Gildner, Gary

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Nationality: American. Born: West Branch, Michigan, 22 August 1938. Education: Michigan State University, East Lansing, B.A. 1960, M.A. 1961. Family: Married 1) Judy McKibben in 1963 (divorced 1980), one daughter; 2) Elizabeth Mary Sloan in 1991, one daughter. Career: Writer in university relations department, Wayne State University, Detroit, 1961–62; instructor, Northern Michigan University, Marquette, 1963–65. Since 1966 member of the department, now professor of English, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. Visiting professor and writer-in-residence, Reed College, Portland, Oregon, 1983–85; writer-in-residence, Michigan State University, 1987; Senior Fulbright Professor, University of Warsaw, Poland, 1987–88; McGee Professor of writing, Davidson College, 1992; Senior Fulbright Lecturer, Safarik University, Slovakia, 1992–93. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference Robert Frost fellowship, 1970; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1971, 1976; Yaddo fellowship, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1974; Theodore Roethke prize, 1976, and Helen Bullis prize, 1979 (Poetry Northwest); William Carlos Williams prize (New Letters), 1977; National Magazine award, for fiction, 1986. Agent: Nat Sobel Associates, 146 East 19th Street, New York, New York 10003. Address: RR 2, Box 219, Grangeville, Idaho 83530–9615, U.S.A.



First Practice. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969.

Digging for Indians. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971.

Eight Poems. Denver, Bredahl, 1973.

Nails. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975.

Letters from Vicksburg. Greensboro, North Carolina, Unicorn Press, 1976.

The Runner. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978.

Jabón. Portland, Oregon, Breitenbush, 1981.

Blue Like the Heavens: New and Selected Poems. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984.

Clackamas: Poems. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon Press, 1991.

The Swing. Boise, Idaho, Limberlost Press, 1996.

The Bunker in the Parsley Fields: Poems. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1997.


The Second Bridge. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin, 1987.

Short Stories

The Crush. New York, Ecco Press, 1983.

A Week in South Dakota. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin, 1987.


Toads in the Greenhouse. Des Moines, Iowa, Perfection Form, 1978.

The Warsaw Sparks (memoir). Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1990.

Editor, with Judith Gildner, Out of This World: Poems from the Hawkeye State. Ames, Iowa State University Press, 1975.

Editor, with David Ray, Since Feeling Is First: An Anthology of New American Poetry. Kansas City, University of Missouri, 1976.


Manuscript Collection: University of Pittsburgh.

Critical Study: "'Eat Everything!' A Consideration of the Work of Gary Gildner" by James Coleman, in Centennial Review (East Lansing, Michigan), 30(2), spring 1986.

Gary Gildner comments:

My poems are narrative mainly. Little fictions. I am fond of the persona and have among my characters a Mexican innocent named Soap; a boy at his first football practice in a school basement that doubles as a bomb shelter; a woman who has lost part of her hand; a Civil War soldier writing cocky letters, which become less so, home to his young wife; a German youth drafted by Napoleon to help him take Russia who ends up, warm at last, in Iowa; a former pro athlete speaking from his wheelchair at a pig roast; an old man lost in a retirement home; a young man in love with a goshawk in his attic; a man and his daughter making angels in the snow …

Clarity, setting, story, engagement, promise, conflict, music (gathering sound), mystery, resolution—I am fond of these elements as well. Nouns and verbs. Names. And respect for the line.

I started late. I was almost twenty-eight when I wrote my first poem. I wrote it out of frustration I think, because the story I wanted to write would not grow beyond the single sheet of paper it occupied. Thinking one page not enough for a short story, I decided that the stubborn text wanted to be a poem. Not much is shorter, is it?

I was not eager to try poetry. What did I know about it? The first and last "poems" I had written were in college, moonstruck and stealing from Whitman, trying to win a stunning girl whose legs were long and sleek and whose sea green eyes troubled me everywhere, in darkness and in light. (She later had her nose bobbed and became a fashion model.)

But I played with those sentences anyway, working them into lines I thought interesting. In truth I had six short stories like that, onepagers, all of them facing me on a humid summer's day in the middle of America when what I really wanted to be writing was a novel—a man's work!—for which the six short story notions were to be warmup exercises. (I had just abandoned a novel I had worked five years on; with every annual rewrite it got better, but it would never sing and I knew it.) I was almost twenty-eight. I was in a hurry. I turned the six short stories into six poems and sent them off, one each, to six magazines, mainly to be rid of them, the bastards. But they were all accepted. And that changed everything.

*  *  *

Since publishing his debut poetry volume, First Practice, in 1969, Gary Gildner has displayed a strong sense of narrative, character, voice, and situation. His poems are rich in prose virtues, and his ear is quick to hear the ways in which American speech rhythms can fruitfully play with the rhythms of verse in English. In this regard he is solidly in the poetic line of Emerson and Frost.

Gildner's earliest poems contain memorable snapshots of family life and adolescence that reverberate in the reader's memory, as in "Geisha" from Digging for Indians:

   The boxer bitch is pregnant
   puffed up like an Oriental wrestler!
   The boys stand back,
   aloof, embarrassed
   or unsure of their hands.
   But the girls, their cheeks aflame,
   are down on shiny knees
   praising all the nipples.

The title of Digging for Indians and of Gildner's next book, Nails, along with the resonances and depths of his earlier anecdotal poems, suggested a broadening concern. In 1976 Gildner published Letters from Vicksburg. Working from actual letters, he constructed a sonnet sequence of letters from a Civil War soldier to his wife. His continuing concern for family life and domestic continuity was a part of larger meditations on the disruptions and recurring themes of American history.

The Vicksburg poems appear in The Runner along with other poems that begin in Gildner's recognizable voice but that treat characters and situations new to his work. One of them begins, "In the blue winter of 1812 / Johann Gaertner, a bag of bones, / followed Napoleon home," and "When the Retarded Swim" continues in its first lines the sentence begun by the title—"at the Y on Fridays / a lot of time is taken up / with holding them, so they do not drown." Another poem is a 133-line monologue by a young athlete paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident. Yet another is spoken by a mad gardener who brings toads into his greenhouse to control the ladybugs he brought in to control the scale attacking his orchids; he winds up neglecting the plants to feed the toads, which desert him at the onset of frost. There are also poems of marital despair. The poems in The Runner are longer and more resourceful than Gildner's earlier vignettes, as if they had sought and found abilities to include the rush of pain and confusion held somewhat at bay by shorter forms.

In 1981 Gildner published Jabón. The title character is a kind of wise fool, a crazy Mexican who washes and blesses the taxis in a small village and who, because he cannot understand in rational, adult terms the life that swirls around him, comes to understand and accept life in more immediate and intuitive terms. The character of Jabón is remarkably unsentimentalized and is buffeted fiercely for not having conventional worldly skills, but by blessing taxis and the yellow pail in which he keeps the water to wash them, he is in some way in tune with life rather than in desperate contest with it. Late in the sequence Jabón joins forces with a precocious eight-year-old boy, and two American traveling opportunists, as they sit over lunch, discuss philosophically the alliance between Jabón and the boy:

            … You know what
   flashed in my head? It's some kind of cult.
   Fifty years from now, a hundred, they'll dance
   in the streets to those two, and put up a statue—
   and guys like us will be nowhere, eating the special.

Blue like the Heavens: New and Selected Poems has an emotional equilibrium in sharp contrast to the tumults of The Runner, though the dark strains of the earlier fine book are not missing. Memory, and thus by extension the imagination itself, is the central preoccupation in these poems. One begins with a saleswoman on the telephone trying to sell the speaker insulation and ends like this:

   "Are your children safe? Your loved ones?" she said.
   Oh dear lady beyond these cold hands,
   nothing is safe in my presence. I am a small hog
   with a sore throat. A frog, the last egg
   from the nest of a swan, even the puny squeal
   of a porcupine—I will steal anything for a song.
   Even your timid voice, dear lady,
   lost at the other end for a way to make me warm.

Gildner's confrontation with nostalgia, memory, and his own imaginative impulses is an interesting development from a poet who has consistently grown in skill and stature, proposing in each step of the way more complex formal and imaginative tasks for himself. It may be that he is speaking to the possibilities of further development in a poem like "Always in Late Summer Now, in the City":

   I think of how the gulls hang
   lightly over the lake's edge,
   and how a small perch slips to the surface, tiger-striped,
   and how the white birch, in places, can look at you all day
   —and I think of pushing away
   from the dock, pulling forward into the farther dark,
   the line of pine and fir on the far shore black,
   a cut moon, a few stars to lighten my cupped hands,
   wondering what's under my heart
   that could take me deeper.

—William Matthews