the journey is quiet. Long gone are days
of spitballs and straws, make-shift joints rolled with slim fingers,
all pencil sharpener shavings in perfect crease of a
rough paper towel. The little boy Tyrone kept in from recess
shouts from his detention corner,
I just need me some green paint and
I could roll you a fatty, teacher!
"Decades and Radios" is based on memories of growing up with four older sisters. I learned everything from them—fashion, slang, and, of course, music. I remember thinking Elton John and Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" was a pretty remarkable song and can still hear the way it sounded coming from the black transistor radio in the bedroom that my sisters shared. When my son went through an Elton phase in third grade, I found him one evening standing by my little speaker singing along to the same song. It was a full-circle moment.
Decades and Radios
Don’t go breaking my heart…
I couldn’t if I tried…
Elton and Kiki ring from my kitchen
Solomon’s new favorite jam.
It’s loud and he stands by the speaker
sings along and my heart stops with
a wash of ridiculous love;
I see my small self in my sisters’ room,
their transistor radio is black,
the room, a mint green.
They wear their 70’s hair long
and feathered, white terry cloth
short shorts, tanned legs that
go on forever. They are nice to
me, even though I just hang
around. I think they are the
most beautiful things I have ever seen.
I think the song is the most beautiful
thing I’ve ever heard. The sun shines
in through the front windows of the little house,
heavy curtains, burgundy hues, parents
that work all the time,
a little girl looking up
at her sisters, learning that songs
hold magic, learning that sisters
just like sons,
as he leans in closer to hear
the way their voices
"Sisters in Utah" is a simple, image-driven poem. At the very beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, my sister and I met in St. George, Utah. We were hesitant about it, as anxiety and unknowns were everywhere. We followed through with our plan and enjoyed some gorgeous, surreal days together in the red desert. This poem is about the very grounded and elemental love between us and the earth.
Sisters in Utah
Toes gripped hard on desert and all the birds
sing bass. Our river is held
in conched hands while petroglyphs
sketch out prehistoric bravery.
A halogenic moth,
a swallow’s dipped flight --
crows line the road,
feast with beetle-dark eyes.
We are part legend
of creatures and treasures, heirs
to mystical lodges, orchards,
the wide and winding wash.
This is the cell of my art,
the sun-struck nucleus,
the beyond of color.
A small forever in your wild face.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.
Annie is also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!
FlapperPress launches the Flapper Press Poetry Café.
Presenting a wide range of poetry with a mission to promote a love and understanding of poetry for all. We welcome submissions for compelling poetry and look forward to publishing and supporting your creative endeavors. Submissions may also be considered for the Pushcart Prize.
1. Share at least three (3) poems
2. Include a short bio of 50–100 words, written in the third person.
(Plus any website and links.)
3. Share a brief backstory on each submitted poem
4. Submit an Author's photo and any images you want to include with the poems
5. Send all submissions and questions to: email@example.com