An Interview with Gail Entrekin

Prize-winning poet, editor, publisher and teacher, Gail Entrekin, lives in the hills of San Francisco’s East Bay. Her books include ‘The Art of Healing’ (with Charles Entrekin) (2016), ‘Rearrangement of the Invisible’ (2012), ‘Change (Will Do You Good)’ (2005), ‘You Notice the Body’ (1998) and ‘John Danced’ (1988). She is co-publisher and Poetry Editor of Hip Pocket Press and Editor of the on-line literary magazine of the environment, Canary, founded in 2007.

For 25 years she taught English and Creative Writing in California community colleges and for many years she taught poetry to children through the California Poets in Schools program.

Gail, I know a few couples who both happen to be writers but they are few and far between. In your early days together, did you and your husband Charles bounce ideas off one another or influence one another in any way with regard to writing?

Charles and I met at a poetry reading which I was running at a bookstore on Market St. in San Francisco. I invited him to read and we went out for drinks with a lot of other poets afterward. I was totally taken by his presence and his work. A few days later he came over to my house, read my work, etc. It was a long, complicated road to getting together, but it has been a rich and rewarding 40-some years of reading poetry, discussing it, walking into each other’s office with a poem we’ve just read or just written in hand, full of excitement. We both knew poems by heart and tended to launch them when tipsy. Those were really good years. Now we each edit an online journal (me Canary, him Sisyphus) and write and read poetry. We both taught it for many years and later taught workshops together several times. I recommend being with someone with whom you share a pressing passion. Yes, there can be occasional professional jealousy, but we always rolled with it, wanting the best for each other.

Who are the writers who have influenced you the most? Can you see their influence reflected in your work or in the way in which you approach your work?

I majored in English Literature and my M.A. is also in Lit with an emphasis on Creative Writing, so I had a lot of exposure to traditional English language poetry. I loved the Romantics when I was younger and later fell in love with Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, some of Eliot. I was always in love with the music of poetry. My dad used to recite poems to me, so I got a sense of the rhythms at an early age. Some of my favorite contemporary poets are Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, some Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn. I think my admiration for Ellen’s and Dorianne’s work affects my narrative poetry: what to leave in, what to leave out, when to fall into metaphor and when to return to the bright details of the poem.

For many years you taught English and creative writing in community colleges in California. What, through that experience did your students teach you during that time?

I taught Poetry in the Schools for many years, and it was often difficult for me to face beginning writers, especially in the years (mostly 7th and 8th grade) where crowd control took precedence over sharing and teaching. It was very hard for me. So teaching in college was a bit of a relief, where most people were at least nominally interested in the subject. Creative Writing classes were a dream as people were very interested. Freshman English was a mixed bag and many people came in with a prejudice against poetry. I tried hard to go ahead and allow myself to share my own pleasure and joy in the work, as I do think that, ultimately, is the best way to teach it. I spent a lot of time paraphrasing and explaining the work. I taught Archibald MacLeish’s Ars Poetica as the definitive explanation of how poetry works. The few students who were or became enthusiastic about poetry were my reward. So I’d say they taught me how to teach them.

What have you enjoyed the most about your editorship of anthologies, and your publishing role and editorship of Hip Pocket Press?

As an editor you get to choose what work should see the light of day. It’s an opportunity to have some small part in determining the zeitgeist of the literary culture, and that’s a real joy to me. When I read something new and exciting, I experience joy. And when I read something that’s almost there, I enjoy figuring out how to tweak it to bring out the author’s intention and working with the author to get it there, if they’re willing. I don’t do that often. Only when I feel that the poem could be really good.

One of my favourite poems of yours that I have read is ‘Blue Whales’. Would you say that concern for what is happening to our environment plays a big part in your writing these days?

You know, I edit a journal addressing the climate crisis, and yet my own writing tends to address smaller and more immediate issues: my husband’s failing health, my daughter’s new baby, more tangible issues that I can see. I do write some climate poems like Blue Whales, mostly about specific species and what is happening to them. I think this avoidance of the elephant in the room may have larger implications about why we are not addressing climate change issues as quickly and competently as we should be: the fact that we simply cannot imagine catastrophe on such a massive scale, an alteration in the world as we know it. Our human minds simply cannot bear it. And so each person takes ahold of one small thread and pulls away at it (those of us who DO try): recycling, protesting the local dam or nuclear waste dump or pollution of our local river or lake.

Two other favourites of mine are ‘Orange’ and ‘Autumn at Work’. In both of these poems imagination goes out on a limb and works its magic. I am envious! Did these poems come quickly to you or were they result of endless revision?

Those two poems both came quickly to me, as it happens. Orange was something I wrote in response to a prompt I gave to a class, and I wrote it while they were writing. “Try to describe a color to someone who is blind. Use only senses that the blind person still has: touch, hearing, taste and smell.” I’m pretty sure I wrote Autumn in a workshop all in one sitting. Each of them was revised later, but they mostly came out whole. In general, though, I work much harder than that on rearrangement, deletion, addition, rewriting whole sections of poems. I belong to a writing group of long standing: we meet on Zoom now. That’s very helpful in seeing where a poem is falling short or is not clear.

‘The Art of Healing’, the book that you wrote with your husband, charting his courageous journey battling against cancer, has been described as a book that could well have been called ‘The Art of Loving’ or ‘The Art of Living’ because it contains wise examples of how to be alive in each moment. Without wanting to be in the least bit intrusive, what would you say helped you both the most to come through that very harrowing experience as survivor and care-giver?

Well, writing was obviously our best tool for survival during that time. We felt separated, for the first time in our marriage, from the shared reality we had been lucky enough to know. The course of his life was suddenly going to be different from mine, and there was nothing we could do about it. I think for me it was an effort to share his experience, but from my own point of view, which was the best I could do to stay with him through it.

Also we began studying Buddhism, with its emphasis on compassion and with being present in the moment, avoiding comparisons with the happier past or dwelling on the unknown future. That was a tall order. Charles was always a natural Buddhist in his thinking; he holds degrees in Philosophy, which he has thoroughly assimilated. But for me it has been difficult to attain. But I continue to hold Buddhist principals as an intention, and it has been enormously helpful to me.

I like the way you chose to name your dog Molly Bloom. Am I right in detecting here an interest in James Joyce?

Yes, Molly Bloom was named after the woman of the streets in Ulysses. We just mainly loved the passion of the last line where she finally says, “Yes, I will, yes.” So very unfortunately, Molly Bloom died of untreatable cancer at the age of five, in the midst of Charles’ illnesses. It pretty much broke my heart. I miss her a little every day even two years later…. She was a good dog.

Please tell us a little bit about the aims and ambitions of the Entrekin Foundation and your role as its Director.

Our family foundation was formed when Charles sold his computer company about 20 years ago and we acquired a lot of money. The Foundation’s goals are to support the Arts and the Environment, and I enjoyed reviewing applications, checking out organizations in person, the rare and privileged pleasure of being able to offer help. Our funds have been greatly reduced by the current economy, and our son has taken over the grants aspect now.

About twelve years ago I read that you became interested in textile art and began to design and create large quilts. Do please tell us a little bit about that venture and where we can view your quilts.

Thanks for asking about my fabric arts. Yes, in 2010 I saw a magnificent quilt at a quilt show I was taken to by a friend. It was modern, very innovative, and I thought, “I can do that!” I knew how to sew but hadn’t done it much in many years, but I just plunged in and began. I avoided the traditional white and went for vibrant colors, and I found that I loved the part where you put the pieces together up on the design wall, and rearrange them, try other fabrics, etc., until you get just what you like. And then you sew it all together and, unlike poetry, you have a physical object that is useful! I took some classes on techniques and color. It’s a whole different creative adventure and satisfies many things in me, one of them my practical desire to hold a beautiful thing I have created in my hands and use it or give it away or sell it. All five of my kids have quilts as well as all seven of my grandchildren, ranging in age from 23 to one year old, and all my friends have been given or bought one. And I sell them on Etsy. GailsDesignerQuilts. Check it out!

To end this interview, here is a poem by Gail, reproduced with her permission:

“Dance me to the end of love.”
                      - Leonard Cohen

We see how the end is waving
like seagrass in the sky
its roundelay, its accordions
all the dying songbirds
flying up as you clap
your bruised and scarring hands
from the leafy cushions of your
chair, your unseeing eyes
that stay and stay and stay
you stooped and groping
for the bread I slide into
your hands before you
ask. The birds swooping
now to pluck it from the air.

Finality is calling you, singing your name
and I would let go now of your hand
pass you on to your next partner
let you enter her embrace as I
declared a thousand times that we
would never, I would never, but you
are only a thread, a whisper, soon
I must take my chances
with the vast and empty world
of unrecognizable song
I who always sing while
you hold me, the way we
move together, how will I sing
when you fly up with the birds
and leave me there with a song
too slow, too dark for dancing?


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