Straightforward and Candid
An Interview with Poet David Trinidad
by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2015 by Bryan R. Monte and David Trinidad.
All rights reserved.
David Trinidad is a professor of creative writing and poetry at Columbia College in Chicago. He is the solo author of twelve books of poetry, the co-author of another four, the co-editor of the poetry anthology Saints of Hysteria, a former editor of the literary journal Court Green, and the editor of the works of poets Ann Stanford and Tim Dlugos.
Bryan R. Monte: My first question, David, is that with all your projects and duties, how do you ever find time to write?
David Trinidad: When I was younger it was quite a struggle. I never seemed to have time to write. Or if I did, the actual writing was difficult. I felt such pressure to produce. It’s not something I fret about anymore, thankfully. My teaching job and editorial/scholarly projects feed, rather than hinder, my creativity. Writing, reading, editing, teaching—they all work together.
BM: Do you consciously make time to write poetry or does it burst into your life of its own volition?
DT: It can happen both ways. I’m fairly disciplined. I like to work in the morning, for four or five hours, but not necessarily every day. Poems can happen in one sitting or stretch over many days, even weeks or months. Once a poem is in motion, it’s always there, in the back of my mind. I can’t really rest until it’s finished. Words and lines will come to me as I’m trying to sleep; I have to keep turning on the light and jotting them down. I’ll wake up the next morning with more words and lines, as if I’d been working on the poem in my sleep.
BM: How old were you when you first started to write poetry?
DT: I wrote some poems when I was child, but didn’t really start writing it seriously until I was eighteen or so.
BM: Was there a specific person who sparked you to write poetry for the first time?
DT: As an undergraduate at California State University, Northridge, I took Introduction to Literature with Ann Stanford. I had no idea she was a well-known poet. She showed us an example of found poetry. I was intrigued by the idea that you could take an existing text and make a poem out of it. She said she’d give us credit for one of our assignments if we wanted to try our hand at it. So I went home that night and opened the Los Angeles Times to an article about Marilyn Monroe’s death and formed a poem out of some of the sentences. I called it “With a Phone in Her Hand.” Ann liked it, and that gave me the courage to try other poems. I still have it; it’s the oldest poem I kept from those days. That was in 1972.
BM: When did you first know you wanted to be a poet?
DT: I never presumed that I was, or could be a poet. Or even wanted to be one. I wanted to be a writer, but assumed I would write short stories and novels. When I was twenty-one, something magical happened: I wrote my first real poem. It seized me, came through me very quickly and forcefully. I was exhilarated and astounded. Even though I’d been writing poems for a few years, this one was markedly different. I knew something significant had happened. It was like I’d been switched to a higher voltage. After that, all I wanted was to replicate that experience. I really wanted to be a poet.
BM: Who were some of your favourite poets (both dead and living) as you were learning your craft? What did you learn particularly from these poets and their works?
DT: Anne Sexton was the first poet I seriously connected with. I discovered her work in 1975, just months after her death. Her books were everywhere then. I came across Love Poems in the poetry section of the B. Dalton Books at Northridge Fashion Center. I bought it, took it home, starting reading it, and was hooked. I devoured all of her books, one right after another. Sylvia Plath was very important to me, too. She was also pretty ubiquitous at that time. Through Plath, I learned about Ted Hughes. Ann Stanford was my teacher at Northridge, so I studied her books on my own. She was friends with May Swenson, so I read her as well. Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara were on my radar—I loved those City Lights pocket books. I learned a great deal from these poets. All of them had an honesty and directness that I responded to. Each created a world I could believe in and inhabit. I related to the feelings, no matter how different their experiences were from mine. They made me want to contribute something of my own, something of my self. That was key, the authentic autobiographical nature of their work.
BM: You’ve said that you studied writing with Ann Stanford at college. What did you learn from her? For example, what were one or two specific insights she gave you about your writing and the direction it could take?
DT: I think more than anything it was her clarity and her simplicity. She says what she has to say so precisely, so perfectly, with just the right words. She taught me that you don’t have to overdo it. No need to force your viewpoint or knock the reader over the head with your truth. I also learned from her example what kind of poet I wanted to be in the world. She wrote and edited and published and did readings, but without a big ego. The work was what was important. If your poems were good, you didn’t have to promote them. Publish them, yes. But let them do their work. Poems don’t require fanfare. Ann was widely published, had won numerous awards. Late in life, she told an interviewer that being widely published and winning awards was gratifying to the ego, but not helpful to the soul. That was very telling, very instructive.
BM: Name two or three of your poems from your early, formative years that you still regard highly and explain why.
DT: Of all of my early poems, “The Boy” sticks out. I feel like that’s my voice: straightforward, candid. Language not terribly dressed up. Looking back with longing. I can still read “The Peasant Girl” and “Night and Fog” without cringing. They seem like my voice too, though both are a bit in overdrive. That’s something I often do: get revved up and try to fit as much as possible into a poem. “The Boy” seems purer to me.
BM: It’s interesting that you mention these three poems, because they’re all in your first book Pavane, which I think is a good mix of classical subjects and teenage/young adult homoangst. “Night and Fog” is a great critique of ’70s gay San Francisco, especially how the South of Market scene messed up your friend. How did go from there to your poem “Meet the Supremes,” with its long list of girl groups, in Monday, Monday, your next book, a thread which has continued in your poetry to the present?
DT: There’s actually a gap of seven years between those two poems, during which there was a shift in my writing. But I’d contend that those poems are not really that different. “Night and Fog” is a kind of list, or a litany. “Meet the Supremes” is also a list, or catalog, of girl singers and groups. The former is more direct, in the handling of the deterioration of a friendship. The latter deals with my own downward spiral and alcoholism, but is less direct. All the pop songs about heartbreak are intertwined with the deeper angst of the speaker.
BM: Did moving back to L.A. from San Francisco have anything to do with this change in your writing?
DT: It did, though not immediately. I later became friends with other young poets in Los Angeles and I was exposed to the work of the New York School poets.
BM: Was there some sort of retro-hippie movement going on in L.A. at the time that inspired you to write the poems in Monday, Monday?
DT: I’d say it was more of a “youth movement.” I was hanging out with poets like Dennis Cooper and Amy Gerstler. Dennis created a lively scene at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice. Others in the scene included Bob Flanagan, Ed Smith, Kim Rosenfield, Jack Skelley, Michelle T. Clinton, and Benjamin Weissman. We gave readings, published books and magazines. Dennis had Little Caesar, Jack had Barney, I had Sherwood Press. Through Dennis, I met poets from other parts of the country, like Tim Dlugos in New York and Elaine Equi in Chicago. We were all in our twenties. There was a brashness about these poets and their work, an urbanity and wit, and openness to the pop culture we’d all grown up with. I found it very exciting.
BM: How do you respond to some critics who say that some of your poems list too many things? That sometimes they are only lists or synopses of TV shows or toy descriptions, such as “Monster Mash,” “The Ten Best Episodes of The Patty Duke Show,” and “Essay with Movable Parts,” which they feel don’t really make them poems?
DT: Aside from the joy of list making, I would say that in the poems you mention there were specific conceptual concerns at work. “Monster Mash,” for instance, is both a list of monster movies and a traditional rhymed sonnet. The payoff, for me, was in the juxtaposition of the two. I don’t feel I need to defend the list poem. It has a long and respectable tradition. I guess I like to play around with the form, see how far I can stretch it, what I can make lists do. Some results are more mundane than others. But some have a kind of sparkle.
BM: In Monday, Monday, you also wrote a lot of poems in narrow columns. How did you “discover” this short, poetic line set in columnar stanzas, which you’ve continued to use in your poems?
DT: Poets I admired used that form a lot—Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Dennis Cooper and other friends. I was drawn to it, perhaps, because it seemed less artificial than the stanzas—tercets and quatrains and whatnot—that I’d mostly used in college. Those evenly chopped up stanzas suddenly struck me as bookish. The narrow column—or tube—felt freer and more natural, better suited to a colloquial way of writing.
BM: In your next book, Hand Over Heart (1991), in “November,” you continue with these long, thin poems and references to TV series. Even though the poem seems to be primarily about what its characters consume and their addictions, there’s also the issue of bringing a boyfriend home for Thanksgiving in the 1980s. Why did you choose to talk about this situation using so many references to popular culture?
DT: “November” is a diary poem in which I tried to capture precisely what was going on in my life during that one month in 1985. Whatever pop references are in the poem, those are things that just happened to be there, in front of me, so I faithfully recorded them. There’s one section where we’re watching a Twilight Zone marathon on TV, so I give synopses of several episodes. During that period, I relished putting kitsch in my poems.
BM: Is it because you feel that life is random, boring and banal and that you found more wisdom in TV shows or old films or are you trying to say something else?
DT: Well, again, I was trying to be accurate, faithful to what I was actually experiencing. It wasn’t so much random—it’s not like I put everything in. It was what caught my attention, what I thought beautiful or interesting, even if it was mundane. I admit there was an element of chance: something would appear or happen and I’d think, “Oh, I should put that in the poem.” I thought of those as happy accidents or gifts, though not devoid of meaning.
BM: In Answer Song (1994), in “Driving Back from New Haven,” your line changes and suddenly becomes longer, more focused and intimate as you converse with Tim Dlugos, who has AIDS. In the poem you report what Tim says—“I resent that we were not raised with / an acceptance of death” and “I resent that we do not know how to die”—without any popular culture references or evasions. I’d like to know how you composed this poem and if you were conscious of theses changes?
DT: I feel it’s in keeping with my style at that time. It’s not that much of a departure. My language is deliberately free of adornment. It wasn’t an easy poem to write—my friend was terminally ill. I remember thinking I wanted it to simply be a snapshot of that moment. If I could pare it down to the bare minimum, maybe the gravity of the situation would speak for itself. And I wanted to let Tim voice his anger in the poem, just as he had in the car.
BM: Of course as any gay man who came out in the ’70s, I need to talk to you about the effect of the AIDS epidemic on your writing. What are the poems you’ve written about the epidemic?
DT: I’ve written elegies to Tim Dlugos and Joe Brainard, friends who both died of AIDS. And I write about a number of men I knew in “AIDS Series.” I took some hits from critics in the nineties; they felt I wasn’t writing enough about the epidemic. I resented that. Just because I’m gay I have to write about AIDS? You can’t tell an artist what to write about. In truth, it was too painful—all these men of my generation dying. It took me many years to be able to face it, address such loss in my work.
BM: Which one do you feel is your most successful in capturing that era and your feelings?
DT: “AIDS Series,” I suppose. It’s in nine sections. Each section is about a particular man that I knew. After I wrote it, I felt very strongly that I had paid some sort of debt, balanced some sort of karma.
BM: Answer Song has some dark pieces. In it you describe being raped and your family coming to your aid and also your father telling you it’s not OK to play with Barbie dolls, but you also describe your relationship with Ira, your former partner of ten years. It seems that your poems turn a corner here and zoom in to give a more candid view of your own life. Why do you think you got into this more personal, confessional mode?
DT: I wrote the poems in Answer Song in the late eighties and early nineties. It was a strange time. Many were dying. I was new in New York and in my first long-term relationship. Everything, including the poetry world, was becoming more conservative. Though I’ve always been interested in the personal in poetry, my reaction to the growing conservatism was to become more intimate, more explicit.
BM: Plasticville (2000) seems to me to be about collecting, consumerism, and popular culture—its light and dark sides—but also about betrayal. You write a lot about the things people own, sometimes as passionately as you write about your Barbie doll collection and your dog, Byron. Does this drive to ownership or to collect things from one’s youth say something about these people’s lives?
DT: In my forties, I collected things, mostly toys, from my youth. It was a passionately regressive phase. I desperately wanted the things I wasn’t allowed to play with as a child, the stuff I wasn’t supposed to want to play with—girls’ toys. It was empowering, at a very deep level, to finally possess them, though sad, too. The whole enterprise stemmed from disappointment in my professional life—disillusionment with the poetry world.
BM: “Directions” is a poem about a break up in which the speaker destroys the record of a relationship by ritualistically burning someone’s letters. Does this poem say something about the things in the speaker’s life that he doesn’t control or perhaps explain his desire to collect or order things?
DT: I do think it’s an effort to control some pretty dangerous feelings—like anger and hatred. Imbedded in the act of destroying someone’s letters is the desire to purge oneself of those feelings, as well as that person, once and for all.
BM: I think that some of this desire to order things can be seen in your Abecedarian poem “Arabesque, Gambit, Caprice, Charade, and Mirage,” in which you arrange things alphabetically from board games to TV series, to parts of Disneyland. Am I correct?
DT: Yes, exactly. I used that poem as a way to collect those things, and thereby give them order. I suppose I was also trying to manage the obsessive desire to recapture all those items. Which in turn masks deeper, scarier emotions.
BM: I think some of this consumerism is also reflected in your poem “Something’s Got to Give,” about how Marilyn Monroe’s popularity (she was reportedly one of JFK’s lovers) ultimately destroyed her career. Are you saying here that there is sometimes such a thing as bad or too much publicity?
DT: Definitely. If you believe in it too much, or seek it for the wrong reasons, it can backfire on you.
BM: In “Ancient History,” a timeline of film trivia from 1949 to 1966, are you addressing the historical amnesia or ignorance that’s a part of post-modern culture?
DT: I’m playing with the idea that we know history through movies (Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, for instance, or Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra) rather than from books and that those movies too are “ancient,” a part of the past.
BM: Next we come to what I think are two of your finest poems, both in The Late Show (2007)—the long prose poem “Classic Layer Cakes” and the much shorter “Sonnet”—both about your mother’s death. How did you approach these poems? For example, did you know at the beginning what form each would take, or did the poem’s form reveal itself to you as you began to write it?
DT: I knew that “Classic Layer Cakes” was going to be a zuihitsu, a collage along the lines of Kimiko Hahn’s “Sewing without Mother.” And I knew that “Sonnet” was going to be a sonnet. They’re very different impulses. The zuihitsu is open and free, and can contain quite a bit of information, many lists. The sonnet is limited, in terms of maneuverability; it forces you to be concise.
BM: And what does this say about how you compose your poems and what form they ultimately take in general?
DT: It’s convenient to have a shape or form, in my mind’s eye at least, before or as I start to write a poem. Sometimes, though, the shape emerges as I write, usually early on. It depends. Ted Berrigan said, “You must make what you write be shapely in some way.” I agree. I’m uncomfortable when there’s no ordering device. It’s like working without a net.
BM: Your long poem, “A Poem Under the Influence,” is a tapestry of many of your themes and images from popular and gay culture—Barbie dolls, Supremes wigs, McDonalds, Valley of the Dolls and other films and television shows, therapy, substance abuse, the color pink, memories of other poets, life in New York City, etc. First, if I may ask, who is Jeffery Conway?
DT: Jeffery is a poet. He’s ten years younger than I am. We grew up in the same part of Los Angeles and both attended California State University, Northridge, but didn’t become friends till we were in the graduate program at Brooklyn College in the late eighties. We’ve been very close friends ever since.
BM: Second, what inspired you to write this very long poem?
DT: I wanted to write a long poem in the vein of some of the New York School poets—particularly James Schuyler. I’d been keeping a notebook of images and memories that I caught myself thinking about—a hodgepodge of stuff. I thought there must be a way to put all of this information into a poem. I wanted to write it very quickly, very messily. But it took a while.
BM: How long did it take you to write it?
DT: About a year and a half.
BM: And last, what were some special challenges you faced in writing a poem of this length?
DT: Believing that it would hold together, ultimately, that it would amount to something. That uncertainty. For me, it was working without a net. I’d forget where I’d been earlier in the poem and couldn’t quite see where I was going, or where I would end up.
BM: During the ’90s and the ’00s, you collaborated on many books with other writers, both living and dead. You edited Tim Dlugos’ and Ann Stanford’s (with Maxine Scates) poetry, you wrote Chain Chain Chain (2000) and Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse (2003) (both with Jeffery Conway and Lynn Crosbie) and the cento pseudo-celebrity autobiography By Myself (2009) (with D.A. Powell), and co-edited the collaboration anthology Saints of Hysteria (2007) (with Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton) and your college’s literary magazine, Green Court. Was there any reason for this sudden burst of editorial and collaborative work?
DT: Not particularly. I’ve always enjoyed collaborating with other poets and editing various projects. Collaborating is fun, a way to let loose a little. And the editing is a way of being of service to the art, of giving something back.
BM: What did you learn from some of these projects?
DT: Phoebe 2002, which was based on the movie All About Eve, taught me to be more flexible, more spontaneous, to dive in, just start writing, and not worry too much about the results. Writing can be fun—who knew? Knowing I was going to share what I wrote with my collaborators made writing a less solitary, even a less lonely, activity. I would try to entertain them. And I’d often be wowed by what they wrote. The excitement carried over into my own work.
BM: Which one was the most fun and why?
DT: They’ve all been great fun. The piece I wrote with D.A. Powell, By Myself, was especially exhilarating. We alternated sentences from celebrity biographies—a glorious tug-of-war.
BM: Which one was the most demanding and why?
DT: Maybe the one I wrote with Bob Flanagan, A Taste of Honey, only because it was my first substantial collaboration. We alternated syllabic lines and wrote one poem a month for a year, ending up with a chapbook of a dozen poems. We often left lines for each other on our phone machines. Also, we had very different sensibilities, so we each kept trying to steer the poem in our own direction. It was a bit of a wrestling match, a fun one.
BM: By Myself I think is the most unusual of these collaborations. It’s an “autobiographical” cento composed of one line from 300 different celebrity biographies. Were you two trying to say that the components of celebrities’ lives are interchangeable with definite stages to celebrity?
DT: In a way, yes. We jumbled up everyone’s childhood, everyone’s rise to stardom, everyone’s peak of success, and everyone’s downfall.
BM: Were you trying to explode the idea of celebrity autobiographies (since many had ghost writers or assistants anyway) or did you have completely different intentions?
DT: I can’t speak for Doug, but I was just trying to have fun. It was a game. We could only use one sentence from each autobiography. And we didn’t tell each other which books we were planning to use. There was some suspense there: would Doug use Joan Crawford’s autobiography before I had a chance to use it? I think he did, the rat! I didn’t think too much about our intentions, except that we were creating, from all these various celebrities, a character, “Myself.” “Myself” was ambiguous in terms of gender and sexual preference and race. Most importantly, he/she won an Oscar!
BM: Your most recent book of poems is Dear Prudence (2011), a selected retrospective from previous books plus a section of new poems entitled “Black Telephone.” This book I think is even more revealing than your previous ones with poems about your literary influences (Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton), the “AIDS Series,” which you mentioned previously, and even a poem about the car collision you survived but which your good friend, Rachel Sherwood (after whom you named your press), didn’t. Your poetic influences, and their biographical origins, seem to weigh much more heavily in your poetry now. Are you aware of this?
DT: Oh yes. It’s different from when I was young. Then, they were teaching, guiding me, as I learned to write. Now that I’m older, I feel more directly in conversation with them.
BM: What are some of the things you admire about Hughes, Plath, and Sexton?
DT: With these three poets, I would say it’s how their lives and their art end up being—or seeming—interchangeable. All three are nakedly honest, in his or her own way. Sexton and Plath intended this, but with Hughes you get the feeling he’s exposing himself in spite of himself. Individually, there are things I admire about each.
BM: What are some of the things you try to avoid?
DT: I never want to be sentimental. Or predictable. Maybe that can’t be avoided—one is oneself, after all. But I’d like to avoid being all played out. I try to keep surprising myself, trying new things. So boredom! I try to avoid being bored.
BM: There are many references to death in “Black Telephone”—“AIDS Series,” “Moonlight at Temecula,” “The Dead,” “Medusa Redux,” “For Nicholas Hughes,” “Sharon Tate and Friends the Moment Before,” “Ode to Dick Fisk.” Is that what the Black Telephone symbolizes?
DT: If not death per se, then the darkness that surrounds it. I’m consciously dealing with dark material—murder, suicide, anger, loss. The phone has been severed at its root, as Plath says. One has been cut off, is on one’s own.
BM: Is it just a memoriam or are you also now that you’re in your 60s reviewing your life and starting to hear “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”?
DT: I’m very aware of my mortality, and wish to make the best of what time I have left. I’m grateful that I have the freedom to choose what to do with that time. I don’t mean financial freedom as much as psychological freedom. I no longer feel prey to the obligations and insecurities that used to dictate my behavior.
BM: Now that you have reached your seniority, who are some of the younger poets whose work you admire?
DT: Aaron Smith is a younger gay poet I like a lot. He’s unsparingly honest, says what others are too afraid to say. His most recent book is Appetite. Robyn Schiff (Revolver) writes wonderful poems whose emotional complexity is achieved through a meticulous formal sleight of hand. And I find Nick Twemlow’s work extremely powerful. The poems he’s written since his first book (Palm Tress) are astonishing—they let you into his psyche in a very original and daring way. There are others, but these are three poets whose work I especially admire.
BM: What projects and poems are you working on at the moment that you could share with Amsterdam Quarterly’s readers?
DT: I’m currently doing research for a book about Rachel Sherwood, my friend who you mentioned. I find I’m able, thirty-six years after her death, to finally deal with her loss. And create a full portrait of her. I’ve been interviewing many people who knew her. I’m also working on a new book of poems about the actress Frances Farmer, in which I hope to explore my own alcoholism. And I’m co-editing (with Amy Gerstler) a book of Ed Smith’s poems. Ed died in 2005; his work is long out of print. Amy and I were friends of his in the Beyond Baroque scene in the eighties. There is no shortage of projects!
BM: How do they relate to your 9/11 poem, which is published in this issue of AQ?
DT: Like 9/11, Rachel’s death (and the accident in which I was seriously injured) is something that’s taken me a long time to revisit. Just like it took me a long time to write about the men who died of AIDS. It took over a decade to write about 9/11, and that poem was not easy to write. I broke out in a rash when I was working on it. I do feel an obligation to address the really traumatic events in my work. It’s my duty as a writer—or the kind of writer I am. Time and distance are needed, before it feels safe enough to face the pain. That appears to be my process.