BB: On that note, now for something about truth and poetry and love. And some of this may be off the record; we’ll see as we go. You’ve said elsewhere that adding the Buddhist concept of “right speech” (that which minimizes harm and confusion) to the consideration of honesty and dishonesty in potentially cruel situations is to “make the pike of honesty into something more like a three-legged stool,” which is the choicest thing either of us is likely to come up with for the duration of this dialogue. The last two years for me have indeed been about clearing away a lot of psychological static and a lot of impasse in my life and the key has been as you suggest the base fact that all you owe anyone is your emotional truth. You cannot be an accurate mirror, or in “right relation,” to someone otherwise. I am a rescuer and a protector and a redeemer and an accommodator from way back, and most of my relationships have sprung from those dynamics and most have clashed then with my need for private or secret, languaged, liberated and permissive, dark-tinted, dreamy/brooding space, a homebase of sorts, a reset. The obligation I would grow to make of the former endorsed the surreptitious elective delicacy of the latter. I would often come to pit friendship or fantasy or, indeed, poetry against the love and care of a partner. There are some pretty extreme conditioning reasons for this pattern, which I won’t get into here. You know them, anyway. Well, suffice it to say in the last couple of years, more consciously clear about this dynamic and others, my writing or relationship to writing has changed somewhat.
For one thing, and in much admiration for your Bluets and Red Parts, I have been writing these (now that I think of it scientistic, objective, structuralist) essays that have vulnerability (shame and guilt) built in as perforce components. Onesheets. They are another room on the house. Part of the fun of the monograph essay project is to speak and reason and wander authentically but to appreciate my one-among-many subjectivity. What and how does the topic of Owls or Br’er Rabbit or Man Roulette or Foot Washing mean to a poet and teacher in his mid-thirties who grew up white and gay and male in Piedmont North Carolina, the son of a Primitive Baptist and a truck driver and, later, a tax attorney? That is, my difference is very particular, but no more particular than anyone’s, touchingly. You know, it turns out candor can also be a practice of displacing one’s self-centrality.
It was Eileen [Myles] who asked me recently, Is there just less shame of giving it up in prose than poetry? Further, I like her question as a reader of poetry, My pleasure doesn’t matter?, (a gendered question classically). And I think the two provocations are linked but not concentric; there are pleasures outside of being leveled with. I do think that a reader’s pleasure is one of discovery rather than receipt so one of the particular ways a poet needs to be obliging is to be revelatory moment to moment, which demands, for me, a release of control, to write, in short, like a reader, to encounter. (As Beckett puts it: “What folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there, what, what is the word—”) When I think of poetry’s categorical difference from prose, I primarily think of pleasure, the pleasure of reading poetry that happens as you read it, that uses—I suppose—parallels, resets, likenesses, echoes, suspensiveness, aoristic time, associations, and breakages as a means to advance (and follow) meaning or engagement. So, you know the bareness of feeling or truth-telling is for poetry an important tool but, really, a device among many devices.
One of the interesting things about interviewing Eileen was to learn that Hart Crane was for her an important poet. (Oddly our interview returned repeatedly to gay male poets and queer tutelage and queer structures of caregiving and family.) I think, in fact, no one has put it so succinctly that it is “the love of things irreconcilable” that one finds in Crane, an “architecture of contradictions” he brought to the poetry and filled it with, concerned about resolution but devoted to irresolution. As she says, “that was being gay for me” and “the queer piece was the ill fitting piece and poetry was the place where you accommodated that ill fitting perspective into its own kind of interfaces.” It seems to have been for her, and it was for me, a young ego’s understanding of what poetry is for, but an incredibly important one that if one grows out of, it shouldn’t be thought of as surpassing but sprouting. What else or what eventually the living practice of feeling makes of the practice of poetry, the practice at poetry, is something I continue to learn.
I wonder, is there something in poetry that you have “grown out of,” and if so, how so? What do you make of Eileen’s claim that being a poet involves the performance of the job of poet, mostly outside of the writing of a poem? She has perhaps been a poet more pervasively in her two novels and book of essays, performed it more there. What do you think?
MN: I feel awkward talking about this for an anthology centered on poets & poetry—almost like going to an AA meeting and saying the program isn’t working for you, that you’ve learned you can in fact remain sober another way. But, since you asked, I will speak to it, since it is something I have actually been thinking a lot about, in closed quarters.
I had a lot of energy and love for the “performance of the job of being a poet,” as you/Eileen say—energy that flew me through my 20s in New York, where I moved, as so many people do, to live the life of a poet (and, at that time, as a dancer), without having any idea what all that would entail. I just went on my nerve, all the way through, which served me well. I never thought I was solely a poet, but poetry was almost a metaphor, or a consolidation, a crystallization, of what it meant to be a language-maker—to care, inordinately, about words. And certainly I was that, aspired to be that. Falling in with Eileen was instructive; it kept the mythos well-fed for many years, so much so that I dispensed with other forms of writing almost entirely.
Your recent interview with Eileen in OR magazine filled my heart with the reminder of the electricity, the sanctity, the perversity of the poet’s job, the poet’s life—the perverse beauty of wasting your life, as she says, being a poet: what could be better? I love and agree with everything she says about field work, & about the work of poetry: about essentially making yourself into a lens, a recorder, a sieve, a receiver, so that all the world becomes your field, and poetry, the field notes, the record of your thought, spirit, and metabolism as one moves through it.
Alas, since moving to LA in 2005, I’ve written few to no poems. The urge simply fell away from me, though it has returned in bouts of crisis, beauty, or great feeling. (Falling in love with Harry, the death of loved ones, visits to impressive places, and so on.) I have, however, written three books of nonfiction prose since moving to LA six years ago (The Red Parts, Bluets, and The Art of Cruelty—actually four, if you count Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, which I edited here). These projects have been totally consuming, and totally satisfying. Each one has felt like it contained the information I needed, the writing journey I needed to be on. The feeling reminds me a lot of when I quit dancing: I had always identified as “a poet and a dancer”—so it was strange for me to realize that a strong yoga practice could easily subsume my need to go to class or the studio, even to perform. Now I haven’t danced in years, which is fine by me. At this very moment, so far as body and mind go, I would say I identify mostly as a swimmer and writer of prose, albeit one who is a poet first and always.
Since poetry is such a joke in the culture—theatrically revered and reviled at the same time—it needs a lot of apparatus to make it worth joining, worth sticking with. It needs a sense of nobility and worth, because God knows it isn’t going to come from without. I will freely admit that it has been empowering for me write books that have traveled in other spheres, not because those spheres are better or more important, but because they have expanded my sense of what writing is, in the world. But as the publishing world implodes, as I believe it is now doing, it’s the poets who are going to know how to keep on keeping on. It’s the poets who know how to get worth from their work for its own sake, to have dialogue with others (as opposed to the expectation or reality of $) be a sustaining force, to press books into people’s hands out of love, to return to books over and over again rather than toss out thousands in a pulp. It’s poets who know that a DIY spirit is key not only to the future of books, but to diminishing the ever-increasing stranglehold that corporations have on our lives.
And yet, for me, at the moment, I feel as though there is more artistic and intellectual discovery for me in prose. I feel that I know certain tricks in poetry that make a poem “work,” how to make fresh images and good beginnings and endings, but that a single good poem doesn’t satisfy me as it used to, it no longer seems quite enough. (This feeling began when I was writing Jane.) UNLESS, as you say, one feels the urge to please someone rather specific, and one wants to test the wager, as you say, that the poem holds that energy for others. I often try to express myself to Harry in poems, for example, but whereas I used to think that the urge to express myself to a beloved was the same engine that made a good poem, now I’m not so sure. I feel distrust when I’m making poetic decisions that take the poem out of the realm of a communication, and into “literature.” Often I give poems to Harry with the caveat that I’m not trying to make it a perfect poem; I’m trying to communicate something to him.
In return for your poem, I’ll here print my favorite of these love poems, the first I ever wrote to Harry:
I wake each dawn
with a new idea
The idea is you
the boneyard of names
A windmill of sparks
I see you
It had been Thanksgiving
Everyone was drunk
It had snowed
Where would you park
How would you find me
Your gait made of fire
in the boneyard of names
It’s a very stripped down poem, with two basic feelings: one, amazement at finding and beholding a novel, astonishing other; and two, wanting to tell that other, I see you. In your most stripped down form, Person. I see you. And you are astonishing.
BB: Paul Celan holds hands with Robert Creeley: fire, bones, snow, thanks, names. I love that its question, “how would it (we) come together” is answered by the inevitability of that togetherness, in each day’s “new idea,” “you” again (and again).
I have been thinking about your smart gloss, earlier, of the argument for gay rights: “for the recognizability, visibility, and dignity of the queer subject.” That compound noun is one I feel rather differently about since living these last two years in Missoula, Montana’s most progressive city. Here, I understand as a threatened minority, and am not likely to forget, the real reasons to organize, to stand in solidarity—and the purposes of being both recognizable and visible as queer. In the polarizing national media climate, a place with small or discreet gay population can produce some shocking public behavior; the local Tea Party organizer recently and reluctantly stepped down from his post after blogging, in reference to Matthew Shepherd, “where can I get that Wyoming instruction manual” about how to “hang…decorative fruits…where they can be admired.” The stairwell down to the city’s one gay bar, whose owner denies and rejects the designation, in a busy and boozy downtown scene is routinely the site of harassment. An antidiscrimination ordinance was passed by the City Council earlier this year, (because the state legislature has refused to do so several times), over the protests and hysteria and shocking propaganda by a grouped gathered in the cause “Not My Bathroom,” an alarmingly well-organized campaign that suggested that if Missoula required accommodation for transgender and transsexual people, young girls in public bathrooms are at great risk of being molested by “female-identified men.”
It was a proud night as well as a relief that so many civic leaders, until well after 2am, in three-minute speeches, spoke in favor of the ordinance before the mayor and the council, which passed the mostly toothless but—in my opinion—greatly significant measure. The lesbian population is larger than the number of out gay men, but you’d be hard pressed to call it a community. And, most gay men who stay here are quiet and rather removed, “disinterested” in “politics,” and many consciously pass as straight. Off the record maybe: An older man hit on me the other day and when I wasn’t interested he told me that in his “old-goat” ways he’s getting less anxious about humiliation and figures “one in ten” guys he offers a blow job at the post office will take him up on it. Then again, one in ten, he admitted, tend to spit on him or tell him he ought to have his ass kicked. So, you know, fine and great, anonymous sex, I suppose, if you feel there is an alternative, if it is a choice. He asked me if occasionally I need someone to help get me off. And I’ve been thinking about how and when and why “want” became “need” in that sentence of his, or when “someone” came to describe himself as a sex partner. I’ve mostly chosen to live in places that have a deep and broad context for my sexuality, and it is fascinating, confusing, and a little exhausting to live in so spotty a community, where fear produces invisibility, and invisibility produces fear.
I suppose that is why I take umbrage with Jack Halberstam’s provocation. It’s different out here in America’s middle. Rights are inventions, no doubt, constructs, sure; but, equality under the law, eventually, has real social effects.
“The beyond marriage queers,” c’est moi. I happen to think if civil unions were given the same exact partnership rights as marriage, the distortion that will accompany this national “debate” for at least another generation, and with increasingly harmful vilification, would be disinteresting to most. I think ultimately same-sex marriage is a religious issue, and like all religious issues, small and mean. It would be kind of reasonable if religious people got married and non-religious people had civil unions. It’s a nomenclature thing.
“Work from contingency rather than essence” is also a tricky proposition, in this matter. I love the sentence, and who wouldn’t rather step into contingency than be essentializing. I take you to mean, “don’t consider a right inalienable, innate; engage the social conflict around discriminatory ideology as it arises.” But it is awfully close to another familiar dynamic. Every queer person living probably has had some curiosity about life before Stonewall, before, even, the trials of Oscar Wilde, when arguably “homosexual” transitioned in popular understanding from a behavior or an act to an identity. Homosexual has not always been something to be. It was homosexual, what we did; not: I am now homosexual. Right? And it can be enticing to wish again that it were not understood as essence, that as a minority in a culture, you didn’t have to be queer all day long.
Most people who have a difficult coming-out struggle recite and repeat all the other ways they identify (a writer, a son, a vegetarian, a friend) so as to not feel boxed by this one. A person’s identities, all of them, should be fluid and subject to change and flourish together, with great contradiction even; but for a culture, homosexual identities themselves, beyond homosexual behavior in contingent contexts, are more useful. I’ve given some thought to and love the new direction in queer studies (Jose Munoz, Michael Snediker) devoted to exploring or reviving “forward-dawning” queerness, utopian not univocal, queerness not “here and now” as, for instance, the incremental progress of “gay marriage” politics demands. But just as I don’t think my freedom damages or depletes or discredits your freedom (it’s not a zero sum game of course), I want to be one of a group that as a group secures the chance for happiness and self-expression for its most marginalized members. I know some of them here in western Montana.
February 2010-February 2011