Q&A: To the Angelbeast

Your opening line “All that glitters isn’t music” will remind readers of the often-misquoted line “All that glisters is not gold” from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and perhaps similar lines in Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” and Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” How does your poem take off from these, if indeed it does?

Though I know and love the lines mentioned in the question, the opening line doesn’t consciously gesture toward them. It’s actually something I misheard. I was sitting on a park bench, pretending to read, but in fact I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two elderly women. They were talking about feet blisters. They both had them and were swapping home remedies. One of them, in a southern drawl, said, “A dash of glitter is a must.” I heard: “All that glitters isn’t music.” I scribbled the line in my notebook, got up from the bench, walked away perplexed (glitter on a blister!) but pleased with my pilfering. 

There’s a figurative tension implied in this poem between poetry and the making of poetry—between, let’s say, the angel and the beast: “All that glitters isn’t music,” “it was nothing/but a trick of the light,” “Am I not your animal?” Can you describe how you feel poetry and life connect, intersect, or perhaps even come into conflict?

The poem is a response to Robert Hayden’s “Bone-Flower Elegy,” a homoerotic poem published, per his request, posthumously. The speaker in his poem wanders through an adult theatre where “scenes of erotic violence” and “a naked corpse/turning with sensual movements” torment and fascinate him. At the end of the poem the speaker calls upon the beastangel and the angelbeast to “rend” and to “redeem” him. 

I had a visceral reaction to the poem. It made me furious. It terrified me. The desolation in the poem made me defensive—I had to respond. So I started drafting two poems. One addressed to the beastangel; the other to the angelbeast. I intended to write poems that highlighted the emotional and physical bliss possible in same-sex relationships. Instead, I wrote poems with speakers who’ve completely given themselves to their lovers, who risk everything (including their own mental and bodily health) to keep them. My speakers worship the beastangel and the angelbeast. And they make no apologies. The poems troubled me at first. Then I realized that the subservience of my speakers counterbalances the reticence in Hayden’s homoerotic poems. Talk about extremes!

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This poem originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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