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Meet Gillian Kessler

Updated: Sep 3, 2022

by Elizabeth Gracen:

I had the good fortune to meet the very talented and charming Gillian Kessler at the Lineage Performing Arts Center many years ago, and I had the opportunity to see her give a presentation of her poems this winter during the holidays. She has graciously agreed to offer her poetic insights and lovely work for the POETRY section for Flapper Press, and I am over the moon about it all.

Please meet Gillian Kessler!

EG: Gillian, we have something very important in common . . . your sister, Hilary! It is amazing to me that she continues to connect people from all walks of life through the creative portal known as the Lineage Performing Arts Center. I was lucky enough to meet you several years ago, but we are just now getting to know each other through another connection that we have in common . . . a love for poetry!

GK: Sounds good! I spent the first two thirds of my life in Los Angeles and very much identify with that city. At 28, my husband and I had an opportunity to move out to Missoula, Montana. We thought this would be a short stint away from city life—18 years later, we are still here. We have two kiddos: a daughter, Eliana, who is 11 and a son, Solomon, who is 8. We spend lots of time outdoors hiking, skiing, biking, and generally appreciating the open spaces around our home. My day job is teaching middle school English and, when time allows, I write.

EG: How long have you been writing poems? Why is this art form so important to you? Why should this unique form of expression be important to everyone? What is the purpose of poetry?

GK: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I have a giant box of old journals in the back of my closet that have stayed with me since childhood. While I dabbled in poetry as an adolescent, I began to study the form in earnest as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University. This is where I think my true love of poetry began. When I decided to pursue teaching instead of an MFA, I left poetry for a number of years—it was almost as if I couldn’t do it for my “job” I no longer could hold my own in the poetry club.

A few decades and lifetimes later, I found myself signing up for a community workshop taught here in Missoula. The teacher was wonderful, and my peers were inspiring. I realized that poetry had been screaming inside me for years and was thrilled to reconnect with her! I feel like poetry has a bad rap as being inaccessible, but I feel quite the opposite. I feel that through poetry you can connect to people from other worlds, races, belief systems, generations . . . but, through attention to detail and heart, find some place of breath, some place of recollection, some place of a-ha.

Poetry helps us see. It helps us empathize. It helps us embrace creativity and truth and stories and histories. Poetry is music and soul balm and trust in art and truths. Poetry is a guide and a memory and an imaginative leap all in one. A poet hero of mine, Dorianne Laux, recently stated, “Poetry is a slippery beast, a shape changer, a beast with wings, a bird/dog, a hermaphrodite, a water bearer and light bringer, the life force rendered through language, a sieve, a chute, a cone of darkness, an aggregate stone. It’s changed me by reading it, though not in a way I can speak of. It’s a feeling inside a thought inside an image. It haunts me down. It haunts what haunts me.” Let’s go with that.

EG: I remember listening to a wonderful series by one of my heroes, Bill Moyers, called Poetry in America. That is the first time I fell in love with Rumi, and Coleman Barks’ inspiring translations of Rumi into English. Moyers did an interview with Robert Bly that set me on a mission to start writing “personal poetry” first thing in the morning before the day started to creep in. Bly stated that by doing so, he was able to follow the red ribbon back to his soul. I’m paraphrasing, but I think he was talking about the revelatory tool that poetry can be. How it can reveal what is almost unnamable with regular prose. What are the unique qualities that you think writing poetry offers to anyone who might endeavor to put pen to paper?

GK: I feel that poetry can be seen as a rule-less beast, a place where image drives truth, drives memory, drives imagination. I also feel that poetry can touch the spirit in a different way than, say, an essay. Don’t get me wrong, I have certainly been moved to all depths through various writing forms, but there is something about the immediacy of a poem that always gets me in “the cockles,” as my sister Hil would say.

EG: Let’s talk a bit about your beautiful poetry. What inspires you? Who are your favorite poets? Do you have a particular form that you prefer to read or write? How many poems do you think you’ve written?

GK: Place has driven much of my poetry of the past decade or so. Living in a place that is so different from where I grew up, I feel like I am constantly marveling at all I see. I am amazed by the seasons, frozen swathes of ice on the river that I cross during my lunch break walks, the way the colors change in fall, the slow unfolding of spring—it all strikes me as pretty fabulous. Then I return to Los Angeles, and the brake lights and restaurant signs and fashions and colors shake me.

Currently, I am mildly obsessed with Ada Limon. Her most recent book, The Carrying, slays me, both her imagery and the way she tells her story, her truth. I also love Dorianne Laux as I mentioned before. I recently finished Ross Gay’s book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and it moved me to no end. The way he talks about the earth, the natural world—wow. Now with the internet, you can watch your favorite poets read their poems, and that takes it all up a notch as well. I loved Gay’s book, and then I watched him perform his poetry, and I fell in love even more.

As far as form goes, I am just happy to get something on the page. I keep a journal and try to commit some time each week to writing. From there, some seeds grow into poems that actually make it to the hard drive. I love playing with line breaks but don’t get too caught up with very confining forms. I am not mathematical enough for that. I am far too whimsical and haphazard to stay too strict to certain forms, though it’s always fun to play with them.

I’m not sure how many poems I’ve written—I have about twenty-five or so that are making their way into a new collection, so that’s exciting. I feel like beyond crafting individual poems, seeing how they work in relation to one another is pretty fascinating as well. I always write with my students’ when I teach, so I have journals full of exercises that I play with. Whether those count as poems or not is up for debate. If anything, they are playful seeds that might grow into something remarkable.

EG: Let’s talk about your first published book of poems, Lemons and Cement. Tell me all about it. It is so beautiful.

GK: That is so kind of you. The poems in that book began when I started writing poetry again when my youngest was five or so. Many of the poems have to do with motherhood in those early stages. When my children were very young, my father-in-law, who lived here in Missoula, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so I was witnessing all sorts of milestones of growth and loss simultaneously. As I mentioned before, place also plays a big role in that collection: my struggle with leaving Los Angeles and the family of my birth, the celebration of growing a new family in the place of my choosing.

In a workshop a few years back, we were supposed to begin to put our poems into a collection. I realized that I actually had a substantial body of work and, with the encouragement of some wonderful peers and teachers, I decided to put them into a collection.

EG: Your first post for Flapper Press is essentially a writing prompt. What is your goal with writing your first series for the site? What do you hope to accomplish by writing for Flapper Press?

GK: I hope to inspire, encourage, nudge, compel more of us to trust our words!  The posts on Flapper will be one form of simple, poetic exercises to help get your juices flowing. These exercises work for the most novice to the most advanced writers and can be taken as literally or as figuratively as the writer wants. I've been a teacher of writing for twenty two years, and these exercises work time and time again. 

So set aside ten minutes, grab your journal, trust your gut, and get going!
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