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.