In early April, Derrick Austin and I discussed his debut book of poems, Trouble the Water. From queerness, to blackness, to Caravaggio, to R&B singers, Austin’s sorcery extends from his poems into his abilities as a conversationalist. At once elegant and honest, Austin’s ideas about poetry further announce him as a substantial contributor to arts and letters—now and for decades to come.
Lisa Hiton: It’s an exciting time for young poets, but it’s also a time of tremendous mediocrity simultaneously. And this book is the opposite of that. It’s not fool’s gold when you pan for this one. I can imagine a person who reads through many manuscripts for a given contest and finally gets to this one, and realizes right away that this is real gold, indeed. How many years do these poems span?
Derrick Austin: The oldest poem in the book is from 2009, I believe. And the newest one I wrote last summer. So basically, five years. The oldest poem is “Apology” and the newest poem is “O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E”.
LH: It’s amazing that the oldest one is “Apology”. You’ve been living with the poems for quite some time. By the time the book was taken, how much did it change until it was printed?
DA: I basically sent the book, essentially, as it is. “O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E” wasn’t in it at the time. Other than switching the order of some poems, nothing extreme changed. It arrived almost as it was.
LH: When did you know the book’s title?
DA: For the longest time, I was going to call the book Devotions. But then, first of all, there was another book that came out called Devotions, and I thought, well, I can’t do this now… Also, it didn’t relate best to everything that the book was trying to do. I think in about 2013, when I was preparing my Hopwood Award submissions, I was trying to figure out the manuscript. I went to a Bible website online. I searched “water” and there goes the site searching for every phrase in the Bible with the word “water” in it. The section in John which became the epigraph of the book showed up and I thought: “holy shit, ‘trouble the water’ is exactly what the book wants to do in terms of landscape, in terms of wanting to talk about bodies, in terms of sexuality—this feels right in terms of cohering everything together.
LH: I love knowing that the first title was Devotions because I think that whoever becomes the speaker of the poems—there are multiple speakers, but then there’s the speaker who comes from the arc and is the overriding speaker—seems to me to be struggling with a few predicaments, but especially, by the end, that tale old question: is writing action? And is that true in my real life, or only in my poetics? That makes “trouble the water” a question and a prompt and a fear that the speaker pushes himself against continually throughout the book. And it becomes a kaddish or devotion—a kind of incanting—in the way those troubles arrive or are answered. It’s beautiful to know even though it’s something that the reader won’t know from the text itself. When you started putting the poems together, was there a moment that you understood that “trouble” was an idea in the book? Particularly when you figured out the title, did you start rearranging things around that idea?
DA: I wasn’t thinking so much about “trouble” since it’s so implicit. When I was organizing the poems in the book, I knew that I did want it to have some kind of clear arc between sections, largely because I felt so much that the poems can be so lyrically dense and lush that I wanted to—I didn’t want to do the mix-and-match sort of thing that many collections do because I thought that would be entirely too much. So I wanted to have some kind of easy-to-access structure between each of the movements. And I also felt that every other movement spoke to each other. That 1 and 3 spoke to each other explicitly. And that the second and final sections did too. So that was the overriding principle with which I organized the poems. I wanted to make the journey clear. I wanted to make the path through which the reader experiences the book as open as it could possibly be.
LH: Part of it is in the book, the organization. Part of it is in individual poems. This book contains many formal poems—that means two things: there are poems in form, and then there are all kinds of formalities that occur in the poetics and content—and I’m interested in what you think the relationship is between formal authority and power. Whether that’s in regards to the speaker or just in your own process of writing.
DA: For me, form is a way that I’m able to find some kind of container for anything that I feel in a particular moment. I’m always interested in not only the way a poem looks, but the way it has rhythm. I always want my poems to feel as if I’ve written through the particular predicament I’m engaging in that specific space. Another thing that form often does for me is force me to avoid the easy way out of a poem. It forces me to be much craftier and broader in my interests than I am in a free verse poem. I often think that I’m much funnier in formal poems because I have to get the form right, so I do whatever I need to do. For me as a writer, that’s what it is to engage in form. In terms of the book and form, I love how you mention “formality”. I feel like that’s so much a part of me as a person. I like manners. That’s one of the big tensions in the book: the speaker trying to negotiate the formalness—the way through which the speaker can access the world in a way that isn’t going to try to traumatize or actively destroy him; formality is a safety net, essentially—“Here’s a set of rules that you know how to engage with; here’s this series of protections for my body in this particular space”. Most people think of formality as stuffiness, but I always just think formality is just being gracious to whoever you’re with. I also think that’s what the poems are trying to do: be gracious to the reader.
LH: I think there are also ways in this book—particularly because it deals with gayness so explicitly as content and as just overriding poetic in different instances—but there’s a way that formality, you have to change your definition of it because part if it—especially because the Bible is at the onset, it’s carried through in every poem, there’s a way that it courts with the lovers throughout the book. So there’s a way in having known someone in the Biblical sense that occurs in this book. A poem like “Bow Down” explicates that in one way. When you’re talking about form as safety or a kind of protection for the speaker, I think of “Blaxploitation” promptly because that poem is so brilliant. And in a way it’s so dangerous as the sestina builds power throughout as it continues to end on the word “black”. But there’s a way that it also gets to knife the other in a way that not all the other poems get to. The speaker has chosen a form that is both self-preservation and power because the speaker is mastering something that the other cannot master. The other “does not know how to touch” the speaker. So that’s another way to see it.
I’m interested too in formality as a looser structure—maybe even related to music. There’s a way that you get to be in drag if you simply put the costume on, right? You can also be “Torch Song” in this book because you found the right form for that kind of utterance. And so I wonder how much music informs the poems or your thinking about—because speaking becomes formal when it’s sung anyway—music. What’s the relationship, to you, between the formal and performance?
DA: I love that you contextualize it in the form of drag. That’s a great lead-in to my relationship to music in this book. I often think about James Merrill. He has that quote about how opera taught him how to write poems. For me, R&B music taught me how to write poems. Particularly, R&B music by women of the early 90s—Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Sade—all those women taught me what art should be. So much of my connection to them—even before I was writing poems, was that those women…the way they sung was so powerful, but so vulnerable at the same time. You never got the sensation that you could ever mess with these women. At the same time, all you wanted to do was comfort them and mess with the man who did them wrong. That was the way I wanted to engage with art—to be able to turn up the volume and be able to have some kind of authority or power in a particular space, but also be like: this is me as a person in this particular moment and I am gay and I need this and that. Those singers and their art—it was one of the first spaces that I felt comfortable as a queer black kid. These women singing about wanting these men who are unavailable, or already gone, or aren’t any good for them. And I knew I was associating with it. That’s one of the oldest spirits in the book for me—I couldn’t have written this book without those women.
LH: Do you listen to music when you write?
DA: I listen to music when I revise. I can’t while I’m drafting something. But when I revise, I usually pick a song and listen to it over and over again. I usually just listen to ambient electro type music.
LH: I share a love for those R&B women you mentioned. TLC, Toni Braxton, Lauren Hill, and En Vogue were the first CDs I owned as a kid. They are so able to be powerful and vulnerable and not have it feel like some sort of feminine melodrama that is for women. They are powerhouse ballads. “Don’t Let Go” and “Creep” and “He Wasn’t Man Enough” are all those things, like you said. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do that? There’s such sorcery in doing that, even if you’re the one who was abandoned. There’s a kind of power and desire in that which is so magnetic for me too.
There’s a totally other kind of art in this book, which is Caravaggio, and visual and Venice. An unsung character are these cities or bodies of water near cities. I wonder if that is a separate endeavor or if they become conflated when you’re thinking and writing about beauty.
DA: I think they are doing similar kinds of work. Especially so much of the visual art that the book engages with is the baroque. It’s just camp to me. It’s an erotic extravagance about religion, ostensibly, and yet, we can look at something like Caravaggio as though this has nothing to do with Jesus even though he’s kind of hanging out here. It’s that interesting tension between power and vulnerability. For example, in so much of Caravaggio’s work there are bodies in pain and bodies being flagellated and pierced and all of that kind of stuff. And yet, those bodies are always so whole and complete—still remarkably human. I always think about the difference between the way that the Italian Renaissance and the German Renaissance depicted bodies. If you look at something German, Jesus is oozing , and there are festering sores, and there are thorns erupting from everywhere, and it’s like “HOLY SHIT I CAN’T DEAL WITH THIS”. There are still those wounds in Italian art, but they’re so aestheticized that you see it, you recognize it, and yet you can see how this violence can still intersect with this beauty how this pleasure can intersect with the importance of the spirit, and also, the way in which a body can sort of…it’s all very performative essentially, which is fascinating. At the end of the day, what both of those things do for me is that they allow me not only a shape and structure with which I can engage, but also just this way that…I think it’s about history is what it really is. The way in which someone can be intimate in history—how those R&B singers are singing from a tradition that goes back centuries from gospel to blues, and how renaissance artists are going back from medieval and Christian mystics all the way back to Rome and the classical tradition. I’m interested in that boundary between intimacy and being one single person, but being engaged with history as a complete fullness and being able to juggle those two things. That’s one of the big things that’s interesting to me about both forms.
LH: This book, as much as it is interested in performance, because a poem is formed—it’s a structured material object by the end—the line that I find myself internally saying that I carried through the rest of the book by the time I had it, is from the opening of “Okaloosa” where the heron’s mating cry is the speaker’s favorite because it is “mournful, aggressive, and internal”. I wonder how the individual, when faced with history—whether that is in the bodies of people in paintings, the songs that you named a gorgeous inheritance of which parallels the way the sea functions in this book…at what point in making something is pain performance? Or is it not? Not that it wasn’t felt before, but in order to get a reader or viewer to feel that pain, is there a difference in the performance and in viewing it in a beautiful way?
DA: It’s easy to say all things are performative. That’s what language is. We’re trying to perform something that communicates. I don’t feel one way or another about artifice or people saying that things are artificial. I feel so much that artifice, if done right, is a valid way of expressing something honest. The problem people have with artifice is that it exposes so much of what we are all doing anyway. It’s just making explicit all of those tricks. That makes people uncomfortable. Especially coming from an explicitly queer tradition and thinking of drag and gay writers in the past, about how camp and performativity is so much of the tradition, for me it’s the most honest and true way to write and express myself. It’s very much important for me to write this way in this particular culture and moment. As this culture engages so much in sexuality and gender and trying to figure out its various traumas and realities about bodies that aren’t binary—bodies that don’t function within cultural norms—in this book’s own miniscule way, it’s trying to make some kind of path for all the little femme boys out there. All the boys engaged in a tradition that prioritizes that kind of performativity. That love of artifice. That love about being explicit with form and feeling. That’s what I’m trying to do in this and anything that I write—do that queer vulnerability and make myself explicit in what I’m writing. Making sure people know this is what you’re engaging with; it might be different but I hope that you can feel yourself and feel your way through this.
LH: And I think that it’s done so elegantly. For me, when I enter a book of poems—particularly in contemporary American books of poetry—a book becomes—the moment that the silence of the blank pages is broken, everything from the first page to the last is in a distinct order. And everything you’re saying now is in line with that “mournful, aggressive, internal”. Every reader who has to assume that position—be they those other femme boys out there or somebody utterly different, you have to then enter all those other kinds of beauty and performance—whether we are in the theater in “Bow Down”, whether we’re at a drag club in “Torch Song”, or any of the later any of those spaces—of this queer experience. Which is what it means to be “mournful, internal, and aggressive”, but to feel them internally and to have carried them around with you. And they inform the other ways by which you either find safety or destruction. Every time I hit a poem that was a powerhouse ballad, everything from that internalization early was carried into the experience of the poem. I don’t suppose every reader will love that moment with the heron as much as I do, but I think it bridges to the other primary content of the book, blackness, which we haven’t discussed yet. The identities are simultaneous, but they aren’t always perceived or respected by the other (lover, society, hurricane, etc) as such. I wonder if some of those things about the internal, the formal, and even what you said about manners being important to you as a person—how does that carry into this theme too?
DA: I tend to be a nice, sweet person, so that’s the main reason that manners are important to me. So much of the education of black people and just being black in America is being aware of your particular body in a particular space, and being aware of who you’re interacting with; manners is so much a way of attempting to survive in spaces that might be aggressive or violent towards you. It’s not necessarily the best way to do it, but it’s often the way that a lot of folks are taught. That’s sort of the way that the racial politics behind manners is so much of an undertow in the book—where racial undertones are expressed, and where and when they are announced. I think that especially towards the end of the book—the end of the book was the last section that I made—when I brought the book to my MFA workshop, none of those poems were in there. So a lot of the poems there are new. But I knew that energy is what I needed the end of the book to have. I needed the book to have this really in-your-face aggressiveness about race and violence that wasn’t yet in the book. I needed that shift—that break in the speaker. It’s been slowly bubbling up in the entire book and now I need the space to express it and I feel like that’s also the part of the book where, for the most part, none of those poems are in a fixed form. Yes, I feel like that’s the thing about race and manners in the book: the weird pressure between trying to survive and still trying to be accommodating to people—and being kind, and being open, and generous, and yet, it’s still a defense-mechanism, it’s still this loaded pressure. All of these things together is a lot of what the book is trying to deal with in terms of how race and those things intersect.
LH: I can’t imagine it without this last movement. It’s amazing to think about however you arrived into those poems and needing them. And really needing the movement. And you feel that as a reader—that the book needs to turn to something. That “Okaloosa” being in the beginning, and then that speaker being at the grave of Zora Neale Hurston and uttering “I’m a coward in my life unlike my work” means to help the speaker try to transform. Then the reader says to herself, Oh God, the effort of the whole work is to say and answer is writing action and can I make it action and what does action mean—what does that mean for a voice? and how is a voice related to a body or not? and how do history and a book have an intimate relationship? maybe more intimate than what happens in our time on this little planet? I felt that. So much. And that so much, Trouble the Water got to become—that the speaker by the end—was Prospero in a way. You got to determine the tempest. You get to be everything at once somehow. You get to have been mastered in some ways and to be the master in others.
This book says the prowess of the poem is that it makes you slow down. And you have slowed down and taken one of these paths with the speaker. And you slow down and it’s beautiful. And hard. To end there. But it’s what has to happen for an attempt at transformation—to have gone from this internal, mournful, unanswered mating cry (which is also calls to queerness), and then to end with the selection of poems—“At the Grave of Zora Neale Hurston”especially—because so many people (writers especially) have to face themselves and say: have I lived my life? or have I only lived in the suspension of disbelief that I’ve created? Have I dwelled too long in the art? But man, when art’s this good, there should be art anyway.
And then “Vespers” where the speaker turns away from art, finally. As much as we just talked about this bombastic and urgent and necessary end of a book, there’s a balance that gets restored. That’s also part of Trouble the Water. That you trouble it, but it comes back to stillness. And there’s a storm or an oil spill—whether man or nature troubles the body of water—and then stillness. I think that’s what art is too. It troubles the mind. It wakes you up. And then you have to exit the theater. And maybe enter the world again in a changed way. In that vein—of art as restoring the balance—could you talk about what ars poetica means to you as a person who loves art so much? Especially because many poems in this book loosely turn out to be a devotion about poem-making or art and beauty. What do these meant to you as moral capacity? This book believes in ars poetica—it’s a means for what end?
DA: Ars poeticas are so strange to me because I never really explicity set out to write ars poeticas in the “Ars Poetica” by Derrick Austin sense. There is much to say about how this book implicitly says: here’s a writer who has a lot to say about art making. I’m trying to extoll the virtues of generosity. In terms of not only me as the writer being generous toward the reader—writing a poem to the best of my ability in which someone can enter and exist safely—but also, generosity in the sense of…it’s the way I write my poems as lusciously as I do; it’s because I want the reader to be able to enter this particular world. I want them to experience this space of the poem. I also wanted to stir generosity in the reader. I don’t know who will read these poems. I want them to open up enough to receive the generosity and give it back and out. That’s the moral behind these poems. To instill generosity—between the reader and the work, between the reader and me, between the reader and the world. While the poems are super intimate, I hope they’re also able to open out into the world and that the readers are able to come out looking at the world with a renewed freshness. Generous spirits.
LH: Generosity is specific and different than other things, like empathy for example. Generosity is so much about a relationship to a reality in real time; it has a cultural consequence that is different than if you had named something else because it truly grounds itself. Especially for a book that so much loves the baroque in certain moments, I think more than other poets and books that like the baroque, it also has the Gulf coast, and an oil spill, and has poems that are about art, but that literally litter the middle of the book with all kinds of objects and language from other times. And that says something about your understanding of how history can be intimate. How can historicizing something participate in intimacy—which is related to generosity and has to work against violence. You’ve lived in many places. Can you talk about the guiding backdrop?
DA: Florida. It’s home. It’s where I discovered so much of my life. It’s where I lived for most of my life. I was there for almost a decade.
LH: Do you miss Florida?
DA: I miss the space. I miss being in a place where it’s almost perpetually summer. My last summer in Michigan I was sitting out on my porch and I got a notice that there was a hurricane. I realized how I forgot how much hurricane season was a way we measured time. It was hurricane season or it wasn’t. That was so much of my childhood. I miss the weird way that Florida makes you active in the environment in which you live in a way I don’t think a lot of states do it. I also miss it insofar as it’s such a strange state. Florida is the nexus of the South’s horrific anxieties about things. And reckoning with them on a daily basis—the history, the racism, the Gulf Coast.
LH: What images of water are at the forefront? This book takes on rivers in a different way than it takes on the sea. What influences of water, from early on until now, are important to you?
DA: I’m an ocean person. I went to a lake in Michigan with some friends two summers ago. It was so surreal because I was sitting there…it’s really pretty and I think to myself, something is really wrong. I realized it was because there was no salt in the air. And also, there weren’t real waves. This isn’t right. This is not how I perceive water. The first time I saw the ocean, I was living in Jersey and went to Atlantic City. The Atlantic was my first encounter. It was kind of gross and weird. It wasn’t my ministry.
But in Florida it’s different. There’s this stretch of beach called The Emerald Coast. It’s called that because the water literally looks like an emerald. It’s jewel-colored. It’s green. It’s stunning. And year-round, things change. When a hurricane rolls up, it gets gray and brown and seaweed and all the nasty stuff out there rolls up. And as someone who lived in Florida for almost a decade—I was there from 12-22—what was happening was those continuous seasons of extreme hurricanes that culminated in Katrina. And then the oil spill happened. And all of this was happening at the same time that I was coming out and figuring out my sexuality. When I was writing poems at that time, I felt it felt like I had a responsibility to write about it. I couldn’t not write about all of this extremity happening. Besides the biographical part of me and the sea, so much of what the water means to me is that it’s this boundary into the infinite. It’s where we can tread if we have a boat or can swim. But it’s also this vastness which we can’t really fully comprehend. It’s this boundary that’s beautiful, and nice to be in in one moment, but it’s violent and destroying where you live another moment. It has so much of a personality really. That is how the water is in my book and in my life.
LH: It’s a beautiful way—even in the first poem—to have the extremity of a place—there are crickets trilling and sulfur in the air all at the onset. To have a place that extreme even when it’s not behaving in a particularly violent way, to have that bound up in a sonnet, a form, says something about generosity and about the relationship between boundary and infinity. And water is always consciousness. And you know that because I’m a Cancer, I believe this fervently.
DA: Cancer moon. I second that, intimately.
LH: It is a boundary. But it doesn’t feel like a boundary. Even when you float in the water, it feels the opposite of being bound because you can’t control where it will take you.
DA: Yes. I always think about The Awakening. I read it in high school and I thought “holy shit, this is what books can do?!” I didn’t really think a book could do that. That book is always in the back of my head and the very ways in which she writes about the sea and how it’s oblivion and yet it’s the lover and yet it’s motherhood in the best possible way and yet it’s all these different things. That book was my entry into the sea as a trope in literature.
LH: In the opening poem of your book, the speaker and the sea have to succumb to having given up a name. What more does that mean to you as the book or your life go on?
DA: When I was setting out to write the poem that eventually became this book—which also connects to the line in that poem where the speaker says “I feel estranged from You”—that estrangement is such a particular part of the speakers in the book and my life. Especially when I was younger, I felt so unmoored from everything. I felt a strange anomaly that existed in the world. When I was writing one of the poems, the arc I was moving to was about trying to be able to find wholeness. And trying to find whatever avenue would give me that. Or be able to see through that. I think especially in regards to the last section of the book, so much of it is taking that heron’s cry from the first part, but claiming it explicitly as my own, and claiming it as this is me, and I’ve got a lot of things I am, and a lot of trauma, but I’m still a complete person. And I don’t need anything to make me feel like a complete person because it’s already all there. In all the fragments I cobble together, it’s still all there. That’s the big arc and one of the big discoveries for me in putting that poem first and putting all the poems together in the book.
LH: Estrangement and abandon are things I’m bound to. The other thing that’s difficult and shows most in these coming-of-age moments in any genre is the thing that supposed to precurse an estrangement is intimacy. And sometimes those intimacies are true, and sometimes they’re one-sided,, and sometimes they have to be imagined because you feel the estrangement but the intimacy never happened so you have to imagine that it had, or could have. I think it’s a very detailed, true, coming-of-age phenomena that many people feel and that this book captured. It brought me right back to being in certain moments of my younger youth. In queer encounters in particular, in my estrangement from my father in particular, and how those things change over time. When all of the extremity comes and you’re trying to piece things back together, which is another way of looking at the book in terms of landscape and in terms of coming out and figuring it out and being a whole person, and I’m not all of these one-off things, but I’m all of them all together—is at some point the promise of your relationship to writing is the generosity you learn to give yourself. When it maybe isn’t found in other spaces. I think that’s part of why art-making and loving art deeply is something that, as I am getting older and beginning to understand my inheritances in the lineage of gay literature, it’s one of those experiences I always come back to. It’s also why I feel like all of my femme boyfriends and I ended up in my high school theater department, or chorus, or whatever sorts of places were generous to all in a way that the world is not otherwise, even in the best of high schools A high school is a little microcosm of how hard the world will be afterward. I will continue to hide in my physical and metaphysical theater department at all costs.
Estrangement and intimacy. Is vengeance at all important to you? As part of art making. Thinking back to those RB singers, Toni Braxton has a desire for vengeance at some times and for hot sex at others. Don’t get me wrong, my favorite song of hers is, of course, “You’re Making Me High”. First you make me high, and then you’re not man enough for me. Both are true.
DA: That’s real. Wow. Wow!
LH: It seems a foil to the other themes we discussed. But I mean it. I think form is also conniving.
DA: Yes, I’m thinking about me and manners and how that works in the book. It’s so opposite of what I’m trying to do in a way, and yet it’s still there. One reason I like poems so much is people can be evil, and bitchy, and still very polite! It’s my favorite thing! One of the journeys of the book is being able to accept the nastier parts of my being—the explicit rage, the attitude, the various things that arrive toward the end of the book especially. Knowing when to put down the elegance, put down the manners, and just shout. And just take that mourning and aggression and make it external instead of internal. That’s one of the flips the book is trying to do as it moves on—is being able to move from this interior space and meditating on these different things, but also then being able to take that and engage the world with it. As the book moves on, it moves from this meditative space and takes it into the world to try and engage it. That line in the Zora Neale Hurston where the speaker says he’s a coward in his life unlike his work and trying to change that. That’s sort of where vengeance and those uglier things—not even uglier, just in the sense of they’re more public, which is anxiety inducing—and moving that to the forefront. Being unafraid to a public person, being a public body, just by being black, just by being queer, and attempting to claim space, essentially is hidden in the importance of all those feelings. Damn, that was a really good question. That was great!
LH: I think the answer is great too, because at the beginning of the book, the shouting and the—what you would call rage, but what I would call the parts that are a power ballad—the R&B I’m vulnerable but powerful, I’m conniving but I’m mad at you. It’s like your poem “Bow Down”. It’s that the lovers are both bowing down for the king in the play. But also it’s that Beyoncé, “you will ‘bow down’ to me”. Who is the king? Who is submissive? Who is in power? In the theater. And also in this sexual act of a blowjob. These things are made explicit. But those private moments that happen earlier in the book that are about the lover and queerness, are able to be explicated in that louder way—a public way, and an “I have a body” way as you’ve said, by the end.
Poems for me—the books I love are very conniving. They pummel you. They’re not about hope and altruism. I know there’s something very Jewish about that state of mind. For me, I want a book like Crush. I want to be on the floor weeping because I feel violated by that book—by how intimately it can name and enact feelings I couldn’t face. Your book manages to do both things—to pummel and then to restore some sort of balance. I mean balance in the art itself too—it has four sections, it’s even, it begins in the sonnet form and it ends in these smaller, tight poems versus the middle two sections which have longer sequences. That in itself, regardless of the poems at hand, regardless of the rage and urgency, they are with a grounded purpose of generosity. Generosity is a great key that opens these ideas up in your book.
I assume from reading your book that James Merrill is a figure who is important to you. I wonder if there are other poets are in that Derrick Austin central canon?
DA: Good ol’ Jimmy is important to me. Also, Robert Hayden. He changed my life in regards to how I am able to write about race and being black and trying to live. And also making art and trying to explore that in verse.
LH: When did you find Hayden? What changed for you when you read him?
DA: I first read Hayden in high school. But it wasn’t until grad school when I read him deeply. I got a copy of his collected poems. Just to see the breadth of his work and what he was able to do was so breathtaking to experience. And it was so interesting to see. I had known about Hayden’s reputation in the arts in general—particularly that he wasn’t…how he shied away from the black arts movement and became a forefront in poetics. Just reading his poems and seeing how they engage with race—after everyone had claimed that Robert Hayden doesn’t write about black people, he doesn’t write about race—and then it’s like every damn thing he’s written is about race! That helped me a lot. Especially in terms of writing the poems toward the end of the book that engage with race and what it is to be a black person in this country.
LH: Can you talk about bravery and gay sex in poetry? I feel like it’s so hard for poets to be explicit with sex. Other than Carl Phillips saying “lick my balls”. Which is memorable primarily because it’s one of the few grounded things in the philosophical and abstract thinking that is a CP book of poems.
DA: That particular poem where I write “slowly eat out my asshole”…I have to thank Lauren Clark for that. She challenged me to write that. It was our first year at Michigan and our first workshop together. We were hanging out and she was talking about my poems. And she was like, as much as you write about love and sex, there are never really bodies doing anything. And I was so offended! I was like what are you talking about! I’m so freaking hurt! But then I was like she’s right. And I thought, okay, I’ll show you! So then I wrote this poem. It was so important for me to hear that because I also needed that poem—especially where it is in the book—a poem of profound explicitness. Here are two dudes who are going through some sexual relationship shit, and here they are doing what everyone else does. I feel like it’s such an important thing for all artists to do really, but especially queer folks and folks of color to make really explicit: HERE ARE OUR BODIES DOING THINGS EVERYONE ELSE DOES. Here are queer bodies having sex. It’s nothing new or that the world hasn’t seen before. I think it’s really important that we have those moments where we make things explicit and able to be grounded in something other than “here’s something to shock you” as gay sex tends to be to people. So that’s the importance of doing this. It’s important to claim it. Here’s what I do. Here’s what folks do. It’s not novel, but it’s also something folks stress about and have anxiety over.
LH: I like what you say that it’s really important now to give access to our voices whether we’re queer people or people of color or women or anything that’s not hetero-normative or the patriarchy. I used to fight against being explicit, which was part of my own journey into gayness, and I think part of that had to do with tact and manners and wanting to participate and be treated the same instead of other. And in actuality that is a disingenuous, inauthentic part of what my gayness ended up being. It’s important to have the body—to express the body, whatever it is—binary, non-binary, black, etc. We need memories of all of our bodies. We need more models of excellence to pave the way for those who come after us. I hope our generation advantages from having these harder conversations explicitly. That they’re at least explicit finally, I hope, helps us. I feel changed by this book and this conversation. Do you feel changed by this book being in the world?
DA: The two things that have sort of changed is that…I sent my book out to all those contests fall of 2014 and it got picked up last spring and it came out now, so it’s been a year and some change since I’ve done anything to the book. So now they feel distant. I did something. Here they all are. Which leads me to the next change, which is: oh, these are public now…readers are engaging with it and having their own thoughts about it. It’s endlessly fascinating to me. It’s what I’ve been wanting them to do—to be out in the world. And hopefully they’ll do something for people. It’s been a really beautiful experience so far and people seem to be receptive to it. I’m just thankful, honestly, when I think about this book.
Derrick Austin’s first book of poems, Trouble the Water, was printed by BOA Editions in 2016. A Cave Canem fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, and four-time Best New Poets nominee, he earned his MFA at the University of Michigan. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2015, New England Review, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, Four Way Review, Nimrod, Southern Humanities Review, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Memorious, and other journals and anthologies. He is the Social Media Coordinator for The Offing.