Sunday, January 04, 2015

Full Gaskins & Siek Inteview, Part 3 (final part)

This is the final part of the full interview between me and the poet Christopher Gaskins discussing our first full-length poetry collections, Purpose and Devil Piss and Boys Have Been . . .

Interview Between Poets Christopher Gaskins and Robert Siek, Part 3

Robert Siek: “Days Like This” sort of mirrors my poem “Holiday Eye Exam” in that we both use the weather to exemplify the voices’ emotional and mental states and that worse times are to come. Your poem ends with “It’s colder than I’d expected and / the leaves are shaking.” My poem ends with “The sky is grayer, and a snowstorm is coming.” Did you have the same reaction upon finishing my poem “Holiday Eye Exam”? 

Christopher Gaskins: It did seem familiar to me and I did connect the two. I feel like in both of these poems, our speaker takes a break from all the experiences that he has been narrating, and we get a “check in” point to see how he’s been holding up, what his emotional state is. What we see is that things do take their toll, maybe not something specific connected to a specific experience, but overall. We’ve become overly sensitive, acutely aware of our surroundings and other people, and our moods are reflected in the weather. I like how, in our respective last lines, my poem implies fear with its “shaking” and your poem implies chaos with its “snowstorm”—what meaning do you think there is in this? And the fact that we both end with darkness/grayness and cold?

RS: I think poets generally are more sensitive and it shows in the work. It’s why we aren’t accountants or corrections officers. And that sensitivity is a prize and a curse, which many others would agree with. These two poems exemplify that idea. Sometimes it all gets to be too much, just like you said, plain and simple. I’m not sure if it gets easier with age because we don’t care as much, which makes living life simpler, or we just learn that sometimes you need to just let things go because time is short and allowing that sensitivity to destroy us isn’t worthwhile in the end. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I think we’re on the same wavelength with this.

CG: Most of your poems have a duality (or pairing)—present vs. past and reality vs. fantasy. Present vs. pastmany poems start in the present and then incorporate the past, which has some connection to what’s happening in the present of the poem, either literally or figuratively; some examples of this I found are:
  • “Plug Filter” – washing dishes (present) vs. picture/mom /house in ’87 (past)
  • “Chat Rooms” – hook up (present) vs. kids w/ magazines (past)
  • “The Filthiest Reminders” – a need to write (present) vs. a need to use drugs (past)
  • “Purpose and Devil Piss” – the purpose (present) vs. devil piss (past)
      Is this pairing, or opposing, of the present with the past intentional? What kinds of connections (symbolic or otherwise) exist between the present and the past? What is the significance/deeper meaning of this duality?
     Reality vs. fantasythere’s a real event that is happening in the reality of the poem’s plot, then some fantasy (something imaginary or not real) is incorporated into the poem. Is this done to emphasize a contrast? Is there a connection (literal or figurative) between the two? Is this juxtaposition significant?

RS: I have a habit of just sitting down with an image and then kind of vomiting my poems on the screen, and in doing that, I guess I just go all over the place, taking things from the past, present, the real, and fantastic. I don’t think too much about what I’m doing other than making connections, a rhythm, and building these images up to create an emotional impact of some kind. I typically have no plan. But I do tend to be very cyclical within my poems, meaning whatever images wind up in the poem as it moves along will eventually swing back at the end in some type of reappearance or re-creation of the image. I don’t know why I do that. I guess it provides more order or a conclusion for me. I need to wrap all of this craziness up in a neat little package. But I honestly feel like I could say all of the same things regarding present vs. past and reality vs. fantasy in your work. What do those ideas mean to you in your work? Are you thinking about them while writing your poems?

CG: With my poems, I submerge myself in a particular experience after it’s over, which could be anywhere from hours to months later, so in that sense I’m entering into the past while still in the present; depending on how far removed I am from the experience I’m writing about, the present gives me a perspective/understanding that I may not have had at the time. Sometimes the passage of time only intensifies an experience, like it’s been marinating in my mind/heart, and then it all comes out on paper as though it just happened. It’s like vomiting in the sense that you feel better once you’ve gotten it out of you. There’s no conscious thought behind the present vs. the past other than this. As far as reality vs. fantasy goes, if anything I feel that I’m searching for and uncovering what’s real in my poems and trying to get past any illusions; perhaps it’s all really one great big fantasy world I’m creating in my mind, but reality is a matter of perception anyway, isn’t it? One man’s fantasy is another’s reality?
     Getting back to your poems, with this pairing, sometimes what it seems to me like you’re doing is viewing the commonplace/ordinary through a symbolic lens of make-believe, and then examining what you see through that figurative lens, almost like “putting a new spin on something old.” Examples of this reality vs. fantasy are:
  • “Home”—in apartment (real) vs. The Wiz (not real) 
  • “Auto Shop Mixer”—in the auto shop (real) vs. Oz and hooking up (not real) 
  • “Devil Dogs Perform”—in living room watching porn (real) vs. porn (not real) 
  • “Bad Girl Gone Good”—poet w/ boyfriend (real) vs. Shug Avery (not real) 
One poem in particular could be either (or both) present vs. past and/or real vs. fantasy:
  • “On Being a Good Patient”—dentist (present/real) vs. slave boy (past/not real) 
For a couple of poems, this duality seems to be an unconscious desire to live/inhabit a more colorful world then the one you’re actually in:
  • “Wild Wild Life”—leave boredom (“Road to Nowhere”) and enter excitement (“Wild Wild Life”) 
What is the significance of this duality in these poems? Do you agree that these dualities (or pairings) exist in the poems, or am I reading too deeply into their meaning and seeing something that’s not really there, or meant to be there?
     I noticed other pairings, or contrasts, too, such as:
  • “Holiday Eye Exam”—outside vs. diorama box 
  • “Groceries and Goliath” 
  • “St. Joseph’s Lavender Azaleas”—being stuck between youth and the elderly 
  • “Haunted Homo”—bed bugs vs. hook-ups 
RS: It is entirely intentional that I am “putting a new spin on something old” when that is evident in a poem. I always have “make it new” in my head while writing poetry. I loathe cliché and am out to destroy it whenever possible. So those pairings you speak of are me destroying the old, the cliché. I’d like to think all poets are attempting to accomplish that in their work, but it’s not always true, or some people are just not succeeding at it. I know I don’t get it right in every poem I write, but I’d like to think there’s something fresh even in the mediocre to crap poems I’ve written.

CG: Many of your poems have a “sudden” ending that is powerful and I really, really like these a lot. What significance is there in the way certain poems end? How do you know/decide when a poem is “finished”? Do you ever start a poem with the ending in mind first? Examples of some endings of poems that struck me are:
  • “Killer’s Morning” 
  • “Devil Dogs Perform”—after the orgasm, what’s left/next? 
  • “Haunted Homo”—why use such a harsh word as “faggot” in the ending? 
  • “Neighborhood” 
  • “Alternate Ending”—I’m not sure of the meaning of the last line 
  • “Purpose and Devil Piss”—I feel like there’s more to the figurative meaning to the last stanza that I’m not getting 
RS: I think the end of a poem is incredibly important, so I’m totally flattered and pleased that you “really, really like” my more “sudden” endings. I just always try to end a poem with a big bang if at all possible. I recall a professor in undergrad describing the feeling he got when finishing the Emily Dickinson poem “I dwell in possibility” as having his head blown off. I got the same feeling from that poem. It left me stunned. Since then I always aimed to achieve that in as many of my poems as possible. That’s where that comes from. And I guess you kind of just know when a poem is finished. At least for me, it’s when I feel like I made that bang, whether it was a loud one that makes your head or heart explode or a quiet one that goes off slowly. Of course there’s been many times that I thought a poem was finished and then went back to revise it and ended up changing the end, along with other parts of the poem. And no, I hardly ever have an end in mind from the start of a poem. Something might come to me in the middle of writing a poem, but I never start with an ending in mind. How about you? When do you know a poem is “finished,” and do you ever start a poem with the ending in mind?

CG: What’s odd about the way I begin a poem is that words and lines will “appear” at random times in my mind, usually the first line or lines of a poem, and I will grab whatever paper is at hand and start writing it down, and during that process the last line or lines of the poem will also come to me and I write that down on the paper too, somewhere to the side or at the bottom.  Then, I begin coaxing the rest of the poem out of my subconscious mind, trying to figure out (if it’s not immediately obvious to me) what this poem is about.  As I’m writing, what I’m doing is trying to “connect the dots” between the beginning of the poem and the ending of the poem.  I’ll keep writing down thoughts, adding lines to the beginning lines, and keep going until I catch up to the ending lines.  I’m never sure initially how many lines there will be between the beginning and the ending, or how long the poem will be.  I just “know” when I’ve connected the beginning to the ending.  Usually this is how the writing process goes for me.  On occasion, I will start writing a poem and keep going until I think it’s finished, but then revisit the poem and revise it, sometimes removing great big chunks of it, sometimes rewriting the ending completely.  I have a few poems that I’m still trying to figure out how it should end.  I have one poem, and this is unusual for me, that has two endings and I like both and think both are powerful and effective, but the version I’ve gone with and that was published in an anthology was the shorter one.  That ending seems to be more powerful than the version that is longer, although the longer version furthers what I was trying to say.  But like you, I think the ending of a poem should give a “punch” or “explosion,” even if it’s a subtle one.
     Another thing I’ve noticed is there’s a lot of interesting and meaningful symbolism in many of your poems; is this intentional? Are there certain symbols that you are drawn to, or that you connect with and use a lot? If so, why? 
     Examples of some symbolism I noticed are:
  • “Plug Filter”—what does the plug filter symbolize?
  • “Fireworks”—is this symbolic for an orgasm? Is the poem about masturbation?
  • “Cartoon Bears and Cotton Briefs”—the cartoon bears symbolizes the girl and the cotton briefs symbolizes the boy? If so, what meaning is there in this?
  • “Routine”—does this symbolize a (typical) day in the life?
  • “On Being a Good Patient”—or maybe being a “good boy”? Is this poem about being accepted by society, of fitting in?
  • “The Nonrecyclables”—does this symbolize homosexuals within a heterosexual society?
  • “Fit for Worship” and “All the Life Forms”—the symbolism compares to a church (religion) in that a gym is a place that gay men go to regularly and worship the beauty and physical perfection of men (three gods are even mentioned in the poem); like churches (religion) are there rituals? Sacrifice? Communion?
RS: I think my usage of the symbolism I choose to include in my poems has to do with that idea again of me trying to “make it new” or “put a new spin on something old.” I try to think of things in the most far out over the top way and whatever images come to me for my metaphors and similes, I work with those. I suppose that’s also why I go to pop culture imagery so often; not that artists and poets haven’t been using pop culture to draw their images from, but I personally feel like pop culture opens up many doors that I like to explore and run with. So the plug filter just fit into the poem as I wrote it and then at the end I kind of felt like it was central to the poem—the idea that regardless of time and the many pieces of life (like pieces of wasted food to memories of the house you grew up in), these things get caught and stay with you, whether it’s though memory or just the routine of life (breakfast in the morning and rinsing off a dish). “Fireworks” definitely has to do with explosions, from actual fireworks being shot in a No Trespassing area in the middle of the night to hormones firing up in the body when you see a half-naked neighbor in a window to the orgasm one might achieve when masturbating fantasizing about that neighbor jerking off while watching you walk around in your apartment in your underwear. I think the cartoon bears (Care Bears of course) and the cotton briefs (tightie whities) are more literal in “Cartoon Bears and Cotton Briefs.” They just weave into the narrative of the poem to express the lust factor. I like the dirty thoughts about the boyfriend in the elevator running parallel to the cartoon bears on the wrapping paper and the childhood memories they invoke in the woman and the voice of the poem. “Routine” is more about overcoming the everyday and typical to make a name for one’s self and find his or her audience out there. “On Being a Good Patient” is most certainly about being accepted by society and fitting in, even when that seems impossible. “The Nonrecyclables” is partly symbolic of homosexuals living in a hetero society, but it’s also a picture of how we are really all the same after all is said and done—we are all going to get old and eventually die. And in being in the same boat, why can’t we somehow have more compassion for one another and try to get along; it’s hard to have that attitude living in New York City. “Fit for Worship” is simply an exploration of narcissism in society; the voice of the poem is questioning the reasons for getting in shape and staying in shape: Is it to remain more desirable, sexy, or is it for health reasons, or both? Is it worth all the hard work in the end? “All the Life Forms” is more of a homosexual trying to understand heterosexual men in the context of a locker room. He can’t decide if he’s “disgusted or horny” in the end.

CG: “Truly Phototropic”—the identity of “he” is never clarified or named; who is the “he”? Also, is this poem about being torn between one’s duty as a poet and life that is being lived elsewhere (kids, boyfriend, NYC, etc.)? If not, what is this poem about, in a figurative sense?

RS: The “he” was my ex-boyfriend who I was with for seven years. When I originally wrote the poem, his name appeared in the poem. When I was putting this manuscript together, I chose to remove his name from the poem out of respect to my current boyfriend (the love of my life), who my book is dedicated to. It really wouldn’t have mattered, but I felt it was necessary; I ended up liking the poem better with “he” used instead. And yes, I think you got the poem. At the time that I wrote it, the relationship was still fairly new and we had been spending so much time together that I started worrying that I wasn’t writing as much and I was concerned about how the relationship was affecting my writing.

CG: Hmmm. Perhaps you’re more considerate than I am. I didn’t remove any names while I was putting my manuscript together. Not out of a need for vengeance or to call anyone out, but more out of a need for truth. These were my speaker’s (and in a sense my own) experiences and I didn’t want to pull any punches. I want it to be real. If sometimes these men aren’t portrayed in a flattering light, then sometimes neither is the speaker. Honesty, either in documenting the actual experience or conveying the emotional aspect of it, is paramount to me as a poet. And if anyone rises out of the murky depths of my past to complain, well… I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, I suppose. (Hey, at least I didn’t use any last names.)
     Moving forward, I wanted to ask you, what is “Joy and Peace This Season” about?

RS: It’s about helplessness. My aunt and uncle’s son, my first cousin, was going through chemo and surgery for bone cancer in his pelvis, and they were so far away with the holidays coming. What can you do but just try to be there the best you can, part of which is mailing a Christmas card, despite the horrors of life, the sense of doom. I think it brings more depth to the message in the card. And comparing his existence to that of my nephew felt important, like this could happen to him too, like you never know what life is going to give you. Unfortunately a year or so after I wrote that poem, my cousin lost his battle to cancer, so I felt like the poem needed to be included in this book, not only to commemorate him in some way but also because I felt the poem was successful in expressing the emotions a situation like that can create. And I think he would have liked to know that the poem exists and that people out there may be reading it.

CG: “Golden Age”—how is it a golden age? Does this also contain a duality, either past vs. present or real vs. fantasy?

RS: It’s not really a golden age. The voice of the poem is kind of pissed that it’s not really a golden age anymore, or he kind of doesn’t even give a shit that there was a golden age of Broadway. This poem is all about duality, from past vs. present to real vs. fantasy. It’s all over the place.

CG: Why end your poetry collection with “Antony and the Bookcase”? Why begin the collection with “1979”? What meaning is there in having these poems begin and end the collection?

RS: I ended the collection with “Antony and the Bookcase” initially because it was the most recent poem I had written that I liked before pulling together the collection, but it became apparent to me that it was the right poem to end the collection with. I felt like it summed up all of my feelings about being an artist and getting my work out to an audience however possible. And I started the collection with “1979” because I wanted to start with a poem that stemmed from my childhood, kind of like the earliest I could go back in the story of my life. I think it creates the perfect starting point.
     How about you? You already discussed why you started the collection with “Stephen’s Body,” but why did you choose to end the collection with “How Obvious, Then”? I have my notions but am curious to see what you have to say about it.

CG: Again, my collection is a story arc of sorts. It’s a speaker’s journey through the world of male-to-male experiences. Like most of us, he is searching for love and every kind of peace and happiness that comes with finding it. While figuratively at a starting line at the age of “twenty-two,” he falls “in love” and from there self-navigates through a variety of situations and interacts with the many types of characters that people the gay world, eventually arriving at his destination, where love may be a “reworded truth” but is still mutually acknowledged “in these early morning hours.” He’s learned a lot about himself and who he is, as well as what the gay world has to offer, both good and bad, and appreciates landing safely in the harbor. 
     How did Purpose and Devil Piss come about?

RS: I basically went through my work from the past fifteen years and selected my favorite poems. Then I chose the order and edited the collection down to a more reasonable length. There was no plan, like this is what my collection is going to be about. I just wanted to throw my work together into a collection to submit for publication and this is what I came up with. I like how it turned out, and of course I’m thrilled that Sibling Rivalry Press did too.
     How did your book come about?

CG: I always had the idea in mind, the story arc I just explained. The trick was how to tell this story and after many frustrating attempts, it made the most sense to arrange them more or less chronologically, so that the speaker’s journey and development seem more organic and genuine, which I believe it does. I felt that LGBT readers, as well as others, would connect to the book or learn a lot about how a gay man enters into the gay world and moves through it, what he finds and what he’s searching for and how he evolves throughout the process. I had one reader, a heterosexual woman, tell me that when she in a sense “removed” the “he” from the speaker’s identity, that many of the poems related directly to experiences she’s had and how she’s felt many times in various relationships. That was one of my goals in putting together this collection, to have it relatable to anyone, not only LGBT readers, although they were first and foremost in my intentions.            
      Whether intentional or not, lots of books of poetry have story arcs. What story does Purpose and Devil Piss tell?

RS: Purpose and Devil Piss does not have an intentional story arc but the poems having been collected together in chronological order certainly created a loose story. It’s basically a piece of the world through one person’s experiences in life. It’s an exploration of people interacting with the voice of the poems and with one another.

CG: Talk about the process of publishing. What was your experience? What did you learn? What was the toughest thing? 

RS: I work in publishing, so I kind of knew what to expect. I’m a production editor, meaning I take care of the copyediting and proofreading of the books assigned to me, but this is for a large publishing house that needs very systematic procedures to keep the publication of many, many books a season happening on time and without any major disasters. So for me it was kind of a more laid back experience dealing with Sibling Rivalry being they are a smaller independent press with much more casual procedures. It was strange being on the opposite side of the production process though. I enjoyed it. Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington were fantastic to work with. I think the most difficult part of it was deciding on a cover. I knew I somehow wanted to the use the photo of me from first grade dressed like a clown for Halloween, which is mentioned in the poem “Plug Filter,” on the cover, but I wasn’t sure how that was going to work into some type of successful design. Bryan and Seth made that happen with their freelance cover designer. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was exactly what I wanted.
     How about you? What was your experience with the process of publishing? What did you learn and what was the toughest thing?

CG: As much as I enjoyed the entire process from start to finish, I never realized how much work was involved. Both Bryan and Seth were amazing and professional to work with, and at one point I told Bryan how much I appreciated the smooth sailing of getting published with SRP, how positive and nurturing it was all the way through. What made it particularly difficult for me, and this had nothing to do with Bryan and Seth or Sibling Rivalry Press, was my workload as a public high school teacher that had to be done simultaneously with my work on the book. Anyone who works in public education knows the daily work and stress that we teachers buckle under and there have been many, many days where unlike Atlas, I have wanted to shrug the weight of this career off of my shoulders. But hey, I love writing poetry and I love teaching adolescents and the dark and tangled mess that our government has made of education can’t last forever. Hopefully the sun will come out again soon, before the red tape of bureaucracy strangles me….
     Dennis Cooper has championed your book. We know you’re a big fan. What does his support mean to you? What does his writing mean to you?

RS: Dennis’s support means the world to me. The first time I read his work in the Norton Anthology of Post-modern American Poetry at some point during my second year of undergrad, I was struck and sucked in; he instantly became my ultimate literary hero. Eventually I got my hands on Dream Police, and, of course, was further spellbound. At that point I would have never imagined actually meeting Dennis or having any type of contact with him. During the second year of getting my MFA at the New School, David Trinidad, who was one of my teachers at the time, asked me if I would be interested in taking part in a writing workshop that Dennis would be leading at Rutgers University; it was mainly for David’s Rutgers students but he knew I was a crazed Cooper fan. Of course I managed to get my ass to Rutgers to take part in the workshop. Dennis chose my poem to discuss and you know my head totally exploded at that moment, and this was after it had already spun a few times because I had met my literary hero and was now sitting at a table with him in a classroom. Dennis and David invited me to join them for dinner after the workshop and before a reading Dennis was giving later that evening, but I was such a fucking disaster at that point in my life that I totally had no money to spend on dining out and had to reluctantly pass on joining them. Anyway, Dennis and I emailed a few times after that and kept in touch. Every time he came to New York City to a do a reading, I was there. And I’ve thankfully had a few opportunities to join Dennis and others eating out. Dennis supports so many writers and artists that it makes me wonder how he has time to do his own work, considering how much energy he puts into his blog and all of the folks that visit it. So when I finally had a book coming out, he was the first person I asked to write a blurb for it, and of course being the saint that he is, he agreed to write a blurb. I still can’t believe that I have a book out and that there’s a blurb from Dennis on it (an insanely positive blurb that makes me want to pass out every time I read it), along with blurbs by Wayne Koestenbaum and Emanuel Xavier (both of which also make me lose my mind with excitement and total glee). So, it goes without saying that Dennis is still my hero and that I look forward to every new book from him with the same enthusiasm I felt upon reading Dream Police for the first time. His books are like priceless treasures, especially the signed copies. I can honestly say that Dennis’s support and championing of my work feels like the most recognition I need to feel like the book was a success, almost like his opinion is all that matters. But having said that, I do want many other people to read my work and respond to it. I write with the intention of others reading my work, like an artist painting or sculpting with the hope that the piece will end up in a gallery or museum where countless people can see it and react to it. To me that’s the point, reaching as many people as possible and making some type of effect on each and every one of them.
     Christopher, is there a poet or another writer who is a similar hero to you? If so, have you made contact with this hero and shared your work with him or her?

CG: No, all my heroes are dead poets and writers. (Gee, what does that say about me?) For many of the modern poets and writers who have inspired me, it was more about certain poems or books, not so much their collective work. Oddly enough though, I did have a chance to meet and share my work with a hero of sorts. I competed and won a spot in a 14-person class at the New York City Public Library in 2009, a fiction writing class taught by Edmund White (of A Boy’s Own Story and States of Desire fame, as well as many others). On the last day of the week-long course, I sat in his office and read him one of my poems and told him how he had been an influence on me and my writing. Unfortunately, he seemed more interested in telling me how I’m “cute as a button” and “a sexy little thing” and before I could share any more of my poems with him, he was reading me an excerpt from a novel he was writing at the time, and don’t you know that it was a filthy sex scene he was reading aloud to me, peppered with winks and grins the whole time! When he was done, I told him how much I enjoyed hearing it and appreciated him sharing it with me, and left the office before it got any more awkward. As for another hero of mine, Suzanne Vega, whose poetry and music have had a huge and life-long impact on my writing, I have often imagined talking to her and sharing my work with her, and have only gotten as far as becoming friends with her via Facebook. I still have hopes of one day making this actual friendship a reality and maybe even sending her a copy of my book, explaining how her song “Soap and Water” helped me through a break-up and inspired my poem “Quilts and Blankets,” although now that I no longer live in NYC, it seems harder to make that happen.
     But hey, as you and I both know, dreams do come true, right?