Alex Dimitrov is the recipient of a Roy W. Cowden Fellowship from the Hopwood Awards at the University of Michigan. His poems and reviews have appeared in Best New Poets 2009, Poets & Writers, Crab Orchard Review, The Cortland Review,Gargoyle, and The Portland Review among others. He is the awards coordinator of the Academy of American Poets and the founder of Wilde Boys, a queer poetry salon in New York City.
You’ve asked me this question before and now I’m asking you: How did you come to poetry? And why do you stick with it?
As a child I used to take piano and French lessons back to back after school. I hated both, and for my own amusement I started making up songs, in bad French, in some off key melody I banged out on the piano. That’s how I came to poetry. And I’ve stuck with it because I believe it’s possible, though difficult, to create something beautiful. Beauty is truth, like Keats said. And I know art can wake people up and help them live in the world. I’m interested in lifting people up. One of my favorite performance artists, Marina Abramović, says that her purpose as an artist is to elevate the public spirit. I try to remember that when I sit down to write.
As a recent graduate of the Sarah Lawrence MFA program, do you have any retrospective thoughts on the MFA experience?
I went to an MFA program to meet my family. My teacher Marie Howe calls it “tribal recognition,” that feeling when you meet another writer and you’re instantaneously drawn to one another on this metaphysical, emotional level—which your love of language (and of life and all its details) has made possible.
Could you talk about the process of writing your MFA thesis? How did you approach the project & how did you sustain the energy needed to get through it?
I wanted to write poems about God and time and the power of place. I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and I immigrated to Detroit, Michigan with my family when I was six years old, after the fall of communism in the early 90s. I had a story but like you say, I needed to sustain the energy of the experience, I needed to hear a voice from somewhere so I could start writing and transform that experience. So I sat and waited, and read a lot of Eliot and Dickinson and Glück. And then I’d write a little. I’m constantly amazed when I finish a poem. I always think it’s going to be my last. It’s a kind of melancholy euphoria. The only thing harder than writing is living.
How would you describe your own work? What are your priorities as a poet?
My priorities are clarity and beauty. Anne Carson, who was my teacher at the University of Michigan, has these great lines in Decreation where she says, “I just want to be clear/ and be more and more clear/ until finally/ all you see/ is the line/ left by the cutting tool/ in the heart,/ not even the heart.” That’s what I want. To make something true and devastating, yet stripped down, so it gracefully disappears at the same time. An art so bare, it almost seems effortless, artless.
Thinking about the poetry community, what do you love and what do you hate about the state of contemporary poetics?
I love how aesthetically diverse contemporary poetry is right now. I was reading Brenda Shaughnessy and Jack Gilbert one after the other on the train today. It was a good train ride.
What I want to do is bring glamour back to poetry, like Anne Sexton in the 60s—holding a cocktail in one hand and her book of poems in the other. I’m interested in the idea of the poet as a public figure. A man, or woman, of the people. Poets understand and believe in the internal, but the external is an art in itself. The way you look, and the persona you adopt has everything to do with how you imagine yourself in the culture. There’s a lot to be valued in that kind of aesthetic imagination. I’d love to see poets dress up and be fabulous, craft more of a visual identity for themselves.
You recently founded the Wilde Boys Queer Poetry Salon. Can you talk about the group & what it means to you (and others)?
I’m just so happy that once a month I get to be in the same room with an incredibly diverse (and cute) group of young gay New York poets. I love that we argue over the relevance of phrases like “queer poetry” or “AIDS literature,” or what any of these things even mean. We read James Merrill and Henri Cole, Mark Doty and Hart Crane—it’s a big mish mash. And the boys can swap numbers if they want to. Poetry’s about language and desire after all.
Has the Salon affected your thoughts on what makes a queer writer (or reader for that matter)?
I don’t know what makes a queer writer. The first poetry I ever read was Emily Dickinson, followed by Anne Sexton. And those two women are more queer to me than say Thom Gunn, or even Cavafy. I think being queer has to do with how we transform our disidentifications into something beautiful, something which enables us to keep living.
Now to speak of identification—I’ve always identified more with women writers than gay male writers, but I’m interested in queerness as a kind of vehicle to transcend misery. But I guess that’s all art—all art is queer.
Are there any poets you’ve been reading that you feel deserve more attention?
Victoria Redel, Donna Masini, Thylias Moss, David Groff, Honor Moore, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Raymond McDaniel, James Allen Hall…I could go on.