Smashing Windows: A Conversation with Poet D.A. Powell

D.A. Powell
© Trane DeVore

D.A. POWELL is the author of Tea (1998) and Lunch (2000), published by Wesleyan University Press, as well as Cocktails (2004), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, Chronic (2009), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys (2012), published by Graywolf Press. He teaches at the University of San Francisco and lives in the Bay Area.

Useless Landscape

Useless Landscape
or A Guide for Boys

BY D.A. Powell
(Graywolf Press, 2012)

From the Publisher:

“In D. A. Powell’s fifth book of poetry, the rollicking line he has made his signature becomes the taut, more discursive means to describing beauty, singing a dirge, directing an ironic smile, or questioning who in any given setting is the instructor and who is the pupil. This is a book that explores the darker side of divisions and developments, which shows how the interstitial spaces of boonies, backstage, bathhouse, or bar are locations of desire. With Powell’s witty banter, emotional resolve, and powerful lyricism, this collection demonstrates his exhilarating range.”

Let’s start with some biographical information. Would you provide a thumbnail sketch of your early family life?

I was born in Albany, Georgia in 1963. My father was from Tennessee; my mother grew up in Miami, Florida. They met on a blind date and married a few months later on New Years’ Eve. They eventually divorced and married other people. We traveled, but not in a fancy way.

In The H. D. Book, Robert Duncan talks about a teacher who delivered the spark of poetry to him. Neruda says simply “poetry came in search of me.” How did poetry discover you?

…the best poems we can write are the ones where the language just seems to part the Red Sea.

Well, a little bit of the former and a little bit of the latter. I became interested in poetry first through plays, then through actual poems. Then, in college, I studied with David Bromige (who had been Robert Duncan’s teaching assistant at Berkeley in the 1960s — so the Duncan lore was a part of my education as well). David gave me an extraordinary amount of support, while at the same time having a rather cavalier attitude about whether I continued or revised. He laughed at my jokes, encouraged me to send poems to magazines, and, though he certainly introduced me to lots of poetry, he let me follow my own curiosity in terms of who to read. When I look back now at how he was as a teacher, I can see quite easily how much influence he had on me. But it never felt like influence — it felt like freedom.

As a reader, I see a broad trend in younger poets away from significant content. Such content often seems secondary to stylistic concerns. Your poems, though, seem to be shaped by explorations of content — emotional, intellectual, psychological, historical, even political.When you sit down to write, are you responding more to a need to express or to an impulse to play with language? What is your writing process like?

In the course of my development as a poet, I’ve gone at it from all sides: trying to say something, trying to say nothing, trying to make a poem from the outside in; the inside, out… But I always return to something that sounds like a very articulate version of my own speaking voice. That may be due to my play-writing impulses. Or it may be because I’m a sub-vocalizer, and I sound out everything I read in order to understand it. The best way I can describe my process is to quote Charles Olson, who writes of the way the ear collects language and passes it along to the brain — our processing center — so that it feels spontaneous again. For Olson “the line comes (I swear it) from the breath.” The form of a poem is built into the thinking of the poem, and as one proceeds from the body, the other follows. Perhaps the form gets ahead of us — form can do that. But the best poems we can write are the ones where the language just seems to part the Red Sea. Subject-wise, nothing’s off limits. I’m sure life ends up polishing those gemstones either way.

In the preface to Tea you provide a sketch of the social matrix from which the language of the poems arises that aims to orient the “puzzled” (presumably heterosexual) reader. This led me to the notion that your poems use “gay language” the way some poets in the ’50s and ’60s used “hipster language,” but your preface — your orientation — is something those earlier poets never offered up: they preferred to maintain an “outsider stance.” What does your poetry, and your willingness to address the “puzzled” reader, say about your own stance as a poet?

Tea was a long time ago. I think the idea of a preface and endnotes derived from my experience in graduate school… you know: nobody seems to know anything then, so you have to constantly update folks with a glossary, etc. Nowadays, I don’t worry as much about whether everyone “gets it.” But I may also have capitulated a little, too. Maybe I’m too straightforward in recent years. That wouldn’t surprise me.

When I wrote Tea, also, I felt incredibly exiled from my own life. I was among the alien corn, in Iowa. I was writing from a position of otherness. I didn’t do much to move away from that spot, but the world changed around me. I feel very lucky that the changes also gave me a larger audience than I might have had. There are so many ways in which things could have gone badly.

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