Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Interview Series: D. Gilson

It is officially fall, which is my favorite time of the year (even though I live in Florida where we don’t really have a true fall). Since I’ve spent most of my life living in the north, I still picture beautiful trees changing all different colors and can still feel that first morning of cool, crisp air. Fall also makes me think of reading and spending a slightly cool, but beautiful day with a book of poems in my hands or sitting down at my computer with a cup of pumpkin spiced coffee and reading another interview with an emerging GLBT poet.

This month my interview is with the young and talented D. Gilson. He was truly a pleasure to talk with and brought great perspectives and ideas about poetry to my blog. Enjoy our conversation. I did.

S: What got you into poetry? Can you pinpoint the moment when you realized you were a poet?

D: Thanks for having me, Stephen! It’s an honor.

Reading, absolutely, got me into poetry. My mom was head nurse at a nursing home and so every day for a few years, the years when I was learning to read, I would spend a couple of hours after school among the residents there. Mr. Williams was this exotic figure, a drama teacher from New York back in Missouri, dying, with whom I would watch Designing Women every afternoon. Then I’d read to him from this crazy collection of books…he was going blind. I would stumble through words; he’d ask me to spell them out and then teach me to pronounce them. Through some miracle of memory, I know we read O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. My parents, although fiercely religious, were also veracious readers. I didn’t excel at sports or in the Boy Scouts, so I really connected to them through reading—and god, I’m pretty much a cliché here.

So when I went to college, I was deadest on going to law school and then working for the State Department; but I wasn’t cutting it in that field whatsoever. I took a poetry class by chance and the professor encouraged me. In his memoir Becoming a Man, Paul Monette talks about his constantly going after the “A,” trying to please those in power over him. I totally relate to that and so hunkered down as an English major. What scared me, the closeted me at this point, was that the poems weren’t honest; they showed some technical ability, but were veiled things. Then a professor, Marcus Cafagna, to whom I’ll be forever grateful, asked us to write a persona poem. I wrote one from the perspective of my uncle, who had died of AIDS, and it was in that moment something clicked—in my mind, even if not aloud, I owned the titles of poet and queer in the same breath. Which also seems a bit of a cliché, though I suspect it’s one I share with many others.

S: I don’t know about cliché. That might be the best answer I’ve gotten to that question. Reading O’Hara with an old drama teacher in a nursing home in Missouri is a pretty great poetry moment.

I’m glad you mentioned the personal because that is something I wanted to ask you about. From the poems I’ve read of yours, you seem to write a lot about your personal experience including growing up as a gay boy and your relationship with your parents. How do you view the personal in poetry or the use of the “I”? Do you want readers to think of the “I” as you? Does it matter? Poets seem to vary greatly on this issue.

D: It doesn’t matter if someone sees the “I” as me or not. Most readers will, especially now, when we’re reading everything as biography. But in the case of my poems, the “I” is probably me about 75% of the time.

It seems, and this is a broad generalization, that lyric poetry uses the “I” far less often than narrative. Some poets—like Judith Vollmer or Nick Flynn, both of whom I love—accomplish things I cannot even fathom through an I-free or I-lite lyricism. But I have political reasons for using the “I.” For too long, queer writers had to mask themselves in lyricism…the strong, narrative “I” belonged to the white, heteronormative patriarchy. On many levels, on most levels, fuck that. There’s strength in not using the “I,” but for now, I’m exploring what can be accomplished with it.

S: I feel very similar about the issue. I’m drawn to the power of claiming the “I” and seeing where it can take me as a poet. Like you mentioned before, I also began writing poetry as a closeted young college boy and everything felt very false. There is power in writing strong narrative pieces that many readers will see as biography. A freedom even.

As you might know, one of my great areas of interest is the use of pop culture in poetry. You have a poem called “Driving Back to Missouri from New Orleans,” which focuses on the speaker wanting to see where Britney Spears grew up. Could you say a little bit about how this poem came into being and why you chose Britney Spears? What does she do for the poem?

D: Oh, Britney! I’m really interested in pop culture critically, too, so there’s that (we’ll have to talk!). I have a chapbook manuscript submitted right now, all poems—using? considering? fantasizing?—Britney, who is this fascinating image of celebrity on the constant rise and fall. I grew up in a stringent Pentecostal environment, so a lot of the movies or music I encountered for a long time were really restricted. But then in seventh grade, Britney came out with “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and became such a part of America that no one could shield me from her. And thank god! I’m romanticizing it, but for a gay boy in Nixa, Missouri, she was pure excess and camp. All the things the church taught us were wrong. She’s a metaphor for the era we find ourselves in, which clearly is so full of both beauty and sorrow.

So last fall I had Peter Oresick for workshop, who wrote this wonderful collection of poems about Andy Warhol, Warhol-o-roma. I wrote a sestina, “Britney Spears and I Pray the Apostles’ Creed,” and Peter pushed me to explore her as an intimate subject. It was a challenge, albeit a fun one, and I’m proud of the poems that came/are coming. It also allowed me to move out of the “I” a bit, to work on lyricism. And to watch a shit-ton of YouTube videos.

S: That’s a great answer and touches on many of the reasons I’m drawn to using pop culture in my work. It truly is a reflection of our society at different moments in time. For those around our age, Britney does represent celebrity in all its glory and destruction. It makes me think about O’Hara writing about Lana Turner.

I’ve been interviewing emerging GLBT poets all year, and I think you are the youngest one I’ve interviewed so far. Each generation is faced with different challenges and issues. From your perspective, what do you think the role of young gay poets should be? Are their issues we should be tackling?

D: Baby otter! I love that. There are things we should be tackling—we need to write the world where we can get married, have kids, be on equal footing in the workplace, etc, etc. BUT, we must not lose our queerness—the point is not to become straight after all. So maybe one mission is for us to flesh that out, being gay, uniquely and proudly so, but also claiming equality. In Newsweek Dan Savage said, “when it comes to gay rights, there’s two wars going on. The first war is political. But the culture war is over. Between Glee and Ellen and how integrated and accepted LGBT adults are, that’s done.” I disagree adamantly, and know poetry has a role to play in the ongoing culture war we face.

The generation I’m part of has a huge debt to our predecessors, a generation that fought bravely to live and love in the face of AIDS. There’s a huge divide in these generations, because so many men my age don’t have a personal experience there. My parents took care of my uncle as he was dying in the early nineties, so one thing I hope to accomplish is to speak with, as opposed to for, both generations. We can’t forget the genocide that faced us, because it continues to wage havoc, even if the media attention has waned. Young queer poets need to fight the apathy that plagues our generation in general. We have to fight apathy in these culture and political wars, yes, but also apathy toward our Art.

S: I’ve disagreed with Dan Savage on this blog before. Glad I’m not alone. I also think the culture war is still raging. Maybe Dan is satisfied by Glee, but I am not. We have a ways to go.

What do you consider to be your greatest poetry accomplishment or moment so far?

D: Sticking with it. That sounds hokey, but really, there’s plenty of distraction, even valid distraction, that can keep a boy from learning his craft. Because of that, I think the best is yet to come.

S: That’s a very honest answer and truly is one of the hardest things to accomplish. Who are the poets who most influence and inspire you?

D: So many! If there is one critique I have of MFA programs, it’s that they’re chockfull of students who resist reading, thinking it taints their own art. Bullshit. But I guess that’s a critique of students, not programs. And I should say that it’s not an accurate statement about my peers at Chatham, an environment that really encourages and teaches us how to value reading. More something I perceive from friends in other programs, the conversation online, discussions at conferences like AWP, and more general statistics on literary reading.

Again, so many, but here’s five heavy influences right now: David Trinidad, Randall Mann, Jennifer L. Knox, Joy Katz, and William Carlos Williams. Oh, and the nonfiction of Wayne Koestenbaum, who is definitely a model poet-essayist-critic.

S: It’s interesting that you say that about the students in certain MFA programs. I was recently discussing that issue. I didn’t find that to be true in my program, but as an instructor, I’ve seen so many students who don’t want to read, but want to be writers and this puzzles me greatly.

Speaking of reading, 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?

D: Something recent-ish, just to show them poetry is alive. Probably Tony Hoagland’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, which moves in and out of social critique well.

S: Hoagland is one of my favorite poets. He has a Britney Spears poem himself. I think it’s in that collection.

You are currently a teaching fellow at Chatham University. What is your approach to teaching? Do you teach poetry?

D: I love that Hoagland poem! In the Britney chapbook, there’s a poem with one of his lines, which I’ll send your way.

My teaching fellowship has me assisting Dr. Heather McNaugher, who is both a wonderful poet and a valuable, effective teacher (we need more like her in the world). This is a multi-genre, undergraduate course.

Personally, I don’t see how one can be a successful writer without being a successful reader. So, a lot of my approach centers on reading, whether teaching creative writing or composition. Finding models, both good and bad, for students to read and discuss. As a queer teacher, I think I’m also particularly consumed by how students acquire voice, how they are given the permission to write, to speak, to be. I found freedom on the page way before I did in my own life, so this is bringing my experience into the classroom, though hopefully in a positive way.

S: You are kind of creeping me out with how much you sound like me in some of these answers. I approach teaching writing in a very similar way. Read. Read. Read.

You also write creative non-fiction, correct? What draws you to writing non-fiction and poetry? Do you find them quite different or are there similarities?

D: We’re brethren! Correct. What draws me to nonfiction is the challenge; it’s harder for me. But also, it can accomplish different things than poetry—a challenge I faced in poetry was trying to get too much into a poem. Nonfiction opened a door. The biggest draw, however, is that I’m really interested in critical work, in pushing the envelope between literary/cultural criticism and creative nonfiction. That’s not impossible in poetry, far from it, but more accessibly fleshed out in the realm of prose.

There are beautiful possibilities in the similarities and marriage of nonfiction and poetry. Writers doing important work in the lyric essay—Sheryl St. Germain, whom I’m lucky to have as a mentor, and John D’agata, whom I get to hear read tonight—are in the business of genre mixing, or the breaking down of walls. We’ll all benefit from that, both as readers and writers. The Art benefits because the poetic lyric brings a moment of suspension that nonfiction can all-too-often lack.

S: I’m going to have to check those writers out.

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?

D: George Oppen. With Elizabeth Bishop narrating.

S: I want to see that or at least listen. What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?

D: “For Grace, After a Party” by Frank O’Hara is my favorite poem, though “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought” by Andrew Hudgins is probably the poem I wish I’d written most.

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

D: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in glasses, with Ira Glass as omniscient narrator. And Peter Sarsgaard should play my boyfriend, both in the movie and in real life.

S: That would be amazing. What’s your favorite curse word or phrase?

D: Shit, but in a long, Southern drawl.

S: Lastly, what are you currently working on?

D: It’s a busy season, but a really fun one. My MFA thesis is coming together, but I’m also writing a lot of nonfiction. The mode of a lot of these projects is heavily influenced by the idea of artistic retrospectives—Pittsburgh has a strong museum culture, as does DC, where I’ve been spending a lot of time. I’m applying to PhD programs in literary and cultural studies, so those materials are also pretty consuming. But there’s still time to read, to see films and listen to Ke$ha. What more could a boy ask for?

S: Glad to know you still have time for Ke$ha. Thanks for talking with me.

-Stephen (Q&A)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

8 Years

Today is my 8 year anniversary with my partner, which is probably hard for you to believe. It's a little hard for me to believe. We met young (the picture to the right is one of our very first pictures), fell in love, and have kept things going for the last 8 years.

Dustin, my partner, truly knows me better than anyone in the whole world. He's changed my life and been there for me through a lot of ups and downs. Our relationship, like any lasting relationship, has changed and evolved over the years. We aren't the same boys we were when we met in the fall of my junior year of college. We aren't the same boys who packed everything up and moved 800 miles away from anyone we knew so I could pursue my graduate degree in creative writing at Florida State. And we aren't even the boys who moved to Orlando three years ago. We have grown into men together and have faced every challenge as a couple.

Our relationship is ours. We make our own rules. We treat each other as equals. We challenge each other. We understand each other. It works because we make it work and we both share a similar outlook on life. We have big plans in the next year that will change our lives even more and continue to make us evolve.

A week or two ago, I was sitting down to write my acknowledgements page and dedication page for my first book of poems, which comes out in March of 2012 from Sibling Rivalry Press. I've dedicated this book to Dustin. He is a huge part of my inspiration and is always willing to let me share our lives with anyone willing to read my poems. He's very brave and I'm not always easy to love (what poet is?).

I thought today I would post a poem on my blog. I don't do this often (I'm not really into self-publishing), but I'm making an exception today. This poem is one of my favorites that I have written about my relationship. I wrote it last summer while Dustin was in Indiana visiting his parents and taking an EMT class for three weeks. It is a good summary of who we are as a couple. It also serves as a good teaser for my upcoming book He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, which you should all buy in March. I hope you will enjoy reading it.

Missing You While Watching Misery

I’m the writer, but it’s you I imagine tied to the bed,

legs unable to move, trapped by a mad woman

like all the mad women of literature that have come

before her. I can see you planning your escape,

wheeling around the house, frantically storing knives

in your arm sling, and it would be just like you

to knock over that penguin and not think to place

it facing the correct direction. Of course, it’s hard

to picture you in that hobbling scene that makes

everyone so uncomfortable, but I can understand

not wanting to lose a man, and sometimes love hurts.

In reality, you are visiting your parents in Indiana,

and I’m here in Florida in the heat of summer

missing you and watching Annie Wilkes force Paul

to write another novel, to bring his heroine back

to life like I bring you to life here on this page,

even though you are 800 miles away, and I have no

idea what you are actually doing, or who you are with?

Two weeks is a long time for men who have spent

almost every single day together for nearly seven years—

we have a life, a routine, an intimacy in this apartment

where Paul types away on our big screen TV.

It’s enough to make the sane insane, because everybody

needs somebody. I almost sympathize with Annie

and her pig (a pet I’ve always wanted) or maybe

it’s just my love of Kathy Bates coming through.

Love is love, even if it’s forced, or confused,

or one-sided. On the telephone we proclaim how much

we miss the other, rattle off all the dirty things

we want to do to the other’s body, and how lonely

beds can be, which makes us feel silly, codependent,

like lost boys who will never grow up or find

their way back home. Thankfully, we have planes,

tickets, schedules. Annie is bloody now. Paul

just whacked her with his typewriter (the one missing

the letter N), but you know she’s not dead yet,

because madness doesn’t end that quickly. She’s got

a few more minutes, a few more blows before life

gives up on her. Did she ever really stand a chance?

Do we? When you return, I’ll take you to our bed,

use the straps we bought at the sex store, tie your legs

in the air, and make you mine. This we will call sexy.

This we will call love.

-Stephen (Love)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Full Life: Reading Tim Dlugos

Reading a "collected poems" book can be a daunting task. One thing I love about reading a single volume of poetry is the size. Most poetry books are between 60 and 100 pages and can easily be read in one sitting. In fact, they are often best read in one sitting. A "collected poems" book is typically much, much longer and serves a rather different purpose.

I've spent the last month reading A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos edited by David Trinidad. The book is 590 pages and spans from 1970 to 1990. Reading a book like this, cover to cover, is a very different experience from reading a single volume of poetry by a poet. You are reading a lifetime of work that spans in subject matter, style, and even quality. Not every poem in a "collected poems" book is the poet's very best work, which is what is partly fun and intriguing about it. These books, this one included, showcase the poet in many different ways. The book has the "great poems," but also the experiments or the funny almost offhanded poems that perhaps weren't really meant for publication. These poems, together, paint a full image of the poet.

I first became aware of Tim Dlugos when I read the anthology Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS edited by Philip Clark and David Groff. I've written a lot about this book, because it showcased so many great writers who I had never read. Dlugos was one of them. After reading Persistent Voices, I was pleased to find out that Trinidad was putting together a "collected" volume, which was released earlier this year.

Dlugos is a poet heavily influenced by the New York School. His poems are personal and often closely tied to his everyday life and friends. But Dlugos stands on his own as well. He's not simply a carbon-copy of Frank O'Hara, but rather a complicated and intriguing poet in his own right. He's funny and reflective. This book takes us from his 20s to his death in 1990 at age 40 (just like O'Hara). Dlugos takes us through the surge of gay freedom and sexuality in the 70s and then through the AIDS crisis of the 80s. The crisis that took his life.

Poetry from the AIDS crisis has been an interest of mine for quite some time. There are hundreds of poems on the topic and many very moving and thought-provoking pieces. If I had to name just one that everyone should read, I would have to go with Dlugos's piece "G-9." It's a long poem (18 pages) and written about the AIDS ward (G-9) in Roosevelt Hospital in New York where Dlugos spent a portion of his last two years. The poem captures the crisis in poetry in a way I haven't felt or seen before. It's authentic. It's smart. It makes you think.

While "G-9" is a stand out poem, Dlugos is not just an AIDS writer. The majority of the poems in this book are not on that subject, but are powerful, sharp, witty, and worth reading. Dlugos also stands out in the gay poetry scene for his religious ties. He was a part of various Christian organizations and studied religion throughout his life. Many of his poems reflect this.

Trinidad has done a nice job of editing the collection. He has a brief, but useful introduction and a quick timeline of the major events of Dlugos's life. He also includes various notes on the poems in the index. Trinidad strikes the right balance and gives us just enough information. The poems are divided into four sections labeled with years and locations.

Reading an entire "collected poems" book makes you feel like you've gained a new friend. You learn so much about the poet and his/her life. Over 500 pages of poems is hard to take in, which is why I read with a pencil beside me. I put a star in the table of contents next to any poem that really strikes me that I might want to return to in the future. Dlugos's table of contents is full of stars.

-Stephen (Collected)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review: Slow to Burn by Collin Kelley

We meet writers in many different places. Sometimes in school settings. Sometimes at readings. Sometimes in a bar. Sometimes in a bed. And countless other places. But I first "met" Collin Kelley on Twitter (how 21st century of me). In the case of Kelley, I met him not through his creative work, but through his tweets and blog posts. I grew to respect and enjoy his perspectives on poetry, fiction, film, and general culture, but I didn't know what to expect from his poems. What if I hate them? Luckily, that didn't happen.

A few days ago, I sat down with the reprint edition of Kelley's chapbook Slow to Burn published by Seven Kitchens Press, and I quickly fell in love. In many ways, chapbooks can showcase a poet better than a full length book. Chapbooks, at their best, are tight and focused collections that don't rely on filler poems. Slow to Burn is exactly that.

As I read, I realized that I might just be Kelley's target audience. His poems are packed full of pop culture references that add to and illuminate the poems in the best ways possible. In his opening poem, "Freedom Train," there are references to the Bionic Woman, Farrah Fawcett, Gone With the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. These references never feel forced, but rather build the world of the speaker. These are the things we remember and the things that shape us.

My favorite poem in the collection is titled "Wonder Woman." I have a soft spot for any poem that deals with superheroes. This poem is one of the shortest in the collection, but one of the most powerful. It opens with these lines:

"The day I told my parents I wanted to trade in
G.I. Joe for Wonder Woman must have set off alarms."

Immediately, we are intrigued. The poem continues to explore the complexity of gender roles, budding homosexuality, and the relationship between a gay son and his father. I've read countless poems on this topic, but this one succeeds where others don't, because it feels rounded and not so black and white. The father in this poem is not a villain. We can feel his embarrassment as much as we can understand the excitement of the speaker, at 7-years-old, running around his yard lassoing things. Kelley brings a real and balanced perspective in this poem that is often missing from poetry that deals with these issues.

Many of the other poems in the collection are about loss and suicide. These poems also walk a careful line. They feel honest and never rely on cliches. While many of these poems are dark, Kelley throws in some good humor from time to time. This is most apparent in his poem "The Virgin Mary Appears in a Highway Underpass." This poem is funny, thought provoking, and well-crafted.

Chapbooks are a great way to learn about a poet and to support small presses. Chapbooks almost feel as if they are from another time. They are often small and handmade. You can see the care and dedication that went into the making of Slow to Burn. I highly recommend getting yourself a copy.

-Stephen (Burning)