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Your poetry has been called dark, dangerous and mordant. How do you feel about that?

Part of me accepts it. Another part cringes—the way I did when a former boyfriend nicknamed me the “Shadow Queen.” I cringe, of course, because there’s truth in it.

Violence touched me early in childhood, and I’ve spent years grappling with what Jung termed the “shadow”—those blacker aspects of our humanity. You know, the ones we like to suppress, disown and project onto others.

Writing poetry, in particular, helps me to speak the unspeakable; to make meaning of the incomprehensible; to bring all that unconscious stuff into consciousness so it can be integrated and, ultimately, transformed.

Kinda sounds like therapy …

There’s a cathartic element, sure—a freedom found in playing with the pain. But equating writing with therapy is a slippery slope. Unrefined, “therapeutic” writing should stay in a journal. It’s great for the healing process, not for public consumption.

What propels a poem, or any form of writing, out of the therapeutic realm and into the transformative realm of art is craft. It’s the rewriting—the meticulous honing of language and details, which then transcend the personal and become universal—that allows others to truly experience the material on the page, no matter how close to or far away from their own reality it may be.

Now, returning to why I cringe: The only way we know darkness is by experiencing its opposite, right? So even though many of my poems tunnel into the shadowy crevices of the human psyche, I like to believe they can be seen and felt because there’s so much light present.

As a friend once told me, “How bright the light must be to cast so dark a shadow.”

 

You mentioned childhood and implied an early wounding. Are there a lot of poems about that in your debut collection, MONSOON SOLO: Voices Once Submerged?

Ten out of the fifty-nine poems in this collection deal directly or indirectly with the sexual abuse I suffered as a child. Many were written more than a decade ago; and I almost deleted a few because, to me, they seemed like ancient history. I decided to keep them, though, with the hope that they might help others.

Back in the late ’90s, when I was deep in the labyrinth of recovery and just beginning to reclaim my voice, I stumbled across Bruce Weigl’s brilliant poem, “The Impossible,” in which he describes an incident of childhood sexual abuse. That poem and its stunning last line—“Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what”—gave me the courage to keep writing; to speak my truth; to believe that I, too, could transmute the horror I’d undergone into something beautiful: a work of art.

Today’s headlines are packed with these crimes. But the way the media covers them keeps our culture stuck in the horror, the “trauma and drama,” rather than compelling us to understand the complexities and shift our awareness toward prevention. That’s where art—poetry, memoirs, novels, music, films—can play a powerful role in catalyzing new conversations about this epidemic.

 

I guess it’s no accident that you’re being featured in TNB during April, which is not only National Poetry Month, but also National Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month …

My gratitude goes out to Rich Ferguson and TNB for running this piece during a month that merges so many of my passions.

 

Back to the book. What about the other poems?

Right. The other poems—whether written in first, second or third person—also tackle the stuff of nightly news: sex, death and other people’s money … sometimes in funny ways. There is humor in the book. God knows I couldn’t have survived what I’ve been through, or the publishing process, without a sense of humor.

 

Was it tough to get the book published?

The process ain’t for the faint of heart.

After submitting the manuscript to countless contests and spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars in entrance fees (don’t start me ranting about that system), I finally vowed, “Enough. No more contests!”—and I abandoned hope that the manuscript would ever see the light of day. Around that same time, I did a reading with the prolific and talented Colette Inez. She suggested I submit to WordTech Communications. I almost didn’t. I was fed up. Done. Then, at the last minute—literally on the postmark-deadline date—I mailed my manuscript in without any expectations. A few months later I got an e-mail. As I opened it, I anticipated finding the usual: “Thanks for letting us consider your work, but it doesn’t meet our needs at this time …” Instead, it began: “Congratulations.” I almost fell out of my chair: sobbing, trembling. I kid you not. Having grown so accustomed to hearing “No,” it took me a while to wrap my mind around “Yes.”

 

All writers hear “No” more than “Yes.” Has your attitude toward the dreaded N-word changed in any way?

It has. Though rejection always stings, at least a little, I now embrace it as an opportunity to re-evaluate, fine-tune or deepen my commitment to a project. I do my best to bless the “No’s,” because, without them, I’d never get to experience myself as unstoppable.

And in times of doubt, I repeat this: After the final no there comes a yes …

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TNB Poetry TNB Poetry features poems and self-interviews from some of the world's finest poets. Past and future writers include Catherine Tufariello, Lewis Turco, Timothy Steele, Amber Tamblyn and Wanda Coleman.

Our editorial team comprises:

UCHE OGBUJI (uche.ogbuji.net, @uogbuji) is a Nigerian-American poet, editor ( Kin) & computer engineer living near Boulder, Colorado, USA. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado is available from Aldrich Press.

RICH FERGUSON (YouTube) has been published and anthologized by various journals and presses. He is also a featured performer in the film, What About Me?.

WENDY CHIN-TANNER is a poet, an editor (Kin), interviewer (Lantern), a sociology instructor (Cambridge, UK), and co-founder of A Wave Blue World, a publishing company for graphic novels.

DENA RASH GUZMAN, is author of Life Cycle—Poems, Dog On A Chain Press, 2013, Founding Editor of Unshod Quills, Poetry Editor and Managing Director at HAL Publishing (Shanghai & Hong Kong).

Uche, Wendy & Dena are founding members of The Stanza Massive poetry/media collective.

8 responses to “Gretl Claggett: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. Janice Gary says:

    I love this– the self-interview! Brilliant. So much good stuff in here. Especially this: “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what”—gave me the courage to keep writing; to speak my truth; to believe that I, too, could transmute the horror I’d undergone into something beautiful: a work of art.” I don’t think this can be said enough. Thanks, Gretl.

  2. Harriet Elkington says:

    Thank you for that wonderful Self-Interview. You said so much, and so beautifully. You bring the dark out into the light without denying it, moving it from separate, individual experience to something that touches us all. I am so happy that the book is finally out. Much love, Harriet

  3. Don Quine says:

    Gretl – As I mentioned in the FB note I left you a few weeks ago, your gut-grabbing, soul-wrenching, funny-as-fuck work was a terrific surprise when Babs handed me Monsoon Solo to read. And now, after reading your Q & A interview, I want to thank you for sharing your insights into the challenges and reward of writing and rewriting and rewriting and…especially loved your “the process ain’t for the faint of heart”. Wishing you much continued and well-deserved success, Don

    • Hi, Don,
      Thanks so much! I’m thrilled to hear that you found the work funny-as-fuck! So often people focus on only the soul-wrenching parts and seem to miss the humor. You made my day. Sadly, I didn’t get your Facebook message, though. I’ll go back and see if it’s there and I missed it. Again, many thanks for reading the work and supporting it (and me)!
      All my best,
      Gretl

  4. Leticia says:

    Gretl I can’t wait to read your book and poems. I am a nurse and victim advocate at a CAC. I would like to have a book here at work . Would this be a good read for the teenage girls or what age group?

    • Hi, Leticia-
      Thanks for doing the critical work of advocating on behalf of victims and survivors!
      I’d love it if you kept a book at your workplace. Most of the poems are appropriate for late teens and up … and a few you could use working with kids in their early teens. You would know what’s best and can select the specific poems …
      Many thanks, and keep up the great work!
      Gretl

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