Christian Anton Gerard is a poet, teacher, and, as evidenced by his poems, voracious reader. His books are filled with allusions to other poets, writers, and musicians, yet maintain a personal, self-interrogating center. At the heart of his books are people in tension with each other, learning from their mistakes, and, sometimes, failing again before finding a way forward. Time and again, his poems crack a joke, converse with Philip Sidney, and feel as contemporary as possible all on the same page.
His first book Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella was published by CW Books in March 2014, and his second collection of poems, Holdfast, was published this fall by C&R Press. You can buy a signed copy of Holdfast directly from Gerard here. A former editor of Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts (for issues 6 and 7), Gerard was interviewed by current Grist editor Jeremy Michael Reed.
JMR: Thanks so much for sitting down over the internet with Grist for this interview!
I wanted to start by asking how you saw the role of self-address in your poems in your new book. You have these incredible moments that structure your poems throughout Holdfast like in “Pointed” where you turn the poem on the lines “This is neither self- / deprecation or self-pity’s well, reader. This is me / reading, too” or other moments when you refer to Christian Anton Gerard in the third person. What draws you to this use of self as character in your poems? Another way to ask this question might be: how do you see yourself in relation to confessionalism as opposed to (or in conjunction with) other poetry traditions?
CAG: Confession: I was listening to The Smiths in the the park with my now-four-year-old son. “Sweet And Tender Hooligan” came on and I started singing his full name, Ansel Christian Gerard, instead of Sweet and Tender Hooligan to be silly. He was acting hooliganish, but I felt guilty saying his name because he certainly wasn’t that kind of hooligan. He was two and obstinate. I started saying my name instead.
My name felt syllabically awkward, but somehow right because of those lyrics “…no he’ll never never do it again. Of course he won’t. No, not until the next time.” How many times I’d said that before I was sober. The song’s narrator rationalizes its character’s horrific actions and creates a wild duality and weirdness (like most of The Smith’s songs) that are like a thing you can’t look at, but can’t look away from. I think I’m this way to myself sometimes, or have been, or am able to be, or could be if I don’t do what I need to do to treat my disease, my alcoholism. I’d never really wanted to write about my alcoholism because I didn’t know what that might look like, which was scary. When those poems started coming, I let them, but I didn’t know what to do with them or if I’d do anything with them. I’d been afraid of form before these poems, but never afraid of content. This was a first for me.
Mikayla Davis, a poet in the University of Central Arkansas MFA Program, interviewed me last spring for a class she was taking and she asked a similar question in regard to Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella, though Holdfast wasn’t out then, which is helping me as I think now about your framing of the question, Jeremy, so I want to give her a shout out here because some of this answer is rooted in the thinking produced by the interview.
Anyway, I don’t think my work can ever fully escape the “confessional.” The personae in Wilmot Hereare in many ways just as confessional for me as the poems in Holdfast. Much of WHCS is rooted in emotional truth and often physical.
Holdfast differs from WHCS in my mind, though, in a lot of ways. For one, Holdfast uses myself in the third person, which was a wildly interesting experiment for me that showed me I could see me in different ways than I might otherwise. Holdfast also contains the first work addressing my alcoholism and my recovery, whereas, Wilmot, in my mind, was often drunk. I didn’t drink and write. I tried it, but I couldn’t do that. If I was drinking, I was drinking. If I was writing, I was writing.
Many of Holdfast’s poems began when I was in the problem, but they were all revised in recovery, which helped me own the I, I think, because these poems demanded an honesty I hadn’t been able to give poems before, or maybe that I didn’t believe I was able to give poems before. I’ve come to understand I have been a man I have and haven’t wanted to be. I have been a man I didn’t know how not to be. I have been a good man and a bad man and all the kinds of man one might come up with judgments or levees to judge or levee against me. Being human is to be a both/and a lot, which is weirdly not often publicly acknowledged (poetry is always showing us this, though) because, I think, to do so means acknowledging the difficulty in labeling one or one’s work a certain way when so much of our culture wants to name and categorize.
Holdfast also contains more of the idea of poem as prayer and touches more of the spiritual (not religious, really) elements of living and understanding poetry as a power greater than myself, which is also why every poem in Holdfast borrows at least a line from another poem, song, movie, and the like.
I used to think I was a wide open person; someone who’d talk about anything with anyone. And I am pretty good at talking to people. I’ve learned, I often am able to talk about anything with anyone, but really I’m able to let others talk about themselves, and while I can (and do) talk a lot, I’ve found out that I’m immensley private about a lot of myself. This isn’t to say I don’t talk about myself, but that I’m adept at talking around myself. The difference between me and another kind of private person is that I don’t embarrass easily, which makes me seem as if I’m wide-open. Using my full name in these poems didn’t exactly feel like I was making a character out of myself, but rather able to confess myself to the page in a way that felt different from the “I.”
There are many things I sometimes am, but few things I always am. I’m always a poet, whether I always want to be or not. In Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, he writes that he has “slipped into his unelected vocation,” meaning he didn’t intend to be a poet, but he is and can’t deny it. He’s confessed it.
Confession’s a fascinating idea to me. Its connotations often imply secrets held internally and then disclosed to a private listener, someone who “won’t judge,” but will grant pardon or at least the idea is that forgiveness might be possible because of confession. Confession implies guilt and admittance. It connotes a level of “personal” that’s “not for everyone.” There’s also (what can be) the very worst kind of confession, the death-bed confession, in which the dying admits something to be relieved of its guilt before their death, but in doing so, makes the listener live with something they may have been better off not knowing.
Confession is/can be exceedingly selfish, selfless, and/or an infinite combination of the two. In writing, though, there’s this other way we relate to “confession.” Somehow, confession implies “the truth.”
In Mark Strand’s poem, “Breath,” the speaker says, “…the lies I tell them are different / from the lies I tell myself.” “Breath” is a poem I’m never far from, and maybe because of these lines. I interviewed Tarfia Faizullah once and asked her about her use of “the personal.” She said, I just spilled my coffee. There. That’s something personal.” Such a damned good answer. That moment helped me see that in a certain light, everything written is a confession.
I was more willing to be in process, in fact, to give myself over to process and understand myself as process only; the process of an alcoholic, a divorcee, a father, a new lover, a poet, a poet beginning to believe poetry just means making, to make.
Confession’s simultaneously a liberation and a form of containment. Religious or not, spiritual or not, the idea of confession, even at a base level like, “Yes, Ansel, I ate your gummy bears” (I’m working on having to confess this less and less) is, yes, an admission to others, but also an admission to one’s self; a kind of culpability that can tell us something about ourselves or our characters at that particular moment. An artist is always confessing because an artist is always making, which is a continual confession of love for the art and the love of the art’s craft. As an artist, I am liberated in my obsession with writing’s craft, but that same obsession is also a form of containment helping me know or come to know myself as a poet in relation to myself and others or others in relation to others or things in relation to things in any given poem.
In short, I’d say Holdfast owns the “I” more than WHCS, even when I’m in the third person, because I thought of these poems as opportunities to study myself andpoetry/making as these poems were made. I was much less worried about “having something to say” in Holdfast. I was more willing to be in process, in fact, to give myself over to process and understand myself as process only; the process of an alcoholic, a divorcee, a father, a new lover, a poet, a poet beginning to believe poetry just means making, to make. In Holdfast I worried more about making poems and less about making myself seem other than I am, though, non-negotiably, WHCS contains just as much of who I am, though I was able to hide from myself a bit more there. In moments when I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror, I had the personae and their history to be the rock I slept against. I took that away from myself in Holdfast. No. I’m wrong there. The poems took that away from me in Holdfast, for which I’m more than grateful.
JMR: You use literary allusions, characters, and quotes throughout both of your books in nearly every poem, an aspect of your poems that seems to nod to a life lived through and alongside reading. How did you develop this interest in incorporating other literary characters or lines directly in your poems?
CAG:. I really like the phrase, “lived through and alongside reading.” Such a phrase, is, what I think Sir Philip Sidney (the reason for my Sixteenth-Century obsession), would have said about himself or claimed for anyone who would give much of their life to reading and writing. I guess I just did exactly what you asked about. My brain went to Sidney, who, like most of his contemporaries (and those writing after him) used lines from other writers and characters from other writers without pause. The early modern writers feel much in tune with what Eliot would later call “the presentess of the past,” that is, they weren’t worried about “originality,” they just trusted it would come if they imitated rightly. They also understood themselves as a part of a community and a tradition that was transhistorical. When they wrote, they did so as if those they’d read and loved were in the room with them.
When I was at Old Dominion, Luisa Igloria and Tim Seibles told me to do the same thing. When I was drafting a lot of these poems and I’d get stuck, I’d do what Richard Hugo suggests in “The Triggering Town” and give the poem a sudden turn by using a lyric from a song or a line from another poem or a character and then I got the pleasure of trying to make it work.
JMR: To many beginning writers, love poems can seem difficult to pull off without falling into the typical tropes of the genre. You even make a joke out of those tropes in your poem titled “Christian Anton Gerard to Her Sort of in the Style of a Teenaged Love Poem.” Both of your books focus on love in different ways: Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella focused on a discovery of love and tempestuous moments in a relationship, while Holdfast seems to be interested more in how relationships are shaped in order to be sustained over time. As you say in “Twenty-Something Poet Made a Mix Tape,” “Quintessential lovers… are always fucked, / the trying to love, a fiasco bigger than love itself.” Do you find yourself continuing to write bigger-than-love poems after the second book, and why have they been a form you return to?
CAG: Oh wow. I’m really in love with what you just said about the love poem as a form and a genre. I definitely find myself continuing to write bigger-than-love poems, or maybe it’s that I hope I can write as-big-as-love poems. Love is probably being alive’s most interesting thing to me. It’s so interesting to me that I almost hate writing the word because it doesn’t serve as a proper sign for the signified “thing.”
I don’t know that it’s possible to write bigger-than-love poems. Maybe the only thing bigger than love, for me, is poetry itself
When I was courting my now wife, the poet Heather Dobbins (with whom I’m more than fortunate and lucky to have and feel and share a love and life so big), I said soemthing once about not wanting to be cliché in my declarations of my love and she said, “clichés are clichés for a reason, and what could be more cliché than trying to say how in love we are?” She’s exactly right. The challenging and exciting aspects about writing love poems are trying to figure out how to use cliché and skirt cliché at the same time.
I don’t know that it’s possible to write bigger-than-love poems. Maybe the only thing bigger than love, for me, is poetry itself, but even poetry, in its making, is, I think, an affirmation of love’s largeness and largesse. When we talk about love, we can (if we accept the most recent United Nations estimate) believe in 7.6 billion configurations of that emotion’s idea, and that’s if we just give one idea of love to each person. That’s a whole lotta love (and a whole lotta ways to configure how love feels).
I said earlier that I’m more than lucky to be alive. And I love being alive, which means I get to be in love with a lot of things and actually feel those feelings to my full capacity because I’m no longer able to feel so much I can’t handle it and turn to alcohol to shut me down. I have a lot of feelings and they’re really big and now I get to feel them, all of them, which is a gift I didn’t know I’d ever receive or that I ever asked for. I see this as a form of grace.
JMR: In your literary criticism, you have written about the role of apology or defending poetry, and the second part of Holdfast is made up of defenses of poetry (most of the time with that purpose in the poem titles). How do you see the argument for poetry in your second book as related to or different from your first book? Whose work are you reading among contemporary poets that you think acts as a great defense of poetry today?
CAG: Apologetics are wildly fascinating, especially for poets. It seems we’re continually up against the idea that “poetry is dead” or “that nobody reads poems, except for other poets.” If poetry was dead, it wouldn’t be made anymore. And when, exactly, was this golden age in which everyone was walking around reading poetry? Much of poetry’s history is the history of poets reading poets and learning from them how to make and then make differently, how to reconfigure ideas and emotions central to human identity.
My dissertation was a study of poetry’s defenses in the English tradition beginning with Sir Philip Sidney (though he’d point to Chaucer). I argue (and still maintain) “creative writing” as we know it today began with Sidney’s work and identification as a writer who taught other English writers how to read like a writer. I don’t know that the argument for poetry in Holdfast is different than in WHCS, but the way I make the “defense” gesture is different.
Rather than mashing up the historical Sidnean Stella with John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester to see what might happen if they’d been together, I started calling the poems “Defense of Poetry; Or…” because apologetics aren’t really about defending an art, they’re about making a space for more art in conversation with art that already exists. Calling the poems “Defense of Poetry; Or” was an experiment in what a poem could be “about,” or rather what all it could contain while it acknowledged its tradition and the art larger than it.
Working as an early modern scholar helps with content and hugely influences my work. For one, studying that time period allows me to see that my problems/feelings/not problems/situations aren’t entirely unique to me (I see the same thing in contemporary writing, but somehow the temporal difference between the early moderns and me makes it even more apparent), which frees me to write about myself and others who’ve come before me, or toothers who’ve come before me. I don’t know that I necessarily believe in inspiration. I think I believe more in what Shelley calls “the great conversation.” In “the great conversation” there’s no present or past or future, there’s just dialogue and craft lessons by reading and seeing others attempts and our own attempts and the understanding that being human is hard and easy at the same time. A both/and. I like understanding myself and understanding writing as a both/and because that disposition helps me understand others and the world I live in as a both/and, which makes living a bit easier sometimes.
Some contemporary writers I really love to read and return to that are both/ands (in no particular order) are Heather Dobbins, Marilyn Kallet, Tim Seibles, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Luisa A. Igloria, Terrance Hayes, Dorothea Lasky, Mark Strand, Charles Baxter, Cheryl Strayed, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Tim Sandlin, Arthur Smith, Annie Finch, Elijah Burrell, Karen Schubert, Shara Lessley, Paul Otremba, Rebecca Lindenberg, Timothy O’Keefe, John McDermott, Eula Biss, Sandra Lim and I could keep going, though I also do a lot of reading throughout the day from what I see folks post and what friends send me. Reading what friends post online and what I find in journals is a way I keep finding new work to read and new writers to keep reading.
JMR: In addition to your interest in self-address, love poems, and apology, Holdfast is also a book about being a parent and about addiction. Who are your favorite parenthood poets? Who are some poets who write on addiction or recovery whose work has helped you write about it?
CAG: The cool thing about this queston is that “parenthood” goes both ways. There’s parents writing about their kids and kids writing about their parents and I’d call them both parenthood poems, or at least a lot of the time.
Geffrey Davis is one of my favorite parenthood poets. He’s also one of my favorite people, but that’s not what you asked. The poems he’s showed me and I’ve heard him read from his forthcoming book are, well, they’re just the most. But the same goes for his first book, Revising the Storm.
Sharon Olds is another go-to for parenthood, as are Ed Hirsch and Jill Rosser, Audre Lorde and Philip Larkin (Ha!).
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question because it’s a really hard one for me in the sense that Holdfast is also all about influence and the poems show a lot of what’s influenced me in the past 10 or more years. But when I was writing those poems and reading, I didn’t know any sober/recovered poets, or if I did, I didn’t know they were recovered. I’m not claiming any type of originality here for my poems about alcoholism and recovery, I’m certainly not the first to write about the disease, but if I’m honest, I can’t point to specific poets who helped me write about recovery and maybe that’s because for a while I was worried if I started looking for their work I’d end up writing about recovery. I know this is a weird answer, but it’s the one I’ve got and it’s honest and I hope that’s enough because I feel like I should be able to name thirty or more people who showed me what recovery wrting looked like. I guess, though, I’ve read a lot of writers who didn’t recover, but suffered from the same disease as me and maybe those are influences.
JMR: As a poet who has both an MFA and a PhD and has gone on to publish two books, how has your approach to constructing or thinking of book manuscripts changed from your thesis and dissertation to your first book and now your second book?
CAG: In terms of drafting and revising, I don’t have the time like I used to to sit and draft for hours. I used to have to have at least an hour to “finish” a full draft. That was nice, but I find I’m actually more interested in what I’m making now that I don’t have that time. I write a sentence or a line a day. That’s my rule. At the end of each week or every couple weeks, I put them together and see if there’s any connection between them or some interesting relationship between them and then I start playing with what’s there on its own terms, not mine, because I am afforded the opportunity to see what’s there, not what I want to be there.
What that meant for full manuscripts now, or for the full manuscript of Holdfast, was that I had all of these things that I wasn’t sure how to order. I ordered the poems several times by myself, but each time it felt like a different narrative become dominant and I wasn’t sure that’s what the poems wanted. I gave the manuscript to four poets I love and trust and said “what would you do?” When I compared their orders, I went with the choices that overlapped. They almost all had a similar order and none of them were close to my original orders. They could see what I couldn’t because I was too close. They could see the intertwining narratives and interactions when I couldn’t, which is one of the greatest aspects of community.
When I originally ordered Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella, I had a similar problem, except that I knew I was working within the tradition of the dialogic lover’s sequence. Knowing that tradition got me stuck in the idea of chronology. I just couldn’t find a way to make the poems cohere without chronology until both Marilyn Kallet and Pam Uschuk (incredible poets and mentors to me) both ordered the manuscript a-chronologically and then talked to me about thinking patterns and memory patterns and how often we don’t think chronologically or remember chronologically, or write chronologically.
I guess the story here is the same. Knowing I have a manuscript, but not knowing how to order it means I have to ask for help, just like when I know I have a poem, but I’m not sure exactly how to get back into it for revision and I have to ask for help. Poetry makes me ask for help, which is good for me and keeps me close to the fact that it’s always bigger than me and that it will help me find ways to serve it, rather than me finding ways to make it serve me.
Almost every semester I show my students the covers of several books and then open the books to the acknowledgements page and say that every writer I know would rather have all of the names in the acknowledgements on the cover, but we can’t because “that’s not marketable,” so we have one name on the cover, though we all know none of the poems would be or be what they are if our art didn’t require we serve it and ask for help and perspective; a kind of help and perspective that comes only from writers working with and for the larger purpose of serving the art we need and love.
JMR: You’re a teacher as well as a writer. How has the writing of each of your books been shaped by and in turn shaped your teaching?
CAG: I’ve been really, really fortunate to have worked under writers who did their damnedest to help my poems get where my poems wanted to go, not where my mentors wanted them to go. I think workshop and MFA programs are what you make of them. If you write for workshop, then you’re not writing for your own work. If you’re not in a program that’s asking you to read widely, then you might not try to write in all those different ways.
One does, however, have to read and read and read and try and try and try.
The single most important thing all of my education has done for my writing is exposed me to a huge array of writers across time, identification, movements, genres, styles, subjects, forms, craft thinking, and on and on and on. The counterpart to reading widely is learning that, for me, if I don’t understand why someone is working in a certain mode, discussion with other writers often helps me understand what that person is trying to do, or rather what that person’s work is trying to do, which challenged and continues to challenge me to expand my desire for possibility in the relationship between form and content.
I think, more often than not, that, well, there are people who just want to complain and complaining about formulaic writing is a thing people can complain about. Okay. So what. I’d prefer to spend my time reading and talking to writers about reading and their writing and continue learning from them, which happens all the time in class with discussions with my students. I find I learn more about my own choices and boundaries and inabilities by talking about other’s work (which I all the time do as a creative writing teacher), not having others talk about my work. Therefore, if I can open myself to listening, I can try what I say about other’s work in my own and maybe I grow in the process.
One doesn’t have to have an MFA or a Ph.D. to be a writer. One does, however, have to read and read and read and try and try and try. For me, academia kept me disciplined when I might not otherwise have been and it still keeps me disciplined because I’m a part of a community, which is the most helpful thing to me.
When I read the essays of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde and T.S. Eliot (yes, even Eliot) and Adam Zagajewski and Dean Young and Stacey D’Erasmo and Carl Phillips and insert infinite list of writers who write about writing in the U.S. in the 20thand 21stcenturies that I try to read and keep reading, what I’m seeing is not a charge to disavow the tradition of which we’re a part. I’m seeing every reason to acknowledge the tradition of which we’re apart and use it and read it and be emotionally honest on the page, and there’s no formula for feelings.
For me, teaching is the best job for me to keep working on craft and learning because my students challenge me and I won’t ask my students to do anything I won’t do. If I reveal a fear about my own work, say, short titles, for instance, which I was really scared of two years ago, then my students will say, Dr. Gerard, just do it, try it, that’s would you’d tell us. That’s the reason Holdfasthas a one word title and why many of the poems in it are shorter than in Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella.
JMR: Lastly, you feature a few poems in your book that allude to music and musicians, so I want to ask: if you were to make a mixtape for your book, what songs would you include for Holdfast?
CAG: Oh wow. Rather than individual songs, I’m going to go with artists who all have a a range of songs/records that I need in some way at least once a year: Prince; Ryan Adams; Cat Power; The Cure; Notorious B.I.G.; Stevie Nicks; Smashing Pumpkins; Tupac; Pearl Jam; Taylor Swift; Rappin’ 4-Tay; The Postal Service; Bob Dylan; James Taylor; Jim Croce; Bon Iver; The Civil Wars; Cyndi Lauper; The Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell; The Counting Crows; Simon and Garfunkel; Whiskeytown; Diana Ross (with or without The Supremes); David Bowie; Carole King; The Smiths; P.M. Dawn; The Indigo Girls; Etta James; Michael Jackson; The Talking Heads, Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young); Van Morrison; Janis Joplin; Heart; Firehouse; Guns N’ Roses; Eminem; The Allman Brothers; Coldplay; Bon Iver; Tha Dogg Pound; Neko Case; First Aid Kit; Kenny Chesney; Sharon Van Etten; Fleetwood Mac; Tom Petty (with and without The Heartbreakers); Bruce Springsteen; and all the other writers and bands that aren’t coming to mind right now because that thing is happening when someone asks me to tell a story and then I can’t think of a story to tell.
Christian Anton Gerard’s first two books of poems are Holdfast (C&R Press, 2017) and Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella (WordTech, 2014). He’s received Pushcart Prize nominations, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarships, the Iron Horse Literary Review’s Discovered Voices Award, an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Best of the Net nomination. His work appears in the anthologies, Truth to Power: Writers Respond to the Rhetoric of Hate and Fear and Thrush: The First Two Years, and in magazines such as The Rumpus, Post Road, The Adroit Journal, Orion, Diode, and Smartish Pace. Gerard is currently an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. He can be found on the web at www.christianantongerard.com
Jeremy Michael Reed is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee. His poems are published or forthcoming in Still: The Journal, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere, incuding the anthologies Bright Bones: Contemporary Montana Writing and Where the Sweet Waters Flow: Contemporary Appalachian Nature Writing. He lives in Knoxville, where he is the editor-in-chief of Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, associate editor of Sundress Publications, co-director of The Only Tenn-I-See Reading Series, and assistant to Joy Harjo. You can read his work at www.jeremymichaelreed.com.