In addition to being an acclaimed poet and the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a Writer’s at Work Prize, as well as a finalist for The Colorado Prize and The Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award, Gabrielle Glancy is also an independent college counselor and college process guru who, for nearly thirty years, has helped guide thousands of students through the arduous process of applying and getting accepted at the college of their dreams. A former Admissions Director, Glancy founded New Vision Learning and, in 2014, published The Art of the College Essay and edited The Best College Essays of 2014. Meanwhile, her poetry has been published in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, The Paris Review and other prestigious magazines and anthologies.
Glancy’s new book, I’m Already Disturbed Please Come In: Parasites, Social Media and Other Planetary Disturbances was released today by Oneiric Press. Equal parts memoir, medical mystery and meditation on the strange world of social media, the book is a harrowing account of Glancy’s experience fighting a frightening undiagnosed illness. Finding grace and levity in her struggle, Glancy provides a strikingly original look at the American health care system.
To learn more about Glancy and her work, visit www.gabrielleglancy.com.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
I had a varied, not always stable, but always interesting childhood. What it lacked in money, it made up for in love and freedom. My parents split before I could remember. A single mom herself, my mother taught high school English and went to graduate school when I was young. She was the first and only one in her family to go to college. An artist at heart. My biological father taught French (hence the name, Gabrielle!) and was a fairly well-known photographer who lived out the last thirty years of his life in Paris. Influenced by Lisette Model and Diane Arbus (with whom he studied), he was known for his photographs of people on the beach in Coney Island.
We lived with my maternal grandmother and grandfather who had emigrated from Russia in the early 1900s. Yiddish, Russian, German and English were spoken in the house. I thought it was all one language. We lived in Sea Gate, a tiny, gated community on the tip of Coney Island at the base of the Verrazano Bridge. Completely surrounded by water, Sea Gate was recently decimated by Hurricane Sandy. Whenever an ocean liner passed through the narrows of New York Harbor, we would have to clear the beach because there would be “tidal waves.”
As a young child, even four years old, I was sent out in the morning to play and did not really return until dinner time. Because Sea Gate was gated, even though there was a ghetto on the other side of the fence, there was a freedom there that was quite unusual. Sea Gate was the home of many artists and intellectuals in the early 1900’s and a resort for the wealthy. There were some really big houses near where we lived. My grandfather built the house we lived in and the two tiny houses next door, as well as the synagogue down the street. We lived in the smallest, least appealing house in the whole community, had very little money, and our kitchen window looked out onto a chain link fence and the slums on the other side of it.
My grandmother was a radical. She refused to pay the three dollars they were charging for the private beach. “The ocean is free,” she said. And consequently, we walked for miles, outside the fence, to the public beach, which was “for the people.” My grandmother’s best friend, Sarah King, was the maid of people who lived down the street, whose daughter was my first and is my oldest friend. Sarah King’s son was the first black man accepted at Harvard. Coney Island beach was made famous by the photographer Weegee whose photograph shows so many people, you can’t even see the sand. I went to the beach every day of my life, rain or shine, winter or summer. I basically lived on the beach. Like Woody Allen, our house was, for all practical purposes, under the Cyclone, the famous Coney Island roller coaster. As a child, I would stand under it and catch the change that had fallen out of people’s pockets. There was often a cyclone inside the house as well, as my grandmother and grandfather did not get along at all.
My grandfather had a wild imagination, was very creative, fun, interesting – sometimes violent – and I see now, pretty crazy. He was also very affectionate, sometimes inappropriately so. From him, I got my love of the whimsical, my sense of humor and probably a distrust of men I carry with me today.
I was always very verbal and inquisitive, had more energy than anyone knew had to deal with, coupled with a great sensitivity which would eventually lead me to a lifelong love affair with music, reading and writing. I also have always had a rich inner life and a kind of homespun spirituality, from a very young age.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
I have been influenced by different people at different times. I do not seem to be capable of reading without picking up a pen (or a keyboard) and writing myself. For me, there’s a very fine line between reading and writing. Over the years, I have read and emulated: Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, Grace Paley (with whom I studied), Donald Barthelme, Nabokov, Walt Whitman, Marguerite Duras, Andre Breton, the French surrealist poets, the work of friends and peers, Wayne Koestenbaum, Alison Bechtel, Clifford Chase, Michael Pollan. I also read a lot of non-fiction – architecture, cosmology, quantum and particle theory, memoir. Chang in a Void Moon, an episodic play by John Jesuran, also influenced me a lot.
From your perspective, what distinguishes great poetry from average or mediocre poetry?
Great poetry seamlessly marries music and message so that you don’t even know why or how it moves you or why you want to read or say it over and over again, you just do!
What is the most rewarding aspect of helping students with the college application process?
The college application process is one of the most significant and most overlooked rites of passage in our world today. Here are seventeen year olds, looking over the precipice, at the crossroads of their future. It’s such an amazing and important moment. I love helping students find themselves and find their own voices in the process of finding their path.
What inspired you to create New Vision Learning?
After twenty-five years of teaching high school English, and college and graduate school Creative Writing, as well as working in Admissions, I was looking for a way to work with students, in a deep and meaningful way, at what I do best, outside the box. Founding New Vision Learning is one of the best things I’ve ever done.
When did you first experience the medical symptoms you discuss in I’m Already Disturbed Please Come In, and what did you initially think might be the cause?
About five years ago, I had very very bad bronchitis that, because I also have asthma (which only kicks up when I have bronchitis), landed me in the ER. In addition to putting me on an Albuterol nebulizer, they started me on a course of prednisone. A few weeks after I got out of the hospital, I started feeling “strange.” I began having the symptoms described in the book – my stomach would blow up and get hard so I couldn’t breathe and I would start to lose consciousness. I had palpitations, feelings of near-fainting a lot of the time. Because these symptoms seemed to be neurological and cardiological – and because the brain and the heart are so central – my doctor(s) sent me to neurologists and cardiologists first. I kept saying that I felt like something was eating me up, but no one listened because my stomach symptoms seemed so much less dangerous than my other symptoms.
What effect did your ordeal have on your opinion of the medical industry?
Is that a rhetorical question? ;-) I have a deep love and respect for doctors, nurses and paramedics. I almost became a doctor myself. I was a premed English major. But because of the way doctors are trained and the way the medical industry is run, it’s not only ineffective, it’s dangerous. Even if you’re articulate, attractive and intelligent, it is such a struggle to get anyone to listen to you, which is the very first, and most important step, in treating anyone. Over and over, I said, “I feel possessed, like something’s eating me from the inside,” and no one listened. They looked at me as if I were crazy. “Uh, huh,” they said. “Right, Ms. Glancy. Okay, well, let’s get you tested for epilepsy.” The first question doctors should ask is, “What do YOU think is wrong with you?” because patients, if they look deeply enough inside, will probably have the answer, or a clue that will lead to the answer. It’s very sad and very upsetting. I wrote this book, in part, to expose what goes on behind closed doors. I also realized that what was happening to me was universal. Human unconsciousness is destroying not only our bodies, but the planet – and what I saw is that they are intimately connected. What we have done to the environment is showing up in our bodies.
In your book, you discuss escaping into the world of Facebook during your illness. What aspects of social media were you most fascinated by at the time?
I wouldn’t say that I was fascinated by Facebook. I would say I was addicted. And that’s the point. Like a virus, or a drug, the effects of social media are more than you realize. It’s happening under the surface of consciousness. It doesn’t always make you feel good, but you keep doing it. Suddenly, you feel depressed. You are connected and disconnected all at the same time. Here you are part of such a big and interesting community! Except you don’t know half of your “friends” and you don’t ever see them. Everyone else seems to be happy, having holidays with their families in beautiful places, getting engaged, living it up. And here you are, flipping through posts, unable to do much more than move your mouse. There were times that’s all I could do because I was too weak to do anything else. It’s like packaged, frozen dinners. I was too tired to cook and there it was, easily accessible. It’s how I got my news, of people and the world, skewed as it is. It’s like moving in and out of a dream world — in this case, a collective consciousness or unconsciousness — which I was kind of doing anyway, as I was moving in and out of consciousness. Here is one friend, in hip boots, fishing in the Colorado river. Cut to an image of an elephant in utero. Cut to news that one of your oldest friends, with whom you had lost touch, has died. It’s like Dadaism. It’s downright surreal! As I started collecting screenshots of whatever caught my fancy, I saw that what I was collecting said more about me than about whatever was in the post. My file of screenshots was a mirror of my inner life, just as the erosion of my intestinal lining was a mirror of the erosion of the ozone. And I saw that what we are doing to our planet, out there, we are doing to ourselves, in here, and vice versa — on macro and micro levels. I saw that Facebook was like a virus or parasite (you know the expression, it went viral!) and that it is having an effect on the social fabric of our world. I began to see all these parallels. Something about moving in and out of consciousness myself somehow made me more conscious.
How did your medical issues change your outlook or approach to life?
I have become extremely conscious of what I put in my mouth, how I live, what I do, what effect my actions have on the environment, and I have become an advocate for reform in medicine as well as for healing of the planet.
If you could change one thing about the world or modern society, what would it be?
You know, there are so many things that need remedying in our world. Probably first and foremost, I would eradicate hate; I would distribute wealth; I would turn back the clock on climate change; I would clean up the oceans; I would break down the walls that divide people; I would re-educate doctors and revamp the health care system and make it affordable and effective for every single person. . . But short of that ;-), I guess I would try to raise consciousness, starting with my own — and hope that helps.
What are you working on next?
I have five books of poetry that I wrote in the years when I was Rip Van Winkle which I’d like to bring out into the light of day. They’re already written; they just need a publisher. No fault of the books themselves. For almost twenty-five years, right after I had a poem in The New Yorker, I went underground. I kept writing, but I no longer sent work out. Some of the poems in these books have won great awards, but I just didn’t have the stomach for the marketplace, so they sat in a pile under my desk. Recently, I’ve woken up from a very long sleep and am ready to take my place in the world of letters, so to speak. My next book is called You Can’t Make This Stuff Up and it’s about my long, long journey to motherhood, gun violence and corruption in America and the crazy things in life we take for granted.