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.