Featured Poet at SoulLit
I’ve always felt a little awkward writing about myself, but here goes. I grew up just outside of Boston, studied early music as an undergraduate, but got hit over the head with the social justice bug in college (these were the Reagan years) and moved to New York to be part of the Catholic Worker community there and ended up as managing editor of The Catholic Worker paper for a couple of years. I met my first wife there, and we soon moved to El Salvador for a year, doing human rights work during the civil war. We returned to Hamilton, Ontario, and opened a small Catholic Worker house of our own, giving hospitality to political refugees from Central America, and later from Africa and the Middle East as they sought asylum in Canada. Eventually I felt the need to develop more healing skills, and we moved back to the Boston area, where I became a nurse practitioner and have worked for the past eighteen years at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, caring for homeless adults and families. I’m laying all this out because witness poetry has been an important part of my writing life, having seen a lot of conflict and suffering. I started writing poetry quite spontaneously about the time I turned forty; it suddenly seemed I needed a way to process what was going on in the world and in my psyche. I recently completed an MFA in Poetry at Lesley University, and I have work out and forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Naugatuck River Review, Writers Resist and Poet Lore. I live in Brookline with my wife and two stepdaughters, and three energetic dogs.
Soul-Lit co-founding editor, Wayne-Daniel Berard, conducted this interview with feature poet, Robbie Gamble:
SL: You describe much of your writing as "Witness Poetry." Can you tell us what this means for you?
I think it means trying to write poems that shine light into darkened corners of human suffering and injustice, illuminating people’s stories with the hope that if we see these things more clearly, we can be moved to work at changing people’s lives for the better, or at least not repeating the mistakes we learn from our history. Witness poems can be as simple as telling a brief story, as in the “Omar” poem, or they can be a complex critique of the structural flaws in the present system. For me, as a straight white male of means, it also compels me to shine a light on my own places of privilege, to challenge my own assumptions about my place in the social order.
SL: How have your years as managing editor for The Catholic Worker influenced your poetry?
Oh, that was a long time ago, and I mostly remember the deep anxiety I felt in being entrusted with the responsibility to maintain this prophetic, iconic journal, and not screw it up somehow. I was fresh out of college, living and working in the Catholic Worker community, and I had written a couple of columns for the paper, when the prior editor was called to work with the Witness for Peace Brigade in Nicaragua. She showed me how to paste up the galleys and deal with the printers, and I just dove in. We rarely published poetry, but I was exposed to many extraordinary writers, including Daniel Berrigan, Robert Ellsberg, Robert Coles, Michael Harrington, and above all Dorothy Day, who was a journalist, a social commentator, and a deep spiritual thinker all wrapped together in a writer with a wonder lyrical sensibility. (She had died two years before I came to the community, but I spent hours and hours poring over her old columns.) The piece that she wrote about the night the Rosenbergs were executed, as she crouched over a bathtub bathing her grandchildren; the contrast between the children’s splashy innocence contrasting with her dread awareness that elsewhere simultaneously two lives were being snuffed out by the State, is about as poetic as anything I’ve read.
SL: Your social justice experience is very impressive! Can you speak of your experience during the Salvadoran civil war as it influenced you as a person and poet?
I spent about a year with my first wife in El Salvador doing human rights work, what was called accompanimiento, simply accompanying communities that were being pressured by the armed forces, being an international presence where it was felt that abuses might take place. The year 1988 was a relatively quiet period during the war; there was fighting going on in pockets in the conflictive zones, but in the capitol and in many places, people just tried to get by day-to-day, going to work when they could, feeding their kids, coping with shortages and blackouts, staying low if a skirmish broke out on the slopes of the volcano overlooking the city. I think that war is often mostly that, away from the drama of the front lines, people just trying to cope. Of course there is a lot of heavy weaponry and checkpoints and stone-faced soldiers. At one point we got to spend some time in a community in the conflictive zone up near the Honduran border, in a village that had been completed destroyed by the army early in the war, the surviving villagers fleeing to live for years in UN refugee camps in Honduras. The community leaders felt there was now some political space, enough international recognition, that they could return to reclaim their village in spite of some sporadic fighting in the area, and continuing intimidation by the army. We were invited there to be an international presence in case there were human rights abuses. Two particular memories: we brought sketchbooks and markers so that the children could draw things, which they loved to do. Inevitably these kids, mostly under the age of ten, would draw pictures of helicopters raining bullets and fire from the sky, with maimed people and animals on the ground. These children had never encountered a TV; they were recording things they had seen. And I remember my first night there, waking in my hammock in the pitch black of 3 AM, to the sound of a steady rhythmic slapping, a woman forming masa dough into thick tortillas to feed the community for the coming day, a sound both reassuring and defiant. The war definitely exposed the worst human impulses, but it also brought out the best in people who resisted. I think that tension comes out sometimes in my poetry.
SL: At present, you are caring for homeless adults and families. Can you speak about the poetic inspiration you might draw from the people you care for?
I am continually moved by the stories of the homeless patients I get to work with, the extraordinary grace and resilience they often carry while living under very difficult circumstances, the tragic moments when they flame out, or are crushed by a system that disregards their humanity. Their stories, and the interactions I am privileged to share with them, are an abundant source of poetic material. Witnessing people who are living on the edge helps to me to push past a lot of the pretense and minor preoccupations I carry around most days, and cut to the core of the things that we hold to be truly valuable: love, respect, community, healing.
SL: As you know, Soul-Lit is a journal of spiritual poetry. Could you speak about your own spirituality, and the relationship between this and your poetry?
I grew up in the Episcopal tradition, which was kind of heady, and became a Catholic as an adult, after experiencing two extraordinary communities: the Catholic Worker movement, and the persecuted base communities of the Catholic church in El Salvador. I was moved by people really grappling with the questions of how to enact their faith in their daily lives, no matter how difficult. I was also drawn to the sense that the Divine is concretely present in this world, in bread and wine, in the holiness that each of carries within. Also the emphasis on relationship, the I-Thou, the connection to all other people, locally and globally, the emphasis on community. I really like to explore these relationships in poetry.
SL: Who were the poets who most influenced you? And who are you reading these days?
Being a creature of New England, I guess I’ve been influenced a lot by poets with a connection to this corner of the world: Elizabeth Bishop for her craft, precision, and overall wisdom; Robert Lowell for his wide-ranging mind, his continual re-invention of his writing; Ann Sexton for her brazenness; Martin Espada for his passion for social justice. And I recently completed an MFA at Lesley University, where I was exposed to so many wonderful poets: Robert Hayden, D.A. Powell, Martha Collins, Erin Belieu, Yusef Komunyakaa, Fred Marchant, Adrien Matejka, I could go on and on…
SL: What advice would you offer to younger poets, especially those involved with spiritual poetry?
Find time to read broadly. Find time to be quiet. I find most of the beginnings of poems bubble up in the hushed hour just before dawn. Don’t just write about the self, I find there’s too much “I” in a lot of current poetry, not enough of the other, and the world is much broader than the self. And I’ve learned it’s ok to be fallow and not produce any new work for a while. If the poems aren’t making themselves visible, it doesn’t mean I’m not working on them somewhere in the deep folds of my psyche.