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Kate Gale: California Poets Part 4, Two Poems

Kate Gale

December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Kate Gale

Two Poems

My Giraffe We climbed ‘round this small room plants growing in windows. Electricity gone out. We had no light. Scrambled through blackness. Played ping pong in the dark; stars came out. Vines climbed round the stove, chandelier, table legs. We burnt the table for firewood. Ran out of heat. Rode away from the house on horseback. Thick dark around us. Rode down into the valley. Slept in the woods by the stream; camping for days. Our marriage a wild place, outside the rooms. Under the sky, we danced in the trees. We were giraffes, kissing in the dark. A dive of blue tongues into mouths that went on forever . Tongues swimming. Swimming is what we’re best at. We didn’t sleep in beds. We slept on the ground. The ground is what we’re best at, the ground, the dirt. The blue tongues, the swirl of long dancing in the forest. Our marriage is a dance in darkness. Nobody else under this sky. Nobody can help you. No manuals. No keys. No threads. In the long dance of blue tongues. As giraffes sway in the forest, in the dark, the sky watching, holding the dance in its dark blue sky hands. My love, it’s been so long with you, so long of lying down in this grass, of having no one to help us, of having just you. You are not the man I married. You are not my husband of ten years ago. I’ve seen so many of you. I’ve held you all in my arms, my giraffe, my love. You don’t know a couple unless you’ve watched them alone. Us alone? We’re light; we’re shooting stars. We’re the Fourth of July. We’re champagne bottles opening. We’re tongues touching. We’re Nina singing and singing out the last drop of love in the universe. We’re two giraffes running across Africa; if you see us alone you’d say, Who do they think they are with that much joy?

There are Ten Things You Need To Know To Be a Woman

  1. When you’re young and the little boys say, “let me see you pee,” say no, they want to see under your dress. Bad things will happen. They come for you.

  2. When you’re in school, and the other girls laugh at you because you’re dressed like a half-wit, don’t expect your momma to care. She’ll laugh with her sisters, with her mother, they’ll all laugh at you. They are laughing now. They come for you.

  3. When you grow breasts, and the boys say they just want to look at them, they don’t mean it, they mean they want you to undress. They mean, they want to have sex with you and then with someone else, and then with someone else, and then with someone else. They will tell everyone how easily you slipped off your blouse, unhooked your bra, stepped out of your skirt. You thought it was love. They thought you were easy pickings. They come for you.

  4. In college at the parties, if you have a drink and then another, his penis will slip inside you and if you have had too many drinks, so many penises will slip inside you, it will be a party of penises inside you, a memory of penises, a throw down of penises, and you will try to stand afterward, you will try to walk. You will hear them laughing. They come for you.

  5. You move to another state and start over; you date doctors and lawyers. You are taken to the country club where the fancy men put their hands on you. They take you to high rise hotels where they grope you in exchange for dinner. You put out. You are popular. They come for you.

  6. You get a job. You ask the women at your company to help you. You want help meeting important people, making connections. The women will not help you with anything. They sew the scarlet A to your blouse. They come for you.

  7. You get married and then you get a divorce. You hope the women will invite you over to meet their single friends. They do not want you alone with their husbands. They don’t trust you with their boyfriends. When you try to talk to their men, they come for you.

  8. The only way you could avoid attention is to get fat, but you live in a city where fat is not permitted. For a few years, you let yourself get a little bit fat, you have a few more friends. You have a fat boyfriend. Then you join a gym and lose weight. The women turn on you. They come for you.

  9. You could become religious, talk to God. Become a Jesus lover or a God follower and there in church, maybe the other women would like you, the other men would assume you aren’t about sex. Don’t people pretty much stop having sex once they join a church? You attend church one Sunday. Everyone can see you are a fake. They come for you.

  10. You are a mother fucking, skinny assed bitch. You’ve stomped around the world in your life, building castles. You’ve painted the sky and planted trees. You have broken the goddam rules and when they wrote new ones, you broke those. You are out of control, you are the wild new testament of women. You are breaking the eleventh commandment which is thou shalt not speak if thou art a woman. You are speaking in your dirty boots without shame. Where is your shame, woman? Where is your shame? Why do you not hang your head, woman? They come for you. They come for you. They come for you.

Interview II

April 18th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Kate Gale, Poet, Novelist, Librettist, Editor, Publisher

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: It’s an honor and pleasure to do this second interview. I’d like to start with your latest project, Under a Neon Sun—a novel and the first for you. How did the writing experience differ from putting together a poetry collection or a libretto?

KG: Poetry requires careful work and lots of editing.  Each poem as to be perfect.  Alternatively, a novel requires long stretches of time.  I really had some great stretches during the pandemic while working on this novel. As I followed along, I could feel my characters working their way through, so it was like living the pandemic through my characters.  A libretto, for the record, also takes long stretches of time and a lot of planning.

DG: The novel follows Mia, a student at Pierce College living out of her car. She is able to make it by relying on whatever resources the school can provide her. The experience mirrors the one you had in the ‘80s. To what extent have things changed since then, and how did the pandemic affect this?

KG: It’s much more dangerous to live in a car now, and once you are living in a car, it’s much more difficult and expensive to get into an apartment.  At the time, I could rent an apartment for $300; now, you might rent an apartment for $3000-$4000.  Once you are living in your car in 2024, you are in danger of being stuck there for a long time.

DG: In your LA Times op-ed, you write: “Mia’s story has hope. But that can be scarce in today’s Los Angeles, where first and last payments on an apartment can approach $4,000.” Would it be right to say that many unhoused students never speak out for fear of being stigmatized?

KG: Being unhoused means that you are beyond the pale.  No one wants to admit to being unhoused.  You want to believe it is temporary.  You would never want people to look down on you.

DG: In the same op-ed, you write: “when I meet with literary people who attended USC, UCLA or Ivy League schools, I realize that many of them were born into the room I’ve been climbing the ladder to get into all my life.” The privileged can do a lot to help; at the same time, Mia finds herself being taken advantage of by her wealthy employers. The book was written in solidarity with unhoused students, but was it also a way to show what people in power can do to help?

KG: Yes. I like to think that we can participate in helping houseless college students by providing safe parking lots for them, and, eventually, real housing.  But individually, we can also help houseless people by treating them like people.  Mia is treated like an extra pair of hands.

DG: The book has received great press and looks to make a splash. It seems very natural to organize readings on college campuses, and perhaps, also, get students to talk about their experiences afterwards. Would something like this be a feasible idea at this stage, or do you think there’d be resistance from administrators?

KG: I would love to do readings on college campuses.  I don’t know if college administrators would be into it, but I would love to.  It would be a great place for the conversation to begin. 

DG: Given the judgment that people who find themselves in this situation face, the book, along with the op-ed, have been courageous steps. If you could speak to a room full of students on a personal level, what message would you have for them?

KG: Getting an education is a great move and will change your game.  Stay in college if you can.  Believe in yourself.  I believe in you.

DG: Let’s transition to Red Hen Press. What new developments have there been since we last spoke and what is your vision for the future?

KG: Red Hen is growing.  We are working toward our first film sales.  We are taking on new board members.  We are increasing sales by improving our social media and starting a podcast. We are on the vanguard of what literature should be; we are discovering tomorrow’s writers.

DG: Given that Red Hen’s distributor is Ingram—the largest and arguably the best—it was fortunate to avoid the major setback to indie publishing when Small Press Distribution suddenly closed its doors. From your point of view, what are the implications of all this, and how dire is the situation for those affected?

KG: We are lucky to be with PGW distribution, which is with Ingram.  The situation with SPD is rough for smaller presses.  They have to first get their books back, and then figure out new distribution.  For hundreds of small presses, they must feel like they are in limbo with their authors.  Every time you change distributors, you feel like you lose six months of your publishing life, and a forced change isn’t going to be easy.  I hope that a year from now, things will settle down. 

DG: What are you reading at the moment?

KG: I am finishing James by Percival Everett.  It’s brilliant.  It’s like diving into genius. 


January 3rd, 2022

California Poets Interview Series:

Kate Gale, Poet, Editor, Publisher, Librettist

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Your new book will be released in the spring. Can you talk a little bit about this upcoming project, along with the inspiration behind it?

KG: This is my darkest book to date. The book before this, The Goldilocks Zone was a fun cheery book in comparison. To give you an idea how dark, the original title for this book was The Stoning Circle and then because of the cover, it was changed to The Loneliest Girl which is so much more upbeat.

The inspiration behind it was that I had myself descended into the well of loneliness. I survived my childhood in an abusive cult and out of that escape decided to found a press to build community, but I risked too much and made mistakes, and I found myself at the bottom of the well, and I wrote this book from down there.

DG: In 1994, you co-founded Red Hen Press, a non-profit institution that has received great praise and published some of the most notable writers of our time. You now serve as the managing editor of this publishing house. Can you talk about how it all began, the motivations behind starting your own press, and how this work ultimately complements and informs your own creative efforts?

KG: I have enormous gratitude for having published writers such as Camille Dungy, Percival Everett, Cynthia Hogue, Chris Abani, David Mason, and many others. I started Red Hen to build literary community and because I wanted Los Angeles to be a literary city, and also because I felt there were writers being ignored by the big New York presses. Having said that, I feel that working with great writers is a privilege, but it does cannibalize your literary capital. You don’t end up with as much time and energy to write, and the writers in your circle don’t ask how your writing is doing. My husband and I are both writers and we are each other’s literary champions and first readers. But I like being a maker. I am deeply honored to be entrusted with manuscripts. Being a writer and an editor is messy, complicated, and difficult.

DG: You’re one of the few poets working today who writes libretti—an endeavor perhaps more difficult than drama or fiction, as it’s the music which ultimately guides the tempo and rhythm of words. Many poet-librettists, for various reasons, end up failing; having written, however, seven libretti over the course of your career, including one with the famed author, Ursula K. Le Guin, you’ve managed to resist that. Can you talk about your fascination with opera, your experience of both crafting and seeing Paradises Loses performed, and how working in this genre is simultaneously similar and different from the other projects you’re involved in?

KG: I love working with opera. I am always listening to opera, planning my next visit to the opera and thinking about the opera that I am working on. I am working on a libretto now for the singer Hila Plitmann. Ursula K. LeGuin was amazing to work with. She did a reading with me when my book came out in 2014, and when she walked into the room, she said, “Kate, I’ll have a whiskey straight.” And I brought the whiskey and she said, “Thank you; this is good, keep them coming.” She gave me some great advice about writing. She said, “When you kill off an army in your story, the reader doesn’t feel it, but if you want the reader to understand the malice in a character, have the character kill a dog.” She also explained how much she loved editing because of the precise nature of it. I had always loved the freewheeling first draft, but listening to her made me want to pay attention to editing and the music of paying attention to each word. I love libretto writing because you have a partner. Writing is lonely. But when you work on an opera, the composer is waiting for each draft and sending back comments. I like the team effort, and I like listening to music while writing and the swim of it. I like feeling like someone is in the room with me.

DG: You’ve taught creative writing in various settings and institutions; there are certainly many detractors and proponents of this approach. Two questions: Why do you think there’s such controversy surrounding the teaching of creative writing, when all other disciplines, such as medicine, law, philosophy, and history require formal training, and what benefits have not only you, but also the students you’ve taught over the years received from such teaching?

KG: Here’s the thing: You can’t teach writing. Right. Nobody taught me to write. Here’s what most people come away from their writing program with: 1. We are in the habit of writing. 2. We have someone who will read our work. 3. We know how to edit our own work. 4. We’ve learned the art of discernment, how to tell our work that should be thrown out, but what needs more editing. 5. We’ve read a lot of other people’s writing that was really good, and we have something to reach for. 6. We understand that writing is a discipline and if we want to achieve a level of mastery and excellence, we must do it every day, edit our work, and edit to find the cream. I think all that makes it worth it. I like to give my students everything when I’m teaching, and being in the classroom is exciting. It’s one place where I’m appreciated, and who doesn’t like that? I think you should only go to school to learn to be a writer if you want to get your game on and if you get there and you feel you’re in a good place that fits for you.

DG: You were born in the state of New York, but ultimately made your way west and settled here. LA is often in competition with NYC for the literary city of America—and why not also say this the other way around: NYC is often in competition with LA for the literary city of America. As someone who runs a very successful publishing house and also edits The Los Angeles Review, how is what’s being done here different from what’s produced on the other side, and do you find this rivalry to be amusing, senseless, important, futile, influential, vain, empowering, or perhaps all of the above, and why?

KG: Let me start by saying that I love smart books and many smart books are published in New York, and I buy many books from New York publishers. At any given time, I am reading three or four books and a lot of them are New York books. I am not in rivalry with New York publishers. I am in admiration of the great publishers of New York. At Red Hen, we have published stories that really matter on the West Coast, books like Eat Less Water which is about making better water choices in your kitchen. In my own writing, and in the books that we publish, I like to focus on stories about the issues that matter on our side of the Hudson. The stories I’m writing and the stories I’m looking for are about sky, clouds, water, hiking, boats, wide open spaces, grasses, mountains, caves, racks of antlers, mustard seed growing, wild orchids, waterfalls, imperfect people, people who live in trailer parks, truck drivers, soldiers, nuclear bombs, test sites, Las Vegas, military bases, women with no teeth and curlers in their hair in case they go out later, and all of us eating the dark that is America.

DG: Red Hen Press is known for its inclusiveness, community outreach, and support for writers who are often overlooked by large, mainstream presses. Erica Jong, one the authors, said the following in a 2019 Publisher’s Weekly article: “Without a publisher like Red Hen, poetry would languish …. They publish books based on their quality rather than their financial potential,” and, indeed, your programs like Writing in the Schools (WITS), which, so far, has shared “free creative writing workshops and literary anthologies with more than 4,000 low-income students in Los Angeles schools,” is just one testament to all those aforementioned qualities. Can you talk about some particularly memorable experiences related to this work, and also how the pursuit of quality instead of financial considerations have been instrumental in allowing you to amass the unique roster of authors you now have?

KG: You don’t start a nonprofit publishing company in Los Angeles because you care about money. I care about books and stories and giving young people a chance to write stories. There was one Red Hen benefit where we were raising money and Paul Muldoon had come to read and one of our Writing in the Schools students read this quiet poem about her perfect day. It started with pancakes with her brother, and then they went to the park, and they flew a kite, and they came home and her mama made them tacos, and then she kissed her brother goodbye, and he went back to prison. After that, Paul Muldoon said, he had to catch his breath before reading. I’ll never forget that young poet’s courage.

DG: It would be interesting to hear a bit more about some of the people whose efforts have been instrumental in sustaining the activities of Red Hen, and also some of the people, perhaps, who’ve come and gone over the years that have made this press what it is today.

KG: The people who have believed in Red Hen in the biggest way are Joe Usibelli and Peggy Shumaker. They really wanted us to have a sustainable organization, and they have been part of making that happen. We also are grateful for the help of Ann Beman, Gina Knox, and Linda Horioka. It takes a lot of work for a nonprofit press to make it to twenty-eight in Los Angeles. A few of the many authors who made an impact on Red Hen’s success include Percival Everett, Kristen Millares Young, Aimee Liu, Steve Almond and Martha Cooley.

DG: Let’s turn to your own work, which is both powerful and immediately accessible. When did you start writing poetry, who were your influences in the beginning, and how has the reading you’ve done over the years gone on to inform your current projects?

KG: I started writing at eighteen and studied with Norman Dubie at Arizona State University. The writers who influenced me were Judy Grahn, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Carson, Ishion Hutchinson, C.D. Wright, and Adrienne Rich. I always have been an outsider, I grew up in a cult and never quite understood the commercialism of America. I want my writing to run along the edge of wild, not walk, not skip, not climb, and certainly not crawl.

DG: The titular poem of your 2014 collection, Goldilocks Zone, published by the University of New Mexico Press, ends in the following way:

Happiness isn’t something you stumble into. It’s the intersection between light and water.

We’ve been there, indeed, we’ve been there. We just didn’t know it at the time.

We thought we were in the goldilocks zone.

Given that happiness is something few and far in between for people born with the creative impulse, to what extent was not only this poem, but the composition of the entire collection an attempt to find your own goldilocks zone as an artist, and do you think artists can actually have ideal existences, or is the very lack of a model condition precisely what defines their existence, their purpose?

KG: Happiness only happens in moments for me. I can’t speak for other artists. I am loved by my children, and by my husband, so I feel so much gratitude that I have a family who loves me. I have moments of great happiness with my family. When I am writing, I also experience deep happiness.

DG: Let’s conclude with the future: What can we expect from Red Hen going forward and what goals for yourself have you set for this upcoming year?

KG: Red Hen has some great books in the next couple years that we are excited about. We are doing more hardbacks, more books with large print runs. We are working up our publicity and finding stories that we can’t put down …. Red Hen is becoming a bigger West Coast publisher, and we have an amazing team that keeps getting better. I have a poetry book coming out next year, and a memoir I’ll be sending out so I can focus on writing my novel. I dream of a world where I do a better job in publishing and yet, find time to carve out dreaming blocks of space and time.

Author Bio:

Dr. Kate Gale is co-founder and Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, Editor of the Los Angeles Review, and she teaches in the Low Residency MFA program at the University of Nebraska in Poetry, Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction and in the Ashland, Ohio MFA Program.

She is the author of the forthcoming The Stoning Circle from the University of New Mexico Press and of seven books of poetry including The Goldilocks Zone from the University of New Mexico Press in 2014, and Echo Light from Red Mountain in 2014 and six librettos including Rio de Sangre, a libretto for an opera with composer Don Davis, which had its world premiere October 2010 at the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee.

She speaks on independent publishing around the US at schools like USC and Columbia and she speaks at Oxford University. Her opera in process is The Web Opera.


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