Conversations with Contributors: Aidan Forster

Aidan Forster is the author of Exit Pastoral (YesYes Books, 2019) and Wrong June (Honeysuckle Press, 2020). His work has been honored by the National YoungArts Foundation, U.S. Presidential Scholars Foundation, the Poetry Society of America, and the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom, among others. His work appears in The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2017, BOAAT, Columbia Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, and Tin House, among others. He is a 2019 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry and a 2017 Tin House Poetry Scholar. A graduate of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities’ creative writing program, he studies Literary Arts and Public Health at Brown University. He was born in 2000.


Elena Senechal-Becker: I’m curious to know how you decided which poems you were going to include in Exit Pastoral. I feel like you have a pretty extensive arsenal of poems at this point; I know you’ve been writing for quite a long time. I’m wondering what it was that drew all of these together.

Aidan Forster: I guess I had never thought of these poems as a manuscript. Like, I had an organizational politic in mind that was mostly content-based, in that I was writing poems largely about the same things: my experience of South Carolina, rural paradigms, and the pastoral as a kind of queer youth; and I never considered it a manuscript until, actually, Peter LaBerge encouraged me to put it together and send the poems to YesYes. (His manuscript, Makeshift Cathedral, was a finalist the year before.) So I just printed out all the poems, and it came up in workshop that people were kind of dissatisfied with the fact that my poems were “always about the same thing,” which I didn’t appreciate. For me, queerness is not content. It’s a linguistic aperture, a space through which content filters itself. So, thankfully, I had all of these poems that were all about sand dunes and boys, and I printed them out, and some of them were weaker than others, some of them were stronger than others. I had some in that were eventually cut in the editing process—for the better ,because they were sort of weaker, little poems that didn’t really do much on their own outside of the context of the collection. My writing through that obsession pretty much created a form that could easily be aggregated and structured, which is how I decided which poems would go into the chapbook.

ES-B: In doing that, did you feel like printing them all out was towards the end of the process, or did you feel like you were still working towards deciding whether there should be less or more or different ones?

A-F: It’s interesting, because I had the same piece of my own productive genealogy, which was conflicting with this new impulse for a different order, ‘cause in my mind I would write poems in an inverse, I suppose. Like, during the English classes at my school, I would write a lot of poetry, and then we would switch genres and I would be writing prose. So there were these temporal nodes of creation that stretch back to the beginning of my writing career, I suppose. And sort of discombobulating that chronology was interesting because I could see stylistic evolutions. Different stances I had been taking within a queer subjectivity were evolving in my work and were all sort of jumbled in the collection, but I definitely had an aesthetic that I was going for. Some of the poems didn’t really fit in. There were a few that I found, to start more generically about the notion of boyhood, turning into a queer boyishness, and then moved into the more abject, tumescent, complicated notions and corners of that space. Once I got a sense of the trajectory that I wanted to follow, poems that didn’t fit I shaved out, and then some of them, too, my editor was like, “I think we’re gonna take this one out,” and I definitely agreed. The earliest poem in the collection, the one I’d written the earliest, was cut out. At first I was a little sad, because I felt very attached to it as this darling early poem, one of the poems I wrote that I really thought would fit in, but then looking back, I just didn’t think it worked.

ES-B: What was that poem about?

AF: A very odd trip to Florida with a childhood friend.

ES-B: You mentioned South Carolina earlier. Did you grow up there?

AF: Yes, I’ve spent pretty much my whole life in South Carolina.

ES-B: That definitely comes through in your work, and I think you intend for it to come through. When I was first reading your chapbook, it didn’t really occur to me, but as I read  on I realized that the “Carolina” you repeatedly mention, and even dedicated the collection to, isn’t a person, but a state. I’m wondering why you decided to personify Carolina in your book?

AF: South Carolina is so important to me as a site of poetic genesis, because I think initially came to it as sort of an antidote to the internalized shame that I encountered in that landscape. And I always maintained, and I still maintain, a complicated relationship to it. Because on the one hand, I’m very attached to Carolina, at least on a topographical level. It will always be home: the landscape is imprinted, the dramaturgy of the place has become a template of linguistic possibility for me. I have a very ecological relationship in my language to that space, and I love it. But I struggled with the sense that the place that I loved could not reciprocate my intimacy, could not accommodate queerness, could not accommodate the forms of desire I endorsed and experienced. I tried to channel that sense of a double geography of feeling in these poems, both that this was a place where the speakers, these young queer boys, admired and adored but also felt incredibly dislocated within. In the collection I was asking, How can I harness the swelter of this space, all these different sites of material recombination, that overgrowth, that gothic element of the landscape in these poems? And how can I turn this place that at times, socially-culturally-phenomenologically, is sort of a regime of hostility, into a regime of beauty? And that was definitely what motivated me, because I still feel very attached to that place. I feel like it’s one of the queerest spaces I’ve ever been in, not just because I was queer and I was there, but in terms of the tenacity of space and of intimacy in a place that is very much designed to choke it out.

ES-B: Right. So if South Carolina is designed to choke the queerness out of itself, what is it that keeps it feeling so “queer” for you?

AF: I think it’s the lack of institutionalized queer space that motivates queer populations. This is just the example I have in the upper portion of South Carolina, but in a lot of rural spaces, people innovate these queer paradigms, whether they are subterranean or otherwise. Not as much in this collection but in some of my later poems, and in the fiction I’ve written, I’m very interested in how a space creates two lifeworlds for itself. Meaning, for example, a children’s park during the daytime has a social and domestic function, but it may become a cruising site in the evening. And so how can the space create this double mode of being or becoming? That sense of tenacity exists when these spaces aren’t offered to you.

ES-B: Yeah, it essentially becomes up to the individual to figure it out for themselves. 

AF: Right. How can people who want to meet other gay people, for social or sexual purposes, how can they hijack a space in a way that creates novel purposes, be they aesthetic or material or social? I’m very interested in writing that through poems.

ES-B: Do you feel like poetry is a space similar to that, where that kind of repurposing can happen as well?

AF: Absolutely. That’s where my interest in eco-queerness comes from, which is a strain of poetry that apprehends the queer body through its place and vice-versa. For me, the queer pastoral is incredibly viable as a site of poetic retribution, kind of an intimate forming of queer space. In an essay by Marcella Durand about ecologic poetry, she quotes Lisa Robertson: “hegemonic dominant poetic forces have discarded the pastoral, but in a sense that leaves it a viable utopia for queerness, and I don’t know if I agree so much with the word utopia. I think what we really find is the failure of the page as the bucolic imaginary, as the safe space that we envisioned., But that failure is incredibly productive, and leads to a lot of different structures of being on the page that are accommodated or invited by this sense of place, of space that I think is so unique to queer experiences of the pastoral. So I think it’s a very lively, vibrant place, and that sense of alternative world construction is definitely alive.

ES-B: And I love that, because one of the things I wanted to ask you about was the world-making and knowledge-creating aspect of poetry. I can sense through your work that you feel strongly about this.

AF: Yeah, I definitely believe that. As I’ve been better able to talk about my own poetic imperatives, that has always been central. As the language I’ve used to describe my own work has evolved, that idea of creating spaces beyond harm, creating a sort of geography of feeling, of pleasure or even of shame, onto or within a lived space has been critical to my writing. So I definitely believe strongly in that power for world-making.

ES-B: Absolutely. And that brings me to my next question about the dichotomy between urban and rural spaces in relation to queerness. There is this really common idea that the possibilities that exist for living as a queer person in rural spaces are limited and that urban spaces are where queer people go to thrive. Is that something you’ve encountered?

AF: That’s something I think about all the time. Especially now that I don’t live in South Carolina. I live in a much more urban space now, in Rhode Island, and it’s constantly on my mind. I mean, even when I lived in the South, I certainly felt these narratives of queer, artistic cultural migration out of rural areas into these metropoles–New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, always figured as sites of queer cultural excellence, at the expense of viable queerness in rural spaces. Only very recently, I would say within the past year, was I able to approach that  narrative. Because I had lived in the South my entire life, thinking constantly outwards, reaching for some sort of exodus, which is where Exit Pastoral came from, this idea of escaping the trappings of shame that I found there. Now that I actually am not there, I look on it with a lot more nostalgia.

It’s incredibly frustrating to me to encounter so many people who are shocked by the particularities of the queer quotidian in these rural spaces. I didn’t exactly grow up in an extremely rural space, but I was never far from rurality. My family comes from very rural places, and so it’s really frustrating. I’m very bored by the narrative of the monolithic queer urban experience. And in public health discourse and methodologies, that’s especially pervasive. I took a class on public health issues in LGBT populations and constantly, study after study will take a randomized samples from Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or San Francisco for a study on drinking, neighborhood formation, anything, and they will generalize those results to the entire queer population of the United States. Of course there’s methodological challenges to measuring sexual orientation, but I was constantly saying, probably annoyingly to my classmates, But what about people who don’t live in these places? Having lived in South Carolina where we don’t have a queer community center, we don’t have AIDS service agencies (not where I was from at least), I knew that the kind of resources that were cited in these studies were not present. And the mechanisms of surveillance were not present. The mechanisms of community organization were not present in the same way. In poetry and in the social science of public health, which I think are just two different forms of social obligation, there’s an occlusion of queerness beyond the city. And so I think with the collection, I wanted to export the particularities of queer Carolina for people who had not experienced it. Because I was always touched by… My sort of counter-canon as I was growing up were poets who had some experience of the South or of rural spaces, and I think, not to say that the experience of queer urbanity is entirely monolithic, and there isn’t a granularity there, too, but I think it comes at the expense of narrative attention that is paid to rural queerness, and it’s problematic.

ES-B: I think it can be really frustrating, because of course what that leads to is a migration of queer people to these metropolitan cities. And I include myself in this, but we leave behind our own communities in a way that is a bit counterproductive, because there’s so much work that needs to be done in those places specifically.

AF: Exactly. Now that I’m in the North, in a fairly big city, much denser with a lot more resources, I think I want to return to the South eventually. Because I see all the gay people I know either actually leaving or desiring to leave. And I do feel like that’s kind of a disservice to these spaces where queerness is alive. I think, too, that this theoretical sense of the pastoral as obsolete, or sort of anachronistic, is a huge disservice to the queer populations that actually live and thrive there.

ES-B: Yeah! I think that’s really interesting. When we talk about queerness, I think that in aesthetic texts, and especially in poetry, there’s definitely pain that has to come through. In “Faggot Practice,” I thought you captured really well that feeling of desiring something even though it will hurt you. This is a recurring theme in your book. Do you think it’s possible to circumvent this particular kind of painful desire, or is it inevitable?

AF: I don’t necessarily believe that it’s an immutable part of queerness. But I think maybe it’s been historicized as such, and it does actually happen. It’s sort of complicated, because from a theoretical perspective I want to say, No, it’s certainly possible to construct alternative modalities of desire that are not inherently wounding, and to recreate those erotic structures in poetry. And I think that’s true. The boys in this collection were very much not there, though. And I think we are certainly indoctrinated into this idea that queerness is inherently traumatic or is ontologically marred by the trauma of its own history. And I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of it has to do with the way cultural gatekeepers responded to the AIDS crisis, the idea that queerness is marred by this immutable wound of AIDS, and now, as we try to un-remember what came before, we’re focusing on abstraction. In the collection, these boys are very much locked in the victimhood of their desire, in a very literal sense, like in that poem, but also in the larger sense in the space they are from, like I was saying about South Carolina, the sort of effort to innovate these spaces and these modes of intimacy that were accommodating, I think, because I couldn’t think of any models for anything else. But then of course, as I’ve come out of the space, I’ve aged into my desire and realized that there are ways to love beyond harm. But I think at first, when I was writing these poems, and for the boys in the collection, I don’t think there was a way to circumvent that. Not at that time.

ES-B: It’s interesting that you’re referring to your characters from the collection, I’m assuming they’re inspired by you or people that you know?

AF: Oh, definitely. These poems are very much autobiographical. I don’t really maintain or curate a distance between myself and the speakers. Most of the things I write about actually happened. Of course there’s some space for poetic imagination, but the boys are definitely iterations of myself. Because of the institutional structures I was in, I had to produce a lot of work very frequently, so I was constantly mining my own experiences; but I think, too, I found a sort of aesthetic world into which I liked to write, and it was easiest to access that through the lyric “I”, which was an uncontested universal self. And I’ve definitely become more critical of the I as essentialist, but in these poems they’re very closely anchored to me or to who I was at the time of writing the poem.

ES-B: I think that’s important, because writing using your own experience can provide such a useful method of tracking how you were feeling at a certain moment in time, a method of tracking your life in a way that maybe a journal couldn’t.

AF: For me, it was a way of exploring feelings that I had an inkling of but did not feel I could find any purchase in because of the particularities of the spaces I occupied. Feeling like I was so distant from a pure intimacy because of the dynamics and the social acrobatics of queerness in the landscapes I inhabited. These poems were sort of a way for me to innovate into those feelings. Which is funny, because now that I’m an adult, per se, not living there, I’m finally feeling a lot of these things that I wrote about having only maybe experienced an inkling of what they were like. And now I’m living what these boys so hyperbolically experienced in my poems, which is an interesting temporal collapse. I feel very distant from the work, because it’s been such a long time, but I resonate almost more with the speakers now than I did when I wrote them. Or differently.

ES-B: You’ve had time to come into those experiences and you’re able to identify with them. A lot of this collection reads like a coming of age. Do you think that you’ll look back at Exit Pastoral in a few years and still recognize yourself?

AF: I already feel disconnected from the poems in that stylistically, I write very differently. On a formal level, my sense of syntax, my relationship to poetic vulnerability, my ability to make fun of myself are all very different. These poems take themselves very seriously, and I don’t think that they’re going to be “funny” later, but I definitely have embraced ironic deprecation in my later work. I think this collection will always mean a lot to me, the queer boys kind of stumbling their way into relationships. They will always be matryoshka-d in the way that I approach desire. And there are certainly times where I resonate differently to them now. The pastness of them is kind of erroneous, because I think they are still part of my present.

ES-B: If you were to read the collection now, cover to cover, what emotions do you think that would evoke for you? 

AF: I would feel an extreme sense of nostalgia. When I was writing these poems I was so spectacularly connected to the places that bred them. Now, because of geography and time, I feel dislocated from those landscapes that birthed my poetic production, my aesthetic sensibilities, my subjectivities in a way that I think can be productive, but at times is kind of isolating. I don’t feel deeply connected to that place, but I’ve only lived away for a year, so I don’t think I’ve found a terrain that I feel comfortable in. And so I would feel nostalgic in that sense. Looking back to my old work, there are elements of the style that I’ve moved beyond. Like the kind of stair step couplet, I milked that dry. So I’m glad that I’m not as anchored in that form. But there are sharpnesses to verbage, I think the criticality of the verb, the acts of imaginary of my line was maybe even more powerful then than it is now. Sometimes I look back at my own work, like when the chapbook first came out, and I think, “Oh gosh, I wish I could still write like this.”

ES-B: Really!

AF: I felt such a precision of intent. When I was reading them I thought, this person feels like they know what they want to say. There was an ontological density to the poems that I sometimes felt I lacked. I had a course this semester with Mónica de la Torre, and my classmates were not always the fondest of my work (which is a nice way of saying it). They hated couplets, and at the end of the semester, I thought, Okay everyone is right. I’ve just sort of been peddling this form that I feel very comfortable with, but, at one point, Monica led this very hands-off workshop, where she would give a comment at the end but let the students talk. And at the end of one workshop she was like, “Well, I agree with what you guys are saying, but it’s difficult to approach this poem, because it is nothing but Eros.” And I was like, oh my gosh, and I agreed. I was like, I am not writing. The radius of my attention shrank to the fabulosity of the language I was using. How can I create the most fabulous texture or friction between words? What was the most captivating way to queer my nounage? Whereas I think in Exit Pastoral, looking at the poems was a much more macrocosmic eye to the figuration and intent, if not to narrative, ‘cause I have never felt like much of a narrative poet. There was a sense of trajectory that anchored the piece, which I didn’t necessarily lose but moved away from. I think there are a lot of nostalgias at work in the text. In reading these poems again, in conjunction with that workshop experience, it’s incredibly helpful to revitalize my work in the present and to hold myself accountable for the lapses in attention at different levels and in different ways in my work, to pursue that sense of fabulosity that I wanted while also pulling in all these elements that I had let fall away. This work is a good reminder of what was most important to me at the beginning of my writing career. And to kind of bring… to continue to bring them into the present, and I’m very thankful for that.

ES-B: That is something that I’ve felt recently, too: when you become an “adult,” you have all these responsibilities and you’re no longer just a kid writing poetry in your room alone. It almost feels like the immediacy of it gets a bit lost.

AF: I definitely agree with that. I think that being in South Carolina in high school, at the particular high school I went to, in the city I was from, an almost claustrophobic experience at times, the parameters of my world were very clear. And I like that structure. Because a lot of the glamor of this sort of poesis was the ability to exit those spaces. Now that the contours of my world are so much blurrier, it’s much more complicated. My sense of space, of poetic design or bricolage, is totally different. And also my relationship to time, both on the page and off of it. The constraints of poetic production are different now that I have different responsibilities, so yeah I definitely have a sense of mourning for that, or nostalgia for the immediacy of my past.

ES-B: I think it can feel like mourning when you feel like you’ll never be able to grasp that moment again.

AF: I definitely spent a lot of this year beating myself up for not writing as much as I did in the past, or the way that I did in the past. I just have to remind myself that I’ll never be in that space again, so of course my relationship to it, the methodology, the philosophy that I have about it, is going to be different, and that’s okay. I’ve always been very resistant, even on a very microcosmic, lexical and syntactic level, to the feeling of unchoreographed change in my work. So having the entire context of my poetic practice change was very difficult.

ES-B: It’s interesting to think about how much embodied spaces can change our practice, and how that can affect us.

AF: Definitely. At the core, in a positive way, my experience of South Carolina created a sort of sexual translation of language, a sensibility, but then of course I think it could be negative too, in that being in a space where you feel discombobulated, it can be really difficult to write.

ES-B: It’s just hard to get into that specific mindset, to be able to tap into the energy that will help you create.

AF: Right. I mean there are oppositional rhetorics about inspiration versus craft. I’ve had teachers who are speaking more about energy, like when I went to the Tin House workshop a few years ago and Mary Ruefle was my teacher, she was like, “Poetry is all about the configuration of linguistic energy.” And I like that, because it properly synthesized the idea of craft and configuration in a more spectral element of creation. I think it’s when those things are working in harmony. You have craft, you feel you have an arsenal of tools you need, and then also the energy. I don’t even like the word “inspiration.” I prefer energy.

ES-B: I agree. I think energy is a much more specific way of naming that thing that I, at least, find necessary to push me to write.

AF: I think that sometimes I’ll find myself ready, like I have the energy to write, but then I’m like, I haven’t been reading enough poetry, or I haven’t been reading intentionally enough, and absorbing. And then I feel like I’m about to run a marathon and have not trained at all. Like, okay, I have to go do some burpees or something. Sometimes I just don’t have enough words in my mind! I just don’t know enough little, cool words, nouns or verbs, I need more of a little cabinet of fun words so that when I get stuck I can just throw something in. If I feel that way, I have to read.



Elena Senechal-Becker

Elena Senechal-Becker is a writer and graduate student at the University of Toronto.

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