Unbound Book Festival Podcast: An Interview with Sarah Gambito

Last weekend Columbia, Missouri was buzzing with writers as the Unbound Book Festival took place. Listen as The Missouri Review’s intern Hannah Kauffman engages poet Sarah Gambito in a brief conversation about poetry, food, the experience of immigrants in America, and more.

Sarah Gambito is the author of the poetry collections Loves You (Persea Books), Delivered (Persea Books) and Matadora (Alice James Books). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, POETRY, Harvard Review, American Poetry Review, The New Republic and other journals. She holds degrees from The University of Virginia and The Literary Arts Program at Brown University. Her honors include the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets and Writers, The Wai Look Award for Outstanding Service to the Arts from the Asian American Arts Alliance and grants and fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, The New York Foundation for the Arts and The MacDowell Colony. She is Associate Professor of English / Director of Creative Writing at Fordham University and co-founder of Kundiman, a non-profit organization serving writers and readers of Asian American literature. For more information about Sarah, please visit http://sarahgambito.com

A Woman and her Poems Walk into a Bar…

I’m writing this blog post because something absurd happened to me at a poetry reading this past summer, and I need to get it off my chest.

Let me backtrack. This is not going to be a critique of the academic or cultural value of poetry readings. It’s also not going to be some abstract, fists-to-God quandary of “What is a reading? What is poetry? WHAT ARE WORDS READ ALOUD?!”

At my MFA program in Florida, we hosted a weekly reading series alternating graduate students and guest readers in this wonderful, dank, barn-like drinking hole called The Warehouse. We’d fill up our pints every Tuesday night, lounge in the smoky dark, and listen to some stuff get read amidst possums scuttling on the roof and trains rumbling by in the near distance. Then we’d refill our pints and shoot some pool. It was a grand ol’ time.

So, I get a poetry reading. What I still don’t get, though, is being put in a situation where I have to field foolish, sexist questions when I’m trying to do the real work of promoting my art and my career.

This particular reading a few months ago was already written to be awkward as hell: I’d gotten lost in a torrential downpour in an unfamiliar city; I’d ordered what was advertised as a fig and cheese plate that turned out to be hot figs spread on toast (I’d taken one bite and immediately realized my mouth was about to resemble an ant farm if I continued eating); and, most significantly, I had arrived at the reading alone.

Re: a young woman by herself at a bar. The horror!

I read first on account of alphabetical order. The audience neither “got” my hummingbird shirt and cowboy boots ensemble nor my five poems. Weird looks. Golf clapping. Whatever.

Cutting my losses, I sat back down to my whiskey and was already day-dreaming about the Steak ‘n Shake and Mad Men night I had planned at the Red Roof Inn later when I heard this voice on the side:

“What man is ever going to live up to your standards?”

I glanced over to see this older guy in tight jeans and a massive silver belt buckle grinning at me like he knew something I didn’t. He leaned forward. “I don’t know if you’re married or what, but you seem really special. I just don’t know where you’re ever going to find a man who can appreciate you.”

Excuse me?

Now, of course, I can think of a trillion amazing responses. But at the time, all I could muster was a blank face as I stuttered, “Um…thank you?”

There are two issues at play here that make my blood boil. First, I genuinely think that Belt Buckle Dude meant no harm. I think he was trying to be nice. But it was a creepy and patronizing way to do so. It’s the same kind of BS women get when a random guy at a bar will feel the need to coo, “You should smile” like we can’t just rest our facial muscles for half a second without getting antagonized.

Second, here’s some real talk we need address: if I were a man, there is absolutely no way I would have to field unrelated questions about my personal life after reading some poems.

I will say it again: there is absolutely no way.

The poems I read that particular evening were not explicitly about relationships or anything like that. I mean, sure, they dealt with general themes of love and heartbreak and grief and resilience like 99% of most poetry in the world. But even that is beside the point. Poetry is art. The speaker is sometimes different than the reader and sometimes the same but is usually somewhere in between. However, for the woman poet, even in 2013, she doesn’t yet have the luxury of separating her craft from her person when she presents herself both on the page or at a public reading.

I also wish to emphasize that this is far from an isolated incident. A very successful poet friend of mine was un-ironically referred to as a “poetess” at her recent reading. What kind of nineteenth century, petticoat-wearing madness is that? And I can bet that if I polled every woman poet out there, about half of them would present a story like mine.

As we can see from other recent blog posts like this and this, the implications here reach further than simply getting annoyed at a poetry reading. This is an issue that warrants a lifetime of blog posts to untangle. It’s about a whole trajectory of hard-fighting women writers and women artists. It’s about how women in academia still get objectified and subjugated in graduate school and tenure-track positions alike. It’s about a woman sitting alone at a bar.

It’s about how, even now, women writers still have two choices to make: speak up and get called out, or stay silent and go nowhere.