INTERVIEW WITH POET ISABELLA DAVID MCCAFFREY

Isabella David McCaffrey
Isabella David McCaffrey

GR: Thanks for agreeing to let us interview you for Gyroscope Review. We’re pleased that you are one of our contributing poets. Will you please begin by telling us where you’re from, where you write, and why poetry?

IDM: Thank you for asking me to participate. Where I’m from is oddly enough the most complicated question you can ask me but connects nicely with why I write poetry. My French father and New Yorker mother met on a Sufi commune in San Francisco, which subsequently relocated to Miran Forest outside Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was born. We then moved back and forth between Virginia, New York, and even overseas a few times, and I continued that trend into my adulthood. I mostly went to school in Virginia, though, and rounded that off by attending UVA where I got my undergrad degree, but I’ve never felt a strong connection to Virginia. My family is in France and New York, but, more to the point, my family life was so different from my classmates. At least, I assume it’s safe to say most of my classmates in the Bible Belt did not have parents who put on long dresses, men and women both, and danced around campfires in the woods on the weekend. I’ve always felt more at home in New York with the other oddball, displaced persons, but it’s become increasingly difficult to raise a family there. Once we had our second child, my husband and I decided to move to Philadelphia, which feels like a more family-friendly city and has the added bonus of a growing poetry scene, which I’m eager to explore. 

Coming from such a jumbled background, I think that’s half of why I write poetry. Writing is frequently described as a process of self-discovery but for me it also encompasses a search for a grounded self, a self that makes sense of my mixed-up background the same way New York seems to create a space where so many people from so many places feel at home. While working as an actor I literally had to learn to speak English with a standard American accent and French with a standard Parisian one. Before that, I sounded unplaceable in both. When I write poetry, I feel like I’m tapping into my most powerful emotions, transforming the chaos of my life and background into possibilities for imagining and expressing so many experiences. 

GR: Who, or what, are your poetical influences?

IDM: I was lucky to stumble upon just the right books as I was growing up. I found Tam Lin at 12 or 13; it introduced me to the poetry of Keats and Eliot and to a troupe of literally immortal Shakespearean actors, living at a liberal arts college who unselfconsciously quoted all classical and modern poets at length. I assumed that was college life and set to memorizing long passages of poetry just in case.

But the very first poet I fell in love with was Neruda. I was visiting this uppercrust British family’s house just outside Manhattan—the father worked at the UN and his son had been my first boyfriend in nursery school. They had all these beautiful, leather-bound books in their library—it was like being in Professor Kirke’s home in The Chronicles of Narnia. You were always stumbling upon rooms that hadn’t been there before. Only instead of a wardrobe, I randomly opened a gorgeous edition to Neruda’s “Body of a Woman”. It was as much as if I’d stepped into another world, only instead of ice, I found fire. I had never read anything so sensual or strange. I was fourteen, and I wanted to be an actor or a poet and to learn Spanish—I’m still working on the latter.

GR: How do you decide what ‘form’ a poem should take?

IDM: The feeling and the form decide themselves together, so it depends on my mood. I write haibun, and I tend to write those when I’m almost in the mood to write a story but not quite. If I want to write something less conversational and more intense but still with more of a narrative than a typical poem, I’ll work on haibun. My favorite part about haibun is that I can only write haiku when I’m writing haibun but can never compose haiku on their own. That to me symbolizes the magic of form. I’ve learned never to wait for inspiration, but I find my moods do dictate what form my writing takes.

GR: What is your writing process like?

IDM: Before I worked as an actor, I wrote but I never had much self-discipline. Working as an actor, I had to perform whether I had the flu or was in a bad mood. When I began staying home with my children, I focused on writing, and I could see that many of those practices I’d picked up from the theater world applied across the board. You have to treat writing like any other job; you can’t just not show up and then expect to have your job waiting for you whenever you feel like doing a little work. That said, I think it does help to create a conducive atmosphere for inspiration: reading work that sets off fire rockets in your head is always very nice or watching great, old movies, listening to music, or going to hear other poets read. My husband, who’s a professional trumpet-player, has gotten me into jazz. We’re both obsessed with Madeleine Peyroux, who’s like this French reincarnation of Billie Holiday. I used to have more set guidelines like always writing at the same time every day, but again as a mother of young children I’ve had to become more flexible, snatching minutes and hours when I can.

GR: Do you belong to any writer’s groups – face-to-face or online? If so, are they part of your process?

IDM: I’ve been really lucky to meet some wonderful writers and editors online. I met one of my best friends that way, the novelist, poet, and editor Camille Griep. I asked to record one of her stories for Every Day Fiction’s podcast, and when she started Easy Street Magazine with Stephen Parrish and Wendy Russ from The Lascaux Review she asked me to join the staff, which has been an incredible learning opportunity.

When I lived in New York, I went to the Brooklyn Writers’ Guild meetings—a fantastic mix of bestselling writers and total beginners— but I’ve never been comfortable sharing my writing face to face. I’m oddly shy for having been an actor. I did enjoy talking about books and writing, though, so I still found the experience invaluable. As soon as we get settled in this new city, I’m going to check out the Philadelphia Writer’s Group, which I discovered through Meetup, the same way I did the Brooklyn Writer’s Guild. I find it helpful and inspiring to surround myself with people who are interested in what I’m interested in.

GR: What do you look for in the poetry you like to read? Any favorite poets?

IDM: I think I already mentioned a few: Neruda, Eliot, Keats. I also love Lorca and Vallejo. As for French poets, I love Verlaine and Éluard. They both write like they’re dipping quills directly into their own hearts. In English, since I’m also an actor, or was, I’m naturally obsessed with all things Shakespeare. Then, there’s a British poet who if he’d lived longer I think would have been more well-known or at least written a lot more. His name was Sidney Keyes, and he died fighting at Tangiers in World War II before his 21st birthday, but he left behind some beautifully odd work. I found a fragment of it when I read Watership Down also around fourteen, but then it took me years to find his book.

I didn’t start to read contemporary poets until more recently. That’s when I found Audre Lorde and very recently Mary Szybist, who plays with form in a way that’s very freeing and different from the Elizabethan and Victorian formalism I’d grown up reading. I also love E.E. Cummings’ erotic poetry, all of Edna St. Vincent Millay, some of Celan—a lot of it is too abstract for me— and all of Yehuda Amichai.

I really admire powerful emotions rendered with clarity and simplicity. I think that’s why I’ve become so attracted to Japanese poetic forms like haibun and haiku. When I was younger, I loved sprawling, romantic old-fashioned ballads like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” or Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwaymen.” My grandfather loved Robert Service, so those were actually the first poems I memorized. “Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows. Why he left his home to roam in the cold, God only knows.” Those are still fun to recite, but I’m drawn to simplicity as I get older.

GR: What is the most important role for poets today?

IDM: It’s pretty exciting how popular poetry is becoming again these days. Or maybe it always was, and we poetry-lovers just weren’t as aware of each other as social media has helped us to be. There are poets with tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, and while confessional poetry isn’t really my own favorite genre, it’s exciting that people young and old are excited about poetry and that #poetryisnotdead is a trending hashtag with over 200,000 examples.

Audre Lorde said that our dreams are made realizable through our poems, and that our dreams point our way to freedom. Alienation isn’t a new concept, but I think the current speed of information and changing technologies are creating new existential challenges as much as they can bring distant strangers together. There’s so much coming at us every day, so many pictures, news items, and emails. It used to be this big thing when you’d get a letter, and now if I go a day without getting at least two written messages from friends or colleagues, I feel bereft! I think, whether you’re reading or writing poetry, it opens up a quiet place that can refresh you and connect you back to something a little more powerful and centered.

GR: Which poets have you had the opportunity to hear read? Alternatively, what is the most recent book you’ve read?

IDM: I wish I’d realized I wasn’t going to live in New York forever the way I was planning to! I would have gone to see every poet and play under the sun. Recently, I went into to the city to hear my friend Safia Jama read at KGB Bar, and I met the poet, Cynthia Manick, there as well. I heard Rita Dove at UVA; she read a poem about chocolate that made both her and her audience hungry. Safia’s funny poem she read about socks reminded me of that a little bit. I went to see Robert Bly, because he had translated so much of Neruda but whose own poetry I didn’t know much about. Recently, I heard Rowan Ricardo Phillips read, and he was really funny, learned, and elegant. I also loved his last book, The Ground, which is the perfect love affair with New York in poetic form, so I won’t try to write that.

I once read that Yevgeny Yevtushenko used to fill stadiums with people eager to hear a poet, and I feel like the zeitgeist is pointing to a similar occurrence happening now, which is very cool. There was an article in the New York Times recently about the web poets and how one of the more popular ones attracted a huge audience at a Manhattan bookstore. I used to go to open mics at the Bowery Poetry Club, and there’d be almost no one there or people mostly there to do standup. Now, it seems like poetry is interesting a wide variety of people, and that’s fantastic. [Here’s a link to the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/business/media/web-poets-society-new-breed-succeeds-in-taking-verse-viral.html?_r=0]

GR: Any future plans for your work that you’d like to talk about?

IDM: I expanded my chapbook [The Voices of Women, information shown below – eds.], forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, into a full-length book, but I might just try to place those poems individually. Now that I’ve had another baby, I almost feel like a new person with different interests from the person who wrote that book.

I’ve been thinking about a new project that has to do with my time living on a kibbutz in Israel when I was eighteen. I recently had a long chat with a Palestinian cabbie, and it reawakened my interest in the Middle East. I find the knottiness of the problems over there tragic and rich, and in the same way I love New York, I love the confluence of cultures and languages. Anyway, he said this thing that stuck with me: he didn’t think there could be peace for another five generations at least. You don’t hear Americans talking about the past or future as if they’re connected to it like that, that sense of the immense scale of time over there—past and future, as well as a heavy sense of God almost palpable in the air, affecting every day life in a way it doesn’t anywhere else.

GR: What other interests do you have beyond literature?

IDM: I love languages. I almost went to grad school for classics or linguistics, but I really wanted to give acting a shot. I didn’t want to have any regrets, so I’m glad I did that. Now that I’m writing and staying home with my kids, I’m trying to study some of the languages I half-learned like Spanish.

GR: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Please let our readers know where they can find more information about you or your work: 

IDM: My website is www.IsabellaDavid.com.

You can follow me on Twitter @IsabellaMDavid.

My chapbook, The Voices of Women, will be available on Amazon and from Finishing Line Press’s online bookstore in mid-January, 2016.

Isabella David McCaffrey’s poems, “After Happily Ever After” and “The Book Club Devotee”, appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Gyroscope Review.

About Kathleen Cassen Mickelson

Minnesota-based writer, dog owner, parent, photographer, coffee addict, and snow-lover, which makes her unpopular in the neighborhood around the middle of January.