NEA Literature Fellowships

Lisa Gill

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(2007 - Poetry)

Excerpt from Red as a Lotus: Letters to a Dead Trappist

Dedicated to Thomas Merton


When I placed a stone on my tongue, a friend told me
not to be too hard on myself, as if the stone were in my hand
and I was using it to bash my head. But my mouth is not gored,
wind and sand have worn the stone's edges smooth, so I did not
try to explain, and the rock in my mouth didn't even whimper.
I have been talking for decades now, and maybe my voice
is nothing in the sea of words, just one more small abrasion
but my friends' ears must be ringing and what have I said?
If silence is more awkward than speech, it is because finally
we feel the weight that is always on our tongues. So I am
a slow learner and need a reminder to become quiet and
even then, my thoughts run like a deep spring. If I cannot go
into the desert to become a hermit, I will take the desert
into my mouth and begin to practice with friends.

Born in Minot, North Dakota in 1970, Lisa Gill now makes her home in Moriarty, New Mexico with her two dogs. Her first book, Red as a Lotus: Letters to a Dead Trappist consists of 100 poems dedicated to Thomas Merton. Her second book, Mortar & Pestle is a response to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Recently, she premiered Caput Nili, a one-woman show addressing violence and its ramifications. Frequently collaborating with artists and musicians, publishing in journals like the Blue Collar Review, recording on the Zerx label, and editing the Donkey Journal, Lisa also developed The Poet's Diner, a form where poetry is ordered off a menu and served table-side. She currently coordinates Line Break (a poetry segment on KUNM 89.9FM) and has just returned to the University of New Mexico to earn her MFA in poetry.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

I received my first rejection letter when I was twelve. I documented it in my journal, then wrote one more sentence before signing and dating it. I wrote: I will be published yet. Since then, many things have happened to both humble and hearten my resolve to write poems and put them into the world. In my twenties, my health became complicated. Eventually I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder and multiple sclerosis and had to resort to subsisting on Social Security Disability. If I haven't been stable enough to hold down nine-to-five jobs, I have, nonetheless, been "working," doggedly doing what I love, what I am best equipped for -- writing, organizing, editing -- work that rarely achieves monetary compensation. After hundreds of readings and two books, I finally mustered up the gumption to return to school to earn my MFA and started to believe that I might actually be able to find a niche in this world.

When Dana Gioia called to say that I'd won an NEA Fellowship in Literature, my faith burgeoned. My first coherent thought was, "Oh my god, I'm going to be able to get off disability." What that means to me is dignity. Now instead of receiving money for disability, I'm going to receive money for ability. I'll be able to pursue my next book with my spirit and identity bolstered. I'll be able to follow my dreams -- literally. Last year I dreamt I carried a manuscript to Ocosingo. I'd never heard of Ocosingo, so in the morning I tried to figure out if it existed. I found out from a friend that it's in Chiapas. Now I'm writing Dream Kinematics -- poems exploring the intersection of dreams and reality -- and I intend, quite simply, to carry my manuscript (once it's completed) to Ocosingo and see what happens.

Before that though, I'm going to call the Division of Vocational Rehab in Moriarty and say, for the record, "Poetry is rehabilitating me."