War of words 

Missoula poet Mark Gibbons constructs images of madness

Mark Gibbons’ poem “The Foreign Policy of Oz” stems partly from a dream he once had in which flying ants burst from his mouth. It reminded him, he says, of the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, where John Coffey opens his mouth and small black flies—a metaphor for illness—release into the air. “The Foreign Policy of Oz” is about illness, too, in a way—the social kind that plagues a country.

“It’s a long indictment of military. Our military,” says Gibbons. “And I say our and I mean our, because it is ours. We the people.”

Gibbons says after his flying-ant dream he watched several films documenting past foreign conflict, and “The Foreign Policy of Oz” was born.

“[Thinking] back and revisiting the whole Iran Contra thing, or Panama back in the ’80s and early ’90s,” he says, “to see how we just steamrolled things in the same way we’ve steamrolled things in Iraq…it seems the modern solider is even more desensitized and alienated [now].”

In the poem Gibbons writes: “Maybe these maggots weren’t the kids who staked cats to railroad tracks…/But before they’re through/taking orders from those fucking/ monkeys, they’ll wire Toto’s/ testicles to a car battery/ and take a pair of dykes to the Tin Man’s chest.”

The Missoula-based poet isn’t green to the war theme, but his newest collection, War, Madness & Love, hits it more directly on the head than his previous collections, which include Something Inside Us (Big Mountain Publishing, 1995), Connemara Moonshine (Camphorweed Press, 2002) and Blue Horizon (Two Dogs Press, 2007).

In another poem, “What Uncle Sam Wants,” Gibbons gathers his ammunition from his experience working with local children, through both the Missoula Writing Collaborative and the Poetry Out Loud program.

“I was over at Helena High School doing a poetry promo type thing,” says Gibbons. “One of the things I noticed—because I was there for a couple of days in succession—was that they had the army recruiters out in the hall trying to get kids to sign up. So ‘What Uncle Sam Wants’ is a really nasty rant. It’s a particularly vehement sort of poem.”

Gibbons works as a mover with Wheaton Van Lines and graduated from the University of Montana creative writing program in 1998. Apart from his books, his poems have been published in several literary magazines, including Pittsburgh’s The Midwest Quarterly and Missoula’s CutBank. He collaborated on War, Madness & Love with Helena-based and Appalachian-bred street poet Michael Revere.

“[Revere] writes about everyday experiences, the kind of experiences that human beings have as opposed to literary pursuits,” says Gibbons. “He tries to communicate and I think that’s one of the things that poetry has done to alienate itself—particularly academic poetry. Those poets don’t even want to communicate, and so, what the hell? Who wants to do that? I want to have an experience. And [Revere’s] poetry is like that.”

War, Madness & Love is split evenly between Gibbons’ poems and Revere’s. But though they are separate, Gibbons ended up writing a poem inspired by Revere that acts as a transition point between the two sections of the book. In that poem, “Salt of the Earth,” Gibbons writes: “This voodoo child, spray bottle in one hand/and quart jug of bleach in the other,/punches the play button on his portable/cassette/radio, begins spinning/ into Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland…this broom jockey spins/ himself into his own swirling Sufi trance.”

“He’s a really interesting guy, Michael is,” says Gibbons. “He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s crazy, so this poem is an interesting poem, I think. It gives you a snap shot of [him] and then you fall into his section and read through his part.”

Some of Gibbons more ambivalent statements don’t attract much criticism. In “Redevelopment,” for instance, he describes a dreamlike scenario in which he chances upon George W. Bush in Gibbons’ hometown of Alberton, and “High Noon” meditates on the image of helicopters heading to Washington-Grizzly Stadium. But the previously mentioned “The Foreign Policy of Oz,” with its strong language and searing conjecture, has garnered a harsher response.

“I’ve had a few people tell me that they couldn’t abide by this poem because it crossed the line for them or something,” says Gibbons. “I thought, ‘Isn’t that what we do in poetry is cross lines?’ I mean, not all the time, but that’s one of the things that it does.”

For Gibbons, the poem in question speaks directly to what he sees as a teacher in local classrooms. He says he sees the impact violence has had on kids, some of them even writing poems about brutalizing homeless people, and laughing about it. And he says that mentality follows those kids into high school, where military recruiters can approach them.

“So you better have some damn good leadership,” he says. “That’s what that poem addresses.”

Despite some negative classroom experiences, Gibbons is clear that the act of writing is mostly a positive one for his students. And beyond the political content of War, Madness & Love, Gibbons sees writing poetry as a positive act for himself, too.

“One thing I like about it, that I’ve always liked about it, is that it’s always allowed me to think, to slow things down,” he says. “And working with kids and poetry is a great. What better tool than a poem? It’s short; it’s concise; it’s like a photograph, and you can look at it and see how it affects you. In a way, it allows you to stop the world.”

Mark Gibbons and Michael Revere read from War, Madness & Love at the University Center Theatre on the UM campus Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 7 PM. Free.
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