Poet Celeste Gainey is back on the East End for a special appearance—she’s reading from her new book the GAFFER (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press) at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton on Tuesday, September 1.
Gainey debuted some of her early work with the North Sea Poetry Scene and lived for a number of years in East Hampton before moving to Pittsburgh in 2012. It’s clear that Gainey’s time Out East was inspiring.
She notes “three quarters of the poems were conceived and written in our little house on Gann Road in Springs. So the East End, Accabonac Harbor, Gerard Drive, Louse Point—these were my daily muses, even though I was mostly conjuring California and New York City.” In fact, Louse Point is mentioned in her poem “fons et origo.” And, though not named in, “the Oscar-winning actress,” Montauk’s Melissa Leo is the star of this poem.
Gainey’s poem “from green river cemetery (after Frank O’Hara)” features the lines: “to Pollock to Krasner/de Kooning to Kline, Ernst/to Geldzahler, to Patsy Southgate et al:/grace to be born and live as variously as possible! ”
This last line could be a motto for Gainey. She was born and raised in Southern California and went on to become the first woman admitted to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) as a gaffer, moving to New York in 1970. Gainey holds a BFA in film and television from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She has spent over 35 years working on motion pictures and as an architectural lighting designer, mainly in New York and on the West Coast.
She was an early member of New York Women in Film and Television, serving two terms as president. Gainey became a leading lighting designer and consultant, operating her design studio, Gotham Light & Power Inc., in both New York City and Los Angeles. She designed lighting systems for restaurants, offices, retail stores, museums, and residences here and abroad, including Dreamworks Records, Warner Bros., and the beloved Manhattan restaurants Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café. She has received numerous lighting accolades, including two International Illumination Design Awards presented by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America as well as the G.E. Edison Award.
This explains the title of her book—the GAFFER—at least on the surface. Open it up to a world of mysteries revealed. Short poems pulsing with remarkably brutal honesty, verve…bright light.
Where does the gaffer in Gainey end and the poet begin? They are one, of course—this girl is a “best boy.” Both the gaffer and the poet illuminate a scene for an audience—though the poet often shines the light on the interior, rather than on the exterior, of her subjects.
What motivated Gainey to write this book? She says, “It’s all been a gigantic surprise, from beginning to end. If, 10 years ago, you had announced to me that today I was going to have a published book of poetry, I would have told you you were insane. I didn’t begin to write poetry until 2006, and at that time, it was a private, interior practice I was doing just for myself. I was so taken with what I was doing though, it seemed so essential to me as an individual, that I pursued it voraciously, going back to school in my late 50s and getting my MFA. I began writing not out of a need to tell the story of my life, but more out of an inner quest of some sort. Once I determined to really learn the craft of poetry and entered the Carlow University MFA program, my focus shifted. I had to produce poems in the white heat of monthly deadlines and, of course, I had lived a life filled with actual experiences and events and that became my source. My mentor in grad school, a wonderful poet, Jan Beatty, suggested that the title of my manuscript should be “The Gaffer.” With this suggestion, the book began to coalesce. And I began to write more poems to that title, so to speak––poems that came out of my working with light in film and architecture.”
Gainey continues, “What I’m proudest of with the GAFFER is that it’s a book about work and is a book that deals with the problem of light, as opposed to metaphorical depictions of light usually found in poetry.”
How did Gainey know when this book was done? She says, “I knew I was done when I felt I had the very best version of what this particular collection of poems could be. I just viscerally knew this.
One contribution made by Jan, my mentor, was singling out the strange little surreal poem that is the prologue poem, “once upon a time on all hallows’ eve in gotham city.” This was a poem I almost cut from the book because, in my literal mindedness, it just didn’t seem to fit. However, Jan’s brilliant suggestion of placing it at the very beginning, casts a strange and magical glow to the poems that follow, adding greater dimension and mystery to this, for the most part, very grounded and narrative collection.
Gainey points out, “Arriving at a final assembly for a book of poems is a mysterious and elusive practice. This process of trying to form an entity, which is neither literal or linear really, but needs to have some kind of arc to it, needs to have a certain cohesion, but still needs to have the air and mystery and roominess of poetry about it—was a huge surprise to me. Kind of like capturing lightning in a bottle. I knew it in my bones when I finally arrived at the final version, but how I got there, how all of this happened, was just some kind of wild, magical, carpet ride.
The GAFFER was featured in O The Oprah Magazine as one of “8 new books of poetry to savor” and there’s a lot to devour here. Gainey shares her unique and compelling insights that include observations made on the sets of famous movies and television program (from Taxi Driver to The Wiz, to 60 Minutes and 20/20), in a D.C. hotel room and in New York “in the days of early polyester”—the title of one of Gainey’s shimmering poems.
Gainey’s chapbook, In the land of speculation & seismography (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011), was runner-up for the 2010 Robin Becker Prize. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been a guest on Prosody, the public radio show on NPR affiliate WESA-FM, which showcases the work of national writers. Gainey’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in BLOOM, Fourth River, Columbia Poetry Review, Projector, HEArt, and other publications.
What’s this dynamo up to now? Gainey reports, “I’m a poetry mentor for and board member of The Madwomen in the Attic, a community-based organization of writing workshops for women of all ages and backgrounds, housed at Carlow University in Pittsburgh.
I had occasion to visit the poet’s East Hampton house once, shortly before Gainey and her partner, screenwriter and novelist Elise D’Haene, moved to Pittsburgh. I was stopped in my tracks by a huge glass-topped table in which the couple had meticulously assembled a massive collection of seashell fragments and other fascinating bits of nature found on their walks to and from the water’s edge. Poetry. The assembling of native fragments to form a new, well-lit whole.
Poet Celeste Gainey reads from the GAFFER on Tuesday, September 1, at 7 p.m. at the Hampton Library, 2478 Main Street, Bridgehampton, hamptonlibrary.com, 631-537-0015. All proceeds from sale of book at event benefit Hampton Library. For more information and to hear and view Celeste reading her work, visit celestegainey.com.