Verse Like a Knife

For Tufts lecturer Rebecca Kaiser Gibson, poetry is a way to pare life down to its essence
Rebecca Kaiser Gibson
“That’s what I hope to teach in my classes: let people discover that they know more than they think they do,” says Rebecca Kaiser Gibson. “Their voice is there in their very own language.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
November 23, 2015

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In her new book of poetry, Opinel (Bauhan), Rebecca Kaiser Gibson covers much territory, from her youth and time in India to life’s inevitable vicissitudes. A lecturer in the English department, Kaiser Gibson says that poetry is really an effort to prune away the extras in life, to get at the essentials.

She pulled the collection together while teaching poetry in India on a Fulbright Scholarship and while in residence at Tufts in Talloires in France. Gibson, who has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and the Heinrich Boll Cottage in Ireland, talks to Tufts Now about the book’s inspiration, closing the creative loop and why we shouldn’t be scared of poetry.

Tufts Now: What inspired Opinel—and why did you name it that?

Rebecca Kaiser Gibson: This is my first big book of poetry, so what inspired it is my entire life up until now. I named it almost on a whim. Do you know what an Opinel is? [She takes out a small folding knife that comes to life with a twist of her fingers.] It’s got three parts: a wooden handle, a hinge and a blade, like the three sections of the book.

The handle holds most of my poems from growing up, poems that are rigid, protective and cozy, but with no room to breathe. The hinge is from when I was beginning to open my eyes a little. And the blade is the functional part of the knife, doing what it’s supposed to do in the world.

I first encountered an Opinel when I was teaching at Talloires. It’s a small knife that farmers, field workers—mostly men in particular, it seemed—have handy at all times. Its uses are diverse, from farm repair work to cheese and bread slicing, from leather cutting to paint scraping—even Picasso reputedly used one. I loved the name, the mystery of it, the sound of it. Slowly I began to realize that the shape and function of the little knife were actually relevant to my poetry, which also tries to be about getting extraneous stuff out of the way to get to the essence of things.

 What’s your process for writing poetry?

My poems are kind of built by accretion these days, a little of this, a little of that. I never know what I’m talking about until I’m finished. Then I think, “Oh. So that’s what it was!” For example, I wrote “Coconuts” when I was in India on a Fulbright. I was walking around as an American abroad, sort of uptight because I didn’t understand everything.

I saw this man climb up a palm tree with bare feet and a machete to hack off coconuts to throw at the feet of this stone idol, Meenackshi, the fish-eyed goddess, at the temple in Tamil Nadu. It is a devotional act there to get attention and a response from the goddess. I didn’t understand the degree to which I wished I could access what matters to me, and what matters to people I encounter, without the hard shell of standoffishness that masquerades as dignity. But I didn’t know that until the poem was done.

Did you face any struggles trying to put this collection together?

I kept thinking, “How do I connect these things? What poem goes where?” I kept redoing it and trying to second-guess myself. I didn’t know how much I could trust the world to leap with me from one thing to the next. That was the hard part.

The fun part of the hard part was suddenly discovering there was a knife in the poem about the coconuts, with a swift blade flashing, and it all came full circle. When I relax and trust myself and let the world take me to my destination, amazing things happen. That’s what I hope to teach in my classes: let people discover that they know more than they think they do. Their voice is there in their very own language.

Is that the most important lesson you teach your students, to be themselves?

You already have a self, and you don’t have to create it. We want to hide or try to be cool or risqué or anything to avoid being ourselves. When you just are, suddenly it becomes really interesting and individual. That’s one thing I love about my classes. Every single person’s poems are so distinct—without them even trying—that after a while we can recognize who wrote what.

How do you think poetry stays relevant today?

I think people love poetry and come to it because it says something they want to hear, something that speaks very personally to them. When my father died, I found myself picking a poem to read at the funeral that I now use in class, Seamus Heaney’s “The Otter.” I read it because there is something so visceral and beloved about the otter in the poem, but in fact, that poem is about his wife. I wrote to Heaney, and he wrote back saying, “When a parent dies, it’s like the roof of your house comes off.” And I thought, Wow. Exactly. Shelter is gone. But the stars are there.

What do you say to people who are scared of poetry or think it’s not accessible?

I think almost everyone in our culture is scared of poetry. If someone finds out I’m a poet, their first response is either “Oh, I was never very good at that,” or, rarely, “I write poetry.”

For those who don’t usually read poetry, I sometimes recommend Mary Oliver; she’s very accessible, very tangible and comforting. A poet whose work I’m including in my class readings this year is Ocean Vuong. He’s pretty exciting and risk-taking, flirting with how far he can go. But it’s unnerving to me what gets published today, and how arrogant it can be, instead of being welcoming and just about the world. I think that puts people off.

 

IT’S ONLY RAINING

Meanwhile, the #71 lingers, then leaves.
That guy with a wide bandage over his nose,
here at 5am, does school before he works,
big shoulders sloped to a book.

The two cops nod to him, one tall, one wide,
under imitation tulip lamps
on cracked brown counter stools.
        Why do I care?

        Because of their weight, how they carry it,
slouched, thick-thighed, but feet on the floor,
a little alert, mostly at ease. And the vinyl
seats splitting, accommodating
the wide hind petals, men.

My tabletop, a maple swirl
one inch thick and washable. Not real
maple, that’s the point
that someone wanted to evoke it.
Comforting, they must have thought.

        I presume that I'm the interloper, voyeur.
But what if I'm part of it?

The ex-marine at the counter leans
toward the waterfall that is the blond
waitress, high cheekbones, high plans,
who lifts her cup to his
earning tips for a real house someday.

Eric, “glow-in-the-dark bike shirt,” shuffles in
with before-sunrise sunglasses. As usual, I assume.
One damp  leaf on the floor flips up
tracked in on a boot, stem arching.

That’s it, the way it’s all related,
        unnoticed. Someone will sweep later.

He wants the Grand Slam: Eggs bacon
spuds and toast, no cakes. 

On the radio another species is shrunk
in a jaunty morning voice. 
        Not dire.

        Everything works out,
says one painter to the other, adding
packet after packet of sugar to his marriage.

        I can hardly eat, I’m so full
of love for those
        who don’t know I love them.

It’s only raining. Toast is buttered.
The sky grows lighter, slightly.

From Opinel, by Rebecca Kaiser Gibson. Line spacing has been modified from the original.

Kristin Livingston, A05, is a freelance writer based in Wakefield, Massachusetts.

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