There’s a sense of anxiety in your poem “Leo & Lance” (published in issue 23) about your speaker confronting his sexual identity and also revealing it to the store clerk. When did you first begin writing about queerness? Did you have to overcome any anxiety about revealing your own sexual identity through your work?
I started writing directly about it as an undergraduate, though none of those poems survived. (Hell, I barely survived.) And some of the gay-themed poems in my first book were written over twenty years ago now. I don’t remember having any “problems” with self-identity in my poems, though I think as I look at older poems, the work mirrored the coming-out process; in other words, queer poems I wrote twenty years ago seem to use their very queerness as argument, whereas later, as I came to know myself better, the homo hovered in the background of everything, like a guardian or, sometimes, a threat.
In your interview with The Poetry Foundation, you spoke on some of the themes of “Leo & Lance” in the context of the Orlando massacre, though the poem was written before the tragedy occurred. What are your feelings about the poem being used to respond to the tragedy? How do you feel it contributes to the conversation on homophobia in this country?
I don’t know if the poem is being used to respond directly to that tragedy; I think it speaks to queer experience in Orlando, Florida, where I started to truly come to a sense of my own queerness (I lived there when I was aged 16 to 18), and where the massacre took place. I guess it takes the queer temperature of that place, albeit over a quarter century ago, and if that somehow provides comfort, I think that’s great.
I honestly don’t know how it contributes to the conversation about homophobia. I wanted to talk about how hard it once was to find representations of gay lust pre-internet, and about the dead porn stars mentioned in the title—Leo Ford and Lance—and how they were godlike and yet painfully, touchingly human; and about how innocent, for lack of a better word, it seems now, a boy, i.e., me, buying porn to get off, yes, but more important, to validate my existence.
Do you have any advice for young queer poets grappling with their identity in their work?
I’m not sure I believe in advice. The grappling is just another part of the creative process. I would suggest that someone write through it, and don’t worry about how revealing or explicit or scary it might look. And then have someone you trust look at it to make sure it isn’t crap.
In your collection Straight Razor, you employ traditional forms such as the sestina and pantoum. Can you talk about the tension generated from writing about non-traditional narratives in traditional forms? Was this intentional?
Oh I feel pretty traditional most of the time in my forms. I have, for instance, two pantoums in the book, one an elegy for four suicides, one a satire of love. I guess the truth is slant—bent—because the death and love in question is between men. I hope the tension lies more in the way I have brought together form and content; my intention is to create harrowing, insular, unforgiving takes on these subjects.
While your poetry frequently addresses the subject of sexuality there are noticeable differences in style and emphasis in your earlier publications versus your newest. In your first collection, Complaint in the Garden, there is a much clearer focus on the surrounding environment. And in Straight Razor the speaker has a stronger presence and places emphasis of subject matter more on people. Can you talk a little about how your interests have changed as a poet from your first collection to your last?
In Complaint in the Garden, the fecundity of Florida seemed an obvious metaphor for the flowering (!!) of my sexuality, and of language, as this was a time I was discovering poetry. I was also just really young and had not yet come to a place of self-awareness, I guess, that I had when I wrote Straight Razor. Even as I still love form, I am suspicious of ornamentation and am trying to have my speakers speak the way I would speak, were I to speak like a poem. I am only interested in using language and form as meticulously and ruthlessly as possible. Period.