Poetic Portals

For Gabrielle Calvocoressi, poems are gateways to other worlds to explore emotions, identity, and the past.

Gaby Calvocoressi
Creative writing professor Gabrielle Calvocoressi uses poetry to revisit the people they have lost, unpack their feelings around gender and identity, and recognize the small joys of everyday life. (photo by Alyssa LaFaro)
November 28th, 2023

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Gabrielle Calvocoressi has spent most of their life flitting between worlds: the past, the present, and the one inside their head.

Raised by their grandparents in Middle Haddam, Connecticut — which today has fewer than 450 residents — they admit there just wasn’t much to do when they were growing up. While this riverfront community overflows with lush forests and farmland typical of New England towns, playing outside wasn’t an option because Calvocoressi has nystagmus, an eye condition that reduces vision and depth perception.

Instead, there was a lot of daydreaming.

“I think the story behind why I became a writer is pretty common,” Calvocoressi says. “But there are also things about it that aren’t common at all.”

When they were 13, their mom took her own life.

“And all of a sudden this thing I didn’t have language for was constantly around me, and people didn’t want to talk about it,” they say. “Even though I was only 13, I understood that something had happened. That was probably a defining moment in my life.”

Calvocoressi can’t recall who it was that gave them their first journal, but they began filling it with words. It wasn’t until they showed it to one of their summer camp counselors that they had language for what it was they were doing: writing poems.

“I was like, Oh, poems. That felt quite important,” Calvocoressi says with a laugh. “That gave me a name and a structure and a vessel — and that vessel was the only rational thing I had in my life to try to put that experience into.”

For the last 30 years, the Carolina creative writing professor has used poetry to revisit the people they have lost, unpack their feelings around gender and identity, and recognize the small joys of everyday life. The key, they say, is to stay curious and open to learning new things.

“Research for a creative or a poet like me is being in the world,” Calvocoressi says. “It’s going into the archive and building a world — and not just thinking, Oh I know exactly what I’m talking about. And the archive is something you build inside yourself.”

Calvocoressi often spends months researching a topic for just one line of a poem.

This approach works. Calvocoressi has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Paris Review, and Boston Review and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. They spent the 2022-23 academic year as a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University, where they worked on writing their fourth book of poetry: “The New Economy.”

Word experiments

When Calvocoressi wants to incorporate a topic into a poem, they spend hours thinking about it, talking to experts, and reading relevant books and articles. They might end up writing just one line about that topic, but they’ll spend months or even a year learning about it.

How do you tell your children
They’ll never get away?
Tell them their only choice
is factories or the mines,
bent heads or blackened lungs.
Amelia Earhart is a dream
my daughter won’t give up.
-from “The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart”

Consider bees.

“Millions of people write poems about bees. Now that I have a beehive in my backyard, I recognize that most poets who write about them don’t have beehives,” Calvocoressi says, chuckling. “Bees are weird and amazing and violent. They are their own world. Spending time with them and the beekeeper has made me realize that if I want to write about bees, I need to learn everything I can. Otherwise, they become some boring metaphor everyone has heard before.”

Calvocoressi plans to teach an entire unit on bees. They will gather materials on the topic at Wilson Library and collaborate with Carolina professor Eliza Richards to lead a class on Emily Dickinson, who wrote more than 100 poems about the insects.

Calvocoressi believes poems aren’t all that different from science.

“Years ago, I had these two science students, and when something wouldn’t work in their writing, they wouldn’t take it personally,” they recall. “It’s not that it didn’t bother them, but they would look at each other and say, ‘Why do you think that happened?’ And then they’d talk it through and get excited about why it didn’t work and what they’d do instead.”

Firstly, I was terrible at science.
I got as far as slicing the frog’s abdomen
open. Then I made an excuse
and walked the halls ‘til the bell rang.
I know what you’re thinking.
That’s biology. When I looked inside
the cavity I knew I didn’t have what
it took. For a life in science. God,
I have intestines like that frog. They
pulse and shine like his.
-from “Some Thoughts on Building the Atom Bomb”

That’s when Calvocoressi realized that writing poetry is like a hypothesis. The lines and structure are the experiments. Some work; others don’t. And when they fail, the poet analyzes what went wrong and tries something else.

“Poetry is so cool like that,” Calvocoressi says. “I get a lot of physics and pre-med students who aren’t just using it because they need a creative thing on their CV. There’s something about the way their minds work that draws them to the artform.”

Veneration for vessels

Much of Calvocoressi’s work focuses on vessels. The poem itself is a vessel for communication.

So is the human body. Because of their nystagmus, Calvocoressi didn’t learn to walk until they were 3 years old. But they did develop a keen sense of hearing — and today their poems overflow with sensory language.

But I know how the grass sounds
when the locusts come, like a spaceship
taking off and how it makes the air shake.
-from “Captain Lovell”

“I was always imagining a different body for myself, imagining another life,” Calvocoressi shares. “And so a lot of my poetry has to do with gender identity and what it means to be in my nonbinary, queer, trans vessel.”

Calvocoressi learned how to talk more openly about these topics during college. They attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University for bachelor’s and master’s degrees. New York City provided a safe space for exploring their writing and queerness.

“I wanted to be somewhere where there was creative writing. And lesbians,” Calvocoressi says. “And that’s really where my writing life began.”

I admit it:
this body’s not enough for me.
Still I love it.
-from “Praise House: The New Economy”

While many of Calvocoressi’s poems are spent making sense of themselves and their tumultuous childhood, they also include moments in U.S. history. Their first book of poetry, “The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart,” explores emotions around the famed flyer’s disappearance and delves into other “ominous shadows” of small-town America, like a 1944 Ringling Bros. circus fire that killed 168 people.

“My poems are a portal,” they say.

Most of the time, they are a portal to lost loved ones, like their mother, their grandparents, and two beloved Carolina colleagues: Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote and Randall Kenan. They use their words to reflect, reconnect, and soothe — something anyone who’s experienced loss can relate to.

Do not care if you just arrive in your skeleton.
Would love to take a walk with you. Miss you.
Would love to make you shrimp saganaki.
Like you used to make me when you were alive.
-from “Miss you. Would like to take a walk with you.”

The beautiful and the terrible

During last year’s Radcliffe Fellowship, Calvocoressi worked on their latest book of poetry, “The New Economy.”

“This book of poems is about how we keep going,” Calvocoressi says. “I have had many moments in my life where I did not want to keep going.”

The days I don’t want to kill myself
are extraordinary. Deep bass. All the people
in the streets waiting for their high-fives
and leaping, I mean leaping,
when they see me. I am the sun-filled
god of love. Or at least an optimistic
under-secretary. There should be a word for it.
-from “Hammond B3 Organ Cistern”

As the child of a person who took their own life, Calvocoressi admits that they think about suicide often. It is a part of them. But they also think a lot about life and its joys. It is these thoughts that they’ve been collecting in a nonfiction book called “The Year I Didn’t Kill Myself.”

“I’ve been working forever on this nonfiction book about why people kill themselves. And it’s a question of like, well, why doesn’t everybody kill themselves? And that’s not a hopeless question because there are answers. So maybe my poems are me just trying to answer that for myself.”

Calvocoressi pauses and points to a patch of leaves in the trees. They are lime-green, illuminated by a halo of mid-morning sunlight.

“Look at the light,” they say. “It’s so gorgeous right now. And I get to think about that. And I get to think about my students and how they are going to blow my mind in class today. It’s like the beautiful and the terrible. I’m always working on that.”

Gabrielle Calvocoressi is an associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.