Powerful pen: Lauded faculty poet redefines, advances old genre
Gabriel Gudding is a poet, essayist, and translator.
He’s also a full professor in the creative writing program of Illinois State’s English Department who has given nearly 100 readings and lectures in Europe, the Caribbean, and the U.S. His work has been translated into French, Danish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and Spanish.
Harper’s Magazine and The Nation are just two periodicals that have showcased his poetry, which also appears in 20 anthologies including Best American Poetry and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. His third book, Literature for Nonhumans, was published in October 2015. It follows Rhode Island Notebook, which was released in 2007 and has since been heralded as a 21st-century classic.
“It’s a memoir of a family falling apart,” Gudding said, explaining that every word on the 436 pages was written entirely in his car as he completed 26 round-trips between Normal and Providence.
His motivation for the treks completed between 2002 and 2005 was to maintain a long-distance relationship—which ultimately ended in divorce—and bridge the geographical separation from his daughter, to whom the book is dedicated.
Far from the traditional rhyming formula expected in the poetry of yesteryear, the book is “interlarded with essays” that cover divergent topics ranging from literary narcissism and dung to Iraq, radio broadcasts, and Nancy Reagan. His first book is equally surprising in content, including poems titled “The Pallbearer Races,” “On the Rectum of Peacocks,” “Memoirs of the Backhoe,” and “Poem Imploring the Return of My Butt.”
The writing, like the man, is atypical.
Gudding’s literary rise to professor and poet began with an unconventional job on a tugboat. Having moved from his native state of Minnesota to Washington as a teenager he attempted the traditional path of college after high school but left the University of Washington to be a deckhand still undecided about a career path.
He later worked on a cargo freighter for a year that served a route from Seattle to the Bering Sea. At the age of 25, Gudding went back to the collegiate classroom and completed an interdisciplinary social science degree at The Evergreen State College. He then went on to study early American intellectual history at Purdue, where he took a master’s in American studies and started a Ph.D. program in history.
While there he completed a course in poetry. The class sparked a passion for creative writing that resulted in another change of direction. He attended Cornell University, finishing an M.F.A. in poetry and starting on the path to professor.
His first teaching job was at the University of Mississippi.
There were only 40 openings for poets on a collegiate campus nationally at the time he chose Illinois State in 2002. One of five faculty in the department’s creative writing core, Gudding helped establish a program that attracts students from around the world.
Hired to teach primarily experimental poetry, Gudding has since led undergraduates and graduate students in the study of literature theory, religions and cultures, creative writing, ethics, and a course he created on creative writing pedagogy. He inspires students not only with his own work but by his challenge to see poetry in a new light.
“Poetry is a very practical kind of communication. It compacts and compresses a great deal of information and perceptions into a brief moment of language. I don’t blame people for disliking poetry. It becomes stylized and dated just like anything else. And much of it is canonical by complete accident,” he said.
Today’s poets view their work as an art form that is “meant to pull a reader out of their habitual ways of perceiving and thinking. Poetry forces us to pay attention to what we often overlook to our detriment.”
With such a pragmatic view of literature’s purpose, it’s not surprising that Gudding is eager to share his art form beyond the traditional collegiate classroom. He has started creative writing programs for inmates in New York, Mississippi, and Illinois, overcoming any fear of working with violent criminals in maximum-security prisons.
“Life can be extremely boring in prison. Education is one of the few opportunities they have,” Gudding said, recalling the serious students he has encountered and their memorable work. A convicted mafia hit man developed amazing fictional characters, while moms behind bars wrote with incredible emotion.
“Their writing frankly helped decrease the amount of pain in their world. It’s rewarding to help people like that.” Gudding finds equal satisfaction in seeing his traditional college students blossom as writers who understand that literature is a means by which to “increase our sense of justice and responsibility to other beings.”
Gudding’s latest book, Literature for Nonhumans, published last fall, exemplifies this concern. The writing in the book ranges through nonfiction, poetry, and essays on topics from economics to the history of automobiles and the issue of climate change, with a specific focus on the negative environmental impact of animal farming.
“Literature for Nonhumans arose from an increasing realization that nonhuman animals think and feel and perceive and have families and love much as we do,” Gudding explained. “What we are doing to farmed animals is, in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, an eternal Treblinka.”
Influenced by historians, Gudding’s writing is driven by the conviction that both poetry and art have ethical valence.
“I think it’s not inappropriate that art clarify the reality of suffering manifest in all sentient creatures such that the effort and effect of pity can be brought to bear beyond the human community,” he said. “I’d like to insist that it’s time we expand our sense of art’s scope into a community that doesn’t just include our human selves—in all our trans, racial, sexual, gender, body, and class alterity.”
In explaining his work, Gudding notes that the idea that literature should be written to benefit nonhumans is new. “It’s been a broad scale and sustained note since the advent of humanism: The project of literature is humanity’s improvement.”
He rejects this premise. “Writing literature for the improvement and benefit of nonhumans isn’t some boutique issue, especially when we consider how animal farming is altering our climate and damaging our health and environment. Even for those who cannot intrinsically value nonhumans as ends in themselves, they should recognize that our fate is bound up firmly in their well-being. A human future that does not acknowledge the injustices done to nonhumans cannot be rosy.”
Forcing contemplation on such controversial and often uncomfortable issues is ultimately Gudding’s calling. His goal as a poet is to help readers see topics from fresh perspectives.
“We experience life in routine ways. The world doesn’t seem as immediate, and it isn’t. We become alienated from our desires, wants and wishes,” Gudding said. “Poetry is a means of pulling us out of our common habits and routine ways of thinking. It is a very practical means of helping people become invested in the world again.”