Poet Explores His Desires ... And Others
Memory and desire are common themes in Joe Gastiger's prose poems. In his latest collection, If You So Desire, he uses historically famous people to illustrate these themes as well as ordinary people in the news.
Gastiger also borrows heavily from his own experience. In "Start Here," Gastiger recalls the time he and a friend, poet John Bradley, were close to graduating from Colorado State University.
"We had no idea what we were going to do," Gastiger says. "We didn't have any money. But we were happy living in Fort Collins.
"So this reflects a time when we were wondering what would be come of us," he says.
Lucky I even had money for smokes but I never went hungry, neither did you, back in our janitor days, in our steel-toed-boot, empty-the-slop-in-the-alleyway dawns -- right around when old downtown was deciding to close all the pawn shops and lure back the rich, drive out the junk shops where Mexican girls in mantillas bought baby shoes. Half my forks and knives, dishes and coffee cups came from that graveyard of commerce, like yours; most got as far as Wyoming, I reckon, no worse than before. Crossing the bridge, we'd head for a cantina near shacks that had no running water or lights. Theirs was a deeper poverty whose language I never learned. But the last thing I want is someone to feel sorry; that was the richest I ever was -- indebted to no one, all of the time in the world to be young. We used to joke about moving to Quonset huts north of the city toward Laramie, once we got jobs making box springs or lawn mower engines for good. Come home grease-stained, crack open beers, maybe throw horseshoes till it got dark: that was the plan once we met the right waitresses and settled down. Mile-long freight trains divided our late afternoons into us and them, now and forever; unfolding story, unchanging fact. Slipping across the river down dirt roads, let me morph into someone else, someone whose signature might have been blown away by the wind.
"I think I wanted to blend into some Life of Riley world," Gastiger says, referring to a once-popular symbol of a carefree existence, "where I had a lunch pail, and I went to work and I came home, dug in the weeds, and whatever else it was that I imagined people doing when they finally settled down."
Other poems are about folk singer Pete Seeger and inventor Nicola Tesla. "I prowl around in old news archives or stories," the poet says. "And find out some quirks about them, or frailties or some qualities that make them seem more real to me."
The title of Gastiger's book reveals something about the qualities he searches for. "It's a set of ruminations about desire," he says. "To be powerful, to be loved, to be famous in some way. So I think that's why I latched on to some of those figures."
One of those figures is Muammar Qaddafi, the late Libyan dictator, about whom Gastiger wrote two poems. In "Brother Leader Explains," the poet explores the desire for power -- and its limits:
I did all this for love, cried His Excellency, and apartment blocks rose out of the sand -- wavered in midair before they all crumbled, melted away. He remembered how happy he had been at first; driving a beat-up Volkswagen through town, buying his groceries; the simple pleasures of peeling an egg. But with power comes complicated obligations, trepidations, exotic taboos. He couldn't fly over water, for instance. Couldn't climb more than thirty-five steps. Stuttered on TV, praising those pears made of plastic and apples of polystyrene. Sadly, he never did abolish Switzerland. At least he'd renamed the months of the year -- Hannibal sounds so much better than August, wouldn't you agree? No one can keep track of every typewriter, every Ramon with a sack of grenades. Sooner or later, the Danube of Thought dangles over a gas station. Why is the world upside down?, he's demanding to know.
One of the more difficult poems Gastiger composed is "Harms Way," which he dedicates to Antinette "Toni" Keller, a Northern Illinois University student who was murdered in 2010.
Gastiger says this one took a while to write. "It was some months afterward," he says. "It wasn't something I felt I could do immediately. And I certainly didn't want to feel like I was taking advantage of a horrific situation."
For Gastiger, the experience reminded him of murders and disappearances he heard about as a child. It also stirred memories of a close call he had when very young. Gastiger reads "Harm's Way," and talks about it, during the interview below.
Next Monday, the Winter Book Series features Paris, He Said, the latest novel from Christine Sneed. Listen during Morning Edition at 6:52 and 8:52, then come back here for an author reading and other information.
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