by Megan Fernandes
Alex Dimitrov came to Concordia University in Montreal on Thursday, March 5th for a campus-wide reading. The following day he came to speak to my class, “Queer Sexuality and the Creative Process,” a cross-listed English and Film seminar that broadly conceives cultures of creativity in conjunction with ideas of intimacy, counterpublics, reproductive nationalism, and other well-established concerns of queerness as an intellectual and cultural history. One of the texts we read was Dimitrov’s debut collection, Begging For It.
On March 13th, 2013, I got an email from a close friend and poet with the subject “READ THIS POEM.” I opened the attachment to “Blue Curtains,” a poem about waking up in the late morning, finding the shape of a lover’s body on the balcony. The poem ends:
So I stood at one end of the room
and watched him. And between us
was a bed and a table and things
in a hotel—you know,
things that are anonymous
and belong to no one.
Like a sea or a life.
And all I remember is how expensive it was.
Not the room, but the feeling.
I get caught up in this poem. There is something in that turn in the penultimate line of the poem, in the improvisational voice, how that “you know” feels anything but casual, how the whole scene feels receding out of vision, that monosyllabic trill of “Like a sea or a life,” and how those end stopped lines at the final stage of the poem just gut you.
I read this book and that’s how I feel: gutted.
Dimitrov’s poems have an incredible amount of restraint that somehow gives way to outburst–– an established calm is interrupted by a “gold field” in luster, a “blond” who “gives his body to every man who believes,” a war “glittering on the horizon.” Begging for Itis a book about getting off on humiliation, about the reactionary impulses of a person in constant transition, about eating dinner with your mom after she catches you sinking your teeth in the underwear of your absent father, and the glint of a crucifix buried in the chest hair of a loved one. It is about watching yourself eat, lick, groan, ingest, get caught, get defeated. And what is so moving about the speaker’s voice that trickles over these hallucinatory and cinematic poems is the way they narrate the things he cannot forgive himself for. The failures of his parents somehow become his own failures. Fucking in exchange for favors leads to meaningful meditation on a possible career in pornography, the erotic potential of a plumber archetype, the way one must write poems in a recession. I read this work and I think what simultaneous loneliness and wonder, what unsentimental affection this speaker has for those who hurt him, use him, leave him. As the last third of the poem, “I Will Be Loving” reads:
The first man who kissed me
also put his entire fist in my mouth.
The last man inside me
wouldn’t even kiss me.
I am always inside me.
I am always inside.
I will lovingly degrade myself
I will lovingly degrade myself for you.
I will degrade myself, reader.
I will be loving.
– – –
MF: In 2010, I interviewed Alice Notley in Paris. We discussed two questions that are always fruitful to ask of poets: Which of these poems did you find the most difficult to write and why? Which of these poems still keeps you up at night?
AD: They were all difficult to write. I’m surprised I wrote them at all. This may be true for other writers too but I have to trick myself into writing poems. So let’s say I have the day to write (which mostly I have the early mornings) and I’m making coffee or flipping through a book or feeling the texture of my sweater—what I’m really doing, but not allowing myself to know I’m doing (to think I’m doing) is waiting for something to interrupt that conscious and chosen restlessness…for the poem to interrupt it. I’m there, I’m ready, but it may or may not happen. I’m never staring at a blank page. For me it’s being present while simultaneously absent in those in-between moments. It’s a trick into writing. It can be hours of tricking yourself. Or say I write the poem in 30 minutes, which rarely happens but it’s happened three or four times. Then I don’t know what to do with myself for the rest of the day. There’s a kind of euphoria that occurs which means very little in terms of the quality of the writing itself. You know, I hate the moments before writing, when I know I’m about to try and write. And writing itself is rarely pleasurable. It’s the minutes after when I feel happy. But I also know those are the most unreliable minutes. You’re probably like, “you’re fucking crazy” right now. And yeah but, I didn’t choose to do this. I had no choice.
MF: When you looked at this collection, did you find certain linguistic reflexes or images recurring? What surprised you most when you looked at the poems all together?
AD: The book was called American Youth for a long time, mostly because those are two central themes—contemporary Americana and, well, youth. But then came the death poems, and the sex poems, and all the religious iconography which I love…and it just made less sense to keep that title. Everything about making this book surprised me. It was my first one. And also the way my mind works, there’s an aesthetic on the page that has to come to me, but there’s also the visual aesthetic and sensibility that goes along with that, which is equally important to me. And I don’t mean the images in the poems necessarily but the moving images, the videos, the still images, the photographs that I associate with the book. Those are all part of it. I think very cinematically. Like the book trailer I made, for example. Or the shoot my friend Rachel Silveri and I did on the rooftop of my old apartment building in New York, in the Lower East Side. That’s part of the world of the book. The visual landscape I’m trying to create. The aura. It has to be there.
MF: The collection begins with the poem “Heartland” and ends with “I’m Always Thinking About You, America.” What has evolved in between? Why begin and end here, with these two very distinct iterations of Americana (one with bare lines of imperatives, dental consonants, rhetorical questions, and the other breathless, strophic, Whitmanian, a half apology)?
AD: I know, they’re two very different poems aren’t they? “Heartland” to me felt like the right way to open the book because it’s a “I’m going to figure out what happened to me” poem and “what happened to me in this place”—this place being America. At the same time, it’s not sorry for anything, it’s not about being absolved, nor is the speaker seeking approval or any kind of personal justice. “I’m Always Thinking About You, America,” which closes the book, is in some ways admitting that I didn’t figure it out. That I couldn’t figure it out. That I found something else, but I’m still thinking about the questions of the past, the reality that once something happens in time it never goes away, it never ends, because time is not linear. Nothing ever goes away while we’re here (because what is memory) but then we go away forever. That’s the difficult reality that last poem is struggling with. But I had to get through all those other poems to get to that one. And that’s where the second book, which is so different than Begging for It, and which I’m working on now…that’s where it picks up. Where that last poem left off.
MF: So many poems are concerned with spaces/objects of physical and virtual intimacy: internet propositions, taxi cabs, hotel rooms, marriage bills, texts, just outside the Vatican, the inside of a needle. What do you find productive/erotic/illuminating about these sometimes mundane and sometimes fantastical spaces?
AD: Oh but who doesn’t love stepping out of a cab and into a nice hotel for a drink or whatever with a stranger. Or someone, anyone at all. Living is mostly so terrible and lonely and boring. You have to trick yourself. You have to create your own reality. At least I do. Or actually…I want to, I’m interested in creating my own reality.
MF: I want to ask about your lines. Some of the poems are structured in couplets or tercets, some are block stanzas, but many of your poems have in them, at some point, a single end stopped line. They read to me as invocations or prophetic phrases. Here are a few of them:
I let my hair wrap around my neck.
Whose scent will your knuckles keep?
A man, like the market, can surprise you––
Do you have a distinct philosophy of lineation? Whose lines do you admire in contemporary American poetry?
AD: I don’t know the answer to this question. The line in my new poems is longer and more…expansive, than the line a reader will find in the first book. Who knows why. Why did I dream of a red cat last night? But in terms of whose line I admire…Jorie Graham. Again, radically different line in the first two books, and then different again in the middle books, and slightly different now. She changes. She never stays the same.
MF: You ran the Wilde Boys Poetry Salon in New York City, can you tell us about the need and desire for that space?
AD: Someone else should answer this. It was a great time, a very special time in my life. I don’t think there were many things like it, or any. But I wanted to end it while it was still incredible. So…next.
MF. What single poem across time and space do you wish you had written?
AD: Jim Morrison performing “The End” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968. He’s in his own world during that performance. And during that life. Like Mark Strand wrote, “our masterpiece is the private life.”