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Kathryn Gessner: Poet, Professor

by Shannon Koga

 

Northern California dried up like a rotten prune. Lakes began to lower like draining bathwater, snow melted from mountains, and during the month of January, Kathryn Gessner picked up her pen and transformed every inspirational, frightening heat wave into a book of poetry.

Scrub Jays in Lavender, her first published poetry compilation, went to print by Finishing Line Press this year. If you’ve taken an English class here at Shasta College, you may have crossed paths with Kathryn Gessner. A professor of English 1A, English 1B, Poetry, and Creative Writing, Gessner puts her years of writing experience and education to work. She has had multiple works of poetry published in a plethora of literary magazines. In her spare time, she is the advisor for the on-campus Writing Club.

The road to publishing is not as simple as one would think. When asked about her experience with the process, she says, “It was more trying than I thought.”

With Finishing Line Press, the author’s involvement is not mandatory, but if one were to choose to step up to the plate, it’s a wild (and fulfilling) experience. She speaks of editing, formatting, graphic design, even photography.

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“I took the photograph on the front cover. That’s actually my lavender in my backyard,” Gessner says. Another aspect expected as the author is pre-sales. In order to decide on a number for an initial print-run, Gessner had to sell a few copies beforehand. She says, “I had to sell over 250 books in advance. You have to ask people to have faith that this book is coming.”

And the book did make it. Scrub Jays features twenty-two poems written during the month of January, 2014. While there are a number of themes visible in each piece, they all carry with them a striking feeling of warmth—much like the scolding drought.

One such poem, “Rain Dance,” writes, “It’s so dry this time of year that whole towns reveal themselves, / submerged under reservoirs that shrink back like lips.”

In regards to that particular poem, Gessner explains, “There were Southern California stories of reservoirs…different artifacts that they had not been seeing for a long time. I have a friend, who’s a photographer here in town, who went out and shot some of the old structures underneath Lake Shasta that were exposed. So that was element of the drought that was totally inspiring where I thought, ‘oh some old artifacts under the reservoirs are now being exposed.’”

As for the heat, Gessner tells a story of her long-time friend from Ashland. Normally, the snowy mountains would keep them apart. But during this drought, things were different. She says, “There was no snow, whatsoever. We went from twelve feet of snow to nothing. So that was so dramatic that it was scary to me. Fear is a great inspiration for poetry.”

 

Not to say that the effects of Redding’s notoriously smoldering weather was the only contributing factor to Gessner’s works. There was also her hometown, her childhood there, and music that ran through her mind.

“We had a lot of freedom then that children today don’t have. We had free reign. I wandered about twenty acres every day, with my dog, or with my brother, or with [the] neighbor kids. We didn’t want to stay close to where the adults were. We wanted to be out somewhere we couldn’t be seen. ‘Orchard Cabin’ is an actual cabin we thought we built,” she says with a smile, “Those things are really touchstones for my imagination. I remember them. Everything we invented, it’s really pristine in my memory. That and the beautiful landscape of Bucks County really inform who I am, you know, me.”

When it came to music, Gessner had been in the midst of Ed Peterson growing up. She learned the piano at school thanks to Peterson’s generosity, alongside other students. “That music informs my phrasing, influences everything. I’d love to be just like Jackson Brown when I grow up, if I could, he’s a wonderful poet,” she laughs.

One particular poem Gessner is rather fond of is “Blue Whisper” the final poem in the book. “I think that’s probably the one that most people don’t immediately understand,” she says, “It’s more like: how does humanity survive? It’s the recognition that we don’t have to all this stuff in civilization, which is destroying our climate. We could survive like the Anasazi did, we could survive in a very primitive way. I kind of want to export that in the poem. But the poem is nothing like that as you know. It’s just that idea of, we could just be here, under the sky… all of human history up to this point has survived without all of our comforts…so ‘Blue Whisper’—it’s a real look at the sky without clouds.”

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The most difficult poem for her to write was “High Tide,” a poem written for her mother’s seventy-fifth birthday. “When you have an occasion poem, or a person in mind, it’s often the most difficult poem. Because I wanted to convey that she inspired me to have a real love for the oceans and for that natural environment. The voice in the poem seems fairly ambivalent about oceans, during the poem. [It] takes some of the agates back to her office, her inland office. She wants to take part of the sea with her…I thought that was a good sign to my mother; I want to take part of you with me. And carry always.”

While not all the poems she wrote during this month made it into the book, it stands strong. Every poem is unique. Gessner says, “I never have any idea what I’m writing when I start a poem. I’m just listening. I might have a mood. I don’t know what they’re about. They start to speak to me, and then I start to listen. It’s more like a call and response.”

For aspiring poets or writers, Gessner would like to say: “In your writing career, you’re gonna have poems that reflect that facet of yourself and it just turns and changes. If you’re in too much of a hurry to get that in print, you’re gonna never be that person again and have that in your print history. Patience is a main thing…if you’re just having fun with the writing and not feeling like you wanna edit like crazy then just have fun with the writing. Don’t think about publishing, develop that voice, the voice within you.”

And for all other students, “Come on out and take some literature classes. We’ve got some great people in the English department. This is the best English department I’ve ever worked in, and I’ve taught in seven different English departments across the United States. If you even have a hankering for something other than composition, come on out.”

Kathyrn Gessner’s book is available for purchase online at finishinglinepress.com

Don’t forget to pick up Scrub Jays in Lavender, and keep an eye out for more of Gessner’s beautiful poetry.

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