Madison on my mind: An interview with Gillian Nevers

Gillian Nevers started writing poetry in 2002 after retiring from a career working with victims of crime. She has a degree in Art Education from the University of Wisconsin and lives in Madison. She has been an active member of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, where she has served as membership Chair, co-edited the 2021 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar and the Fall, 2021 issue of ‘Bramble’, the literary magazine of the WFOP. She is the author of two chapbooks: ‘Warren Avenue Poems’ (2015) and ‘The True Story’ (2019), both published by Fuller’s Windy Acres Farm Press. The latter chapbook won second prize in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets’ 2019 Chapbook Contest.

Gillian, tell us something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on a street canopied by giant elm trees. All of the houses had deep back yards and all of the kids pretty much ran free in the summer. I was asthmatic and because there were not many good treatments and my attacks were mostly at night, I missed a lot of school. In retrospect, that wasn’t a bad thing, because I learned how to amuse myself and I developed an imaginative inner world. My mother, like many mothers in those days, didn’t work outside of the home, but she was still busy with house work. I spent the day propped up on the living room sofa and she would periodically take a breather from her chores and read to me. She was especially fond of reading poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses. My father loved poetry and kept two small leather-bound books of poets like Keats and Shelley on his bedside table. I still have a well-worn collection of poems by Rupert Brooke that my father gave to my mother on Valentine’s Day, 1938. I also spent a fair amount of time with a few elderly neighbors. One of these neighbors loved Shakespeare, so when our local public television station ran a series of films of Shakespeare plays she invited me to watch them with her. I would sit next to her as she followed the actors by following their lines as they spoke them, in a very big volume of Shakespeare’s plays. This way I saw his language as well as heard it. What a memory!

You have lived in Madison for just about all your life. How does the place where you live colour and influence your poetry?
I came to Madison for college when I was eighteen and never left. I loved the lakes, and also living in a city while in close proximity to country. I am definitely an urban person, but still enjoy nature. I’ve a great love of animals and even of “creepy creatures” like reptiles and bugs, which was a good thing when raising two boys. My husband is much more of an outdoors person than I am and I have benefited from his knowledge of the natural world. I live three blocks from the smallest of Madison’s four lakes. It’s a silent lake, meaning motors are not allowed. A few of my poems were inspired by walks along that lake. Madison is home to the State Capitol as well as to Wisconsin’s flagship University so there are an abundance of intellectual and cultural opportunities. We have two-first class art museums, an opera, a symphony, a ballet, and, as I’ve discovered, a community of writers and poets. It’s also a politically liberal city and since my politics are very much to the left it’s a good fit for me.

Describe for us your writing process.
I’m a fairly undisciplined writer. By that I mean that I find it impossible to set a schedule to write. I don’t keep a journal or notebook. I may go several weeks without writing and then have a burst of creativity. I do, however, read poetry most days. When I have an idea for a poem, whether it comes from something I hear on the street, an image, something in the news, a memory, a dream, or a prompt, I jot down a few notes on whatever paper is handy. Then, I’ll pick up a lined-pad of paper and write for a while in long-hand. Sometimes I’ll get most of the first draft written that way, but most often, I’ll move to my laptop after the first few lines.
When I’m stuck on how to proceed or even just on a word, I go for a walk. I’m a high energy person (even in my old age) and re-channeling that energy is a good way for me to figure things out. I find it helpful to read all, or parts of poems, aloud as I work on them. My final poems rarely look like the first draft. I love to move lines and stanzas around—it’s not unusual for the first stanza of a poem to end up as the last stanza. I like to revise and I’m pretty good at “killing my darlings.” I often have no idea where the poem is going until several drafts in and am frequently surprised by the over-arching metaphor. With one or two exceptions, it takes me a long time to get to the point where I think the poem is ready to greet the world, and even then I’m always thinking of small changes that would make it better.
I’m in a poetry critique group where I need to have something to share every month, so that’s a motivator. I also attend classes and workshops. Until Covid, I made an annual pilgrimage to Iowa City for the University of Iowa’s Festival of Writers. Thanks to Zoom, I’ve been able to take several poetry classes and workshops. I participate in a weekly Zoom Write-in sponsored by the Arts and Literature Lab here in Madison.

I have read that your degree in Art Education focussed in particular on printmaking and painting. I have also read that you spent some time as a docent at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Do you think these two things may be the reason why many of your poems are influenced by works of art?
Absolutely! We didn’t have a television until I was in 6th grade so drawing and reading were my primary form of entertainment growing up. My parents encouraged my older sister and me to draw and provided materials, as well as paid for lessons. My mother’s aunt was a portrait painter of some stature in Milwaukee and spending time in her studio was a treat. I think I first began to learn how to really look at the world from her. She was always staring intensely at people, I believe she was composing, in her mind, before committing the image to paper or canvas. This was not only excellent training for an artist but also for a writer. I love to visit galleries and art museums and am often inspired to write by certain images. My oldest son lives in Italy, so I have had the good fortune of seeing some of the best visual art in the world.

Do you paint as well as write? If not, have you ever thought about taking up painting as another medium in which to express yourself?
I have not made much visual art for a long time. I did take a painting class a few years ago and intended to take another one, but Covid shut down in-person classes and I’m not interested working on visual art online. My husband and I recently purchased a much smaller house and I took my paints and woodcut materials with me. As I write this, we’re having an office/studio built in the basement. When I have a physical space to work, I plan on seeing what happens.

Do you have a favourite colour and, if so, what is it? Do you know why?
Blue, especially blue greens and watery blues. It’s probably due to the fact that I grew up in a state with 15,000 lakes. I had asthma as a child that was often exercise induced, and swimming was a sport I could safely do. I still swim almost every day. So, there’s the water element in my love of blue. In addition, although I had not thought about it in this way until being asked this question, I think that I may be drawn to blue because it’s often thought of as a calm and serene color. Perhaps I surround myself with blue as a way to help me settle, focus and breathe.

One of your poems that I have particularly enjoyed reading recently is ‘Most Saturday Mornings’. It is both busy and colourful in the sense that a lot of people and ideas are expressed in it and it is humorous too. Do you have a personal favourite…please tell us something about it.
That poem is a favorite of mine, too, and it’s one of the few poems that didn’t change much from the first draft. “Joe” is modeled after my husband and my youngest son, both of whom took our dog to the service station. Everyone and everything in the poem is real. Only the names have been changed. It’s a love poem to Madison that still, in spite of huge growth, harbors many of its small city places, haunts and characters.
I have two other favorites : “What I Would Have Missed,” because it’s so much fun to read to an audience and “Stilt Walking the Upper Peninsula”. The latter was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. [‘What I Would Have Missed’ is reprinted in full at the end of this interview].

Can poetry influence politics? I’m thinking here of your poem ‘On Debating a Hunting Season on Sandhill Cranes’.
I used to think that poetry could influence politics, but I’m more cynical about that now. Take the poem you mention. I was inspired to write it because Wisconsin’s State legislature was debating a bill to allow hunting Sandhill Cranes. I created a broadside of the poem, complete with an illustration of a sandhill crane. I handed the broad side out at a meeting of Wisconsin’s Conservation Congress, where it received a sympathetic response. I also hand delivered it to all state representatives and senators, along with an impassioned letter asking them to vote no. I did not receive a response from one elected person. Wisconsin’s legislature is once again trying to pass a law allowing for hunting sandhill cranes. The current debate has intensified because four whooping cranes (an endangered species) were found shot in Oklahoma where hunting sandhill cranes is legal. In-spite of this, I’m afraid the bill will pass.
That said, I do think poetry has a place in politics, if only because it’s a way for poets to express their opinions, anger, frustration and hope. I’m just not hopeful that politicians listen.

What makes you angry?
Hypocrisy, stupidity, and selfishness. Hypocrisy because it’s so prevalent in US politics; stupidity because so many people in the US are buying into lies and misinformation; and selfishness because some in the United States (elsewhere in the world, too) think that their “individual freedoms” and choices trump the public good.

What project(s) are you working on at the moment?
For several years, I’ve been working on a rather long poem about a couple on a walk through Rome. It’s a continually evolving poem and something tells me that I need to go deeper. I also need to find more lyrical language. It’s a highly personal poem, a reflection on aging and how relationships change over time. I plan to focus on that poem this year.

What I Would Have Missed

That boy will come to no good in the end. Maybe, but
he was good in the beginning. Exuding this James Dean
persona, he was irresistible. He didn’t talk much, but
I didn’t want talk. It was enough to lean into him, press
my face against his back, feel his nipples harden
under my palms. The wind and full-throttle throb
of his bike blocked all admonishments.

It didn’t matter that he had a girl friend. That night
on the golf course, the air thick with insect sound, the
sky sprayed with stars and us, folding and unfolding
into each other convinced me he would leave her.

I ran wild that summer: staggered into work late,
hung-over with love; broke curfew; just about broke
Mama’s heart. Some would say I lost my bearings.
That’s what you’re supposed to do at seventeen.
Otherwise, wouldn’t life be like always eating the olive,
but never drinking the martini?

[This poem appeared in Pirenes Fountain, October, 2009 and
Silver Birch Press, February, 2017]


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