Interview with Lisa Gundry

This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.

Lisa Gundry is a nurse, an avid motorcyclist and artist. She is passionate about crafting new things from old – whether it’s making poems from memories, a light fixture from a rusty bucket or earrings from scraps of leather. She placed 3rd in the adult division of the 47th Annual Dyer-Ives Poetry Competition. She has written for Rider, a national motorcycle magazine. Her book of poetry, A Crowd of Sorrows was published by Caffeinated Press in November of 2015. One of the poems therein was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s in love with Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has lived there for 15 years with two kitties and a Triumph Bonneville. Two of her poems, “Learning to Swim with Daddy” and “Visitation”, were published in our inaugural issue in August 2015.

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3288 Review: When and how did you first start writing poetry? Was there a single moment or event which sparked the creative urge?

Lisa Gundry: I began writing poetry as a result of my work with another poet in my writing group. Her depictions were so clear and focused that for the first time I realized how much could be communicated with a poem. I’d been working on a memoir in essay form for years but couldn’t seem to find a way to tell the story that spoke to all the ways in which I experienced it. Poetry allowed me to capture intense feelings and moods in the way I remember them—like snapshots in time. So in the fall of 2011 I began writing poems about my childhood. Within weeks, this method of documenting my felt experience continued to call out to me and I began writing about other painful life events that needed a voice—my divorce and the death of my father. While poetry isn’t as natural to me as narrative writing or even expository writing, which I do in my work as a nurse, it has become a purer form of writing. I find I can express so much through the use of form, metaphor and meter. Poetry has allowed me to encapsulate an experience and in so doing, has freed me- both in the writing and the sharing of the experience.

3288 Review: You have had several recent successes with your poetry—placing in the Dyer Ives competition, poems appearing in lit journals, your recently-released poetry collection A Crowd of Sorrows, and being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Given the intensely personal nature of your poetry, what are your thoughts on suddenly having all this attention?

Lisa Gundry: It has been a strange few months for me. I write to help process and express what goes on in my life and for many years have hoped to have more of these personal pieces published. Wishing it and achieving it are different. I’m nervous about what people will think about my choice to share such personal experiences. That said, I think that authenticity and vulnerability bring about intimacy and thus unites people. I hope that in sharing my difficulties, others will feel less isolated in their experiences. Some of my favorite authors have become my allies in dealing with difficult subjects like grief, loss, and fear. While some may be put-off, I hope others will find solace. Thinking of it like that, makes me realize the importance of sharing my poetry and puts the reservations I have in perspective.

3288 Review: Which other authors do you look to for support and inspiration? Are they writers you have discovered since you yourself began writing?

Lisa Gundry: I’m always reading and and find myself drawn to people who write about struggle and overcoming difficulty—or even just learning how to navigate it. I prefer watching relationships grow and shift more than I enjoy action and adventure within books. My favorite stories are ones in which I didn’t want to leave the protagonist at the end, and with some characters I really haven’t. There is a character, for example in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer—her name is Deanna—who feels like a friend to me. She lived alone while a park ranger and we learn a lot about her inner life through her actions. I could relate to this character and her need for solitude. Sometimes while walking alone, I remember Deanna’s walks through the forest. I first discovered Kingsolver while in college. Although I was writing at that time, it wasn’t working to publish anything.

Another favorite writer of mine is Alice Sebold. I’ve talked before about her memoir Lucky but I’ve also read her more recent novel The Almost Moon which begins with a surprising act that we are able to make sense of only as the story unfolds. We get glimpses into her childhood and her subsequent marriage, and find some compassion—if not understanding—for her actions. Sebold’s writing came to me much later, when I was working on earlier versions of my book which were in narrative form. She inspired me to explore the most difficult aspects of my experiences and reveal those to readers. Lucky in particular was a difficult read, as her rape is revealed in excruciating detail. She goes on to show us the way it affected her relationships with her family, friends and boyfriend. The book ends with a heart wrenching section; almost a post-script about how her life fell apart afterward. I remember thinking how brave it was that she didn’t try to find some redeeming effect of the events. I appreciated that she left the readers feeling raw. That’s the way life feels sometimes.

Anne Lamott is a writer who inspires me, too. She writes so honestly about her challenges, and with this odd humor which is disarming and such a relief, at the same time. She isn’t worried about what’s appropriate and I love that about her writing. She makes her readers feel good about our innermost thoughts.

Martha Beck impresses me with both her honesty and storytelling ability. Both Expecting Adam and Leaving the Saints had me wrapped up in her world. I was moved by her vulnerability and courage in both books—in the first as she dealt with the news that her child would be born with Down’s Syndrome and in the second one where she shares about her decision to leave the Mormon church. I’m really drawn to women who talk about the experience of being women in the world—with our complex relationships and our tendency toward self-reflection. I think I will always want to read authors who share from that place.

3288 Review: You are an avid motorcyclist, and have traveled extensively. A recent journey to Peru comes to mind. Do your experiences on the road often find their way into your writing?

Lisa Gundry: My favorite way to travel is by motorcycle. For several years I kept a blog (Soul Dance: Life on Two Wheels) about my motorcycle adventures, although I haven’t written anything there lately. What I wrote there was more about how riding affects and informs my life, than about where I’ve actually been. Motorcycling has captured me completely—the styling and lines of a bike, the mechanics of the machine, the sounds it makes, the places it has taken me.

I know my bike intimately, and it has helped me know myself.

Let me give you an example. I spent a few weeks planning a trip out east via motorcycle. I had 8 days to complete it and I set a goal of getting through 5 states. On day three of the trip, hundreds of miles from home, I hit torrential rain. I had a rain suit so I wasn’t worried though it wasn’t the way I had hoped to travel. That night, I checked into a motel. After hanging my gear up to dry and warming up with a hot meal and shower, I slept well. During breakfast the next morning I flipped on the T.V. to find that the storm I was riding through was the effects of a hurricane that had moved inland and was expected to continue for the next week in the entire area I was slated to ride through. The storm was so massive, it would take me days to ride out of it. I realized then that my whole trip would be in the rain. First I was angry and tried to figure out how to avoid it. I blamed myself, the rain gods, the motel clerk. Finally, I accepted it and  began making plans for how to deal with it. I used bag liners for my boots, rubber gloves under my riding gloves and made more frequent stops to warm up and keep up my morale. That trip taught me that I can deal with the unexpected and I can find my way through it, even when faced with the unpleasant. Once I accepted the conditions, and committed to taking care of myself along the way, I was able to enjoy the ride and the scenery.

My trip to Peru was a different experience altogether. Ten of us had signed up to tour Peru, Bolivia and Chile via motorcycle; we planned it for two years—what we would see and do while there. My job was down-sized 8 months before the trip and several costly things broke down in my house. I felt like the universe was telling me not to go. But I stayed connected to the part of me that was feeling called to go—to commit to this trip fully, despite the obstacles. I made several choices that some friends and family did not support. But with the help of a few others, I made it happen. Once in Peru, our tour guide informed us that our three country tour would likely be thwarted by the border police. Our group voted—it was not unanimous—and this 21 day trip was instantly transformed into a different one than I had been preparing for. One guy dropped out after 2 days because he couldn’t enjoy the trip as this wasn’t the one he had been planning for. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire trip was filled with these switch-ups. Each day something unexpected  happened and a work around was needed. And you know what? The trip was filled with wonder and joy and excitement for what lay ahead, around every turn. The trip was a mirror about how I can travel through life, how I can enjoy it, even when the unexpected happens. So back to your question—yes, my experiences traveling do make my way into my writing. Not so much because I write about what I’ve seen, so much as how I learn to navigate the obstacles in my path.

3288 Review: A Crowd of Sorrows has been out for several weeks now. Can you say something about your experience as a newly-published author? What kind of response are you getting from your readers?

Lisa Gundry: It seems like so much has happened in that time, it’s hard to believe! I’ve been living with the idea of this book for 15 years and have had  versions of it in hand for over 3 years before I found Caffeinated Press and decided to submit it. Because of that, and because this is my first book, I’m still in disbelief that it is actually published. When I look at this small white volume I see all the years, all the rewrites, all the people who helped me get it here in my hands. I’m definitely savoring the experience. I love the velvety feel of the cover and the layout of the poems on each page. I’m proud of my commitment to the writing process—from conception to writing to editing and rewriting—and seeing my name on the cover is a testament to that.  In putting the book out to an audience (rather than keeping it private), I’ve come to see how much shame and fear I have still been holding. I was talking about this with someone earlier this week, in fact. The very nature of a book—a cover surrounding bound pages—is a reservoir for a story. In this case, because of the personal nature of the content, this is a potent metaphor – the book itself now carries the weight of my experiences so I don’t have to. I can see the book and hold it and know that those experiences are represented and I don’t need to bind myself to them any longer. It’s been incredibly freeing.

As far as readers responses, I’ve only heard from a few people so far and they have been very moved by it. I’m looking forward to hearing more about how it affects people.

3288 Review: Nursing as a career seems like it would be an continuous discovery of the varieties of human experience. Do you feel your work as a nurse has influenced your writing at all?

Lisa Gundry: It’s hard to know how much my nursing career has influenced my writing. Your question makes an important point. I have definitely been exposed to many different people who are dealing so many different things as a nurse;  I have worked with men and women, teens and infants and the elderly. I’ve worked with people who are recovering from serious illnesses, surgeries and procedures. I’ve helped bring babies into the world and taught new moms how to care for them. I’ve helped people at the end of their lives die with dignity. I’ve taught people about their bodies and helped them deal with the changes in their bodies and in their lives. Perhaps more directly, my work as a nurse has fostered my ability to relate and connect with people on a deep emotional level as they are coping with some of the biggest challenges in their lives. I think this has translated to my writing in how I work feelings into words. For example, when I wrote about my father’s death in a poem you published in the inaugural issue of The 3288 Review, I kept imagining myself back in that room with him so my words would reflect the feeling state that I was in at the time. This was true for the poems I wrote for A Crowd of Sorrows, as well. I feel like being a nurse has influenced my writing most in the way I structure information to be digested as well as through the emotional depth present in my poems.

3288 Review: What’s next? Do you have anything in the works for 2016? And are you participating in any readings or public events?

Lisa Gundry: I have two goals in 2016 for my writing life. First I plan to reach out to bookstores and writer-friendly venues to share my work. I will also work with therapists and organizations that support survivors of sexual abuse in hopes of reducing the shame associated with it. Second, I have started writing a second book. It’s in the very early stages so I can’t say much about it, but I’m excited to be devoting regular time to writing again.

I don’t have any readings scheduled at this time but will be working on that diligently in the next few months. I’ll be sure to announce my schedule so anyone who wants to attend readings or talk with me more about the book can contact me.