The Duende of Poetry: A Conversation Between Randall Mann and Tobias Wray
Randall Mann and Tobias Wray discuss, among other things, Mann’s forthcoming collection A Better Life (Persea, 2021) amidst the pandemic, the 2020 election, and the emergence of a world clearly in need of more queer poetry with a formal flare. Randall Mann’s fifth collection, A Better Life, is forthcoming in April. He lives in San Francisco.
Tobias Wray: A Better Life offers expansive, meandering meditations, the subjects of which sometimes recall your previous work—cruising, corporate culture, ex-lovers—but perhaps hold a greater emphasis on time itself. Here you embrace a certain nostalgia and tenderness, one that pivots on everything from pornos to Trapper Keepers. These poems also address some of the shit life throws at us, which feels like the kind of poetry we most urgently need.
Your title, which presumably acknowledges the slipperiness of wanting a better life, strikes me as prescient now, even haunting. In a year where so many events strain imagination and our relationship to time itself seems to be shifting, has your relationship to these poems changed now that we are all living in a kind of ellipsis? Do you think of this collection any differently than you did, say, last February?
Randall Mann: I think my relationship with everything pre-pandemic has shifted; my poems are no exception. To thumb through these poems, written a few years ago now, is to feel a kind of knowing estrangement, like a place imagined into existence through memory. The phrase “a better life” is used so casually, so obliquely, in the parlance, but it’s always seemed to me quite fraught: It’s aspirational, but there’s something slightly suspect, or hollow, in that aspiration—in all aspiration, really—which is part of, I hope, the complication, the “latent double,” to quote Stevens, in the word “better.” Better, indeed, than whom? Who is quantifying what? I love taking quotidian phrases, and idioms, and trying to breathe new life into them.
TW: The eponymous poem, “A Better Life,” begins with the line, “It’s silly to think…” and I love the way it manages to echo the casual, familiar phrase but also scans as a challenge to set aside assumptions and read (and live) for the experience. Very Stevens-like! A few poems in the book allude to film stars and filmmakers—Fatty Arbuckle, Mark Frechette, Barbara Payton, among others—this, layered on top of other literary and cultural references (our supreme fictions, I’m now tempted to say), makes me wonder about the deeper implications around artifice. You’ve addressed this a number of times in other interviews and essays, but I believe this collection is adding something to that conversation. Do these poems extend your ideas around artifice and artistry, the connections between works of art and how they hold us in good stead? Do they make an argument for art as amelioratory, despite the dangers of aspiring to improve?
RM: These poems extend my ideas, if for no other reason than I just keep talking. I don’t know about anyone else, but the art referenced in these poems has held me in good stead; the poems are just little architectural models of my obsessions, built from the scraps of my notebook. The greater the negative capability—either in experiencing others’ art or making my own—the greater the amelioration; aspiration has nothing to do with it, or improvement, yikes. Arguments in my poems are often triumphs, or perhaps accidents, of pathos; it’s rare that I set out to “say something,” even if in the end I somehow manage to.
TW: Would you talk a little bit more about these subjects you’re obsessed with? It’s mesmerizing to encounter these various landscapes merging throughout your work: Kentucky, Florida, and most prominently, San Francisco. They locate such a range of subjects, too. From the reader’s perch, you often consider poets at their work, chronicling queer life (working on lust and love), working a corporate gig, and memorializing lost figures (both personal and public). You also frequently plumb the memory of formative experiences. What draws you back to these spaces and how do you view obsession as it relates to poetry?
RM: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed,” Bidart famously wrote, via Borges. This seems like the answer to your question, maybe to every question, about art. Thus the “I,” Randall, sees what I see in the act of making poems—queering midlife and history, satirizing poetry and gay life, filling in the background of place—and the structure reveals itself in writing. Ultimately, the obsession is the act of writing, the loss of self to try—miserably, fruitlessly, movingly—to find it.
TW: This book is dedicated to the memory of Michelle Boisseau and Kevin Killian and contains moving elegies for both. What does this dedication mean to you and how do you approach the challenge of honoring loss through elegy?
RM: It means, in the simplest terms, that I miss them both, and that a dedication, though impoverished, is a public/private continuation of my conversations with them. Elegy is dangerous because it runs the risk of self-absorption, so I tread very carefully, and retreat into intimacies rather than, I hope, gassy declarations. The elegy for Michelle is a line-based palindrome, and it mirrors, tries to mirror, the intimacies of friendship, and the ways death methodically, cruelly, strips that away. Kevin always seemed the most fabulous person in the room—every interaction a little party, loss just under the surface of his mirth, and I hope my poem for him captures some of this. I half expect Kevin to show up, as he always did, full of energy, at every literary event in San Francisco; it still seems impossible that he’s gone.
TW: That’s a lovely way of framing loss, and I must say those two poems are searingly beautiful. Who wouldn’t be honored by such celebrations? The form of your poem for Boisseau is especially captivating. In fact, I think of you as one of our most necessary practicing formalists for how your work breathes contemporary life into traditional forms, not to mention your cleverness for devising poetic constraints. Has your relationship to form evolved in these newer poems?
RM: I think what has been a constant is that each poem is asking for its own architecture; perhaps I am learning how to listen better to its demands. What has evolved is the following: I think when I started writing I would think of a formal choice—and even free verse is a formal choice—as a starting point, or an argument as one. I haven’t thought like that for a while. Form and content are not merely complementary, they are the very same thing. The new book, like all my books—which I think of as one long conversation; even some of the titles recur, and that’s no accident—has both strict forms and less strict ones, but in the new book, as in the last couple to a lesser extent, shorter lines with rhymes have been my main formal bent. In a time of logorrhea, I love the demands of the short line, and the way rhymes offer up content—if I listen to the poem.
TW: Although you pay homage to many kinds of poetic tradition, you especially honor queer lineages in your work. Many of your poems are in conversation with queer culture, but poets of a certain persuasion, Thom Gunn, David Trinidad, Hart Crane, to name a few, show up often. A queer poet myself, I sought out poems like yours (and theirs) to better understand the possibilities of queer experience in verse, what such a sensibility might look like on the page. Would you address the influence of that particular tradition, poetry that unabashedly addresses sexuality? And, what do you think is different about queer poetry today, publishing your fifth collection, than it was when Complaint in the Garden came out?
RM: I have learned who I am through the work of queer artists. I read Gunn in high school, and that did it, the early whiff of motorcycle uniforms and form. Then Auden and Cullen and Lorde and Ashbery and Lorca and Bishop, to name a few, very early in college, and I was struck by how large the queer universe was. (Bishop’s colonialism and anti-feminism look more problematic by the day, but she’ll always be my poetry mother.) I remember Merrill’s notion of writing for “one perfect reader,” and while I write to please myself, if I am writing to an audience, it’s a combination of these writers and others, Bidart, Shepherd, Dixon, Dlugos, Trinidad, Doty, Brown. Marilyn Hacker taught me so much about order. D.A. Powell richly deserves a genius grant. When I write my short lines, I am always trying to get closer to James Schuyler, who might be my favorite poet, and May Swenson. My good friends Miguel Murphy and Aaron Smith, dangerous poets. Younger writers like Chen Chen, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Omotara James, Ari Banias, Ricky Maldonado, and Emily Van Kley. I could go on and on; my artistic world is queer as fuck.
TW: Yes! An embarrassment of riches, that world. I’m always so grateful for the community, that familiarity and invitation on the page. We’re holding this exchange smackdab in the middle of the 2020 election, and of course, queerness in any realm remains politicized, which is to say under threat. The poetry world sometimes seems a safe haven from that fray, but at its best I think of the literary community as needfully engaged in our moment. What do you think of this relationship between the political and the poetic—as the notion of a better life can’t help but be political, right, rather complicitly or intentionally so?
RM: The duende of poetry, metaphor, describing the thing in terms of something it is not, is political. The leap of faith of seeing the world and having the audacity to rearrange and reveal and speak truth to power by representing it as art, is political. The faith in the compression, the weaponry, the exhumation, the rehabilitation, of language, is political. The act of writing, even the impulse—one eye on Aristotle, one on, say, election results—is itself a subversive treatise.