It is hard to believe that summer is almost over and that today's post marks my 8th interview of 2011. I began this interview series with the goal of interviewing young and emerging GLBT poets. In some ways, I've felt limited by my own parameters, which is why this interview is with a poet some could call emerging, but a poet that is in his 50s. I felt his perspective and journey to his first book was worthy of an interview.
My August poet is Christopher Stephen Soden. His first collection, Closer, was recently released by Queer Mojo. For anyone interested, he is offering a free signed copy of his book. To enter in the drawing, comment on this interview and leave your name and email address. I will select a winner at random and you will be mailed your own copy of his book. You must comment and enter by 11:59 PM EST on Wednesday, August 31st. But first, enjoy this conversation!
S: My interview series has primarily focused on young GLBT poets that are classified as “emerging.” You are an older man, but, from my knowledge, have more recently emerged onto the poetry scene. Your first book, Closer, was just released and just last year you participated in the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices. How did you come to poetry? Is it something you’ve always written? Was there a catalyst for your emergence?
C: In high school I dabbled somewhat in poetry, while studying theatre and acting. In my Freshman year at SMU, I was a theatre major. My second semester (having placed out of Composition 101) I enrolled in a Poetry Workshop, taught by the late Jack Myers, where I was truly introduced to the power, depth and poignancy of contemporary poetry. Writers like Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Phillip Levine and Louise Glück left me breathless and overwhelmed. At the end of the semester Jack said he needed to speak to me in his office. With my usual self-esteem issues, I was certain he was going to banish me. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “ This is what you need to be doing with your life.” By that time I was so overcome by the possibilities of that medium, it didn’t take any more convincing. Jack became my mentor.
S: Mentors can be very valuable. Since it sounds like you’ve been writing poetry for quite some time, how do you define where you are in your poetry career?
C: Well, I’ve been publishing all along, and writing avidly since I was 18 (I turned 53 in May) so needless to say, a first collection of poetry is a big step, and I’d hoped it would happen sooner. One hesitates to speculate about these things. I mean, we’re all on a different timeline, when it comes to our evolution as artists, and there are pieces in Closer that were written very early in my vocation. I’ve entered first book contests and queried publishers for many years, so there are times when I’ve wondered if content was a problem for some of these venues, but I guess we’ll never know. The world seems far less homophobic today than it was in the 70’s and 80’s, etc… Or maybe our proponents have become more vocal and fearless. That being said, there can be all kinds of reasons why a particular writer doesn’t catch on right away, and forces at work far beyond our control. I had been disappointed so many times, when Sven Davisson expressed interest in my work, I had to check my optimism. I pretty much held my breath until the first copies of Closer arrived at my door. Like any other serious poet, I want to publish numerous collections. (At least I have a formidable backlog.) I want to continue to grow and improve. One thing I’ve noticed about the successful writers I’ve met, none of them believed they’d reached some plateau or zenith.
S: Your prospective and journey is a valuable one and one reason I wanted to include you in this series. I’m originally from the Midwest, but after I left the area a good portion of my family moved to Texas and live in Houston. I’ve been quite a few times over the last few years. You are a Texan native and I wondered what it was like growing up as a gay man in Texas and how, or if, Texas plays a role in your poetry?
C: I suppose this won’t be a blinding revelation, but in the early 60’s , when it came to issues of tolerance and progressive thinking, Texas was hardly leading the way. Despite the fact that we have one of the largest LGBT Communities in the country, I’m not sure how far we’ve come since then. When I was a kid, gay people were only discussed in whispers, and the predominant thinking seemed to be that if you were a “homosexual” that meant you were either : mentally ill, a degenerate or both. Since I knew I was neither of those, I was in complete denial. And when I did succumb to homoerotic fantasies, it filled me with self-loathing and guilt. I had the misfortune of springing a boner in the locker room and most of my life in junior high was miserable.
I suspect that if I had been okay with my queer virility I’d have addressed other issues in my poetry. How do I explain? Some of my poetry serves as tool for exploration of queer maleness and a sense of exuberance. Some doesn’t. Because I felt so conflicted it influenced much of my work. It was an act of self-reconciliation.
S: That’s an interesting way to look at it. One of my favorite poems in your collection was one called “Little Red Riding Hood.” I love the imagery and wonderful strangeness of the poem. I’ve written some poems myself that use fairy tales as jumping off points. Could you say a bit about how this poem came into being?
C: My first exposure to Fairy Tale poetry was Louise Glück ‘s “Gretel in Darkness.” Or perhaps Susan Mitchell’s “From the Journals of the Frog Prince.” That one, especially, knocked me on my ass. I found myself intrigued and electrified. There are many interpretive pieces written on Little Red Riding Hood (Uses of Enchantment is great!) and I’d read that her cloak is a menstruation symbol. So when I wrote the poem, I knew I wanted to start with that, but I also knew I wanted to focus on the wolf’s story.
S: It’s a great poem. From reading your book, I noticed in a few poems this “piling up” of phrases or descriptions normally connected with a lot of “ands” or commas. It gave the poems an interesting effect. Could you speak about this technique a bit? I particularly noticed it in the second poem in the collection “The World in a Book of Matches.”
C: Yes, it’s less grammatically efficient, but occasionally I do that because it can create a kind of exponential energy. Playwrights will sometimes use this approach in a monologue. I like lists, and I love the way (for instance) that Gertrude Stein is able to achieve power through repetition. But she makes it look easy, and if you aren’t meticulous, it just comes off as a gimmick. Sometimes, if I get it right, using superfluous “ands” can be an informal way of cultivating urgency and (dare I say?) a kind of muted hysteria. I don’t think a poem must necessarily cleave to the rules of grammar to be effective or cogent.
S: I also enjoy listing and feel it can add greatly to the overall feel of a poem. I’m currently in the process of having my first book published and I’m thinking about cover art, so I wanted to ask you about the cover of your book. How was this image selected? What role did you play in that?
C: It’s actually kind of a funny story. Sven sent me several sample covers and they just weren’t quite working for me. I noticed the photo art website link, so I went there and started “shopping around.” Since the title poem takes place in a shower, I started with artistic nude photos of men bathing. None of them were graphic. Then I broadened it to pairs of men in general. I wound up, apologetically, sending Sven 80 different photographs. He was very good-natured about it. He narrowed those down to 6, and we both agreed on the final photo right away. It’s kind of eye-catching, no?
S: Yes, it is. I was particularly moved by your poem “Propositions.” I’m a big animal lover, so that’s what first struck me about the poem, but it’s really so beautifully constructed and speaks to something very human. How did this poem come into being?
C: Well, it was inspired by our Siamese cat, Coco. When she was in heat, the tomcats would surround our house very late at night, making those enervating, ghastly, “come hither” cries and it was chilling and annoying. Of course, this meant Coco wanted to go out, and there was absolutely no way that was going to happen. It got me to thinking how, despite the danger, there’s always something a bit exciting and tantalizing about the idea of connecting with strangers, for purely sexual reasons. Certainly there were very practical reasons for not succumbing to my cat’s pleas, but I had to wonder if personal experience (or guilt) wasn’t involved in my protective impulses.
S: If someone came up to you who hasn’t read much poetry, what is the one book you would tell them they have to read first?
C: If I knew nothing else about them, I would recommend Ashes : Poems New and Old by Philip Levine. Levine does most everything right, and is very accessible and exhilarating. There is a density beyond his narratives that emerges on closer inspection, but when someone is starting out, it helps to give them something that excites them right away. If it were a gay friend, I’d probably suggest something by Mark Doty, like Bethlehem in Broad Daylight or Fire to Fire, for the sake of inspiration. Both Doty and Levine are excellent craftsman, and they’re not especially interested in being elusive.
S: You graduated with your MFA in poetry from Vermont College in 2005. What was your MFA experience like and what did you gain from it as a poet?
C: It was validating, absorbing and useful. It built up my confidence and encouraged me to believe in my scholarly abilities. I learned how to analyze poetry and write a comprehensive thesis without feeling intimidated or stymied. Most of the established poets I worked with there were forthright and genuine advocates for my ability and quite plainspoken about my strengths and weaknesses. If this sort of feedback is offered in the right spirit, it can really be tremendously liberating. Until you become part of an academic setting, you imagine it as some kind of intellectual Utopia, but it has the same foibles and blind spots as any other community. Earning my MFA is one of the best things I’ve ever done. On the downside I fell in love with a straight guy and really thought I’d never recover. Strychnine would have been smarter.
S: You participated in the Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices last year. What was that experience like and did it influence your work?
C: Well, of course, any gathering of LGBT folk in one place can be tremendously nurturing and a relief. At the time I went I was still recovering from some personal catastrophes and I was something of a basket case. I couldn’t sleep. I kept waiting for something terrible to happen and it never did. That being said, I felt very welcomed and embraced and respected and understood. As if I were entering a group of people who were already my friends. And they were. The first night we went around the circle talking about why we were there, and what we hoped to get from our experience. I was last and spoke about the cowardice and hubris of those who persecute our tribe. I didn’t get very much out before I burst into tears. Everyone was so empathetic and comforting. My time there certainly sparked vehemence and frankness in writing. Well. Even more than before. Some of my lesbian sisters there put my sexual content to shame.
S: It sounds like a powerful experience. From that experience and your others, how would you classify the state of gay and lesbian poetry in America?
C: I think we’re fortunate in the sense that we’re already perceived by so many as anarchists and fringe dwellers, that it makes it easier to be audacious and frank. And those are great qualities for any artist to possess. I think the state of gay and lesbian poetry is quite marvelous because we make room for such a wide variety of voices. You have Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery for erudition, Mary Oliver who is articulate, spiritual and rarely addresses gender issues, Gertrude Stein for the avant-garde, the late Reginald Shepherd (who made me swoon) and the trenchant satire of Edward Field. We have everything from the blasphemous to the sublime. And that’s exactly as it should be.
S: Now for some fun: What poet(s) dead or alive would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?
C: How about a circle jerk with : D.H. Lawrence, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Whitman, Frank O’Hara and Thom Gunn?
S: Sounds hot to me. What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?
C: “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath
S: Who are a few artists who would appear on the soundtrack to Closer?
C: Patti Smith, Phillip Glass, Billie Holliday, David Bowie, Green Day, Adam Lambert, Michael Stipe, Joni Mitchell, U2, Sam Cooke and Talking Heads?
S: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic?
C: Jake Gyllenhaal
S: I love him. Lastly, what are you currently working on?
C: Theatre and film critique, a second poetry collection, plays, including a contemporary version of Medea.
S: Sounds like you have plenty on your plate. Good luck with it all and thank you for talking with me.