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The Flapper Press Poetry Cafe's ACT TWO talks with Gillian Kessler

By Annie Newcomer:



The Flapper Press Poetry Café continues to feature the work of poets from around the globe. We also delight in sharing the work of poets who have been featured before here at Flapper Press. We call it Act Two, and you can read more about it right here.


This week, we are thrilled to publish more gorgeous poetry from a frequent contributor to the site—Gillian Kessler!


Gillian Kessler

Gillian Kessler is a seeker and a feeler. She is mildly obsessed with the natural world and tries to spend as much time as possible walking the earth. She’s been teaching children for twenty-seven years and loves to help them find ways to express themselves creatively. She is also a very grateful mamma to two teenagers and two ridiculously wonderful dogs. She and her husband met as teachers decades ago and share a passion for education, travel, and being outside. Gillian is originally from Southern California but has spent the past twenty or so years in Missoula, Montana. She is the author of two poetry collections, Ash in the Tree and Lemons and Cement.


We reached out to Gillian to talk more in depth about her work, inspirations, and her lovely poetry.



 

Annie Newcomer: Welcome to ACT TWO, Gillian. We first interviewed you in September of 2022 with Part 1 and  Part 2. One of the changes we have initiated since that time is to ask our poets to describe their work in one word or in a short phrase. We ask this as a way of preparing our readers to enter the poems. Please explain why you chose "Alive" for your descriptive word. 


Gillian Kessler: “Alive” was the word that jumped right out of me in response to your question. I think that’s because so often my best writing comes from this breathing, yet unplanned place. I will see something, most frequently when I’m out walking in the woods, that will cause some sort of memory agitation and then association; the words will then flow from there. I know to trust those very alive moments because they are such gifts. It’s like all these parts of my spirit—my memory and my physical self and where I am in the natural world—fuse together to create something. It’s a very alive and magical process.


AN: 2024 marks the third anniversary of our Poetry Café. I thought it might be interesting for our readers to learn some of the ways that our poets "found" us. You have a lovely relationship with our editor, Elizabeth Gracen. Might you share how you two met and what the Flapper Press Poetry Café means to you? 


GK: If I remember correctly, Lizzie and I met first at Lineage Dance, my sister’s wonderful performance space. She had been part of the Lineage family for some time. I was reading from my first collection, Lemons and Cement (again, if memory serves!). She became interested in my poetry from there and then shared more about Flapper Press. Since then, I’ve had the absolute honor of watching Lizzie play my mom in my sister’s play Mother Places. Trust me when I say that watching such a gifted and gorgeous human so perfectly embody your no-longer-living mother is quite remarkable. I’ve been able to see Lizzie in other Lineage productions and was even able to host her here in Missoula this past June as part of a performance of After Roe that I helped produce. 


AN: In our first interview, you shared that "I write to feel, to see, to wonder, to hold"; "I" statements show what you desire poetry to do for you and is internal. Later in that interview, you mentioned that "I hope that my work helps people see themselves just a bit," which, of course, is external and explains the relationship you intend to develop with your reader. Why are both important?  


GK: Great question! Both are so vitally important, both gifts in different sorts of ways. One is this glorious vessel for processing all that comes through our senses, our memory. The other is the gift of sharing a piece of ourselves with the hope that it resonates with others. I’ve had people tell me that the poems I wrote about processing my grief after my mother’s death helped them remember and heal in new ways. That’s an incredible compliment. 


AN: Do you have some general pointers to share with our Flapper Press readers that might best help them enjoy the poetry-reading experience? 


GK: I would say, take a breath and breathe it in. Stay with the whole poem and enjoy that moment full of images and free from other distractions. Our lives are so full these days, and information is always at our fingertips.


Reading a poem feels like a sacred act that needs to be preserved with intention and reverence. 

AN: In 2022, you included three poems from your collection Ash in the Tree, published by FootHills Publishing. At that time, you shared that "Ash in the Tree is a memoir-esque collection of musings and memories, heartbreaks and noticings following the death of my mother in November 2019." Fast forward to 2024, and two of the poems you submitted for ACT TWO address the loss of your mother-in-law. Please share how poetry, either in the writing or the reading, helps us process grief and loss.


GK: Oh wow, that’s a big question. I only know how to process grief in the way that makes sense for me and that seems to be through words. The poems I wrote for my mom began while she was dying in the hospital when my older sister said something like, “Well, you better write this all down.” We were riding the elevator with her up to the room where she would die. It was this very true and maudlin and raw statement from my sister that gave me a purpose for the next five days while we watched her slowly decline. 


My mother-in-law’s death was a very different process. With her, I actually had the opportunity to write a letter to her when we learned that she only had a few months left to live. Writing down what she meant to me was such a powerful way for me to prepare for her to leave the world. The poems included here are more snapshots from that time in our family life and less about her. The letter was about her, and for her. Perhaps one day I’ll make that one into a poem as well. 


Ultimately, being able to process my feelings in the moment helps me move through them and helps me understand them later. I’m so deeply grateful for every word I’ve ever written about someone or something I’ve lost. 

AN: Your poem "Getaway" reminded me of a poet who spoke at the Kansas Book Festival last summer (2023). She said that instead of writing sentences that detail her past twenty-four hours in her journal, she creates a poem that describes her life each day. I tried to do this, and it was so difficult. Do you rely on memory or do you "journal in" experiences such as the one you share in "Getaway" and later go back to use to create your poem? 


GK: I usually write those sorts of memory-based poems pretty close to the moment that they happen. I don’t remember things as much as I would like to anymore, so the more I write down, the better! I love the process of the poet you reference, though. I certainly don’t write these sorts of memory poems every day. That’s a great challenge!


AN: Share a little about your first collection, Lemons and Cement. How long did it take to write?


GK: Lemons and Cement was written over a period of six or so years. I had returned to poetry after a decade or so away and was taking community workshops with some really wonderful teachers. One of the final workshops during that time involved putting ten or so poems into a small chapbook. I had more than that, and so they morphed into a full collection. I was fortunate enough to have tremendous help with those poems, both through mentors, peer feedback, and even local help in typesetting and binding. I’m very proud of that book. 


AN: How was writing your second collection different from your first?


GK: When I wrote the second collection, Ash in the Tree, I was on a deadline because it was part of a poetry series. These poems are much more raw and less workshopped. In some ways that fits with the content, as the book follows the year-long aftermath of my mother’s death.


AN: What are some of your poetic plans, hopes, and dreams for the future with your literary work?


GK: Ha! That’s a great question. Right now, I’m just happy when a poem comes to life. I’m even happier if I revise and refine that poem, even more delighted if it actually gets to the point where I can share it with others. I write a lot of essays and memoir-esque things as well, so I have lots of little writing projects going, just nothing that feels totally pressing. I have a pretty full life with a full-time teaching job and two teenage kiddos to love on, so—at least at this point in my life—my writing is more for me and less for the world. I do have some poems that I’m really proud of that aren’t in either of the first two collections, so I'm currently trying to gather them together in their own place for something in the future. 


AN: Thank you so much for helping us launch our new initiative, ACT TWO, Gillian. We are looking forward to sharing "Elegy of an Elegy to an Elegy," "The Only Sky Beyond Them," and "Getaway" with our readers, who can find these poems below. Please keep sending us your work and know that we feel so blessed to have you as one of our Flapper Press Poetry Café alumni.


GK: Thank you so much for helping me put my words into the world! I appreciate everyone at Flapper Press immensely and their commitment to bringing more perspectives into the world.  


 


Elegy of an Elegy to an Elegy


Like a burning effigy, the greening of trees and the way 

my daughter keeps rearranging her room. What’s left of the hummus,

the water in the bottle. The color of my hair. Don’t let me 

continue on the body, it’s all elegy there. Even my feet 

are widening, dying, taking on a new form. I want to paint an elegy 

for time, to red wine, to the square cones of ice cream 

at Thrifty’s, thirty five cents a scoop.

An elegy to anything that costs thirty five cents.

Another elegy to the way milk tasted through a thin straw

out of a little square carton. How much I loved milk,

the dough of flour tortilla at Senor Fish, an elegy 

to scallops, thin ribbons of cabbage, saving money.

And elegy to all the songs, to the way you apologize  

to the neighbor whose dog is barking at yours. An elegy 

to never saying sorry again. I want to hurl this dirty sea 

of clothes across the room. I can’t believe all I have 

yet to do: unpack the suitcase of a dead mother’s things

to fill it again to bring a bunch of kids who aren’t yours

to another country for a week to live with new families.

An elegy to this sofa in my own home with my own dog.

A dog who never barks but I still apologize for.

An elegy to the word nice. To the word good.


 

About the poem:

An elegy is typically a poem of lament for someone who has died. My mother-in-law, a very healthy, dynamic woman, died last April after a January diagnosis. It was fast and furious and horrible but life, as it does, just kept moving as swiftly and strangely as ever. This poem was written after we returned from burying her. It holds the energy of life’s movement, of aging, of the constant pulse for all that suddenly felt lost.


 


The Only Sky Beyond Them


There are daffodils here now. White blossoms and unhinged moss, pink magnolias 

that drip with gossip. Chicks are handfed, tractors tumult. Who would have thought


she’d die on a farm? The priest talks about Elmhurst General Hospital, the pulse of the Bronx, each step equally vital when doors swung, stretcher lurched, spun, and in that moment, wooden 


pew, there was nothing stronger than that, his voice, you. I went to speak at the pulpit. 

Is a pulpit still a pulpit if you’re not a preacher, don’t believe? Is it just a microphone, a vertical 


coffin, another death? I don’t want to leave but I can’t stay. The cover on the pool

looks like the pool. When the tennis ball accidentally lands in the center, the dog


races toward it, walks on water, so to speak. The plastic gives a bit and she gets 

that wild cartoon look when creatures run off a cliff, over air, through the


only sky beyond them, the way we all want to keep her yellow urn that has

to go in the ground this morning, the way my daughter wants to buy another one, just


to stand empty in her room. A reminder. Will spring actually 

show this time? He slept beside the vessel, alone with her, in the room where she died. 


I slept better than I have in weeks, frogs grinding their wild things in the pond and beyond that, 

coyotes’ din, they will come for her in the morning. To me, they are wild cousins, ceremony 


behind vestments, cars up Angeles Crest, a twist around the knees, the raucous 

chorus before she’s swallowed back up by the canyon.


 

About the poem:

My mother-in-law died at her daughter’s farm, in the hills above Portland. It was a gloriously maudlin setting, the juxtaposition of the greening of spring with the heavy darkness of grief.  There was something terribly surreal, disjointed, and powerful about the whole experience.


 


Getaway


I.

The last time we saw these colors

the babies were babies and 

Solomon teeter tottered wavy 

across the path like a drunk

his little legs so fast down the ramps

bubbling sulfuric madness 

echoed on either side 

I saw nothing but everything

that could incinerate

peril heavy through steam


Today he still leads the way

strong calves and a jaunty sass

she is soft curl of lashes

of smiling despite herself 


In the best bits

they walk the paths together

read the signs out loud:


Cistern Geyser

Whirligig Geyser

Green dragon Spring

Pork chop Spring


They laugh again at the danger sign 

posted at every turn

the cartoon image of a little boy 

falling from the boardwalk

flailing arms 

the mother's panicked face


make fun of me for taking too many pictures

for mishearing everything 

for always falling behind because

there's so much to hold


II.

While it was tricky capturing them

pulling them from schedules and boyfriends

their basement lair of phone chargers 

and dirty laundry 

we somehow finagled  them south 

to the Yellowstone River 

on a Saturday morning in late fall

the way she moves slowly

the trees goldening on her banks

sparkles fly

like the hatch of midges

iridescent wings and 

tiny neon bodies

they appear like dust from an old blanket

here and then gone

all of it metaphor

all of it breathing


 

About the poem:

This fall we took a long weekend from where we live in Missoula down to the Paradise Valley, just outside of Yellowstone National Park. We hadn’t visited this section of the park since the children were small, and returning with them as teenagers brought up so many memories of how precarious and fleeting this time of parenthood has been.


 



Annie Klier Newcomer founded a not-for-profit, Kansas City Spirit , that served children in metropolitan Kansas for a decade. Annie volunteers in chess and poetry after-school programs in Kansas City, Missouri. She and her husband, David, and the staff of the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens are working to develop The Emily Dickinson Garden in hopes of bringing art and poetry educational programs to their community.


Annie helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to both read and write poetry!


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.



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