An Interview with Gail Goepfert

Born and raised in the Midwest states of Illinois and Ohio, poet, photographer and teacher, Gail Goepfert now resides in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Her publications include A Mind on Pain (Finishing Line Press, 2015), Tapping Roots (Kelsay Books, 2018), Get Up Said the World (Ĉervená Barva Press, 2020) and Self-Portrait with Thorns (Glass Lyre Press, 2021). During the pandemic, she worked collaboratively with Patrice Boyer Claeys on Honey from the Sun and a chapbook, This Hard Business of Living. Her photographs appear on-line at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Olentangy Review, Storm Cellar, Quill & Parchment and on the cover of the February 2015 edition of Rattle. She is an associate editor of RHINO Poetry and loves to teach whenever the opportunity presents itself.


Gail, when did you first start to write poetry and what inspired you to do so?

When I was young, I began collecting the words of others—poems, sayings, whatever moved me. Then I wrote occasional poems—the first that I recall was upon the death of my grandfather who was one of my favorite humans on the planet. When I taught junior high, I wrote poems with my students from time to time, but my real interest was sparked when I offered a class named Dreamcatchers for eighth graders who wanted to escape study hall to write poetry. Their use of poetry to express themselves became such a vehicle of joy for me. Yearly we published their poems in a book, had readings and the students taught poetry lessons to younger children in the school district. It seemed like such an uplift for all. When I retired, I found poetry workshops to attend as I had no formal training about contemporary poetry writing or publishing or critique opportunities. I grew to like the practice and the process.

Who are the poets you most admire and in what ways do you think that they have influenced your work?

It’s so hard to come up with a list like this. At different times, I’ve admired so many poets. Louise Glück, Richard Jones, Jane Kenyon, Jane Hirshfield, Kay Ryan. So many more. Generally after I read a book of poetry by a poet, I find some poem or technique that inspires me to write something in the vein of the poet.

In your chapbook, ‘A Mind on Pain’, you write that ‘pain rises like a river / claiming land not its own’. Stemming from your own experience of learning to live with fibromyalgia, I am sure that these lines that describe so well the nature of invasive pain, will resonate with many readers who suffer from different forms of chronic pain. Was the notion of reaching out to others an important impetus to you in the writing of this book or was it more a question of finding a way through your own pain?

I was encouraged by other writers close to me to put my pain into words. At workshops, I brought poems that were well-received. That propelled me to write more in that vein and complete that first chapbook about my experience with pain. It was not until others heard me read from the book more publicly or read the book that I learned how much the poems and like-experiences resonated with others. One woman told me that she felt she was reading about herself. I’ve also given copies of that first book to doctors or medical practitioners like physical therapists and massage therapists when I felt connected to their passionate efforts to relieve pain. I’ve continued to have that experience in my subsequent book written when I studied Frida Kahlo’s art and life and learned about her near lifelong intersection with pain that impacted her paintings and her painter life.

Do you ever consider a poem to be finished or are all your poems a work in progress?

On a rare occasion I write a poem that feels finished—no more tinkering needed; however, most of my poems are works-in-progress. When I’m writing, I tend to keep files I’m working on open on my desktop, and very often I view the files, reread the poem, and tweak a word or space or line break multiple times over a course of days or even months.

To what extent would you say that your critique group has helped you to shape the course of your poetry over the past few years?

I started attending local poetry workshops in 2008. Up until then, I had no idea that such groups existed as most of my time was spent in the classroom with 12-year-olds. It was equally scary, enlightening, and beneficial. Over time, I found groups that suited where I was in my craft. Eventually, I found a group of women who continue to meet as often as we can to critique and support each other’s work. I’ve learned to both listen to myself and to rethink my work based on their suggestions. I would not be the poet I am today without those women.

Every poet is in some degree fascinated by words. They are, after all, the building blocks of poems. I see that your book ‘Get Up Said the World’ was inspired by your love of words. Please share with us a little bit about the writing of that book and how its structure worked for you.

I’ve always been kind of a word nerd. At a time when I was looking for prompts to inspire more writing, I decided to choose a word that intrigued me or seemed to speak to where my head was at the time. Initially, I used those words for the titles of the poems I was writing. About halfway through the writing of that book, I decided that there would be a real advantage to using titles and then including the definitions with the poems. It allowed the word and definition and title and poem to all speak to each other. Perhaps it’s a “form” that I will return to at some point.

During the pandemic you collaborated with the poet Patrice Boyer Claeys on a couple of books. How did that work out in practice…in ‘Honey for the Sun’, for example, which came first: the poems or the photographs?

The partnership between Patrice and myself has been a gratifying one. Patrice has become what I call a “cento queen,” truly mastering the art of writing poems in cento form—even about something as seemingly ordinary as fruit. She began writing poems, and at some point, I suggested that I might be able to shoot photos to complement her poems. We spent quite a few days learning how to stage fruit as a counterpart to her poems. It was an exhaustive endeavor; for each fruit, Patrice would read the poem, and we would try to match her words to the composure of the photo. All the poems came first.

During the pandemic to keep myself motivated, I suggested that we might consider a collaboration about (what else?) pandemic poems. We both wrote centos and free verse poems over a period of time. We were already in the habit of critiquing each other’s new work, and; therefore, we exchanged poems for comment. I became confident despite her skepticism that there would be an overlap thematically. I just had that sense. About halfway through the poem writing stage, we could both see that there was some synergy at work. Eventually, we brought together all the poems we had written in that direction, pieced them together into a manuscript, and wrote poems to fill what we perceived as gaps in the narrative. I had never collaborated in that way. That is how The Hard Business of Living published by Seven Kitchens Press was born.

How do you view the relationship between photography and poetry? What subjects are you particularly drawn to for photography?

Oddly, I do not think about writing when taking photographs or vice versa, but then I have not been writing in that vein recently. Early on, I was inspired to write about what I saw in nature which was much more challenging; a photograph is composed, yes, but the minute it exists, it has a voice of its own. Most of my writing does spin from imagery. I’m passionate about the natural world—the majority of what I photograph, and much of my work derives inspiration from that source as well. One of my earliest poems was inspired by a dusk sighting of a great blue heron. A poem followed. Another rather unconventional poem, “Two open mouths,” which grew from a photograph of carp I took in a large pond at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “Common carp. / Their bodies, thick / as a big man’s calf and long.” It ended here: I’m carped. / Circling. /Mouth open and wanting. / Teetering / on the thin lip / of the world.” My body, my breathing, my state of mind— all altered by nature.

Please tell us something about your latest publication, ‘Self-Portrait with Thorns’ your interest in ekphrastic poetry and the paintings of Frida Kahlo.

It’s a long story and a short one. The writing of this book of poems spanned a period of four years. I overheard someone mention that she was reading Kahlo’s diary and that possibly it would be something that might resonate with me. I bought the book and began reading about Frida, learning that she spent most of her life in pain—polio at a young age and then a horrific accident when she was 18. All of her life after that was colored by pain—trying to live with it, work through it, find cures for it, and integrating its impact into her life and art. The book is again my experience with pain as it relates to Kahlo and her art much of which explicitly depicts her wrestling with pain.

My bond with Kahlo blossomed even more when I learned of her love of flowers and gardens. We shared a love of beauty amid pain. Perhaps my poem, “Desperate Beauty,” (see below) first published by SWWIM demonstrates that connection best.
I spent a long time on what felt like an intense journey with Frida, but it was ultimately satisfying. I was fortunate enough to see her work on display in Florida, Illinois, and Brooklyn, New York. Unfortunately, the book was a pandemic publication which surely changed its entry into the world.

Desperate Beauty

            —I paint flowers so they will not die.
                        Frida Kahlo

We are watchers, Frida—
aching but obedient to light,

resurrected by shocks of color.
Mornings you pluck

bougainvillea or pearly
gardenias, plait them in your hair

above your brow. I shadow
the fire of spring poppies

and the profusion of lilacs
and pink hydrangea.

With the organ pipe cactus,
you spike a sage-green fence

on the borders of La Casa Azul
tuned to the rhythms of sun

and rain—its lavender-white
flowers tint while you sleep.

Our love-eyes like greedy
tongues lick the rare-red

of wild angel trumpets.
We are aficionados. Pregnant

with joy in the garden’s cosmos.
We pursue hues like lovers’

lips, stalk columns of yellow
calla-lilies, praise the allure

of honey-petalled sunflowers
and the lobes of violet irises.

We thrive on iridescence—
our eyes attuned to its blessing.

Watchers. We bend near
in reverence to the bloom—

all pain humbled, stilled
for a time by beauty.

Reprinted with permission from the author.


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