Thursday, May 19, 2011

Interview Series: Evan J. Peterson

One of my favorite parts of my blog is the interview series I started in January. Each month, I have interviewed a different emerging GLBT poet and each one has made me think and question my own ideas about poetry. I’ve gotten a great response from all of the interviews. You can check out past interviews under the "interview series" tab at the top of the page.

This is my fifth one and it features a conversation with Evan J. Peterson. Evan was a peer of mine at FSU during my MFA program. He currently lives in Seattle and had some great perspectives to share. I hope you enjoy our chat.

Stephen: How did you first come to poetry? How and when did you know you were a poet?

Evan: My mother read poetry to me when I was a small child, lots of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. I started creating my own, either through vocal rhyming or on the page. I'm also a musical person, finding rhythms and singing when I'm happy. Then I became absorbed into prosey free verse, and it wasn't until very recently that I began exploring music and rhyme in my poetry again.

S: We first met at Florida State University while we were both getting our MFAs. What made you decide to get your MFA and what was your experience like at FSU?

E: I went for an MFA because the "real" world is boring and, to most spiritualities, complete illusion and soul-detritus anyway. I wanted to create a life that immersed me in the creation and experience of hot literature. If that means teaching it, so be it. If it means working for a nonprofit while I write and read, that's cool too.

I had a great experience at FSU. I was surrounded by brilliant friends and mentors who live to write and read, and although Tallahassee isn't Seattle, it's not culturally desolate either.

S: The “real” world is boring is a pretty good reason. I like that. I wanted to interview you because your work is quite different from mine and from really everyone’s I’ve interviewed so far. Some might classify your work as more experimental. You often play with forms and splicing things together. How do you describe your own work?

E: I like to have fun and be open when I write. I've always tried different forms to see what they'll yield, but things became extra outrĂ© when I began the Frankenstein project and the Monster became the speaker. Experiments, fragmentation, and discomfort are his condition, so many of the poems reflect that. If a poem wants to be a series of broken images and decontextualized film quotes, I let it be, so the readers are made as uncomfortable as the speaker. At the same time, I take care to be precise when being experimental so as not to alienate the readers utterly, just have them sympathize with the alienation of the Monster. It's like a date—I want to be intriguing, not inscrutable. Heaven help me if I ever become impenetrable.

To connect this to your other interviewees, I tend to make the forms queer, rather than talking about gay politics and other topical matters. I tend to downplay the subject of queer culture in favor of presenting something more visceral. The Monster has one female breast. That's pretty queer.

S: Yes, that is pretty queer. This is a great example of the diversity of queerness and queer poetry. The idea of comfort plays a strong role in my work as well, but more so within the content than with the form, so I find this very interesting.

As you know and as my readers know, I have a great interest in the use of pop culture in poetry. From my experience with your work, you seem influenced by pop culture and, in particular, film. How did this come about and how does that influence work in your poetry?

E: I'm a fanatical acolyte of the Cult of the Image. My father is a photographer, my mother a librarian. I want to create provocative pictures in my readers' imaginations. All senses preferably, but visual imagery is the way we transform sounds/words into pictures. Magic. So pop music, film, myths, comics, larger-than-life characters and situations propel my work. I just started a series of ekphrastic poems inspired by Nick Cave's soundsuits—divine.

The Frankenstein manuscript contains quite a few poems in which the Monster reviews and responds to monster movies, some of which feature him as a character. Some of these are collected in prose form as an experimental fiction piece coming out soon in Weird Tales magazine. I wanted that meta element of this classic literary character commenting on his portrayal by Hollywood. It further disorients him to evolve from a creature of literature into one of film. He also responds to other classic movie monsters, including the Golem, the Fly, and Joan Crawford.

S: As someone who loves the “meta element” and pop culture in poetry, those poems sound amazing.

You’ve spent a good portion of your life in Florida, but now live in Seattle. How do the poetry scenes differ and what has your experience been like out there?

E: I've been rolling this question around in my mouth, wondering how to answer it. Their differences are subtle yet distinct. Seattle is far whiter than Florida, so that has directly influenced the nature of local poetry. I firmly believe that most white Americans appreciate poetry much less frequently than other ethnicities and other nationalities. But here's the curious part: Seattle has a huge poetry scene, bigger certainly than Miami. Less African American, Latin, and Caribbean influence, but the literature is uplifted. It is no exaggeration to say that in any given week, there are more poetry events than I can attend, often on the same night. Maybe it's the Asian influence? And yes, I'm being reductive and bordering on racial discrimination, but fuck it. White Americans don't read as much poetry as we should. Other nationalities and ethnicities invest more in poetry. It's a fact.

Now having said all that, I am immensely grateful to people and organizations like Brian McGuigan, Ela Barton, Josie Davis, Jenise Silva, and Richard Hugo House for continually tapping me for public readings. And they're just a fraction of people keeping literature thriving in Seattle.

S: I have to say I am rather jealous. I’ve spent the last three years in Orlando, which is not exactly a great place for poetry. I know from reading your blog and seeing your Facebook updates, you seem to do a lot of readings or performances of your poetry. What value do you place on doing these readings?

E: Well then, Stephen, if there's a drought of poetry in your city, I dare you to create more poetry events in town.

I place immense value on readings. I live in a place where poetry isn't merely read, it's experienced live all the time. Several people here treat poetry like a religion, and that makes me into an evangelist of sorts. People dig what I do on stage, and so I go the extra mile to make the audience glad that they attended. It comes back to the pop culture topic: why shouldn't poetry be entertaining as well as intellectual? I like gaining new fans of my own work, but the greatest value of live readings is to convert the merely curious into avid poetry fans. They connect in ways they may not have on the page.

S: I couldn’t agree more. I love exposing people to poetry that they didn’t know existed. So many people have such a narrow view of poetry and public readings really can help change that.

As you’ve mentioned, you have a completed manuscript that you are shopping around that is themed around Frankenstein. Could you speak a little bit about how that came into fruition?

E: I had never read Frankenstein, and I was on a road trip listening to it on cd. I found so much empathy with the Monster. At the time, I was re-experiencing some emotional garbage that had been dumped on me by various people over the years. Things had happened to my body and my spirit that I could relate to the monster within a relatively thin veil of metaphor. It all clicked together. I dropped the project I'd been working on and immersed myself in monsters. This remything of myself helped me to put the past behind me as the monster does. There's no magical happy resolution in the book, but there is relief and peace. My life is quite happy now, to be sure.

Even though we get the Monster's side of the story in Shelley's book, it's filtered. It's Shelley's version of Walton's version of Victor's version of the Monster's story. And with the two hundred years of culture, philosophy, and science that have emerged since Shelley's fable, the project just kept giving me new facets to explore. There's so much there to write about and extrapolate and embellish. I worked diligently to keep the poems from becoming repetitive.

S: It sounds like a great project. I love the combination of themes and taking a piece of classic literature and reexamining it.

Moving in a slightly different direction: If a cute young gay man came up to you and told you he wanted to be a poet, what advice would you give him?

E: Read voraciously. Write every day if you can, whether you feel like it or not. Especially when you don't feel like it. And, if he's indeed privileged to be "cute," I'd advise him to work his charm and sex appeal. Don't play people, and be kind and gracious to everyone, but be as monster-truckin' adorable as you can. And be audacious. As wary as I am of quoting Madonna, she has an excellent observation in her little Sex book: "Most people don't ask for what they want. This is why most people don't get what they want." I always ask for what I want, and a delicious amount of the time, I get it.

S: That’s pretty good advice. I can say that social networking sites, which allow more people to view photos of you, have helped me get published and I’m not ashamed to say it.

E: Right? And if someone doesn't feel cute by common standards, I say be adorable in other ways. If you only have one eye, a gold eyepatch covered in rhinestones never hurt anyone's chances of getting readings and publications. Just look what it did for James Joyce. I saw Nomi Lamm live, and she happens to be obese and missing a leg. She came out in a tutu, a tiara, and a drawn-on Dali mustache and read her ass off. I was in love. Love, I tell you!

S: Who are your greatest influences?

E: David Bowie. Marc Bolan. Prince. Bjork. Leigh Bowery. Peaches. Did you mean page poets? Allen Ginsberg. Sylvia Plath. D. A. Powell. Clive Barker. Oscar Wilde. And my poetic godparents, David Kirby and Barbara Hamby.

S: You currently teach at some community colleges in Seattle and I know you taught at FSU. When you teach poetry, how do you approach it? What are the challenges? Where do you start?

E: I try to approach poetry with immense openness and gusto. I present it as a feast, and students aren't obliged to like everything, only try everything I suggest. I start with emphasis on concrete imagery, then I stress imagination, boldness, and experimentation. Forms, tone, and other elements of precision are then applied to the raw gold we've brought through. I suppose the greatest challenge is creating a supportive and reliable community in a classroom full of artists. Writer's block, flakiness, paralyzing self-criticism; these are the main challenges that students bring, but I can relate to them. I try to be supportive.

S: Now for some fun: What poet(s) dead or live would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?

E: Arthur Rimbaud. I would absolutely teach him new levels of synesthesia. I bet Aleister Crowley would've been a fun hookup, too. As far as the living, we've got some stunningly handsome queer men on the scene. Charles Jensen. Alex Dimitrov. Matthew Hittinger. I just met Randall Mann, who is so gorgeous I can't even stand it. I had a cold the night I met him, and I was a mess. It was tragic.

"What kind" is strictly need-to-know. I'm rather modest for a poet. Also, I never dish anything on the net that I wouldn't want my dean, students, or mother to read. Call me if you'd really like to know.

S: Randall Mann is quite gorgeous. I lost my modesty somewhere and can’t seem to find it. I’ll dish anywhere. What is something that you absolutely love that would surprise most people?

E: Domesticity. The feeling of security and ease. I'd like to be permanently coupled in the not-too-distant future. That's the most shocking thing I adore—heteronormative family life.

S: If you could take any poem and turn it into a film, what poem would you pick and why?

E: "Lady Lazarus" by Plath. This was the poem that ripped my face off and taught me that horror was a viable genre for poetry. Sure, we have Poe, but he's often fetishized to the exclusion of other horror poetry. If you know a young person who is crazy about Poe, get them to read Plath or Charles Simic or whomever you want to recommend.

S: What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?

E: "Howl" for sure. I've mainlined that poem for years when I've needed inspiration (aesthetic inspiration as well as Ginsberg's boldness and diligence).

S: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic?

E: Patrick Wolf. We have similar speaking voices, similar singing voices, and similar facial structure. And he's a hot ginger fairy. He could play you too. And if we can't get him, just get James Franco to do it. He plays every gay poet now anyway. He'll be playing Reginald Shepherd before we know it.

S: I think James Franco is also doing a Maya Angelou bio-pic, should be interesting. Lastly, what are you currently working on?

E: Getting this sucker published! I feel creatively inspired, but I have to focus on sending this dark little manuscript out as well.

My new poems are the opposite emotional direction. They're filled with ecstasy at the fertile world, magic, myths, and genuine optimism. I'm also developing a novel about gay superheroes in love. I'm all about growing and loving and the bright sensory pleasures of the world right now. Meanwhile, rainy Seattle continues to be the Year Without A Summer. It worked for Mary Shelley. It'll work for me.

S: Good luck with all of that and thanks for taking with me.

-Stephen (Q&A)


  1. Another interesting profile. Thanks!
    C :)

  2. FSU poets are gonna rule the world soon, I am convinced. Great interview, as usual, and I am so happy to hear what Evan is up to these days. I'm re-reading Frankenstein for my exams right now, and I love it so much. Can't wait to read the project!

  3. Whew. This interview was better than porn. I was right there and then the Franco-as-Angelou thing took me over the edge. I'm glad to know Evan a little better. Great responses and great dialogue. Thanks SSM!

  4. This interview is making me consider the extent to which minorities have a drive to create art and non-minorities have a drive to consume it.

  5. It is not my purpose to get into a religious discussion here, I only site the on top of because it tends to illustrate my earlier point of a gay lobby and a strong "gay agenda.