Geraldine Connolly was born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. She earned a BA from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA from the University of Maryland. For seven years she served as co-editor of the literary quarterly, Poet Lore. She is author of a chapbook, The Red Room, and four full-length poetry collections: Aileron (Terrapin Poetry) Food for the Winter (Purdue), Province of Fire (Iris Press), and Hand of the Wind (Iris Press). Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Georgia Review, Cortland Review, and Shenandoah. It has been anthologized in Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High School Students, Sweeping Beauty: Poems About Housework, and The Doll Collection. She has taught classes in the Maryland Poetry-in-the-Schools program, at the Writers Center in Bethesda, the Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, NY, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and the Johns Hopkins Graduate Writing Program in Washington, DC. She lives in Tucson.
Jon Riccio: I enjoyed Aileron so much, Gerry. The landscape descriptions brought back my outdoor memories of Arizona, just as your references to saints spoke to my childhood Catholicism classes. One of the earliest poems, “Legacy,” tells about the demolishment of your mother’s farm, covered in drilling rigs. A similar situation happened to my grandmother’s centennial farm in Michigan, though I never thought of it in terms of living “without the silo, the corncrib, / the orchard, the creek bed.” I love the closing lines—
while we watch from
our distant dwelling,
dreaming the past
floating on its raft
of broken bread.
In what ways does Aileron navigate the fragility of nostalgia?
Geraldine Connolly: Thank you so much, Jon. I’m excited to be talking with you about my new book. Navigation is a key theme in the book, navigation through the disappointments and tragedies that life can bring. In the book I am looking back and remembering my family’s farm which is a place whose landscape I loved. To avoid falling into the trap of sentimentality was the challenge. Hence I wanted to dream the past back into existence but at the same time acknowledge that the past was not perfect, but a “raft of broken bread.” The sense of absence was as important as its sense of existence. I was aiming to create, as Lee Upton notes in her blurb, “a sense of acute homesickness.” I wanted to bring the beauty of the place back to life. I wanted hopefulness and creativity to prevail over disappointment and loss.
JR: Comfortable in its quatrain skin, “Ontario” switches to a pantoum during the third stanza. The setting is a “house balanced on its rocky perch / above the lake” complete with a photo of Wallis Warfield and her Prince, in addition to a Ouija board trying to wring optimism from the alphabet. How did the pantoum’s pattern of repeated lines help you write about a static location?
GC: “Ontario” began as a very strict and rather long pantoum that I ended up cutting back into its
present form which uses the pantoum form only in the second half. I found that with the pantoum used throughout, it was a little confining, and too heavily insistent.
The structure of the pantoum and its echoing lines helps carry the meaning because of the repetition. It is an obsessive form. It mimics how one goes back and back over the same ground in one’s mind in order to discover meaning. So instead of a frozen scene, the details keep changing slightly with each repetition as the mind goes back and remembers in different ways. It counts on the resonance of the images. In “Ontario,” we move from our summer cabin above the lake into its living room and then to a birch bark basket made by a local Ojibway woman. And then we move into her shack where we see her working to create the basket. This woman is an artist figure struggling to make a thing of beauty. I then try to leap to the mind’s broken shack which similarly struggles to make sense of existence. Some images that repeat are “the lake,” “scars,” “broken shack,” “basket” and “smoke and grass” which were chosen to suggest darkness but also transience, and the joy of creation.
The pantoum really does feel like a balancing act with the constant repetition of lines and images. But it also has to make them progress somehow in order to find new ground, break through to new meaning. There’s a lot of negotiation between sound and sense. I like the challenge of it, but I also realize that I sometimes need to depart from the form so as not to constrain or weigh down the poem. I like writing in strict forms but I also recognize the need to change those forms when the rules are not working to the poem’s benefit.
JR: Parts of Aileron are love letters to Montana, including an abecedarian bearing the state’s name—
Russian sage. River of dust.
Self-Heal. Shasta Daisy.
Thirteen moons shine on Two Medicine.
“Leaving Montana” centers on your departure from the North and arrival to the Southwest “surrounded by ocotillo / and a chain of mountains.” What surprised you most about uprooting cross-country, and how were you able to incorporate this into your growth as a poet?
GC: Of course, the landscape is vastly different. Western Montana is greener and more forested, with a lot of lakes and mountains. Southern Arizona is drier, with wide, flat expanses and the quality of the sunlight is different. What I love about the desert is the minimalist quality of the landscape, its elegant sparseness. And I always find writing about new places to be energizing. Learning about all the new birds and plants is invigorating and adds new words to one’s poetic vocabulary. The strangeness of a new place gives a distance in which to observe things in a new way.
The rich heritage of Sonora, its stories and history, its food and drink, music and customs provides fodder for the new creative work. I find the golden quality of the sunlight, the gorgeous strangeness of the desert plants and animals recharged my work in a very good way. I feel like I have found my home here in the desert. There is something about it that I find healing, which I try to convey in my new poems in Aileron.
JR: I’ve made a return to the micro-poem after some time away. I’m glad your collection includes one via “Freight.”
A woman’s thoughts,
she wears them like a harness.
The horse carries its weight
into midnight’s darkness.
When do you know a micro-poem is working? Do you experience significantly shorter poems differently than longer ones?
GC: I went through a period of writing two-line poems which I think is a great exercise for all poets. It is much harder to do than it would appear. It makes you pay attention to the power of a single image, and also the power of a single line and the link to the line that follows it in furthering the thought or image. You can illuminate or refine in the second line, you can contradict it, you can expand it. This poem, “Freight” began as a two-line poem. Then I changed it to four lines in order to slow it down.
The micro-poem is written in the tradition of the haiku, which offers a central haunting image. For a couple of years I studied haikus intensively and taught a class at Casa Libre called “The Zen Poem.” I think you only know if a micro-poem is working if you read it to others and try then to gauge their reactions. It has to pack a lot of power into a very small space and the best way to do this is by using an image in some fresh and immediate way. I think there also has to be a strong emotion.
My favorite haiku is by Basho:
Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.
I think this poem is total magic. It captures the contradiction of experiencing something while longing for something else. While one is in a moment, one can also be remembering another. I never tire of reading this haiku because it captures in a very piercing way the awareness of time passing, the paradox of being in the moment as one knows the moment is ending. The cuckoo’s cry has a melancholy beauty. You can read the poem as being in a place and also knowing that one has been there in a different way in the past . . . in the near past, in the far past. This feeling has a universality. It’s a tiny time capsule of what being human is all about.
JR: You preface the book with aileron’s function as a “hinged flight control surface usually forming part of the trailing edge of each wing of a fixed-wing aircraft.” We revisit wings in “The Hardware of the Brain”—
Wires are intertwining, about to connect
to longer wires. The fingers touch the keys.
The keys touch the wings. The bright wings
are flapping upward. Wheels are revolving.
Sparks are flying. In this cold and brittle landscape,
someone is trying to start a fire.
This is a beautiful fusion of the organic and inorganic working to accomplish flame and air travel alike. Is contemporary poetry headed in more of a fusionist direction than a lyrical one? If so, who are a few poets to best direct our journey there?
GC: Yes, fire and air. Two important image categories in my work. Writing and thinking is what this poem’s about, trying to bring together some very different elements, the way the brain has to constantly bring things together, every time we think, every time we speak, every time we write. This kind of tension lives at the very core of poetry.
Melding cultures, identities, religions, historical experiences is what I think of when I think of “fusionist” poetry. A central struggle for American poets is the immigration theme because, let’s face it, most of us at some point in our family’s histories, were immigrants or their descendants. The boundary of the local and the global is of central importance.
I was recently knocked out by Mai Der Vang’s book Afterland, about the flight of the Hmong people from Laos and how they survived as refugees in America. Li-Young Lee has always used aspects of his Chinese heritage to great effect in his writing. His poem, “Persimmons” is a great example of how two cultures for an immigrant child are fused within one word. There are many young writers of color doing great work. Tarfia Faizullah. Layli Long Soldier. Solmaz Sharif. Robin Coste-Lewis. Too many to name.
And C.D. Wright, who recently passed away, has blazed a new path by fusing news reportage with odes and elegies, experimenting with the long poem, testing its form, challenging its boundaries. In One Big Self, a long poem/book about incarceration, she uses prisoner’s recollections next to memories of the speaker, statements from prison guards, quotations from French poets, all to underscore the idea that we are all more alike than different. One Big Self includes photographs, letters, posters, advertising slogans, interviews, monologues, snatches of vernacular conversation. It, and One With Others, which traces a small group of African-American men on a “walk against fear” through small-town Arkansas, is a nod to the epic. It is also a tribute to her activist mentor. Both of these books are daring and original must-reads.
The great thing about poetry is its embrace of freedom, the freedom to write about a personal life in a lyric way or to write historical narratives, personal narratives, to borrow from the ancestors’ language, to reinvent language. As poets we are free to do any of it, all of it.
JR: “The First Time” addresses gender trauma, while “Being a Female” tells us
I don’t want to be a calf shut in a stall
waiting for slaughter,
a petroglyph smothered in a slab of granite
It would be marvelous to ride an Arabian
stallion down Main Street,
while wearing a fringed jacket and cowboy hat,
opening my shirt for the world to see.
Has the #MeToo Movement influenced your recent work? What actions are Tucson-based poets taking toward greater accountability and equality?
GC: I would definitely say it has. I was right out of college during the first wave of feminism. But the #MeToo Movement feels equally as powerful in intensity. It inspired my poem, “The First Time,” which details a trusted male figure, a family doctor, abusing the power of his position and leaving a lasting traumatic memory. Going to a doctor’s office has always, since that visit, been an occasion of anxiety and mild terror for me. I have rarely in my lifetime felt that betrayed. Memory can be “the weight of stones.”
I think Tucson is a progressive and inclusive place. There are a wide range of types of poetry being written, from the very traditional to the very avant-garde, from slam poets to political poets to LBGTQ poets. Many members of the local poetry community work hard at both respecting and representing the many different kinds of work that’s now being done.
JR: Another shorter entry, “Empty Storefront” describes “a city / full of shadows and post offices.” Its windows are home to rhinestone hats and pedestalled wigs. At the end we pivot to night sand sliding “blackly into more night sand.” Is this poem about consumerism, transience, or their offspring?
GC: This has always been a mysterious poem that I never quite understood as I was writing it. I love your reading of it –as a fable of the emptiness of consumerism, the transience of the passing fads of style. I think it could also function as an emblem of dying Midwest towns, whose industrial strength has diminished, whose stores sit empty with windows filled with the memories of a glorious past whose residents may feel abandoned and lost.
JR: I read “The Border”—its crosser a Oaxacan boy (“As he approaches the muddy Rio Grande, / a child’s life jacket dangles from a mesquite branch”)—as being in conversation with Javier Zamora’s 2017 collection Unaccompanied which details his family-less trek from El Salvador to the United States. You also reference border crossers in “Soon,” the poem’s ending—
Even though there are many
things we do not hear,
they still happen and happen.
Will they soon grow loud enough
for us to listen?
Given Tucson’s location and the juxtaposition of anti-immigrant sentiments by such Arizonans as Joe Arpaio, do you see portions of Aileron functioning as an activist text?
GC: I try to pay attention and write about what moves me but I don’t really write as an activist poet. I definitely think that someone could read some of my poems in that way. My grandparents were immigrants and every heartbreaking story about a broken family that I read in the daily newspaper could have been one of my ancestors.
JR: Plumage adorns Aileron’s cover, the title and your name appearing in sky blue. “I became feathers swiveling, / always the gravity escaping, eluding, / memory the weight of stones” captures your project’s intent. Do you have a favorite poem about flight?
GC: Gary Snyder has an amazing poem about 9/11 about the fall, the flight down from a burning building.
Falling From a Height, Holding Hands
What was that?
storms of flying glass
& billowing flames
a clear day to the far sky–
better than burning,
We will be
two peregrines diving
all the way down
Jon Riccio is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers where he serves as an associate editor at Mississippi Review. The poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review, he received his MFA from the University of Arizona. He was a digital projects intern at the Poetry Center.