It can be hard to determine what makes a poem stand out to people, especially when you wrote it yourself, but I think this poem has a rawness and honesty to it that you sometimes don’t find in more politically charged works. The poem isn’t preachy. It is angry and maybe even offensive to some. The speaker doesn’t have all the answers and the ending begs more questions than solutions. It gets at that American desire to save others, but also at the selfishness and sometimes insensitivity we have as members of this society. I’m extremely happy that it got attention, because it is a great example of the work I do and the things I care most about in poetry. Plus it is an issue worth discussing and thinking about even if it is a painful one.
Let’s talk a bit more about activism. What current issues or concerns to you have for the LGBTQ community right now? Do you think that poetry can “do something” in the face of those issues?
My biggest concern for the community is a lack of education. So many people out there don’t know the history of the gay rights movement or gay history at all. Many also don’t know the clear facts about the lack of rights we have as gay people in this country. Something very strange has happened with gay rights. It is almost the opposite of the civil rights movement. In the case of civil rights, the laws and rights often came before social acceptance of black people in society. Gay rights has moved in a different direction. Gay people are more socially accepted. We are on TV. We are in movies. We are politicians, teachers, police officers, etc. This doesn’t mean things are perfect, but it is more widely accepted on a social level, yet we still haven’t won many important equal rights. This has created an apathy and misunderstanding in a lot of people both gay and straight. I have educated people countless times about the fact that you can still be fired for being gay in 29 states in this country. People always look at me in shock and typically don’t believe me until they look it up. I’m talking about well-educated and accepting people. We have somehow created a world where people can’t see the complete injustice that they are faced with on a daily basis. This is very dangerous and allows for the right-wing movement in this country to gain even more power. The facts remain that we have a long road ahead of us.
As for poetry, I do think it can “do something.” As a lover of literature, there have been countless poems, stories, and novels I’ve read that have completely changed me and my outlook on life. In my poetry, I attempt to shed light on many issues people are very uncomfortable with. By doing that, I know many will turn away from my work and not accept it or value it, but I also know there are people out there wanting and needing poems like mine. In many ways, I try to write the poems I wish I could have read as a younger man coming to terms with being gay.
I heard a recent statistic that of all the money that goes into funding the queer community, only about five percent of it is spent on LGBTQ arts. Is it important that queer people support queer artists? Is this a ghettoization of queer people, and is that dangerous or are we beyond the need to make distinctions gay/straight/lesbian writer or book? Is it just a form of marketing?
All arts need support, so I would say that it is vital that queer people support queer artists. That doesn’t mean that you support people solely based on their queerness, but also on the quality of their work. I often feel like I’m in the minority on this issue, but I don’t have many problems with the label of “gay poet.” No matter what I write it is from my perspective and I am gay. I may not be writing about something gay, but it is coming from me. I don’t think we are in a place in society to completely remove these labels. On a very practical level, it can really help people find your work when they are seeking out gay poets.
Having said that, I don’t consider my work to be for a gay audience only. I think instead of feeling the need to remove labels and assimilate, we should be encouraging people to read outside of their box. The speaker in my poems is almost always coming from a gay perspective, but my poems touch on a range of issues, feelings, and themes that many can connect with and enjoy. I always it find it interesting when straight people seem to think they can’t or shouldn’t read gay work. I read straight people’s work all the time and I learn from it, enjoy it, and am moved by it. I think of these labels more as facts. I am gay and I am a poet. These aren’t going to change.
I like this. In a talk, Eileen Myles said that (and I am paraphrasing here) that as queer people we widen the range of human experience. We record an outsider’s point of view from our work and that is one of the things that gives it great value, the ability to stretch the scope of possibility.
Who are some poets who have influenced and changed you or your work?
As I mentioned earlier, Frank O’Hara is a huge influence on me. He showed me a different way of approaching poetry. He wrote so much from his own experience. His poems are grounded in his life in New York with his friends, and yet they connect to much bigger themes and can really make you think. Richard Tayson is also a big influence on me. He is a contemporary poet and one of the first I read as a young man in college that really got at the inter-workings of a gay relationship. His poems made me realize how raw and direct my poems could be, but how they could also have a great beauty to them. Tony Hoagland is also an influence. I was encouraged to read him in grad school by my thesis advisor who thought I could learn from him. What is interesting about Hoagland is that we are both concerned with the personal in connection to the wider American culture, but he comes from a very different point-of-view, so our poems are similar, yet so different.
Who are you telling other folks to read?
I love to recommend books to people and I often do. Most people don’t have trouble finding or reading older poets, but so many have no clue about contemporary poets and books. I read as much contemporary poetry as possible. I just finished Matthew Zapruder’s newest book Come on All You Ghosts and it was amazing. I highly recommend it. I also always recommend David Kirby, Carl Philips, Denise Duhamel, and Kim Addonizio. I’ve recently fallen for Randall Mann as well. I could go on and on, because there are a lot of great poets and books out there.
I heard Matthew Zapruder read recently in Washington D.C. His reading and his work are fantastic. What are you currently working on?
I am currently sending out a new manuscript that I recently completed called He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. I have my first book, which I co-wrote with Bryan Borland, coming out later this year. It is called The Hanky Code. I have new work in the winter issues of The Los Angeles Review, Mary: A Literary Quarterly, and New Mexico Poetry Review. I’m also always working on new poems.
You sound like a busy man. We saw Allison Books collapse in a sense, it no longer prints books–only does e-publishing. Print book sales are falling as ebooks are on the rise. Where do you think the publishing industry is headed right now?
These are all great questions and important ones to consider. Publishing is changing, but I am not fully convinced that the print book is on its way out. I personally don’t own a e-reader and I don’t like the idea of reading a book on an electronic device. If you look at most of these e-reading devices, they still don’t offer many of the books I read or am interested in reading. They still cater mostly to very popular fiction and non-fiction, which means they don’t cater much to the queer audience. It is hard to be a small press these days and some are turning to e-publishing, but there will still be a demand for actual books. Part of reading, for me, is the experience of holding a book in my hand. It is about the feel of it and the smell of it. Reading something on the screen just isn’t the same. On the other hand, I do think that literary magazines can really gain some power and recognition from going online. My favorites still publish a print version, but have a very strong presence online.
Is reading still vital part of queer culture or are LGBTQ people no longer reading?
Reading is still vital and I believe still thriving in queer culture. It is often in books that we first discover glimpses of queer life and I think reading, for many, was a part of their coming out experience. There is a lot more diversity out there in books than perhaps any other entertainment medium. We have to help continue to produce work that some young boy or girl can discover and connect with and realize there are others out there just like them.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I want to thank you for asking me to do this interview and for helping to continue the discussion about poetry and the gay arts scene. Since leaving grad school, I have found a real sense of community in connecting with other gay poets through my blog, Facebook, and Twitter. While I have my technological reservations at times, I’ve greatly benefited from everyone I’ve met, so I encourage people to reach out to those poets they’ve read and enjoyed. There’s nothing like getting a quick note from someone who actually read a poem of yours and was moved by it.
Thanks again for doing this interview, it has been great!