Gabriel Spera


Winner of the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry, 2018
Selected by Rachel Hadas
Read the poem here


Gabriel Spera

In “Throat,” you convey a powerful narrative through 12 stanzas. What do you think is the role that narrative plays in your own poetry? Is there something inherently poetic about narrative, about story?

Much of my work tends toward narrative, even though I often work in lyrical forms. Some of the earliest and most enduring poems we have were essentially stories—Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Ramayana. Moreover, the human mind is extraordinary in its ability to construct a narrative—to explain a single event, or to link apparently disparate events. So although the parts of this sequence are arranged chronologically, the narrative is largely constructed by the reader. And I’d guess that different readers might have different narratives—some that are final, and some that are open-ended.

What inspired “Throat”?

It is based on a true account of a friend’s battle with throat cancer. It affected me in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated. Poetry is how I try to make sense of that.

Each stanza in “Throat” is structured like a sonnet. What is the importance of formal poetry, and how/why do you incorporate it in your own work?

I always look for the things you can do in poetry that you can’t do in any other medium. Form is the obvious starting point—but not just traditional forms and measures such as sonnets and quatrains, but also invented forms, which may be suggested by the central image or subject of the poem. Repetition is another important device; in a medium that strives for concision, the decision to repeat words and phrases carries great significance. Even the appearance of the text on a page will establish some expectations for the reader, which can then be supported or subverted. Form is not simply the container, like a vase holding a flower—it is the DNA that determines how the flower will grow. So, why sonnets? The form lends itself both to heightened emotion and dispassionate argument. That’s probably why the stanzas seemed to emerge in that shape. It could also be that an intractable subject demands a neat and manageable package. The broader structure—the assemblage of small, focused elements—perhaps reflects a desire to compartmentalize a complex and difficult situation.

Which poet or poem has influenced you the most?

Yeats looms large, as does Tennyson (“In Memoriam” in particular). More contemporary influences include Merrill, Wilbur, and Levine (everything I know about rhythm in poetry, I learned from reading Levine). As for poets active today, I’m inspired by writers such as Stallings and Trethewey, who do such amazingly innovative things with form.

What have you been reading lately?

I receive a trove of journals every month. I’m really not a part of any poetic community, so keeping up with the journals is my only connection to the literary world. I’ve also been reading The Lord of the Rings to my kids—I was a huge fan when I was younger, but they don’t seem to be quite so enthralled.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

"Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart, and write."