Anyone’s Son is the title of your debut poetry collection. Tell us about this title. Why did you choose it? What does it mean to you?
Titles are important to me. When I have finished a poem or short story—or in this case, an entire collection—one of my favorite approaches to choosing a title is to read what I’ve written very closely, looking for a word or phrase that resonates, that feels evocative. One of the poems in my opening chapter references a Time magazine cover story of October 21, 1969—“The Homosexual in America.” The cover itself features a photograph in closeup, of an ordinary young man, though the colors have been manipulated—harsh green, baby pink, bruised purple. As I wrote the poem, I studied the cover image, and suddenly it occurred to me: “this was a face that might have been anyone’s son.” Often, growing up gay, finding a place for myself as a gay man, I have felt estranged from my straight peers. But the truth is that I might have been anyone’s son, that any parent might have a gay son or daughter, that any of us might have been the “other” that we thoughtlessly fall into judging.
Choose one of the poems and tell us a bit about your process. How did this poem arrive at its current form?
On the farm where I grew up, my mother spent Mondays wrestling with a wringer washing machine, an arduous routine that left her short on patience. One Monday morning was disrupted by a bellowing cow and her crying calf. They’d been penned away from each other to wean the calf. The noise was too much for my mother. She sent me to a nearby field to cut a few stalks of grain for cow and calf—an offering that might silence their noises. I was a daydreamer back then, still am. Drifting, I whacked myself in the foot. Decades later, the poet Victoria Redel gave me an almost magical access to this day—in “Memory, Periphery, and Then Some,” a structured approach to writing about scars. Redel’s exercise is in Wingbeats II: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, a collection my husband Scott Wiggerman and I assembled and published. Twice, Redel asks the poet to record something on the periphery of the moment. Scissortails and our windmill vane invited themselves into my poem. More important, for the story of my whacked foot, Redel asks the poet to complete a sentence beginning “That was the year. . . .” Suddenly, I remembered Sputnik—from Weekly Reader stories about the Russian launching of the first satellite. And my poem opened up. Sometimes, the process is arbitrary—in this case eleven specific steps in a published exercise about scars. But these arbitrary steps can take us out of ourselves. They can result in the kind of poems any poet would be proud to own.
Anyone’s Son includes six pantoums. Why this form. Why six of them in one slim collection?
The pantoum is insistently repetitious. Two lines in each four-line stanza reiterate two lines from the preceding stanza. This kind of echo effect is well-suited to any state of mind that lingers over or returns to key images, key sensory memories. One of my pantoums rehearses the moments of my initiation into sex with another man. Repeating lines, lingering over details etched in my memory, it seemed to me that I was replicating the way that, simultaneously, I was remembering what I was doing even as I was caught up in sensation. As I listened to the voices that wanted to be heard in Anyone’s Son, regularly I came to images, lines, moments that called for this kind of repetition.
“Creek Scene with DeSoto and Bobwhites” includes explicit details of a sexual experience. What do you say to a reader who thinks this poem goes too far? Or to one who fears that it might disturb or offend straight readers?
There was nothing soft-focus, nothing dreamy or romantic about this creek bottom tryst. I didn’t want romance with this man. When I went to the creek with him, it was because repressed desire had taken over. Lust had taken over. The experience was about the mechanics of physical pleasure. I wanted to recreate what it was like for a sixteen-year-old to fling himself into doing what he spent his days not wanting to want. I used explicit words and images. The result is a poem that is not for all tastes. But I trust a reader who explores the pages of Anyone’s Son. I trust that if this poem is too much, a reader who has enjoyed or admired the poems so far—this reader will turn the page and see what’s next.
Tell us about a poem that was especially challenging.
When I was twenty—and trying to break free of South Texas—I woke from a nightmare one night, terrified. In the dream, I was in the backseat of the family car as my father pulled up to the stop sign where the county road leading from the family farm intersected with the road leading to town. Beside my window, a man dressed all in khaki, face shaded by a khaki colored hat—this man brandished a hooked hand and broke the window. He carried a shotgun. He didn’t say a word, but just before I woke I understood that he was going to make me shoot the others—my parents and three siblings—and then he was going to shoot me. About twenty years ago, I wrote this dream into a poem about my father. It was an ugly poem. From time to time, I would pull it up on my computer screen and tinker a bit. But it remained an ugly poem—not true to my father or to my experience of him—though one particular line kept resonating with me: “Even cows are smart enough to learn the cost of straying.” As I was working on the poems for Anyone’s Son, I tried again with the dream of family murder and the hooked hand. This time I introduced a second dream, with cows and the electric fence that teaches them not to stray. I worked at weaving the two dreams into a single poem. I used erratic spacing to replicate the jarring dissonance of both dreams. I let the poem’s narrator—some version of me—address his father. The result was a painful poem, depicting a painful relationship between son and father. But, to me at least, this new poem was not an ugly poem.