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Following heartbreak and the loss of his mother, Daniel Zomparelli believed two things: Everything is awful and I’m a terrible person. Desperate to escape this negative energy, he did the only rational thing one can do to combat grief. He sat down for long stretches of time, reciting the only two things he knew for certain over and over like litany. Everything is awful, he thought. Well, you’re a terrible a person, the same voice in his head answered. And then he wrote a book.
Everything is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person (Arsenal Pulp Press), his latest work, blends fiction and non-fiction and features short stories that explore gay love, desire, and dysfunction in the hyper-connected twenty-first century. The founder and Editor-in-Chief of Poetry is Dead magazine and co-host of the podcast Can’t Lit, his poems and writing have been anthologized around the world and recognized by The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, and CBC. He is the author of the poetry collections Davie Street Translations and (with Dina Del Bucchia) Rom Com.
We spoke about X-Men, the future of gay bars, and why you should never trust handsome men.
The title of the collection has a defining moment in one of the final stories when a character ruminates about Rogue from X-Men, and how “she couldn’t touch skin to skin without taking in all of the other person’s energy.” Similarly, many of your characters seemed desperate to escape their own energy.
That definitely rings true for me. I was always very good at managing my energy and my emotions, but when I was hit with grief and heartbreak, it threw all of my emotions out of control. I couldn’t manage any of it. Escaping it was the aim, but it took letting it consume me to get through. I ended up repeating these statements “everything is awful” and “I’m a terrible person” over and over again. It ended up being like a hyper-negative mantra, but the words kept changing meaning. I was thinking about how the term “awful” switched meanings hundreds of years ago from something being awe-filled to awful. I noticed my characters dealing with “awful” situations with what can be interpreted as terrible actions (i.e., one character turns a break-up into a public video to gain fame), so the title ended up shifting from being kind of a joke to myself to being the perfect fit.
Many of your characters exhibit manic personality traits: too cheerful, too cynical, too jaded. One story features a character who takes several daily selfies with his face contorted into different emotions: happy, sad, angry. He saves them in a folder titled “Progress” because he wants to see if they change over time. Is there something appealing about writing about these extremes, an honesty only accessible by showing people at the margins?
I really wanted to play with extremes because, as you noted, the characters are trying to escape their own energy. In these stories I wanted to see certain emotions or lack of emotions play out for an extended time. I specifically wanted to see characters I don’t relate to go through it.
I remember recently seeing a Twitter troll fight with someone I follow online, and his rage was repulsive, but I noticed a small moment in their tweets where their interaction actually became cordial near the end. It was as if the argument and anger was another form of relationship or another form of intimacy.
I wanted to see if I could make a couple of stories that reflected that same moment. I’m not perfect, and I’ve definitely been a terrible person at points in my life. I wanted to tease out the ways in which I’ve been terrible or seen others do terrible things and see where that landed on the page within different characters.
I love writing about extremes, and that’s why you might notice characters whose energy almost feels powerful. I wanted to create characters who were intense, some so much so that it seems like a magical energy. I created a character similar to Rogue. He goes on all these dates and he clearly suffers from some form of anxiety. I thought it would be interesting if that anxiety made his skin tingle, or if it’s hyper-sexualized, it could shake and alter the energy around him. I was trying to imagine anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues as a magical energy. Sometimes these “energies” help us sort out our desires if we are self-aware enough to deal with them, because if we don’t, they can crush us.
A unifying thread throughout the collection is that of dating in the modern age: on Grindr or the novel concept of getting catfished. One story even features a polyamorous relationship with a ghost. How do you see gay dating evolving as technology progresses?
I’m forever thankful for digital ways of connecting. I think it’s allowed queers to thrive in a way that would never be possible without it.
A lot of small towns don’t have gay bars, or even a gay community that’s visibly accessible, and who is to say that community has someone who you romantically see yourself with? This is kind of what I touched on in the final story. The narrator is visiting a small town that has a super small queer scene, and passes through even smaller towns that you only see via a Grindr conversation. The story has limited sexual successes for the narrator, but that doesn’t mean his experience with a sex app isn’t successful overall. Technology is still new to us, and the next generation already has a better handle on it, so I’m hopeful for how gay dating will evolve. I know several gay men dating outside their home city now and, thanks to social media and sex apps, forming different concepts of their queerness, escaping gender conformity.
The monoculture of gay bars can be exhausting and the energy can be terrifying for an introvert. So thankfully, we get to have digital gay spaces and public gay spaces. I personally don’t think the two oppose each other, but I would hope that digital interactions within the community can make the public spaces more inviting to queer and trans and gender-non-conforming people.
In the story “Slips,” we see a contrast between a straight hotel bar where the anonymous narrator feels as if the space will “swallow her if she doesn’t escape,” contrasted with her visiting a queer bar where she is immediately welcomed and made to feel at home. Do you think that perhaps queer bars are moving from sexually charged spaces to more communal spaces?
Personally, I refuse to live in a world where queer bars are not sexually charged spaces. I mean, I hope it’s both. For those who are not sexually charged, or who don’t identify with sex for their queerness and want to feel safe, there is room for that too. I think permission and consent need to be more present in queer bars to make that safe space happen. I feel like taking the sex out of queer bars removes the thing that makes straight people so uncomfortable.
Everyone has their own version of a safe space. Mine involves a giant dude calling me a cute pup and serving me really cheap draft beer, surrounded by inexplicable Halloween decorations year-round.
There’s still a romanticism about meeting people in real life. In “Handsome Men,” one of the non-fiction pieces in the collection, your mother tells you that she met her first boyfriend while sharing a hospital room with him. Yet, the story ends on a sour note: She agreed to go on a date with him only because he was handsome. The romance was brief. “You can never trust handsome men,” she warns.
When she was dying I used to sit with her at the hospital, and it was then that she started to tell me about her past. We both struggled to open up to each other when she was alive. It was a moment that reminded me that at its core, we struggle for the same thing, but that a straight person can literally find a date at any moment.
How do you believe online dating translates to the caution she gave you about falling for “handsome men?” On one hand, profiles give daters the freedom to bypass superficiality by exhaustively listing their hobbies, kinks, even STD statuses. On the other, does anyone really read those?
I’m thankful there’s a technological space for personal kinks to be explored without spending months with a sexual partner and then finally feeling comfortable enough to say, “I am really into XY and Z” and seeing if the partner is down for it.
Even so, I think dating is always going to have a vast amount of failures. My mom had this romantic meet-cute in a hospital that still ended up in failure. Even with all of people’s interests and information up front (which sometimes are racist/femmephobic/fatphobic) there’s no telling who will be at the other end of your app. The profiles we create for ourselves are only as real as the ones we imagine for ourselves. And I still think my mom was right, you can never trust handsome men.