Photo: Leland Buck
Mark Gibbons’ Poetry: From Permission to Publication
“A creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters.”
When Jim Welch showed up to teach poetry to his high school English class in Alberton, Montana, in 1970, Mark Gibbons pictured poetry primarily as Robert Frost lines you memorized for English class.
Gibbons recalls, “Jim came into our class and said, ‘You can write poetry from your own experience,’ and he had all these poems from his life growing up on the Hi-Line that he shared with us.”
Up to that point, Gibbons hadn’t considered that his own life could be the subject of a poem. “Jim Welch gave us permission to do that. Once he gave us permission to do that, I started writing and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Though Gibbons kept writing poems after high school, he never considered it, even peripherally, as a vocation.
“I was an occasion poet,” says Gibbons, “I wrote poems for occasions—birthdays, eulogies, that sort of thing.”
Coming from an Irish, blue-collar, railroad-worker father, he didn’t feel like he fit into the “elite” classes at the University of Montana. He finished a degree in psychology over seven years. He found work as a furniture mover—a job he kept throughout most of his life. He kept scribbling down poems. One day in 1980, he decided to knock on Richard Hugo’s door, chair of the creative writing department, to see if his poetry held any promise.
“He was there at his desk and I handed him a big stack of poems and explained how I was in a class of his in the mid-70s and had thought of myself as a poet and wanted to know what he thought,” Gibbons remembers.
“He read a few and looked at me over his reader glasses pushed down on his nose and said in his deep voice: ‘This is very admirable that you’ve done all this writing and you’re working full-time too. There’s only one problem….It’s just not poetry.’”
“Psssssssst…” Gibbons says, smiling in retrospect. “Talk about letting the air out of the balloon.” Hugo offered a parting explanation:
Human beings are funny goddamn animals. We’ll beat our heads against a wall for years. Then one day, bloodied, we’ll step back and realize there’s a goddamn door three feet away right there. I think you should try writing fiction because in these poems you’re trying to do too much.
Gibbons didn’t stop writing poetry, but he did start writing some fiction.
“I was bullheaded enough to say ‘No one is going to tell me what to do. I’m going to keep doing what I love to do.’”
It would be the death of his father in 1993 that finally made him consider poetry as a vocational path.
“That knocked the pins out from under me,” says Gibbons. “My father was a poet who never wrote. He never had the time with work on the railroad, going to war, and raising a family. But he was the most voracious reader I knew. He was bitter because he never got to do what he wanted to do. Instead, he drank too much.”
“I didn’t want to be that model for my kids. I wanted to show them I’m passionate about what I do.”
Gibbons was working as an English teacher in Augusta, MT, when he applied to University of Montana’s MFA program in poetry and fiction at the age of 42. In his first year of grad school in 1996, he met Sheryl Noethe who had “this program to teach poetry in the schools.” For the next 24 years, Gibbons taught in numerous schools for the Missoula Writing Collaborative. The young man who was once told by Richard Hugo that he should give up on poetry has now published ten collections of poetry.
Gibbons currently teaches a poetry residency in three fourth grades at Rattlesnake Elementary. Just as Jim Welch showed him that poetry could be written from the experiences contained in everyday life, Gibbons enjoys showing students how to tap into their interiors:
“Poetry enriches lives so much and gives students a voice. It is a window for understanding students because they are being honest. We see their emotional lives.”
In our February Newsletter Mark Gibbons will share a poetry lesson he commonly teaches at the end of each residency.