Monthly Archives: March 2010

Interview: James Allen Hall (Part II)

by Kehinde Wiley

I know you have invoked Toni Morrison’s ethos for writing the kind of books you want to read. And so, I was wondering – what are the kinds of books you like to read and how has your reading life impacting your writing?

Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be, Breton is on the record as saying. I hunger for books of dynamic engagement: voices that call to be heard. The kind of poetry that takes the top of my head off strikes a balance between searing image and sonic intensity, between intellectual coherence and emotional discovery.

It is sometimes hard to see where the reading and the writing end: that’s the impact being a reader has been upon my writing life. I want constantly to be a student of poems.

“Tell me your diamonds,” Beloved entreats Sethe in Beloved. I want words as hard and scintillating as that.

I am heartened that our moment includes so many young queer poets. I’d decline to name names for fear of missing someone, but queer writers are now making elegant explosive poems all over this country. I’m glad to add my voice in the choir.

As I prepared for this interview, I noticed that Louise Gluck kept coming up in the discussion. (I have to admit, I’m somewhat obsessed with her poetry as well.) What is it about her poetry that you’ve found so inspiring?

Glück makes such entrancing laws in her poems. I love her turns toward the archetypal, her use of humor, the ways in which she turns confession on its head. She understands the drama of structure and syntax. The sexy tension that tone can achieve. They are seductive, those poems. And yet austere and biting. “You understand, the animal means nothing to me,” she says at the end of the poem “Rosy,” (in which she compares her returning lover to a dog). I love that Glück has issued herself poetic challenges in her books. And she is a writer of books, as distinguished from “collections of poems.” And, between you and me, I’m sometimes convinced that various speakers in The Triumph of Achilles are gay men.

Finally, this blog is dedicated, in particular, to emerging queer poets. If you, like Rilke, wrote a letter to a young poet, what would be some of your pointers?

“Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what,” as Bruce Weigl says in his important poem, “The Impossible.”

Sometimes living in silence is born of necessity. So the knives do not slice our throats, the bullets do not home in our chests. “My silence did not protect me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals.

Read this interview with Eileen Myles about content. It made me stand up and cheer:

You’ll probably get many heterosexual poets in your education. Don’t be content with this.

Seek out the queer poets because you don’t want to die, but learn from them something about how to write. If the ideas are beautiful, but the language is tired as a drag queen at dawn, the poem will suffer.

In workshops, accept both praise and criticism. Relish the praise half as much but twice as long as the criticism.

Try to learn how to filter criticism that is helpful from homophobia mean to be hurtful. Often they will be packaged together.

Read poets’ writing about poetry. Too many to list here, but they’re essential.

Think about the structure of information, of intellect and emotion, in your poems. Create pattern and variation, or, as I like to say, context and epiphany.

Let your poems misbehave; write more interesting sentences.

Now tell me your diamonds.

Interview: James Allen Hall (Part I)

by Christopher Mir

James Allen Hall is the author of Now You’re The Enemy, winner of the 2009 Lambda Literary Award and the Helen C. Smith Memorial Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters. He lives in upstate New York. James was nice enough to take the time to answer a few of my questions.

Recently, I’ve been talking with several GLBTQ poets about the word “queer” and the difficulty of pinning down a definition of “queer poetry.” How do you define queer and what – in your opinion – qualifies a poem as such?
Thank goodness queer is impossible to pin down. We’re such rapturous disruptions.

One fascinating gesture of queerness seems to me the poet’s rupturing of binary thinking in order to craft a powerful third space. I think all poets want to say the unsayable, to give form and light and beauty to the not-yet-visible. But queer poets seem to inhabit that space, to voice the liminal by dwelling in it. Hovering not here and here not here and here not here. Queer poems are spoken from where the lightning strikes.

It’s the space from which the speaker of Dickinson’s 280 addresses us. That’s the speaker who identifies a funeral in her brain, then describes being locked inside the coffin inside the brain inside the body. Then, at the end of the poem, the self tumbles out, escaping, hitting “a world, at every plunge.” There’s at least three selves in that poem, and the poem also gestures toward two different endings. The speaker “finished knowing—then—” and could be done, then, with knowing. Or, she could have finished (also “polished”) knowing and then….something else happens, the speaker trails off. That ending outlines an Other way of experience, a gesture toward an Other way of voicing.

The other day I read “A Fact Which Occurred in America” which appears in your debut collection of poems Now You’re the Enemy. What I found so striking about the poem, aside from its beautifully executed shifts from memory to meditation to confession, was the way in which the poem takes on sexuality and race in such a head-on manner. Could you talk a little about the process of writing that poem?

“A Fact Which Occurred in America” was one of the last I wrote for Now You’re the Enemy. I was writing then with emotional purpose and exactness. I had the energy of the other poems chorusing behind me. I knew in what ranges of tone and image I was working.

There were lots of influences, lots of different voices I wanted to let through. They came together rather organically: my childhood teacher who lamented that the South lost the Civil War. An exhibition in a Houston museum exploring American representations of race, which included this magnificent and daunting George Dawe painting of a slave being forced to wrestle a buffalo. The fact that, at the time, I was a white man in love with a black man. That when my friends met him, sometimes they said, “You didn’t tell me Brandon is black.” The fact that my queerness makes me feel uneasy at describing myself as a “white” “man.” My anger about living in a racist and homophobic country. Writing in a moment devoid of poems that might spark us all out of our isolations. All of that kindling.

A few months before, at Bread Loaf, Catherine Barnett gave a craft class at on hinges: how poems build and disperse energies, how poems swing open, how poems veer towards closure. In writing the poem about all of these things, the Dawe painting became a sort of baseline, a ground which from which I could leap. Structurally, the painting serves as a place to regroup energies, as a place of equilibrium before the poem throws itself to confession, to history, to meditation.

For That Reason

“I never planned to be a writer. I was in a place where there was nobody I could talk to and have a real conversation with. And I think I was also very unhappy. So I wrote then, for that reason. And then, after I had published, it was sort of a compulsive thing because it was a way of knowing, a way of thinking that I found really necessary.”  – Toni Morrison, 1978

Smiling Terribly, or Five Poems You Should Read Today

by Vincent Hiu

“Determining Who the Marchers Were” by Lee Stern

“Prairies” by Nancy K. Pearson

“The Cake” by Mark Irwin

“Description of a Badly Drawn Horse” by Daniel Johnson

“Nebenwelt” by Cynthia Cruz

Stepping Out

Good News, I.

Several poems from the manuscript I’m working (and working and working) on right now appear in the current issue of Ganymede. I’m thrilled to have my work in such a beautifully made publication and to be alongside so many fierce writers.

Good News, II.

I will be reading some of my work, briefly, at the Rainbow Book Fair on Saturday, March 27. It’s a part of a queer poetry marathon reading of sorts that starts at 11:00 am & goes until 5pm. My section will be reading from 12:30 to 1:30 and includes David Bergman, Jameson Fitzpatrick, myself, Richard Tayson, Ana Bozicevic, Amy King, and Debrah Morkun. Click here for more details and to see the poster that features pictures of every poet that will be reading.

Good News, III.

In April in Denver, I will be a part of the Persistent Voices panel at AWP alongside Joan Larkin, David Groff, Donna Masini, Richard McCann, and David Trinidad. The panel celebrates Persistent Voices, an anthology of poets lost to AIDS edited by David Groff & Phillip Clark. It is an incredibly powerful book and I think it should already be on your bookshelf or in your hands or in the hands of your students. Read the book & see you in Denver.

On Kehinde Wiley & Nancy K. Pearson

by Kehinde Wiley

I’m a huge fan of Kehinde Wiley‘s work. His paintings – often inspired by medieval portraiture – juxtapose black masculinity and queerness as well as decidedly “urban” attire and fanciful backdrops. As he has discussed in interviews, he uses juxtaposition to de-stabilize or even explode our conventional notions of what it means to be a man/to be a black man/to be a gay black man/to be in power/to pose.

I think juxtaposition is one of the most powerful tools we have as artists. Setting two images/stereotypes/ideas on a collision course, so to speak, allows us, as writers & readers, to find comparisons and contrasts we might not have noticed otherwise.

For example, this weekend I read (and obsessed over) “Cyclic” the poem that opens Nancy K. Pearson’s Two Minutes of Light. The poem describes a memory of the speaker and her family looking for crabs and fishing at a marsh. “I am twelve. My father and his four girls / are fishing the yellow marsh. It is easy – / reeling in small loaves / of sunlight..”

In the middle of the poem, however, one stanza injects the present into that past. The speaker reveals, “I began slicing my wrists like fruit.. I demanded the world recognize / my suffering.” And then goes back to the memory of being at the beach. I found this structure to be a really interesting example of juxtaposition. We see a childhood memory juxtaposed against a blunt confession and even though the poem itself returns to that memory, we cannot forget the heavy information we’ve been handed. That juxtaposition has literally de-stabilized the memory.  Pearson’s poem concludes, “We are four girls fishing / before the high tide, / before the water surrounds us // like a horse gallop, / how it explodes a field of birds — / black wings breaking a sure hunk of sky / into a thousand parts. “The poem is no longer about the time this speaker went fishing with her family. Rather, the poem becomes preoccupied with the time and experiences between that day at the beach and the woman the speaker eventually becomes.

I think Pearson’s strategy is brilliant. I think it’s worth taking as a lesson for my own writing.

Currently Reading

by Nick Brandt

by Nick Brandt

Tea by D.A. Powell

Lunch by D.A. Powell

Chronic by D.A. Powell

Deluxe by Dana Thomas

The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath – edited by Ted Hughes