On Facebook recently, the poet Philip F. Clark wrote a post, Clark discusses, at length, the subject of sentimentality/sentiment, foregrounding this notion that the expression of sentiment—in whatever form it takes—seems to be frowned upon in certain corners of the “poetry world.” He wasn’t arguing against craft, far from it. He was arguing for, I think, bringing craft to a poem, including the expression of sentiment, in order to make a poem more memorable for a reader. When I first picked up The Carnival of Affection I randomly flipped to “Mulberry Street,” the volume’s penultimate poem, and began reading—and soon found myself gently weeping. It was a good sign. Although I came predisposed to enjoy Clark’s book, I also knew that when it comes to taste in art, what floats one person’s boat may sink someone else’s. Over dinner on the Upper West Side a few months ago, Clark confided that a poet friend found “Mulberry Street” “sentimental.” I, on the other hand, place it in the lineage of those poems by the late John Montague,poems in which he imagines the lives of his (Irish) immigrant parents in Brooklyn in the 50s—poems Montague read to me during his office hours at UC Berkeley in the mid 1980s. Perhaps I was thinking of the Irish poet when I read “Mulberry Street.” Perhaps I wept because I was thinking of my (Nicaraguan) immigrant parents in San Francisco in the early 60s, before I was born. I’m grateful that I brought this baggage to The Carnival of Affection. What follows are a series of questions I posed as a way of hopefully bringing to light added insight into the art by this artist—so that this Sibling Rivalry title will find its way into the hands of more readers.
During a recent re-reading of your poem, “A Séance in the Dollhouse,” with your entire book still humming in my head, certain snippets struck me anew:
your thumb on me
The house of your hands on me.
Every time you touched me…
With every touch you mapped on me,
I understood that, on one level, this was a poem about inappropriate touching or, to be unambiguous: possible sexual abuse of a child. And yet, the fact that you decided to make this the very first poem in the book made me wonder if you wanted the poem to go beyond that reading and stand in for more. For example, I noticed the instances where the term “touch” (or something suggesting it) appeared. This, coupled with a number of the poems I encountered throughout The Carnival of Affection, suggested to me that touch—in its many modes—is one of the recurring motifs or themes of the book. Could you discuss how touch, if at all, was on your mind when you set out to write and organize your book? Which poems from the book, in your mind, might you single out as touchstones (pun intended)?
You bring up a very core element of the poems in ‘Carnival’; yes, touch is a deep part of the poems. ‘A Seance in the Dollhouse’ is indeed about wrong touch, abusive touch at its harrowing worst, because it is psychological as well as physical abuse. The child can only know he/she needs to get to the ‘not-touching room.’ Other poems, most all of the poems, are about caring touch, whether sexual or not — Icarus feels the touch of the air and the sun; the Minotaur wants only to be touched as he roams the world looking for human affection. In other poems, touch is tender and human (‘The Rune’, ‘A Beggar’s Welcome’, ‘Louis Belfast’). The poem ‘The Hangman’s Poor Gift,’ shows the ‘gift’ of touch as the last thing with which to help someone who is about to be executed; the hangman knows that all he can give is gentleness at a time of great fear: ‘quieting the loud world for once, and the / shaking lips.’ He provides his touch, if only the last that convicted man will feel.
We all need and want to be touched; it is the most elemental acknowledgment of each other, offering a silent language of only the body. Poems such as ‘Joe’ show touch to be an innate fear (because of his horrible skin), but is finally the one thing that releases that fear — ‘The man reached to him / and touched Joe’s skin. Shaking, burning, / all night the man became a book.’ In ‘Bardo’, the dead friend touches those who have come to clean out his apartment, but they do not feel his touch; they cannot. Sexual touch, as in ‘The Correspondence’ is about touch without desire; something rote, but essentially empty. In ‘A Fracas in the Memory Palace,’ which was written quite early, is where I tried to think about ways that touching someone is that very human action that changes someone. In that poem, based on my mother’s Alzheimer’s experience, the combing of her hair releases her from the confusion of the objects that she can no longer remember the names of. And in ‘Excavation’ a lover remembers a body once loved and desired; touch is memory and absence, in that poem, but deeply felt. In writing these poems, the whole idea of touch as affection or affliction was a main concern in showing these differences.
Even before we get to the first poem proper (“A Séance in the Dollhouse”), the reader encounters the first of your “epigraph-like” section dividers, which often read like mini-poems in their own right. Here’s your first one:
In the quiet dark,
As the first, it occupies a privileged position. Also: the fact that the book’s second poem (“The Readers” after Robert Hayden) invokes fathers as a subject suggests that the father is another important subject. But before I ask you to comment, I want to say that it wasn’t lost on me that you titled one of your poems “The Fathers,” in the plural. In this regard, it echoes the “fathers” (also plural) in the book’s first section divider. Why did you opt for the plural term? And how might this word choice (plural over singular) be related to this subject? Finally, you invoke in “The Readers” Robert Hayden’s famous, “Those Winter Sundays.” In addition to Hayden, did you have any other models for your “father” poems? I couldn’t help but think of Sharon Olds and how she devoted a whole book to the subject, titling her volume, The Father.
My father was many fathers to me, which is specifically why I used the plural. The idea in my father poems is to show some of those aspects of him — young, ‘The Dances’ and ‘Mulberry Street,’ (though in those poems he has second place to my mother!), or when he was older, dealing with his serious illness, and eventually, his death, which I tried to deal with in quite another way in ‘Hands’ — when so many dreams of him came to me. I have recurrent images of my father, and I tried to get particular ones down that had significant import. Since his passing, I only have what memory will recall, in its sometimes imperfect but very vivid recollections. There are one or two new poems that I’ve written, which will be in my second volume of work. The Hayden poem, an an homage to the poet’s ‘Those Winter Sundays,’ has always been a very important poem to me; one which I read very soon after my father died, and its poignant, yet completely unsentimental voice affected me very much. Old’s ‘The Father,’ is a work I know, and certainly has been influential in showing me ways to speak of the relationship I had with my father (I’m thinking of her poem, ‘His Stillness’), but more than anything, I believe the ‘father’ poems come directly from my own wrestling with that relationship. I tried writing about it in prose form but it did not resonate. However, in making my stories and remembrances of him as poems, I was able to access that quality of something real, which happened, with the ‘wish’ for what might have been. The ‘father’ poems are not confessional, per se, nor as memoir are they concrete in every circumstance. But they provide me with the chance to draw on experiences that are both distinct — objects, events, narrative — and yet with feelings and emotions that are only half-remembered, though urgent in me to examine. Other great poems about fathers that come to mind that I’ve loved are James L. Dickey’s ‘The Hospital Window’; Karl Shapiro’s ‘I Am an Atheist Who Says His Prayers’; Theodore Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ — which stopped my breath with its stunning last stanza: ‘You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt, / Then waltzed me off to bed /Still clinging to your shirt’; Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging,’ for its resolute and true observation. And if perhaps not specific models, these poems were and continue to be works that I hold close when I am writing about my father. I know that I will always continue to write poems about him, as there will, I feel, never truly be a time when I think I’ve understood all of the complex and emotional aspects of him, and our relationship of father to son — especially of a father to gay son.
The Carnival of Affection contains six poems that are titled, simply, the first names of six different men (I’m leaving out “Louis Belfast”). I would venture to say that the use of this device is all they really have in common, which is my way of saying that they’re a varied set of poems doing different things. Nevertheless, could you comment on why you titled them in this fashion?
My book was originally going to be a chapbook, called Ten Men, persona portraits in poems, of ten men who I had relationships with — not all romantic — at various stages of my life, therefore titled just by their first names. But as the collection developed, I decided to take out three of them because I honestly felt that the poems I was writing about those specific men, would have crossed a line of privacy I did not want to disrespect — and in one case, because I was still too emotionally close to one of them. So the poems that have remained in the book are about those men with whom I could relate a story. My life as a gay man has been rewarded many times with great love from men who either helped me grow, or simply taught me hard lessons — ‘Adam’ is a poem about an egotistical maniac who was utterly unbearable, though extraordinarily beautiful; ‘Mitch’ is about a man I knew who had loved a young boy, and his struggle to deal with love after the boy’s death; ‘Louis Belfast’ is about a chance meeting in a Dublin bar with a stranger, but with whom I had an evening of such pure friendship and intimacy that he left a deep impression on me. Only one other poem than these, ‘A Walk on Ferry Beach, Maine’ is about someone with whom I shared a deep friendship, for which I am still very grateful, and in which I tried to speak to the things that we hold on to, when we are loving, even though the love and relationship is changing.
One of my favorites of this group is “James.” Aside from what a friend called its “naughty, unexpected ending,” the poem—because of its ending—seems to hint at what we might call the subtle ritual of desire, or, to put it another way, the marriage of the ritual with the erotic. Could you say something about how you see the erotic and the divine playing out in your book?
‘James’ is a portrait of a young priest, who I knew in the years when I was still going to church (I no longer do, and have not for a very long time). The eroticism to me of the Catholic ceremonies of preparing for Mass — his vestments, especially fetishistic for me at the time, and the way that he slowly went through his ablutions, struck something deep in me; something between that ‘divine’ desire that is a part of the surface, and the raw, sexual eroticism of what is beneath it. So I gave to James the two sides of those emotions — something viscerally human and sexual, and something poignantly divine. That poem has a humor to it also, if one reads it as I intended it (some have, and I am glad for the nervous laugh it gets!). I was wrestling with the angel. Pun intended. In other poems, both the divine and its aspects, and the erotic, come into play in almost every poem in some way. The eroticism is sometimes very present, as in ‘Excavation,’ ‘The Boot,’ and ‘The Correspondence,’ and at others, it is veiled, as in ‘The Model,’ or ‘Lacrimosa.’ Divinity is always the flipped coin of Eros, there is always a tangling, disentangling from the thing that holds us that we fear and yet are thrilled and aroused somehow by its touch — I think of the great Hellenistic sculptures ‘Laocoön and His Sons’ or ‘Saint Theresa in Ecstasy’. Learning to love, learning to welcome sex, learning to find some identity — all the ways that I would develop as a gay man, have always to a large degree had the presence of both the divine and erotic; it is two aspects of experience (certainly as being raised Catholic), that I examine. But divinity too, has aspects of the nonsexual, but is no less a connotation that is erotically spiritual. I was an altar boy, and was always falling in ‘love’ with the Franciscan Brothers at my childhood church, and I can honestly say that is perhaps my earliest experiences with these two aspects of myself. I can remember very clearly an extraordinarily beautiful sculpture of St. Sebastian, clothed only in his loincloth, his body softly muscled and white except where the blood streamed from his wounds. I would sit and stare at that statue so often (everyone thinking I was praying but not), and just feel the divinity of his body; the aspect of the beautiful corporal, and corporeal spirit that emanated from it. The complete collusion of the erotic and the spiritual divine. Though it might have wanted to point me to other paths, my religious beginning led me directly to a renegade finding of my sexual identity.
The poem that immediately follows “James” is “A Fracas in the Memory Palace,” an elegant way of alluding to dementia from Alzheimer’s disease. I’m not entirely sure as to why, but I considered this poem, which I love, to be a part of the poems you devote to members of your family. I’m thinking, to name some of my favorites, “The Dances,” which is a nod to your mother, and “A Pavane for Six Floors,” a nod to your sister and, perhaps my favorite, “Mulberry Street.” So here’s my question or directive: talk to us about your decision to include your “family poems” in a book like The Carnival of Affection. In other words, what aesthetic effect are you aiming for by including these poem in a collection, where, say, homoeroticism and desire also play such key roles. Why mix these?
My collection is the life of a gay man, reconsidering all aspects of my life, not only my sexual life and identity. Who I am now, where I’ve come from, and how I continue to travel through becoming — all of this was important to include in the collection, rather than having it just be a gay man’s sexual or erotic history. My family was, is, a foundation of so much of who I am. I am grateful, even through the hardest times I’ve dealt with them, to be able to say that I am connected to them still, lovingly and with a hell of a lot of strength. I had four sisters, and was the only son; my sisters and my parents were the core of my experiences. My sister Kathleen, to whom I dedicate the book, also gay, was older than me by more than 15 years, and was a rock for me, and she essentially gave me all the things to this day I am grateful for: a love of books, reading, art, music. She was my first teacher in so many things. I could have written a book about just my life as a gay man, but then that would exclude so many aspects of my life that were more than just that. Utilizing memories of my family members allowed me certain interstices, as it were — to seeing how they indeed impacted, affected, encouraged me as I grew toward my self-identity. But more so, because it was my first collection, I wanted to call upon more than just my life, but also theirs. This twining, or twinning, of myself with each of them had individual aspects of how I saw myself, and how I saw them. To get their influence of me down in some of the poems was important to me. I could release certain things by writing about their lives. I haven’t written about all of my sisters, but I know that I will at some point, of the others. So it seemed right to coalesce these two components of what, and who, helped me become who I am. Families, for good or bad, are rich for the poet. They are the first things we come to, and the first things we leave.
It goes without saying that one of the pleasures of poetry, of reading poems, is to see what phrases we as readers encounter that work their magic on us, that provide the reader pleasure. In the poem I began my previous question with (“A Fracas in the Memory Palace”), the final two lines read:
gentled, kissed and unworded you.
I combed your hair.
They succeed for me, as a pair, because of how disparate they are. I don’t think you’d get away with that last line without having the line that precedes it. In another poem, “The Seer,” which seemed among the more oblique poems in your book, you close with:
The strange bones of language
wander the room.
So it’s that time in the interview to ask who some of your models have been when it comes to your particular ways of deploying language—word choice, phrasing, etc. I can’t really discern a particular lineage from these two pairs of lines. Help me out a bit.
To use the idea of touch, again, I would say that I have been touched by the words of many writers, not only poets. One of the first texts that ever moved me was James Agee’s text to Samuel Barber’s ‘Knoxville, Summer 1915’, whose imagery of home, place, time and the evocation of how those things he writes of instill in us some innate and almost nostalgic need to examine the past. In the same way, Mark Strand has also been an influence on me — most particularly in that line that you quote above, but also for his sense of the way we are almost living in a surreal, or supra-real existence. Richard Hugo, Robert Hayden (my homage to him and my father, in ‘The Readers’ for his sense of story). My poems are narrative to a large extent, in many of them, or they are surreal — ‘The Minotaur’; but I have an affinity for poets who tell a story first, but tell it as if through dream. Rimbaud has this quality, as does Baudelaire — ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’. In contemporary contexts, Louise Gluck has always been deeply affecting to me, in combing the real across the dream. I think it’s a process of continually reading many poets to come to what will finally be your own voice. But I find myself, more and more, gravitating to poems of story. Dickinson, above all poets is certainly an influence, but not to the extent, I would hope, that I have incorporated her style, but at least her sense of always questioning what is behind everything we see in front of us. Other poets who have an influence on me are Sharon Olds, Edward Hirsch, and Patrick Phillips, whose ‘Elegy for a Broken Machine,’ transformed the way I thought about language, and indeed about my father. Richard Siken has taught me to use a personal vocalization — something close to conversation — that is raw and open. I am trying in my next collection to take my voice to another level of sound; something more raw. I have been told my poems tend to be ‘quiet’; I don’t mind that, but I do want to also write with a modulation of emotion. How does one sound out raw desire on the page, as well as tenderness? There is a vulnerability that I feel a need to have present when I am writing. That is a quality of letting yourself go past what you have learned to mimic, and then come to find your own language and sounds. ‘The strange bones of language / wander the room.’ was an image in my mind before it was set on paper. I simply wanted a 2-line, ten-syllable way to say what I was seeing that would end the poem with a sense of mystery, and yet something that had various ways of interpreting the essence of the ‘seer’. Perhaps a quality of clairvoyance.
Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, was quoted as saying, “This is the Trump era.” Your poem, “The Drone,” to my mind, is very much a “Trump era” poem without naming him. It’s one of the most ambitious poems in the book in that it manages, on the one hand, to be a public poem of its time. But there are also passages that seem like subtle allusions to other poems in the book (“a body bag is quietly lifted down a flight of stairs” for A Pavane for Six Floors; “He turns in bed and reaches / for a body, like the blind to braille” for the ending of “Joe”), as well just a reprise of some of your book’s principal themes. It reminded me of Robert Pinsky’s small epic poem, “The Figured Wheel.” Do you know it? Anyway, could you share with us the evolution of this poem and what you were aiming for?
I did not know that Pinsky poem, but have now gone to it since your question, and thank you so much! I wrote ‘The Drone’ almost immediately in the wake of the election, when all I felt was this awful sound, this cacophony of voices — but they seemed all of hatred to me. And I asked myself many questions, ‘I can’t be the only one thinking or hearing this? How do I place what I am feeling and connect it to other experiences, other contexts that also are affected by the ramifications of what has happened? — The poor, the lonely, the jobless, the young who might be unaware, the farmer as well as the city worker. And how then do I deal with it — what is the thing I want to hold on to, not to go crazy? So yes, it was a private reaction to a vulgar public experience of a national event I saw as both revelatory and damning. I’m glad you saw the connections of how some of my poems in the collection do relate by the same words or images, to others. I did intend that; and in the design of the book, I made a point of having those ‘reverberations,’ as I like to call them. ‘The Drone’ has not been the only political poem I’ve written, but it was the first. I felt raw, but also didn’t quite know how to scream. So I had to simply gather what I could of what I wanted to hold onto — the good things, the human possibilities for love — in the turmoil of this event.
If “The Drone” is perhaps your most public and sprawling poem in your book, I would venture to say that at the other end of the spectrum, in terms of poetic strategies, is “The Sextant.” This piece also touches upon many of your book’s themes (the body’s decline, touch, grief, intimacy), but unlike the fairly straightforward unambiguous language of “The Drone,” the approach in “The Sextant,” it seems to me, is more indirect and round-about. What holds it together is the meticulous craft you bring to bear on it—including with the clean tercets, the slant rhymes and such. And you also mix abstraction (“I was hope, and // you were consolation”) with image-rich metaphorical language (“Touch became the sea of us; / boated in bed”). My question is the same as for “The Drone:” share with us its evolution, including its evocative title.
I took an exceptional poetry workshop with Carl Phillips, in Provincetown, at the Fine Arts Work Center. It was there that ‘The Sextant’ was written. This was at a time when I was trying to deepen some of my work for the book, and yet still explore themes that were a constant to the aspect of ‘affection(s)’ in it. I was also in the process of re-examining a relationship, a friendship I was having, and how it was changing. The poem is not confessional in the details of it, but it is memoir in terms of my emotional state at the time. I was trying to grapple with change in so many other ways too. I had honestly experienced more happiness in my life at that time than I’d had for a long time, yet too, I was experiencing the way that I saw myself navigating the experience and trying to find a tool to cope with change — a ‘sextant’ — with which to measure, find the North, of myself. I thought of Dickinson’s poems that speak of a lone person in a boat trying to find their way back to shore (she has a few beauties of those), and the poem became a way for me to indeed ‘oar’ myself back to what was real, rather than wished for; what I could verifiably see, rather than what I could only hope for.
As a lead-in to my final question, I want to share something with you. In the late 80s I attended a reading at the Art Institute of San Francisco. It was a benefit fundraiser featuring a slate of poets. I only remember one poet and one poem. Thom Gunn reading “The J Car.” I was aware that his-manuscript-in-progress at the time was, The Man With Night Sweats. But something about the reading of that poem that night so struck me. Part of it was the fact that I grew up very near to where the poem unfolds; I knew the J Church streetcar so so well. Anyway, I just wanted to share that with you as a way of saying that I situate “Roses” alongside some of Gunn’s work from that period. I’m thinking, in particular, of his “Lament”—because, like yours, the poem is addressed to the person who has died. But your poem adds to the genre with that plaintive last line: “I rose from my bed. I looked at my life. I took my meds.” First there is the artistry of the internal rhyme (bed/meds), but mostly it’s the way—by delaying that final phrase until the very very end—you implicate your speaker. The suggestion is that the speaker of the poem is HIV positive, and the poem relies on the presumption, in my view, that the departed friend in “Roses” died from an HIV-related illness. We’re now at a point in history where there is an ample body of poetry on this subject, so I guess my question for you is: what has been your strategy in adding to the genre? Who have been some of your models, both in terms of poets but also, perhaps no less crucially, in terms of individual poems?
First, thank you for sharing that memory! How wonderful — what I would have given to have taken a course or just met, Thom Gunn, whose work I have loved for so long, much earlier than ‘The Man With Night Sweats’, and whose work greatly helped me to reconsider how to speak of intimacy. His great ‘Tamer and Hawk’, and ‘The Hug’ are seminal poems for me. ‘Roses’ is a poem based on my godfather’s death from AIDS. And in writing it, based on the actual experiences in that room — just missing him, the teabag porn, the memory and sound of his laugh — I wanted to capture what I felt was a true portrait of his strength, humor, persistence in the light of what was happening to many of our loved ones. The speaker is indeed implicated, as the ‘biographer,’ and that is on the purpose of witness. How do I show this life that has a past in a context of its humanness. But how you make that ‘I’ in the poem not a single being — and not necessarily the actual speaker —, but perhaps a universal being. The great and sad (but also celebratory) poetry of AIDS, from its beginnings (and for me that will always be Michael Klein’s ‘Poets For Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS), to the innumerable works of poetry and anthologies on the subject since (Philip Clark and David Groff’s ‘Persistent Voices: Poetry By Writers Lost to AIDS’, Marie Howe’s ‘What The Living Do’, and certainly the works of Thom Gunn,’The Man with Night Sweats’, Paul Monette’s ‘Elegies for Rog’, and Tim Dlugos’s ‘Powerless’, to name a very important few), has the danger of being lost. And we cannot let that happen. I find too often that we are forgetting so many of its poets and writers. Not that we can’t find it if we look, but that we often have to look harder to find it. It is vast, as was the scourge itself. Some of the most extraordinary poems came out of it. When trying to add my own contribution and memory to the subject, I had so much I could call upon to inspire me, yet with such writing we are faced with ourselves alone when we put the words down. Because suddenly it’s just you and the life or lives you are trying to write about, and not lose to time. The first poem I read from Michael Klein’s collection was Heather McHugh’s ‘What Hell Is.’ Here is the last stanza:
is he? In hell,
which is the living room.
In hell, which has
an easy chair.
I remember the hair raising on the back of my head. I had not read such a human, unnervingly honest poem as that in quite that way. And how to you match such things as Monette’s ‘Elegies for Rog,’ or Marie Howe’s poems about her brother’s death from AIDS. You don’t match them, you can only try to add to the body of the literature. We have more lives with us now, who will stay longer with us now, and the stories are fewer about death and dying from, than about living with, AIDS. For me, ‘Roses’ was the poem I could contribute to what the history was, but also to what it became. There were no meds for one man, but there was for the man who loved him. It was that awful fence so many were on, lives depending on just the nick of time, and made different in, a matter of time.
But I want to say more about the “I’ and other pronouns in poems. Poetry is not always autobiography. It is the juxtaposition of fiction, non-fiction and biography, melded together in questions of what each of the poet’s aspects of themselves, and their experiences are. They are dream states; we may walk in them only knowing that parts of the world really exist, may be the poet or may not be. Poetry is a pandemonium of self-discovery, as well as self-revelation, but it is also that private place where what may not have happened can be known, examined in the light of possible experience. And if memory in poetry acts as a correlative to documentation, then the ‘I” of the poet, in any experience, is many lives, some of which we know. Poetry is less interesting, to me, as confession. It is more interesting to me as revelation.
Francisco Aragón is the son of Nicaraguan immigrants. A native of San Francisco, California, he resided in Spain for a ten years. He is the author of, Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press) and Glow of Our Sweat (Scapegoat Press), as well as editor of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press). He has performed his work widely, including at the Dodge Poetry Festival, Split This Rock Poetry Festival, universities, galleries, and bookstores. After Rubén, his next full-length book, is forthcoming with Red Hen Press in 2020. His Tongue A Swath of Sky, a hand-stitched chapbook, was released in February 2019. For more information, visit: http://franciscoaragon.net