Talking Deep Space with Gail DiMaggio
Gail DiMaggio’s poem “Welcome to Deep Space” was published in Issue 71 of Whiskey Island. The poem deals with themes of desire, independence, and both external and internal pressure to find a partner. I had the opportunity to speak with Gail about the technique, form, and content of the poem. Her perspective, insight, and honesty were a pleasure to encounter. Check out the interview below!
Camille Ferguson: I’m interested in the practice of writing a poem “after” someone else—what influence did “Welcome to the Jungle” have on you?
Gail DiMaggio: The hardest days in my writing life are the ones when I’ve got the time to start something new and not an idea in my head. My best strategy on those days is to blatantly steal. Sometimes, I start with a work of art—something grabs me, I’m not sure what. Sometimes I start with a poem by some poet I’m feeling very, very jealous of. That week it was Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce. I read “Welcome to the Jungle” and thought, Why didn’t I write that? So I went looking for my own version.
CF: The form really grabbed me, especially in the way that it moved the speaker’s stream of consciousness. Could you speak to the effect of not using punctuation in a poem? As it’s written in the style of another poet, this was a formal choice you adopted—but is this a style you had engaged with often before? Or did you step out of your comfort zone stylistically?
GD: Dispensing with punctuation is way outside my comfort zone. I’ve always thought of myself as the queen of careful syntax. I admire Merwin’s effortless mastery of the punctuation-free, I loved Ellen Bryant Voigt’s book Headwaters—not a punctuation mark in sight. But I didn’t think it was for me. But around the time of Deep Space I had been experimenting with what would happen without all that careful parsing. The poems I’d drafted in that style felt like failures. Then I saw what Parker could do. Her much more contemporary, edgy approach made me want to try again.
CF: How did you go about finding your own voice in a poem set in the style of another piece? In what ways did the style inform your poem and in what ways did your poem diverge from it?
GD: What I love about “Jungle” is exactly its stream of consciousness—the way it makes these strong, unequivocal statements and then backs up, or modifies or downright contradicts them. “With Champaign I try expired white ones/I mean pills I mean men/”. It’s like the speaker is backing step by step into more truth than she wants to tell. That felt really close to the way my own mind circles when I’m angry, on edge, frustrated.
And that’s what I think our two poems have most in common—that feeling that comes right before: I give up. They’re both about loneliness—at least part of the time. I think maybe they’re both about a woman who’s tired of having to fit into the world’s (and her own) demand that she get paired up. “Jungle” feels to me much more radically honest, though, and it takes in so much more of the cultural territory.
CF: In what ways did the Cassini probe/Saturn mission influence the formation of this poem? Did you have a connection to or an interest in Cassini before writing Welcome to Deep Space, or did it arise in relation to the subject matter of the poem? What do you see as Cassini’s purpose in this piece? In what ways does it in inform or signify the speaker’s desire?
GD: Both, I guess. I’m a little bit of a space news freak, and I loved Cassini’s splendid photographs from Jupiter and her moons. Just coincidentally, the day I was drafting the poem was the day they announced her death, and I realized that I wanted them to be wrong—all those scientific types. I wanted her to go on—after all, how do they know? Really? So I put her in my poem along with a lot of other stuff floating around in my head that day. The other stuff mostly got the chop. But Cassini felt like she belonged. A possible alter ego. A woman/machine who’s escaped the gravitational pull of men and chosen to just keep sailing. Either she’s content with it or she’s lost in some beautiful craziness. I’m always hoping for beautiful craziness.
CF: Lastly, out of pure interest in reading more of your writing, do you have work forthcoming anywhere we should look out for? Do you have anything in the works?
GD: My book Woman Prime is available from Chicago University Press, of course. Currently, I have two recent poems online in Heartwood, Issue 5, and five in The Ekphrastic Review. One of the Heartwood poems (“What Eve Might Have Said”) was written in my punctuation-free period. All of these are part of a second book, I hope, but it still has a long way to go.
Gail DiMaggio’s book Woman Prime can be purchased the Chicago University Press’s website here.