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Poet Stephen Motika interviews current Lambda Literary Award finalist Brian Teare about his latest poetry collection, Pleasure, as well as what it means to be alive, the life and poetry of Thom Gunn, Bay Area poetics, “gay poetry,” and micropress publishing. Although the interview took place over email, the two have discussed many of these topics in cafes and on the streets of Brooklyn and San Francisco.
A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Brian Teare is the author of three full-length books—The Room Where I Was Born, Sight Map, and Pleasure—as well as the chapbooks Pilgrim and Transcendental Grammar Crown. Currently on the graduate faculty of the University of San Francisco and Mills College, he lives in San Francisco. Starting in Fall 2011, he’ll be an Assistant Professor at Temple University. He also makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.
Photo © Leo Herrera
SM: Can you discuss the role of the erotic and the edenic in your new book of elegies, Pleasure? I’m especially interested in the way these two divergent modes create a dynamic and moving tension in this book. How do you think of the word “pleasure” here?
BT: One of the things no one tells you about the early days of mourning is that you might still physically desire the one who has died. And it is an odd thing to be erotically attached to the dead, a new kind of impossibility for desire, which is already full of impossibilities.
For the elegist, then, language becomes the possible site of multiple impossibilities: it’s the place where you might feel closest to the one who has died; it’s the place where you might also feel most separate from the one who has died; it’s the place where language as a form of representation most spectacularly fails to fulfill its promise, as you can describe as living someone no longer alive. And thus it’s the place where desire’s near fulfillment and desire’s impossible fulfillment are two sides of the coin the poet flips again and again. Nonetheless, language might feel Edenic because of its promise of near-fulfillment, a promise that’s also erotic; the elegist in the early days of mourning might feel that if only he controlled language in just the right way, the one who has died might come even closer. It was as hard to let go of this illusion of control as it was to let go of Jared.
“Eden” in Hebrew means pleasure, but in Western Judeo-Christian culture it is also the original good that we’ve lost. Taking Genesis and Gnostic interpretations of Eden into account, pleasure is at its root a paradoxically mixed experience. Which is to say: Jared was my first love, my first good deed, and I lost him. Mourning him and writing elegies became a kind of Eden, an idealized space in which I could be closest to him in his death. To let go of mourning, to stop attaching to him through elegies, would be to let him go farther into death. There are these lines from “Dreamt Dead Eden”: “ This is not just/my need to control the image : I author this Eden/to keep you near.”
And yet even at this point the poet has enough self- knowledge to admit, “the lyric…can’t keep anything/alive,” self-knowledge that produces not acceptance but a savage kind of rage: “I’ll tell you how I feel : fuck the real.” Death is one of the impossibilities that the fall from grace introduced into Eden, which is to say into the nature of pleasure itself. Writing the first half of Pleasure, I kept close to me a sentence from Hawthorne’s story, “The New Adam and Eve”: “The idea of Death is in them, or not far off.”
SM: Several of the poems in both Pleasure and Sight Map address the lyric and the very nature of poetry. Can you talk a little bit more about how you think of poetry and its role in culture and community?
BT: Though I wouldn’t dare to extrapolate a universal definition from my own experience, poetry’s role in my life is simple: it seems to me the best, most flexible way to address the thousand questions that arise from being alive. Why? I love that it is as much music as logic, as much rhythm as syntax, and I love its essentially dialectical mix of ideal and quotidian, the poetic and anti-poetic, its marriage of heaven and hell, spirit and matter.
Poetry has historically engaged everything from the quandaries of romantic love to changes in the legal status of common land, from the philosophy of the sublime to the farcical language of spam and other digital linguistic detritus. It’s been a medium from which very little experience has in fact been rejected, and its storehouse of language has been constantly enlarged by vernacular and specialized vocabularies. It has mourned and mocked, elevated and lacerated; it has made lists and rituals and laurels and songs; it has made merry, made whoopie; it has made things sacred and made silence audible; it has storied its way through culture after culture.
And so I love that contemporary poetry taken as a whole addresses the thousand aspects of being alive right now, a time of global environmental disaster, multiple ongoing armed conflicts, and persistent economic crisis—and I love this fact probably because each poet’s body of work restricts itself out of personal and aesthetic necessity to a more or less delimited set of themes or concerns.
Though many might complain of a given poet’s individual limitations, it makes more sense to me to go to poetry as a whole, to read each poet as part of the chorus. I read overtly political poets like Juliana Spahr, Kamau Brathwaite, Leslie Scalapino, and Stephen Collis with the same intensity and necessity as I read poets of a more private or aesthetic turn, writers like Carl Phillips, Jean Valentine, Lisa Robertson, or Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. And as you might expect, I’m most often drawn to those poets who attempt to make of the political and the private a dialectic that animates their work: I’m thinking here of Ed Roberon’s City Eclogue, of Sina Queyras’ Expressway, and of Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood, all of which I’ve been teaching and enthusiastically thinking about recently.
The lyric’s role within contemporary poetry is a more vexed and complex question, perhaps, one I should also answer only for myself. If I align the lyric with melopoeia and the nonsemantic meanings produced by poetic language, then I can say with certainty that I find immense value in the meanings made by poetry’s music—precisely because the compressions of poetic language, the torque and torsion of poetic syntax, the prosodic liveliness of alliteration, and the stanzaic and page-based visual patterns of the poem all comprise a kind of nonsemantic thought that challenges and changes our brains.
Some poets would categorize this kind of nonsemantic thinking with the unconscious, the irrational, the sacred, the sidereal, the aliens, or all of the above, but to that list I would add the erotic. Lyric logic—like the unconscious, the irrational, the sacred, the sidereal, the alien, and the erotic—is a disruptive force whose political and personal potential can be transformative, anarchic, and generative. Why? Lyric logic makes us begin to think differently about language through language—and because language so informs our ideas about both social reality and “the real” in a cosmological sense, the pleasures and difficulties of lyric can instigate in our everyday lives a deepening awareness of how we use and are used by language.
Whether this awareness comes through reading Ron Silliman, William Blake, or June Jordan makes little difference to me. Though, of course, each route to such awareness carries its reader through terrains of different cultural significance, what’s important is that the reader arrives, awakened.
SM: I love the formal range in the poems, from prose poem to erasure, in Sight Map. Can you talk a little about how you experimented with prosody and versification in this book?
BT: The first three quarters of Sight Map were written during 2003, when I had passed through the final days of mourning Jared and was largely finished with Pleasure. By dint of several residences and a big fellowship, I suddenly found myself with about eight months away from several jobs teaching composition plus part-time work in a bookstore. For the first time in my life, I also found myself in relative isolation with a lot of time on my hands. I was incredibly lucky: I was at long last done with writing workshops; I was ready to write poems without being obliged to submit the work to anyone; I had the funding and time to support my writing. At first it was an excruciating amount of pressure and then it was amazing—I don’t think I would have become the writer I am now without that time.
For the first four months in Pennsylvania I read Emerson’s Journals and Olson’s Maximus Poems alongside a bunch of philosophy; I began to hike along the Susquehanna and take notes, and in fits and starts on foot and in notebooks I wrote the first section of Sight Map. I remember thinking that I didn’t know whether I was even writing poems. When I finished “Emerson Susquehanna,” I put it away with some embarrassment. I did the same thing with “To Be Two,” which seemed even more strange to me. It took a close friend and good reader to convince me that I was simply writing poems I had never written before, and that the feelings of uncertainty and strangeness were good signs.
At the same time, I began to feel I had never before written poems that hewed so closely to the core questions that concern me: the phenomenological relationship between consciousness and matter, the embodiment of spirit in the things of this world, the proprioceptive properties of poetic language and form, the capability of language to serve as a bridge between ourselves and others, and the failures of language to hold and communicate our experiences with legibility and accuracy.
Reading Emerson’s Journals allowed me to see that thinking could be non-instrumental, and by that I mean that in his Journals I saw how written thought might better become poetic form when it doesn’t have to “prove” anything. I loved how his writing in the Journals seemed to hew better to the shape of his experiences and to respond with more immediacy to the world than in his essays, where sentences that had begun as observations of the natural world were instrumentalized toward another end. Slowly I began to feel this immense freedom open up in front of me: through Emerson’s Journals I had found a way forward, in walking while writing I had found the ability to respond with immediacy to the phenomenal world, and in reading Olson alongside Emerson I had gained the permission to allow the page to become almost touch sensitive, responsive to small shifts in thought and perception.
The rest of that very blesséd time produced the poems in the second and third sections of Sight Map; I spent those remaining two or three months trying as many forms as I could, many of which did not end up in the manuscript. Because I had the time and was thus unafraid of “wasting” my time on failed poems, I took a lot of risks: I wrote the shortest poem I could—which ended up being “Embodiment”—as well as the most minimal page-based poem I could—which ended up being “Morphology”—and found that the forms that worked always arose out of direct contact with the material world: the white birches of “Embodiment,” the ferns of “Morphology.”
It was during this time that I began to understand that my poems arise from a dialectic between ear-based improvisation and details gathered through the eye, and that my writing process is one of turning the experience of listening to language into a vision. It was also around this time that I came to believe the form of each poem should arise from the time, site, occasion, and manner of its composition, and that it would be egotistical of me to try to pre-determine the poem’s form. I vowed I’d allow each of the poems in Sight Map to find its own form through a projective poetics of chance and proprioception, whether that resulted in simple quatrains or a highly elaborate recombinant form like that of “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus,” and I did. And though I’ve found since then that it also works to combine received forms like the sonnet with more aleatoric and projective elements, my poems still begin on foot, in language derived from a direct engagement with the world.
SM: You wrote in a 2009 essay “Rebel Girl” that “living and writing in the Bay Area has given me models other than the ones I was given by the South and by the academy: rather than undergo enforced integration into a dominant literary and social structure, the writer may define her- or himself via multiple affiliations that agree, conflict with or contradict each other and thus generally enrich her or his life.” Can you talk a bit about how you’ve come to define yourself as a poet and individual in relation to this myriad of affiliations in Northern California and at the national/international lever? Can you talk about how your thinking about queer identity and community has shifted over the last decade?
BT: I came to the Bay Area on a Stegner Fellowship to Stanford. I came from the MFA program at Indiana University after taking a BA in English at the University of Alabama, which is to say I came armed with only the barest sketch of the Bay Area’s intricate poetic histories and the enthusiastic expectation that the names Robert Duncan and Lyn Hejinian would be on everyone’s tongues. Stanford’s creative writing program, however, was both isolationist and retrograde in terms of its aesthetics, a fact that contradicted my naïve understanding of the Bay Area as a hotbed of forward-thinking experiment and radicalism. In my desire for a different experience of community and politics, I turned to the libraries, reading series, and bookstores of the wider Bay Area.
The more readings I attended and the more poetry and scholarship I read, the more inspired I became by Bay Area literary history, and the more overwhelmed I became by the sheer volume of the work I had yet to read: the poets of the San Francisco and Berkeley Renaissances, New American poets, Beat poets, Bolinas poets, Gay Liberation poets, poets from New College, the feminist poets of However and Kelsey St. Press, the community surrounding Language poetry, the queer writers of New Narrative, the Asian American writers of Kearney St. workshop, and the many African American poets of giovanni singleton’s Nocturnes, not to mention poets like Thom Gunn who seemed to be fringe members of several traditions at once.
I loved at once how these communities had already become distinct traditions whose poetics and politics often intersected, borrowed from, quarreled with and respected each other, and I love that they gave and continue to give me permission to let my writing be a site in which the poetics and politics of these traditions also overlap and quarrel with each other. If I could boil down the literary experience of my last eleven years into one sentence, it would be this: I don’t have to choose. Which is to say, I no longer feel the necessity to be a certain kind of poet or to embody consistently one poetic tradition.
On the one hand, I think this has meant that my aesthetic appears to change a great deal from book to book, but I’d argue that, as Olson does in “The Kingfishers,” “What does not change/is the will to change.” Each of my books has generally represented a period of time in which I’ve explored a distinct set of formal, conceptual, experiential or thematic questions as variously as possible—and generally a book has ended when I no longer feel the desire or energy to engage with that set of questions. Often those formal, conceptual and thematic questions are most strongly tied to or inspired by my own experience, and so I also see the autobiographical impulse as a consistent connection between the books. It should be obvious that all along I’ve most admired poets like Brenda Hillman, whose work consistently responds on a formal and conceptual to the demands of lived experience.
On the other hand, I’m aware that the stance of “not having to choose” might at first appear politically problematic. How can a poet stand for something, if they won’t stand still? I know some queer readers experienced Sight Map as a less “gay” book than The Room Where I Was Born or Pleasure, and some of these readers raised questions about the work’s relationship to what we often call “gay poetry.” Because I so often find its contemporary definitions problematic, I’ve explored the history of defining “gay poetry” quite often in my recent critical writing about poetry and poetics.
Some of the poets who’ve most inspired and given permission for these changes—Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Thom Gunn, Frank Bidart, Reginald Shepherd, and Aaron Shurin—are gay poets, and yet their work is, for very different reasons, often absent from mainstream discussions of “gay poetry.” That they are all gay poets is a fact that many definitions of gay poetry have yet to take into account, though Timothy Liu’s fabulous Word of Mouth collects them all (and many more) between its covers. Yet few critical accounts of gay poetry have been as generous and rigorous as Liu’s, and I think it’s fair to say that we as a community need to re-assess the relationship between “gay” and “poetry.” I’d argue that both terms are far more stretchy than we generally allow them to be, and that this conceptual stretchiness is a quality that we too rarely take advantage of. It would be a political gift for us to reassess what it means for a body of poetry to be “gay”; it would be an aesthetic gift for us to reassess what it means for a gay-identified writer to work as a poet.
SM: I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Thom Gunn’s archives at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and have written about him in At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn and given several talks based on this material. Can you share some of your insights into Gunn’s writing after completing this work? I’m especially interested in the difference between the wildness of his life and the formal constraint that defines much of his work. His life through a certain “gay age”—from pre-Stonewall days, through the 1970s S&M scene, then into the age of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, and finally ending with the rise of crystal meth in the first years of the new century—seems unique and historical. I’m also curious to know your thoughts on this.
BT: I learned three important things from reading Gunn’s journals in the Bancroft and from thinking and writing about his life and work:
1) Most of us don’t know the meaning of the word “draft.” He was a finical craftsman who kept meticulous records of his poems’ long gestations and manifold developments, and it was both astonishing and humbling to watch a poem like “Jack Straw’s Castle” emerge from fragmentary and halting awkwardness into a final and magisterial form. And though it was instructive for me to track line-by-line and word-by-word changes, it was more important for me to read the self-criticism and poetic meta-commentary he would sometimes write between drafts or between poems. This kind of taking stock proved to be as crucial to his drafting process as scansion and stanza patterns, and it was here that he most explicitly articulated a poetics as much Apollonian control as Dionysian libidinousness, a poetics that also proved him to be much more aware of and engaged with street-level gay community politics than the poems of the ‘60s and ‘70s would make him seem.
2) For many gay poets who came of age long before Gay Liberation, the passage from a pre-Stonewall poetics to a post-Stonewall poetics was a difficult one even if they were already out to themselves and their loved ones. On the one hand, they had already figured out a successful way to navigate a career in poetry either more (like Duncan) or less out (like Gunn); on the other, how out they were in their poetry did not necessarily correlate to how out they were socially, and vice versa. And though, in spite of major internal opposition, Gunn did eventually manage to answer the call to come out in his poems and engage both gay desire and leather culture as content, he did so at first at great expense to his reputation as a poet—Passages of Joy in particular was lambasted by many critics, a fact we tend to forget now, after the great critical and popular success of The Man with Night Sweats.
But given how difficult it was for him to engage gay subject matter in his poems, it was particularly instructive to watch Gunn respond to AIDS in his journals: the losses he sustained heightened a previously muted commitment to a gay community politics. His journals from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s show him determined to one day do justice in verse to a vanishing culture, the idealistic body politics of Gay Liberation. Many of the poems of Boss Cupid were written in almost ethnographic homage to a culture he saw as lost to AIDS, the foreground of that book being not only how loss but also how eros travels through the individual bodies of the body politic.
3) Early in my writing life Gunn had been given to me as a model gay poet, and his work was supposed to serve as a model for my writing. Given that his work was actually intended to stand as a corrective and a chastisement of my tendencies as a young poet, I immediately hated him and his work for years without really having read it. When I received an email from Joshua Weiner asking if I’ve be interested in writing an essay about Gunn, I took it as my chance to come to terms with my dislike and avoidance of his poems.
How ironic, then, to begin my work in the archives and discover that Gunn as a mature poet had no such narrow punishing preconceptions about poetry—though he modeled much of his formal verse on Ben Johnson and other poets of the English tradition, he drew inspiration for his free verse from William Carlos Williams, admired (with reservations) the work of Allen Ginsberg, and found a late mentor in Robert Duncan. Writing and thinking about what permissions Gunn himself drew from Duncan helped me to describe my own relationship to poetic tradition. Where many teachers and critics would have us enter poetry as into a father-son relationship full of “the anxiety of influence,” I experience poetry as a series of elective affinities and gestures of identification. This is a political vision as much as it is aesthetic: freed from the top-down patriarchal and punitive structure of “influence,” a poet can with joy and without shame learn from whatever poetries best answer their desires.
SM: I love your knowledge of literary history and your commitment to the book as a physical object. In recent years, you’ve begun to make your own chapbooks featuring letterpress covers and elegant bindings through your micropress, Albion Books. Can you talk about how and why you started this project? How has this publishing venture changed your own thinking on the concept of the book and bookmaking?
BT: Like many endeavors that somehow become central to our lives, Albion Books began half by virtue of chance and half by virtue of a gift. It emerged from my studies at the San Francisco Center for the Book, where I first began studying letterpress printing and hand bookbinding in 2008, largely because I had in 2007 moved to San Francisco from Oakland and was close enough to the SFCB to walk to classes.
And though the location of my new residence was pure chance, I had been interested in letterpress printing since 2004, when Jason Davis of palOmine press in Berkeley printed a beautiful limited edition of Pilgrim, a series of prose poems that ended up collected in Sight Map. And since 2006 I’d been involved with a chapbook collective, Woodland Editions, which at that time did three or four chapbooks per year—I joined the collective after they published a chapbook of mine, Transcendental Grammar Crown, because I loved the work they did and I liked the idea of learning about micropress editing and publishing by doing it. So by the 2008 I had the desire to be involved in publishing and some of the skills to actually do it.
An important aspect of this story is that both palOmine press and Woodland Editions had asked me to write work for them to publish, essentially giving me the gift of writing while knowing the work would be published in a thoughtful and elegant form. So that micro- and fine press publishing as forms of gift economy, and gift economy as a vital contribution to literary community, were entwined for me from the beginning.
I published my first chapbook, Where In the Story the Horse Mazy Dies, as a gift for the author, Jane Mead, upon the publication of her third book, The Usable Field in 2008. I made thirty or so copies of the chapbook, and cut the covers, the end sheets and each of the pages down to size by hand before printing the covers, collating the text, and sewing the books. It took weeks, about $500, and a lot of tears. But I loved the books and the act of giving them to Jane; the experience made me want to figure out how to make elegant books faster, cheaper, and with less frustration.
Now I’ve published a dozen titles, and though the operation of the press was at first a bit haphazardly organized, since 2009 I’ve proceeded with more deliberation and vision. Since Jane’s, the aesthetic of the books themselves has been determined by their sporting letterpress covers and digital interiors, and their structures being made largely of off-cuts produced by other printers and bookbinders at the Center for the Book and Logos Graphics. The latter choice cuts down costs considerably (no book costs over $50 in supplies) and reduces the waste produced by the publishing industry, but also allows chance to play a large role in the color scheme and trim size of the books.
Fittingly, my editorial process has also been largely chance-based: I happen to hear a poet read a series of poems in progress and then I ask them for it; a poet whose work I like would writes me for a copy of one of the books I’ve published, and I ask them for a manuscript; a friend asks me if I’d like to publish this series they’ve been working on. Even now, I’d say the process is 50/50: half of the books I seek out, and half of them come to me through chance.
As for gift economy: the poet gets 20 copies of the print run of 100 or 120, and at least 40 of the remaining copies must be given away or bartered. The low cost of the paper and the studio rental to print the covers—about $150 total—means that I get reimbursed for my expenses by selling ten to fifteen copies. Because Albion Books is a micropress and a labor of love, I can operate this way, slightly on the fly and with almost no overhead or profit, which gives me great joy. Publishing is a poetics, too, and each book I publish is a link in my own series of affinities: my list joins Kerri Webster’s Psalm Project to Stacy Szymaszek’s from Hart Island to Jonathan Skinner’s Warblers to Lisa Fishman’s at the same time as scattering to Dawn Lundy Martin’s Candy. I get such great joy from this kind of publishing because it enables me to enact my own vision of poetic tradition, which is so much about the gift of being in the right place at the right time to fall in love with some stranger’s language.