The Gallery of America
By Katie Hale
“The Gallery of America” by Katie Hale is the winning poem for the 2021 Palette Poetry Prize, selected by guest judge Jericho Brown. We’re honored to share this thought-provoking poem as well as an interview with Katie about her work and process.
“This poem is amazing in its ability to speak to and through itself given its own history. But there is much more than just syntactic technique going on in these lines of definite desperation.” —Jericho Brown
The Gallery of America
The streets were paved with gum and flung cigarettes
and I needed to get out of the rain.
The promised rains were not falling. The heat in the city
was velvet, and the gallery pale and kept conditioned.
The gallery was warm, and the westerlies whetted
and cut to the quick. I presented my ticket at the desk
and the unsmiling man let me in. The bulbs were old-school
and golden, wistful as honey in winter; the walls
were cluttered with the burnished and the gilt.
There was ugliness, too, in the gallery, though the audioguide
steered me meticulously away. The stairwell flickered
and was difficult to climb. From the thresholds,
invigilators orbited like drones. Still, I was told
I belonged in the gallery,
though I was a curiosity and uncurated.
I trod mud on the marble but nobody asked me to leave. Later,
I was reading Rankine in the gallery café
where all the servers were black and the white punters
pretended not to notice, where none of us
paid our tabs, or offered to take our receipts,
where our mounting waste subsumed the bussing station.
This may have been part of the exhibition.
Interview with Katie Hale
by AT Hincapie
AH: What was your initial motivation to write this poem? Might a visit to an actual art gallery have helped to inspire your “Gallery of America”?
KH: In 2019, I received a grant from Arts Council England to travel to the US, to research my poetry collection-in-progress. The collection tracks four hundred years of my family’s female history, from migration to the US, to return to the UK several centuries later – so I’d already been thinking a lot about heritage, and particularly about museums and galleries: about how they allow us to curate history, about how they’re often the result of philanthropic gestures derived from problematic wealth, and about what the role of the poet might be in responding to these spaces. All of this had been churning around my head for some time, but I didn’t yet know how to write about it, which I think is often the way with poems, at least for me – they sit somewhere below the surface for weeks, sometimes months or even years, till the right fishing hook comes along to bait them to the surface. For this poem, the right fishing hook was this grant-funded trip to New York, researching my family’s history using the collections at the New York Public Library.
I’ve always loved libraries – they’re possibly some of the most democratic indoor spaces we have, with their availability of free resources, of so much accessible knowledge. Each morning, I would read in Bryant Park before the library opened, then head inside to begin the day’s research. At lunchtime, I would venture into one of the cafés across the street, and this was where the spark for the poem struck: in this chain café, within view of the library’s self-proclaimed beacon of democratic knowledge, here were so many of the US’s racial disparities and privileges being played out in a microcosm. This became the café at the end of the poem, lifted almost verbatim from my experience. From there, it was the disjuncture between what was deliberately on display, and what was simply ‘not hidden’, which provided the crack down which I pursued the rest of the poem.
AH: Though the speaker in the poem claims that “I was told I belong in the gallery,” they also admit that the audio guide leads them away from the ugliness in the gallery. What does this ugliness look like, and why would the guide try to steer patrons elsewhere?
KH: Over the past few years, the phrase ‘post-truth’ has entered common parlance. We live in a society where governments and companies and news channels work increasingly hard to present their own narratives, in which all ugliness (or at least, all of their own ugliness) is swept under the carpet (perhaps this has always been the case, but to me, it feels increasingly divisive). I’m speaking with the UK in mind here, but I also noticed it while flicking through news channels during that New York research trip: how language can be manipulated to present a particular narrative.
In both the UK and the US, it’s easy to find narratives claiming that the country no longer has institutional racism, or gender inequality, or discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people – or, if these problems exist, it’s only because progress is slow, or because these things ‘take time,’ rather than taking real structural change.
I think this is a measure of privilege: who has the option of turning away from ugly truths. I noticed this during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, I’ve noticed it with responses to climate collapse during the recent COP26 summit, and I noticed it with the #MeToo movement, when people started leaving social media, giving themselves space away from these movements and conversations, as an act of self-care. Of course, the people who are most affected by these issues – by these uglinesses and the fights to overturn them – can’t just step away from them by taking a break from Twitter.
AH: You are also an accomplished novelist, and “My Name is Monster” has been translated into multiple languages. How might your narrative fiction contribute to your lyric poetry, or how do you see these different styles and genres overlapping in your writing?
KH: For years, I put off writing fiction. I had this naïve idea that writing in another genre would somehow make me less of a poet, as though poetry were this religious idealism that wouldn’t mix with other art forms. This sounds ridiculous to me now, but I think it was a form of imposter syndrome: a fear that my poetry would never be ‘good enough’ (good enough for what? I wasn’t sure) unless I shunned all other forms.
Writing fiction has changed the landscape of my poetry. It’s helped me to think about all those fiction buzz-words, and to reapply them: setting, character, plot, ‘show don’t tell’, how information is withheld and then presented to a reader. At some point, I started to think of poems (or at least some poems) as illustrative scenes – like a tableau through which the reader is directed, or like one of those rides you used to get in museums, taking you through a replica Viking village with piped sounds and smells, its waxwork figures displayed in just the right positions to give you a glimpse into their lives. The poem becomes a journey, and so the poet’s job is to drag or coax or trick the reader along it.
AH: You have won many honors and awards for your writing, including a residency as a MacDowell Fellow. For our readers and other emerging writers who may be thinking about this kind of thing in the future – how has this fellowship provided the dedicated time and space to focus on your work?
KH: There’s a great blog post by Amber Massie-Blomfield, written in her capacity as Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library in Wales, about how to read 22,000 books. The answer, she concludes, is by freeing up as much time as possible for reading, by getting other people to do the other life-work for you. In the blog post, she’s using this to talk about privilege, but it’s the same with residencies. One of the most wonderful things about the MacDowell Fellowship (and numerous other residencies, too), is how time seems to expand. Without the pressure of cooking or cleaning or dusting or doing the washing up, the days grow and grow, till you’ve swum so far into your creative work, you can no longer see all those emails and reminders and to-do lists lining up along the shore.
I arrived at MacDowell off the back of those ten days researching in New York Public Library. With all that thought and research buzzing around my head, I holed up in my little cabin in the woods and wrote in a kind of frenzy, drafting perhaps a quarter of the collection in the space of three weeks. The residency was the perfect opportunity to tell myself (and everyone else through the much-needed form of the out-of-office reply) that I was available, briefly, for nothing but poetry. For those three weeks, I ate, slept, breathed, and swam in it. It was at MacDowell that I wrote the first draft of ‘The Gallery of America.’
AH: As a writer based in the UK, your work has reached an international audience of readers from different countries and cultures. How does this multicultural voice influence your writing – in your winning poem, “The Gallery of America”, or even in your pamphlets Breaking the Surface and Assembly Instructions?
KH: So much of the past five years has been spent researching my own family’s migration: from England and France to Virginia, and then across the US as far as Kansas, with other branches joining from Ireland, via India, before returning to the UK.
I myself am from Cumbria, in the northwest of England, close to the Scottish border. From here, in that I was born here, I grew up here, and I still live here (in a house two doors from the one I grew up in). In Cumbria, we have a dialect word, ‘offcomer,’ which is used to describe someone who has moved to the county from elsewhere. But, because Cumbria is farm country, and because there are families who can trace their family’s connection to specific areas of field and fell over perhaps a thousand years, ‘offcomer’ status is something that is carried down at least two generations, sometimes more. Because my parents moved here from further south, I’m still classed as an offcomer.
As a child, I hated this – it set me apart from my friends in the village – but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to love my offcomer status. I’m both local and not local, on the inside and the outside, a part of the stream while also able to stand on the bank and watch it flow. The more I’ve uncovered of my family’s own migratory heritage, the more I’ve felt at home in this dualism: in the ability to belong, while also, as in the poem, to be ‘a curiosity, and uncurated.’ This sense of belonging, of course, is a privilege not extended to everyone, and something I’m highly conscious of in my poetry: how this dual heritage can shape my poetic voice and narrative interests, while also not shying away from the privileges granted to it (and to me) because of my whiteness, because of the history whiteness carries in the blood.
Perhaps this was what I was asking all those years ago when I questioned whether my poetry would be ‘good enough’ – and if so, good enough for what? How (and whether) I can use my own multiculturalism, those feet on either side of the Atlantic, to disrupt the inherent whiteness in my own lyric voice. Whether or not my writing succeeds at this isn’t for me to judge – but I would like to say a huge thank you to Palette Poetry for the support of this poem, and particularly to Jericho Brown, for selecting it as the winner. May the words continue to disrupt their own narrative.