Congratulations on winning the 2022 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House! Where were you when you found out?
Thanks! I have a Queer film night with some friends that meets regularly, so I was at the apartment of those friends, when the previous winner (Steven Leyva) called to tell me the news. Because I stepped out of the room to take the call, and because I was out for a bit as he gave me the details, and because at some point I blurted out “Oh my god!,” the whole group assumed it was call about some sort of bad news. I returned to concerned friends asking “everything okay?”, so it was nice to return with great news instead.
Had you sent your manuscript out to many places before?
Oh yeah. Mostly other contests, which is the way that a lot of poetry collections get published (and, interestingly enough, the way my first book was published too). This manuscript had been out for at least a year when it got picked up. Probably longer.
Although that is a pretty standard experience for most writers, it was new to me, because I had unbelievable luck with the first book. It had been out for only a few weeks when it got picked up. I am lucky to have been prepared early with a good understanding of the industry, good enough to know that the experience with Out of Step was an anomaly. Because of that, I was able to prepare for the second book to take a bit longer to find a home.
I’m interested in the narrator in these poems that comes from a place a certitude and fierceness. How do you see the narrator in these poems? Coming from a place of resilience or bravery?
That’s so interesting! I don’t think I’d ever describe the speaker(s) of my poems as coming from a place of certitude. Maybe certain persona poems, like “Wrath of a Queer God,” but mostly my speaker(s) in this book is lost, lost and trying to figure out what to do with oneself (any part of oneself) when the world feels as apocalyptic as it does. Hopefully resilient? I’m less sure about brave. Honestly, more anxious than anything else—anxious and trying to find something beautiful.
What are some ways in which you celebrate queerness in your writing?
What I hope is that readers see that every poem of mine is queer, even the ones that aren’t about the body, gender or desire. I mean, there’s a lot of the body, gender and desire in these poems, but there’s also plenty of nods to queer culture(s): poetry, music, narrative, celebrity. There’s also a sense that the poems collectively want to be everything all at once—sincere & camp, beautiful & terrifying, sexy & repentant—which I think, for some reason, is very queer.
How do you want your readers to think of the “You Cannot Save Here” poems? Were most of these written during the early months of the pandemic?
Not at all! I had been working on these poems for a couple of years before the pandemic hit. I’ve been (only half joking) saying that I was writing poems about the end of the world when the world ended in March 2020.
I want readers to see the repetition of that title and consider how the meaning shifts in each new context. I hope they reflect on repetition and what it means. I also want them to consider how the repetition of the title parallels the experience of a 24-news (and social media) cycle that constantly and instantly tells us of each new disaster. At some point, readers may stop even reading the title because they’ve heard it so many times; they know it’s there, so why bother reading it again. It becomes familiar, so they tune it out, just as we sometimes do with the seemingly never-ending news of collapse.
How do you see the three sections of your book? Was it difficult to find a sequence for these poems?
A bit! The first section includes a lot of the apocalyptic vibes we were feeling prior to the pandemic, and the third section is written mostly during. In between them, you have me reflecting on a lot of apocalyptic stories across media—the influence of television, film, games, the radio, etc. on my understanding of the end times.
How conscience is gender while you were writing these poems?
I think about gender every day. All the time. It’s part of the fuel that every poem burns. The same goes for my prose and my scholarly work. Everything I’ve ever written is about gender.
In your poem “Fruit of the Unenclosed Land,” you write “I no longer want to be the sort who shotguns the wolf because she shows her teeth.” Could you talk about the concerns in this poem or the form, or, perhaps the language?
Yeah, that poem in particular is tied to gender, and the violence that the world encourages men and boys to embody. For me personally, that also includes an interrogation of my history as a soldier, and what I am meant to do with that history now as a poet and an educator. More than a literal reading though, the line is about how violence is the enactment of fear. I’m not trying to fetishize nonviolence, but I do think that we should consider that violence is not a show of strength, as some men would like to believe; it is a failure.
And as a whole, the poem is also exploring a connects between that masculinity, that violence and the selfishness tucked into western conceptions of individualism.
Many of your poems concern human’s effect on the environment. Is this something that pushes you in your work?
Absolutely. Though none of the work is “nature poetry,” I would say that some of it is ecopoetry, in that it is focusing on our impact on the world around us. Poet & scholar John Shoptaw says that ecopoetry is poetry that is urgent and “unsettles” when it discusses the world around us. I hope my poems do that, even if my “environment” is mostly the city and what lives here.
I talked about this a bit in an interview I did with LPR when the manuscript was first being developed. We’re past the climate disaster tipping point: so what does that mean for us, as both poets and as people? How can that terrifying news not be a part of every new poem that is written, even love poems, or dog poems, or poems of home?
What advice do you have for writers to develop language and craft?
I think almost every poet would say that the best thing anyone can do to develop one’s craft is to read more poetry. Obviously. It expands our understanding of the possibilities of verse.
So I’d just add two related things:
1) pursue commentary about poems too. What do people do with them? What do people think they are for? Listening to people talk about poems is another opportunity to expand one’s understanding of poetry’s possibilities. One can find this in craft essays, workshops or book reviews. Lately, I personally find a lot of this in conversations about poems on poetry podcasts.
2) Listen to poems. Poetry is foremost a spoken art. The page followed the voice. Hearing poems aloud helps a poet further develop a sense of sound and its possibilities.
If there was one thing that you would like your readers to take away from the You Cannot Save Here, what would it be?
The book is about more than disaster—it’s about joy during times of disaster, self during times of disaster, love & sex during times of disaster. It’s about looking toward what comes after, and how each plan we make for collapse is an optimism about that after.