Driving around Portland’s Deering Oaks park, the temptation is to avoid eye contact with the homeless people who panhandle at stoplights. But Gibson Fay-LeBlanc can’t look away when his young sons are in the backseat and asking questions, a situation he draws on in “High Forest State Marginal,” titled after the streets that converge on the park’s east side: “my boys backseat / like birds what should we do what should / we do nothing though one day I / talk big church charity program / something nothing.” The poem is one of many in Deke Dangle Dive, Fay-LeBlanc’s second collection, to grapple with the manifold messiness of the world — from the heart-wrenching (his brother’s terminal illness) to the macabre (a dog rolling in the flattened remains of a mouse) to the malodorous (a ripe locker room after a hockey game). “In a lot of ways, this book is about the importance of writing poetry,” says Gibson Fay-Leblanc, a former Portland poet laureate and the current executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. “Poetry helps me think about and pay attention to myself, the people around me, and the world around me. We have to write the hard and uncomfortable stuff.”
Hockey and poetry seem like an unusual pairing, yet hockey recurs throughout the new collection.
I’d always wanted to write a poem that took place in a hockey locker room, and “Hockey Poem” kind of fell in my lap. I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting, but that’s probably the only one of those I’ll write.” And then others started appearing. I started to see hockey as a way to write about some other things, like aging and masculinity and fatherhood and my brother. All this stuff was sort of swirling around, and it seemed like the language of hockey was one way to get there.
And behind so much of the book is your brother’s cancer diagnosis.
Most of these poems were written before he died. It was a long illness. That’s obviously hard and terrible. But we had a lot of time together to process that. And it’s tremendously meaningful that he got a chance to read these poems before they were published. That was very important: I’m writing a lot about my reaction to his experience, but it was his experience, and I needed him to be okay with what I was doing. It feels like a way to honor my brother now, to take these poems out into the world.
Those experiences translate into big themes, sometimes many in a single poem. I’m thinking, for instance, of how “Stay” addresses death, parenting, and marriage.
That poem came out of a deep, dark winter, when my brother was quite sick. One way I had to deal with that was to head out into the winter, either on the ice or with my dogs, and try to process all that stuff. As I started that poem — without being too nerdy about the poetic stuff — I realized I could use a version of terza rima, the form Dante used in The Inferno. When you’re writing in a tight form, your conscious mind is worried about “How do I do this technical thing — how do I pull this off in a way that makes sense and sounds good?” While the conscious mind is worried about that, the unconscious mind has room to go to some surprising places.
Does getting out in Maine like that often give you a creative spark?
I’ve lived in Portland for about 15 years now, and my history with Maine goes back almost 30 years. I love this place, and it’s certainly woven into the book — specifically, some patches of woods and running trails and mountains where I’ve spent lots of time. Those places are tremendously important to me. They may or may not be discernible to readers, but they’re definitely in there. And you know, at the risk of sounding self-serving, maybe it’s worth pointing out that there’s not a group like the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance in most states. There are lots of great writing organizations, but the big ones tend to be in one city. There aren’t many spread over a big area like Maine, knitting the literary community together. People here really celebrate each other, read each other, and pass each other’s books on.