Because poets tend to live as outsiders, poetry communities can be a vital part of our lives and an essential part of American poetics. My questions relate to poetry communities I have known.

How did you get introduced to the world of poetry?

When I was young, a friend introduced me to the poets that gathered around St. Mark’s Church in New York City during the 60’s and 70’s – Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Ed Sanders, etc. Nothing in my sheltered life prepared me for the life of the poets on the Lower East Side. America loves its outlaws and the poets of the Lower East Side were poetry outlaws. They did not have regular jobs. They chose not to be plugged into the mainstream American life. They were not university professors or even teachers. They lived in 4th or 5th floor walkup apartments with bathtubs in the kitchen. They had almost no furniture, slept on mattresses on the floor. They lived outside of any American life that I knew anything about. When I read poems and books with such titles as “Bean Spasms”, “Things to do in Providence,” or “Great Balls of Fire.” I thought What is this and who would name a magazine “Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts”? What are they doing?

Okay, poet, what’s your favorite word in English. And why.

Cusp.
It’s a meeting place. It’s undefined, flexible, mysterious.
I like the variety of sounds. The hard kah. How the sexy  s  kisses the  p.

Photograph by Alexis Rhone Fancher

Tell us about Christopher Theofanidis’ musical composition Conference of the Birds and Aṭṭār’s long allegorical poem The Conference of the Birds, both of which are the inspiration for your new chapbook, Like a Bird with a Thousand Wings.

 The Conference of the Birds, the 12th Century Sufi allegorical poem, was written by Persian master poet Aṭṭār, and tells the story of the seeker’s journey towards God, and, therefore, towards the evolution of self through understanding and connection. In Aṭṭār’s Conference, all the birds of the world convene and determine that they need a ruler and that they will make a pilgrimage to the distant land of the mythic and divine bird, Simorgh. The journey to this faraway land leads the birds through seven valleys of understanding, the first of which requires the birds to cast off all the preconceived ideas and dogma in their thinking, and the final of which requires annihilation of the self in order to attain complete communion with the divine. Beginning with the discord and lack of purpose of the birds and culminating in the discovery that they are all individually and together Simorgh, The Conference of the Birds is a timeless model of transforming confusion and lack of unity into the realization of harmony.

Theofanidis’ piece, released in 2018, is inspired by Aṭṭār’s Conference and traces the metaphoric journey of the birds in seven short character pieces, each lasting between 1 and 3 minutes, and each focusing on a highly defined musical personality evoked by the corresponding valley. As he says in the introduction, “Much of the string writing is inspired by the flocking movement of birds; that is, there is a ‘group logic’—a kind of unity of movement and purpose in which all the parts are highly interdependent.”

Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffith

In an interview published in The Sun (June 2018) you said:

I don’t believe anything is over. The Civil Rights Movement was a core moment. The lessons it taught us — about social activism and political engagement and strategy — are still very much in play. Many of the people who were active in that movement are alive today — and not particularly old, either. Ruby Bridges, the kindergarten student who helped desegregate schools in New Orleans, turned sixty-three last year. She’s not even old enough to retire!

The Civil Rights Movement became a model for the Women’s Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and much of the anti-war and anti-poverty movements. Who we are as activists today was shaped in many ways by the Civil Rights Movement. And the fundamental questions it raised have not gone away. As a culture, we are still learning how to be civil and how to acknowledge each other’s rights.

Is this still true for you?

It is! It’s all still true. (Though Ruby Nell Bridges Hall will actually be 66 in September of 2020, so I suppose now she is old enough to retire. It is past time for us younger folks to be doing the hard work, and thankfully many are rising to the occasion.) This is why so much of my poetry, which is in many ways about the moment we are living in right now, is also so deeply steeped in history. History stays with us every step of the way.

Tell us more about the title of your book. Why Ugly Music?

The title was taken from a line in my poem “Diary Entry #1: Revisitation”: “You’ll fall on the world / like and ugly music.” I didn’t realize how influential music was to my poetry until putting together this manuscript. Not only have individual songs influenced my work, but also the language of music appears over and over in my poetry. To me ugly music lives in the space between cacophony and euphony. It’s not exactly inharmonious nor is it beautiful. This book is my tribute to all the sounds of my life, the songs, the noises that have added up to this moment when I must play them all at once.

Your book, “All That Shines Under The Hollywood Sign” what’s the significance of your title?

I’m a native Angeleno, the lore and the lure of Los Angeles and Hollywood is ultimately what’s shaped who I am.  I’ve always been infatuated with Hollywood and it’s rich history. This book is just my way of saying thank you.

Why do you write about menstrual blood, clitorises, and multiple orgasms?

Because the body is beautiful, our anatomy is beautiful. I want to celebrate its power and its limitations. Because these are experiences inherent and integral to womanhood, that are yet shamed, politicized and fetishized simultaneously. How many people out there are ashamed of the way their labium is shaped? Ashamed of their size, the slope of their breast, the stretch marks on their skin? Who out there has experienced sexual trauma? Puritan repression? Molestation, assault, rape? Who’s been told that their sexual preferences or gender are unnatural? Who is unable to orgasm? Who orgasms too quickly? Who’s been told they are ugly? Who’s been told they are too sexy? So much silence and pain. How many girls are terrified to go to school because of their cycle, told their blood is gross and stinks? How many were taught that marriage would save them? Told to be more attractive but remain pure virgins? Did you know the ‘father of gynecology’ was a slave owner who experimented on black women because he believed they didn’t feel pain? A father of gynecology. Can you swallow the irony? Did you know midwives and healers were deemed witches and cast out of society? Look up the rate of this country’s infant mortality. Did you know priests are still abusing young boys in silence and circumcision is rooted in sexual oppression? Our bodies are our temples, the only thing we truly own. Why can’t I talk about my nipples the same way I talk about my feet? I fed and nourished my son with my nipples. I bled to create and birth him. How is this not poetry? I name body parts because they need a voice. I name body parts so that I might heal, so that we might heal. I believe we have all been traumatized by the structural values of the patriarchy—and language can call it out, name the thing, heal the thing. Language can destroy, yes, but it can empower, too. Language can be a lie, but it can also be true. It can shine light into the shadow. The shadow is the reason I write. To talk to demons. To excavate the inside so that I might see, understand, know the outside more clearly. Our personal and collective traumas are asking us for a throat, a tongue, a song, an utterance, something, anything. I write about menstrual blood, clitorises, and multiple orgasms because I do not choose my themes, they choose me.

1.
During the quarantine, we were all in the living room,
the four of us, playing a game,
an unremarkable afternoon in April,
National Poetry Month,
and a small bird flew in through the dog’s foot-wide opening
in the sliding glass door to the backyard,
and the dog, Berkeley,
sprang up and barked and ran to the dining room
where the bird was fluttering against the glass and falling—
I could hear it, it was painful—
and before we could protest enough he had killed the small
gray-feathered bird with a swift, vicious bite.

Okay, let’s start with the title of your debut collection, ‘all these urban fields’ — what are urban fields? What does this mean to you?

Hey, me! A very good question right off the bat, if I do say so myself! A friend once texted me, ‘i was on the subway & saw all of these air conditioners sprawled out on the roof of an apartment building, like this whole field, & i finally got it, i got your title!’

If that text doesn’t fully answer your question, then let’s go with this: I lived in Brooklyn — urban — for two years, and while it was a daunting experience in many ways, it was also incredibly fulfilling. That being said, I could not have lived there, could not have fully survived, I don’t think, without drawing from the experiences I had on a farm in Vermont — pastoral – and my trips to smaller towns in Massachusetts. I think, in essence, the title — and the collection as a whole — is meant to be an ode to both types of landscapes, to how well they balance one another out.

Let’s not do this. How much meat are on these bones?

I … don’t understand?

 

Where do you go from here? What’s next? Is this book thing as big a deal as you thought it would be?

Well, yes, it’s a very big deal to me, it’s everything I’ve worked for since I was a teen, for three decades, it’s . . .

Photo credit: Farah Sosa, Courtesy of the California Arts Council

Why are your Poems so Dark?

I hesitate to define poems as light or dark, because I think the poem exists as it is, in its own sphere, its own space.  A poem tells its own story, and poems are supposed to tell some sort of essential truth. There is light in the world and darkness, of course. When we write from the dark space, we are simply tapping into one of the parts of the world that exists and needs a voice.  Many people who read my poems, tell me that my work has opened up a space in them that they didn’t know existed , or didn’t give permission to exist. I think in order to be fully in touch with ourselves as a writer, we need to allow all of the shades of our writing to make an entrance into the room.

Why?

Fuck him, he deserves to be devoured.

 

Who?

Mark and I often send pieces of Art and/or Words to each other. More often than not, we ignore them! But sometimes a piece will inspire the other to create something. It works both ways – Art & Words and Words & Art.

All of your parents—both birth and adoptive—are dead. How do you feel about the fact that they never had the chance to read some of the things you’ve written about them?

I’m not sure they have never read them; are you? Actually, I think my dad would get a kick out of recalling how much he enjoyed that Life magazine cover shot of Dorothy Dandridge (see: “Daddy Registered Republican, 1931—[1]“), however, I don’t think my mother would appreciate being reminded of our conversation about my “sexual exploits” (ha!) (see: “Red Background”).

Photo credit: Giuliana Maresca

So, the title, “Lullabies for End Times”…

Pure coincidence. If you believe in that kind of thing.

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.