Courting Sadness: A Conversation with Aaron Smith / by Peter LaBerge

BY AIDAN FORSTER

 Aaron Smith, author of  Primer  (Pitt Poetry Series, 2016).

Aaron Smith, author of Primer (Pitt Poetry Series, 2016).

Aaron Smith is the author of three books of poetry published by the Pitt Poetry Series: Blue on Blue Ground, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize; Appetite, an NPR Great Read, and finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Publishing Triangle's Thom Gunn Award; and Primer, a Massachusetts Center for the Book "Poetry Must Read." His chapbooks include Men in Groups and What's Required, winner of the Frank O'Hara Award. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Court Green, Guernica, Ploughshares and Best American Poetry. A three-time finalist for the Lambda literary award, he is the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is associate professor of creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His new book, The Book of Daniel, will be published by the Pitt Poetry Series in 2019.

Adroit_Asterisk.png

Aidan Forster: Having read Appetite and Blue on Blue Ground, Primer strikes me as a shift of your lyric needle, a sobering reflection on the episodic escalation of a queer youth and middle age inflected by depression. How has the experience of writing Primer differed from that of your other collections? In what ways was it the same?

Aaron Smith: Blue on Blue Ground, that’s the book that came out of graduate school. I finished graduate school in 1998—20 years ago—so things have changed significantly. You sort of know there’s a book happening, but you don’t really know what putting a book together means, so I was just sort of writing poem by poem, and then I didn’t start shaping it for a long time, or I had versions of it. Blue on Blue Ground was a really lonely book, and it was also a book where, in graduate school, I really realized I was about to start writing queer. It seems silly now, I think, to generations coming up, but we were attacked for identity politics. They were like, “Nobody wants to hear this,” “Think about your audience,” “No one wants to read the lives of gay people—you’ve gotta think about everyone.” It’s thrilling to see now that so many people are bringing their identities to poetry.

Blue on Blue Ground sort of slipped up on me. I wrote poems, and then I sat down with a mentor and we talked about it together. So it was really poem-by-poem. Appetite was the most miserable book to write. What’s funny is people think, Oh, it’s fun. The long movie poemI Love the Part” is in the middle, then there are these Daniel Craig poems—there’s definitely intensity—but I wrote and wrote, and I thought I had a finished version. I sent it to my publisher, and my editor, Ed Ochester at the Pitt Poetry Series who has been really wonderful to me, was like “I don’t think it’s done. I wanna do your second book, but I don’t think it’s finished.” And he was right. He circled ten poems that were working, and that’s ten poems out of an entire manuscript! I was like, Oh my god, I’m never gonna get this done! Then I got snowed in in Buckhannon, West Virginia where I was teaching, a miserable little town with a college and amazing faculty, and that’s when I started writing “I Love the Part.” I was watching movie clips, and that sort of exploded the whole book for me. I do think there’s a history in gay writing: gay men, we’re dishy, and we’re chatty (the New York School poets do this). I’ll say it for me, I don’t want to make any assumptions for all gay men, but the tradition that’s interested me is where we’re gossiping or we’re chatty, and I think “I Love the Part” opened that voice up for me, where I could sort of critique these things while they’re happening, sort of a fun queer aesthetic. And then it sort of pushed all the other poems, and more poems showed up.

I didn’t write for two years after I wrote Appetite. It was so miserable. I like the book now, but I would say in some ways I still don’t even understand it, which is not the thing a writer should say. I get it, but my relationship’s very different, maybe, than what someone else’s relationship to it would be. As for Primer—I have dealt with depression my whole life, and it’s always a weird thing to write about as a gay person, because it’s like: He’s sad because he’s gay, and I didn’t want that to happen. But the truth is I was sad, and I am gay. I felt like I was silencing this part of myself and there was also this sort of weird responsibility to a community. I’ve also really been questioning: what’s community? What’s that mean? Sometimes it feels like really powerful, urban, gay white men who make decisions about marriage rights and equality forgetting rural queers, trans people, people of color, so I was really questioning this idea of community. I always write my truth, and I was in a really bad place. I grew up a Fundamentalist Christian, as you can see in the books, but I’m no longer that, obviously—and I said something about the gay community one day to a really smart therapist, and she said, “Oh, I didn’t know you left one fundamentalist church for another one.” She had me. 

My friend Peter Covino, who’s a wonderful gay poet, started a group, seven of us, and once a week we had to send a draft of something to the group. There was no critique—it was just a deadline. My day was Thursday, and I would just treat it as a deadline. Even though I was depressed and I was teaching, I was like, I have to get this done. I would spend an hour writing just to get my piece in, and a lot of the poems about depression showed up, and I wasn’t going to censor them. I understand there’s shame in the book, and I know it’s sort of a taboo to talk about gay shame. We’re supposed to be the “It Gets Better!” movement, and I was like, Maybe it doesn’t always get better. Maybe it gets better, then it gets complicated in different ways, and I just thought I wasn’t being truthful by not writing about this. I knew it was complicated to write about suicide. I didn’t want to glorify it, and I don’t think I did, but as an artist, I wasn’t being true to myself to pretend like that aspect of myself didn’t exist. So, in some ways, I feel like the first two books were a lot more about queer identity and this one was investigating a lot of sadnesses and this secret depression. Because I’m queer, the work’s always gay, queer, but it felt different for me, too, it felt formally different. One of the poems, “Still Life with Gun,” has mostly one syllables or two syllables. I was trying to capture how I speak. I was reading poets who were pretty narrative, and I wasn’t trying to do a lot of tricks. I just wanted to tell what I wanted to tell. David Wojnarowicz, an amazing queer artist, said, and I’m paraphrasing: “I make art for two reasons: so I can see things in the world that look like me and I don’t feel so lonely” and “to debunk the myth that we’re a one-tribe nation.” We might be gay, but we’re not all the same. I love my students, who are open to fluidity and to identifying themselves in ways that are truthful, and it’s a really thrilling time, in that sense, for me to think about queer community.

A. Forster: The myriad speakers in Primer contend with internalized architectures of shame at every turn: a boy’s shame at his inability to mirror his father, or a young adult trapped in the perceived victimhood of his own desire (as in “Bleached,” the speaker “afraid someone would know [he] had a body / [he] wanted to do things with”). As a denizen of the American South, Primer’s prismatic look at shame resonated with my lived queer experience. What do you consider to be the role of shame in your poetry?

A. Smith: I’m extremely interested in shame, the places the larger party line says we should be past: No, you come out, now you can get married and join the military, and you don’t have shame, and that’s not true. I grew up Fundamentalist Christian. I was told I was going to hell not just by family but by everyone around me. I was told my desire was wrong, that my body was wrong. We obviously still have the AIDS epidemic, but I grew up when there was no real treatment or preventative drugs to help people live, so I was basically told that if I were gay I would die of AIDS and I was going to hell. I didn’t have the luxury of moving on and saying, I’m post-shame. I love being in uncomfortable spaces. I was fortunate to study with the poet Toi Derricotte, and she’s always in those spaces that are complicated, where sexuality intersects with family and identity and race. She asked me once in graduate school, Why do you keep the poems about your family and your Christian upbringing separate from your poems about gayness? What would happen if you merged them all together? Of course, I was terrified. Once I started doing that, it opened up everything for me as an artist.

I’ve had people tell me to be careful about shock value in my poems about sex. I literally write about sexuality because I think it’s one of the great confusions of my life. Having sex, the body—I’m always trying to figure out what it means. I don’t know if you’ve seen the comedy special everyone’s talking about, Nanette by Hannah Gadsby, but she’s so open about how she’s middle-aged and she didn’t want to come out to her grandmother because she still has shame. I just don’t believe that queer people in this culture, at least at my age, are completely shame-free, and I just wanted to talk about it, and I always want to talk about it. I want to investigate it, and think about it, and I want to live in the places and the spaces that make me uncomfortable and sort of bring them out, to say it’s still there and maybe eradicate it from myself. I’m a little too jaded to say I can change the world, but I think I can change myself, which makes me better in the world, and thus maybe the world gets a little bit better and a little bit easier. But it’s an obsession. I think some people didn’t like [Primer] because I wasn’t supposed to talk about gay shame, and I just didn’t care. I really had to let go of the notion of what I thought was trendy or interesting for other people and really be honest. I’ve had so many people tell me how much they appreciated that I talked about suicidal ideation, that I talked about being in middle-age and still having shame, or pockets of it that live inside me. Obviously, I’m not the twenty-three-year-old who feels that way. I was thinking about how my sister and my mom and I were in a car and a man got out and started screaming at us over a parking space. It was really nasty, but I think this is Trump’s America now. This is the second time I’ve been attacked in a year—two men bashed up my car when I accidentally cut them off several months before this incident—and I’m sitting there, and I pulled my Mace out, and I said, “You need to get away from my car.” He said, “Oh yeah? You’re going to Mace me? I’ll just call the police on you.” It was so fascinating to me that he was so entitled to his anger and his position and his straight-white-male privilege that he still believed it was my fault. I realized I was wearing these really fantastic women’s vintage Oscar de la Renta glasses, and my family sort of joked about it, but a part of me wondered if I was blaming myself for having fem glasses on. Where’s my shame? When’s it my fault? On subtle levels, I’m still catering to people, or fearful for my life, and it makes me feel ashamed, but I’m also trying to figure out safety, not being murdered. I never thought I would feel this way at forty-four, but I’m more afraid of straight white men than I’ve ever been in my life.

So, all these things are swirling in my head, and shame’s in there, and it’s all been complicated by a world that seems more willing to be vocally nastier and uglier. I will probably always write about shame. I just finished a new book, and my friend said it’s totally in new areas of shame. In Nanette, Gadsby says you put a kid in shame and have them soak in it, and they lose the language for how to communicate outside of it. We’re having to re-teach ourselves. I see some youngsters coming out at twelve with absolutely no shame and I love it, but that wasn’t my experience, and I think I should write my truth, which sometimes isn’t trendy. But I also don’t live this life where I’m constantly beaten down by shame. These are moments, these are poems, and I sit down and think about these things, and then I make dinner and have a normal life.

A. Forster: Primer populates itself with acts of witness and invokes the poet and speaker as voyeurs of their own desire. I’m thinking, especially, of the poem “Liquid,” in which the speaker creates an implicit distinction between himself and those who think “it’s normal to be beautiful / and looked at,” delineates a sexually-charged interaction between himself and a muscled runner, and imparts a wonderfully delicate eros at the poem’s conclusion. Here and elsewhere, the speaker finds a microcosmic poetic reality in the beatific body of another. What is the significance of witness and sight as forms of poetic world-building?

A. Smith: The last thing in the world I want to do is pretend like I’m not implicated. It’s so easy to find a headline where someone has been homophobic and write a poem saying that person is terrible and I’m right because I see it. I miss “doubt” in poetry right now. I want places where we know what’s right, but maybe the speaker is confused or implicated, and they’re investigating their role. I can critique that body culture, but I’m also a man who is sexual, so it’s a weird moment. I’m trying to live up to this ideal that I’ve never lived up to, but, at the same time, I’m mad that I feel this pressure to do that. At times, I look at men in books and I objectify them because men need to be objectified a little bit because women have been going through it for years, but I also try to lampoon it. I make fun of David Beckham—I compare him to myself—and there’s a self-loathing in that. I think I’m a year older than him, and I feel like we’re two different species. What does it mean to try to fit in? I wonder what it would be like to be looked at, or to be the default, what a different life that must be. I’m not saying that I should never be seen, but I like feeling invisible because then I think I can be an artist. There are times when I think, What a burden to be looked at, what a burden to walk into a room and have everyone look at you. I’m fascinated by bodies and how we move in them, our different experiences of them. I’ve had men tell me, “If you just worked out, you’d be really handsome,” and that was a time in my life when I ate almost nothing and worked out six days a week. That was my twenties, when I was so confused about what I should look like and be. I’m fascinated by these blind spots and how we don’t take care of each other.

A. Forster: In addition to writing poems, you also teach creative writing. In what way has teaching influenced your work as a poet?

A. Smith: At a very practical level, it has made me a much better editor of my own work. I spend so much time critiquing that when I go back to my own poems I’m really fast. I’m like, Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. But I have to be careful not to start editing before I finish writing my poems—I have to tell myself to just keep going. But it’s made me really think about how I put poems together and how my students put poems together. I think I’m a good teacher, and I think a mark of a good teacher is seeing what your students try to do and bringing that out instead of saying, No, a poem must be this, and it reminds me of how many different ways there are to do this. I also enjoy when my students are pushing into new territory. I’ve had students write about being asexual, which I’ve not really seen in literature. I have students who are writing about being non-binary or being trans, and I find some of the most exciting writing happening in that space where we’re dealing with a gendered language, taking he/she out and using they, and finding ways to represent that on the page with a language that wants to norm. I love thinking about those sorts of problems with language in writing, and I’m really thrilled right now when I read really smart work by trans students. I’m at Lesley University, and so many  students in my classes are progressive, and I get really excited to see how everyone’s thinking. I get really excited about where I see queer poetry going, particularly trans poetry. I find it to be one of the most exciting spaces now. Jos Charles is a poet I’m very fascinated with, and I’m looking forward to reading her book feeld. She has a book called Safe Space, and I think that book investigates what the language can be pushed into.

A. Forster: I’ve heard a lot of poets say they write the poems they needed to read in their youth. Is Primer a retrospective almanac for a younger Aaron Smith? Who are you priming, and for what?

A. Smith: I think the younger Aaron Smith may have been too afraid of it. Maybe college-aged Aaron would have read it. When I think about you [Aidan]  reading it in high school, I’m happy. I was still in the heart of Fundamentalism and confused when I was in high school. It’s funny, with this new book I’ve been writing, I’ve been going back and digging through significant poets for me. I ordered a new copy of Alice Walker’s Her Blue Body Everything We Know. As I’ve gotten older, people have told me her poems aren’t as great, but I was looking through them, and it brought back almost a muscle memory for me, a memory of how radical it was that she’s questioning Jesus. I didn’t know you could question God. I would’ve been a little afraid of Primer, but college Aaron would have been happy to find it. I remember finding David Trinidad. David and I have become friends over the years, over his work and the work of Tim Dlugos, and when I found them, I was like, Oh! Ok! Timothy Liu’s book, Burnt Offerings, was hugely important for me. But before that, I was reading women. Men weren’t writing for me. I could find women, and they were saying things and putting their bodies on the page, and I could identify that way. Many gay men of my generation would watch movies and pretend we were the women. These women poets, who have always been important to me, were trailblazing so much space, and it started with finding that Alice Walker book and then exploding from there. I finally found queer men, and then I had these amazing women poets, these amazing queer poets, these queer poets of color and women poets of color, and they just opened the door for me.

So, I think college Aaron would have been more prepared for Primer. I also think college Aaron might have been afraid because Primer is a little bleak and he would’ve hated thinking that it was going to be tough in his forties. But, that was really a medication issue. I didn’t get the proper diagnosis for what was going on in my head until a couple years ago. I told so many doctors that I was sad and I fantasized about wanting to kill myself, and they were all like, Here’s Zoloft, the standard. Twenty years later, I’m sitting in therapy, and I’m at my lowest, maybe three years ago, and every morning I’m waking up (it’s in the poem “Blue Exits”) thinking, Should I go to work or should I kill myself? Well, I’ll go to work. I think it was more passive ideation, but that can lead to active ideation. My grandfather was a suicide, and I knew it was something that could be passed down, and they finally identified, between this therapist and the psychiatrist, that I had PTSD from my childhood. I was like, PTSD? I didn’t go to war! But they said, “No, you were so demolished by Fundamentalist Christianity that we think you have PTSD.” Then they got the meds adjusted and I woke up like, Wow, I missed half of my life. If Primer can make somebody start asking questions earlier, then I’m thrilled. I wish I could’ve found a book like it, started asking questions and maybe advocating for myself earlier. If you’re depressed, it’s hard to advocate for yourself. Now I look at Primer and I’m so glad that I wrote it, but it also makes me really sad to look at. Even the forms in Primer—the clipped lines or the enjambment or the tight poems—can remind me of the sadness. In my new book, The Book of Daniel, I’ve been double-spacing, I’ve been playing, I’ve been laughing. It still has intensity and sadness and so on, but I had to change my relationship to form, or I didn’t know if I was going to keep writing. I had another long period of silence. I don’t think I wrote for a couple years after Primer was turned in. I hear people say they have to write, but not so much for me. I can just watch TV and read magazines and look at books when I’m not writing. But I love writing, and I’ve gotten back to where I really love it as an art, and it’s been a lot more fun when I’m not so sad. One thing I tell students: if you have to be sad to be an artist, then don’t be an artist. If you’re an artist and you’re sad, that’s fine, but if you think you have to court sadness in order to be an artist, then I urge you to run away from it. It’s so much better to be happy.

A. Forster: What’s next for you and your work?

A. Smith: I saw an interview with Ada Limón where she said she was a lyric narrative poet. I’m not afraid of narrative—I know that’s a dirty word sometimes, and it was being discussed when I was in graduate school, and it’s still being discussed—and I go back to the idea that there’s room for everything. Let’s quit saying there’s one way. Even as we’ve been talking here, you see how I have so many things that I keep bringing in, and I had a moment where I was like, Can I get that on the page? So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been double-spacing a lot. I’ve been letting the next thought come and seeing where it takes me, and then in revision, making sure there’s some kind of thru line. I don’t want poems that are just weird things thrown together—I want them to have an emotional heft to them. When I took some time away from poetry, I went to Instagram and started making nine-square collages. They’re very irreverent, erotic. I was doing really well, but then people started reporting them, I’ve had some censorship. But at the same time, it brought me back to poetry. I thought, Can I get a quote by Plath in but also reference a Frank O’Hara poem? I’ve been giving myself these challenges—like, I’ve always wanted to write a poem about Alexander McQueen, so I’m going to title this poem “Alexander McQueen” and see what happens. That’s been thrilling. Primer was really line by line and week by week, but I’ve had so much fun rethinking my process and working on The Book of Daniel: it’s been about getting my influences in and getting a reference to Cher with a reference to Plath. That’s what makes me excited, thinking how can I put these things in. Letting these different voices in, letting tangential things happen, letting the way that I think onto the page, then still trying to keep the energy up, the line breaks interesting, and feeling the form differently. Like I said, Primer, when I look at it, makes me a little sad because the actual forms of the poems remind me of the sadness, so I really tried to shift into different ways of writing to re-energize myself, and it’s been a lot of fun.

Adroit_Asterisk.png
Forster.jpg

Aidan Forster is a queer poet from South Carolina. a 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, his work has been honored by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Poetry Society of America, and the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom, among others. His work appears in or is forthcoming from The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2017, BOAAT, Columbia Poetry Review, The Journal, and Tin House, among others. He is a 2017 Tin House Summer Scholar in Poetry and reads poetry for Muzzle. His debut chapbook of poems, Exit Pastoral, is forthcoming from YesYes Books in November of 2018. He attends Brown University and plans to study Literary Arts and Gender & Sexuality Studies.