In Brown Bag, Gabrielle Calvocoressi to argue ‘the dumpster fires of one’s life are how the great poems come’


Gabrielle Calvocoressi is fascinated by a deeply human concept called the “beautiful terrible” — those little moments of bliss in a person’s life otherwise marred by depression, sadness and loss. 

“How is it that the world can be torn apart, and I can feel that and I have a hard time getting up in the morning because of it, and yet I can also have the best donut of my life and feel so happy about that?” asked Calvocoressi, an award-winning poet, educator and Week Three poet-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. “My mother took her life when I was 13; my mother is always dying inside me. She never stops dying inside me, and it’s also true that I can have an extraordinary slice of pizza and love it.”

For Calvocoressi, that concept is part of what makes great poems great.

“One of the things I’ve heard in many of the online classes I’ve taught in the last two months is that people feel incredible guilt about saying, ‘I’ve actually had a wonderful time being with my family, being with my kids, during this pandemic,’” Calvocoressi said. “I think the ‘beautiful terrible’ is something I’m thinking a lot about right now, because I think one could say the world feels like it’s coming apart. There’s dread, violence, sadness and injustice that we’re seeing that’s pretty soul crushing.”

But Calvocoressi looks at things like the “defund the police” murals that are being painted, parents getting to be with their children more often, and growing tomatoes for the first time as important blips of joy and beauty in a decidedly ugly period of human existence.

“I think we’re also just having to think about this really staggering balance of joy and sorrow being completely at the surface of our skin all the time,” Calvocoressi said.

At 5 p.m. EDT Thursday, July 16, on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch, Calvocoressi will outline how the beautiful terrible moments of our lives can be used to create great poetry. Calvocoressi is the editor-at-large for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and is the author of three books of poetry, the most recent being Rocket Fantastic. The Brown Bag was originally scheduled for 12:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 14, but was postponed due to technical difficulties.

“One of the things we can do in these online spaces is reimagine worlds,” Calvocoressi said. “That’s something many of us are trying to do: We’re trying to reimagine a more equitable, just, compassionate, joyful world, where there is less suffering.”

Calvocoressi said that workshops like the one they are teaching this week through the CHQ Assembly Online Classroom are perfect distillations of the kinds of communities and worlds we should be trying to imagine.

“A generative workshop is a space for us to start letting our minds open,” Calvocoressi said. “And once our minds are open, I think that that really does play into everything we end up doing once we leave that space.”

It’s no secret to Calvocoressi that writing during this tumultuous time is not easy, even for experienced authors. 

“You have to be good to yourself, and that means a lot of different things,” Calvocoressi said. “It means being compassionate with yourself and others about how hard it is to write and revise. But it’s also about being tough on yourself and being rigorous, and saying, ‘Everything is also an opportunity for growth.’ Because the dumpster fires of one’s life are how the great poems come.”

Tags : brown bagChautauqua Writers’ CenterGabrielle Calvocoressipoet-in-residenceRocket FantasticWeek Three

The author Chris Clements

Chris Clements is reporting on literary arts during his third summer with The Chautauquan Daily. He has previously written previews for the Interfaith Lecture Series and Sacred Song Services and covered literary arts digitally in 2020. Chris is a second-year grad student at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative writing, specializing in fiction. He’s passionate about all things related to literature, music and film, especially author David Foster Wallace, jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.