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OUTSIDE the LINES
Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets
By CHRISTOPHER HENNESSY
The University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2005
University of Michigan
All right reserved.
Chapter One Thom Gunn
Perhaps the best testament to poet Thom Gunn is not awards won or honors achieved or number of books published (though he scores on all accounts), but the number of poets who count him a major influence and cite his poems as models of excellence. If that's what is valued, then Gunn's body of work is truly one of our greatest treasures.
Born and raised in Kent, England, Gunn moved to San Francisco in 1954 and held a one-year fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied with the American poet Yvor Winters. He went on to produce a highly respected, prolific, and emotionally authentic body of work. Gunn published his last volume, Boss Cupid, in 2000.
In the following interview, Gunn discusses his life and experiences as a gay poet in the United States. He talks about writing at a time when poets couldn't announce their homosexuality, about how coming out can serve a writer, and about how his view of desire was informed by his sexual discovery. He recalls his friendship with Robert Duncan and remembers a minor epiphany he experienced as he passed a lit joint to Elizabeth Bishop at a San Francisco poetry reading. And he candidly offers stories about some of his poems, discussing the sexual sense of "will" in his first two books, how his poems were colored by his "defiant" belief that homosexuality was a choice (a notion he later rejected), how he wrote one of his books in part to prove to a critic that "good poetry could be written out of [homosexuality]."
A poet renowned for chronicling the AIDS plague years and their aftermath, Gunn also poignantly recalls the years when desire and death were suddenly, obviously linked in his poems, as in his life. Thinking back to a particular poem, he recalls how he wrote the seminal "The Man with Night Sweats" (from the collection of the same title) late at night when he couldn't sleep:
I wake up cold, I who Prospered through dreams of heat Wake to their residue, Sweat, and a clinging sheet.
My flesh was its own shield: Where it was gashed, it healed.
I grew as I explored The body I could trust Even while I adored The risk that made robust,
A world of wonders in Each challenge to the skin.
I cannot but be sorry The given shield was cracked My mind reduced to hurry, My flesh reduced and wrecked.
I have to change the bed, But catch myself instead
Stopped upright where I am Hugging my body to me As if to shield it from The pains that will go through me, As if hands were enough To hold an avalanche off.
Gunn published more than thirty books of poetry in the United States and Britain, including Collected Poems (1994); The Man with Night Sweats (1992), for which he received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; The Passages of Joy (1983); Selected Poems 1950-1975 (1979); Jack Straw's Castle (1976); To the Air (1974); Moly (1971); My Sad Captains (1961); Touch (1968); and The Sense of Movement (1959). He also wrote the essay collections The Occasions of Poetry (1999) and Shelf Life (1993). His honors included a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. He taught at the University of California in Berkeley.
Gunn spoke via telephone from his home in San Francisco in December 2003.
* * *
Christopher Hennessy: One thing I'm always struck by in your work is the speaker's intense gaze-a gaze often focused on soldiers, toughs, heroes, "the Boys." And you talk about that gaze in poems like "A GI in 1943" (Boss Cupid):
... Power as beauty, beauty power, that is all my cock knew or cared to know, taught by the focusing eye, as it isolated the god from the crowd....
Is the gaze as an erotic act something you've been trying to explore, perhaps ever since My Sad Captains?
Thom Gunn: I would say even before, perhaps. That ["A GI in 1943"] was a serious moment of autobiography.
CH: So is this part of your project, trying to turn the gaze into an erotic act?
TG: I think as humans we do that, don't we? That's what pornographic film is all about. We look at things and think about what we've looked at. We treasure it in a kind of private art gallery.
CH: This makes me wonder if observation, especially observation of male beauty or power, is where poems like "A GI in 1943" originate for you.
TG: Many of my poems are not sexual, but this poem is.
CH: Did you notice any structural changes in how you composed a poem during the process of coming out? Did your writing change as you became more open?
TG: I really don't know. I try not to observe myself in the process of composing a poem because I don't want to come up with a formula, which I would then be unscrupulous in using. I would just be manufacturing a poem. I like it to come out as a surprise to myself.
Edmund White said at one stage that he thought coming out in public was good for any writer's work. It was for mine because the subject matter is so much greater. You can never write about anything after having censored yourself widely enough-during the fifties and sixties, in my case.
When I first started to write, I was aware of being queer, but I didn't write about it because queer poems would probably not have been accepted by the editors I sent them to, and I probably would never have gotten to the United States to join my lover. There were real fears of being too open in the fifties, and I can think of very few writers who braved them. One of them was Robert Duncan, whom I didn't meet until the late sixties, and another was Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg's Collected Poems contains a wonderful poem about making it with Neal Cassady-I think it's called "Many Loves." It's in the Collected Poems with a note that says it was not printed at the time it was written "for reasons of prudence and modesty," so he had to deal with caution as well.
When I first started teaching at Berkeley in 1958, I could not announce that I was gay to anybody, though probably quite a few of my fellow teachers knew. It was difficult being a teacher and out of the closet then. But by the time I retired, the English department was proud of having a gay poet of a certain minor fame-such fame that poets have. So it was a very satisfactory change!
CH: Of course, though you were born and raised in England, your life in America is vividly reflected in the poems. (If I recall, it was after your move here that you felt open to trying syllabics and then free verse.) Is there something idiomatic or structural that's entered the work?
TG: I'm not really the best person to answer this question. I don't know how to sit outside myself and test against a hypothetical self who stayed home.
CH: I was looking at two of your poems written across the span of twenty years, "Modes of Pleasure" (My Sad Captains) and "The Miracle" (Passages of Joy), which I really enjoy [Gunn laughs heartily]. Well, it's a great poem. Let me cite a bit:
'Then suddenly he dropped down on one knee Right by the urinal in his only suit And let it fly, saying Keep it there for me, And smiling up. I can still see him shoot. Look at that snail-track on the toe of my boot.'
That's certainly sexually open! But in some ways I see "Modes of Pleasure," though coded, as just as open and connected to the queer experience. When you were writing that older poem, was there a way in which you tried to be as open as possible with form or technique?
TG: I was reading the poems of Rochester [John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a major poet of the seventeenth century] at the time I wrote "Modes of Pleasure," so that might have something to do with it. I saw this poem as being a bit like Rochester's, though they probably aren't at all [alike]. Rochester made himself out to be bisexual, but I think that was only to shock. Most of his poetry is sexual, even pornographic.
"The Miracle" came about in a funny way. It was based on an anecdote: I knew this very attractive guy who was leaving San Francisco. I went up to a friend of his at a bar and said, I guess so-and-so has left, and his friend replied that on the way to the airport, he was so hot that they stopped off someplace at the public toilet and had sex for the last time. The poem itself is similar in tone to a late poem by Thomas Hardy called "Her Second Husband Hears Her Story," which is contained in his last collection, called Winter Words. It's quite wonderfully grotesque. A woman in bed with her second husband tells him a story about her first husband, who had a way of coming home drunk and raping her. She didn't like this, so she decided to take measures. She's a very good seamstress, so when her first husband came home and passed out on the bed, she sewed him into the bed. In the process, she inadvertently stifled him, and he died of asphyxiation. She does most of the talking in this poem, but I think there's just one phrase from the second husband that goes, "Well, it's a cool queer tale!" which I use as the epigraph to my last book as a kind of joke. I use "queer" in quite a different sense.
It's a wonderful poem. It's probably the only good poem from that last book. He was in his nineties when he wrote it, after all.
CH: The Man with Night Sweats has become a touchstone book, praised by many for taking on the plague years in a highly emotional but unsentimental way. Did you have guides to help you achieve that balance? Were there poets who influenced you? Perhaps form was a guide?
TG: Donald Davie was someone whom I eventually got to know in the sixties and seventies, shortly before his death. He was consistently supportive, very kind to me, but he was very against queers. He knew I was queer; he never lectured me about it, but he spoke to other people with distaste for it. He reviewed one or two of my books, one of which was Passages of Joy. In his review, he said that he had admired the other books because they adhered to traditions of English poetry, but he couldn't admire Passages of Joy because it advocated homosexuality. He saw gay liberation, as it was then called, as being absolutely unhistorical and so dwarfing potentially my own poetry. Part of The Man with Night Sweats was to show him [that] what I hoped he would admit was good poetry could be written out of this kind of sexuality. In conversations, he admitted that I had made a point. I thought his point of view was strangely ridiculous. He was not a ridiculous man-he was a good thinker and a good critic-but so many people from Sappho onward were open about being queer and wrote good poetry.
CH: I also notice that desire and death are linked in that book.
TG: It was so obvious during those years with AIDS. I hadn't thought of them as connected before. I don't think of sex as a self-destructive impulse, but I do view it that way in one or two poems in [The Man with Night Sweats], like "The Stealer."
CH: Critics have said you often use end rhyme to balance out emotional content with the measure of form, "the steady drum tap accompanying a coffin to its cemetery," as Henri Cole puts it. I feel that in poems like "Lament" (The Man with Night Sweats), the rhyme paradoxically accentuates the emotion: "And so you slept, and died, your skin gone grey, / Achieving your completeness, in a way." It's so simple, seemingly effortlessly chosen, that it's at odds with the complexity of the idea. Are you aware of modes where rhyme accentuates and controls the content?
TG: I think it has to. It's not simply a decoration that could be subtracted from the poem. I wrote that poem about the death-which was very close at hand-of one of my best friends who died of AIDS. After he found out he was HIV positive, he came to stay in San Francisco to be in a city with good hospitals. After about two or three weeks, as I say in the poem, we had to take him to the emergency room, and a couple weeks later he was dead. It was very sudden and very violent.
You know, we were a charmed generation. Unlike our parents, we grew up with antibiotics and stuff like that. We hadn't had to suffer the deaths of our schoolmates from things like scarlet fever. We'd been spared all that. Then AIDS hit us. I had assumed that I would age with all my friends growing old around me, dying off very gradually one by one. And here was a plague that cut them off so early. I was thinking about this afresh last night, seeing the second part of Tony Kushner's play [Angels in America] on TV.
I started working on the poem a day or two after [my friend's] death. And I wrote it to serve my thoughts for a few weeks while I was writing it. If I couldn't go to sleep, I'd think of the next few lines or some revision. So it was written very much in the heat of the event, which is not always true.
CH: So when you were writing those poems, and the emotional stakes were so high, did you turn to rhythms and rhyme as a way of keeping the strong emotional content in check?
TG: I suppose so. I would have said at the time that I was using rhyme and meter because I work best in rhyme and meter. I was most confident of myself in that way. I didn't think of them as a series until very much toward the end. They came out one by one. I was writing about things that matter to me-about the people disappearing all around me. I never thought about it being a single continuing work, but that, in fact, is what it was.
CH: You've talked about writing the poems of Moly before and their connection to the use of LSD. I'm struck by the poems' intense alertness to sound and an insistent rhyme and the punctuations of rhythm, with language reminiscent of Hart Crane in some respects: "The full caught pause of their embrace." Did writing those poems radically change how you view rhyme and meter, perhaps even language itself?
TG: It was a book practically dedicated to LSD. I think there is a kind of inevitable consistency in a group of poems that you write over five to ten years that end up in a book. You didn't mean for them to have this consistency, but your mind, your imagination, had this consistency. They're not just a selection of poems randomly written-they do have connections that you never even suspected.
Hugh Haughton, a critic who reviewed The Man with Night Sweats, said that the whole of that book was held together by the image of the embrace. I thought, "Surely not!" But poem after poem, from the first poem onward, the book had this as a lasting image, and I hadn't even been aware of it.
CH: Let's look at the mind and body in your work. I notice that when you discuss the body in your poems, you often are also talking about the mind: "A separate place between the thought and felt" ("The Corridor," from The Sense of Movement). And in "A Sketch of Great Dejection" (The Man with Night Sweats), you write:
My body insisted on restlessness having been promised love, as my mind insisted on words having been promised the imagination.
How thin the distance made you. In your cheek One day, appeared the true shape of your bone No longer padded. Still your mind, alone, Explored this emptying intermediate State for what holds and rests were hidden in it. -("Lament," The Man with Night Sweats)
Has it been important for you to explore how mind and body are linked-and yet still separate?
TG: I do think of them as operating separately, but in relation to each other-sometimes even against each other. It's a simple way of thinking, and many people wouldn't approve of it-D. H. Lawrence probably wouldn't-but I think that's what we do inevitably.
I've never really thought about this consciously, except insofar as to accept your formulation of the two being separate in my poetry. I would think, though, that they are commonly enough separate in most people's minds. "Well, I had this hard-on, but I thought it unwise to fuck him, because I knew he had AIDS," for example, is an obvious case of the mind and body working against each other-of the mind very wisely censoring the body. CH: Were there poets who influenced you in this regard, poets who also write about the mind/body problem?
TG: I can't think of many poets, except, obviously, Shakespeare.
CH: Your exploration of "will" has also been much discussed-
TG: I should tell you something. When I was an undergraduate, I had very badly annotated editions of Shakespeare's sonnets, all of which left out the important fact that "will" [has] a sexual sense in Shakespeare's sonnets. I had no idea of that. Obviously there [is] a sexual connotation to it, like in my first two books, Fighting Terms and Sense of Movement, but I didn't know this until the sixties. I was constantly rereading the sonnets without giving the word "will" any primary sexual sense.
Excerpted from OUTSIDE the LINES by CHRISTOPHER HENNESSY
Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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