The Story of My Book: Diane Gilliam

Published periodically, “The Story of My Book” posts bring our collections to life through a series of five questions we ask all of our poets that highlight what makes every book unique and why Perugia is the right home for each of them (and may be for you and your book too).

Diane Gilliam on Kettle Bottom (Perugia, 2004)

1. What was the genesis of your Perugia book?

I was on my way to the food court at Chapel Hill Mall, where I often went to write during my MFA years, early mornings before the stores opened and only the mall walkers were about. I had a tape of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie playing in the car. Those days, I was actively looking for models and asking of every poetry collection I read—What is it this book is doing? My answer for Kyrie went something like this: Kyrie is imagining its way into a rarely talked about, perilous part of our history, and telling the story in the voices of people living—or dying—through it.

My Perugia book, Kettle Bottom, is a collection of poems in the voices of people living in the coal camps at the time of the 1920-21 West Virginia Mine Wars. That morning in the car, when I could say to myself what it was Kyrie had done, I knew what I could do. I had recently been to a West Virginia state park on a self-styled writing retreat and had picked up at the park gift shop a small but mighty book by David Alan Corbin, titled The West Virginia Mine Wars: An Anthology. It was my history, as my grandfather was a young man working in the mines there at that time, and my mother had spent some of her young years in the Winco coal camps. My history, my story—but I knew nothing of the story of the Mine Wars. So I didn’t go on to the mall that day. I went home and started searching for history books. Soon enough, I was in full-immersion mode with anything from that time and place. And when I was far enough in, those voices started to come, and they kept coming until it was done.

2. How did you find out about Perugia Press?

It was relatively early years for the press, and for me too. So when I got ready to submit Kettle Bottom, I got my copy of Poets & Writers and sent to all the manuscript contests that were open at the moment. From the beginning, I had a trust that right things would happen for that book. And they did!

3. Can you describe an experience that confirmed Perugia Press was a good fit for you?

Having a publisher’s full attention as your first or second book comes out is priceless. I was included as much as I wanted in decisions about the layout and appearance of my book. I remember picking the font for the titles of poems, and talking with Susan (Susan Kan, founding editor) about whether the title should appear above or below the photo on the cover. My book looks just like it should.

Diane Gilliam and Susan Kan at the AROHO Foundation “Gift of Freedom” award ceremony in NYC, March, 2013

Even though I came to Perugia relatively early on, the press already had an established presence in Western Massachusetts. I did an early reading with Eleanor Wilner (she’d been my teacher at Warren Wilson while I was writing Kettle Bottom poems) at Smith College, which started Susan lobbying for Smith to choose Kettle Bottom as common reader for their next incoming class. And that happened, which was amazing, and led to more than a few other events for me at Smith and other schools in the area. It’s been twenty years now, and with the present editor, Rebecca Olander, opportunities still come to me through Perugia.

Diane Gilliam and Rebecca Olander at Athol Public Library reading, April 2017

4. How have you changed as a poet, writer, or creative person since your book came out?

Kettle Bottom and Perugia got me out the door, gave my work a real chance out in the world. That early push made it possible for me to imagine a life in poetry. A writing life has its natural cycles just like everything else in this world. In my poetry life I’ve had some great good fortune, and I’ve had some hard years. I’ve had another collection of poems, Dreadful Wind & Rain, a novel titled Linney Stepp, and am finishing a new collection of poems, with the working title First Church of Any Given Day. I am trusting forth, feeling freer and freer both on the page and off. I’ve learned a lot of rules over the years, many of which now seem (by their very nature) at cross-purposes with the kind of freedom I’m looking for. I am bracketing them all off for now, going instead with something Clarissa Pinkola Estés says about what is wise—What’s wise is what works.

5. Other than poetry, what moves and motivates you?

I am strongly drawn to fairy tales, for how they can be understood as maps to wholeness. Also dreams, and many other aspects of depth psychology. I never stop learning how to be a mother, mother-in-law, grandmother. As I write this, at my feet are two baskets with hundreds of cotton print rectangles I’ve cut into different sizes to be stitched together into quilts—I want everyone I love to have one.