An Interview with Dan Gerber

Have there been any difficulties or pressures in following the family business [Gerber
Products] versus following your own desire to write? How have you balanced the two?
Has one ever helped or inspired the other?

Matsuo Basho wrote that “No matter what we may be doing at any given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry.” On August 20, 1962 I took a vow that—along with everything else life might require of me—I would devote my life to watching and listening to the worlds around, and within, me and to making poems, as best I could, out of my experience, because it was what I knew I had to do. To me, poetry is a religion, as well as an art. I define religion as the way one lives one’s life, and I knew that if I stood a chance of living an authentic life, this was how I would have to do it. I wrote about this in the introduction to A Second Life. I’ve done many other things, teaching, journalism, business, washing dishes, taking out the trash. I found that when I saw them as a conflict with what I saw as my life’s work, they conflicted with it, and when I was able to see them just for what they were and gave them my full attention they became simply my life’s experience out of which a poem might arise. But I had to create the space in which I might re-imagine my experience, and this often meant getting up at 4:00 or 5:00 AM to have that time and quiet space. I did though often find it difficult to coax the muse back when I’d been devoting my attention to the problems of business. I’d sit, as best I could, in her waiting room until she’d decide to have me back. And I often still do.
You grew up in Fremont, Michigan, but have since moved to California and have traveled around the world extensively, including Africa. How have these vastly different landscapes and cultures affected your writing
Isak Dinesen said that she had been a “mental traveler,” and Thoreau wrote that a writer is a traveler who stays at home. My travel and all my life experiences have provided food and vocabulary for my work, but so have my reading, my imagination, and my idleness. It’s all about staying awake to experience, whatever it is. And staying awake to that other “I” that watches the one experiencing. Dinesen wrote wonderfully about her farm in Africa, and she wrote amazingly and convincingly, in her stories, about the landscapes and cities she’d never actually seen. I sometimes feel that if she’d actually been to those imagined places, she wouldn’t have imagined them so clearly, for us. Our life experiences only become real in our work when we are able to re-imagine them, to make them real inside.
Many of your poems seem to deal with the simplicities of daily life, but have an interwoven unassuming, almost dreamlike quality, as with “The Crow,” in which you write: “He flaps on beyond the bend of the planet, / or beyond the canyon's pine ridge / where I can no longer see him / and assume he's a prophet now, living in Judaea, / preaching to a glade in Ninevah.” How did you establish this type of lilting voice?
I’m not conscious of having consciously established it. When I began writing in my teens I went from poet to poet, immersing myself in their work until I would begin writing like them, Dickinson, Frost, Hardy, Yeats, Keats… Then I began to hear a voice I didn’t quite recognize in the poems I was writing, or attempting. I took that voice to be mine, or at least the beginning of it. It became the way I overhear myself thinking.
You write in many different styles—prose poems, free verse, sequence poems, etc. Do you find one style to be more expressive than another?
Well, I think the lyric is probably the most expressive, and usually the most surprising. That is, it surprises me most often. The form of the poem finds itself in the process, and sometimes in the process of revision. I might find I was trying to capture the impulse in a verse form when it wanted to be a prose poem all along
Similarly, you are not just a poet, but have also written short stories and novels. Is there a genre that you prefer to write?
It’s always the poem. Everything starts there. When I would write a short story it began with a lyric impulse. A sentence would come to me, usually something someone said, and I‘d wonder about the speaker and what they were likely to say next. Often I’d be a page or two into the story before I knew whether it was a man or a woman speaking. When I began my first novel I thought I was beginning a poem. Then after a few pages it occurred to me I might be writing something else. The characters emerged from the language. I’d try to keep up with them, learning who they were and what they were doing as the story unfolded. That’s how the first draft would come into existence.
How has your past work as a journalist helped you write more creatively today?
In journalism and essays you’re finding ways to capture something you’ve experienced. You’re more conscious of what you’re trying to do. If I’m writing about The Arctic, whatever tangent the story might take, I’m conscious that The Arctic is my subject and the process of composition is more determined, and probably less experimental. Though in the process of writing an essay about The Arctic I found myself entering an imaginary arctic and discovering that arctic as I explored it on the page.
Many of your poems have epigraphs from various writers. What sort of writers do you find yourself connecting with most? How do you use their words to inspire your own without reiterating what they initially said?
We learn to see through the eyes of those who came before us, most especially artists, as Browning wrote in Fra Lippo Lippi, “We love first, when we see them painted, things we’ve passed a hundred times, nor cared to see. Thus, they are better painted…” I don’t find myself using the words of others but rather absorbing them, transforming them within, as Rilke would say, “reconfiguring them within my emptied mind.” And to your question about what sort of writers I most connect with, I’d say it would be writers who see the inner and the outer at the same time. Rilke would certainly be one of those, and so would Whitman, Dickinson, Willa Cather, Antonio Machado, Wordsworth, Keats, Blake, Wallace Stevens, Su Tung Po, Anne Carson. The list would be a long one, and I would, I know, overlook some of the most important examples.
Your latest book, Sailing Through Cassiopeia, has a heavy focus on your family and your relationship with them. Have they always inspired your work, or is this something that recently came about?
My family has been an intimate influence on my work from the beginning because they have had an intimate influence on my life from the beginning. My father has appeared or been referred to going back to The Revenant, my first book. But it’s only been since A Primer on Parallel Lives, the book just before Cassiopeia, that I’ve dealt with that influence more candidly and intimately. In that book I used an epigram from Thoreau which may explain why that is: We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half-forgotten ere we have learned the language.
If you could teach the work of any poet whose would it be?
There are many poets I love to talk about and to share with others, but if I were to pick only one, that would be Rilke.
Do you have any advice for young aspiring writers?
Have patience. Pay attention. Memorize poems you love, and they will reveal themselves ever more deeply in your life. Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It will say everything I could say in answer to your question. And remember what I quoted Basho as saying in my response to our first question: “No matter what we may be doing at any given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry.”

Works by Dan Gerber

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.