September 12, 2015
JESS L. BRYANT, MICHAEL SCHMIDT, DANIELLE WEEKS
A CONVERSATION WITH D.A. POWELL
Photo Credit: Trane Devore
I WISH I COULD GO through the poem image by image, line by line, and tell you where it is me, and where it is somebody else,"
D.A. Powell says in an interview with Nashville Review. "But to tell the god's honest truth, I don't know if l know all of that one hundred percent, nor should I." Powell's exploration of the world as a way to explore the self-and where the two become indistinguishable is part of the draw of his poetry, which is personal, inventive, yet a somehow familiar look at the world.
D.A. Powell is the author of several acclaimed books of poetry, including Chronic (Graywolf Press, 2009), Useless Landscape, or A Guide far Boys (Graywolf, 2012), and Repast: Tea, Lunch, and Cock tails (Graywolf, 2014). Chronic received the Kingsley Tufts Award, and Useless Landscape, or A Guide far Boys won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.
Of Powell's collection Repast, Christopher Richards writes in the New Yorker, "it is a jagged, one-of-a-kind opus, which endures both as a personal testimony and as the rare poetic work that manages to capture the ineffable on the page." Richards also notes that a "sense of belonging both nowhere and everywhere is evident in Powell's creative magpieing," which comes from Powell's imaginative blend of cultural references, including "gay hanky code, Whitman, The Weather Girls, Hollywood romances, and biblical heroes."
Although Powell is known for addressing gay culture in his work and, specifically, the AIDS pandemic, his poems also explore Christian tradition and elements of contemporary culture, demonstrating an acute awareness for the way film, music, and art impact society. Underlying many of Powell's works is a view of survival that subverts familiar tropes of suffering and illness. With lines that look to both the past and future, Powell gives new life to the subjects of his poems. In the poem "meditating upon the meaning of the line 'clams on the half shell and roller skates' in the song 'good times,' by chic," Powell writes: it's still 1980 somewhere,some corner of your dark apartment where the mystery of the lyric hasn't faded, and love is in the chorus waiting to be born.
Powell has received a Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Paul Engle Fellowship from the James Michener Foundation, and the Boston Review Poetry Prize, among other awards. Carl Phillips, a judge for the Boston Review's Poetry Prize, wrote of Powell's work, "No fear, here, of heritage nor of music nor, refreshingly,of authority. Mr. Powell recognizes in the contemporary the latest manifestations of a much older tradition: namely,what it is to be human."
We met with Mr. Powell for tea during the Montana Book Festival in Missoula, where we talked about exile, Jesus, and the difference between being a poet and writing poetry.
So many of your poems are so funny. Do you think poetry takes itself too seriously?
For God's sake, it's art, but the kind of ponderous pontificating that people do around it, you would think it's semi-precious metal. Yes, poetry takes itself too seriously. I was first drawn to it as a kind of humorous interaction-not because I thought it was saying deep things, but because I thought it was saying things in funny, interesting ways. I love poems that poke fun at the idea of a status quo or an ordered world. I have always been drawn to poetry that's casting a gob of spit in the face of art, to quote Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer: "This is not a book.. .it is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of art ."
JESS L. BRYANT
Is irreverence one of the effects of your poetry?
I use lines as pressure releases. I take something and tighten the tension of its muscles and then release it. That was particularly helpful when I was living in Iowa. In the Bay Area, I was visible. In Iowa, I was invisible. Imagine you go someplace where any manifestation of the community you lived in before is hidden or obliterated. But it was actually helpful, because I didn't have to worry about any thing other than writing. Those long barren roads in the winter were my life. It's like I was working with flatness, working with a potentially obliterated landscape. The line had to erase time and space and history.Though that's not what I thought I was doing at the time-I was just writing . But looking back, I realize I needed to take myself away from California in order to write about it. The songs of exile are the greatest songs of history.
Were you thinking of any particular song of exile?
I like a passage in the song "By the Waters of Babylon'' that goes sort of like: By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept when we remembered Zion, but how can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
In Iowa, I felt like I was in a foreign land. Whenever I was writing about the world I came from, I got to choose it, in a way, so I was promiscuous about choosing. I tried to be careful about populating the poems in ways that were plentiful and had many tones and many kinds of language. I think that was my reaction to the barren world I was living in: This has to be pretty- this has to be something else. It's the problem of the open field. You have to figure out how to make it look like something more than boring housing developments. Please, I would rather see your filthy old barn.
I've read that the conventional canon of male poets did not inform your work.
Neither did white poets. My reading direction, the path that got me into poetry, was through African-American poets. I thought there were maybe three or four white poets in the world, all of whom probably weren't very interesting. I would go to the library and get my books and never notice there were other poets except the poets I was already interested in. I do remember I once checked out a book by Ted Hughes because I thought it was by Langston Hughes. I was reading it and I thought, Wow, this is really bad. He's so off his game.
Does it bother you when people assume your poetry is at least somewhat autobiographical?
I don't worry about it. I feel like that's on the readers. In no other art form would we assume we're getting the creator's life, because most people's lives, including my own, are super boring. As Alfred Hitchcock said, drama is life with all the boring bits cut out. A poem
is a kind of small drama. Short stories are drama. All writing is essentially the drama of what, who, how, those age-old questions that propel us forward to read more. You can populate a poem with as much true experience as you want or need, because that's how we know the world-through our own selves-but I think it would be egotistical for writers to imagine that the poetic version of what they present is in any way a resemblance of their own life. There are certainly poets who speak from an authentic and consistent "I,"but even they're inventors, right?
In order to be an artist, I don't think you can worry too much about an audience's reaction. You can worry about it in terms of, Oh, nobody likes my work, but once people are there to read you and hear you, it's kind of your duty to turn your back, the way the conductor turns his back on the audience. We're looking at the person who is responsible for the art, and I think as an artist,you have to do the same. You're looking inward at that moment when you're most vulnerable. You're deep inside yourself, trying to bring up the courage of conviction of your writing, not worrying about whether anyone is going to get up and walk out. I kind of hope they will walk out.
Do they ever?
All the time. I don't think anyone has ever walked out for any terrible reason, but you never know. I'm always encouraged by the people who show up. I gave a reading in Tyler,Texas, at the university there, and these folks showed up- grad students, a hetero normative couple- wit h their child, who was in a Boy Scout uniform. I'm like, "Um, I don't know if this is age-appropriate," and they were like, "Don't worry, he's been to a lot of these," and I realized they were the kind of parents I'd had. My parents didn't filter content.They didn't say, "Is he reading things that are dirty? Is he listening to things that are criminal?" They didn't care. In that way, it made it possible for me to indulge myself in reading and experiencing literature at what ever level I wanted. So I realized these folks were good parents, and I didn't curb my reading, didn't pay attention to whether they left. They might have. They sat in back, just in case, and I think we were all a bit relieved.
Do people ever expect too much from poets?
I think that does happen sometimes. I'm glad people reach out to me, but there's only so much you can do in a day. I can't blurb books for everybody who asks-I am physically not able to do that. And you don't want your endorsement to be just a rubber stamp. One year, nine people asked me for letters of recommendation for Guggenheim Fellowships, and I said yes to all of them. I wrote letters and none got in, because the committee must have thought, Well, he's not very selective. That taught me something. You have to pick the moment when you step forward and say,I've been told to help this person.
I love poetry, and I love that people are passionate about what is, really, one of the most esoteric and hermetic things in the world. It's really like we're having a big conference about masturbation, and we're being frank and candid about what hand we prefer-or toys and lubricants and all those other things. It's this intimate thing we share. It' s marvelous, but maybe it's just a metaphor for other things we can't talk about.
Do poets need to attend conferences?
Those are really good things to do if you want to be a poet. If you just want to write poetry, you don't need any of that. I think you have to be able to separate those things from each other. Many times, young people unconsciously or subconsciously try to be poets, instead of just writing poetry. If you write poetry and people like it, then all the other things you'd hoped would happen often happen.
So it's misplaced energy. And at times, all that misplaced energy is working in ways we don't realize, but not in ways that help. Send to a dozen contests if you feel like you want to publish this book right now, but if you'd rather wait until someone asks you to publish the book, do that.There's not any right or wrong way. Whatever way you choose, you want to be able to offset the footprint of that choice in some other way.
When you advertise yourself, whether for good reasons or bad, you're selling a little bit of your soul, and you have to buy that back by doing good things for people. Every time someone comes up to you and has you sign a book, you feel like you can get that piece back somehow. But you can't pay it back to the people who are reading the work-it has to be to the art itself, the energy within that art.
I'm always happy when I sign a book, because I'm glad it's a book somebody cares to hold. Even if they turn around and throw it in the bin at the thrift store, I don't care. Somebody cared enough about the book to have that interaction. It's wonderful and unexpected and weird. I remember how timid I was when I would approach a poet to sign a book-how much courage that took-and then how like a deer in the headlights I was if they talked to me.
Oh, my Lord, Gwendolyn Brooks would make everybody who got a book signed sit across from her, because she didn't want to look up at people. She was like, "We're going to be like civilized people. You're going to sit down and talk to me." So every person in the long line would sit and have a conversation with her. I remember I was at her book signing, the last person in line. She goes, "Sit down, sit down," and I was like, "Oh, no, you must be tired," and she says "I'm not tired, I've been sitting."So I sat and engaged in conversation with her, but the entire time I felt that I was unworthy in that conversation. I realize now I was being stupid, silly, but there was something about the power of her words and the kind of energy Olson talks about-poetry as energy transferred. That energy made me feel like she was a kind of divine being,which I'm not entirely sure she wasn't, but she didn't see herself that way. She saw herself as a poet. She went out and did readings and gave back to the community. I try to remember those moments. How can I help the person who's sitting
across from me at a book signing?
They say that President Obama spends 98 percent of his time with the person he's meeting assuring them that everything's okay. That's actually the bulk of it. All those photo ops you see are just Obama saying, "Don't worry, we'll get through this, you're doing great." He has to realize that he has this power people are investing in him. And it's the same as a poet. People are investing a power in you that you have a responsibility for. You also have a responsibility to remind them that it's not a big deal. We all pay taxes.
Poets aren't the public figures they used to be. But they still have some kind of power...
Isn't power a bad thing? Doesn't power corrupt? I would rather not have power. At work I'm always thinking, whatever other people want, I'm going to go along with that, because I don't want to be the decider. What kind of power do poets have? Very, very little, and yet, what power we have can be monumental, though we can never guarantee that that's going to be the case.
I've known Claudia Rankine for a long time, and she's recently become highly visible. She understands and respects the power of hope people are investing in her. She understands it's a terrible bur den of responsibility to bear when you're at that most visible moment. But what a great honor, as well. I think it's like what people say about having children.You become your better self It's like what people say about having an audience, too: you become your better self, and if you don't, you won't have an audience. Unless you're Bukowski, and then people go to be abused.
I saw Claudia Rankine's video work, and now with Citizen, she's this public figure who's stepped into the world out of necessity. Wouldn't you rather choose that no unarmed, innocent people are being killed by police without warrants? There are all sorts of things you would trade for that position.
Do you use social media?
I love Twitter, in the sense that I get a lot of information that way-a quick sort of digest. But I find that I don't click on a lot of articles from big media companies like Slate or Newsweek because I'm getting too many ads. I'd rather go to the library and read. But I do like the social dynamic of Twitter.
I'm noticing that more and more poets are on Twitter. Oliver de la Paz, Robert Pinsky- people you thought would not be there Carissa Chen, Ada Limon. I keep up with what's going on in the world of poetry. Not that I always approve.
Is there something useful about the 140 character limit of Twitter?
It 's the same number of characters or spaces as the number of syllables in a sonnet. Someone must have thought of that. It's not too short, and it's not too long. Goldilocks would be happy there. People can ask you questions, but they can't ask you more than one question. Unlike email, it doesn't become a to-do list. And you can see what other people are doing without having to have all the interaction. It 's just: What 's Nancy Sinatra up to these days?
You make references to popular culture and to specific brands, such as Twitter, in your work. What do you think about the impulse for writers to avoid these references in order to attain some kind of timelessness?
Not hing is timeless. Scientists have been trying to figure out a language that people in 20,000 years will be able to read, something visual to warn people away from radioactive waste buried in Nevada. They have to think of a future that doesn't include any language we know. Would someone translate our poetry into that language?May be, maybe not. Most of what you write doesn't last. That's the beauty of it. The beauty of art is not the timelessness, but the ephemerality-the idea that someone paid attention to a moment in such an arbitrary and decorative way and let it go into the world.
Does this ephemerality influence the structure of your poems? Is that why Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails contains no complete sentences?
There's an inevitability in syntax-beginning, middle, and end and I wanted to resist end. Thematically, this had to do with HIV and the AIDS epidemic, but I didn't make that connection right away. I thought I was just being a stubborn poet-Yeah, I don't like complete thoughts; I don't like this idea of syntactic order. Isn't it the job of prose writers to write in complete sentences?
One of the great things about poetry is that it doesn't have to do that. I was being defiant, and it turned out to be a choice that made sense. But I didn't know that. You can't plan everything in advance. I talk to people all the time who are like, "Yeah, I've got this idea for a book," and I'm like, "Well, there's your first problem. Don't have an idea. Just write. Having an idea for a book is a mistake. You'll never get there because you won't achieve your ideal." People labor over books for years, like, no, this isn't what I wanted. It's not working out. Well, why don't you be happy with what you did write? Why don't you throw away nine-tenths of that and write more?
You experienced the AIDS epidemic firsthand. How important is it for writers to write about their own time?
For me, to be a writer is to be irresponsible to begin with . There are certain subjects we can't shut up about, and that's our nature. The question becomes, do people want to hear it? Do they like it? That goes to the idea of shaping, deciding what will be a palatable version of this idea for a reading audience, something I always try to undercut immediately. I don't want to worry about people's ideas of proper subject matter. I like being improper. I like being irreverent. That's one of the things we've loved about literature for centuries. I'm reading Gulliver's Travels right now, and Swift's constantly writing about shitting and pissing, all these things polite novels leave out. He's reminding us that we're beasts, that we're animals.
Speaking of beasts, would you discuss the use of violence in your work?
I've experienced physical violence, and I feel like it's a subject one must be truthful to. At the same time, I don't want to use it in any kind of exploitative or sensationalist way. I'm reading Sula by Toni Morrison now, and the violence in that book happens unexpectedly and in a world of absolute beauty. That's what violence is: a tear in the fabric of one's nature, one's life, one's experience of the world. I try not to set it up too much, and I try not to make too much of it. Having violence come in unexpectedly, and having it not be too explained, is like when Hart Crane can't help yelling out this unforgivable thing at the end of the first Voyages. He sees the kids playing by the ocean, and he says: "If they could hear me, I would tell them the bottom of the sea is cruel." You don't want to say to the world, "The bottom of sea is cruel," but at the same time, Hart says that this is the case, and one must be aware of that.
In my experience, you could leave a gay bar and be in the middle of a shooting. It has not always been a world of acceptance. I don't think that'll be the same in twenty to thirty years. We'll look back at the literature of the period and say, "Wow, people were barbaric then."That's a good feeling, to notice that everyone prior to us was a barbarian.
Earlier you mentioned "the ordered world." Why do you think humans feel a compulsion to create order and to suppress anything outside of that order?
The universe functions on rules, so humans are doing nothing new in that respect. The question is, who gets to write the rules, and what do the rules exclude?That's always changing . Abbie Hoffman said ev ery law is political, because when you have, for example, a law against murdering, you will see the investigating police approach somebody who looks like they have no money before they approach somebody who looks like they have a million dollars. That's politics. That's not morality. That's a decision based on economics or appearance or looks or sexual identity or gender, and when we find society making those kinds of assumptions, it's our duty to intervene. Whether you choose to do that in your art or not is irrelevant.
I feel like the act of writing is a resistance to the order of law, the order of mankind. It's a resistance to governance, to all the implied and stated rules that say we actually have to have a physical address, to carry an identity card.We have to have an income-and if we have an income, we have to be taxed on it. Art is interrogating all those kinds of things at all times, whether we're aware of it or not.
I think writing means writing in your time. You don't have to stand on a soapbox. Writing is a political act because you are using a language that is used against you every day to tell you there's a Clean Air Act to protect you.You're using language to say,"No, the air today looks gray." Even by writing a simple line like that, you have made a mark against the world in which you're living and shown it to be something other than what people are selling to you.
How does the unconscious work in your writing?
I try not to think when I'm writing. At the same time, I recognize that once words are on the page, they have meaning, and I try to look at that.A couple of years ago, an editor asked me for work.I sent some, and the editor said, "I want this poem," and then it turned out later that the editor didn't understand the poem. I was like, Should I be insulted by that? And I thought, No,because there are a lot of things I like that I don't understand. I'll often like a poem before I understand it. The understanding is the value of the appreciation. I want to go back in there and think about why I like it, but there's something really wonderful about living in the realm of the pleasure of the senses and saying, "I don't know why I like that line, but it sure sounds good."
In the first poetry workshop I took, we had to translate something from a language we didn't speak-into English-and I was deter mined to make everything make sense, even though there were words I didn't understand. It didn't fit, but I wanted to make it fit. We came to class with our assignments, and one of the guys read a poem that repeated this line: "The killing kills the cakewalk." He was working with a language that had a lot of hard consonants. The instructor, David Bromige, said, "It's such a wonderful line. What do you think it means?"and the kid said, "I don't know, I just liked it." I remember being jealous of the fact that this guy got to have such a good line in his poem without it having to mean anything. I thought, I want to do that. I want to do that more.
I don't think that guy ever went on to take another poetry class or to publish poems-he was just taking the class as something to do but that line has stuck with me.That's the power of poetry: even if you don't understand it, you can remember it and go back to it time and time again. Every time you do, you're going to find a different relation ship to it. Over the years, "the killing kills the cakewalk'' has occurred to me at various moments in my life as a kind of pronouncement on what was going on in that moment. I know the author of that line and the teacher of the author of that line had no idea what it meant, and yet, there it is: a line of poetry forever stuck in my head. That's what poetry should do-create in you this lasting affection without it being about anything except when it pops back into your mind.
We all have lines like that that we remember vividly. A woman in one of my early poetry classes had a line in her poem that began: "Mother, I have always been a black child standing against a white wall." So powerful. I don't know if she ever wrote another poem, but it was a great opening. Those things stick with you. You can't help it. You can't unlearn them. Poetry is unearnable language. Unlearnable language. Maybe both.
I love surrealism, and I teach it because I feel like people misunderstand surrealism as the early definition of surrealism, which is to be beneath reality and in the dream world-to have access to the irrational and all that. Surrealism as a literary device has those irrational qualities, but at the same time, it's also a powerful means of expression. In a culture or language or world or community in which certain things are unsayable, you can resort to a kind of surrealism which is code, which is information, which is speaking about vioence, about queerness, about things the society can't or won't accept in ways that are surreptitious or sneaky.
What African-American poetry taught me was the complexity and depth of signification,which is to be able to talk about being an other, while at the same time denying to a huge chunk of the audience that you are talking about those things.The brilliance of layering language is something I learned and absorbed early in queer culture. We could send messages to one another across the room in language that was not intercepted by hetero normative society. Surrealism can be used as a defense mechanism as well. In Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, surrealism was often used to talk about oppressive government, and I think sometimes we do that in the United States, as well. It's one of the lenses we can use as writers.
Would you talk more about language that rises from oppression?
It's being able to say,"Is she family?" in a small town and knowing most queer people wouldn't think someone just asked if she was your relative. We know what that word means. We know it's code. Being able to develop that language in places where you don't want to be revealed is one of the great things queer culture has given us. And now so much of that language has been co-opted by non-queer culture, and we think, well, that's kind of a compliment, but at the same time, what do we do when we don't want to be picked up by everybody in the room?
Also, there's the fucked up thing that happens when people misuse your language and the signals get crossed. Like when a heterosexual man says, "Yes, my partner and I recently broke up," and you're like, Oh! Are you telling me you're not straight? You're misusing my language.
We had to say partner because we were never allowed to say wife or husband. Give us that much, until you give us full equality. Which we now have, except for, God rest her soul, Kim Davis.
That's like a surrealist performance.
But isn't it wonderful that we can see it as the bizarro version of culture, rather than the normal version?
With growing acceptance, do you see more co-opting of queer language and identity?
I certainly see it in San Francisco, where the entire city has become metro sexual. Queer bars are no longer queer bars. Straight bars are no longer straight bars. People actually have to talk to each other in order to know, and no one assumes gender or gender identity or sexuality or marital status or anything without actually having a conversation. I try to go back in my mind and think, what is it that we really wanted all along? Isn't what we wanted the ability to be different, the permission to be different? Not to be absorbed into the melting pot of assimilation.
I think that LGBT rights have come far on the coattails of marriage equality. But that's essentially a middle-class concern, having to do with assimilationist values rather than people focusing on, say, job equality, protection from being fired, protection from discrimination, protection from violence, those things that particularly affect people in the transgender community who are at subsistence level or homeless. We need to be protecting them, and the conversation is still more about, will Bob and Bob get their marriage license so that their adopted kids will have two fathers? That's about property and inheritance, and some of us don't have property or inheritance and need to be taken care of That's why I'm more interested in helping the Larkin Street Youth Center, helping people who are still on the run from a place that won't accept them, rather than working for the benefit of the middle class, which I think usually takes care of itself
What about the permission to be different?
I live in San Francisco, where if we need to pee, we pee. I'm not going to qualify this or quantify that or ask permission, or anything like that.
That's actually one of the wonderful things about Toni Morrison. She's not trying to write a book that explains black culture for a white audience. She's simply writing about a world that exists partially in real life and partially in the imagination and that is true to the life of the characters.
I want to be truthful to queer culture in all of its forms, not just the thematic, society-version harlequin. The African-American poet Haki R. Madhubuti writes about what he calls "the small doors of tokenism" and of the acceptance that exists only in terms of, Are you our kind of people? Will you fit in here? I never want to be that guy who's like, Oh, you can take me anywhere.
You can't . I often will end up putting myself into uncomfortable situations, going to a small college in rural Utah, for example, to read poetry to an audience that includes queer people who don't feel safe in their environment; it feels like visibility has come for a moment. I don't want them to feel like the freaks of their class, or like they're freaks in my work. In my work, everyone's a freak.
That's what I love about New York City and San Francisco. The anonymity gives everyone permission to be a freak.
And it's changing. The Castro used to be a place where there wasn't Pottery Barn. There wasn't Starbucks. There wasn't all of that shit. When we would go there, it was kind of raunchy and dangerous and ugly and perverted and wonderful. Unapologetically sexual. Unapologetically S&lvl and leather, and all that stuff just out in the streets. It wasn't as welcoming to diversity as it is now. If you wanted to meet black men, you would go to the Pendulum; if you wanted to hang out with your lesbian friends, you would go to Josie's. There wasn't the cross-pollination that there is now. But at the same time, the development of subculture and of subculture strategy and subculture history-it was a fortress against what was really an ugly time in human history. The violence against gay, lesbian, and transgender people is ongoing, but we've made so many strides. We know now about killings. It used to be that they were buried in the police blotter and nobody knew. Your friend would disappear, and you'd find out weeks later that he'd been found with twenty-six stab wounds and ruled a suicide. You're like, No, I don't think my friend would have stabbed himself twenty-six times.
In Cocktails, you wrote about movies because you said you were tired of your own mind. Does that outside perspective reach into the internal and renew it in some way?
The fact that one is writing from a mind other than one's own is a purely enabling fiction to begin with. I think what I meant was that I wanted to put the camera in a different location. Sometimes you want close-ups, sometimes you want medium shots, sometimes you want the worm's eye view, looking up at the world. I felt that in those poems I wanted to not be responsible for the content. They didn't all start out as what they ended up. Intent on my behalf is usu ally running around 1.5 on a scale of 10. Fifteen percent of my writing is intentional-I said it that way, I meant it that way, that's my literal mind. Most of the time I don't know what's going to happen. I'm always surprised when I open my mouth and say shit. Why did I say that? It just came out.
Even my completely original poems are arrangements of things I've written and said at various moments. Even if it's one continuous draft of a poem, the poem that you're writing at 4:22 in the afternoon is different than the poem that you're writing at 4:23 in the after noon. You're veering off-course all the time. That's the experience of writing. What are the paths I could take with this image, with this idea? I think you become comfortable and conscious of the choosing nature of language. And that helps you because at any given moment you could say, "Well, would this speaker in this poem say sofa or would they say couch or would they say davenport." All of those things change the rhythm of the line, the music of the poem, the culture of the poem, the geography of it, the history of it. Every word you choose is a stain you're putting on the page, and the idea is to have the stains work in such a way that they create, for the spectator, for the reader, some pleasurable experience. It doesn't have to resolve itself in an image, but it often does. It could just as easily be about a mood or an encounter or a perception.
All of those different words-you're aware of them in the way a painter is aware of the round brush and the flat brush, in the way a drummer is aware of the difference between the tom-tom and the snare. We're using language all the time. We've just become more conscious of how we use it. Then you have to unkink all of that feeling and become natural to the form of whatever it is that you're doing. The idea of going back to the natural-your original perception-you can spend years trying to figure out how to do that, and by the time you figure it out, you're doing something different. Basho said you want to be quick and clean as if you're slicing through a cold water melon. But we can't always be like that. It takes a lot of trial and error to get to that point, so you choose your best moments.
You've written poetry entirely composed of section headings, correct?
Yes, from the apocryphal and pseudographic writings of the lost bible. We seldom invent words, and when we do, I doubt we own them. It's not really a word if no one else uses it-it's just gibberish. Most every word you use came from some place. If you can really do something cool and new and amusing with someone else's language, of course do it-but it shouldn't be the only thing you know how to do.
Sometimes you just do it by accident . Hart Crane sat down to type, ''And yet this great wing of eternity," and accidentally typed, ''And yet this great wink of eternity"and thought it was so much better. He said, I'm going to keep that. Of course eternity is just a wink. If it were a wing, everybody could do that. When you read that line, it seems so true that you just take it as gospel.
Do you see an underlying connection between spirituality and writing?
I believe, as Keats believed, that writing is "the vale of soul making." It is this place where we are developing. Lucretius reminds us that everything is equal parts fullness and emptiness, and it is the emptiness that creates sound. Lao Tzu tells us that it's not the clay, but the hollow part of the vessel that's of use, its emptiness that aptly makes sound reverberate inside us. All that internal space is connect ed by a vast network of signals, waves, sounds . We are creatures of light and sound, and so my spiritual self is rooted half in this conscious embrace of the fact that we're all really just nothing-truly nothing in the world-and yet we're in these units, these bodies that have connective tissue designed to bring in information about the other nonmaterial that's around us that we perceive as material. Part of my spiritual life is in recognizing the absolute interconnectedness of all things and the absurdity of the separation of bodies into separate little colonies of molecules and atoms.
At the same time, I recognize that everything takes its creative energy from friction and from a kind of a volatile existence. I recognize that all ways of seeing the world, all ways of being religious, all ways of being spiritual are going to be in conflict with one another. No one-well, perhaps one person-knows the truth about existence. My spiritual path is to be wrong about most everything in ways that are mostly instructive, at least for myself. I feel like in order to stay on that path, I choose from the greatest writings I encounter, including the Bible, which happens to be a problematic text in so many ways. Even St. Paul, homophobe that he was, distinguishes between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.If you tap into the spirit of the language of our sacred texts, it's essentially good. And don't worry about the letter of the law- that's somebody else's problem. If you don't like the letter of the law, change it. If it offends you, if I offend you, then suck it up. If there's a passage in the Bible that' s no longer relevant to your life, like owning slaves, or having multiple concubines or wives, or supporting incest, there are lots of other things that the Bible does include that are overlooked.
God destroyed the city of Sodom for what, exactly? It's never quite clear. You have to take a giant step back and say, "If people want to pervert that text into a platform against other people, that's really fucked up." It doesn't mean I have to participate. There's a lot of beauty in God's words, whatever words those are, whatever form they're in. They come as easily in ordinary life as they do in the writ ten text.The written texts are something we can agree on and argue about and have a conversation about. What people said cannot be debated, and that's the big problem of the gospels. And the great beauty of them. There are at least four versions that we recognize, and thousands of others that we don't recognize,so who knows what really went on with Jesus and all them boys? I'm sure there were certain things they weren't able to talk about and had to signify. Brotherhood and all that.
Christ was celibate and chose to surround himself with men.
If we choose to believe he was celibate. John the Divine was, repeatedly, in the position of being the apostle whom Christ loved. Leaning on his chest at the last supper. Being loved by him. Even at the moment of crucifixion, the narrator of the Gospel of John has Jesus look down at John and say, "Lo, here is thy mother." Saying to Mary, "Go, here is thy son." And the tradition is that John and Mary lived together with an emphasis that she treated him like a son, and he treated her like a mother. For all intents and purposes, John was Jesus's significant other. But if that makes people uncomfortable, which apparently it does, it gets left out. In the Acts of John-which are perhaps not by John, since he dies in them and it's hard to write about yourself if you die-John has this beautiful conversation where he says,"I didn't want you to marry. I wanted you for myself. I wanted you as my beloved." I can understand why people left that out. It can be frightening for some people, but why is that? Why is love strange?
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