The Interview as Cruising Ground (Part 2)

In my previous post, I wrote about my experience of interviewing writers with whom I share a sexual identity, and in particular to celebrate and highlight the particular experiences of that process through the erotic lens of cruising. The idea comes to concrete life through a few touchstone moments below. In these moments in the interviews the conversations and even the process itself seem to be teaching us (or at least me in particular) about the nature of gay desire, how we connect via poetry, and other issues.

In my interview with Edward Field, for example, there is a great deal of discussion of how poets use "intimate experiences," everything from writing about sexual organs to really seeing one's own body. What I distinctly recall about these moments was the complete lack of inhibition, of shame, of nervousness. It was not an atmosphere of exhibitionism, nor did it feel clinical. Rather, there was mutual understanding that, unlike most people, we were gay men and had learned that the "forbidden areas" comprise a space of discovery and of truth-telling.

As we talked about how a poet must not fear anything, especially his own body, the conversation narrowed from the general to the personal, but Field never flinched, and I followed his lead, at one point even offering up a handful of poems about the asshole to counter Field's notion that it was something that had not been written about.

Was this a kind of jockeying to see who knew the most about this particular kind of poem? If so, even then there is a wonderful kind of rapprochement, with Field courteously deferring to me (he's such a mensch!). One of the interview's most touching moments, in my opinion, comes about when the idea of "intimacy" shifts from two men sharing information about the body, to an extremely poignant admission from an older man to a younger.

Field says, "I know a lot of young gay men nowadays are physically quite liberated and go to the gym. But my generation was cowed into submission and it showed in our bodies, which were not beautiful--but in fact we scorned the idea of working on our bodies. What you were, you were, and you were stuck with it. Of course, even if we're made to question our gender from the beginning, and to hate ourselves, there's no reason we shouldn't explore our bodies, get to know ourselves and get to the truth. Our bodies are the guidebook to self-rediscovery. To speak directly to your penis ('Old friend, we've come through...') or any other body part reconnects us."

The shame from that earlier generation has been burned off, and we see the proof of it in the very poetry we are talking about; and via the interview we understand, perhaps more deeply than we could via an essay or academic study, that the act of writing has made that possible.

The interview that was most natural and comfortable was with Aaron Shurin. While all the interviewed writers were absolutely giving as interlocutors--kind, frank, and eager--there was something about my talk with Shurin (over Skype no less) that was especially friendly, warm, and even joyous in our connection, at least from my side of the Internet.

I felt like I was talking to an old friend. This comfort opened up a great deal of discussion of the past, as if we were reminiscing about a past relationship. Of course, it was a past I was not privy to but somehow it became something we shared. Perhaps the connection was possible because I had had to study his poetry (so very different from my own) so intimately and thereby knew the journey his poems had gone from the explicitly gay to an incantatory prose poem.

Shurin talked of his relationship as a young man with mentors like Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, his experiences as a young gay poet in the 1970s, and his involvement with the Good Gay Poets and Fag Rag, and more. Through this turn toward the historical, we came to one of the most important questions a gay poet can face, how to write in a "totalizing" way (to use Shurin's term) about one's sexual identity. As he explained the lines from an early poem of his ("I give my life over / to pieces of bodies; by the end / maybe I'll have loved a whole man"), he made a fascinating comment.

"Part of the context in which those poems were being written, at the very, very early beginning of post-Stonewall poetry," he said, "was one in which everybody was [writing about] dicks and ass. I knew that was too easy a solution for my poetry, which does try to stake out a different territory. Even if I thought coming out was initially an erotic act, I knew right away that being gay was going to involve more transformations than just sexual ones."

He added, "There aren't a lot of dicks in my poetry. There are some. There's plenty of 'dick power,' but naming it in that way never seemed very interesting to me. It also seemed like a referential trap: being so invested in sexuality and being so spiritually or high-romantically invested in the body's participation in experience, I want to find a new way to bring all those things forward without naming them in a simplistic way. I think I wanted something more totalizing."

There is much "teaching" in these interviews, but I felt this moment was one in which a very real question--how do we as gay poets transcend our moment?--was given at least one possible answer.

The interviews, of course, hold great insight for readers of any persuasion or sexuality, but I would be lying if I did not admit, at the risk of sounding an essentialist tone, that I think the gay reader might find something beyond, something at times coded to our experiences and at others times something framed to our desires.

Explicitly stated or not, all of the interviews with the poets in my book, I believe, are affected or influenced by the many ways in which gay men encounter each other--intimately, antagonistically, as mirrors of each other's social position and history, or just as old friends. This has been my experience.

I think it is one embedded in the very texture of conversations that so richly, so queerly, and so aptly fit under the title Our Deep Gossip. I hope readers encounter this spirit--and become part of it.

Our Deep Gossip: Conversations With Gay Writers on Poetry and Desire is published by the University of Wisconsin Press.