Art Maker: Gail Thomas, poet

  • Poet Gail Thomas of Northampton is shown April 13, 2017 in her home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Poet Gail Thomas of Northampton writes April 13, 2017 in her home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Poet Gail Thomas of Northampton is shown April 13, 2017 in her home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Books by poet Gail Thomas of Northampton are shown April 13, 2017 in her home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Poet Gail Thomas of Northampton is shown April 13, 2017 in her home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Poet Gail Thomas of Northampton writes April 13, 2017 in her home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Books by poet Gail Thomas of Northampton are shown April 13, 2017 in her home. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • At left, Gail Thomas gives a reading at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton. At left, Gail Thomas gives a reading at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton.

Published: 5/4/2017 4:55:45 PM

Though she first started writing poetry when she was 15, Gail Thomas says her writing life became more sustained when she joined a writing group in her 30s and began getting published. The Northampton poet has four collections to her name and has published her work in numerous journals and anthologies; her 2016 collection, “Waving Back,” was named a “Must Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book.

Thomas, who’s 67, works as a learning specialist at Smith College, and she’s also led intergenerational arts projects in schools, nursing homes, hospitals and libraries across Massachusetts.

Hampshire Life: Describe the work you do.

Gail Thomas: Most of my poems tell stories using direct language rooted in nature and the senses. My new book, “Odd Mercy,” includes a series of poems about the complications of my mother’s dementia and our difficult relationship.

I agonize over line length and line breaks, but when read aloud, a poem may have an emotional impact that the listener and I can share. That’s why I really enjoy giving readings: I can gauge the audience’s response to each poem. 

H.L.: What is your creative process like? 

G.T.: Finding the kernel of a poem often emerges from something random — reading the news, walking in the woods, gardening, talking with strangers or family, listening to music.  I keep these ideas in a notebook where they compost until something rises to the surface to create a connection or metaphor. I’m drawn to stories, whether told at the kitchen table or overheard in the grocery store. 

H.L.: How do you know you’re on the right track?

G.T.: It’s important to clinch the opening and closing lines, to use vivid images and rich sound combinations. I get feedback on new work from a small group of poets I meet with, maybe rework lines, choose more active verbs or a different title. I know a poem works if the reader is drawn into its specific world and feels an emotional response. 

H.L.: What do you do when you get stuck?

G.T.: I put the poem away for a while to get perspective — read work by new or favorite poets, go to a local reading or concert, get inspired.

H.L.: How do you know when the work is done?

G.T.: I seldom feel that the work is done — even after poems have been published, I keep tinkering with them.

H.L.: What did you do most recently that relates to your art?

G.T.: My book “Waving Back” contains several poems about food. After a reading I gave in Maine, someone asked if I would write a poem about donuts, so I sent “Prayer to Donuts” to a publisher who is putting together an anthology of donut poems.

I also did research for a series of “rust belt” poems about growing up in Pennsylvania’s coal, steel, and cement country, and I made plans with an art gallery in Provincetown for a benefit reading from my book about  Alzheimer’s, to be paired with paintings by an artist who developed the disease late in life.

— Steve Pfarrer

To learn more about Gail Thomas’ work, visit www.gailthomaspoet.com


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