“There is something not just mysterious, but also occult about writing.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How long ago did you write the poems in When I Was A Twin?
Well, the last book was published two or three years ago, so obviously most of them were written in the last two or three years, but there’re some things in there that are older and for one reason or another didn’t make it into the last book. So, I would say between five and six years.
There was an extraordinarily long period of time between my first and second book of poems. Seventeen years or something. But then between my second and third book there was a shorter period and then between my third and fourth there was an even shorter period, so something’s at work.
What do you think it is?
I think it might be because I’m getting older and I’m very aware of being much older than when I first started writing poems. I think that’s affected my getting poems out there quicker, to be perfectly honest. I’m usually a very slow writer and the books just culminate a lot of the time. One of the things about this book in particular though, as well as the last one, is that they feel like whole books and not just culminations of two or three years of work. So they feel united in a way. You probably know, the new book is a hybrid book, and the long piece, the title piece, is an essay and very lyrical. And it should be read as an essay. I cringe when people refer to it as a poem because it really isn’t. It doesn’t matter, I guess, and form is just so blurry nowadays, but I’m still traditional in a lot of ways, so I don’t want to get too blurry.
Sure, sure. And I think that people can kind of get bogged down in taxonomy. I would think of that titular piece as being an essay, but it is whatever the author calls it.
Yeah, and the great book that people are still talking about in that way is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
Right. She and I talked about that a little for this same interview project.
You know, genres are so interesting to me because of how people try to attach themselves to them. They don’t like rioting with their own confusion.
People still mistrust being hit with something that they can’t define. And that to me is actually the most exciting thing to read. I love things that I don’t know what they are—as a reader and a writer. And the longer I write and teach, the more I try to break all those paradigms. I blow them up.
It sounds like what you’re talking about is risk.
Yes. I never want my books to sound the same. I’m very conscious of making every book sound different than the last one. It’s always been my intention. And even the prose. I don’t know if you’ve read the prose, but it’s very different.
I’ve read a good deal of your prose now, and if we’re talking about prose, the title essay from the new book, is one of my favorite things in it. It’s a staggering piece. You’re writing about the death of your twin. You’re writing about sexual abuse or some sort of sexual relationship with that twin, and then you’re writing about his death.
Yes, exactly. I go in and out subjectivity and objectivity. Which is one of the points of the piece.
It’s filled with all these moments that take your breath away a little. There’s this line, “I am the survivor because I can feel my brother more now than I could feel him in our living.” That’s a pretty brutal line to read, but also rings true to the experience of knowing an addict.
The poet and AIDS activist Melvin Dixon, in a speech he gave in Boston years ago, talked about the prophetic nature of art. That was something that I am very conscious of too when I write. I actually predicted my brother’s death. And it’s not the first time I’ve made a prediction when I was just writing. I think they go hand in hand.
There is something not just mysterious, but also occult about writing, and the more I try to write toward whatever that unsayable unspeakable thing is, the more exciting it gets for me. I realize sometimes, “Oh, there is a prophecy here.”
That’s so interesting. For someone reading this who hasn’t read the piece, you write about how before your brother died you had written another piece about a hypothetical scenario in which he was gay-bashed, right? And then found dead in the street?
And then when your brother did in fact die, it was almost like he had fulfilled that prophecy, that you had made it real by writing about it.
Yes, exactly. And that was very conscious. And also it’s very true. He died under really weird circumstances. He was drunk, he picked somebody up or somebody picked him up and they went home together and his body wasn’t discovered for a couple of days. I was very estranged from him so I didn’t think anything of his absence. If we hadn’t talked for days at a time, I never had concern about it.
I went to an astrologer about a year later, and it’s always interesting whenever I go to an astrologer and they do my charts because I’m four minutes apart from my twin, so there are actually slight differences in the charts. You wouldn’t think so, but four minutes makes a difference. She’s kind of an extraordinary astrologer, and one of the things she saw and asked about was if I’d ever investigated my brother’s death. I said no, not really. I mean he was an alcoholic, he died of a heart attack, and that was all in the forensic report, but she said there was something very mysterious. She saw a great deal of mystery around his death. And I thought, “Oh my god, maybe he was murdered.”
Part of what comes through or what I meant to make come through that piece is that there is this sort of closeness but also far away-ness in the relationship—very much so—which I think is why it lends itself to speculation and prophecy. It’s a big risk to be writing about it. The whole thing about, “Is it true or not true?” My answer is always, “Who gives a fuck if it’s true or not true?”
But I think when I was writing that, I was writing into the spaces that I couldn’t know. The overriding questions are, “What am I, what do I call myself after my twin dies? Am I still a twin?” I was fascinated by that question. I’m not totally convinced one of us really died. It sound idiotic and kind of sorry to say that but—
No, it’s very interesting.
My good friend, the poet Liz Rosenberg, brought the idea up in the middle of a conversation and I had never thought of that.
Not being certain who to grieve.
Yes, and by the way, I have to say, for years, even while he was alive, that’s always been the book I’ve wanted to write. I’ve always wanted to write this lyrical, weird book about being a twin and it just never materialized. As you know, I’ve written about him in other poems; he comes and goes, but this was the book I wanted to read. This book of not just telling things about twinship, but that really explores how there’s something very telepathic about it, there really is in a deep way.
And I had sex with him, which I think is something most twins think about on some level. Maybe I’m being way way out of line—
No, that's fascinating, and it comes up in the book.
I do think it’s something twins think about. You can play it down as much as you want, but there is a narcissistic quality to being gay. What’s more compelling than having a sexual partner who looks exactly like you? It’s just a very interesting element.
That’s so interesting to me, the way you tether homosexuality to narcissism and then also the way addiction is deeply narcissistic.
You’re two addicts too, so you’re doubling down, or maybe it’s exponential, with the layers of narcissism wrapped up in that.
I always have to be conscious of it at all times. I was talking to somebody the other day about a person who is really narcissistic and how there are therapists who think the narcissist is untreatable.
A lot of the parts about your brother read to me almost like Gregory Orr writing about his brother, who he accidentally shot at a young age.
That makes a lot of sense.
The way he obviously felt responsible for the death of his brother, how he writes about poetry being about survival, survival of the individual self and the emotional life. This book felt very much like an extension of that.
Yes, absolutely. I’m glad you mentioned him, did you happen to read the essay that he wrote in the Times?
Yes. He does this amazing thing in that essay where he talks about reality being a stage set, a painted backdrop. He comes out of the essay there and it’s such an amazing moment. I love the way he’s in touch with that experience. He allows himself the whole range of experience. There’s no part of him that shut down, and I really aspire to that. It’s a great way to face trauma of any kind. To really allow yourself to learn something, to experience it in a way that actually gives your life more meaning.
It seems like you guys are both writing about these sort of load-bearing traumas.
So I hear him in these poems and that idea of survival of the self and survival of emotional life through trauma or because of trauma. And then the book is dedicated to Marie Howe, who you taught with at Sarah Lawrence, and her most well-known book is about her brother’s struggle with AIDS.
Which is how actually we met. It was through that book.
When I was putting together Poets for Life: The Poets Respond to AIDS, Jean Valentine turned me on to Mark Doty and to Marie Howe, who I had never really known. Mark Doty only had Turtle, Swan. And then Jean told me she had heard Marie read poems about her brother who died of AIDS and I should get in touch with her, so I did. We met in Staten Island of all places. I’ve known Marie now for more than twenty years. And she’s always been one of my closest friends.
My whole thing about dedications is that each book is dedicated to a woman writer, and so it was her turn. She helped put together my first book, actually. Our lives have had these incredible parallels for a while. We were teaching at Sarah Lawrence together, but we rarely saw each other. You don’t see anybody there. It’s sort of a commuter school. But now, I see her a lot. She was thrilled that this book was dedicated to her, so that made me very happy.
The second book was dedicated to Adrienne Rich, who was one of my first teachers, and certainly my mentor through most of my life. I couldn’t believe this, but she told me that she had never had a book dedicated to her.
I said, “That’s can’t be true,” and she said, “I’ve had books dedicated to me along with other people, but never just me.” I said, “Well, you do now Adrienne.” Isn’t that wild?
That’s a pretty great claim to fame to have. To be the first person to dedicate a book to Adrienne Rich.
Yeah, I loved it. I actually have to say that’s my favorite book of poems.
Is it? That’s interesting. You don’t often hear poets admitting that sort of thing.
Yeah, I’ll tell you why—it’s because it’s so coherent. It reads like one poem to me. They are so much a part of each other, each one sort of falls into the next. And a lot of it was written in one sitting.
Oh yeah. It’s similar to how Louise Glück wrote The Wild Iris. I know this because Louise told me. She said, “The last thing I want to do is write poetry.” She takes these long breaks from it where she would rather cook and do laundry, but there was one summer where she couldn’t get away. She wrote that whole book in one summer.
Yeah, really interesting. She’s fascinating. She has to be, along with Frank Bidart, those are the two people I go to for the news. And Marie. And Mary Ruefle. Oh, and Sharon Olds. They are poets that even when they are not doing their best work, I always want to know what they are thinking about.
Absolutely, absolutely. I love all those poets.
Louise has always been that for me. And a lot of other people too, I imagine.
Everyone you just listed is up there for me too. I like “who I go to for the news.” It seems like a lot of these poems are circling around Jack Gilbert, too.
Yes, it’s funny. You are not the first person who has said that actually. I was very influenced by him in spirit. His frame, his lens is so encompassing and it’s something I’ve always always tried to aspire to. I talk a little about him in an essay I wrote for Poetry called “Risk Delight.”
I think I remember that.
It’s in Poetry Magazine from April of 2013 and it’s called “Risk Delight: Happiness and the I at the End of the World.” It’s an essay about Jack Gilbert and Dana Levin and some other poets actually who are dealing with basically the abyss or starting into a void. I quote the wonderful poet, Mark Conway, who wrote this poem about how we are living in time of civilization in which the earth may die before people living on it now.
Every time I start a new poem, I want to put everything I haven’t yet written about into it. That what I love about Gilbert, so many of his poems are like microcosms of the history of the world. I think that’s what poetry should be. He’s my perfect ideal of what poetry should be. I just think the poems are extraordinary. And then Frank (Bidart) is just such an experimenter—he’s so wild. It’s so hard to talk about. He’s so complex. He’s so smart but he’s also so real. There’s a weird street knowledge about him too.
And his fascination with movies.
There’s a total a lack of pretension.
Yeah, lack of pretension. There’s also this incredible artifice in terms of the typography in terms of his lines and lineation is totally bizarre but makes perfect, and then when you see him read—have you ever seen him read?
No, not in person.
Oh my god, he has this incredible presence you know. And then of course, he’s mentoring James Franco. Fascinating. You know who turned James onto Frank, by the way? I’m pretty sure this right—
Exactly! Who, by the way, was a student of mine at Sarah Lawrence.
Yeah! She’s mentioned that.
I love her, she’s great.
She’s incredible. A superhero. I love all of these people.
I do, I’m just such a cheerleader for all of this.
I love that. You know what I love about that Kaveh—you’re young right? You’re in your 20’s?
Yeah, I’m 26.
Well, there are a lot of people your age that aren’t as serious about poetry as I’m sure you are, who don’t actually go to those people to read. I find that really interesting. They go to the poets who are younger, closer to their own age.
Oh, I just feel like I’ve got this sort of unprecedented level of access now with social media and email and all this stuff. It seems like a waste to not build these miniature apprenticeships with my heroes where I can. I’m shameless enough to ask.
So, Gilbert. One of my favorite little bits from him, what seems like a little Rosetta Stone for understanding his work, is when he says “everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”
Yeah, it’s great.
It’s a way of acknowledging both the tragedy but also the ecstasy right before it. I feel like that’s something your poems do too. A lot of what you’re writing about is really dark material, this dark tragic material, but you also have those moments of ecstasy on the other side of the scale.
Thank you for saying so; that’s absolutely true, I think. It feels a lot of times for me that poetry is a way to access that other knowledge or the veil or the world behind the veil. That whole Keats thing. It’s about looking and thinking about what you don’t see as much as you can see.
Absolutely. I think one way that you do that and make it approachable (and this maybe ties back to what we were saying about Bidart) is that you’ve got this simplicity of language, this colloquial language that sort of sneakily masks how trenchant and accurate you are being. Like, one of the lines in the book that I love was I think towards the end, “I’m brutal like something you pick up and put back down because it’s too heavy.” I could see a young poet taking that to a workshop and having it be eviscerated, but it just works so well here.
Totally. You know the thing that’s so funny that you say that because I did this reading in Cambridge last week and Gail Mazur, do you know Gail Mazur?
Not really, no.
Wonderful poet. She came up to me and said exactly what you were just saying. She said, “I don’t know how you do it. If other people were writing what you write, it just wouldn’t work.” And I thought that was a really lovely and I blessed her and I thanked her. I think I’m always making a conversation as much as I’m making a statement. They are both totally hand in hand, just essential. And that’s why, there are some poets I have a really hard time with, because I don’t feel like they’re talking to me.
That’s a great way to say that. We’re coming up against the end of our time here—do you want to tell me what you’re working on now?
Well, my husband was diagnosed as bipolar in October, so I’m actually working on what I think is going to turn into a book’s worth of poems or a books of prose, but I’m starting by writing a sort of a geography of our relationship from the beginning.
It’s going to be a book about the language of relationships and how that in some ways enables the relationship to live and in some ways it makes it very challenging, especially when someone is diagnosed as bipolar. One of the first things he said was that I could write about it, which is always really interesting. And I’ve written about him before. But it’s going to be a book about that, it’s probably going to be a book about this relationship and how it happened and how it’s changed over thirteen years. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.
That’s great. I can’t wait for that.
Oh thank you. You are a great interviewer and you sound like a really nice guy. This has been great.
Interview Posted: November 30, 2015
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