November 5, 2005: Poet Jack Gilbert comes to town

I got to spend my Saturday with Jack Gilbert, thanks to the NEA and the Williams College Chaplains’ Office: how cool is that? Today Inkberry’s “sense of place/community renewal” program intersected with the Chaplains’ Office’s “reimagining sacred space” program; together we brought Jack Gilbert to town, and over the course of his two events we explored the place where our two foci intersect: sense of place and sacred space; the writing life, the life of the community, and the life of the spirit.

This afternoon at four, about 25 people gathered in Williams College’s Stetson Faculty Lounge for Jack’s Q-and-A. I’d forgotten what a beautiful room it is; great bookshelves, high windows, ornate ceiling, a dozen different kinds of comfortable chair. We sat in a circle, our attention on Jack, and had a fascinating conversation.

My first question for him was about the places that have been significant to him and how they’ve impacted his writing. In response he talked about how the places that matter most to him aren’t the pretty ones, necessarily, but the ones that show him something about himself he hadn’t previously known. He talked about living in Japan, for instance: it was beautiful and he loved it, but it didn’t shape his work beacuse it was so polished and formal and nothing in him arose to match that.

The conversation was pretty freewheeling: the nature of space, Jack’s time in Java, what it means to be scared, the importance (for poets) of cultivating a kind of discontent, the need to write poems that reflect who one is becoming instead of who one already is. He didn’t want to lecture, so he lobbed questions back at the audience pretty often: about place, about fear, about whether it’s possible for someone over fifty to truly fall in love, about the nature of old mens’ dreams.

After the Q-and-A session, nine of us wound up trekking to nearby bistro Mezze for dinner, including Gary Metras (of Adastra Press), Barry Sternlieb (of Mad River Press) and Julio Granda (who illustrates poetry broadsides). I had the pleasure of chatting some with Jack about the time I got lost in the town of Madaba in Jordan, and about the work I’m doing now.

And then came the evening’s reading! We gathered a sizeable crowd in Thompson Memorial Chapel. Chaplain Rick Spalding had some lovely remarks about the chapel’s centennial and their project entitled “reimagining sacred space.” He mentioned that it made perfect sense for his office to conspire with Inkberry, and riffed briefly on what it means to conspire, to breathe together. Then he introduced me, I introduced Jack, and we all sat rapt while Jack read his poems.

He read slowly, painstakingly; that he sometimes stumbled over his words gave the poems an added level of poignancy. Afterwards, he signed books in the back of the chapel. One student (a senior biology major) thanked me for the event, and another (a bearded young man whose year and major I never learned) quizzed me about the Q-and-A he was sorry to have missed. Folks milled around, bought books, and talked about the event as it wound down

The day was a pleasure. As usual, you can see photos in our inkberry photoset. Our deep thanks to Jack Gilbert for coming and to his friend Henry Lyman for facilitating the visit, to Rick Spalding for conspiring with us, and to the NEA for the funding — and, of course, to all of you, for being there and being here and being a part of Inkberry!


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