2023 Colorado Prize for Poetry winner Gale Marie Thompson talks trees, Taylor Swift, and lyrical phenology with associate editor Tashiana Seebeck. 

Gale Marie Thompson is the author of Helen or My Hunger and Soldier On. Her poetry and prose have appeared in American Poetry Review, Bennington Review, and Mississippi Review, among others. A winner of the Poetry Society of America’s 2022 Emily Dickinson Award, Thompson has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. She is founding editor of Jellyfish Poetry and an editor for YesYes Books. She lives in the mountains of North Georgia, where she directs the creative writing program at Young Harris College. 

Tashiana Seebeck: The first question that I wanted to ask was about your writing process and how this book came to be. 

Gale Marie Thompson: The fun thing about this book is that it’s not my normal writing process. It’s more—actually, I guess maybe it is my normal writing process. Let’s be honest, I can only write so much right now because I’m doing so much of my job. In terms of the book, I started it ten years ago. I had a full version of a manuscript that many of those poems were in ten years ago. It got picked up by a press, the press went under, and I pulled the book. Thank God I did. Because it absolutely was not ready. It was so not ready! I’m glad that I was able to have that next almost decade to work on the poems and find out what the book really means to me. It kept getting updated and updated and updated. I would change the title every couple years based on the new theme that I was thinking about. Then I moved to the mountains in 2019 and I started writing all these mountain poems! Everything kind of came together. The themes that I had been thinking about earlier with a lot of the poems were still the ones that I was thinking about in the mountains between 2020 and 2021. It’s very strange. I spent a lot of time—especially during the pandemic—where we would have just full days of writing. That’s how I work best, is having just a full day to get into the process of writing because I have so many jobs and so many tasks and so many things that involve routine, right? Just tasks that need to get done. That’s not the kind of brain that writes good poems. So, a lot of times, I can’t just do my stuff from 8:00 to 10:00 and then write a quick poem from 10:00 to 12:00 and then go back to teaching! Or whatever. 

TS: Right! 

GMT: I need to devote an entire day, even two days, because sometimes even that first day will just prep me for the second day. So I need full days where I’m reading, where I’m sitting comfortably, where I don’t feel like I have to do anything for anybody. I often feel very pulled in so many directions. When I left my grad school my teacher was like, “Yeah, you better get ready to start prepping yourself to write poems in between hours at work and during your lunch break.” I have just never ever been able to do that! 

TS: I’m not ready for that phase, either! But I love that story of growth. 10 years—that’s so impressive that you held onto the pieces and the vision for this book. 

GMT: And a lot has happened! 

TS: Yeah, a lot has happened in ten years! My next question is actually about this gorgeous return to the image of a tree that I noticed throughout the book, especially in “Failed Spell for a Spine,” which is one of my favorites. I wanted to ask how you see the role of the tree in this book. 

GMT: Oh, that’s a great question. I don’t think I’ve thought about it. I’ll start by just saying what the poem means to me or where that originated and then I’ll probably answer it from there. That poem was actually called “Spell for a Spine” first, when my uncle sustained a devastating spinal injury from a random accident. For seven months he battled to recover after this trauma before he passed. I started writing this spell during his battle as a strengthening prayer, almost. Because I was really thinking about how sturdy a spine is and how, when we’re born, our bodies form, cell-wise, around the neural tube, right, which is your spine. So it’s the first thing that’s made in the body, it’s this sturdy, sturdy thing. But at the same time, if anything happens to it—that’s it. Right? It’s this strange chance. What happens when the thing that’s supposed to be your protector fails you? So I started writing this poem kind of in hope. The poem didn’t really work out as a prayer for hope, so with some time I retooled it to take in time passing and what had changed. I mean, I can’t express to you how random and cruel it was. One day my uncle was just walking down the sidewalk and then everyone’s lives changed. It’s made me think a lot about the cruelty of chance. 

TS: Yes, that makes a ton of sense. 

GMT: Our bodies, we think they’re really strong. We think about car wrecks, we think about planes, we think about all these major things, but also you could trip on a sidewalk. Which is terrifying. I know that’s depressing, but it really made me think about the fragility and cruelty of life. At the same time, it’s this call to—not to be cliché—but to cherish what you have. And consider how to make a life, even if it’s a short life, how to make a life worth living. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about. The tree is really important because I live in the mountains. There are trees everywhere. There are different kinds of trees. I will never know what the names of different trees are. I think a lot of the book is just me trying to ask people what trees they are and then I think about it and I’m like, do they know their own names? Do they care what they’re called? They’re just trees living their lives. 

TS: Good point. 

GMT: I’m surrounded by trees all the time and I think a lot about that organic or foundational growth that starts from the bottom. Right? It’s like a poem where the form follows what it’s doing—so, based on how the weather was that year, based on what kind of nutrients it needs, that’s the kind of trunk that it ends up building, if that makes sense. It’s about form meeting function. I thought a lot about that—how the things that we create are shaped by our environment. 

TS: Wow, I love that analogy. I’m going to steal that! I also wanted to ask about the role of the animal in this book, starting with that beautiful epigraph from Lauren Groff’s Matrix: “Animals are closer to god, of course; this is because animals have no need of god.” Similarly, how do you see the role of the animal in Mountain Amnesia? 

GMT: Someone asked me that question in a Q&A at a reading and I literally just read the epigraph from Lauren Groff. 

TS: Because that’s all you need! 

GMT: Yeah! I simply can’t think of another answer. Animals have this holiness about them because they simply don’t care. They are just a part of the world in this way that I feel that I’m not, or that I wish I could be. They have their role, they have this innate sense of their job here on Earth, and when it’s done, they’re finished. In terms of that larger mortality theme but also like again, I’m in nature all the time. Especially during the pandemic. I live in a kind of a college—I won’t say a town, it’s barely a town. But the campus that I live near is full of college students. During the pandemic, there was nobody. It was like me and six other people living in the town! So I would go out to walk and just notice the Earth, just be a part of the Earth in a way that I don’t think I had done intentionally before. Spending all that time around animals, I started to notice their little jobs. I’d see the same animals at the same time every day, you know. It kind of became a joke. I was visiting a friend in Ithaca, and he was like, “Yeah, there’s basically no one where she lives. The cows are her friends!” Somewhat, yes! There aren’t any cows here, but definitely. The animals become little communicators from the other world, I think, and they gave me a lot of comfort because they just want to live their lives. I really appreciate that about them.  

TS: That’s a good way to put it. They just want to live their lives. 

GMT: They do! They have their little job and whenever that’s done, then they’re done. They’re not sitting here going, “Oh, my God, what if I have to send an email and it has too many exclamation points in it?” 

TS: Yikes, yeah. 

GMT: They don’t have to send emails! 

TS:  I noticed on your website that you are interested in docupoetics. Do you see Mountain Amnesia working within the realm of docupoetics at all? 

GMT: Wow. I haven’t thought about it. My second book, Helen or My Hunger—I wouldn’t say that it’s literally docupoetics, but in that book I was really interested in the idea of shifting the form to provide witness on evidence and real things. To shed a light on something. What’s funny is that Helen or My Hunger was written after at least a third of Mountain Amnesia. So I don’t know if I necessarily think that it’s thinking about docupoetics, but while I was writing Helen, I was writing about how language can be a violence, a violation of the thing you’re trying to represent. My joke is that when I was writing Helen I almost wrote myself out of the book. At the end of the book, I was like, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t write any more poetry, huh?” I wrote myself to a point where I was like, language is terrible! So what do I do with it now? The third book is me reconciling that language and if that is true. If language is a violence, if putting something into words necessarily harms it, then why then am I writing poetry? I had to reconcile that, you know. What’s my ethical reason for writing poetry? It’s really hard. 

TS: I see. 

GMT: So there’s that. There’s also a colleague here who mentioned the word phenology. He said something like, “Oh, you’re a lyric phenologist.” He said essentially it’s a new kind of term for scientists who study climate change. It’s basically the study of noticing.  

TS: Oh, that’s fascinating! 

GMT: When does spring start every year, right? There are all these things, like the cherry blossoms in China, I think. They’re coming out two weeks earlier this year. That’s not good news. It’s essentially a person who studies cyclical phenomena and when things happen each year. They’ll notice, “Ah, the spring peepers are out! It’s the second week of February!” In the mountains that’s something I picked up from a lot of folks. They’ll say something like that and I’m like, how do they know it’s the second week of February, you know? It’s not necessarily docupoetics but it is evidentiary writing. Even if it’s not something in terms of society, it is asking: What are the spring peepers doing right now, and why? I could make myself egotistical and pretend that, yes, I’m a climate scientist now, because I’m writing these poems. No. But there is a sense of noticing and making sure that there is a record somewhere. 

TS: Absolutely. The phrase “lyrical phenology” does feel so emblematic of Mountain Amnesia. That’s just such a cool phrase. 

GMT: Yeah, and he’s a professor in our Outdoor Studies department—he’s not a poet, but he loves poetry and nature. 

TS: My last question for you is a tough one. What is your favorite Taylor Swift song? 

GMT: Oh, my God. I have some thoughts. My favorite song that I like to keep playing, that I get emotionally attached to, is “Wildest Dreams.” I’m such a millennial. Even the new recording of it is so good, I love it. In terms of musicality, I think that is the best one. My favorite of all time? I really like “You’re Losing Me,” from the vault. I don’t know if it’s going to stay my favorite of all time but it’s my favorite right now. I think it’s great. 

TS: Yes! Great selections. 

Tashiana Seebeck (she/her) is a third-year MFA candidate in poetry at Colorado State University and an associate editor with Colorado Review.