Thomas March is a poet, performer, teacher and critic based in New York City. His collection Aftermath (2018) was selected by Joan Larkin for The Word Works Hilary Tham Capital Collection. OUT Magazine praised its “diamond-sharp lyricism” and hailed it as “a stimulating, if sober, tonic for our times.” His poetry has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, The Good Men Project, OUT, and Pleiades, among others. His reviews and essays have appeared in The Believer, The Huffington Post, and New Letters. With painter Valerie Mendelson, he is the co-creator of A Good Mixer, a textual-visual hybrid project based on a 1933 bartender’s guide of the same name. He is the curator of “Poetry/Cabaret,” a new poetry and performance series that brings together poets, singers, and comedians in response to a common theme. A past recipient of the Norma Millay Ellis Fellowship in Poetry, from the Millay Colony for the Arts, he has also received an Artist/Writer grant from The Vermont Studio Center. In recent years, he has written and performed monologues at a number of venues in New York City, including Ars Nova, The Duplex, Joe’s Pub, The Peoples Improv Theater, and Sid Gold’s Request Room. Beginning this summer, he will be a Contributing Editor for Grand, a new magazine launching in June. Instagram/Twitter: @realthomasmarch Web: www.thomasmarch.org.
Thomas March brings emotion and lyrical brilliance together in his first book of poetry Aftermath (The Word Works, 2018). His poetry is at once striking in its ability to render a scene in rich detail, pulling you in, while also conveying deeply intimate feelings. March’s memories suddenly become readers’ memories and what he has felt, readers feel. With eloquence, the poems in Aftermath deal with everything from adolescence, connection to nature, memory, connection to others, queerness, and how to deal with the aftershocks of modern tragedy. I had a chance to interview Thomas after reading his book, and I very much came to it as a fan of his work.
Justin Rogers: Aftermath has a real investment in nature imagery, memory of nature, and one’s interactions with nature. Your poetry seems grounded in experiencing nature, especially insects. What is your relationship with nature?
Thomas March: I’ve lived in New York City for over 20 years—so this wasn’t the first question I was expecting. But you’re right. The natural world figures fairly prominently in these poems. I don’t attribute it to any special affinity for nature—I enjoy and appreciate the outdoors, but I wouldn’t call myself an outdoors-person by any means.
But I grew up in the Midwest, in Illinois, in an environment that, while it wasn’t rural, was rural-adjacent, I suppose. I didn’t really enjoy the kinds of outdoor activities offered in Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts—or organized team sports—but I spent a lot of time outside. It was just what we did. We played in the mud, we dug holes, we planted things, we chased each other around, we climbed things—and on a summer day, being outside was really a dawn to dusk experience.
So some of the poems that center around early life experiences—those are often infused with the sensory memories of being outside in the kind of environment that is rich with life, the smell of greenness, the density of humidity, the sweet and metallic (and sometimes a little rotten) smells of earth, the energy of powerful thunderstorms in wide open places. At the time, maybe life felt too slow, like nothing was happening—but really everything was happening.
And, in response to the observation about insects—you’re going to encounter them everywhere when you go digging around, running around barefoot. And when you’re a child, that’s not always a kind encounter—as the poem “Fireflies” recalls. There can be a fine line between curiosity and cruelty. That’s there in the poem “Slugs,” too, which I think moves from cruelty toward a gentler curiosity that comes from actually taking the time to observe the slugs themselves, which I was totally disgusted by for the longest time, afraid I’d step on them in the dark, because they were everywhere on the pavement in the summertime.
Looking at moments a few years later in my life, the situations in poems like “My First Drunk” or “At the Lake Later” have a very different perspective on nature. There’s still that sensory experience but also a sense of menace, of something dangerous because one is so exposed. Those are poems about figuring out what it was to be gay, to feel that desire and not feel safe in expressing it—when two people are there, outside, alone, unencumbered by all of those things that remind us of who we’re supposed to be—calendars, posters on the wall, our sports equipment, whatever—something else can happen, something that is just the truth of what’s between two people, whether it’s sayable or not. So, there you have an openness, but also the danger that comes from that at the same time.
I said we were “rural-adjacent,” but I had some strong experiences of farm life, too, growing up. My grandmother, when she was a girl, was taken in by a couple who lived on a farm just outside Petersburg, Illinois. Although she only lived there for a couple of years, they remained in her life, and she really thought of them as her parents. When I was very, very young, not even in kindergarten yet, they still had the farm, and we would visit fairly often. I have a vivid memory of walking across the corn field behind the farmhouse with my grandfather, sometime after the harvest, and being surprised by how hard it was to walk through—how uneven the ground is, how surprisingly soft but hard to get your footing on. Part of that was that I was so small, and the mounds between the furrows were like small hills to me. We just walked out as far as we could go and then turned around and walked back. There was no other purpose except to watch the sun setting and then try to beat the sunset back to the house. The time was the point. When I think about it now, I’m astonished by what a natural my grandfather was at being a grandparent. He had such a range and depth of emotion—he was the funniest person and had such innately perfect comic timing. But this was a different kind of moment—he knew that it wasn’t always about keeping the restless grandkid distracted or entertained. It was just about being present, methodically curious about something, with some sort of ease and forthrightness. I’ve been trying to write a poem about that moment for a long time—I didn’t get it right soon enough for Aftermath. I still haven’t. But that attitude, that gentle curiosity, even about painful things, is something that I hope informs the poems when I do get it right.
The cover of Aftermath is actually a detail from a painting of a barn that was on that farm. They tore down the barn in the late 70s and donated it to the State of Illinois—there was apparently an intact log cabin inside the barn that once belonged to a relative of Abraham Lincoln. Anyway, my grandmother commissioned a painting of the barn—a college friend of my uncle, who is also an artist, painted it. It has been hanging in her house most of my life—in a frame made from wood recovered from the barn itself. Only recently have I thought about how much more than simply sentimental that painting is—because she didn’t want a painting of the barn as she remembered it from her childhood, functional and more intact. She wanted to remember it as it became, in all of its beautiful decay. I realized that was a very Midwestern way of looking squarely at a thing, loving a thing even in its imperfections, even as it falls apart, because that’s what things do. If things never rotted, we’d all starve to death. It’s not an exclusively Midwestern thing—it’s also a very Zen perspective.
JR: The sections of Aftermath are, like the title, always after some event. The aftermath. But this always implies memory. Memory of a time before, after, and during. Your poetry has to do a lot of legwork then. What is your take on memory and how it affects us in the present? How do you harness it for your poetry?
TM: It’s hard to answer this question without sounding like I’m just stating the obvious. I think we’re dealing with memory and the past all the time—always being “after.” The hard part isn’t finding material but recognizing it, sometimes—it’s coming for us all the time, asking to be noticed, attended to. I don’t mean that to sound mystical. It’s just our everyday human relationship with the past. Every day is a manifestation or commemoration of the past—or affirmation of surviving it.
It’s framing how we understand ourselves, the tenderness and also the intensity of our responses to things. And if it’s with us every day, we may as well get curious about it, instead of spending so much energy reacting to it or trying not to. Easier said than done, right? There can be powerful barriers to that curiosity—and some are more powerful than others: fear, ego, panic. And trauma is in a category all its own, I think.
But we need that relationship to be an honest one—if we aren’t examining the past, its influence on us, how our experiences have deeply affected us, we’re cut off from something essential about our own humanity. This also means learning to come to terms with the inevitable fact of discovering pain and the acceptance that you can’t always fix it—for example, the things you’ve said and regret but can’t unsay. But there can also be deep regret without shame—grief that goes hand in hand with the appreciation of, gratitude for, what or who is gone.
This isn’t to say that writing is somehow essentially therapeutic, to reduce it to that, at least not in the sense of “feeling better.” It’s that maybe some aspect of those kinds of work parallel each other in their personal outcomes—the liberating relief of understanding. The poem can become a place of sharing that understood thing, or the path toward it. And when you do that, it’s a vulnerable thing, to be sure—what I hope a poem does, in a fundamental way underneath everything else it might do intellectually, is to expose one human being to another human being’s humanity. And when that happens in an open, receptive way, something transformative can happen, even if only briefly. It doesn’t always have to be seeing something new; there’s value in seeing something true again, just perhaps in a new form.
We spend so much time dodging what something in us already knows is important and true. Any time you can stop to notice a thing like that and pay attention to it, you’re putting yourself back in touch with something essential. The analytical part of crafting a poem maybe creates an apparatus or structure for working through the tender emotional realities and finding the sense they make. For me, it’s all about finding whatever habits, conditions, structures in my day, week, hour, or whatever allow this process so that I can work on developing a more peaceful relationship with the past. This isn’t unique to poetry or fiction—it’s what the essay can do, and it’s what standup comedy can do, too. When you can find a way to be gentle with your own pain—not by avoiding it but by being open to it and understanding where it comes from and what it’s still doing to you—the fear of remembering things or summoning things starts to get weaker, as a kind of trust develops. And you end up opening yourself to so much more that comes clamoring for your attention. But that’s because that trust is there now, a trust in your own tenderness. I’m still learning this. I think I have a long way to go, but it’s happened often enough that I see that it’s worth the work.
JR: Your poems have an eclectic array of references. Everything from the Bible, to Virginia Woolf, National Events, and even The Deer Hunter. I’m curious. Why Virginia Woolf? And why the Story of Issac? Those references in particular stick out to me.
TM: One reason for the “eclectic array of references” is that I didn’t publish my first book of poems until I was in my forties—there was a lot of ground to cover, along with shifting obsessions and preoccupations, over all those years!
I’m not a “believer” in the usual sense, but the Biblical or religious influences you’re noticing are probably inevitable for me. I grew up going to church every Sunday—my grandmother taught Sunday school, and the church community was fairly relaxed but tight-knit. There was always a layperson conducting the service along with the minister, and that role rotated among the more senior members of the congregation. But I actually took to the pulpit and preached sermons a couple of times myself when I was maybe 12 or 13—while the minister was away.
It was a progressive church, so the Jesus I grew up learning about was the one who preached compassion and humility and a kind of grace that had little to do with purity (or with condemning the opposite of purity) and more to do with recognizing a common connection to the divine, a common worthiness. And while there aren’t many poems in which I deal with it directly, I don’t want to underestimate the effect those stories had in shaping my sense of what the important questions are—questions of loyalty, hope, respect, love, sacrifice. The framing of these was important—some people get these same stories in ways that emphasize fear, trembling, and retribution. That wasn’t my experience at all. The very first gay person I knew as a gay person I knew in that church; and the fact that my family was very supportive of that inclusion probably made my own comfort with myself easier to achieve in ways that I didn’t fully grasp at the time. And while I experienced plenty of fear and confusion about my sexuality growing up, I didn’t have to experience that religious shame. That kind of shame was killing people then, and it’s killing people now.
The Deer Hunter poem (“After I Watched The Deer Hunter”) is one in which I’m trying to sort out memory in that layered way you referred to in your last question. It’s a poem about a memory of being affected by my father’s memory—of my own understanding being transformed by his sharing something about his life. After I watched the film The Deer Hunter, I recognized that the first part of that movie, before these guys go to Vietnam, takes place in a town just like the one where my father grew up, a steel mill town outside of Pittsburgh. In fact, it was filmed just one or two towns down the river. When I was growing up, we’d drive out to visit every other summer or so. And maybe this happened because I was at an age when you begin to really recognize your parents as people and not just as your parents, but after watching the film I suddenly realized that in all of those visits, I’d never met any of my father’s friends, anyone he’d grown up with or gone to school with. The next time I talked to him, I told him I’d seen the movie and asked something simple like, “Is that was it was like for you?”—and he knew I wasn’t asking about the war, because, while he served in the military at that time, his experience hadn’t involved combat or going to Vietnam itself. His answer was simply to say, yes it was, that his friends had died. So when I write that he said this “the way a long-known thing becomes / easy to say, if not to know,” I’m trying to honor the fact that, while painful memories can become easier to acknowledge or refer to, we shouldn’t mistake that for a diminishment of their impact.
Then there’s the significance the memory of that phone call has taken on as the years have gone by. That is, it was moving at the time but in a way that I couldn’t quite articulate or maybe even understand, because the conversation was so brief and matter of fact. But in remembering it, wondering about why it affected me, I realized that it wasn’t just about the information that was shared. It was that the sharing manifested a trust and openness about pain that, really, our culture doesn’t always encourage between fathers and sons.
JR: Beyond your own memories, poems throughout also seem to be trying to reach a mutual understanding or connection to others. “After Orlando” and “Pallbearers for Our Favorite Drunk” come to mind as attempts to use both memory and empathy to understand another. How successful do you think a person can ever be at understanding someone else? Based on some of your poems, it seems like a shared history or experience is one such way. How successful would you say your poems come to representing that understanding, or at least a want to understand?
TM: I love E. M. Forster’s epigraph to Howards End, “Only Connect”—it’s that word “only” that makes it such a rich, dark joke. As a suggestion that connection is something essential and meaningful and worthy of serious attention, the simplicity of that statement can be profoundly affecting. But the simplicity of it is deceptive—it evolves to become so sadly ironic.
The inevitable thing about intimacy—and this is something that I keep discovering again and again—is that it involves the discovery of distance as much as it involves nurturing closeness. I don’t mean distance in the sense of aloofness, coldness, or disconnection but a real understanding of how another person’s experience has been different from yours. When you trust another person enough to actually be vulnerable and share things with them, you increase your awareness of this distance as much as you deepen closeness, but that gets to something you can understand about each other, together. How do we navigate or at least acknowledge and map the seemingly unnavigable distances between us? As much as we misconstrue and misunderstand each other, there is still something in us that wants to see and to understand—and something that wants to be seen and be understood as much as it wants to protect itself. Some of the poems in the collection trace that or arrive at a moment where some of this happens, maybe in an accepting way but I hope without losing the sense of what was difficult or urgent behind that need to begin with.
But, because we are human beings with our own psychic agendas playing out in every second, we also spent a lot of time responding to imaginary versions of people, whoever we’ve decided someone is or whoever we need them to be. The real miracle of connection is that we manage it at all. And yet, it’s the thing most people spend a lot of time and energy looking for, right? Whether it’s emotional, sexual, platonic, intellectual, or all of the above. And I guess that means longing is inevitable, too. Sometimes the best you can do is just understand where the longing comes from—a lot of the poems about adolescence, especially a certain version of gay adolescence, are getting at that. Another thing that I hope those poems embody is this irony that you can also mourn for something, a connection, a set of experiences, that never existed.
JR: This book of poetry is just one of your many projects. I know you also run a quarterly show called Poetry/Cabaret and have a series of Broadsides called A Good Mixer where your poetry is paired with visual art from Valerie Mendelson. What would you say the common thread is between all of your projects? What is your greater motivation as a poet? Put another way, what are you trying to accomplish with your writing? And finally, what else is on the horizon?
TM: Slowly, I’m working on my next collection, Uncertain Gods; it’s an exploration of family, legacy, and reconciliation. More immediately, I’m focusing on the project you mentioned, A Good Mixer, and a book of personal essays that come from the comic monologues I write for my quarterly variety show, Poetry/Cabaret. I started Poetry/Cabaret as a way to bring together two worlds I feel connected to—as a poet and as a performer—in a dynamic, emotionally varied, and stimulating way. Poetry, comedy, music, drag—these can share the same space. In each show, the artists respond to a common theme in whatever way they see fit, and I try to arrange the evening in a way that has an emotional trajectory. Artists get to read or perform for a room that includes people who might not ordinarily be at their readings or shows—and many people in the audience are experiencing something they don’t usually buy a ticket for. Is there a natural overlap between the comedy audience and the poetry audience, or the cabaret audience and the poetry audience? The philosophy of the show is that there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be.
I like to describe A Good Mixer as a “boozier, more urbane Spoon River Anthology.” It’s a hybrid text and image project that I’ve been working on for a couple of years now with painter and art historian Valerie Mendelson. It all started from a lunchtime conversation Valerie and I were having, in which she told me that she had started painting portraits of cocktails—different kinds of drinks, in interesting glasses. You look at one of these and immediately wonder who might be drinking it. I happened to have a cocktail guide from 1933, the year Prohibition ended, called A Good Mixer, something my mother had picked up in a box of books at an auction. I really owe her one for putting this book in my hands; but she’s been doing that my whole life. If she finds something interesting—and she’s always looking—she shares it. My parents’ house is full of books that my mother has rescued. The idea of throwing away a book is like a sacrilege to her. I said earlier that I spent a lot of time outside as a kid—the other thing we did a lot was go to the public library. We didn’t have a lot of money—and we didn’t need it, to be entertained. We’d borrow books from the library, visit my great-grandmother and eat ‘Nilla wafers. Even movies—we did go to the movies sometimes, but we also borrowed old movies from the library and projected them on the wall at home. This was before we had a VCR.
So, this cocktails guide was published by a liquor distributor in central Illinois as a way, I imagine, to reintroduce people to what you were supposed to do with liquor now that you could get it more readily. I noticed that a lot of these cocktails—there are hundreds—had names that were evocative of people or personalities. We’ve all heard of a Tom Collins, but did you know there are about half a dozen other Collinses in that family—Mickey Collins, etc.? There are cocktails called Daddy’s Cocktail and Sunny Boy, Queen Alexandria, Prince George, Scotty’s Grog, Sadie’s Flip, Speedy Girl—dozens like this. So, we chose 33 of these cocktails, in honor of 1933, to treat as characters—Valerie paints the cocktail, and I write two poems from the point of view of the character the cocktail belongs to.
We imagine that these 33 people are at the same party—a play on the “mixer” of the title—interacting with each other, reflecting on themselves and others. One poem in each pair represents the character’s outward expression, and the other poem represents the inner voice, the observations that the character doesn’t, won’t, or can’t share. In A Good Mixer, by juxtaposing characters’ outer, social selves and their inner, private thoughts, I’m trying to explore those ideas about connection, longing, and misapprehension that I spoke about earlier. Among those 33 people are many kinds of relationships and experiences—marriages, partnerships, secret affairs, unrequited longing, grief, panic, and even mutual but unrealized desire.
We have shown some of these in a few gallery shows over the past year or so, but I imagine it as having multiple incarnations. As a gallery experience, when all of the paintings and poems are on view together, visitors can become part of the imaginary mixer themselves, moving from character to character, sorting out their relationships and, perhaps, making new connections of their own. Primarily, though, it’s meant to be a book, one that you could pick up and start at any page and read in any direction, creating your own experience of the virtual party. I’m also working on a dramatic rendering of the project, with actors portraying the characters against projections of the paintings, with a narrative that establishes a sense of movement and continuity. Actors have performed a few of these poems already, either at Club Cumming or small event settings. We had five of these characters’ poems and painting combinations printed as limited edition broadsides, fifty of each.
With each version, though—whether the more self-directed gallery experience to the more linear narrative of the dramatic performance I think the point is to cultivate curiosity and empathy. In their different ways of creating intimacy, I hope the poems and Valerie’s images complement and amplify each other in this.
Another exciting thing coming up is that I’ve just been named Contributing Editor to a new magazine launching this summer, Grand. It’s published and edited by Aaron Hicklin, former editor of Out magazine and owner of the excellent “curated bookstore,” One Grand, which sponsors the Deep Water Literary Festival in Narrowsburg, NY, this month. Some of the pieces from A Good Mixer are scheduled to appear in Grand, as well.
Valerie Mendelson is a painter and art historian whose work both in print and in paint has often focused on collecting. She has published and presented papers on late nineteenth century collectors as well as modernist photographers and artists including the sculptor Mabel Gardner. Her articles have appeared in the Bloomsbury Press, Antipodes, Open Library for the Humanities and the International Journal of the Book, among others. Her paintings have been shown at The Jeffrey Leder Gallery, the Laurel Tracey Gallery and the Painting Center among other venues. The Good Mixer, a poetry/painting collaboration with the poet Thomas March has been featured at the DVAA in Narrowsburg, NY at Westbeth, NY, at Flux Factory and coming up at the Bowery Gallery.