Rachel Gainer won the Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition last year, a contest whose past winners include Donald Hall and Sylvia Plath, marking her as one of the country’s top college poets. But you might never realize that by just talking to her.
“I’m not very good at articulating myself in conversation,” Gainer says, glancing down at the floor. “I have trouble being linear.”
She’d never been published, and entering the contest wasn’t even her idea. The creative writing department simply informed her last spring that she was being sent to Mount Holyoke College as GW’s first representative in the contest in eight years. She doesn’t go to open mics and she doesn’t enjoy reading her work out loud. But to win the contest she had to do just that, reading before judges (all of them established poets), fellow contestants and her parents.
Gainer, a senior from Lancaster, Pa., is the first person in her family ever to go to college. She had often worried that her parents might not appreciate her work; however, she thinks that hearing her read for the first time helped them come to terms with their daughter heading into the world of professional poetry.
“They feel better now that they know I’m serious about it,” she says. Gainer tries not to share her parents concern; she plans on teaching or editing to supplement her income as a writer.
Writing has been a part of Gainer’s life since childhood. She began writing in grade school and continued through middle school, then all but stopped working on poems during high school. She did not really come back to the medium that would win her so much acclaim until she arrived at GW.
Gainer also dabbled some in fiction but later decided it wasn’t for her.
“I have problems with plot,” she says. “I have more of a connection to poetry. This is the way I want to express myself.”
Gainer credits the creative writing department with helping her rediscover her love of poetry and helping her develop her gift.
“It is progressive, but it’s established,” she says of the department. “You get a lot of individual attention.”
Much of Gainer’s poetry deals with highly personal subject matter, often stemming from concern for troubled friends or fears of her own mortality. She says much of her current work draws from a period of generalized fear and post-traumatic stress following the events of September 11.
But that doesn’t mean the poems themselves are especially dark or vague. If anything, Gainer’s concrete, image-filled work is the product of trying to nail down her feelings as precisely as she can.
“Poetry’s about … getting it as tight and clean as you can say it,” she explains. “I tend to like really simple language.”
The simplicity of her diction may come out of her need to continually re-work poems over an extended period of time. Gainer claims she didn’t consider anything she’d ever written completely finished until last year. Now she’s slowly building a small collection of work, much of it centered around water imagery, often with overtones of death, as in this selection from “The Afterlife”:
“I thought about the fact that no one knows/anyone who has seen the darkest part of the sea,/only that the creatures there are strange and blind.”
Gainer’s poems are often driven by first-person narration and reoccurring water imagery, both of which stem from the personal nature of much of her work and her own fascination with the ocean.
“I have a real connection to the sea. I’d love to live there someday,” she says, adding that diving is one of her favorite pastimes, aside from writing.
Gainer often relies on her other interests to feed her work, admitting that, like many poets, she occasionally has trouble finding the inspiration to write. While writer’s block is an occupational frustration she can’t see herself escaping every time, she has developed a few techniques to help her get started.
“When I read other poems, I can feel inspired,” she says “Music influences me a lot. I’ll put a song on repeat – it can be any song. I’ll just sit there and listen to it. Something’ll come.”
But when the urge to write something personal conflicts with writing a paper or reading for a class, inspiration can be just as troublesome for Gainer as writer’s block is.
“If I have a lot of homework and I have a poem I’m working on, I won’t do any of the work ’til I get (the poem) right,” she says.
It’s that love of writing, the joy of honing her work to make it vivid and capable of expressing her feelings honestly, that draws Gainer to poetry. A few lines from her poem, “‘In text,’ she says, ‘I’ve just read your heart,'” say it best:
“There is a language that no man can speak/the mouth cannot even shape itself open,/closed, half-open, half-closed/to say the syllables out/to the air. This comes from a shore that is naked,/without clamshells or kelp.” o