Portland Gibson Fay-LeBlanc poet on fatherhood, mortality and hockey

By Michaela Cavallaro
From our August 2021 issue

When driving around Portland’s Deering Oaks Park, the temptation is to avoid eye contact with homeless people begging at red lights. But Gibson Fay-LeBlanc can’t look away when his young sons sit in the back and ask questions, a situation he takes inspiration from in “High Forest State Marginal,” titled after the streets that converge on. the east side of the park: “my boys backseat / like birds what should we do what should we do / we don’t do anything though one day I / talk about a big church charity program / something nothing. The poem is one of many Deke Dangle Dive, Fay-LeBlanc’s second collection, to fight the multiple mess of the world – from heartbreaking (his brother’s terminal illness) to macabre (a dog rolling around in the flattened remains of a mouse) to smelly (a ripe locker room after a hockey game). “In many ways this book is about the importance of writing poetry,” says Gibson Fay-Leblanc, former Portland Poet Laureate and current executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. “Poetry helps me think and pay attention to myself, the people around me and the world around me. We have to write the difficult and uncomfortable things.

Then as today, the poet Gibson Fay-LeBlanc had hockey in mind.

Hockey and poetry seem like an unusual pairing, but hockey makes a comeback throughout the new collection.

I had always wanted to write a poem that was set in a hockey locker room, and “Hockey Poem” fell on my knees. I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting, but this is probably the only one I’m going to write. And then others started to appear. I started to see hockey as a way to write about other topics, like aging, masculinity, fatherhood and my brother. All of these things were sort of spinning, and it seemed like the language of hockey was one way to make it happen.

And behind much of the book is your brother’s cancer diagnosis.

Most of these poems were written before his death. It was a long illness. It is obviously hard and terrible. But we had a lot of time together to deal with this. And it is extremely significant that he had the chance to read these poems before they were published. It was very important: I write a lot about my reaction to his experience, but it was his experience, and I needed him to agree with what I was doing. It’s like a way to honor my brother now, to spread these poems to the world.

These experiences translate into great themes, sometimes many in a single poem. I am thinking, for example, of the way “Stay” deals with death, parenthood and marriage.

This poem came out of a deep, dark winter, when my brother was very ill. One way I had to deal with this was to go out in the winter, either on the ice or with my dogs, and try to deal with it all. As I started this poem – without being too cheesy on the poetic stuff – I realized I could use a version of terza rima, the form Dante used in Hell. When you write in a tight form, your conscious mind worries about “How can I do this technical thing – how can I do it in a way that makes sense and that sounds good?” While the conscious mind worries about it, the unconscious has room to go to surprising places.

Does going out in Maine like this often give you a creative spark?

I’ve lived in Portland for about 15 years now, and my history with Maine goes back almost 30 years. I love this place, and it’s definitely built into the book – specifically, some woods, running trails, and mountains where I spent a lot of time. These places are extremely important to me. They may or may not be discernible to readers, but they’re definitely in there. And you know, at the risk of sounding selfish, it might be worth pointing out that there isn’t a group like the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance in most states. There are many large writing organizations, but the largest tend to be in one city. There aren’t many spread across a large region like Maine, uniting the literary community. People here really celebrate, read and pass books on to each other.


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Down East Magazine, August 2021
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