by Jason Bayani
Tonight our feature at the Berkeley Slam is David Winter. He’s been published in several lit journals and is currently an MFA candidate at THE Ohio State University. This is his first time featuring at the Berkeley Slam and we’re exciting to have him come through. So let’s get this 5 Questions thing going…
We talk about surprise in poetry as essential, but it tends to be spoken as some kind of hazy ideal you are supposed to aspire to. I’ve only read a few of your poems so far and in the ones I read I’ve seen you set a certain calm in language and then disrupt it with a violent moment, and I’ve also seen you disrupt with a word choice or a quiet image. As a device, what is surprise for you? How would you teach it (is it teachable)?
This is a great question. I talk about surprise all the time without really defining what I mean, but it’s something worth defining and at least attempting to teach. I’d argue for a distinction between surprise as a kind of structural device, like the turn built into the sonnet, and the more individual sense of surprise that comes from a particular reader’s relationship with a poem, or with the cultural tradition the poem comes out of. And I’d argue the first kind of surprise is easier to teach, because it’s just about gaining an awareness of what kind of patterns you’re establishing in your language and then learning to break them on purpose instead of by accident.
The sonnet is a fourteen line poem that aims to surprise the reader by setting up a musical and logical pattern, and then changing both patterns at the same time. That’s something people have done for centuries, with varying degrees of skill and grace, and it’s the kind of thing you learn through reading and practice. But then beginning in the twentieth century you have totally different kinds of sonnets that break or rewrite all the old rules. My favorite sonnet is by Terrance Hayes, who just writes “We sliced the watermelon into smiles” on fourteen lines in a row. The first time I saw that poem I couldn’t stop laughing. It’s a kind of practical joke. But it’s also a very serious poem, because it’s about the way black people’s suffering has been concealed or ignored in the poetry canon, and within America’s national mythology. It’s about the violence concealed by the image of the smiling minstrel.
So I think of that as a riskier and more genuine kind of surprise, one that’s not so easy to teach, but also more worthy of discussion. And I do believe that kind of cultural awareness and that kind of critical attitude can be taught through open and respectful discussion among people from diverse backgrounds, which is what a poetry workshop ought to be. But it isn’t an easy thing to do, and it isn’t always what happens in poetry classes.
You’re an MFA candidate at Ohio State University who often features at poetry slams and I don’t want to have to dig into the well worn territory of slam vs. academia because at this point there are a lot of people that have a foot in both worlds. When it comes to readings vs. features at slams, does anything change for you or are you comfortable coming in with the same or a similar approach.
I don’t really think the divisions between the slam world and the academic world are about the poetry itself, at least not primarily, so I don’t worry too much about this when I’m reading. I approach both kinds of spaces similarly, although I’m more likely to memorize poems before performing at a slam venue. But anywhere I read, I try to be conscious of the room and of who my audience is, their mood, the other voices in the space. And based on those factors I might select different poems or introduce the poems differently, as a way of putting my work into conversation with other things happening in the room. But that often has to do with the audience’s age, or how queer they seem, or whether they laugh at my jokes, as much as it has to do with the question of slam. I suppose I might look at things differently if I actively competed in slams, or if I was angling for an academic job or something, but I’m really just in these spaces to partake in the conversation.
I’m curious about your experience working with LGBT senior citizens. I imagine any kind of interaction with cultural elders can be an enriching experience, but I was wondering what it was like for you to guide them through a writing workshop process and engage with them in this particular act of sharing?
That was a really formative experience for me as a queer person, as a teacher, and as a writer. I started doing that work shortly after I came out, and it was an extraordinary privilege to have so many models for different ways I might articulate that aspect of my identity. At the same time, I also found it very challenging to play the role of the teacher in a room full of people who had not only lived through historical experiences I could hardly imagine–and I don’t mean passively but as workers, soldiers, activists, artists, lovers, husbands, daughters, etc–but some of whom had also accomplished far more than I had as writers. So I really learned a lot about humility, and I learned a lot about sharing power with students, about trusting them to help expand the conversation and drive it in a positive direction.
And to be honest, the main thing I do in the classroom is listen. I ask a lot of focusing questions and I redirect the conversation when it veers wildly off topic–which it often did with this group, because they were the most energetic students I’ve had, even more than college or high school students I’ve taught, or the men I’ve taught in jails–but in the end it all comes back to listening for me. What most writers want more than anything is to be heard, so I really try to model that basic level of respect and commitment for my students, and then we build the conversation from there. And I really believe that whatever learning happens in a writing workshop happens through understanding and articulating how we hear each other’s voices. As opposed to the instructions doled out as “craft lessons,” which can become very dangerous if they’re accepted uncritically.
I enjoyed the poems you had in Four Way Review. Trying to write about race in poetry is, of course, difficult (and it should be). You also have a poem that deals with the abuse experienced by someone the speaker is interacting with. Writing about these subjects, at its worse, can often lead to some form of proselytizing or diminish the real pain of someone’s experience. I do feel that you use a careful hand in guiding the poems. When writing about these subjects are there things you try to stay conscious of? Or do you trust the process and try to deal with any potential issues through editing?
It means a lot to me that you connected with those poems. Writing identity is always complicated territory, and it’s often uncomfortable. But I think spending time with that discomfort can be really productive. I try to write through the discomfort and let it be the starting point for a conversation. And really, the truth is that whatever discomfort I feel as a white man writing about racial and sexual trauma can’t compare to the pain of the people who experience those traumas directly.
In writing poems that deal with identity and trauma, and especially if you’re writing from a perspective of privilege, as I am in those poems, I think it’s hugely important to remember that we’re not writing about abstract issues. We’re writing about people–even if you’re exploring another identity through a fictional character–people with their own thoughts and feelings and ways of telling their stories. So what I try to do, rather than appropriating those thoughts and feelings and stories, is to use the poems as a way of entering into conversation with the actual human beings. And that also means being open to responses and critiques I might receive from the people whose struggles I’m writing about.
What is the poem you need to have when you are most alone? What is the poem you need when you are most full of life?
I often turn to Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Heart’s Graveyard Shift” in times of loneliness, where the anaphora is “Between loves . . .” It’s a poem that looks squarely at the desperation and violence that often accompanies heartbreak, but inherent in that refrain is also the idea that love comes again. Komunyakaa’s also a poet with deep roots in the blues tradition, which someone once said “is about sadness but isn’t about being sad,” and I think you can see that in this poem. It’s a poem about surviving sadness and working through its most difficult aspects, not wallowing in it.
As for the poem I need when I’m most full of life, I think that’s a more challenging question. But lately I’ve been rereading Mark Doty’s “Homo Will Not Inherit,” which has a kind of anthemic quality in the way it lays claim to heaven and earth. I tend not to go in for the anthemic, but he gets away with it by melding this radical spirituality with the grittiest aspects of gay life, acknowledging the violence of repression and looking at how gay men reclaim the forms of their repression, if that makes sense. It’s a very complicated and fiery and dangerous poem. The kind of beauty that leaves me hungry for living.