'Cocktails' For Two: Interview With D.A. Powell

D.A. Powell began teaching poetry-writing classes at Harvard this year as the Briggs-Copeland Lecturer of Poetry. He has received awards from the Academy of American Poets and the James Michener Foundation. In the past he has taught at University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University and University of Iowa. His collections of poems include Tea (1998) and Lunch (2000). He will read from his forthcoming book, Cocktails, in the Forum Room at Lamont Library on Thursday, Nov. 15 at 5:30 p.m.

The Harvard Crimson: A set of five of your poems just won the Boston Review’s Fourth Annual Poetry Contest. How do they fit in with the rest of your work?

D. A. Powell: They’re part of my upcoming book, Cocktails, which will be the third in a trilogy based on my life: Lunch, Tea and Cocktails. For years, as a queer man, those were the only meals I ever had. They weren’t necessarily always in the same order. Sometimes I would have cocktails when I woke up. Sometimes I would have lunch in the middle of the night.

Since I’m working on a trilogy, you could compare it to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Tea is the Inferno, filled with deaths and burials and dark subjects. Lunch is a little bit lighter but rather annoying; it’s the Purgatorio. Cocktails is my Paradiso. It has glamor and divinity, with poems based on movies and the Gospels, among other things.

It’s all overlaid with autobiographical and biographical subject matter. For example, there’s a poem in the Boston Review called “[my riches I have squandered. spread with honey].” While its inciting subject is the parable of the prodigal son from the gospel of Luke, it’s overlaid with facts I actually lived, like living in a rickety squat with roaches and eating government surplus cheese.

Tea was written over my two years in Iowa. I started writing it the day I arrived, and I stopped revising the manuscript the day I left. It started out as a piece that was looking back on a long, terrible relationship. And then other subjects came in. Because I was experimenting with very long lines, the poems became elegiac in tone, that is, they were about loss: of innocence, of childhood, of community. Tea is a bleak, flat landscape.

Lunch is a little bit choppier and less formal. It spans a longer period of time. There are poems that go all the way back to my upbringing in the South, and poems that are as up-to-the-minute as poetry can be.

THC: Your poetry often deals with AIDS. In the introduction to Tea, you write, “I do not deny this disease its impact. But I deny its dominion.” Have you ever been tempted to enter into political action?

DP: Poetry, at its best, is a cloud of subjects in opposition to one another. It’s not the best way to convince somebody of something. If I were moved to be an activist, I would probably be writing essays. Not that I haven’t had times when I’ve been moved to activism. During the Gulf War, I was part of a contingent that blockaded recruitment centers, because I thought it was a war without merit, a travesty. I feel like there are a lot of options besides going to war, and it seems that we don’t explore those options. We’ve spent lots of money on the military, so why not use it? Well, that seems the least intelligent response, just to send people out to be killed or to kill.

THC: Music seems to run through your poems. There’s an account of picking through records at a sale of the belongings of a person who has just died. There’s a setting of “The Girl from Ipanema.” And my first impression of a poem in the Boston Review was that it had a hip-hop feel.

DP: That first poem in the Boston Review, “[dogs and boys can treat you like trash. and dogs do love trash]” has the triplet rhyming that you often find in rap. I must say that Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash were as important to me as Gertrude Stein and John Keats. I don’t think that’s true of every poet.

The first poets that I read were African-American. For a while I thought all white poets were dead. The only poetry book I had that included some living poets was an anthology called The Black Poets, edited by a man named Dudley Randall. I read that book cover to cover and dog-eared it. I let it take root inside me and grow, as George Steiner would say. Those poets, from Paul Lawrence Dunbar up through Ntozake Shange, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker and Margaret Danner, they were my first influence, even before I was writing. It took me a long time to learn how to read white people’s poetry. But I do now.

THC: Who else do you consider an influence?

DP: When I was a kid, I was reading a lot of existentialist novels, and one of them mentioned a poet named T. S. Eliot. In the Black Poets anthology, Ishmael Reed mentions “the hell that thrilled him so” in reference to Eliot. So I was at the Waldenbooks in the Sunrise Mall in Citrus Heights, California. Waldenbooks has terrible poetry sections, but you don’t know that when you’re young. There was all the usual schlocky stuff, like Robert Browning, that I just couldn’t get my mind around. And then there was a very slim volume called, The Waste Land and Other Poems, by T.S. Eliot. And I thought, I’ve heard of him, I’ll pick it up and have a read. I began reading the very first poem in the book, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table …” And I thought, ‘damn, this is really good.’ So I bought the book and I read the whole thing cover to cover maybe a thousand times. After all, I didn’t have that many poetry books.

Later, I discovered a few white poets that I liked: William Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens. I had just started college at San Jose State, and I went to a poetry reading by Robert Bly. Toward the end, just when I was so bored I thought I was going to shoot my brains out, he started reading these García-Lorca translations, and all of the sudden I perked up. So I went out and bought several García-Lorca books. Later I discovered Gertrude Stein and read her a great deal. Then it was the Black Mountain Poets: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan. And finally, the New York school. I’m glad I came to them last, because as soon as I started reading Frank O’Hara, I thought, this guy’s ripping me off. Except he died when I was three.

THC: How are you liking your new job?

D. A. Powell: I’m enjoying Harvard immensely. In comparison to my past two teaching engagements, in Iowa and in California, Harvard students are wonderful. They’re not skulking into class with a baseball cap over their eyes not having done the reading. They seem very focused, motivated, and intelligent.

At many other schools, I got only English majors, and they all wrote about what they had read instead of what they had lived. Here I get students from different disciplines with their own ways of looking at the world. They have a great deal of humanity about them. They’re all very young, whereas I’m used to teaching a mix of ages. But there’s a mix of backgrounds, cultural identities, and influences.

I had initially thought that I’d get lots of writing done at Harvard. I haven’t, but that’s fine. Let’s face it, writing is the nerdiest pastime in the world. It’s for people with nothing else to do. I tend to write in the cracks of time anyway: before I go to bed, right when I wake up, or in between student conferences. I think my writing benefits from having to compress.

THC: What are you giving your students to read?

DP: Books of contemporary poetry. Etel Adnan’s Arab Apocalypse, which is about twenty years old but as timely as ever given recent events. They’re also reading Forrest Hamer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sam Witt, and Claudia Rankine. And I give them weekly hand-outs. This week it’s elegies by Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, and Thom Gunn.

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