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  • Jess Smith

from the horse's mouth: with david trinidad

Photo Credit: Alyssa Lynee

In the following interview, Iron Horse Associate Editor Jess Smith talks with poet David Trinidad.

"Every obsession is a mystery that must be figured out." ​​

Jess: How are you today? What are you working on?

David: I’m good, thanks. It’s a clear, summery October day in Chicago. I’m not working on anything in particular at the moment. But having just visited Lubbock, Texas, I’ve been thinking a lot about Buddy Holly. I think I need to write a poem for him. I keep listening to his songs. He’s kind of haunting me—in a good way.

Jess: Oh please tell me more about this! Truman Capote said a strong enough idea will “haunt you till it’s written.” Is that how you’re feeling about Buddy Holly right now? His presence in Lubbock is certainly powerful.

David: I do feel that way, like I’m being prompted to write something. In Lubbock I made a pilgrimage to his grave, and to the Buddy Holly Center, where I saw his personal effects. I found this very moving. There’s something about having had all this time that he didn’t have—time to live a full life and fulfill myself as an artist—that I’d like to address.

Jess: Your recent collaboration with artist Philip Monaghan, Why Are You Doing This To Me?, lays lines from your poem “The Late Show” over images of the films you reference in the poem, mostly in moments of the “mock pathos” typical of American cinema in the 1950s and 60s. Can you talk to me about the way collaboration can shed light on unseen parts of your own work? And, in particular, how this project was illuminating and exciting for you both?

David: When I wrote the poem in 1998, I didn’t think too much about my intent, other than I wanted to create a list poem of scenes I remembered from the old movies I’d watched on The Late Show as a teenager. I didn’t rewatch the movies for the poem; it was written from memory. Many years later, seeing Philip’s paintings—with all the anguished faces of these actresses—helped me understand my own pathos as an angst-ridden gay teenager, how I was attracted to melodrama, the intense emotions enacted in films. The poem’s really about my emotions, though it doesn’t look like that on the surface.

Jess: Speaking of the exhibition, I found the element of victimization really fascinating. Can you tell me about how this idea works in the project?

David: As gay men, I think both Philip and I identified with the plight of these female characters. They drink and drug and have sex, but they’re not really free to be themselves. Some end up dying, committing suicide. There’s the sense that there’s no room, in the culture, for who they are or what they feel.

Jess: Any other plans for collaboration? If not, what would you be interested to try?

David: John Bresland has been making a video essay based on some of my Peyton Place haiku. It’s been great to work with him, though it’s his film, just as Why Are You Doing This To Me? is Philip’s show. I provided the texts, which they reshaped into their own creations. I did give them both feedback, though, during the process. I’m currently collaborating with two other poets, Gillian McCain and Jeffery Conway, on a multi-volume Dantesque epic poem based on the 1967 movie Valley of the Dolls.

Jess: That’s amazing! I love Valley of the Dolls. How does it work to collaborate with other poets? Can you tell me more about this project or share anything from it?

David: We’re been working on this project for years. There are—or will be—thirty-four cantos, as in Dante. In each canto, we each write three times, rotating turns. I’ll write something and pass it on to Gillian; she’ll write then pass it on to Jeffery; he’ll write then pass it back to me; and so forth. We follow the movie, scene by scene. Right now we’re at the point where Neely (Patty Duke) is about to go on the skids. In my last passage, I likened her to Emily Dickinson’s “Beggar at the Door for Fame.” It can be fun, relaxing even. Though it is writing; it’s still work. It’s an invigorating ongoing conversation. We even have other poets guest star. For instance, Wayne Koestenbaum played Joey Bishop. Denise Duhamel plays Sharon Tate’s mother; she appears every time Tate talks to her mother on the phone.

Jess: And are you currently obsessed with anything new that’s finding its way into your work? Other than Buddy Holly?

David: Every obsession is a mystery that must be figured out. For some time I’ve been obsessed with the actress Frances Farmer, who in the 1940s had an infamous alcoholic nervous breakdown. I recently started working on a new book, a series of prose fragments, that attempts to make sense of my attraction to her. A movie star who didn’t want to be a movie star anymore—what a concept.

Jess: “Every obsession is a mystery that must be figured out.” That’s wonderful. How is poetry a way to interrogate our obsessions? And have you ever found yourself in a moment when you were a poet who didn’t want to be a poet anymore?

David: Perhaps there’s a mystery behind every poem I feel compelled to write. Writing for me is not a completely conscious or deliberate act. It’s more of a gnawing, intuitive process. I want to figure out what I think or feel about something—usually something I’ve seen or experienced. After it’s done, the poem will teach me things, help me see differently, from the other side of the obsession, or whatever was eating at me. It enables me to let go, move forward with my life.

Regarding your second question—and a very sharp question it is, Jessica!—yes, I have found myself in that place. I seem to vacillate between not wanting to be a poet anymore, at least a public one, and feeling perfectly comfortable with it all. It’s a balancing act. You have to protect your time, and yourself, find a way of staying honest and vulnerable in your work. And you have to deal with the perils of the poetry world: powermongers, famemongers, gossipmongers, jealousy, competiveness, one-upmanship, pettiness. I guess the latter is the real world, any world. But the poems that matter come from a pure place, an untouchable place.

Jess: Who are you reading now that you find exciting?

David: Right now I’m on sabbatical, so I’m reading quite a bit. Books are piled everywhere; there’s so much I want to read. I’ve been enjoying Elizabeth Bishop’s letters. And Pablo Neruda’s odes. And I’ve fallen in love with the poems of Carlos Drummond de Andrade. They seem perfect to me.

Jess: Is there anything else you want to tell me about? Any recent guilty pleasures? Any advice you’d offer on the “writing life”?

David: A recent guilty pleasure was watching all of the original Gumby cartoons from the fifties. They’re wonderful—creative, surreal, endearing. I hadn’t seen them since I was a child. I finally watched the last season of Mad Men, was so moved by it. And I’m almost done watching Ken Burns’ eleven-and-a-half-hour documentary about the Civil War. That, too, I’m finding very emotional.

In terms of advice: Don’t be a careerist. Be a good friend. Operate from (but protect—again, it’s a balancing act) that tender place where true poems come from. Where is that? At the risk of sounding cornball: the heart.

David Trinidad’s books include Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems (2011) and Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera (2013), both published by Turtle Point Press. He is also the editor of A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos (Nightboat Books, 2011). Trinidad’s next book, Notes on a Past Life, is forthcoming from BlazeVOX [books] in 2016. He lives in Chicago, where he is a Professor of Creative Writing/Poetry at Columbia College.

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