Christopher Hennessy: On Interviewing Acclaimed Gay Poets and the Tradition of Queer Poetry
Author: Blake Campbell
December 3, 2014
Poet and writer Christopher Hennessy has devoted his literary career to the study of poetry by gay Americans. His first book, Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets (2005), collected interviews that Hennessy conducted with some of the most prominent gay American poets of our time: Frank Bidart, Rafael Campo, Henri Cole, Alfred Corn, Mark Doty, Thom Gunn, Timothy Liu, J. D. McClatchy, Carl Phillips, D. A. Powell, Reginald Shepherd, and David Trinidad. At the end of last year, the University of Wisconsin Press published Hennessy’s second collection of literary interviews, Our Deep Gossip: Conversations with Gay Writers on Poetry and Desire, which contains interviews with eight acclaimed poets: Edward Field, John Ashbery, Richard Howard, Aaron Shurin, Dennis Cooper, Cyrus Cassells, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Kazim Ali.
Although all of Hennessy’s interview subjects are gay male poets, they vary widely in age, racial and cultural background, and poetic style. This remarkable diversity, coupled with the frankness, sensitivity, keen perception, and literary knowledge that Hennessy brings to each of his interviews, makes his work an important and expansive record of gay American life and letters.
Outside of his collections, Hennessy has also contributed essays and interviews to the Huffington Post, GLBTQ.com, and the Poetry Foundation, and has published poems in numerous literary magazines, including Ploughshares, the Brooklyn Review, the Wisconsin Review, and Bloom. His debut poetry collection Love-In-Idleness, published in 2011 by Brooklyn Arts Press, was a finalist for the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry.
In our interview, Hennessy discusses his latest book, the queer “sensibility,” and his poetics.
You have been interviewing gay poets for over a decade. What inspired you to embark on this ambitious project, and do you have plans to continue this work into the future?
It all started when I was doing my MFA at Emerson College. I was part of the literary journal at Emerson that the grad students put together, and I had interviewed an author as part of that work. My mentor at Emerson [John Skoyles] said, “You know, you can do these interviews with poets and writers and send them out to other places beside the graduate student literature journal. You can do this as something that’s not just for your grad school experience; you can actually turn it into something that will really benefit you as a poet.” He was also trying to encourage me to grapple with my identity a little bit more. I was very hesitant to write about my gay life and feelings. It wasn’t that I was closeted, but it’s frustrating to bring a gay poem into a workshop and to be sort of vulnerable in that way. So we would have these conversations about my writing, about my sexuality, about the intersection of the two, and specifically how I might use the interview[s] to clarify some of those issues for myself as a writer.
So I said to myself, “This is a great idea!” I never even realized that I could just write a letter to a famous writer and say, “Hey, can I talk to you for an hour?” and transcribe [the interview] and send it out to a publication. It just never crossed my mind for some reason that this was something I could do beyond grad school. And so I decided to do it. I started to e-mail and write some of my favorite poets that were gay, and the more I did it the more I learned, and the more I did it the more I saw the worth of a project based around a group of gay poets and how that would allow different things to start to bubble up at the surface that were related to the overarching themes of identity and desire in poetry.
Reading Our Deep Gossip, I was struck by the close ties between queer American writers. John Ashbery was friends with Frank O’Hara, and Robert Duncan mentored Aaron Shurin. Richard Howard brought J. D. McClatchy into the spotlight, and the list goes on from there. Do you think these poets’ drive to support their fellow queer artists is rooted in their sexual orientation to some extent?
I think it has to be. It’s not something that’s extremely well studied. It’s something that I’m looking into as part of my dissertation. Some critics have written about a poetic community as a sexual community—Maria Damon is one of the scholars that I cite in my work—so I think it has to be. I don’t know how you can be part of a marginal group and not want to seek others out who are doing the same kind of work. It might not even be conscious; it might just be a practical, effective social reality that you’re a part of. But I do think there’s a sense of protection involved. I think there’s a sense of nurturing and finding poetic sustenance in people like you. It’s something that was probably [more significant] in the ‘50s and ‘60s than in the examples in [Our Deep Gossip]. The three poets that I’m looking at in my dissertation all were connected at some point, whether they visited each other or were important parts of [each other’s] poetic tutoring, but it was something that was part of becoming a gay poet. What was your relationship to not only the dead poets before you like Whitman, but [also], what was your relationship to the poets that were surrounding you? In Berkeley in the ’50s, you had Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and Robert Duncan. They would meet, and there was an actual community of gay poets. Same thing in Boston. John Wieners had connections to gay poets, and of course the New York School was full of gay poets, our most famous gay poets: John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara.
I can’t imagine, and I think we’d be naïve to imagine, that there wasn’t some worth found in these poets talking to each other. In our interview, John Ashbery says [the New York School poets] never really talked about being gay in their poetry, and certainly I believe him, but I don’t think you need to have articulate “meetings” about your identity to make it worthwhile for like-minded individuals to seek community. I think there’s a lot that still needs to be studied about it, [but] we have to be careful, because we don’t assume that all gay poets have the same sexual experiences, and the same sense of identity, and the same ideas of how identity and sexuality are linked. We can’t make that assumption. But if we have that in mind, I think it’s still a productive area to study.
Your interview subjects in Outside the Lines and Our Deep Gossip frequently reference queer poetic forefathers like Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, W.H. Auden, and Frank O’Hara. But other figures in poetry who were not gay men, like Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, also recur in the conversations. What makes their influence particularly significant to contemporary gay male poets?
I think there are certain poets who are going to be influential for any major poet. I think part of the poetic growth you have to go through necessitates that you take up a broad study. None of the poets I look at—and none of the poets I would really want to look at—would be so focused on just a specific kind of gay experience, or a specific kind of gay writing, that they wouldn’t want to bring in the great wealth of American literature. So I think that’s where people like Stevens come in. You have to deal with Stevens. Even if you’re not a writer connected to his kind of style, you still have to deal with Stevens. You still have to deal with Bishop. These are the sort of figures that you might have to reject as figures that are not in your own lineage, but you have to make that study first.
With Bishop it’s more interesting because she is so, so cited—probably 75 percent of the poets I’ve talked to cite her at some point. I find that interesting because here we have a woman who was queer, was lesbian, but really didn’t like to talk about it. So there’s something interesting to me about that, that even though her poems don’t often talk about sexuality explicitly, although some of them could be read that way, and she herself wasn’t interested in making a connection between her sexual identity and her poetry, she still resonates for so many gay men and gay poets. What that says to me is, sort of paradoxically, that this idea that identity in poetry is an important concept doesn’t need to be found simply in poems of gay desire, that there’s a texture or a resonance— sensibility maybe is the best word—that is produced in [the work of] a gay or queer poet that other gay or queer poets hear almost a dog-whistle kind of effect. And again, this risks essentializing gayness in a way that good postmodern [thinkers] and good queer theorists wouldn’t want to do, and I don’t mean to suggest that gayness is transhistorical or any of those kinds of ideas. Yet there is something to be said about this idea of a gay sensibility. It reoccurs too much in my conversations to sort of shuffle it off to the side and say, “Well, we can’t really talk about that. That’s not critically based in concepts of identity that we’re comfortable with.” And for me, as someone who also writes poetry, that’s one of the things that I’m most interested in. It’s undeniable to me that when I sit down with a poet—whether I know [the poet] is gay or not—that I somehow zero in on their use of pop culture, or their sensibility of refinement to their use of language, something…that actually speaks to me, to how I perceive the world as well, and how I perceive the world as a gay man.
David Halperin just wrote a book called How to Be Gay. He talks a lot about how we can ask this question of a gay sensibility without necessarily trapping ourselves in this idea that we all experience gayness the same way. I’m reading that now and it’s refreshing to hear somebody else talk about these issues, as a poet who writes about his gay experiences and thinks about [the notion of a gay sensibility] a lot. And I know from talking to a lot of gay friends who are poets that this is something that they think about too. But I don’t know; it doesn’t seem to be that explored critically as I would think it would be. I’m biased, but it seems like this really rich avenue of exploration to me.
Who has influenced your own work?
When I started studying poetry, it was Theodore Roethke, who was a poet from Michigan [where Hennessy also grew up]. His father owned greenhouses, and he writes a lot about the greenhouses and flowers and the earth. His poems are rich in description of those kinds of scenes, and [gardening] was something that my father also did, so I had a kinship with him. [Reading Roethke] was my first awakening to what language could do, probably. Then I took a class in women poets of the 20th century, and I really liked this idea of poetry as a way of carving out one’s own approach to language. The class talked about how the women poets of the twentieth century had to rethink language as [inherently phallocentric] and develop their own structures of feeling through poetry.
Bishop is an example of an influence. How she uses poetry to map out the process of perception was really attractive to me, and the control that she has over language is masterful. So Bishop is the second one. And then when I started to read gay poets more deeply, figures like Mark Doty started to be important to me. He writes about everything so beautifully, even tragedy and issues of real emotional trauma, and that paradox fascinated me. I thought, how is this man writing about things that are so horrifying and writing about them so beautifully and not creating a contradiction in the emotional response of his reader?
More recently I’ve been interested in the work of people like Aaron Shurin. [One of his poems] reworks Walt Whitman’s work in a way I thought was really experimental. It’s not something that I could ever do, but I started to see poets not as people that I should turn to for models of what I wanted to do, but as examples of what could be possible. So people like Shurin became really interesting to me. And I guess that’s the thing about influence: I try not to be influenced by only people who write like me. Roethke’s earlier poems were poems that I felt like I could write if given his talent and his decades of experience, but now I see influence as not simply modeling but responding to and reacting to, which I think is important. I think a lot of poets—I probably could get in trouble for saying this—but I worry that a lot of poets see poetry as whatever they’re doing, and if it’s not something they’re doing, if it’s not a kind of style they’re involved in, it’s somehow a lesser style. I really worry about that, because I think you have to read widely and you have to take up a bunch of different styles—at least think about different styles—in order to grow as a poet.
And I guess that’s another reason why I wanted to make sure that the books represented that wide range of formal styles and really all kinds of diversity. The diversity in the books isn’t just stylistic diversity. It’s geographic, it’s racial, it’s age; it’s really as wide as a range of poets as I could get, and that’s really purposeful. I really don’t think it’s productive to view poetry as a school that you’re a part of, and everything else isn’t worth study. I don’t know if a lot of people do that, I just worry that it might be something that people assume, once they have a solidified style, that they can jettison all the other styles. I don’t think there’s ever a reason to do that.
Some of the poems in Love-In-Idleness, like “A Split Secret” seem to almost fill in the queer spaces of history that textbooks often neglect. The language and sensibility of these poems, however, is often quite contemporary:
Caesar’s loyal archers were close.
Shaking, I blessed the arrow
I would send to his heart:
the first shot a prayer
for an instant, perfect death.
But I could neither hear nor see,
the buzz of last night’s sex
still trilling in my brain.
What draws you to write about the past in these terms, and do you think that, in poetry, history can provide us with insights into the present?
I’m drawn to this idea of appropriating these older stories and turning them into a way to understand my own sexuality. So that whole second section of Love-In-Idleness is an experiment in taking up received stories and these old myths that we have heard and seeing what happens when we put a same-sex desire at the center of them, seeing how we can make them new.
I talked with Reginald Shepherd about this in my interview with him in Outside the Lines. He basically said that you can’t just re-inhabit the myth. You can, but that won’t really add anything to it. You have to do something new with it that hasn’t been done before. The easy answer, of course, is just sort of putting in, injecting, or substituting same-sex desire where it might not have been before, but I wanted also to update them through the language that I used too. So trying to convey a contemporary feel to the poems was part of the equation as well. Plus, it’s how I write. I thought it would be strange to try to use a different voice, I guess. That’s how I see those poems: trying to use those older stories—to be honest, for my own benefit—to deepen and complicate this idea of sexuality, so that it’s not simply using the poem as the lyric “I,” but sort of…trying to re-instill in those voices something new and something maybe transgressive and just seeing what happens.
Your poetry displays a keen attention to the details of the natural world. Eggs, morels, and of course the love-in-idleness flower are dominant motifs throughout your poetry. In “Love Poem to Carl Linnaeus,” categorizing the natural world actually becomes an erotic act:
Write across my body syllables
of fauna and flora, a patina of Latin
taxonomy etched onto my back.
Each -us, -it, and –ate
makes me stiff as the ivory bill
of the Campephilus principalis.
Hard as Rhinoceros unicornis
and Rhinoceros sondaicus.
Let’s do it like lepus californicus,
bay at the scarlet moon like canis lupus,
and eat our luxurious binomials.
I think it’s just a delightful passage!
Yes! What draws you to these biological subjects?
The language, honestly! Even the term “binomial”—there’s something so sexy about that term. That poem originated [when] I was listening to something on the radio about Linnaeus. I knew a little bit about [him], but I started hearing all these details of his life and his studies, and every detail was this really interesting word. So I started to find myself really attracted just to the language that was being used to talk about Linnaeus. And, sort of quickly from then on, it seemed like a great idea for a poem to write this love letter to him, using language as our sort of connective tissue—that’s probably not the right word—using language as a come-on, basically! This is something I’m really interested in, generally: the idea of poetry as a device for sexual connection. Not just readerly connection, but more specifically a sexual connection. Walt Whitman talks a lot about this in his poems, and gay poets throughout the twentieth century have talked about it, so it’s nothing new, but it struck me as a really interesting idea of playing with language in such a kooky way with Linnaeus that the way in which you sort of luxuriate in the sounds of the words becomes sort of a come-on. It’s funny, because I could imagine doing similar things with other people. Linnaeus just happened to be somebody who seemed ready-made for that kind of idea.
What you just said reminds me of your conversation with Wayne Koestenbaum in Our Deep Gossip, where he talks about the idea of having sex with language.
[Reading from the interview] “Poetry is pornography. I am demonstrating to you how tasty I think words are. I’m having sex with words in front of you. I’m playing around with them. I’m getting off. I’m trying to titillate you. There’s this magical substance, language, that I’m laying out for you. Then you’re going to fondle it.” It’s just awesome. [Koestenbaum] is so, so smart, but he also is not afraid of pushing ideas to really far-out places. I always have been completely willing to follow him wherever he goes with his thinking, because that’s just the kind of figure he is. But I think you’re right. I think that there’s a definite connection between that poem that’s playing with words and this idea of how poetry itself, because it’s so centered in the ambiguity and the musicality and the associative quality of language, is the perfect place to make this association or connection between sex and language. It’s really the perfect genre for talking about how we can think about that reader-poet relationship as a sexual relationship.
The past year has been historic for queer rights and visibility, especially with the Supreme Court’s striking down of DOMA and the gradual spread of gay marriage across the United States. Has gay poetry caught up yet to these monumental political changes, and do you feel any responsibility as a gay poet to examine them in your work? I’m thinking of “Epithalamion” from Love-In-Idleness, which I read a lovely portrait of queer domestic life.
I think in some sense gay poetry doesn’t need to catch up. I think it’s been talking about these issues longer than we might realize. Cyrus Cassells has a poem that he wrote about gay marriage back in 1997 [“Amalgam,” from Beautiful Signor] when I imagine such an idea would have been would have been much less valued. So I think gay poets, in some sense, have been talking about some of these issues for longer than we realize.
Let’s take, for example, the issue of gay marriage. It’s a tricky issue, gay marriage, because in some sense it’s upholding, as you say, this heteronormative ideal. Recently queer poets and queer writers [have been asking], do we really want to buy into something that we were for so long excluded from, and do we want to buy into something that culturally may actually need to be interrogated a little more rigorously and not simply accepted as an ideal? I’m married [in October 2013], so obviously I think it does have worth to it and I think it is an important commitment to make to a partner. But nevertheless, we can critique marriage as a heteronormative ideal. We can critique the gay movement’s rush to this particular issue.
Now that being said, I think one of the great things about writing poetry about gay marriage is you don’t have to write a political poem about it. You don’t have to write a programmatic poem that spells out in a specific way your rationale for getting married. The more associative qualities that [poetry] evokes, the ambiguity that it relies on—these elements of poetry can create a space in which these issues are talked about in a more productive way. In the poem that you mentioned, there’s nothing about the poem, really, that suggests a marriage. It’s simply in that title, and the title then becomes a kind of ironizing of the epithalamion, because it’s not a marriage song. It’s a marriage song in the sense that waking up together with your partner and making a breakfast together in the morning sunlight is a marriage, and so it really seeks to redefine what the term “marriage” means, and I think that’s a much more productive and interesting exercise than using poetry to sort of create these very political, rhetorical arguments. Traditionally, poetry that has sought to do that has fallen into the dustbin of history. A lot of people look back to the poetry of the Vietnam era, and say that some of that poetry hasn’t stood the test of time because it was more interested in making a political message than it was interested in the art of poetry. So I think you have to be critical of the issues that the gay community is pushing forward, and not simply blindly accept them as a poet, and then also [you have] to play with these issues a little more freely, and to not write a poetry of boosterism or sort of toe the gay party line, but use poetry to think through the issues as [you understand them] as a poet, and to make the poem then an individual expression rather than a sort of party line.
Where do you feel that you belong within the tradition of queer poetry that you’ve been exploring within your work? How are you constructing a space for yourself as a queer American poet?
I do think I have a sense of the contribution I want to make as I continue to interview and work and publish and write, and it’s this idea of intersection of sexuality and writing. I would like to continue to use my poetry and my critical work to ask questions about how one’s sense of themselves influences their poetic voice, their linguistic sensibilities, even their political sensibilities. More so the formal aspects of poetry is what I’m interested in. As a gay writer, I’d like to use my poetry to continue to think about how desire is translated into formal structures….
I think poetry has a really special place in literature to do this kind of work. I don’t have any easy answers when it comes to desire. I think easy answers when it comes to things like desire and identity and sexuality are dangerous answers, and poetry for me has always been a space to complicate and to make complex and to make mysterious and to make alien—to make the familiar unfamiliar, in a sense. And what better space to talk about these issues that are so integral to who we are—and, in some sense, not so well understood—what better space than poetry to do that?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
 Koestenbaum’s ideas derive from The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes.