The Books We Carry, The Poetry We Keep: Five Poets on Their Favorite Five
by Philip F. Clark
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
That last line in Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” haunts and thrills me to this day. It was the first poem that electrified me, in that it spoke of a relationship with a father that I could immediately recognize. It is the single poem that led me to poetry. I know the pleasures of reading poetry. I read poetry much earlier than I ever wrote it. And I have always loved poets sharing their work—which is exactly what this community does with the hive activity of bees: we write and we read each other. Reading the work of other poets is essentially what quickened our own impulses to write in the first place. This is a form of camaraderie that sustains and supports. These are the forms of energy we thrive on; the fires we stoke and keep burning. I wanted to find out what drove some writers to those particular books that are their mainstay—the books that inspire them, and continue to provide them illumination and education; the poetry books they keep–dog-eared, well-loved, well-read and well-used. And I knew just who I wanted to explore this project with: Seth Pennington-Borland, editor and publisher with Sibling Rivalry Press. The answers were fascinating from the five distinctly different poets who gladly submitted their responses: Jeff Oaks, Michael Klein, Jim Corey, Essence London, and Perry Brass. Two of the responses became longer interviews, with Essence and Perry. Enjoy the results. Share your own. – PHILIP F. CLARK
Mid-morning in Little Rock. It’s October. I’m barefoot, in shorts on the front porch on the first cool day we have felt all fall. Philip and I share mugs of coffee and watch as marked and unmarked police cars crawl down the street on repeat, searching. I begin to shiver; my foot in need of a kick drum and less the breeze. Philip blesses my heart and this seems more reason to move inside than what is probably a felon on the run. Philip is visiting for the weekend, and we are reading at Central Arkansas University’s AIDS Memorial Quilt the following day. In this way, he introduces me to Paul Monette. Both of us have recently received a new evolution of the chain letter—friends on Facebook suggesting we list our favorite books. This is interesting to an extent—finding parallels, who reads or lists only classics, etc. But it’s always lacking. There is always the why. Philip and I decide to have the conversation we see is missing. We will ask our friends for more; not just five “favorite” books, but five books that have plastered themselves to their creative consciences. These will be books that teach justice, style, courage, and language. This is how we learn from each other. This is what we did. – SETH PENNINGTON-BORLAND
Selected Poems, and the Collected Poems, Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes was the first poet I read everything of. I found his and Plath’s books side by side in a little card shop in Geneva, NY, in about 1982. I loved the way his language tries to include the natural world’s more primitive, predatory, and inhuman impulses into poetry. I grew up in woods and fields and didn’t even realize until I read Hughes that most poems about “nature” tended to make it either decorative or consoling. His poem “The Howling of Wolves” was the poem that really woke me up. The books Lupercal and Moortown are the ones that have meant the most to me. My first education in poetry was learning to dissect his poems. I also love his children’s books and his book Poetry in the Making.
High Windows, and the Collected Poems, Philip Larkin
Larkin’s work is the voice of the loner, the person who dresses normally, goes to works very day, fits in, tries to disappear but cannot. He’s the man who cannot forget that one day he will die and since there’s no heaven to console him, he will simply vanish. His negotiations of syntax over very fixed trellises of rhyme and meter convinced me that formally structured poems could still be written and could be powerfully effective. I discovered Larkin in the late eighties when I lived briefly in London, and it was the way he could contain and reveal the complications of social and emotional difficulties of living with other people that struck me just as I was becoming an adult.
The Collected Poems, Elizabeth Bishop and the Collected Poems, Robert Francis
Quiet, joy, playfulness, and patience are what these two quietly gay poets taught me. I loved Frank O’Hara for his daring, but it was Bishop’s and Francis’ poetics that felt closer to my experience, which was more conservative perhaps and less urban. I was in the process of coming out at the time. Theirs is a complicated mix of containment and excitement, more a Dickinsonian than a Whitmanic impulse in terms of form. Bishop’s and Francis’s masters–Marianne Moore and Robert Frost–were much more convoluted in their enthusiasms and disappointments. Geography was the first perfect book of poetry I read.
Refusing Heaven, and the Collected Poems, Jack Gilbert
Most recently, I am in love with Jack Gilbert’s poetry, which I think is romantic in its perceptions and classical in its structure. I especially love his long-columned poems in Refusing Heaven, like “The Rooster,” for instance, which helped me recently find a way to write about my mother’s last years. The range of historical reference in his poems challenges me, and the ways his sentences build on each other, provoke each other, fragment often, and swerve suddenly continue to surprise me. I’m also appreciative of his use of Pittsburgh, a city where I’ve lived for 27 years now–a place of myth and humanity as it surely is.
The Great Enigma, Tomas Transtromer
There have been many, many poets outside America that have changed and challenged me: Neruda’s odes, Tu Fu and Li Po’s lyrics, Cavafy’s gorgeous regrets, Szymborska, Celan, and Rumi. But reading Transtromer’s work the last few years has been transformative for me. The depth of meaning he can pack into an image is astounding. Here, I thought, was a poet whose imagery approaches the density of dreams. That quiet, wild intensity helped animate my own voice when, going through the last few years of my mother dying, everything around me took on the feeling of a dream. Just look at things, I learned from him, and say what else they look like, let wild connections happen, then get out and don’t explain.
The Will to Change, Adrienne Rich
Adrienne’s book was pivotal for her as much as it was pivotal for readers. It’s the book where her language changed because her psyche changes through her body, through her sexuality. There’s an almost searing anti-rhetoric here that you can sort of feel simmering in “Leaflets,” but it just burns through each poem–aperture full open. It’s also the book where the other arts–film, particularly, start to show more and more of an influence on her work and so, too, she is more fully expressed as an artist who goes to books and to movies, too.
The Unknown Rilke, Franz Wright
Franz’s Rilke translations are–by many accounts–the best there are. For one thing, they sound like Rilke wrote them. What more could you ask of a translation? But what do I mean by that? How do I know? I mean they’re deeply mysterious and as odd as any translation of Rilke that we have. They are also–to Wright’s great credit–superbly well chosen. There are poems here that appear nowhere else and, there’s one poem in particular, “Requiem on the Death of a Boy,” that is, in my opinion, one of Rilke’s greatest poems. It makes sense to me that this is the great Rilke translation that we have in English. I’ve always thought of Franz Wright as our American
Rilke after all.
Ararat, Louise Gluck
Ararat is still, probably, Gluck’s best book. It’s shockingly bald in its statements about family mythology and its last poem, “Celestial Music” is such a gorgeous counterpoint to the rest of the book–an almost opposite to what the rest of the book is facing which is dark and hard and unrelenting. What I love about the book and about Gluck in general (her new book, Faithful and Virtuous Night, [the recent winner of the National Book Award for Poetry] is the best book she’s written since Ararat by the way) is how incredibly true she stays to her subconscious and how she follows it whether she “likes” it or not. She’s an extraordinary artist and the poet I care most about which is true for many people and, as it happens, not true for many people.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s book was, bar none, the most exciting and original response to the events of 9/11 that I read in any form. It’s the book I teach when I teach anything that has anything to do with that day and it’s a book I go to time and again for its invigorating form and it’s exacting speech and range.
Death Tractates, Brenda Hillman
Brenda Hillman’s book excites me as much for the writing as how it came into being. It was a book that came as an interruption to another manuscript (Bright Existence) because she needed to deal, in writing, with the death of a mentor. That writing became Death Tractates and so she published two books at the same time. The book is influenced by her reading, as well, of the Gnostic gospels and its wildness and great beauty is unparalled in contemporary poetry. I consider it a book of prayer, really or a tool of the occult–something she wrote in order to see into another world.
All of these books are deeply surprising in the literature and, in some cases, for the writers themselves, I think. I’ve used all of these books when I teach for the reasons I’ve given of why they’re important to me. They are all singular for various reasons: in form and in how they came to be. I love Brenda’s because I love to tell the story of how you can be writing something and something knocks you off your feet and you have to address as a writer in order to move on. And Claudia’s book is, of course, a way to talk about a huge event without mentioning airplanes and towers; Adrienne’s book was the hinge and Franz’s translations is a great tool when talking about Rilke and/or translation in general. Louise’s book, too, has a great back story and it’s her most “accessible” book–so for someone just coming to poetry, I always suggest Louise’s book.
But I also suggest a book not on this list, which would be number 6, The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds–simply for the fact that Sharon makes similes like no one else on the planet and every poem in that book–every single one–is stunning.
The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, edited by Paul Auster
Battered and tattered, it survives. Hauled it across the continent and back and spent most of the fall of 1989 studying its pages between cups of San Francisco coffee. It sustains on two levels. First, the dream imagery that constitutes the essence of French Surrealism is much on display in the poetry of Soupault, Breton, Char, Desnos, et al. Re-reading these, apart from the endless pleasure certain to result, constitutes a refresher course on how to write poetry that isn’t terrifyingly boring. Lesson #1: The wilder the better. Lesson #2: The image must always be new, fresh, invented, challenging but reassuring and remains the heart of the poem. Not recalling how I came across this book or who recommended it but it was a constant companion 25 years ago, revisited many times since and changed how I was writing by encouraging rule-breaking such as the use of non-sequiturs, elimination of conjunctions, ability to shape the poem on the page in ways that reflect its tone or spirit (or with playful genius, as in Apollinaire’s delicious “Rain”), etc. This book is like a Parisian bakeshop where the treasures never go stale.
The Collected Poems, Charles Olson
Intellectually intriguing, emotionally satisfying, Charles Olson’s poems are a source of continual aesthetic refreshment not so much for the “projective verse” aspect—the tyranny of the left-hand margin and need to overthrow same is an idea one can get the mind around quickly and it sticks–but for the manner in which the poet strips away context from the words, forcing the reader to invest intellectual energy in placing the circumstances, the starting point, the mind set, that created the poem. (Crane does this as well.) I love the way Olson presses his readers into service as collaborators, wittingly or otherwise, and it’s worth the effort because the poems yield their pay-off. I have a nervous breakdown just reading “In Cold Hell, In Thicket” but it took a few tries to realize that that was what’s going on there. Reading Olson is work, which is why I avoided him for a long time. What I also admire and emulate is the manner in which Olson controls movement inside the poem, like the different voices inside a great mind engaged in conversation while riding a carousel, till suddenly, inevitably, the ride comes to a halt.
The Collected Poems, Larry Eigner
In four volumes, from Stanford University Press. Think like a wheelchair, write like a dream. Also someone I didn’t pay much attention to for a long time because the poems seemed incomprehensible. His thought ever narrowing, becoming more precise, more pointed—until linguistic tweezers (actually a typewriter, the keys of which were tapped with the one working finger at his disposal) drop the word on the page, this is the method. The great contradiction in Larry Eigner is that what appears at first glance to be the seemingly obscure nature of the work seems utterly opposed to the desperate, focused effort that went into making each poem, every word. Pry that apart and you’ve got it. Eigner’s drop-down lines mentally spaced so far apart they could almost be non-sequiturs embody their own spacey logic, a logic produced from observation so intense it transcends mere curiosity and is more on the order of survival. He is writing to live, to be alive. I admire its wit, its cunning, its defiance. His poems transform the most basic materials—squirrels in the yard, cars parked on a street—into high art. I remember the first time I “got” an Eigner poem and from that point forward I was all in.
The Residual Years, Poems 1934-1948, William Everson
Writing about nature, or love, isn’t easy. There are a lot of poems about both but remarkably few great ones regarding either. I’m interested in nature poems because I spend as much time as I can in the wilderness. It seems to me that nature poems typically fail because the poem consists of a compilation of sensory experience, composed around the fallacious notion that describing what caused the poet to feel a certain way will produce identical results in the reader. It never does and probably can’t. Taking a leaf from the book of Robinson Jeffers—actually not just a leaf but a tree of them–Everson doesn’t describe what goes on in the woods, he recreates it, he takes what he observes as someone fully attuned to the goings-on there and makes what he sees/hears/feels live and breathe on its own. I list Vol. I of the three-volume Black Sparrow edition because Vol. II, the religious poems written out of Everson’s Catholicism, don’t sway me in the least and in fact the whole effort seems to me rather futile. He should’ve stayed in the woods.
The Collected Poems, Philip Whalen
Let me start out by saying that originality is a quality in poetry I value more than any other and Whalen’s originality is apparent from Line One. I read Whalen in high school because he was described as a Beat poet and at that time (the 60s) I was fascinated by that movement and anyone connected to it. The result of my reading was more or less indifference. I came back to Whalen’s work 20 years later and at that point I could see that he’s not really a Beat poet. He transcends all those post-Modern groupings and rankings. (Ditto Jack Spicer.) Reading this book is like turning on a Brilliance Machine. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read it before or how many times. Every line surprises and many thrills. And it’s not like there are a bunch of good poems and then a whole lot of so-so ones. Like Lorca, or Mozart for that matter, there’s no compromise with mediocrity. The whole thing is a great big work of art in words that reshape memory and observation around a world view that is, essentially, spiritual (he was a Buddhist monk) but livelier and more exhilarating than a square dance.
If this list were to consist of 10 books, I would add 6) The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, published by Black Sparrow; 7) Packing Up for Paradise, the Selected Poems of James Broughton, published by Black Sparrow, 8) Transblusency, by Amiri Baraka, 9) The Collected Poems of Gilbert Sorrentino (read many times), also published by Black Sparrow and…10) that inexhaustible font of wisdom and spiritual power, Leaves of Grass, by you know who.
Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney
Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split mothers my own poetry. There’s an exploration of language, and it is done with grace and precision. Nikky Finney’s poetry not only attracts me because it is beautiful. It also attracts me because it has an unashamed investment in the social and political.
Bringing the Shovel Down, Ross Gay
Bringing the Shovel Down, then, fathers my work. The syntax. And, ooh, the narratives. There are so many creative elements in Gay’s collection–love letters, syndrome descriptions, odes, etc.–yet there are connective threads throughout each poem that can be explained only as mastery. Mastery is what draws me to Ross Gay’s collection.
Selected Poems, Gwendolyn Brooks
She is a storyteller. And she tells stories of struggle. These are the types of poems that will help a person endure. Everyone needs poems like that every once in a while. Selected Poems is a collection that spans Brooks’ career–an opportunity to get to know her transformations as an artist.
Prime: Poetry and Conversation, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, Ricky Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams, L. Lamar Wilson, Jericho Brown.
I didn’t just throw this book in to make Sibling Rivalry Press blush. I truly admire it. What makes it stand out to me is the form. A mini-anthology of poems that speak to one another and conversations between the poets. Fascinating to me. I’m seeing a growing trend of this form (poems + conversation), and I love it. Readers are closer to the poet. There is opportunity for readers to discover a mentor in the poets who visibly participate in the conversation.
nejma, Nayyirah Waheed
Usually when I read a good poem, I shake my head and squint or grunt or smile a little to myself; nejma made me cry. On a bus. Her poems are full of white space and delicately jarring metaphors and, dare I say it, love. It is so obvious that Waheed loves her readers. Outside of the handwritten note inside the front cover, with my name, it is the actual poetry. Pregnant with life for her readers, for diasporans, for women, for the damaged. I have to go read her now. I just do.
Seth Pennington-Borland: You expressed some of your favorite titles as parenting you. I read the descriptions of the other books and realized they are, in a sense, your family as well. I see Brooks as your grandmother. PRIME being a group of brothers, perhaps distant cousins you didn’t know as well before but when you encounter them, you begin to understand more; you learn. Waheed is your best friend in the dark. She is the friend that makes you lose your sense of place, forget that other people exist outside of the proximity you share with her. Books certainly taught me as I grew up, but films raised me, shaped my morals, especially as I began distancing myself from the Pentecostal church. This is a common occurrence, to have a third parent (after all, it takes a village . . .) and television and the movies seem to be reigning as most popular. Is that the case with any of these books, if so, how did they parent you differently than what you experienced previously? And age is no qualifier here, whether you read any of these as a 10-year old or a 2- year old.
Essence London: Every book listed I’ve read in my twenties, but–yes–they are raising me. My mother and father, my flesh & blood folks, I think were afraid they’d mess me up. They act now as if they did mess me up particularly when it comes to my son. I was 19 when I got pregnant and his father is not Prince Charming like they wanted. There’s a distance wedged between me and my parents. No matter how often or seldom we say I love you, the distance is undeniable. On the other hand, the poems in these books, like Nikky Finney’s “Penguin, Mullet, Bread,” bring me close. Close enough that I can see the little bitty bones that the narrator’s mother chews and picks out of the fish she is feeding her. The poems hold me there too, close. I’m not afraid of closeness and that is because of how poetry is raising me.
SPB: The most influential works in your life have all been poetry and largely, narrative poetry. What do you think it is about a book of poems versus, say, a novel that is captivating you? Or is it a fluke? Is all written word a contender for you and it just so happens that books of poetry beat out the rest?
EL: Oh no, it’s not a fluke. The language in poetry–the rhythm of it and the sound if it, the precision of it–is what is captivating. And you hit it right on. I’m a lover of narrative poetry. An important detail not mentioned is these are black poems. For me, the narratives have familiar scenes and familiar voices. The familiarity was something I trusted, something I wanted to be close to.
SPB: My earliest experiences with poetry came from the Bible. Then came Frost, Poe, and sadly, few others in high school, which effectively schooled poetry out of me. It took music for me to come back around, to begin finding a tribe of voices that pushed and welcomed me with the same sound. Many of those writers are modern, as are yours. What is your experience with coming to poetry?
EL: I also began with the Bible. However, I didn’t recognize it as poetry until years later. Music is what initiated my desire for poetry. By the third or fourth grade, my mother only listened gospel music. I picked up her secular cds, R&B mostly. I remember listening to Joe and Maxwell, Tamia and Anita Baker at a really young age. My aunt, who is only two years older than me, would write the lyrics down to learn them so I did too. Then I began writing my own songs. Then I began writing what I called poetry. I didn’t read other poets, not tirelessly, until my twenties.
SPB: Books with a social conscience if not outright political attract and stick with you. For you, is that a component of what creates a truly great book? A marriage of beauty and, in a sense, activism?
EL: I’m still developing my philosophy on art and politics. I do know that art has the power to change. If the right book is in the right hands at the right time. . . . Considering the societal issues we are still dealing with, police brutality and LBGTQ marriage bans for example, I ask why not? “Let there be no love poems written/ until love can exist freely and/ cleanly.”–Amiri Baraka.Part of me believes this, that we should be working toward justice at all times. Then the other part needs the love poems for the day-to-day.
SPB: Finally, such as with the case of Gwendolyn Brooks, what makes a collected works of a poet work for you, that differs from reading their individual collections, especially when the occasional poem may be left out? And/or how do you compare this to the original?
EL: Honestly, collected works allow me to catch up. I just recently started digging into the literary world but I’m eager. So eager. Collected works give me a lot of a poet at once. Generally though, they reveal in one space the ribbons of content and craft that the poet has developed over time. There’s beauty in the ribbons. Also there are lessons.
As a functioning and working writer and poet, I don’t see a lot of difference between fiction and poetry, that is, great fiction and good poetry, or even better great poetry. There are poems that I hunger to read, but what I actually hunger for and feel closest to are those moments in writing that transcend words themselves and become only images and feelings to me—in other words, your brain opens up. In the same way, I’ve said that I don’t write in words, but only in images and feelings and then translate them into words, although words themselves, as images and objects (and I do believe words are objects with form, feeling, texture and of course sound to them) are extremely important. So here are five books that I love, that I would take with me on any desert island, or simply save as dessert.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
I didn’t read Crime and Punishment until a couple of years ago when I came across this superb translation. It knocked me off my feet; it was hard to believe that anyone could write this magically, to get to the absolute matter of human feelings. It also has this extreme homoerotic undercurrent to it, of men who are so close to each other that the closeness has not simply an erotic element, but an intensely bonding spiritual one too. (The men are always kissing each other’s hands and faces.) I think the fact that my family background was Russian/Jewish/Polish brings me to so many of the elements in this novel, although I think that this is only one attraction to it: it is constantly alive, struggling, and pushing out from itself, and that is what makes fiction spontaneous, living.
Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence
A luscious book. Lawrence gives us a whole world and society and depth of feelings and ideas. It’s also very much about men in love–with each other, and with women. There are places where I want to be inside the book. I want to live in it. I want to be there with Gerald and Rupert, the two friends who are mad about each other and can barely deal with it, and Gudrun and Ursula, the two sisters who struggle to deal with these men. Lawrence was one of the world’s more underrated writers; he never won a single major prize in his short lifetime—he died at 45 after a prodigious lifetime of work. It’s hard to imagine doing what he did in that short span of time: major novels, poetry, travel books, huge correspondence, and a play. He’s one of my great “friends” as a writer. I think it’s important for writers to have writer friends who live inside them, as Lawrence lives in me. I would also include Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a queer-as-all-hell book, without any queers in it, but the moment when Constance Chatterley spies the pale torso of Oliver Mellors a handsome gameskeeper, stripped to the waist in the woods washing himself from a water barrel, makes all my queer voyeurism totally light up.
Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
It’s “stinkingly” fabulous. You can smell Conrad–salt, feet, bodies, men, cigars, native huts in Maylasia. One of the great moments of recognition in English: “I liked his appearance; I knew his appearance; he came from the right place; he was one of us.” (Isn’t this what we all want, seek, and hope to find—and yet cannot find, without some adjustments, because no one will ever fully be “one of us.”)
Then, We Were Still Living, Michael Klein
This is a wonderful book that does something few contemporary poets do: Klein is not afraid of a big, beautiful, important poem. I love that. He’s also very singable, and that’s important to me (I’ve had 75 poems set to music)–I guess the fact that Klein started out as a singer is helpful. I reread it a lot.
The Salt Ecstasies, James White
This book put queer poetry back on an interesting map: one that’s very engaged with the world, that uses its queerness as a starting point rather than an ending one. As a Southern, Jewish gay poet who grew up in poverty, I can really relate to that, and love rereading this book.
Seth Pennington-Borland: I also fell for magical realism but in Latin American literature instead of Russian. For me, it’s discovery, as if I were a toddler again and overwhelmed with foreign experience, with bliss. So in that regard I do not believe it serves the purpose of escape or entertainment—it is nothing so simple; it is learning. What is there in that magic that keeps you absolutely charged and particularly about Dostoevsky? Is learning for you as well?
Perry Brass: It is not so much “magical realism” as the sheer magic of writing, writing as an intense, difficult art form that Dostoevsky is able to perform almost perfectly. His work is both extremely dense and yet approachable–he pulls amazing rabbits out of his hat, in the form of characters who just pop up or who go through fantastic changes, but most of it just comes from the author’s ability to bring his own heart to you, even if the heart is pretty black at times. Dostoevsky believed in that Russian “old time religion,” that Jesus was real, that princeliness existed, that character actually trumps evil. Also I am simply amazed at the genius of his prose, no matter how it’s translated. There are times when I’m sure that I’m not reading English, even when it is English–he brings this Russianness to you in any language.
SPB: Regarding your Russian heritage and being queer, did you seek out those specific literatures to gain understanding of yourself and your family, to see yourself in those works, or did it happen to appeal to you more so on the principle alone that you shared common ground with the author or the work? And after reading did these works in turn influence your being?
PB: Yes, there is a resonance here because of my own background, hyphenated as it is: Russian-Polish–Jewish, Southern, gay, growing up in poverty. When I first started writing, I wanted to write like several “classic” queer English writers: Isherwood, J.R. Ackerley, Francis King, E. M. Forster. It took me a while to realize this was not going to happen. I don’t have their wry, off-hand voice; there are also many things I can say outright, unblushingly that they never could. I have long stated that “All great books are ‘gay’ books, because if they are ‘great,’ then they have to include us in them; but, alas, not all gay books are great books.” I really believe that, and find it true in Dostoevsky, but also in books like The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth, that I discovered a few years ago and which I believe to be one of the supreme German novels of the 20th century. Roth is being rediscovered now. The Radetsky March has intense feelings of male closeness in it; it seethes with them, at a time when these feelings were both more acceptable and yet very real grounds for murder and suicide.
SPB: I love how in love you are with all of your senses. A common pitfall for writers is sticking only to sight. You look at text as hymns with the kind of good stink you want in a cheese. Where did this obsession come from? Was it taught, ingrained, or innate?
PB: Some of it came from reading Symbolist-Surrealist poets like Rimbaud who mixes the senses so beautifully, so that sounds have texture, sights have sounds, smells have words inside them. Faulkner also does this, and I think he got it from the same source, but used it very well. Also, from growing up in a very sensual environment, the coastal South, in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1950s and early 1960s, surrounded with this evocative, sense-drenched landscape, even though a lot of Southern-Protestant puritanism keeps trying hard to suppress the call of it. But I knew as a young man what an intense, ear-buzzing hard-on was concealed in the back seats of every car ride on those steamy afternoons and evenings of my growing up. I wrote about that a lot in King of Angels, my Southern, gay, Jewish coming-of-age novel set in Savannah, in 1963.
SPB: When I first read 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez I bought begonias for my porch where I read and drank red wine no matter the time of day. I wanted so badly to be a part of that story. You share this want, to live in story, with Women in Love; is this sentiment common when you are reading? What determines if that feeling manifests? Are there common elements?
PB: This to me is one of the joys of reading fiction: that you become a part of the environment of the narrative: you start to breathe it. In Women in Love I can actually smell it; it becomes extremely real and poignant to me. In one wonderful scene in the book, Gerald Crich goes into London to visit a friend who is staying in a very “bohemian,” or “Bloomsbury-esque” apartment. Crich is hide-bound and uptight, from an upper class Yorkshire environment, he’s desperate to break out of and can’t. Suddenly a young man walks into the kitchen, stark naked, and Crich is completely unhinged and leaves. Lawrence sums it up perfectly: “Suddenly he saw himself confronted with another problem—the problem of love and eternal conjunction between two men. Of course this was necessary–it had been a necessity inside himself all his life–to love a man purely and fully.” What brings you inside a book, what makes you want to “live inside it” is that the writing places you there–it has a space and life of its own that does not push you out of it, which I’m afraid a lot of bad writing does.
SPB: Your book Sex-Charge had the element in White that you admire, using its “queerness as a starting point rather than an ending one.” Simultaneously you point out a scene from D.H. Lawrence as both arousing and inspirational (because you decided to include it). Can you address this dichotomy and explain how both warrant the same merit?
PB: In all great arresting moments, a fear takes place. It is the writer’s job to capture the fear and either change it, move on from it, or really use it. It is the fear that the object of desire may leave, or be bored or disgusted; or that the protagonist will not be up to his work; or that the immediacy of the situation–so important to art–will be broken: the magic will disappear, snap. And the rest of mundane life will roar in. In religion, the fear is that humans will not be able to come up to the presence of the holy or divine; again this fear creates a “resistance” which slides easily into the sexual—and numerous writers have written about it as well, my favorite being John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, where a fundamentalist preacher confesses that whenever he gets the Spirit in him, that’s when “my pants buttons start to get the most itchy.” I don’t see this as a dichotomy, only as two different streams of the same river that separate and eventually meet, although society has worked hard to keep this most natural meeting from happening. I agree with James White that we have to use our queerness to open ourselves up to a greater truth–some amazing writers have done this all along, even as much as they have tried to deny their same-sexual inclinations. The good thing is that now we don’t have to deny it. That is a luxury, but it also carries with it a responsibility to be deeper than much of our audience wants us to be. I have found this unfortunately to be the truth, as have many of my queer writer friends.
PERRY BRASS has published 16 books including How to Survive Your Own Gay Life, The Lover of My Soul, The Harvest, Angel Lust, Warlock, The Substance of God, and Carnal Sacraments, A Historical Novel of the Future. His latest book is King of Angels, A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, a finalist for a Ferro-Grumley Award from the Ferro-Grumley Foundation. He has been featured in 25 anthologies, taught many workshops, and his more than 50 poetry collaborations with composers have been performed at Carnegie Hall and in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Tokyo. He lives in the Bronx, where he reads, writes, and watches the Hudson River. http://www.perrybrass.com
JIM CORY’s most recent publication is No Brainer Variations, (2011, Rain Mountain Press, NYC). He has been the editor of several important poetry selections (Packing Up for Paradise, Selected Poems of James Broughton, Black Sparrow, and Jubilant Thicket, selected poems of Jonathan Williams, Copper Canyon). Some recent poems from a manuscript called Chopped Liver appear in the current issue of Skidrow Penthouse.
He has been at different times the recipient of fellowships from Pennsylvania Arts Council, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony.
MICHAEL KLEIN‘s fourth books of poems, When I Was a Twin will appear from Sibling Rivalry Press in September, 2015. He teaches poetry to undergraduates at Hunter College in New York and to graduates at Goddard College in Vermont.
“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”
ESSENCE LONDON is an M.A. student of English at Texas Tech University, the poetry intern for Oxford American, and a former (but always) advocate for the Field Office Agency. She is also a mother, a native Arkansan, and a budding letterpress printer. Her first publication is in the inaugural issue of joINT. Literary Magazine, and she is a proud member of the grassroots organization, The Watering Hole. You can find her on Twitter (@essence.elle) and Facebook (Essence London), and you can find the beginnings of a black literary center and press at cargoliteraryreviews.com
JEFF OAKS is a writer and teacher, and the author of four poetry chapbooks, including Mistakes with Strangers (Seven Kitchens Press, 2014), Shift (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010), The Moon of Books (Ultima Obscura Press, 2000), and The Unknown Country (State Street Press, 1992). He has also been recipient of three Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships and has published poems most recently in Assaracus, Field, Bloom, Mid-American Review, Zocalo Public Square, and Poemeleon. His poem “Saint Wrench” was selected for Best New Poets 2012 by Matthew Dickman. His essays have appeared in At Length, Creative Nonfiction, and the anthology My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them. He has taught at the University of Pittsburgh for the past 26 years, where he is a senior Lecturer, as well as Assistant Director of the Writing Program.