Your book’s title, Love-In-Idleness, what does that refer to? Why did you choose it?
That’s one of the many common names for the pansy, or Viola tricolor. As I say in my poem “The Cicada, And Other Lessons,” some of its other names are Johnny jump up, heartsease, and call-me-to-you. The pansy, of course, has long been associated with gay men, but since it’s also a beautiful flower (check out this amazing work by gay artist and writer Joe Brainard), it is organic, of the earth, lives in dirt. I think many of my poems straddle those two worlds, the worlds of a gay subjectivity and of ‘living in the dirt’. But perhaps more importantly I chose it for my title to highlight what I think is central to my book, the ideas of naming—even those used to hurt us, like pansy, fag, homo—and identity. I hope my poems examine how we—who we are, how we see ourselves, how others see us…how we are stories in the process being told, revised, re-visioned, taken apart, fucked with, embellished, adored, despised, mythologized. That’s what I’m doing in my first poem, a Google collage using my own name; that’s what I’m doing with the persona poems in the second section that, for example, use the narrative of Queen Elizabeth to tell a story of a twenty-first century gay man. I hope even what seem like my most “authentic” poems have a small corner in which identity is troubled. And of course, this all means that, as I also write in “The Cicada, And Other Lessons”:
…knowing what to call a thing—
to understand the need its song speaks—
doesn’t let you love it, doesn’t give you
the right to make it love you back.
And lastly, I love the music of the name, what lies behind it—having nothing in life to do but to love another. Can you imagine!
There’s a kind of darkness, a tenebrousness, maybe even a kind of spleen in some of the poems. I’m thinking of “Blessing,” for example, in which the speaker desires another boy, but this boy traps “toads, crawdads, / snapping turtles, easy quarry, then / duct taping each alive and wriggling /to M-83, the highway sucked clean / and black by sheets of white rain.” Are you exorcising your demons?
Not at all. I’m not sure I have many demons to exorcise. But I’m very attracted to the poetic tension created in imagery that’s dark like this but that’s described, I hope, through crisp, beautiful, supple, or rich language. Maybe that itself is demon, I don’t know. I like seeking out these shadowy impulses from our interior life and yes, sometimes from our personal memories, and then crafting them into objects of linguistic beauty. Does it take the power back from the darkness? I hope not. The world is a very dark place, full of sick (though maybe beautiful) boys who like to kill things. To run from accepting that is dangerous and intellectually and creatively lazy. I want the world I describe to reflect these things, to wonder about them, and to be troubled by desiring something that is so awful.
Also, a lot of poets I read do this. Rafael Campo, Mark Doty, Reginald Shepherd, D.A. Powell—all gay poets, yes, but look how different they are! And certainly I’m leaving so many people out of that list (which is just off the top of my head). I hope to learn from that tradition.
We’re half way through, so I’ve been dying to ask: Did you have any fears about talking to yourself? It’s weird, no? Did any come true?
I did have fears! Who knows the things I might say, how I might implicate myself. But seriously, after interviewing more than two dozen famous writers, I felt ill equipped to ask a question that didn’t completely contain its own answer. That makes for a horrible interview. And I felt like my answers might seem coy. So I was intent on avoiding all of that and I think so far I have. But I was especially concerned with two things: 1) “explaining” the poems in a way that took away their power, the room for others to make of them what they will. And 2) of sounding like an asshole. I was worried that talking to myself would lead me to phrases like “…and so that’s why it was important to me to make that line so sumptuous.” Who says the line was “sumptuous”? If a reader thinks so, I’m flattered. But I wanted to avoid that kind of self-praise.
I experienced my first book as a kind of blessing, even though I worked very hard to earn it, you could say. I don’t want to say anything that detracts from that.
I bring this up because I think it’s important that writers try to have a meaningful relationship with their readers, and that includes giving the reader the respect you want in return.
Speaking of blessing, Joe Millar and the folks at Brooklyn Arts Press were amazing. I can’t stress that enough.
Some of your writing is set in a small town or rural Midwest. You even have a poem that dissects and anatomizes the “Midwestern Body.” Is that body different?
That’s what my poem suggests, yes. In the sense that it undergoes different traumas, different exertions, different physical lessons. In this way, there’s a parallel to be made to the gay body. But in another sense, no, of course, not. A body is perhaps the one universal thing we share—bodily experience as we move through (or don’t) the world. But I want the reader to examine their body, how it’s similar and different, what it embraces, resists, what’s ‘written’ on it. One last thing about the Midwestern body, and I don’t think this is explicit in the poems: I think, for me at least, the Midwestern imaginary views the body in the future, and that future is under the earth it lived its life around, above, digging into, etc. …that is, it sees itself buried, and importantly buried near the mother and the father, the brother and the sister, the cousin and the aunt. I realize I’m conflating the Midwest with rural life, but it is a big part of it. And certainly the extended family is a big element of Midwest life.
The poems are quite erotically charged. How does a poet create that?
This is one place where I can say: be authentic, be real. I think desire isn’t only about the body, of course, but it plays out in the mind. It’s about something that happens between the two. Nothing new in that. When I write about sex, love, desire, I try to remember what the body felt like in moments of sex, love, desire. Then I try to bring my poetic imagination online and give that physical memory a kind of linguistic shimmer.
Is it about embodying the memory, the physical sense?
A: If you can. It’s probably easier to explain what I’m trying to do through an example. I have a poem that basically re-tells the Bible story of Jacob and the Angel, but in this story Jacob and the angel fuck. Even in such a poem (that wasn’t, of course, tied to my own experience) I still tried to find a way to embody a physical sense, particularly in this instance of letting the mind run its fingers over “human curves: / collarbone, hips, lean thighs, / the breastbone’s aching well.” Jacob then says, “My guilt is my still wanting you— // an obscene failure of will. /In the shudder of bones, // in the animal spit of ejaculate, /I want you, would again wrestle you // to the ground and deny prophecy / if only to name your beauty.” That’s graphic, sure. But we want the dirty part of sex. We need it. Otherwise, there would be no tension, no transgression, no moaning and groaning. If sex weren’t dirty—“the animal spit of ejaculate”—we wouldn’t need to find ways to make it beautiful. And the thrill would be gone.
Are their mentor poets who lived among these poems? Poets of the past who ghost them?
A: I hate that question because I never feel like I have a good answer. But certainly Theodore Roethke is very present in my poems about growing up in Michigan. Maybe James Wright. I would absolutely go directly to heaven if someone thought the poems had learned something from Elizabeth Bishop, but even saying that seems ridiculously arrogant. (We were just talking about my fears, too!) Of course there are many contemporary gay poets whose poems inspire me.
Lastly, what did you learn in writing this book?
Poetically, I learned how important it is to be open to your poems speaking to each other, to finding inspiration in that conversation, to spend a lot of time when putting a book together thinking about that. And I learned that when you think you’ve been bold and fearless, you’ve in fact just witnessed yourself holding back creatively. (It’s a paradox. But it’s true. At least for me.) That’s the time to break it all to fucking pieces and let yourself escape your own expectations. In that moment I think I was able to write the lines and poems that will lead me to my next book. And that’s the time when writing is both most joyous and most dangerous. The perfect intersection.