“The Poem is What I Am”: Conversing with Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert
BY Sondra Peron

When I gave Jack and other poets a tour of my letterpress print shop a few years ago, he’d never seen a working press, and was overwhelmed by the complicated details, the general busyness, the minutia contained in this small space made smaller by five of us in the room. Paper stacked on the floor, printed sheets piled here and there waiting to be collated, shelves with reams and boxes, books, a line of tools hanging from nails on the wall, a short row of cabinets with drawer after drawer of metal type, a rack of leads and slugs, the galley cabinet where some type waited to be distributed, and even the two cast iron printing presses created a complexity that was quite orderly in my mind, but which was sensory overload in eighty-four year old Jack. Ever the gentleman, Jack nodded and smiled. I showed a few drawers of type, explained how they were organized, put a few metal letters in his hand. “Nice,” he said. I demonstrated how the press works. Jack said, “Very nice.” When I indicated the wall above the filing cabinets where several broadsheets were tacked, including a framed copy of his “Going Wrong” I had printed in 1992, all Jack managed to say was “Yes.”

For this man who had lived for extended periods in Europe and Japan without speaking those languages, this room behind the garage attached to my house was a foreign country. What he said next is most telling of who Jack is as a person and where his thoughts focused: “I am interested in your enthusiasm and obvious love for all this.”

Passion has always captivated Jack. No matter its source, a strong emotional connection thrills him. This isn’t surprising since Jack’s life has been one of discovering his passions and realizing them. Ask Jack about his writing routine or the process of composing any given poem and he shrugs off an answer as “meaningless details.” What matters to him is “the final product. The poem,” as he had told me on several occasions. His commitment to, his passion for writing is a given and the specifics lack importance. Similarly, whether I was extolling the virtues of Garamond or Deepdene type faces, such elements carry no weight with Jack. He only wanted to see the printed poem on the page. What captivated him was my zeal for letterpress printing and he knew that poets could trust that such passion would accomplish the right goals: the poem on the page as close to perfection as possible through the typographic and letterpress crafts.

One of Jack’s many awards was being appointed Poet Laureate of the City of Northampton, Massachusetts, from 2005-2007. His portrait by Sondra Peron was taken to commemorate the occasion. Upon completion of his laureateship, two groups of local poets celebrated Jack with readings of his poems, first by his workshop group, then by others organized at the local library. It was quite amazing to see, hear, and actually feel in the voices and tributes of these poets how Jack’s words, his artistry, his kindness and generosity have touched them. This from a poet born in that hard city, Pittsburgh, in 1925.

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