Alex Dimitrov, Wilde Boy
Author: Jason Schneiderman
August 4, 2010
I don’t remember quite how I met Alex Dimitrov (right, with Zachary Pace), only that once we started spending time together, I realized that he was a force of nature. When he first mentioned his idea for the Wilde Boys, a salon for gay male poets in New York, I was supportive but skeptical. Every salon I had ever gone to always seemed to turn into an un-moderated workshop, and as a workshop instructor, it seemed more like an extension of my workday than a pleasurable evening out. But Alex proved me delightfully wrong, and the Wilde Boys are truly salons—discussion groups that yield exciting and compelling conversation, as well as providing introduction to wonderful poets. Alex has just finished an MFA at Sarah Lawrence, and his poems are forthcoming in the Boston Review, Yale Review, and New York Quarterly. Others have recently appeared in the annual Best New Poets anthology, Linebreak, The Awl , and La Fovea. He works at the Academy of American Poets, frequently writes for Poets & Writers magazine, and tweets @alexdimitrov.
His poems are personal and direct, driven by personas that he beautifully conjures out of autobiography, pop culture, and the traditions of American poetry.
JS: Congratulations on the one year anniversary of Wilde Boys! How do you describe Wilde Boys when someone asks what it is?
AD: Thank you. Most nights Wilde Boys feels like an endless bacchanalia where the gods are poets like Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, John Ashbery—and we celebrate them and argue about them, and try to figure out what it is we’re doing as young, queer poets writing after them. Many of the boys are in MFA programs in or around New York City, some have graduated, others are thinking of going—and of course, there are poets like yourself who can tell us about some of the experiences one goes through as a poet just starting out.
JS: That makes me sound dangerously like a role model—but I’ll admit that I love knowing writers who are still in or just out of MFA programs. It’s supposed to be such a glamorous and easy phase, but I remember it as a very hard time. I’m amazed by how much you guys seem to have accomplished. Alex, you’ve gathered such a brilliant group of achievers. It’s really an amazing group.
AD: It is a very hard time, that post-MFA period, a very confusing time. And yet a lot of things are just beginning to happen. Everything feels impossible and possible at the same time, you know? What’s exciting to me is that everyone in Wilde Boys is doing their own thing while remaining inclusive. Zachary Pace, who was my classmate at Sarah Lawrence, started Projection, which is a fantastic reading series at the Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn, where the text of the poem is projected behind the poet. Paul Legault, who I work with at the Academy of American Poets, has a first book of poems called The Madeleine Poems, coming out this fall. He also recently started a translation journal called Telephone. Angelo Nikolopoulos runs the White Swallow Reading Series at the Cornelia Street Café in the West Village, where we had our first Wilde Boys reading with Mark Doty this past February. All of these guys are doing great things.
It’s also important to have role models and friends who will listen to more than your “workshop” questions. Tom Healy and Mark Bibbins are two poets who have been supportive of Wilde Boys from the beginning, when I had no clue what I was doing, or how I would pull it off. The salon is really about an artistic community and bringing people together. I think that’s one of the most powerful things about poetry, and art in general—when you realize it’s not just the poems that can transform you but the friendships themselves. I’m lucky because that way of understanding art and life was instilled in me by my teacher, Marie Howe. And it’s something that her teacher, Stanley Kunitz, really believed in. And he started Poets House, isn’t that amazing? That’s a very tangible impact his life and work have had—he’s given us a place where we can write and think and talk to one another. I’m indebted to that idea—his idea of the tribe, tribal recognition.
JS: The gatherings are fantastic. How did you decide to start the group? Did you have any models (like “The Violet Quill”) in mind?
AD: When I came to New York in 2007, having just graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I had this fantasy that I’d be entering a bohemian scene of poets and writers where all we’d do is chain smoke, have sex, and write our own manifestos. Well, that was the fantasy. In reality, the MFA programs in New York really had a lot to do with shaping the community of young writers. The Columbia kids stayed uptown, the NYU and New School kids had their own clique downtown, and Sarah Lawrence was all the way in Bronxville, so there was the risk of detachment. I really didn’t believe in this kind of separation—by program or aesthetic, or because we lived however many blocks away from one another.
The idea for a salon seemed like the right one because I wanted to bring everyone together and create a scene that had nothing to do with MFA politics and everything to do with a ferocious curiosity about poetry. It wasn’t going to be about workshopping but talking about great poems, reading great poems out loud to each other, and figuring out how we could write our own. I remember sitting in front of the Hudson River and sort of daydreaming with Zach Pace. He was telling me how he really wanted to start Projection but wasn’t sure if it would work, and I was telling him about the salon and this idea of creating our own scene, like Edmund White and The Violet Quill, and Frank O’Hara and the New York School poets. In a way, Wilde Boys and Projection were born on the same day, in the same conversation. So much about starting something is allowing yourself to think big and take a risk and fail. Anne Carson, who was one of my teachers in college, always used to say that failure can be as interesting as the experiment itself. And she always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, whatever I believed in.
JS: How has Wilde Boys been different from what you envisioned?
AD: The salon has really taken a life of its own, which is well beyond what I envisioned for it. In that way, it feels like a success. You can put twenty people in a room together and start talking about a poem you’ve all read, but that’s not very interesting unless those people are bringing their own personalities and ambitions into the mix. So it also takes a certain amount of disclosure, of getting personal and being real. Which, in a way, is what poetry is all about. And who can do that in a graduate workshop at ten in the morning? I couldn’t. It also really helps that the salons are held at people’s apartments—Tom Healy, Mark Bibbins, Billy Merrell, Matthew Hittinger, we had it at your place once, and Paul Legault and Stephen Motika are next to host. I really wish I could host it every time but I live in the tiniest Lower East Side apartment with my friend Rachel and our cat Marcello. We’d be able to fit only three Wilde Boys, as opposed to the twenty or so who usually come.
JS: I wanted to ask about the gay (or queer) aspect of the salon—have people been resistant to you opening it up beyond just gay men (as you did when you invited women), or felt excluded? Are there any tensions you see between an older “gay” crowd and a younger “queer” crowd? I’m impressed by your ability to maintain a certain kind of identity politics without falling into the obvious pitfalls of exclusivity or assumption. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what is and isn’t important about creating a space for gay male poets to gather.
AD: The salon was never meant to be exclusive to men, though I always envisioned it as a “queer” space. And I think that more diversity, whether we are talking about gender or in terms of inviting people from other disciplines, like musicians or scholars—that makes it all the more queer to me. It’s funny you use the term “identity politics,” which is so polarizing and old fashioned today. Perhaps it always was. I do think identities matter, and they have real power and implications in our daily lives. It would be foolish to deny that. In that sense, I don’t really believe in the post-gay, post-feminism, post-identity politics fad where our differences are erased and assimilated into norms. There is power in difference, as there is power in unity. But I also don’t believe in identities as things which limit us. Everything can be exploded, transformed.
JS: Sorting it out too much can be dangerous—I feel strongly that there’s power for us in a specifically gay male space, but I agree that it doesn’t have to be an exclusively gay male space (and it’s kind of nice when it’s not, even though it’s kind of nice when it is). How do you feel that being gay has shaped your writing? Obviously, it’s nice to know other writers, and other gay writers, but can I put you on the spot and ask you to generalize? What do you see as the commonality among the gay poets you’ve so brilliantly gathered under one roof? How does what we share in terms of desire and experience shape the ways in which we write and read?
AD: I’m always the one asking this question in the salons and I never feel bad about putting poets on the spot. But now that you’ve asked—I hate it! It’s an impossible question. And a really important one. In terms of how being gay has shaped my work—I’m not really sure there are gay poems, just gay poets. A book like James L. White’s The Salt Ecstacies, which Mark Doty just edited as a reissue for Graywolf, is really important to me because of its explicit treatment of gay desire. That doesn’t mean there isn’t restraint, or coding, or artifice. All of those things are very queer. My favorite thing in a poem, and what I always work toward, is a kind of hand-over-the-mouth-jeans-unzipped level of restraint. It’s sexy. It’s how you get dates and how good poems happen.
But back to what I was trying to explain. Carl Phillips says this really great thing about James L. White’s book—”it’s arguable that Dante’s Inferno is better literature, but Dante couldn’t have given me what White did.” I mean, exactly! Reading The Salt Ecstacies changed my life as a gay person and as a poet in a way that few books have. Being able to speak to that part of us which feels isolated, and somehow longs to be part of the world at the same time, that’s very human. And that’s what White does. And is it a gay book? Yeah, totally. Did I just put myself in a corner by calling those poems gay? Yeah, totally. But it’s also a book about trying to live with yourself. I’m more interested in that, rather than some kind of premeditated queerness.
JS: Impossible questions are the best ones to ask! I think that’s why we’re artists. We get to be wrong in beautiful ways. But it really is not a fair question—you can’t give an answer that’s not reductive. I think that poems and poets are always gay in their specificity. William Meredith and John Ashbery both play pronoun games that seem gay to me, but they couldn’t be more different in how. That’s the nice thing about the Wilde Boys gatherings: everyone is present in their irreducible gay specificity, and that’s always a pleasure. Do you have any big plans for Wilde Boys—an anthology? A cologne? A retreat? What has surprised you most about doing this?
AD: How receptive people have been has really surprised me. Like I said earlier, when you have an idea for something you never know if it’s going to work. But I think Wilde Boys is happening at the right moment. The poets of my generation are interested in actively forming an artistic community. And this one is in its early stages. But it’s happening, that’s what’s important. Forming these kinds of cliques may be harder for poets than other artists. Or so it seems. The poet as a figure always feels isolated to me, even from other poets. And it doesn’t have to be that way. That myth really bores me.
I think Wilde Boys will continue, even if only in the sense that I know I’ll see these boys and read their poems in journals then books, for some time in the future. Everyone’s asking me whether I’m going to start a Wilde Boys blog or a website, and you know, I’ve thought about it. But isn’t there enough of that these days? What seems to be lacking is genuine face-to-face interaction and engagement with art and people. That’s always been what I’ve envisioned for Wilde Boys. That and fantastic cocktails.
Photo: SM Hayhurst for homo-neurotic.com