Poetry Month #20: Christien Gholson

 1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.

When I first started writing poetry I saw the line as purely breath (one line, one breath), mostly because I was under the influence of Charles Olson’s crazy essays and Allen Ginsberg’s work. At the time, my work was performance oriented. When the poetry began to come from a place that was less excitable, more interior, I saw that the line-as-breath was somewhat of an illusion.

When I cracked open my first book by Denise Levertov, O Taste and See, a more interesting way of using the line appeared. I saw the line-break as part of the movement of mind during the writing of the poem, where the end of each line became a place of suspension, a moment dangling in the void (that unknown place where all things come from, where all things go). And that pause, however minute, was an essential part of the sequence of events in the poem – like silence/space in a musical score.

The void that opens with each pause is intriguing to me: I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that thoughts and feelings, sensations and visions, come from some mysterious place and return to some equally unknowable place. Why did I just think that? Where did that image come from? What the hell are these words I’m using, where did they originally come from?

Eventually, I became obsessed with how the poem looked on the page. So, like many before me, I began to see the poem as a painting – painting and a musical score. What evolved was a combination of ear and eye – a structure that mingles both musical and visual aesthetics. (In the poem below “Dear Denise” each line contributes to the visual whole – the shape of a Christmas tree ornament…or a bomb)

2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?

When I first started writing poetry I was also writing songs. So poetry was intimately connected to music. Playing an instrument, singing, we feel the vibrations throughout the body. Paying attention to how music affected the body I found specific places in the body that resonate with certain surroundings or with certain kinds of subject matter. Example: the energy-tone of certain trees sometimes resonates in my spine. Out in Utah, in Canyonlands, it is sometimes so still that I can sense how the junipers around me and the energy flowing up my spine make a kind of music together. I think this is going on all the time – a harmonizing between everything. (The title of an old poem: “Singing is the sixth sense”). We are in constant communication with our surroundings, but it’s mostly on an unconscious level.

When someone once asked Carl Jung what exactly WAS the unconscious, he replied without hesitation: “The body is the unconscious.” I agree. But the body speaks in images, not words. So, a way to tune into the music, the communication, with everything, is to focus on that odd, fleeting imagery. I don’t think I’m a very word-oriented person (strangely enough), and so the hard part, with much poetry, is the transubstantiation from body-imagery into language.

3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?

For me, being a poet is a calling. It’s an odd thing to say in our culture, for some reason. You can have a calling to the priesthood, why not poetry? I was halfway through a degree in anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia when I discovered poetry – a ratty, very used book called “Naked Poetry.” It was filled with the big guns from the sixties: Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder…you know the crew. I was up late one night, neglecting my studies, reading through some Snyder, when it began to rain. I stopped reading, leaned out a window. The avenue below glistened. No cars. The pattern of cracks in the macadam shone like snakeskin in the streetlight. I suddenly imagined that the city was riding the back of a huge beast (of course, after all these years, I know now that it really was…still is). Across the street, the Marlboro Man on the billboard above the abandoned gas station smiled down at the rail line. I didn’t know why, but I suddenly crawled out the window, spun around, hooked my knees over the ledge, and dangled upside down.

In retrospect, I think what I was looking for was a different perspective. Literally. Because of the poetry I’d been reading I wanted to see what was out there in a different way. Curves, lines, shadows: trees clinging precariously to the earth, rocks glistening on the rail line embankment, the hunched postures of the few people passing (never looking down to see the one dangling), the smell of rainwater steam falling off warm macadam, the slight trace of dog shit and doughnuts in the air, the music of surrounding traffic rising and falling in ever widening circles, sparks from the commuter train wires falling into a milky orange sky.

At dawn, I wandered out of my apartment building barefoot, to the hospital grounds nearby. The streets were quiet. Everything was wet, but the rain had stopped. I climbed a wet knoll, headed towards a line of pines. When I reached the foot of the first pine, a mushroom suddenly burst out of the grass, white cap blooming before my eyes. There it was: something from (seemingly) nothing. I went home and wrote my first poem. Granted, it wasn’t particularly good (how many do we really get in a lifetime?). I never finished the degree. During the month I would have graduated, I was walking across France.

And so, back to the question…

We live in a culture where there is no sense of destiny, no real understanding of calling (unless, as I said above, it’s of an institutionalized religious nature). There’s the illusory belief that we’re all blank slates when we pop out into the world and so we are free to simply choose what we are going to be. If that’s true, why would I choose to do something with no money involved and very little audience? It doesn’t make any sense. Because of this, most outside the poetry world come to the conclusion that what I do is a hobby…like making scrapbooks. (Keep in mind I live in a world that has very few readers of poetry in it. Most of those I know who read poetry are actual poets.).

The answer, finally (Ta da!): I dislike being seen as a hobbyist. Poetry is a way of seeing the world, a way of being in the world. It’s a way of standing, with mind and body open, inside Mystery (with a big M). Singing is the sixth sense.

Dear Denise,

                                             they are still working long hours,

                                                                    into the night. Shadows

                                     against helicopter searchlights. No vigil

                                                                         of candles will stop it.

                                                                                 Light, light…

                                      I saw fairies, too, when I was a child:

                           the bee colony that swarmed me beneath a dogwood tree,

                                            dancing; veined wings, transformed

                                                                               when lit by the moon.


                                     What good did it do?  Insomnia blooms. Blank eyes

                           shine from the road’s shoulder. And we go over

                                                                                     the video again:

                                                Piss on the dead. This

                       is the great work – to make History. The Presidents

                                                                                                       have a plan.

                                                                            The only question now left:

                        Who will you kill for love? We are dead serious now.

                                                                      No grave shall go unfulfilled.

                                       Light, light…

                                                                              Where does it go?

                                        I heard your voice in the dead of night

                                                      last Christmas Eve:



                                                                through fog.


All the Beautiful Dead (along the side of the road) won the 2015 Bitter Oleander Library of Poetry Book Award. It is currently available from SPD or from Bitter Oleander Press online.


Christien Gholson is also the author of the novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind (Parthian, 2011); and a book of linked prose poems, On the Side of the Crow (Hanging Loose Press, 2006; re-issued by Parthian, 2011). He has been many shapes before he attained congenial form: bookseller, union organizer, a black feather in a blue dumpster, farmhand, editor, a fish falling from the sky, factory drone, a cellophane wrapper skipping across the desert floor…the usual. He blogs at noise & silence.BD

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About Miriam Sagan

I'm blogging about poetry, land art, haiku, women artists, road trips, and Baba Yaga at Miriam's Well (https://miriamswell.wordpress.com). The well is ALWAYS looking to publish poetry on our themes, sudden fiction, and guest bloggers and musers.

2 thoughts on “Poetry Month #20: Christien Gholson

  1. Thanks! Could be there are as many senses as the imagination will allow. Someone recently told me that they read a study that claimed there are 53 different senses. Which made me laugh out loud. What a wonderfully goofy and odd number – 53!

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