In Conversation: Mark Wunderlich & Alex Dimitrov
Author: Edit Team
March 29, 2013
Poets Mark Wunderlich and Alex Dimitrov have an in-depth conversation about their new books, marriage, Madonna, and queer culture.
Mark Wunderlich’s most recent book is The Earth Avails, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2014. His other titles include The Anchorage, which received the Lambda Literary Award, and Voluntary Servitude, published by Graywolf. He has received fellowships from the NEA, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner Program. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Columbia University, and at Bennington College in Vermont. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. http://markwunderlich.com.
Alex Dimitrov is the author of Begging for It (Four Way Books, 2013). His poems have appeared in the Yale Review, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, Slate, Tin House, and other publications. He is also the author of the echapbook, American Boys (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2012). Dimitrov is the Content Editor at the Academy of American Poets and teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. __________________________________________________________
Mark Wunderlich: I’m glad to have this correspondence, Alex, since we both just exchanged manuscripts of books that will be out in an eye blink. I wanted to start by asking you—since this is for Lambda—about the role of sexual identity in your book. How do you think being same-sex attracted intersects with being a poet in the world? Your book engages in a performance of identity—loneliness and sex and love are being performed, commented on, abstracted, poeticized. What does this have to do with queerness?
Alex Dimitrov: Mark, I’m really happy that we’re corresponding and talking to each other about our new books. My subjects are love and desire. They’ve been my subjects since I first started writing poems and they’ve also been subjects for other writers for centuries now. For me, and people who read Begging for It will see this, sex is not very interesting. What I find interesting are the moments before and after sex. Those are the moments that many of the poems are written from. Is there something queer about that? I think so. Foucault, late in his life, in interviews, thinks about this. But there’s also something very human about those moments—and I don’t mean to say that and evoke some sort of “universalism,” as we’re all a multiplicity of differences and sameness, even different in our sameness. There’s no one human experience, no one thing we relate to in the same way. But, most of us may find ourselves in those moments where the poems in Begging for It come from, even if we relate to those moments in different ways. That’s what I mean by saying there’s something very human about them. I remember a few years ago I was at the Lambda Literary Awards and Edward Albee was receiving a lifetime achievement award, and he got up there and talked about how he is not a gay writer but a writer who happens to be gay and everyone criticized him, because I suppose they wanted to hear some didactic, sweeping reaffirmation of how being specifically same-sex oriented has informed his work or is seen in his work. That’s too easy. And boring. I understood his resistance to entering that space where the work is suddenly entirely illuminated by his sexuality. That resistance is in itself queer. And more interesting and complicated.
Along those lines, I want to ask you—your first book won a Lambda Literary Award, it was beautifully nuanced yet in your face in its treatment of sexuality, and your second book continues to explore sexuality through different metaphors. The third book feels like a departure from those two, and feels queer in a very haunted way. Can you talk about that departure, and then we can talk about things other than “queerness” if we’re allowed, I mean, are we allowed? Your new book seems to think so.
Wunderlich: I’m happy to take on this question. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about gayness as an identity, and the nature of sexual attraction. I am actually repulsed by the current mainstream “LGBTQ” etc., agenda, with its striving for normalcy and assimilation. The holy trinity of marriage, military and hate crimes legislation is not about liberation; it is about assimilation, securing property, fighting hegemonic wars, and putting more people behind bars. I, for one, am not signing on. For me, being a homo has always been about occupying the margins, creating and imagining alternatives to that which is culturally dominant. Marriage and the military? Seriously? We can’t come up with anything better that that? Of course it is also strange to categorize people according to sexual attraction, and to feel the need to make rigid distinctions. In its current iteration, LGBTQness is about trying to make sexual identity a kind of ethnicity, which it is not. (Plus I think “gay” is a stupid word—both trivializing and emasculating at once). Is this what you asked about? Oh yes, poetry!
I think in my first two books, I was more interested in declaring and naming an identity as someone who was (in some really rather tame ways!) sexually transgressive. It meant something to me to declare a sexual identity and to make that identity complex, messy, true, and not part of some narrative of tragedy, but of transformation. What happened? Well, I got older! I survived the 1990s. I got a job and started teaching. That I am sexually attracted to men is, on its own, not very interesting. My new book takes on religious themes, which feels far more transgressive to me than writing about sodomy. I am an atheist, so writing poems that are adaptations of Christian prayers freaked me out a little bit. I recently gave a reading of some of these poems, and in a Q&A afterwards, I was asked a question about my “spiritual journey.” I was totally dumbfounded by the question! “Spiritual journey?” I’m not on one. The best I could come up with was that I was interested in a rhetorical stance in which the supplicant is asking, begging, imploring—even chastising a God who does not answer back. There are centuries of psalmists who have done just this, and I guess I wanted to explore the possibilities of that rhetorical stance. Much of the new book consists of a series of prayers, which are adaptations from a 19th century book of prayers, and what I loved about those documents was the immediacy and specificity of concerns.
One of my favorite poems in your book is in the first section. In it, you—the speaker in the poem—look at a cross hanging around your father’s neck. The cross is there in his chest hair, and the image is both sexually charged as it suggests the speaker’s (latent) sexual desire for his father. But it does something far more transgressive in that it submits the father—unwittingly—to the power of the homo-male gaze. This is one of the great powers we posses, I think—checking out other men, whether they know it or not—and making them subjects of our private (here in the poem, not so private) sexual reveries. It is a form of psycho-sexual domination, and here the son is dominating his father—privately, in his imagination and publically here in this poem. This poem makes me squirm a little, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. The other subject of this poem is the family’s status as immigrants. The son is different from his father in that he will become an American—culturally, linguistically—in ways his father never will, and the poem indicates this difference. I’m not sure how to tease out this next question, but I want to know about being an American and being an immigrant, and how that informs the work of these poems.
Dimitrov: I’m so glad to hear you say that about the current state of gay politics. I, too, am mystified why gay people are not questioning things like the military or the way marriage operates in our culture more intensely.
In some ways I feel lucky because I tuned into popular culture very early—and maybe this is one way of talking about being an immigrant since it involves watching American television and primarily MTV. One reason I say I feel lucky is because when I was seven years old I remember watching Madonna’s documentary film Truth or Dare, and in the middle of the film there is an ACT UP demonstration. I had no idea, at seven, what ACT UP was. But that chant really stayed with me: “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” I remember the drag queens in that scene and the moment of silence for all the people who had died and were dying of AIDS. And I remember being in sixth grade and looking up ACT UP, when I first had access to the internet, and largely remembering to look it up through my interaction with Madonna’s film. That’s also how I found out about Queer Nation. So here was this huge pop star who, through her very mainstream documentary, introduced me, in middle school, to the knowledge of the existence of a small, radical group of queer men and women in New York City. And that’s also when I first knew I had to move to New York.
But about the father poems in my book, those are the hardest for me to read or think about. “The Crucifix” and “The Underwear,” and there was one more that I took out. I almost took out all of them but then some friends convinced me to keep them in. It’s interesting because I get the most responses, the most comments from strangers about those poems. I was doing a reading at St. Mary’s College in Maryland a few years ago and a very young man, maybe twenty, came up to me after and said “all those things you feel about your father, I feel them too.” And I had no idea what to say to him because I so deeply wanted to disidentify with so many of the emotions in those poems. And still do. I think, perhaps, that’s why they remain powerful for me. They are very much alive and full of feelings I’ve been running from all my life. But in those poems, I stop, and I look at what I’m running from. And you know, it’s in the same way that I’m cringing at the idea of being a gay writer in this exchange we’re having, I’m feeling a little Edward Albee about it, that I’m cringing at having to say something about being an immigrant. I feel like I’ll do that on my terms and that’s in the poems. And here, I already feel like I’ve said too much. I’m probably more revealing in the poems than in interviews or conversation.
So naturally, I want to switch gears and ask you about the first poem in your third book, “Once I Walked Out,” and in particular that poem because it appears to be a poem about joy, or joie de vivre, and I think it’s successful. We often, or mostly, write about darkness, but I actually find in this book of yours, more than the others, that there is light and even where there isn’t, there is a kind of thinking about light—and certainly the prayers, and the prayer poems, which are very specific about what they are meant to protect from or ward off. Can you talk to me a little bit about that and writing not away from darkness but also with the rest of the world and its realities and emotions alongside it? In this book you seem to capture a much bigger picture, a greater sense of the world and of life, I think.
Wunderlich: I will circle back to the question about my poems, but I first wanted to comment on your observations about pop culture. I too watched MTV—back in the 1980’s when it first appeared and I was a teenager—and I saw glimpses into urban culture that thrilled me and suggested there were exciting, sexy neighborhoods where people had great hair and wore vintage clothes and lived in a state of artistic squalor (for me it was Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan). Madonna was simultaneously celebrating and using urban gay culture—selling it to the Normals. As a byproduct, she educated the country rubes like me about where it was one could live freely. Since then I have grown increasingly critical of the relationship between “gay culture” and pop culture. Homo men are evident all over television and other forms of pop culture, but we are often portrayed as the gay handmaidens of hetero mating (think Queer Eye), or the hunky but sexless arbiters of good design and renovation and, more deeply, the harmless objects of desire for straight women who long to spend time with sensitive men who pay them compliments, go to the gym and want to talk about the new valances. Homo men are shown and sold this way to the mainstream culture, but in all of these portrayals, we are being unsexed. Mainstream culture is afraid of sodomy. The very idea of it stands to (you’ll forgive this) unseat notions of what is natural. Sodomy is hedonistic. It’s not about children. It’s not about marriage. It exists in service to nothing but pleasure. The fact of men penetrating other men disrupts the deepest metaphors pertaining to male power, and so when a corporation is selling gay men to the public, they need to do whatever they can to keep far from the public’s mind the image of some guy on all fours taking a dick in his ass and liking it. Thanks Madonna! As for Gaga, I think we as a group—homo men—are encouraged to identify a bit too much with these popular female figures (Gaga, the Real Housewives, etc. etc.). I think this too is a more subtle way of unsexing gay men, urging us to be bitchy and frivolous and materialistic, and I think we could stand to be more critical of where we go when we are looking to be entertained.
As for the poem of mine you cite, I am glad you think they are about lightness. The first poem in that book is about joy, and when I wrote it I set out to make a poem that was celebratory, and that expressed a kind of happiness at being alive and in a body moving through the world. I am an atheist who has at various times in my life longed for faith. I was raised in a religious household. As an adult, for a couple years I attended a Quaker Meeting, and when I lived in San Francisco I attended a Buddhist meditation center in my neighborhood. In both of these situations, I was drawn to the great silence and the experience of meditation, but my longing was never satisfied in either tradition. The answer for me, I have come to realize, is in engaging with and observing the natural world. The world is in a constant state of death and resurrection, and we are part of it. I think all the religious metaphors really just support this truth. That poem is a poem of reconciliation, and wants to say that the world is full of incomparable beauty, and it is ours to behold. I think too I have stopped thinking of myself as being, somehow, psychically wounded. One of the deep problems of the construction of a gay identity is that we often begin to see ourselves as victims of the dominant culture. We are bullied (but buck up, it gets better!), we get AIDS, we suffer discrimination, we are rejected by our families, etc. Those horrors are real, but they don’t have to define us. That first poem, in a deeply personal way, imagines an alternative.
One of the central themes of your book is that of loneliness. The speaker in your poems is often by himself, but longs for connection. You are also a poet, I think, who is interested in exploring direct emotional experience in his poems. Sometimes these experiences are portrayed with a veil of irony, but mostly I think you are interested in the intersection of strong feeling and lyrical language. I wonder if you could speak about the urge to recreate emotional experience in poems. What do you see as the problem your poems are seeking to solve?
Dimitrov: Well I have to say, I find a lot of what you say about popular culture interesting, but I remain interested in engaging with it. And I also feel like I draw a lot of my queerness, my queer power, from women. In Begging for It there are several self-portraits—one as Bardot, another as Daisy from The Great Gatsby, and the last one as Brett from The Sun Also Rises. I feel very close to those poems and there’s a queerness there that I don’t quite understand or find easy to locate, but it’s powerful to me. They are subtle, quiet poems. They’re not about seeing yourself as female or about embodying a female persona even—though it may appear so on the surface. They’re about something more than gender though they certainly are aware of gender. Nothing seemingly happens in them. They’re full of looking, and waiting, and feeling. Those poems are observational and devotional at the same time. And to answer your question, the problem that my poems are seeking to solve—I’m just trying to write about what it’s like to be alive. I suppose we all are. And most of the time we are alone or feel alone. So naturally the poems start from or take you to that place. I’m interested in writing about the past and memory because that’s where the difficult things are, and I’m interested in the difficult things. The writers I greatly admire, Proust and Barthes and Sontag, and many others—I feel like those writers instilled a devotion in me to memory and to love and death. Those are the things I’m interested in writing about. And I don’t understand any of them. All of them have remained mysterious to me and I think for the rest of my life I’m going to try and be comfortable with that mystery. And likely remain uncomfortable.
Selfishly, I want to ask you the same question. But also—at times it feels like there are more animals than people in your new book. The natural world is always there—and not that we haven’t seen that in other Mark Wunderlich poems but, well, we aren’t taken through the bar, down the street, and past someone’s apartment. This book, in many ways, places us directly in the elements. There is a ferociousness that feels organic, that carries with it both light and dark (as I was mentioning light before). Do you think this book is in some ways a book about human helplessness, a book about faith, or lack thereof, for you? And I don’t mean that in a religious sense. What do you see as being at the heart of the book?
Wunderlich: I think at the core of this book is my own deep distress about the state of our natural world and a sense of our daily culpability in its degradation, but also how it’s probably too late for us to reverse the effects that are causing rapid changes in global temperatures. Human beings have changed the world by polluting it, and there is just too much money in oil which is at the core of the entire economic engine of the world. The title of my book is from one of the oldest pieces of English literature we have—the Anglo-Saxon Bee Charm. The document is a kind of poem, but it’s also a spell for keeping bees from swarming and leaving the hive. In it, language, when spoken in a particular pattern, was believed to control and influence and change a natural process. The bee charm says that the earth avails over all things, including the tongues of men, and it reminds us that the earth will, no matter what we do to it, continue on its way; we and the other creatures of the earth may suffer, but the earth avails. During the past two years I have been traveling to and spending time in places near the Arctic Circle, and in all of these places there is a keen sense of a thawing, warming, changing planet now evident to the eye and understandable on a human scale. I find these changes enormously depressing, but what good is that? So, I write poems about it, which like most other actions, falls terribly short of effecting change for something so vast. And yet I do it anyway.
Switching gears entirely, how do you see the intersection of the public, performed role of the young homo poet in New York (I’m thinking here not just of the stance of the speaker in your poems, but of your role as impresario of Wilde Boys, and the figure you make in other media—print, video, social networking) and the actual expression of feelings you render in your poems? What is the role of the performed self in your poems (shall we call it the “ironic self?”) and the genuine or sincere?
Dimitrov: Well, before I answer that, I want to say that I’m really glad you’ve written this book. I think it’s terrific and important. And I’m also glad we’ll end on this question about the intersection of the public, the private and the performed. Most of the time when I’m answering questions, whether about Wilde Boys, and it’s mostly been about Wilde Boys and not enough about my poems—the questions, and the resulting articles or press, aren’t very smart or very good. And there is a real lack of understanding about what I do and how everything fits: my poems, the salon, the photos I’m in, who I am on the Internet, etc. Sometimes I wonder if that confusion or conservative lens on what I do would be there if I were a visual artist. To be frank, I’m interested in living my life as an art object and I think of my life that way. For me, the art doesn’t begin or end on the page, with the poem. The poems I write, Wilde Boys, my engagement with social media, what I read, where I live, who I see, how I dress, my engagement with aesthetics, etc.—it’s all seamlessly integrated into the project of being in service to art and to ideas and emotions and transforming one thing into another. Andy Warhol is someone who did this, as we all know, and he’s a role model. Authenticity for me occurs in the act of making. That’s the truest thing there is. And I say specifically the act of making because often times the final product is less than what was conceived in that act, in those moments. Those of us who make things know this. And I always want to be in the act of making. Walking down the street can be an act of power, as Foucault tells us, and also an opportunity, as I see it, to continue that act of making, to integrate life and art, and live where life is art. What you put on your body and how you look when you walk out of the house is another opportunity. So is how you engage with the rest of the world and the rituals and habits you create for yourself. And the poems you write, if you write, and the installations you make, if you make those. I’m sure you get what I’m saying because as we know, this isn’t a new concept. Visual artists have been engaging, and disengaging, with this kind of thinking, this kind of mode, for a long time. That’s as real and exciting as it gets for me—to be art. There’s no separation between private and public and this persona or that persona. It’s all in the service of art. Which is my life and my project and what I value most. And if I have to suffer through people’s confusion and criticism as a result of living my life this way, well…it’s just not going to stop me.
Photo of Alex Dimitrov by Star Black
Photo of Mark Wunderlich by Nicholas Kahn