Bruce Snider is the author of the poetry collections PARADISE, INDIANA, winner of the 2011 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize, and THE YEAR WE STUDIED WOMEN, winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW, PLOUGHSHARES, GETTYSBURG REVIEW,POETRY, and BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2012. Originally from Indiana, he was a Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. He is currently the Jenny McKean Moore Fellow at George Washington University in Washington D.C.
Jory Mickelson: I have read the poems in your new book Paradise, Indiana several times now. They continue to bring me back to them even after I have put the book down. Looking at lists of town names, I came across a Paradise in California, Nevada, Michigan, and Montana…Can you tell me a bit about how Paradise, Indiana came to be?
Bruce Snider: When I was first coming out in college, I took a course in the literature of rural America and was struck by the fact that there wasn’t a single gay person in anything we read. Even outside of class, most of the gay writers I was discovering wrote almost exclusively about cities (usually New York or San Francisco) or about gay resort communities like Fire Island and Provincetown, so it seemed as if my own life and experiences as a young gay person from rural Indiana were as invisible in American literature as they had been in my home town. For years I’ve wanted to write something about what it was like, at least for me, growing up where I did. Of course, I hope Paradise is a lot more than that, but that’s how it began. And in that sense, especially in the way that it’s trying to address certain longstanding silences in American literature, I see it in conversation with such American classics as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, both of which use town names (invented, in their cases) for their titles. I also see the book as coming out of a tradition of American literature, and particularly gay literature, that’s fascinated with the idea of the lost paradise. These books, of course, are by their nature elegiac. I’m thinking specifically of some of Mark Doty’s books, My Alexandria and Atlantis, as well as Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance.
JM: After writing this book, and seeing it in print, has your view of Indiana changed? If so, in what ways?
BS: It’s definitely made me aware of how much has changed since I was a kid. The small town I’m from is still quite conservative, very Republican, but my old high school now has a gay and lesbian group. My parents have become close friends with a lesbian couple and their two adopted African American sons. In fact, there are quite a few gay couples that now live in the area. It’s increasingly a different place in terms of gay and lesbian visibility.
JM: The poems in Paradise are largely narrative. It is almost as if the poems inform one another to tell a story that stretches across this collection. Would you agree with this idea? What themes or stories do you think the poems tell?
BS: Yes, I think that’s true. At a certain point, I actually began thinking of the book as a long poem rather than a collection of individual poems. I became aware as I wrote that some of the sections wouldn’t live well outside of the book. They were dependent on other poems to give them backstory and context. Once I accepted that was how the book would operate, it freed me up to really move around, to tell small stories that accumulated to reveal a much larger story. At the center of it all was, of course, Nick’s death and its effect on the people around him. But I wanted his death to be contextualized by other deaths as well as the history of the region. I was interested in the way that loss can make us see place and history afresh. In fact, as I was writing, I often found myself returning to some lines by Richard Rodriquez, from his brilliant essay about AIDS and San Francisco, “Late Victorians,” in which he writes, “We have become accustomed to figures disappearing from our landscape. Does this not lead us to interrogate the landscape?” In some ways that what I think my book is doing, exploring how loss defines and transforms our sense of place, home, even country.
JM: Dancer from the Dance is one of my favorite novels. It combines the epistolary form, humor and loss in such an elegant way. I recommend it to every young gay man who is looking for something to read. Could you talk to me a bit more about the elegiac tone of your book? What things are being mourned in Paradise? What are the speakers of these poems unable to regain; it feels as though a great deal of things are being lost, not just one young life.
BS: Yes, Dancer from the Danceis a great novel, one of my favorites, too. And the epistolary frame contains a very interesting conversation about the urban and the rural that really struck me the first time I read it.
Certainly there are a lot of things being mourned in the book, but to be honest I really just focused on the loss of Nick (and the other literal deaths) and tried to let everything else emerge as unselfconsciously as possible from that. Aside from the book’s absent people, I mostly found myself thinking a lot about imposed silence—the inability to speak grief in the moment of grieving, or for that matter the inability to speak desire—which for me is the other great tragedy of the book.
I’ll admit I had some reservations when I first decided to write about a young gay man’s death. In part because I was aware at how often gay love stories end in death. And I didn’t want to perpetuate some Celluloid Closet notion that the gay lover must always die, nor did I want to perpetuate the old suicide myth from movies like Ode to Billy Joe, which seem to suggest that most gay people in rural America eventually off themselves (in fact, of course, most either move to cities or find ways to make lives for themselves where they are). That’s one reason I wanted Nick’s death early in the book, so that hopefully it would be less about a gay boy who commits suicide and more about how the people close to him survive and cope with that loss, particularly the poems’ speaker. More than a story about death, I wanted it to be a story about grief lived out in a very particular landscape.
JM: Nick seems the central figure in this book, although he is entirely absent. Everything we as readers learn about him is mediated through the speaker in the poems, through memory, and also through what is not said. Nick’s death and absence creates a sort of negative space in the life of the book that not only allows the reader to fill in the gaps with their own projections, but also to feel the crushing weight of what has gone missing or is just out of reach.
BS: As I wrote the Nick poems, I began to work toward that sense of “presence through absence” that you mention. I was trying to capture the way, when you lose someone, that the evidence of the former life is suddenly so palpable around you. The person’s clothes, books, even the landscape itself, feel more infused with the loved one’s presence than ever, which of course paradoxically also makes the absence more palpable.
JM: Your poem or series of poems called “Afterlife” are some of the most lyric in the book. They are both darker and I would argue oneiric in nature, even though only the first two contain references to waking. I also noticed in the acknowledgments that they used to be called “Mourning.” Could you talk a bit about this poem (these poems) genesis?
BS: The “Afterlife” poems actually emerged from a writing exercise that I do sometimes with my friend Shara Lessley. (Shara’s my main reader and a wonderful poet, who just released a beautiful book called TWO-HEADED NIGHTINGALE from New Issues Press, which is fabulous. I recommend it to everyone). We give each other a line or an image, some bit of “seed” language, from which we have a strictly timed hour or two to write a poem. We often use these “sprints,” as we call them, as a way to warm up the writing muscles each morning. A couple of summers ago, I was visiting her in North Carolina and I ended up producing a series of fragments from our sprints that would eventually become the “Afterlife” series.
At that point I’d written a number of poems about Nick but none in which the speaker was confronting Nick’s absence in the immediate present of the poem. I hadn’t originally thought of these poems as oneiric, but I can see what you mean. I was definitely interested in capturing that raw, stunned, strangely lucid quality that grief can bring, particularly in those moments of waking when you feel as if you’re discovering the loss all over again. In the earliest drafts, I called each of the poems “Mourning” (and published some of them under that title), but in the context of the whole book, that title seemed to state the obvious. I eventually came up with “Afterlife,” which was originally the title of a very different, failed poem that never made it into the manuscript.
JM: I wanted to return to the idea of visibility, specifically of queer writers and characters. What is your take on the current visibility of queer authors and queer literature in the wider publishing world?
BS: There are some excellent queer poets getting lots of attention right now. I’m thinking specifically of D.A. Powell, who’s a major American talent, and even emerging poets like Eduardo Corral, who’s gotten lots of kudos for his first book. I don’t get the sense that being queer hurts or helps your cause as a poet these days. As always there are wonderful writers who don’t get the attention they deserve—queer and otherwise—but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t have anything to do with sexuality.
JM: Do you believe there is something like a gay aesthetic in literature? How would you define it, if you can?
BS: To be honest, I don’t think much about a “gay” aesthetic or identity aesthetics in general. The gay community is so diverse and any queer person’s aesthetic will be influenced by many factors, only one of which will be sexuality, that I don’t think I could identify a common or dominant gay aesthetic. I do think, though, that there are qualities that a number of gay writers share or seem to appreciate, “camp” being the first one that comes to mind. But I don’t think of camp as an aesthetic. It’s more a tonal quality that may have originated from within the gay community, but that many gay (and even some straight) writers possess.
JM: Then do you think that the idea of a gay aesthetic in literature is something that still holds currency?
BS: I guess I’d have to say not for me, but then I’m not sure it ever has. I generally just to write what interests me and let other people figure out the rest.
JM: Saving the criticism and analysis for the critics and postgame commentators then, where do you find yourself drawing inspiration from these days? What poems or projects are underway?
BS: I’ve always been interested in the idea of the poet as a kind of historian, not as a recorder of facts, exactly, but of feeling and circumstance, so I find myself inspired by events or subjects that I don’t see people writing about. As I’ve said, that’s definitely how PARADISE came about, as a response to an absence.
Right now, I’m working on a new book tentatively called, “The Hall of Human Origins” and it continues with some of PARADISE’s themes, but it’s largely inspired by the fact that so many of my straight friends have recently had their first kids. Everyone around me seems to be reproducing, so sometimes it feels a little odd to be someone like myself who isn’t and probably won’t. I’m especially interested in this because the culture often holds up children as the ultimate expression of a couple’s love. If you’re a gay couple, however, who can’t mix genetic material to produce a child, what does it mean, if anything, about your lives and the nature of your relationship? How does it affect your sense of life and death, of the natural world, that sort of thing?
I wrote a number of poems about this while working on PARADISE and have continued over the past year, so I’m close to having an early draft of the manuscript. But we’ll see. These things usually take me longer than I think.
JM: Thanks for such a great discussion. I look forward to seeing more of your work.