25 December 2011

Happy Holidays to You Readers!

May this season be filled with cheer for you. Or if not cheer, then wonder.  Or if not wonder, than at least a decent slice of pie.

10 December 2011

Thoughts on May Sarton, Solitude, and Struggle

In a recent letter from a friend, he discussed his love of May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude.  This was one of the first books I read when I began to think about writing.  Solitude spurred my love affair with May Sarton.  In her writing she is disarmingly honest about her struggles with personal relationship, her own difficult temperament, and her love-hate relationship with isolation.  She revealed to me how writing can capture (through close observation) both the suffering and wonder that exist within  a person.



I share Sarton's love of cats, her fondness for cut flowers, and for living on one's own.  But my real kinship to Sarton comes from her writing about her own anger, mood swings, and tempestuousness.  Beneath her proper exterior, she was often at odds with herself and the world around her.  Who among us can't relate?  So often we are encourage to put on smile, a good front, and to play along nicely with others despite what may be happening below the surface.

Aren't we, as writers, also torn between the ideal writing life and the one we are given?  May Sarton lived in several houses in New England.  When she wrote Solitude, she was living in a white farm house whose property included trees and a path down to the sea.  I longed for such a house of my own in which to write without interruption.  To write without disturbance.  To take long walks between writing sessions and think out the tangles I had gotten myself into.  To hear the roar of the storm, the thunder of the sea, and to be gloved in the white muffle of snow!  Can you see where this is going?

Clearly, I am not going spend my entire life in a house agog with nature and my creative genius.  There are names for folks like this: recluse and shut-in.  We all have a  friend or two who drops off the map from time to time.  Perhaps they are also socially awkward.  When they emerge from their social hibernation, they are a little too gregarious and bright.  They may or may not have a smile like Jack Nicholas did in the shining.  But we long for isolation in which to write, don't we?  We dream of the perfect writing retreat to escape from the big, bad world.  If only we could "get away"  THEN our writing would get itself done.  THEN we would leave behind the writing slump we have been in like so much snow melt off a sun-warmed roof.    

May Sarton struggled with these things in her journal.  How life intrudes.  How despite our best efforts, sometimes we scrub the floors to avoid putting words on the page.  Or perhaps, how we have put off scrubbing our floors for so long working on our writing they demand to be scrubbed.  She captures a woman whose inner life is as dynamic as the changeable and tyrannical Maine coastline's weather.  For this I am grateful.

May Sarton's writing career spans poetry, memoir, novels and even a few essays on the writing life.  If you haven't read her yet, I encourage you to do so.  From Journal of a Solitude:

"When I talk about solitude I am really talking also about making space for that intense, hungry face at the window, starved cat, starved person.  It is making space to be there."






27 November 2011

Reflecting on the Title of Rafael Campo's book Landscape With Human Figure

I have been writing for several years now about my predicament of being both queer and rural.  On one hand, I love living where I do.  There is not a thirty mile commute to work in gridlock traffic.  I rarely have to wait in line for more than ten minutes to buy anything.  And there is the endless wonder of the landscape in all four season.  Yesterday, I watched a four point stag pursue a doe through the neighborhood oblivious to cars, people, or front  lawns.

On the other hand, it gets very lonely.  I am the only out gay male in my department at a school of 12,000 students.  My university doesn't have an LGBTQI organizaion, it settles for a Gay-Straight Alliance.  And if I want to go out dancing with other men, then I better be prepared for a ninety mile drive north on a two lane road without shoulders.  But this isn't a post about my desire to dance and cruise other men.

It is getting dark earlier every day and I am anticipating more and more snow.  The weather and the landscape are resuming their annual emphasis on bareness and deprivation.  I can't help but also reflect on the lack of like-minded queers here.  There is no one I can call up and meet for a latte and a gripe session about how every event here is at least 60% or more ally attended.  The events feel more queer friendly than queer once LGBTQ folks become the minority.  But I wonder if I would be any better off in a larger city?

Two Idaho folks have given me this article because they know that I am gay and a poet.  The subject matter is relevant, but the content is not.  I have never been beautiful/fit/fashionable enough to feel like I belonged in mainstream gay (therefore urban) culture.  The elitism and privilege that oozes from every part of this article is appalling.

Idaho folks, please do not think of me like this.

So I struggle.  I wrestle with what it means to be a radical minded queer in a rural environment.  The internet helps, but it cannot become the entirety of my culture.  No amount of reading of blogs and books will stand in for a diverse and trangressive queer community.  Rural queers are usually told to do one of two things: 1) Move or 2) Create their own community.

The first option refuses to acknowledge that any life other than the urban (or suburban one for that matter) is valid.  The second fails to acknowledge that a community is made up of more than two or three individuals.  

But despite this, some LGBTQ people choose to remain right where they are.  

I loved growing up in rural Montana, but it nearly killed me.  The landscape was heartbreakingly beautiful, but the attitudes of many people who live there were just as heartbreaking.  Some of these issues get dealt with in my forthcoming chapbook, The Geography or Removal due out in February.  


15 November 2011

Updates and Some News

I am starting to realize as I write edits on poems for my chapbook, that I will judged by readers on poems that I wrote a long while ago.  This publishing business takes so long that our "current" work being seen by readers can be several years old.  It is humbling for sure.

It is my job as I edit them to make the old poems a good as my new skills allow.  Progress!

Look for my chapbook, "The Geography or Removal" published by New Sins Press to come out sometime in February.  (More likely the latter half of February.)

Also, I am stepping down as nonfiction editor of the literary magazine 5x5 after the December issue.  I am doing this so that I can step up as POETRY EDITOR in the new year!

A special thanks goes out to Mishon Wooldridge for all of her hard work over the past two years as poetry editor.  She has given her heart and soul to make 5x5 not only endure but shine.  Thank you Mishon!

As poetry editor, I will be looking for readers for 5x5 starting in January.  This is something that you can put on your CV for community service AND you will get to read some great poems.

I have some things coming out in journals at the turn of the year, but am waiting to hear back about Spring.

Stay tuned.  A real post will come soon.

26 October 2011

Memory and Effigy

I recently read a draft of a poem that had the line "Why recently, I am so drawn to dilapidation."  

If you read my recent post, you will know that I most whole-heartedly agree with that statement!  Again and again, I am being drawn to images, places, and people that are past their prime.  Whether you want to call it dilapidation, beautiful ruin, or even something melodramatic like the gorgeous flaw, the fact remains that what is imperfect is far more interesting than something seamless and perfect.  Perfection has its place, perhaps with Plato or in heaven.  But here on earth, what garners my attention in writing are flawed characters, broken dreams, and the imperfect world of objects.

Who wants to read about St. Blandula's struggle-free life, where she was always immersed in the divine and never tempted?  Not me.

There is an impulse within all of us to look back at the past through rose colored glasses.  We call this nostalgia or the "good old days."  History shows us again and again, that people like to recall a semi-mythical past in which their culture was at its greatest.  The ancient Greeks (specifically Hesiod) called this their Golden Age, an age where men "lived with the gods without sorrow."  There is a reason that the good stories from Greek mythology come later, at a more flawed stage of mankind.  Where would our fairy tale princesses be without the long climb up to the castle throne?

So it is with each of us.  When we begin to write, we may want to edit out the very parts of our stories that make them the most compelling.  We might want to avoid the unpleasant or embarrassing aspects.  Or even believe that our memory is absolute fact.  That hazy world of the "good old days" beckons us, whispers in our ear to return, and ultimately to enter into an idealized, struggle free piece of writing.  We become the lotus eaters that Homer warned us about.  In other words, boring.

We, as writers, need to ask ourselves what we truly wish to show in our writing.

Miriam-Webster defines an effigy first as, "an image or representation, especially of a person" but then more interestingly as "a crude figure representing a hated person."  We immediately know what we are interested in hearing more about.  Give me enemies for $1000 please.

The word effigy comes from Middle French and Latin, meaning to form or to shape.  It has a connection to the word dough.  As a former baker, I know intimately, what it means to shape loaves for the rising and baking process.  So it is with writing.

As you begin drafting or revising your pieces, I encourage you to write straight at the heart of imperfection.  Dig deeper into the flaws of your characters and narratives.  Is is through these cracks and brokenness that our strongest stories find their way into the world.

19 October 2011

Guest Blogger Chelsia A. Rice on Writing and Same-Sex Families

Boolean Searching

In 2001, I started college to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. I wanted to get an education that would help me write my experience of being raised by two moms in suburban Oregon in the 1980s and 90s, but even then, in my formative years as an academic, I knew I needed to look to other writers with similar experiences in order to see how they crafted their stories before I wrote my own. The problem: I didn’t know of any. I didn’t know that any existed.

                At a Women’s Conference in the winter of 2002, I found my first book that depicted something close to my experiene. Displayed above the rest of the books was Heather Has Two Mommies: the 10th Anniversary Edition. It stopped me dead in my tracks. With one hand, I reached out to the glossy cover picture of a little girl frolicking in the grass with her dog and with the other I covered my mouth.  The tears came faster than I could compose myself, and I turned away from the bookseller as to not have her see me crying. As I tried getting myself back together amidst the crowds of women passing through the conference, I clutched the book to my chest and thought of the little girl in my past that never knew there were others like her, that never saw her experience in her own books, ever.

                Finding that first book inspired me to search for more narratives like mine. I started small. I wandered through my community college library and found little to nothing in their stacks. I shifted my search to the bigger county library and spent hours looking through their catalogue. Still, finding nonfiction written by children who grew up with queer parents was challenging. I didn’t know what search parameters to use.  I started simple:

“Children of same-sex parents.”
I got one hit: Zack’s Story: Growing Up with Same-sex Parents by Keith Elliot Greenberg.
I was thrilled, but as I wandered over to the Children’s Library, I already knew that Zack’s Story would be nothing like my own. Still, I picked it up and took it back to the computer to search again.

Same-sex[and]parents[and]children[and]essay?
--No Entries Found—

Children[or]kid[and]gay[or]lesbian[or]queer[and]parent?                                         
--330 results—
Listings available? Many that in no way related to my experience, including Gunfighters of the American West, Say Hey: a song of Willie Mays, and the Indigo Girls album, Retrospective.

Well, Indigo Girls, I guess that’s kind of close.
I tried again.

Same-sex[and]parent[and]children[or]kid[not]goat[and]nonfiction?
--No Entries Found—

Searching was become too complicated. I gave up.
Nothing.

I returned many more times, and each time, a similar routine. What initially turned up were parenting books geared towards lesbians and gay men, and a couple of sociological titles that examined whether or not gay and lesbian parents were good parents. And while I was pleased that there were books to convince unsure readers that same-sex parents were just as qualified for the job as heterosexual parents, I was looking for nonfiction narratives from the children in those families.  

                What further complicated my investigation was that I wasn’t just looking for narratives of children raised by queer parents, but narratives of children who were raised in homes with queer parents who were addicts, had mental illness, or were engaged in domestic violence. Consider, now, the search parameters narrowed:

Kid[or]child[and]lesbian[or]gay[or]queer[and]addict?
--No Entries Found—

Children[and]queer[and]parent[and]domestic[and]violence?
--No Entries Found—

Same-sex[and]mental[and]illness[and]children?
--No Entries Found—

No matter what I plugged into the computer, nothing I wanted came up. Needless to say, I was frustrated. So, over to the reference librarian I went.

                “Excuse me,” perhaps I said, “Do you know of any books about adult kids who’ve grown up with queer parents?”
                “Hmm…” the librarian hummed as her fingers clicked across the keyboard. Then clicked again. And, again. Finally, she turned the monitor in my direction and we looked down a list of three books, none of them necessarily relative to my search, most of them I’d seen before. “Well,” she said, “if you look in the general area around these books, at books with the same call numbers, you might find something.”

                I climbed three flights of marble stairs to the top floor and found myself buried in stacks on the backside of the building. When I found the call numbers, I ran my fingers back and forth down the rows of books. Then, I found one: A collection of essays titled Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered Parents by Noelle Howey and Ellen Samuels.

                I took the book home and read it in two nights. It, too, did not necessarily contain narratives that echoed my experience. It was time to ask myself why.

First, although I am not the first child in history to be raised by same-sex parents, I’m on the front end of the what some people call the “gayby boom,” so the voices of children like mine are just emerging; we are just beginning to make sense of what it meant to grow up in the midst of the gay rights movement, and under severe political and social scrutiny. Second, while my mothers were lesbians and addicts who were struggling with mental illness and often fought viciously with one another, they were my parents, and we were a family. Their struggles were not a result of their relationship, and their relationship was not a result of their issues. Many families, regardless of their composition, struggle with issues such as these, and my searching for narratives that strictly reflected the lives of children from gay and lesbian headed households severely limited my options. Years later, I turned to the voices of writers who shared my experiences, regardless of the parent’s pairing, and I realized another reason why I never found what I specifically looking for.

                These writers, much like myself, don’t want our stories to be shelved in the LGBTQ area in the back of the women’s bookstore, or categorically placed next to sociological examinations of diverse families, and while I’m thankful that these distinctions exist and that there are books available that fall under these distinction, my story and the stories of others like me, do not exist in order to be read by just one specific audience. The stories of our families are very much like those of our heterosexual counterparts, and they need to be recognized as such and read by many.

                These days, ten years after my initial search for stories like mine, other books are beginning to appear, and the catalogues are beginning to blossom with stories from the children who grew up with same-sex parents. We can only hope that we will soon find them beyond the confines of shelves relegated to the LGBTQ genre.

Chelsia A. Rice earned her MFA at the University of Idaho and her writing has appeared in Pointed Circle, The Broken Word Anthology, NervyGirl Magazine, About.com and various other publications. She lives in Helena, Montana where she teaches writing, chases deer out of her back yard, and throws the ball for her wiener dogs in her off time.

25 September 2011

Only the Appearance of a Whole

This weekend has been filled with a small accretion of idea bits and fragments, that have sort of reached a critical mass in my head.  If my mind were a junk drawer, it would be time to clean it out.

One thing that struck me this weekend was my tendency to pick up old books, even if I may never read them.  A great example of this is a book I got first published in 1939 called Cowboy Dances: A Collection of Western Square Dances by Lloyd Shaw.  This book is filled not only with photos of the dancers, but diagrams for dancing groups and a whole commentary on what music may be appropriate to listen to.  More intriguing is that the foreword is written by Sherwood Anderson, the author of the novel Winesburg, Ohio.

On Saturday, at the Farmer's Market, I saw a half dozen elderly couples square dancing.  It is one thing that I have always wanted to learn, but never gotten around to.  Do young people square dance these days?  Perhaps buying older books on subjects that intrigue me is one way to give form to my countless aspirations.



Right now, my friend is taking her elderly father through  Montana on his "last tour."  At the age of 88, she doesn't think that he will be able to make another foray into the Big Sky State where he spent the first half of his life.  She said that they were stopped in Ekalaka, Montana which is a town that nearly touches the divide between North and South Dakota.  I went to another book that I have to learn a little bit more about where they were at.  In Montana Place Names from Alzada to Zortman published by the Montana Historical Society, I learned that Ekalaka is named for the niece of the Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud.  She and her husband opened a store and saloon there in 1885.  The town is currently a whopping 410 people.

Over the weekend, I stopped at the small town of Garfield, Washington in hopes of eating at a BBQ joint and cafe run by an elderly couple.  I haven't been up that way in about five months.  When I arrived, the place was closed.  Instead, I ate at Grumpy's Bar and was told by the woman at the counter that the elderly woman was ill and her husband spent a great deal of time taking care of her so the restaurant folded.  Another place that I enjoyed visiting has faded off the map.

This morning I drank my coffee out of a cup I bought from the Steamboat Rock Restaurant in Grand Coulee, Washington this summer.  It was perhaps the ideal small cafe.  The woman who was our waitress had worked there for 36 years.  The decor was replete with wagon wheels and knotty pine paneling.  It probably hadn't been remodeled since 1960, and this was a positive thing.  Although things looked worn, they were spotless.  I bought a cup at the counter, because I know that someday soon, this place will probably also slip into history.



And that is what this post is really about: the way that life continues to slip into the past.

How elusive our points of reference can be.  Memory too continues to shift inside of us.  My recollection of the ham and egg sandwich I ate at the Steamboat Rock Restaurant will continue to haunt, even though it was perhaps the aura of the place that charmed me.  I begin to long for such things, especially when faced with the fact that I will most likely not be back to that part of Washington for years, if at all.

And this is where writing comes in, at the end.  Through writing, I am able to capture if not the actual moment, at least a texture of it.  If not the exact shape, then at least I can sketch its gesture in words.

Writing, can sustain us, even if all else recedes   

18 September 2011

Winged City Chapbooks, Contests, Publication!

On Sunday, I received and email from the folks at Winged City Chapbooks (an imprint of New Sins Press) that they had selected my manuscript "The Geography of Removal" as their annual contest winner.

Thrilled could be used to describe my reaction.  Perhaps squeeing might be a better aural approximation.

I had submitted "Geography" at the beginning of February and to three other contests/publishers.  I got a "no" from two of the publishers earlier in the summer.  One thing I try to do with submissions is to forget about them as often as possible.  I have a list of who I send things off to.  I might even write on the calender "Check with Journal X" three or four months out from the date I send things off, but otherwise I try not to think about where my work is at.  After six months I was thoroughly surprised.

Now things heat up.  I found out this week that my chapbook will be released at the end of  February, just in time for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference (AWP).  This means that I will be in Chicago for the conference and to do a book signing at the New Sins Press table.

I will keep you all informed as things progress.  Thanks to New Sins Press and thanks to all of my readers for your continued encouragement and comments.

13 September 2011

New Places to Find My Work: RFD Magazine

The Fall 2011 issue of RFD Magazine is dedicated to Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter.  My essay about Whitman, Montana, and Allen Ginsberg "Stranger if You Passing Meet Me" can be found therein.

RFD Magazine is that began in 1974 after "The Whole Earth Catalog" refused to print anything about gay men.  Originally aimed at reaching rural gay men, RFD has since expanded to include the the Radical Faery Movement and the larger LGBTQ community.



It is the oldest reader-written quarterly for gay men in the world, now entering its 37th year of print.

Copies are available here: http://www.rfdmag.org/

05 September 2011

Notes from the Invisible Man: Erasure of the Queer Narrative


I recently had a lively exchange with a fellow poet about women getting it on with other women in poetry.  In the poems, the speaker or narrator (as far as can be surmised about such things) identified as heterosexual.  The poems under discussion were brave for their honest discussion of secrets and sexuality--experiences that get swept under the rug or locked up in gray metal boxes labeled shame.  I commend these poems for telling.

That said, something still bothered me about them.  Not the poems themselves, but the way in which “queer” content was being told by straight narrators.  Human sexuality is a variegated and prismatic animal, and I acknowledge that any rigid construct of sexual behavior is prone to exception and failure.  Although many poems, stories and essays in this category are not aiming for it, by their very nature they intend to provoke or shock a reader with the content.  They are written to a heterosexual audience.  Primarily, they are received into a heteronormative tradition that sees them at odds with the accepted narratives and boundaries
.
Further spurring my cantankerous brain was that my poet friend recommended a book by an (assumingly heterosexual) author wrote about someone gay dying of AIDS.  I want to acknowledge that the book had great literary merit.  It was moving.  It still unsettled me.

HIV and AIDS are by no means a “gay” disease.  The AIDS pandemic  as they say, is everyone’s problem.  But the context of the book was viewed through the lens of the AIDS-crisis in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The bad years.  The plague years.  The days of ACT-UP, PWA, and the introduction of the new cocktail drug therapies.   The book is told through the lens of a heterosexual who lost a homosexual family member.

What I am grasping my way toward here is that too often, (I will go out on a limb for controversy’s sake and say most often) any visibility that queer narratives get by heterosexuals are from heterosexual authors.  (David Sedaris aside, because he is really Erma Bombeck come back from the dead.)  As a queer man, my narrative about the queer experience, my own lived truth is given second place for a heterosexual narrative which touches, but does not encompass my life.  As LGBTQ people, we come to know our own stories in literature written by queer authors AND we usually read what the larger heteronormative culture has to say about us.  It is expected for us to read and to know what author X and Y have to say about queers.  But we aren’t given the same equity.

Most heterosexuals remain ignorant of queer authors.  They don’t read our books.  They aren’t really interested in doing so.  Why should they?  Heteronormative culture doesn’t expect to find anything about our lives to reflect anything of their own.  Isn’t this the great argument mainstream gay culture makes about same-sex marriage, “We are just like you!”?  Who are we lying too?

When my heterosexual friends recommend  books (by straight authors) with gay themes to me, I am happy for it.  There is usually an expectation that I should know about the book already since it is “about me.”  When I go on to recommend a book back by a queer author, I am usually met with a blank stare.  “Who?” my heterosexual friends ask. “I have never heard of that.”

And without me, they probably never will.

03 September 2011

Recent Searches That Led People to My Blog (Borrowed from Eduardo C. Corral)


These are key search words for finding my blog:

battleship game pieces

amos lassen

black and white portland maine

assaracus poem

"ian denning" (in quotes no less!)

gay face smiling

22 August 2011

A Small Photo Essay to Get You Through the Week

It is the first week of classes and I have been spending my time between getting a bunch of preparatory work done for teaching my Composition and Rhetoric class and trying to be as unproductive as possible.  In lieu of a thoughtful and provocative post on writing, I thought that a small photo essay might be nice.  Here are some of the things that I saw this summer:

This is the famous two-headed calf of Waterville, WA.  Born in 1964, sadly, he lived for only ten days.


Lovely scroll work on the back of a chair in my hotel room.


Look kids, a jackelope!


An old industrial bridge, no longer open to the public near Chelan, WA.


I didn't eat here, but the sign combined with the amazing red lamps inside made me want to stop.


Dry Falls.  During the Ice Age this waterfall was 40X larger than Niagra Falls.


More stunning vistas at Dry Falls.


Grand Coulee Dam.  Me looking down 400 feet to watch the schools of sturgeon feed.


Grand Coulee Dam in the distance.  So much water!


The obligatory shot of me in a deep sea diving mask.


A look at the lake created by Diablo Dam.


The rainbow edged window at the Sage Baker in Uniontown, WA.


A game I did not buy at a rummage sale.


Notice the text, this is an advertisement for a men's apparel store.  Your guess is as good as mine.

15 August 2011

An Interview with William Reichard

William Reichard is the author of four collections of poetry: Sin Eater (2010); This Brightness (2007); How To (2004).  All three were published by Mid-List Press.  He was a finalist for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets; and An Alchemy in the Bones (New Rivers Press, 1999) won a MN Voices Prize. Poems from This Brightness and How To have been featured on NPR’s “Writers Almanac.” He has published one chapbook, To Be Quietly Spoken (Frith Press, 2001) and edited The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s: A Gay Life in the 1940’s (Univ. of MN Press, 2001). Reichard's anthology of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice, was published by New Village Press in April 2011.


Jory Mickelson: I get a sense in reading your work across several books that the landscape informs your poetry.  You currently live in the Midwest, but not all of your poems are set in the heartland.  Could you talk a bit about how your environs shape your poems?  

William Reichard:  This is something I've thought about since a friend of mine from North Carolina told me, several years ago, that she thought that the northern landscape and the seasons here play a significant role in my work. At that point, I hadn't thought much about the place of geography in my poems, but after that, I saw it everywhere. Having grown up in a place like Minnesota, where there are such extremes in the weather - we had the highest temperature in the U.S. last week: 103, and six weeks previous, it had been spitting snow - it's difficult not to get wrapped up in the seasons. The weather here can kill you - freeze you, burn you, a tornado can erase your house, your neighborhood, even your life. This makes everyone here, by necessity, sharply tuned into what's going on outside. I've always loved these extremes. I think they're very beautiful, and it's hard to imagine living away from a place where the environment does change so drastically in the course of one year. The changing seasons lend themselves very naturally to poetry, taking on the metaphorical work of exploring the ways in which people relate to one another, to their environment, even to themselves. I don't take on these metaphors in a self-conscious way (I hope!) and I have to watch myself while I'm writing, more so editing, to make sure that these themes don't dominate my work. It's easy to slip into this mode, too easy, and I want my work to take on more than just the weather, dramatic and beautiful as it is.

I've always felt the strong impact of the landscape around me. Each new place I've visited has left some kind of mark on my psyche, and this has translated through into my written work. Some places, like the Marin Headlands in Northern California, and the Black Mountains in North Carolina, are deeply important to me for many reasons. These are connected to what and where these places are, geographically-speaking, but also to the people there, and how these people have influenced my life and work. I grew up in rural Minnesota, in a small farming community, and so I relate to the land in that way as well, as someone who lived in a community whose fate is largely determined by the success or failure of the crops each year. Seeing the land and the environment as a living thing is important for everyone, but perhaps you have to have depended on the land for a living before you become so intimately connected to it.

JM:  What poets who write about place catch your attention?

WR: So many poets write about place, so it's hard to pick a few. I guess the first poet I read who has a close connection to his geography is Robert Hass. His book Praise had a profound effect on me, the way he melds together the natural and the spiritual and makes it look so easy when it's not easy at all. Mark Doty's first four books of poetry are deeply connected to the natural world. As he writes about his lover, Wally, falling ill and dying, he re-inscribes Wally's vanishing body into the landscape. In this way, Wally never really dies. The poetry becomes very spare by the 4th book, where the work focuses the seaside landscape, it's spare quality, and it becomes a metaphor for grief and loss. That work is very much like Elizabeth Bishop's, and I admire her work as well. Some of Linda Hogan's poetry takes on this task, fusing the natural and the spiritual.

JM: I would like to say that I grew up conscious of how my fate was tied to the weather because my great grandmother was a dry land wheat farmer in North Central Montana.  I can't.  Truth be told, I grew up in a rural town in the mountains of Western Montana that is lush by comparison.

What does living in an environment of extremes and such large contrasts do to your work? How else has the idea of drastic change entered into your own writing?

WR:  As a gay man in a heterosexist society, I'd say that I've lived in an environment of extremes and large contrasts all of my life. It's been impossible to avoid, whether as a closeted teenager or as an out man. People tend to feel strongly about what they're afraid of, what they don't understand, what their ideological upbringing has told them is wrong. As a member of a minority group in the US, I've experienced these extremes firsthand, felt the sting of that fear and lack of understanding. That's not to say that I haven't also experienced wonderful extremes as well - feeling safe and celebrated within LGBT communities, within literary and arts communities, with my own family and with my family of friends. People can run so hot and cold. As humans we all have to learn to navigate such extremes. But some of us have to learn the geography of such extremes more deeply, in order to survive.

Looking back at my own writing, I see that I've always dealt with such extremes in my work, whether focused on the climate and landscape, or on the dramatic range of human interactions. In a sense, this is what every writer and artist does - focus on those moments of slippage, of contrast and confrontation - otherwise, we wouldn't have any good stories to tell. I can't remember the last novel I read in which everyone was happy and no one had to deal with adversity - that would make for a very boring book. I've dealt with sexual and social identity, poverty, death, AIDS, loss, and love, among many topics. Joy and happiness as well. Those moments of change, of contrast, are the moments when we really know we're alive because, for better or worse, they cause us to change and adapt. Though they're not always good experiences, I'm grateful for such moments. 

JM:  I like the idea of “moments of slippage.”  I sometimes feel the writing process is that way, a grasping toward something that I don’t necessarily understand or see clearly.   

Let’s talk about LGBTQ identity and communities.  For a variety of reasons, I have a somewhat different worldview about what it means to be queer than those even ten years younger than myself.  Do you feel that your writing has a gay or queer sensibility to it and what does a sensibility mean to you?

WR:  I do feel that my work has a gay/queer sensibility, and by sensibility, I'm talking about a lens through which I see the world, a "filter" of sorts, that's been shaped by my experiences as a gay man in this time and place. I think about the idea of lenses and ideology a great deal. Partly, this is because of the work I do, teaching college-level seminars on creative writing and social justice in the fall, and visual/performing arts and social justice in the spring. Much of what I do is based on the presumption that everyone has a lens through which we see the world. This lens is shaped by lived experience, by belief systems and values we get from our family and community, and by the ideas and beliefs that we come to on our own. For those in majority, lets say white male middle class heterosexuals, the need to examine one's lens often isn't necessary. That's not to say that such people don't consciously examine their own lenses - they obviously do - but the need to do this, being compelled to do this in order to survive, isn't usually a necessity. Such people live, for better or worse, in a culturally conditioned "default" state - the thing we're all supposed to be, supposed to want to be. For me, growing up in a poor/working class family, growing up gay, it was never a question of whether or not I wanted to be in a position of always looking at my own lens, always questioning it. I had to do it. And frankly, I'm grateful for that, in hindsight.

So back to the question of my work having a gay/queer sensibility. Yes, it does. It has to, because whether I'm writing poetry based on my lived experience or writing poetry that's pure invention, I'm always writing out of the position I occupy in the world, and my sexual identity, among many other things, informs my perspective. Some of my work is very obviously gay/queer. My love poems, for instance, are always addressed to other men. I don't believe in leaving gender vague or neutral in my work. I know some writers who do this, in order, they say, to make the work more available to any reader. This seems, to me, like a subtle or not so subtle form of self-loathing. I don't really see this in the work of writers younger than me, but do see it in work from the last century. (It seems very strange to me to write that - the last century - but it's accurate even if it's a bit uncomfortable and makes me feel like some kind of antique.)

JM:  Do you find your own lens of what it means to be a gay man different from others around you or younger than you?

WR:  In terms of my own sense of what it means to be a gay man, and how this compares to the way younger gay/queer poets see the world, I do think that there are some big and important differences. The first difference is the very unapologetic way in which younger writers approach their identity in the world and in their creative work. They are very comfortable being who they are, using that in their work, and this makes me very happy. I guess I'd say I come from a kind of "bridging" generation. I was born in 1963. I was alive when Stonewall happened (though a small child). I was a young adult when the AIDS pandemic started. I was around for the "culture wars" and the dismantling of the NEA and the heyday of deconstruction and queer theory in the academy. The way that younger poets approach the world - I had to come to that, I wasn't born into it. I had to decide in a very conscious way to approach my sexual identity in my work. It was almost like coming out twice - once as a gay man, and again as a gay poet, or rather, a poet who is gay. As I said earlier, this is expressed very naturally in my work, and it's one facet of the person I am. Writing from this position, using my own lens when creating my work, didn't come easily. It was a struggle, just as it was an even greater struggle for gay/queer writers who came before me. I was able to build on what I inherited from them, and in turn, my students build on what they get from me. It's a lovely thing, I think.

JM:  The idea of gay/queer identity within poetry (and writing in general) has been in my mind quite a bit.  I finished the great essay “Boon and Burden: Identity in Contemporary American Poetry” by Carl Phillips recently.  Also the kerfuffle with the 2011 Pioneer Award given to Edward Albee at the Lambda Literary Awards who went on to say, “Any writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self,” and continued by saying, “I am not a gay writer—I am a writer who happens to be gay.”

What do you have to say about the claim that we are now living in a “post-gay” or “post-queer” world?

WR: These are complex issues, and I struggle with them. When I first started writing poetry, I wrote a sequence of poems titled "A Faggot's Lexicon." In the poems, I took on the names that have been used in derogatory ways, in the past, to attack LGBTQ people. Names like "sodomite," "faggot," "fruit," etc. I wanted to do the work that so many since have done in reclaiming the word "queer," to transform the words from weapons used against us into banners we could proudly fly. I guess I was taking on the labels I'd been given, names I'd been called since before I could even articulate who I was or how I would live my life. The process of writing those poems helped me gain back some of the words and some of the power I felt I'd lost by living in such a myopic society.

Western culture, and American culture in particular, seems dead set on labeling everything. It's a kind of taxonomic drive that I understand intellectually, but can't stand emotionally. If you can name something, label it, then you can control it. Look what we do to people who don't fit conveniently into the categories we've created - they're destroyed, pushed out of society in order to maintain some misguided perception that the world has a fixed and "right" order. It doesn't. Nature is big and expansive and slippery. You can't contain or control it. Some people might find this concept frightening, but I take great comfort in it. We live in mystery, and as poets or artists of any kind, that mystery, the urge to give words to what lies just beyond our reach, is our raw material. I think I knew I was a poet when I realized language couldn't contain or describe everything, but I still had to keep trying.

I understand Albee's comment about how he is defined. We could look at him and say, he's a product of another generation. He's self-loathing. But I don't think that would be accurate or fair. I take his quote to mean that being gay is one aspect of who he is as a whole person. We don't define heterosexual people only on the basis of their sexual orientation, we don't say, he's a straight writer. We could, but that would be reductive. I don't think Albee could deny that being gay defines, in a major way, what he writes about and how he writes it. His sexual identity is part of what forms his perspective, so how could it not play into his work? I take his quote to mean, I want it to mean, that he's a multifaceted person and so shouldn’t be defined by single label.

I don't think we're living in a "post-gay" or "post-queer" world. I think we're living in a world that has been made to stretch, by the hard work of countless LGBTQ people, to accommodate and even celebrate what is gay and what is queer. For me, the "post-" labels give an impression that we're past all of that, through with the need to consider these parts of an individual’s identity. I think that we always have to consider all pieces of an individual’s identity. Things get lost, otherwise. A friend of mine used to have a poster that featured photographs of famous LGBTQ writers, and the caption, "Unfortunately, history has set the record a little too straight." It was a comment on the practice of erasure, taking away certain facts about an individual that might interfere with the way in which you want to perceive them and their work. That seems so lazy to me - simply ignoring what you don't want to know so that your vision of the world isn't upset by inconvenient facts. I guess I'm contradicting myself here. Earlier, I argued that labels were bad and confining. Now I seem to be arguing that they're good and empowering. This isn't my intention. Maybe what I'm trying to get at is a sense that labeling, naming to control, being labeled, is a negative action, while naming oneself, proudly taking on the names you call yourself, is a positive one. I wish I could give you a very succinct and orderly reply to this question, but it's messy, and sometimes, messy is good.

JM: Messy is probably for the best.  And now for something completely different.  Your poetry would lead me to believe that you spend a goodly deal of time around cats.  When I read your third book, This Brightness I kept thinking back to this fall when I had the good fortune to hear Edward Hirsch talk about his poem “Wild Gratitude” which was inspired by one of his favorite poems “Jubilate Agno, Fragment [For I Will Now Consider my Cat Jeoffry]” by Christopher Smart.  Do you know either of these poems?  Would you care to comment on the cats that appear in your poems and/or being a cat person?

WR:  I do know the Christopher Smart poem. It's great! I've always been a cat person. There were always cats around when I was growing up, and for whatever reason, our family cats tended to gravitate toward me, or maybe it was the other way around? There's never been a time in my life when I haven't had at least one significant cat. For 19 years it was Max. He was somewhat of a misanthrope, but loved me, as I did him. Right now, my partner and I have two cats. They're sisters, from a litter of kittens my sister Rita's cat had eleven years ago. They've been with us since they were kittens. They have very different natures. Alice is a lap cat, loves attention, loves to be held, to sleep on the bed. Gertrude is wildcat, always playful, not quite a lap cat, but one who loves to be near you, to sit in proximity to you, and when she's in the mod, she'll jump on your lap.


Mark Doty has a poem called "Beginners" in which his grade school class receives reproductions of various objects from a museum, to keep in the class for a period of time. The object he writes about is a reproduction of a statue of an ancient Egyptian cat deity. The poem explores secrets children keep, and the cat becomes a silent witness to whom the narrator confesses his secrets. Cats have always served that purpose for me. I read somewhere that cats record our history. They watch us and remember everything, but give nothing away. The perfect companions! I didn't consciously set out to put a lot of cats in to the poems in This Brightness, but they are certainly there! After the book came out and I realized just how many cats populated the work, I was a little embarrassed. I was afraid that people would think I was a crazy cat man, hoarding dozens of animals in some run down house, something out of the six o'clock news. For me, the cats take on a metaphorical role, representing both the good and the bad in all of us. Animals, in general, play a significant role in my work. I think the way a society treats its animals is a pretty good gauge for measuring the way that society values life, values those in the society who have little or no power. I don't believe our society is making the grade.

JM: One of my vows to myself when I started writing was that I would never publish a poem about my cat, but you are making me rethink that decision.  I got my very first cat six years ago and am now a cat person for better or worse.  I only have one (so far).

So the weather and whiskers aside, where else do you take your inspiration for your work?  It may be the most asked question to writers, but what brought you to poetry and continues to bring you back to it?

WR:  What inspires me... That's a big question for anyone. I suppose the answer I give depends on the day. It's always changing. Human relationships inspire me - the way they function and frequently don't function. Nature. Television inspires me a great deal. I know I'm supposed to hate TV, but I don't. I watch a very eclectic mix of things - I love any kind of documentary. I love shows about things I don't understand - the workings of the universe, exploration of the oceans and of deep, hidden caves, indigenous cosmologies, migration routes of flamingos and monarch butterflies. Some sitcoms are great. Some dramas. Old movies inspire me. Spiritual belief systems of all kinds are fascinating. Ghost stories are a favorite. Really, anything that can teach me something I don't know is a great source of inspiration. Poetry is a kind of exploration, a search for something you know you'll never quite find, but you keep looking anyway.

I came to poetry in a kind of backwards way. I did all of my graduate work in creative writing in fiction and creative nonfiction. But as time went on, I found myself less and less satisfied with my work. It became less about traditional forms of narrative and storytelling and more about the wonderful details of the stories - the engagement of the senses, the captured moments, the snapshots of emotion and idea. My last term in the writing program at the University of Minnesota, I took a poetry writing course to fulfill a graduation requirement. It was like I'd been sitting in a dark room and someone turned on the light. I could see, and things suddenly made sense. I never really went back to prose. I still tinker with a story now and again, and I do work on essays, but poetry is how I make sense of the world. And this is what keeps pulling me back into poetry - that deep-seated need to try and make sense of the world. I know I'll never find it, but I have to keep trying.

I'm very inspired by music, visual art and the performing arts, and by other writers. Frank O'Hara has a poem titled "Why I Am Not A Painter." I've always loved that poem. He talks about how much he loves visual art - he was a curator at MoMA - and how he wishes he could paint. But he can't. I feel the same way. I love all forms of visual art, and I collect art (it's often more affordable that people think!) and I know a lot of visual artists. In my other life, the one I'm not living as a poet, I'm a painter or a photographer or both. I know that living with art, surrounded by it on the walls of my house, always spinning through my mind, has a profound influence on me as a writer. I have a visual memory - that's how I recall my own experiences, how I navigate when I'm driving or walking - and I always write, initially, from an image that lodges in my head and won't leave. After letting it sit there for a while, an hour or a day or two, I start to work with it.

My relationship with music is harder to describe. I've studied the trumpet and the violin, and can't play either. I can't actually read music. I've tried, but somewhere between seeing the notes on the page and moving my fingers to produce those notes, something gets lost, the message is interrupted. So, I've settled for loving music. I'm not picky about the form, the style, or era. I love Bach and I love Sigur Ros equally. I've always known musicians as friends, sometimes as lovers. It's difficult to put into words how music influences me. It's about a pure emotional reaction, a deep-seated feeling that I want desperately to express - music evokes such reactions in me - and so I turn to music when I'm feeling stuck, when the images and words aren't coming. It's like a jump-start directly to my heart.

JM:  I tried playing the trumpet and failed as well.  I remember how much I hated practicing every day, but I never felt like I got better.  I remember that for the elementary band concert, I just pretended to play so I wouldn’t screw up the songs.

You like ghost stories? I think haunted house movies may be my favorite genre of horror film. If I remember correctly you had some poems about a spiritualist or medium in your book How To didn't you?  Can you tell me a bit about why you are drawn to ghost stories. Also how the poem "Bird as Ghost" came to be in your book Sin Eater?

WR:    I LOVE ghost stories. I've loved them since I was a small child and I'd watch ghost stories on TV. When I learned to read, I went first to ghost stories and tales of the supernatural. In 4th grade I was sent to the high school library to find books for myself - I'd more or less used up the elementary school library and was hungry for more. I remember walking the long distance from the high school back to the elementary wing with a huge volume of Edgar Allan Poe in my hands. I'm not sure, now, that that was the best reading material for me at that age, but I was hooked.

I'm drawn to ghost stories for many reasons. The part of me that's fascinated by the mysteries of the natural world, by science, is drawn to various theories of time and space, the question of whether time is linear or if all of what we experience as time - past, present, and future - exist simultaneously. One theory here is that what we perceive as "ghosts" are really just other threads of time intersecting with our own. The part of me that's fascinated with the history of religion and spiritual beliefs is drawn to the idea of a deathless soul, a part of each of us that goes on, and the beauties and pitfalls that await us now and in some great beyond. Some of the poems in my books do deal with these issues - the "soul" poems, "Bird as Ghost," and "My Ghost" in Sin Eater. A series of "Hypothesis" poems in How To. Maybe I'm some kind of frustrated cleric? A psychic once told me that in my lives previous to this one I’ve been a priest, a shaman, various "holy" people. Perhaps it's the experience of these lives that carries through into this one that makes me write about ghosts or souls. "Bird as Ghost" is a melding of my interest in the natural world and in the spiritual realm.

JM:  I think that your “Hypothesis” poems may be some of my favorites.  In This Brightness, I was curious about the final section, when you wrote from the persona of Marsden Hartley.  Can you tell me how you and Hartley crossed paths and perhaps what generated the sequence of poems?

WR:  The Hartley sequence came about by chance. The Weisman Museum at the Univ. of MN has a very large collection of Hartley's work. I came across the work when I was fishing around for thesis topics. I thought it would be interesting to write about the work of gay men who wrote and also worked in visual media - my idea focused on the ways in which gay artists used their work to encode their lived experience in an age when being openly queer was not an option. Hartley was a poet as well as a painter. He published books of verse and art criticism. Around the time I was looking for a thesis topic, the Weisman started to organize a large Hartley retrospective. I connected with a curator at the museum and delved deeper into Hartley's work. I found I loved his visual work, but his poetry... not so much. In the end, I realized that I didn't want to write about him from an academic perspective because of the visceral way in which I reacted to his paintings - I didn't want to step back from the work and critically analyze it, I wanted to jump deeper into it. So, I found myself responding to him in a creative way, writing poems about him, his work, his life and the friendships he had with other cultural luminaries of the time - Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Mabel Dodge, etc. 

From that point on, the poems flowed out with ease. It seemed very natural to me to creatively engage with Hartley. He spent so much of his life alone, seeking real connections with other men, looking for love, and then running away from it. I wanted to try and get into his head, and through him, into his paintings. The poems were written within a relatively short period of time. I had the good fortune to get a grant to work on the poems - it allowed me to fly out to Boson and then drive slowly up the Atlantic coast, visiting the places Hartley lived and worked in Maine and Nova Scotia. I'd never seen the Atlantic when I started to write the poems, and I felt I had to actually see the environments I was trying to write about in order to authenticate my work. The trip was fantastic, and it gave me even more to work with in terms of landscapes, cityscapes, and subject matter. Once the sequence was drafted, I spent a long time revising it, looking for the final form of the poems. I settled on the prose poem format because that provided me with the greatest range of possibility in terms of the narrative structure of the work.

JM:  There is a lot of talk about the prose poem—what it is or isn’t.  What it must have or must avoid.  How to tell if one is successful or not.  The prose poem has been around for more than a century now, but it still seems (and perhaps only in America) to be a bit of a newcomer or a home wrecker in poetry.
WR: I love the idea of the prose poem as the home wrecker of American poetry! It does seem to puzzle some people. It's not that we don't have excellent poets working in the form. You could argue that Whitman's work is a form of prose poetry. I guess our culture, in general, likes things to be very clear. It's either A or B, 1 or 2. Kind of like going for an eye exam when the doctor keeps flipping the lenses back and forth and asking you which one is clearer. I read a quote by the French poet (and filmmaker and visual artist and designer, etc.) Jean Cocteau. He was asked why he wasn't as recognized in the U. S. as he was in the rest of the world. He replied that in the U.S. the doctor for your left foot can't look at your right. That, to me, sums up why prose poetry could be perceived as the evil stepchild of poetry. It's more than one thing at a time, occupies a space that's between given spaces, and this makes some people uncomfortable.

I love prose poetry. For me, it's the perfect blend of what's best in poetry - the focus on the image, the detail, the fragment, the moment - and what's best in prose - the sense of something happening, a narrative, a progression from one point to the next, a story being told. But there are certain expectations with prose regarding narrative, story, whatever you want to call it, and these expectations don't govern prose poetry, or at least they don't need to govern it. Prose poetry deals in fragments, luminous moments, and though the overall form still needs to be as concise as possible, it can be rangy in a way that more traditional poetry forms usually are not. I love that about the form - it's open territory - and I find that incredibly freeing.

Earlier I discussed my Hartley sequence. It didn't always exist in its finished, prose poem form. It started as free verse, but never felt right. I took it through so many iterations before I realized what it needed to be. I played with the line breaks, the stanza breaks. I knew I was working with a narrative, but I wasn't limited by Hartley's biography or a traditional art historical analysis of his work. I was looking for something in between. The prose poem form, in the way it inhabits this space between, was the perfect form for the piece. Once I'd found that, I knew where the poem needed to go, and finishing it was relatively easy. I've always worked in the prose poem form, and I probably always will. Maybe that's just the frustrated short story writer in me trying to find a way out. But I think it's more to do with the way the prose poem resists easy categorization. As a queer man, that's been my own experience in U.S. culture - people try to put you in a box, but you always find a way to slip out of the confines and if you're lucky, create your own definitions. So maybe that's what prose poetry really is in the world of U.S. poetry - the queer kid - the beautiful, elusive queer kid - not there to wreck poetry's home, but to push its walls out just a little bit further so there is more room for everyone.

JM:  I keep coming back to a quote by David Wojnarowicz from his journals, “The possibility inherent in impossibility.”  I feel that this could easily apply to the prose poem.

What are you working on right now?  What kind of writing projects do you have in the works, or are you not a writing project kind of guy?

WR:  I'm not sure what I'm working on right now. I guess I'm in limbo. Sin Eater was the third book in a trilogy, and that large format provided me with a lens through which to focus my work for a long time. I didn't realize how comforting it was having that larger project until it was finished and I found myself staring at my notebook wondering, now what? I'm writing with no particular focus, just seeing what happens. It's a little scary because these are the times when I doubt myself the most, when I start to think maybe I've run out of things to write about, or at least run out of the ability to say anything new or interesting. I know we all go through this, so I won't allow myself to wallow in this state for too long. I try to remind myself that as writers, we're always writing, even when we're not actively putting pen to paper. Sometimes we're on "intake" and sometimes we're on "output," but we're always working.


In April, New Village Press in Oakland published my anthology, American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice. This was another big project I'd been working on for the last couple of years, and again, it gave me something to focus on - if I was having trouble working on my own poetry, I could always turn to the anthology. It's fantastic having the anthology out there. I'm very passionate about the power of literature to create change and advocate for justice, and I think the work in the anthology proves how work that is, first and foremost, of the highest quality usually possesses the power to change minds, to get the reader to see the world through other eyes. It was my desire, as a teacher, to find work that has the power to transform, but isn't preachy or polemical, that made me undertake the project, and it was my belief that such work is out there that made me see it through to publication. I'd love to work on another anthology. It seems a shame not to, given the steep learning curve you face when you put together your first anthology. I'm sure I'll do another such project.

I'm also tinkering with essays and some short nonfiction. I love reading essays and creative nonfiction, and I think there's a deep connection between poetry and the essay form. Maybe it's an associative approach to ideas and images, a way of looking at the world that allows you to put unlike things together in order to come up with something new and whole. I'm very taken with the work of W. G. Sebald. There's something about the way he approaches ideas and narrative, a very liquid quality that allows him to move so effortlessly from one topic to the next, one memory to another - it's just beautiful. When I read his work, and the work of other writers like him, I feel that there is hope for all of us - I'm grateful that there are minds out there so unhampered, so full of imagination that they make almost anything seem possible. There is so much pettiness in the world these days. It's ugly and it's exhausting. Writers like Sebald are working on another level, not denying this world, but seeing it within a greater context.

In terms of my own writing, I'm content to just write for now. I'll send out work to journals, but won't try to force myself to come up with the shape of a new collection yet. I know that this will come when I'm ready. I am a project kind of guy, when it gets right down to it. I guess my current project is just letting things be, seeing what happens next. Whatever the next collection is, it will need to be different from the last four. I'm not talking about radically changing my style or abandoning my voice, and I don't honestly believe any of us can do that in any organic, real way. I'm talking about growing as a writer and a thinker, stepping off into new territory, and simply continuing to learn. I never want to stop learning. It's how I know I'm alive.

JM:  Thanks for such a great conversation.



LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails