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Since the publication of his first book Tea in 1998, D.A. Powell has established himself as a poet whose voice is dark, yet comedic at the same time. Over the course of his career, he has never been afraid to play with language. His use of imagery and narrative is consistently imaginative and evocative, interplaying between the complex and the lighthearted aspects of human existence, from the AIDS epidemic to ideas about popular culture. He has also grown famous for breaking the boundaries of what it means to shape and arrange a poem on a page, experimenting with clever line breaks and the landscape format. Powell’s fifth and most recent collection of poetry, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf Press, 2012), winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, explores the lesser-known parts of California’s Central Valley and the way it intersects with and creates a conversation about the surrounding population. Powell graciously took the time to talk on the phone with me about his book and his thoughts about contemporary poetry.
Thank you for taking the time to talk about your work.
And do you work for the Lambda Foundation?
I do, and I’m also a first year MFA student at the New School for poetry.
Oh, that’s awesome!
I’m what you would call “a young poet.”
Well hopefully we’re all young poets, forever.
I’d rather be an established poet like yourself.
No, no, trust me, you’d rather be a young poet. That’s where all the innovation happens, that’s where all the fire and energy comes from.
Do you think you’ve lost innovation over the years?
No, I just feel like I’ve gotten better at doing the things that I do, whereas younger poets are always challenging the conventions of poetry. I guess I’m challenging conventions too, but it feels like I’ve been doing that for a while. So even that feels a little bit less inventive than, say, what someone’s doing whose twenty years or thirty years younger than I am.
That actually relates to a question I was going to ask you. I’m sure you’ve heard about the “Is Poetry Dead?” piece in the Washington Post that everybody has been talking about.
Oh, you know, I think every one or two years there’s something like that. People are always asking if poetry is dead.
The piece raised anxiety-provoking questions about the kind of role poetry is playing now and is going to play in the future, and I think it’s kind of a different question today with the rise of the MFA program. Would you mind sharing some of your thoughts about where you think poetry is today?
Well, I think when we talk about the idea of poetry, we’re really talking about two different ideas. One is the idea of poetry as a place that people go for private conversations, for expression of intense emotional distress, reflection, or catharsis—the role of poetry as a kind of social and personal therapist. There’s nothing wrong with that and it will continue to thrive. There’s also the other idea of poetry we have, which is the poetry that is visible culturally. People in the 60s had sort of a vague awareness of Allen Ginsberg as a poet—as well as Denise Levertov, Diane Wakoski and a few other people—but it wasn’t like that was part of the general social fabric of the world. Poetry was sort of off the charts, and it continues to be. So does chamber music, so do a lot of arts that are at the cutting edge of innovation. Poetry serves as a place for us to renew our relationship with language, and as such, it’s always going to feel a little esoteric, a little outside of the norm in terms of what gets valued in our culture. But I think if poetry were at the center, there are a whole lot of people writing poetry who wouldn’t be writing it. It’s precisely that forbidden, suspect and queer place that poetry provides for us that’s so seductive and engaging. And lets face it: It’s a place where we know we can get away with murder, where no one will catch it for thirty, forty, or fifty years.
This is a more controversial part of my question, but with the MFA program, how do you see poetry changing in that respect?
MFA programs are great places for people to spend a couple of years perfecting, honing or paying attention to their craft, but it’s not where we should continue to hide. I think for many people, MFA programs become a way of hiding from the rest of the world. Everybody wants to stay inside that safe zone as long as possible, but academia isn’t really a place to hide out for a long period of time. It’s soul-killing just like any other job.
The teaching is wonderful, but the endless paperwork, the committee work—those are the kind of things that poets really aren’t suited for. I think it’s great that a few years ago academies, starting with Iowa and a number of other innovative programs, began to try to house the arts in such a way that [they] were being pursued in a research fashion—the same as, say, nuclear science or psychology—as a place we can go and continue to reinvent ourselves within the academy. But that also creates the danger of complacency and the danger of feeling that the reward system of academia is the same as the reward system for poetry, which it’s not really. They’re two very different worlds. They have shared concerns, but they go at it in completely different directions.
What makes a person a good poet is very often the same thing that makes them not such a good academic.
It’s really hard not to get caught up in the prizes and awards.
Everybody wants recognition and you can understand that, but it’s not what we originally went to poetry for. When you started writing poetry, you didn’t do it because you wanted people to recognize your genius, right? You did it because you had something to say. I think we have to remember that we go to poetry for these reasons that are entirely personal. Sometimes there’s an overlap between our personal pursuit of our art and our public being in the world, and we have to then strike a balance between how much to let in and how much to not pay attention to.
If you could give any piece of advice to young aspiring poets today in that respect, what would it be and why?
I think that the best piece of advice is to tend to your writing, to write in a way that makes you happy. Don’t worry about what other people think. It’s not why you started writing poetry and it’s not why you continue to write poetry. You write it because it fulfills you, and when it stops fulfilling you, you should take a break. Sometimes poets take breaks. I feel like I’m on a bit of a break right now. There’s nothing wrong with it.
What happens between the period when you finish a book and are presumably aspiring to write another one?
In between I go back to living my life, being engaged with the world, collecting small bits of language and waiting. If I never write a poem again that means that I must have found everything that I had to say in the right way, but I feel like that’s rarely the case. It’s usually that we simply need to get a little bit of perspective, get a little bit of distance, take time off from writing poetry and come back to it. Even within the act of writing a single poem, I get up numerous times from that poem and walk away, and it’s not just because I’m thirsty or I need to go to the bathroom or I’m going to go take a phone call. I get up, in part, because I have to come back to that poem with a sense of estrangement, with a sense of bewilderment, with a sense of: This is as far as I’ve gotten, now where do I go? How do I push the language? How do I push my point of view, my worldview within this poem into someplace that feels like discovery? Because if I’m not discovering anything, I would rather not write a poem.
Useless Landscape both looks and reads differently from poems you’ve written in the past. You’ve abandoned your signature landscape format that left room for indentations between words within each of your lines. Also, these poems seem significantly more personal, or internal. Could you talk a little more about what you think distinguishes Useless Landscape from other collections of yours?
I think at a purely mechanical level, I really am allowing myself to do something that I didn’t do a whole lot of in the previous four books, and that is finish a sentence. In most of my previous books, the lines were often phrases cobbled together in such a way that they created these striking juxtapositions. I’m still doing that in some cases, but now there’s more of a sense of, let’s run the sentence all the way to the end and see what happens. And there’s much more playful constructions of periodic sentences and subordinate clauses—things that I wouldn’t have grammatically allowed myself before because I was working with this idea of the world as a broken place. Then I thought, well, what if the world isn’t broken? What if it is in fact quite complete and we simply have to attend to all of its completeness? Then it allows me to say, I think, different kinds of things—things that have to, by necessity, bottom out when that final period comes at the end of the sentence.
Do you think that this notion of completeness is just a product of growing up?
No, I think for me it’s a sense of just wanting to change direction, and to say there’s a certain kind of universe that my formal choices have argued for in the past, and what if my view of the universe changes? Then the music has to change to reflect a new mind. This is an idea that’s not original to me. William Carlos Williams says something to that effect—new music for a new mind. And I was consciously wanting to avoid repeating myself, so I felt like since I’m the same person writing the poems and I can’t change who I am, maybe I can change the texture of the poems. And it did allow me to say really weird wonderful things that I wouldn’t say otherwise.
You mentioned changing your style and your outlook, and that kind of denotes a change in process and strategy in terms of your writing. What was that like when you were writing Useless Landscape? Did you have great pleasures or great stresses when you were trying to approach the poetry from different angles?
Writing is always sort of a mixed bag of pleasure and pain, and I think that these poems were at a difficulty level that suited me. You know, it’s like playing chess against a computer. You start out on the easy level and for a while it’s like, “Oh, that’s good,” and then you realize you can always win on the easy level, so you have to go up to the intermediate level, and then you go the advanced level. I feel like I’m at my intermediate level now. Like, maybe I’m a better poet than I was before, I don’t know, maybe worse. But it’s a different space to inhabit mentally.
I have also been thinking about the way you sectioned off the book. There’s a “Useless Landscape” section and “A Guide for Boys Section.” What made the poems in each section distinct enough from one another that you wanted to segment them in this way?
I don’t really think that they are so separate. I was torn in terms of titling the book. I think my original title was “Useless Landscape” and I felt like that was far too pessimistic, even though I don’t think that the idea of uselessness is pessimistic. I think there are lots of things that are useless that we actually enjoy, like poetry for example (laughs), and art and music. They don’t have a utilitarian purpose necessarily—they’re just for pleasure. But the “Guide for Boys” part of it was an alternative title and I thought, well, that one seems too frivolous somehow. By yoking them together, I really began to see that one type of view wasn’t necessarily exclusive of another type of view, that the landscapes were in fact populated with queer boys at a particular age growing up in the Central Valley, and that they were a natural part of that landscape. And so to naturalize them into the poems felt like one of the projects the poems accomplished that I wasn’t maybe even aware I was shooting for: to simply say that being queer is not some urban condition that is an alternative to normalcy. It is in fact a normal condition that occurs out in the world the same way that all of these other plants and animals occur.
So, where did this idea of uselessness come from?
I think originally I’d been doing some landscape poems about the Valley and I was going through a particular stretch of area that just seemed like wasteland. I looked at it and said, well there’s a useless landscape, and then about five minutes later I thought, well, why would I suppose it’s useless just because it’s lying fallow? Or not being farmed or used to put up houses? In other words, that the world in and of itself is quite beautiful but that we look at it through this lens of purposefulness. I wanted to play with that idea of: How is a housing development any more useful than a farm? Or how is farm more useful than just wild land?
If you had to track your progress as a poet, what was it like for you when you first started and what is it like for you now, as somebody whose work a lot of people admire?
It’s odd. I mean, I won’t lie to you, it’s certainly weird when people come up to me and say I read your work or I enjoyed it. And the awards, I mean all of that stuff, none of it is what I started writing poetry for. I started writing poetry because it helps me make sense of the world. It’s nice that once and a while somebody sends me a little message of some sort to reaffirm that I’m not crazy or that I’m crazy in perhaps a way that also makes them feel vindicated or verified in some way, supported by my own lunacy. I don’t think that writing poetry is really a conventional way of making one’s life, but we’re desperately in need of the unconventional. Otherwise, what? We’re all running wood-chippers or polishing counters and serving coffee? If that’s what life’s about, I think we would all just lay down and die. Poetry gives us a way to look beyond ourselves, to have a little glimpse of the immortal.
You also mentioned the idea of immortality in writing, which is interesting in regard to your book because there’s kind of a loose motif of death that’s running through it. What was the concept of this idea of death? I think the first poem was about death and then the final poem was also about death, right?
Well, there’s an interesting take. I don’t think of either one of those as being about death. But death is part of life. The first poem to my mind was about forgiveness and letting go. Not to be direct about one’s sources, but I was really thinking about my grandmother in that book, what a crazy woman she was and how long it took for me after her death to realize that she wasn’t a bad person: She was just insane. And in the final poem, I’m taking a look at the larger picture of life to say that we in fact do triumph over death in the long term. No one of us is so important that we will continue forever, but something continues after us and it’s good for us to keep that in mind, whatever it is. Our job is to make sure that the next generation has an easier time in the world. Not too easy. But if we can get rid of things like homophobia, sexism and racism, I feel like we will have done our job. But who knows, they’ll be some other “ism” we didn’t even think about.
(Photo Credit: Trane Devore)
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