An Interview with D.A. Powell
by Evan J. Peterson
Evan J. Peterson: I’m loving this book. There are some obsessive intricacies—the way each poem’s title begins or ends with the letter “C.” There are the sections “Terminal C” and “Initial C.” The title begins and terminates with that letter.
D. A. Powell: Yes, I’m a strangely obsessive writer, as I’m sure you’ve gathered. The “C” is an endlessly fruitful letter. Cee, si, sea…see? So many ways to hear the same sound. I think the only other letter that delights me as much is “Q,” but I can’t think how I might have handled that one. Cue, queue, Kew. And coq au vin. FAQ—that’s actually the title of someone else’s book (Ben Doller, 2009 Ahsahta Press).
EJP: Chronic is permeated by disease. It’s your most harrowing book since Tea, yet it’s also your most fun. Poems like “crab louse” and “confessions of a teenage drama queen” are highly playful. Other poems have fun titles but horrifying content, such as, “he’s a maniac, maniac” and “chia pet cemetery.” Tell me about your tug-of-war between horror and humor.
DAP: I don’t know that I think of it as a tug of war. I think that much of art, and much of life, is simultaneously funny and horrifying. Both humor and horror are expressions of the irrational. In either case, we’re unable to make sense of events. Often, the triggering device in both humor and horror is exactly the same: surprise. It’s a terrible movie, but a good example: in Lady Sings the Blues, when Richard Pryor’s character, Piano Man, dies, Diana Ross’s character (let’s call her “Billie Holiday” for the sake of argument, though I don’t think Ross is anywhere close to portraying Billie Holiday) doesn’t know how to respond; she’s uncertain as to whether Piano Man has really died or is just faking. Of course, Ross’s character is high on heroin at the time, which perhaps amplifies the confusion. Her reaction time is slowed. Normally, we experience a surprise and then get to decide immediately whether it’s a good surprise or a bad surprise. Half the time I’m writing, I feel like Billie Holiday. The other half of the time, I feel like Diana Ross performing “Good Morning, Heartache.” I never know if I’m making people sad or making them laugh. Hopefully, it’s both, but I’ll settle for either.
EJP: So what kind of child were you?
DAP: I was a quiet child. I was quickly bored by other children and their amusements. I much preferred the company of a dog and a hammer. Armed with my geology books, I’d set out to find topaz. I had every expectation that I’d grow up to be a full-time lapidarist—and come to think of it, being a poet isn’t so far off the mark. I also had a fascination, as most kids do, with fire, explosive devices, guns, and poisons. I helped one of my best friends poison his father, using my Chemistry set. I would buy fireworks and try to combine them into mega-bombs. Also, the ordnance disposal service was always coming to school to warn us of the danger of stockpiling munitions, so I was constantly scouring the landscape looking for stray bullets, unexploded grenades and mines, mortar shells. I don’t recall what it was that I wanted to blow up, but I was hell-bent on getting gunpowder. I also liked playing with my father’s guns, particularly a small Teargas gun he bought for his own amusement. Oh, and I liked to cook. I made a drink with vanilla and a raw egg, but I didn’t like the result. Still, because I’d found the recipe in a book written for children, I was sure that if I kept making the concoction, it would eventually turn out being tasty. But it never was.
EJP: Oh my. Do you have a writerly habit you’d like to break?
DAP: You mean like wearing mismatched clothes? I don’t really do that. I do have this Flaubertesque obsession with words. I try not to reuse words more than a couple of times. Not the small words: “and,” “the,” “cock,” you can’t make a sentence without those words, but anything remotely unique. I’ll do searches and replace words if I use them more than twice. That’s kind of ludicrous and writerly, and I don’t think anyone else even notices how meticulous I am with my diction. So I think I’ll break that habit if I get the chance to write again.
EJP: “Small” words, huh? Reading Chronic, I find a few echoes of Gregory Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death. You have a centerfold, as does he (“Bomb”). Your “clown burial in winter “ reminds me very much of his “Clown.” Perhaps it’s just the result of reading both of the books at the same time. Is it just coincidence, or are you riffing?
DAP: You know, it’s funny, I wasn’t thinking of Corso at all when I wrote those two poems that became the fold-out portion of the book. After I started thinking of them as a potential fold-out, I picked up a copy of Corso’s book—for no other reason than wanting to re-read Corso—and my first thought was oh, that’s where I got the idea. Then I realized I was actually thinking of certain magazines, but it’s so much better to think that it was Corso who inspired me.
As for “clown burial in winter,” I definitely wrote that poem before picking up the Corso book. The poem was a reaction to an old silent film I was watching on an airplane: He Who Gets Slapped. The story revolves around a scientist who becomes a circus clown. I kept flipping back and forth between that film and the Democratic debates. Half of the imagery comes from Lon Chaney’s clown funeral; the other half comes from what I perceived at the time as the futility of the American political machine. Maybe that’s why it reminds you of Corso.
EJP: Perhaps. Whose work makes you jealous?
DAP: I assume you mean “amongst the living?” Because I do get jealous of dead people’s work, too. But in terms of contemporary folks…for starters, most everybody. Especially my students. I envy them the freshness of their vision; their untainted palettes. Also, I think there’s a generation of young women who are fearlessly inventive: Rachel Zucker, Erin Belieu, Claudia Rankine, Danielle Pafunda, Rachel Loden, Lucie Brock-Broido, Monica Youn, Jan Beatty, Brenda Shaughnessy, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Camille Dungy, Victoria Chang, Karen Volkman, Juliana Spahr. These are the poets I’m constantly reading and teaching. If I ever had a job curating a reading series, this would be my dream team.
EJP: Tell me more about your soon-to-be-published collaboration with David Trinidad.
DAP: The book is just out from Turtle Point Press. It’s a “memoir” that we produced by cobbling together sentences from other people’s memoirs. The first sentence is from Tennessee Williams. The next is Helen Keller. And so on. We played it like a game of chess, laying down sentences in a way that would produce a singular narrative. We wouldn’t tell each other in advance which books we were using, and the rule was this: once an author was used, he or she was no longer available. So we had to be fairly strategic. For example, I didn’t want to use Chastity Bono too early, before the tabloids got a hold of her. And once I had used a sentence from her, it seemed absolutely fitting for David to follow up with a sentence from her father, Sonny Bono. We included a long section of footnotes, so readers will be able to see who our sources are. It’s of course everyone you’d expect: Donny Osmond, Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Eva Gabor, Eva Peron, Patty Hearst, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Tatum O’Neal, William Butler Yeats, Billie Holiday, Akira Kurosawa, Holly Woodlawn, Mia Farrow, Gypsy Rose Lee—300 authors in all, plus their ghost writers and collaborators. It’s entitled By Myself: An Autobiography.
EJP: I’m quite entertained by your new author photo. Is that your body in the x-ray? How did your editor(s) feel about that?
DAP: That is indeed my body in the x-ray. I would feel cheap presenting someone else’s x-ray as my author photo. That’s like when TV Guide put Oprah Winfrey’s head on Ann-Margret’s body. I thought it would be fun. Something new, a kind of antithesis to the usual sorts of vanity shots that appear as author photos. But maybe the x-ray, too, is a kind of vanity. I’m awfully proud of the kidney stone you can’t quite see. I think the tension between perceived subjects and actual subjects is what I was playing with. The cover photo, for example, is a picture of industrial waste. People have had a field day guessing: agate slices, mutating cells, pond lilies, algae.
How did my editors feel about the x-ray? Well, I think the first time I proposed it, they didn’t get it. Then they realized it was meant to be fun. Good, cheap fun. That’s what bodies usually are.
EJP: Would you ground the dedication, “For Haines Eason… After all” in the context of the book?
DAP: My favorite dedication to a book, ever, was Lucille Clifton’s dedication of a book to her late husband Fred: “See ya later, alligator.” Readers had a difficult time with that one, but it’s a beautifully intimate moment in a very public space. My own dedication has its private meanings. Publicly, it is meant to say, “after all, who else?” and “after all, here is the person who has made me want to write,” and most of all, “after all the roller coaster of our relationship—which no can nor should even begin to know all of—here we are, in love.” After all.
EJP: Would you describe your relationship with rejection?
DAP: In terms of writing? I’m okay with it. In fact, I set myself up for it from time to time, so that I can stay focused on my art. It’s very easy to start imagining that everything one writes is publishable. I don’t want to be the guy who jots down a silly little thought and calls it a poem. Therefore, I’ll send work out to magazines where I’ve got no prior relationship, just to see if my work stands up on its own merits. This past year, I sent for the first time to Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Black Warrior. Well, those were the ones that actually accepted poems. I had quite a few rejections, too. It’s a necessary part of the process of being a writer; it forces me to improve.
EJP: It seems tacky to ask this in light of the content of your new book, not to mention your previous collections, but I’ll just be gauche and ask: for which book did you suffer the most?
DAP: That’s a good question. Off the top of my head, I’d say Tea (Powell’s first published collection, Wesleyan University Press, 1998). I remember thinking that writing that book was the most difficult task I’d ever set my mind to. Plus, I was living in a shithole apartment in Coralville, Iowa, and I wept at my own exile, like Ovid banished to the outskirts of Rome, “Savage lands where wild beasts roam in packs.” But looking back on it, I wrote the book in two years, which is incredibly fast, and it was accepted for publication within a pretty reasonable timeframe. Lunch (Wesleyan University Press, 2000), on the other hand, took twelve years of writing and revision, it took a far greater psychological toll, and it was not only poorly received, it has continued to be maligned. Perhaps it’ll be the current book for which I’ll have suffered the most. We don’t always know we’re suffering at the time we’re suffering. If we did, we might do something palliative. Maybe I’ll look back in ten years and say, “Chronic was the book that broke my balls.” If one has to suffer at all, I suppose it’s best to do it in the past.
EJP: On the topic of past vs. present, Chronic often maintains the formal elements you’ve become known for—long lines, fragmentary language and imagery, etc.—but often breaks from these as well. You’re titling the poems now. Did you fear becoming predictable? Was the change more casual than that?
DAP: At first, I thought you said “tilting” the poems, and I was intrigued as to what that term might mean. In fact, I was pretty sure that was an accurate assessment.
I wouldn’t say I fear predictability. I can’t predict anything about my work, so I doubt that anyone else can. There are all sorts of ways in which these poems are new. I went to great pains to be serious in this book. In fact, great pains came to me; I didn’t have to go looking. I tried to confront all sorts of terrors, my own and others. And yet, there’ll be reviewers who’ll only see how little my work has changed, who’ll overlook important components of the book: it’s main subjects, for example. Or its formal variance. But you can’t sit in the room and make sure the reviewer has actually read the book.
EJP: Since you responded to the term “tilting,” tell me more about how these poems are tilted.
DAP: Well, when I misread the question, I thought of a line from my poem “chrysanthemum”: “with a certain tilt of the mind, an imperial flower might mean forgiveness.” In the book, I was having fun with the idea of an image, and how it can be read and mis-read. I was literally thinking first of a chrysanthemum flower, then a jellyfish, which looks similar (particularly I was thinking of these newly discovered “immortal” jellyfish), then an explosion and finally space junk. I saw them all as slightly different versions of the same shape, but I was meditating upon how, out of context, any one of them, as described, could seem like any other one. So, in that respect, I was relying upon the tilt of the imagination.
Also, I was utilizing indentation much more than I’d ever previously used it, wandering away from the left hand margin like a child finally letting go of the side of the swimming pool and trying to paddle a little. I wanted the poems to feel less anchored, more organic. Or perhaps a tad frayed. Aren’t we all a tad frayed right now?
EJP: Indeed. As you “tilted,” what was your greatest surprise that came in writing this book?
DAP: There were so many surprises—every poem was a surprise. But I think the strangest realization was near the end of writing. I noticed how devoid this book was of popular culture, comparatively speaking. I mean, I still have “Funkytown” and Karen Black and So I Married an Axe Murderer and Stanley Kubrick and drag queens and rehab. But it’s so much more pastoral than any of my previous work. I guess it’s a two-fold process.
I think my own version of popular culture has become dated. Other people don’t listen to Bananarama nearly as much as I do, while I, for my part, haven’t a clue as to what’s current in music. Is “Hootie and the Blowfish” still the name of a group, or is that already a dated reference?
I have also become more and more enamored of trees. Not like a druid. I just think trees are splendid beings. I have particular trees that I like to visit. A flax-leafed paperbark, a cherry, a copper beech. Certain cypresses and maytens that live near me. I needn’t bore you with the details. But suffice it to say that, as I was wrapping everything up, I saw that my attention to the world had shifted, and I think the very cadence of my work was affected. There are still a couple of zippy poems that involve horror movies and corndogs. But mostly I’m unzippy these days.
EJP: There’s definite despair in this book, a sense that the world is coming to an end. At the same time, the book romps with a sense of camp, humor, and dancing in the face of doom. Do you find it necessary to rejoice as a way of saying “F--- you” to the inevitable?
DAP: Oh, my…despair? Well, can we say, to quote the immortal Adam Ant, “Desperate But Not Serious”? Or maybe I mean serious but not desperate. This is a perilous time. Maybe all times are perilous. Maybe it’s time itself which creates peril. Maybe that’s why time is depicted as a father, because, just like our own fathers, it’s always running out on us. But that doesn’t mean that anything is inevitable. For example, we might think love has passed us by, but it was really just looking up ahead for a place to park the car and give us a space to tilt the seats back. Oh, there’s that tilting again…
And so, we thrive. Art thrives. I hope that, despite the wreckage, hope is alive in the poems as well. I didn’t call the book “Terminal.” I called it Chronic. The world, despite the way we dirty it up and make it feel cheap, keeps sending us flowers. It’s a more constant and considerate companion than we give it credit for. Yes, life has had a go at us. We’ve had a go at life. But who could say it better than Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers: “clams on the halfshell and rollerskates.” Good times! Yes?