Interview with Marcene Gandolfo

Motherhood and Grief: A Conversation with Marcene Gandolfo

By Barbara Crooker

Marcene GandolfoMarcene Gandolfo’s debut book, Angles of Departure (Cherry Grove Collections, February 2014), is a collection of poems that explore motherhood, grief, compassion and healing. Last year, the book was a finalist for the Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize and the Patricia Bibby First Book Award and a semi-finalist for the Washington Prize. Her poems have been published widely in literary journals including Poet Lore, Bayou, DMQ Review, The Café Review and Paterson Literary Review. She has taught writing and literature at several northern California colleges and lives in Elk Grove, CA. For more information about Marcene and her work, visit her website at

Barbara Crooker: Let’s talk about book construction; how did you put Angles of Departure together? Did you have a specific theme in mind, or did you have a group of poems already written, and did you then go out in search of a theme (or themes)? Did you have poems that you wanted to have in the book that you later had to exclude? Did you write new poems specifically for the book? And did the book change as you kept submitting the manuscript?

Marcene Gandolfo: While the first poem in the book is literally about miscarriage, I did not have intentions of writing a book on theAnglesofDeparture subject, and I didn’t search for a theme, but I did become interested in the concept of miscarriage on a figurative level. Ultimately, our bodies can only hold so much weight, our minds can only process so much information . . . Even significant memories fracture with time because of the limits to memory’s capacity. So what happens to that which we can’t carry or willfully refuse to carry? We grieve what we can’t carry, but most of us manage to move forward with our lives in spite of it. Do these losses still live with us in the form of grief? What happens to that grief? And how does it transform us? Without intentionally seeking a theme, I encountered many questions about grief and loss and healing, and I proceeded to write in order to find some sort of answers. Of course, there are no absolute answers to these kind of questions, but in the end, I believe that contemplating those questions can amplify our capacities for empathy and understanding.

Once I put the book together, I didn’t make many changes. Of course, I played a bit here and there with poem arrangement, but the basic architecture of the collection didn’t change. I did exclude a few poems that I had originally appeared in my first draft of the manuscript, and I added a couple of poems that seemed to fit. But, overall, I changed very little. And while I “sat with” the manuscript over a year before I gained the courage to send it out, it was accepted for publication fairly quickly, so I didn’t have a lot of time to make changes after my first submissions.

BC: What was your method of arrangement—narrative order, chronological order, or. . . .?

MG: The book begins and ends with short narrative threads, but overall, the poems move back and forth through space and time. Yet they are connected as elegies. And the losses they address mirror each other.

BC: Did you look for connections or links between the poems, or did you group them organically?

MG: I would say organically, or at least more intuitively than analytically. Poems placed together in a collection often “speak’” to each other. I tried to be mindful of this when I ordered the manuscript, and I attempted to see the poems as a reader might. Certain poems compliment others—in music, theme, image, language. Their light shines brighter when they reside closely together in the manuscript.

BC: Talk about your writing process—do you have a “writing schedule,” or do you write “in the interstices,” as Maxine Kumin famously said. How about your revision strategies?

MG: Definitely in the interstices. I wish I could say I have a set writing schedule. But instead, I can only say that I write when I can. Of course, I think it’s important to stay open to the arrival of words, and I try to keep a notebook with me at most times.

And of course, I’m always revising poems . . . But I’ve learned that you can revise the life out of the poem if you are not careful. I revise best when I make small changes—little—by little—over time. Too much radical surgery early in the process can lead to disaster.

I experience periods in which I write fairly steadily. And then, I encounter periods of silence as well. Until recently, I felt anxiety in those quiet periods. But lately, I’ve come to see those periods as part of the larger process, and I’m accepting them. Reading, thinking, processing . . . informs the writing in time. It’s not always evident how it will . . . But I’m learning to accept that sometimes silence is part of the play.

BC: Who are some of the writers whose work has inspired you/informs your work?

MG: That is such a good question, but it’s so difficult to answer. I read so much while I was writing the book. Larry Levis and Brigit Pegeen Kelly come to mind, but there were many others . . . including poets like Tomas Transtromer and Yannis Ritsos, whom I read in translation.

Lately, I’ve been reading many women poets. It’s inspiring to see so many young, gifted women writing poetry today. These women seem to be interested in subverting or transforming traditionally masculine aspects of language and literary convention—making language their own. I love this . . .

BC: What are you working on now/what’s your next project?

MG: I don’t really think of my work in the way of projects. That is, I don’t even consider a manuscript until I have a good number of poems that seem to communicate with each other. I’m not there now. But I have written a few poems that deal with childhood, girlhood in particular. I’ve written a few poems that deal with mother / daughter relationships. I’m sure—at some level—these poems stem from my own relationship with my daughter and my experiences growing up . . . But overall, these poems are less autobiographical than those in Angles of Departure. In these, I feel that I play the role of witness. I’m not sure if I will continue writing these kinds of poems or where they will take me . . .

BC: What advice would you give a beginning poet?

MG: While I’ve been writing for years, I often still feel like a beginning poet. When I write, I’m always discovering new things and learning more about my own process. And I consider that a good thing . . . I think maintaining a beginner’s sense of humility and openness to discovery is essential if you want to grow as a poet.

But I have observed one common mistake among beginning poets. They are often too concerned about having a subject or theme in their work. And they want to control the poem too much. They don’t trust the language, the poem itself. Instead, they seek too much perfection, not enough surprise.

Once—when I was struggling with these issues in my own work– Marvin Bell offered me a quote from Auden. The quote reads:

“If a young man approaches me and says he wants to be a writer, he has a story to tell, I say that young man won’t go far. However, if a young man approaches me and says, Mr. Auden, I love language and literature and words and love to hang out with them, and hear what they have to say to me, then I say that person will have a chance at becoming a writer.”

While this pertains to all writers, I think it is particularly relevant to poets. It’s difficult to trust language and let go . . . of the self, of expectation, of wanting to have a story, of wanting everyone to like you, of wanting to sound smart . . .

But, of course, the act of writing a poem is about relinquishing expectation. It’s about trusting language and letting it take you to a new place. It’s about letting go of your needs for direction and control.

For More Information:

Visit Marcene’s website:

Read some of Marcene’s poetry online at Bellingham Review.

Read Marcene’s poetry online at Mezzo Cammin.

Read Marcene’s poem, “Visitation,” at String Poet.

Read reviews of Marcene’s book:


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