by Lucas de Lima on Feb.18, 2012
When D.A. Powell was in town way back in the fall of 2010, Sarah Fox and I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing him for Dislocate, the lit magazine at the University of Minnesota. I finally got myself a copy of the issue where our interview appears, and as you can see the cover nicely foreshadows the silk-puke scene we all love in Rihanna’s “We Found Love” video. I thought I’d post a few of choice bits from our conversation with Powell just in time for the publication of his new book.
L: One thing that strikes me about your work is its relationship to the dead. In Tea, the poem “[dead boys make the sweetest lovers]”, suggests that the dead continue to exist for you. I was wondering if you could talk about that line in light of what you said at lunch yesterday—about having a speaker who’s a lot like you and then you get to have that speaker do all the heavy lifting.
DAP: I think all writers are haunted. And we all have our ghosts that follow us
around. They don’t have to be people-who-are-ghosts. They could be ghosts-who-
are-people whom we remember from the past, and we don’t even know what
happened to them necessarily. It doesn’t have to be death, per se. I find that most of
what I’m writing is a kind of conversation that was cut off. So, poems often start out
from that moment after you’ve walk away from an argument you had with someone
and you think, “Well, I should have said…” The poem is the opportunity to reenter
that conversation and see what happens. The point of the writing is not necessarily
to decide the conversation or figure anything out, but just to explore what else might
have been said that was left unsaid.
S: That reminds of something you wrote in your poetics statement for American Poetry in 21st Century.
DAP: Gosh, you guys have done your research. I don’t even remember half of these things.
S: Well, it’s quite beautiful. You talked about the body and language: “the poet suckles on the nipple of the world.”
DAP: Oh. That’s hot. [laughs]
S: That word—if I say “milk,” I’m going to get fed. The poet comes up with different words for nipple.
DAP: “Different words for different nipples,” I think I said.
S: I’m curious about that maternal metaphor you apply to language.
DAP: I’m glad you see it as a maternal metaphor; I see it as sort of an eating metaphor.
S: Well, I think both, but suckling from the nipples—at least for me since I’ve had someone suckle from my nipple—
L: Maybe we’ll reject love letters altogether.
DAP: You know, I think in the past ten to fifteen years, as queer culture has been
more quickly coopted by mainstream culture, queer writers have had an uneasy
relationship with that kind of assimilation because the whole point of talking in code
is to speak private thoughts in a public forum. It may be that we don’t need private
thoughts anymore. Maybe they are only opportunities to deceive? We’ve entered
a new era in terms of how people think of privacy. I’m on Twitter now and I love
sending messages to people where just anyone can read them. Because I feel like
there’s not too much that I need to say that I don’t care if someone else overhears.
The assumption for me, for the last 1520 years, has been that sooner or later, all
of this gets found or read or infiltrated. Certainly we must have been disabused of
the notion now that email is someplace where we can send a private message to
somebody. So I always write everything as if anyone can read it, which can be sort
of titillating sometimes. Then you feel like, “I’m going to say this as if I can imagine
it’s private, but I know it’s not.” It’s like speaking sotto voce.
S: Do you think that’s a trend that’s starting to filter into poetry in various ways—to take up the role of a public poet and become less of an elitist?
DAP: I thought that, two years ago when Wave Books published their State of the
Union anthology, it signaled a sea change.
S: They got a lot of flack too for that, of course.
DAP: Yeah, but to write is already a political act. You know, to exercise this right
that we have built in our culture and constantly had issue with—the right of
expression, of freedom of speech—is necessary for us, to constantly have to
reconsider, reexamine, and redefine what the limits of that expression are. I don’t
think poetry has to be simply the concerns of one individual in the context of the life
of one individual. I think there are marvelous examples of poets who have managed
to be both public and private. Muriel Rukeyser, in her earlier period, in particular.
Gwendolyn Brooks. Robert Duncan, who criticized Denise Levertov for writing
political poems, wrote some of the most political poems. So he didn’t object to the
political poem per se—he just objected to her political poems. His poem “Passages
25: Up Rising” is probably one of the most overt criticisms of the Johnson administration during the
Vietnam War. And he does it in a way that’s also smart and lyrical and beautiful.
Once in a while we have to consider what it is we have to wade through. There was
a feeling that came to the forefront following Watergate and the Vietnam War—this
sense that language had been used in such perverted ways that we were going to
retreat from very direct modes of discourse. We distrusted the cognitive domain of
language. But after a while, if you are constantly just giving up and saying, “that
mode isn’t available to us,” then you’ve sacrificed a great opportunity. Yes, language
is imperfect, it doesn’t mean anything, blah blah blah, but we still manage to
communicate quite well. Poetry has that as an option. Why not every once in a
while sit down and say something we really mean? Sincerity is not the demon.
There are other demons.