Your entrance into writing poetry and publishing did not occur through the usual channels of academia. How did you do it? How did you find mentors and colleagues? How did you hone your craft?
First of all, I have to say that I came into this life as a poet and philosopher. I had compiled a volume of aphorisms before first grade. I had been a Japanese Zen monk in my previous incarnation. No one knew about Asian philosophy when I was a child in North Carolina, but Poor Richard’s Almanac became my favorite childhood book.
Then in high school (North Carolina School of the Arts, I was 15), my English professor, Alton Busbee, a published poet, had the class write a poem. When he got mine, he pulled me out of high school English for the next two years and tutored me in poetry. During that time he introduced me to Jonathan Williams (a Black Mountain School poet), who sent my work to Ian Young, who agreed to publish me. Ian flew me to New York where I got to meet the Ginsbergs and Norses and all them folk for the first time (hated ‘em all—they terrified me!).
Ian, then, became my lifelong sounding board and mentor. He still is.
What advice would you have for a new poet who is trying to break in, as you did, from outside of the system?
Art requires first and foremost stick-with-it-ness. Find your niche and work it to death. Become known for that one thing, that one style (you can expand on it once you’re successful at it).
Find your mentor. Listen to your mentor. Argue with your mentor, but listen to him/her.
Deena Metzger was my mentor in college. Christopher Isherwood, when I got to LA.
What are the best pieces of advice you have received about the craft and business of poetry?
The editor and the creator are two separate people. Only the most advanced artist can incorporate the two at once. When you create, DON’T THINK. Just Be. Edit tomorrow. Let the creative process rock out and linger as needed. Editing is like jumping in the shower right after sex—you miss out on all the brilliant afterglow. Tomorrow you can employ the mind—the editor—and juggle things around. I rarely edit anymore; I barely look at what I’ve written; I just trust in my process and my experience. But I’ve been doing this a million years!
What is your writing process like?
Like standing naked on a cliff in a thunderstorm. Any attempt to flee, cover yourself, or find a limb for support thwarts the magic. Creation should find you at your most vulnerable; every poem is a birth and a death, a death and a birth. If it doesn’t hurt and humiliate, enliven and elate, throw it back in and write another. Offend somebody. Offend yourself. Wish the hell you had never written the damn thing.
You are known in SF poetry circles as “The Naked Poet”. Can you tell us how you came by that title?
It is actually a moniker bestowed by the LA Weekly, I believe—or was it the Times? I was never a performance artist, per se, but I discovered that when I read naked people were attentive and quiet, humbled and awed. I owned several galleries in LA, and then a very popular performance salon on La Brea known as Famous Knott Gavin. That was the first time I came out and read naked—the place was mobbed with noisy, trendy, drunken artists and wanna-be’s; nobody would have been aware of the poet in the corner had I not disrobed. As it was, you could hear a Quaalude drop, and the responses I got after, from the famous and the not, were rave. So I started reading in-the-buff at bookstores, even conventions, in LA, NY and SF. Eric and I read naked together for the first readings from Nocturnal Omissions. It was at a literary convention in SF, the door was open, people kept walking by, double-taking, then coming in to listen. Everyone craves nakedness. And if you’re not naked, as a poet, what’s the fucking point?
What are your thoughts on performance poetry as opposed to poetry meant for the page?
Most performance stuff doesn’t pass literary muster, in my book. There’s no reason why it can’t, it just usually doesn’t. I don’t oppose such things—tho never go to slams—but have always found poetry a quiet thing, a meditation, a study, something sacred. That’s just the way it’s come about for me. And when I hear brilliance, my brain wants to sit with it—my being wants to feel it—without the chatter of social ambitions and emotional desperation. But I also don’t like to eat in a noisy restaurant, or have sex to rock-n-roll. Cicadas are all the chatter I need.
Do you consider yourself as a gay poet, or just a poet?
Poet. It’s the romantic stuff that gets published, but I have many times the volume of aphorisms that will never be published—I believe I’ve surpassed Rumi and Hafiz both. I’m gay when I need to be, but I have much more favorite hats.
Do you think that overt eroticism is essential in carving out the gay poetic identity?
Hell no. People just think it sells books—surely we’ve evolved past that! Nothing wrong with the erotic, it’s just that most of it comes about as reactionaryism from a childhood of suppression. I’ve always found romanticism much more appealing—tho I don’t mince metaphors when it comes to being flagrant. You’ll note the complex spirituality and romance of our book illustration—even tho a penis and nipples are present—we did not want to have the obligatory B&W two-naked-men-embracing cover. I wouldn’t even consider our book erotic—tho it is certainly flagrant. Hmmm… that hadn’t occurred to me before.
Who are the poets that most inspire you? And how heavily do they influence your work?
Ono no Komachi. Izumi Shikibu. Mirabai. Rumi and Hafiz. Basho. And of course Lao Tzu. Throw in a little Blake or Whitman. I’m fairly convinced I was Komachi in a past life—although I share a birthdate with Blake. I have both Blake and Lao Tzu heavily tattooed on my legs. I love sparseness, poignancy and brevity, tho I don’t always adhere to it. But even in my longer work you’ll find that my rhythms and sentiments pull heavily from the traditional “waka” form.
You spent several years as a monk. How does this experience and your spirituality in general influence your work?
The more expansive the consciousness, the broader the scope of the art—and vice versa. The more we have to pull from, the deeper we can fall. And the process never abates, since the road to Divinity is without end. When I gave up the search for meaning, I quit looking for meaning in my poetry. The deeper my love of God, the deeper my love of humanity and nature.
When I feel sorrow, now, it is unfettered; my anger no longer lurks in the bushes but rages down cobbles and into the crowd; and my Joy is no longer imagined, but shreds me into quivering jelly until the pen drops andthe page writes itself.
But I write less than I once did. Because I no longer need to. And I’d rather spend the afternoon surrounded by cats and roses.
I have a lover, now, after decades without, and I find myself not writing about him, because touching him is an end in itself. I no longer speculate about life or imagine “what if?” And Joy fills my every moment.
graffiti by Rupert Davis
Photographs by Mike Riley and Douglas E Barrett