Lambda finalist Brian Teare interviewed by poet Stephen Motika

By Harriet Staff

Stephen Motika interviews poet and current Lambda Literary Award finalist Brian Teare over at Lambda Literary. Teare is the author of three full-length books—The Room Where I Was Born, Sight Map, and Pleasure—and he lives in San Francisco. Starting in Fall 2011, he’ll be an Assistant Professor at Temple University. Among topics like mourning, lyric logic, Emerson's Journals, Bay Area poetry communities, and "gay poetry," Teare elucidates his interest in both poets whose work takes a more aesthetic turn, as well as those working seriously with the political. "I read overtly political poets like Juliana Spahr, Kamau Brathwaite, Leslie Scalapino, and Stephen Collis with the same intensity and necessity as I read poets of a more private or aesthetic turn, writers like Carl Phillips, Jean Valentine, Lisa Robertson, or Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. And as you might expect, I’m most often drawn to those poets who attempt to make of the political and the private a dialectic that animates their work: I’m thinking here of Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue, of Sina Queyras’ Expressway, and of Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood. . . ."

Teare also talks at length about his work and interest in the poet Thom Gunn (1929-2004), who was influenced by both Yvor Winters and Allen Ginsberg, and managed to maintain and extend such duality in his work:

SM: . . . I’m especially interested in the difference between the wildness of [Thom Gunn's] life and the formal constraint that defines much of his work. His life through a certain “gay age”—from pre-Stonewall days, through the 1970s S&M scene, then into the age of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, and finally ending with the rise of crystal meth in the first years of the new century—seems unique and historical. I’m also curious to know your thoughts on this.

BT: . . .But given how difficult it was for him to engage gay subject matter in his poems, it was particularly instructive to watch Gunn respond to AIDS in his journals: the losses he sustained heightened a previously muted commitment to a gay community politics. His journals from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s show him determined to one day do justice in verse to a vanishing culture, the idealistic body politics of Gay Liberation. Many of the poems of Boss Cupid were written in almost ethnographic homage to a culture he saw as lost to AIDS, the foreground of that book being not only how loss but also how eros travels through the individual bodies of the body politic.

Early in my writing life Gunn had been given to me as a model gay poet, and his work was supposed to serve as a model for my writing. Given that his work was actually intended to stand as a corrective and a chastisement of my tendencies as a young poet, I immediately hated him and his work for years without really having read it. When I received an email from Joshua Weiner asking if I’ve be interested in writing an essay about Gunn, I took it as my chance to come to terms with my dislike and avoidance of his poems.

How ironic, then, to begin my work in the archives and discover that Gunn as a mature poet had no such narrow punishing preconceptions about poetry—though he modeled much of his formal verse on Ben Johnson and other poets of the English tradition, he drew inspiration for his free verse from William Carlos Williams, admired (with reservations) the work of Allen Ginsberg, and found a late mentor in Robert Duncan. Writing and thinking about what permissions Gunn himself drew from Duncan helped me to describe my own relationship to poetic tradition. Where many teachers and critics would have us enter poetry as into a father-son relationship full of “the anxiety of influence,” I experience poetry as a series of elective affinities and gestures of identification. This is a political vision as much as it is aesthetic: freed from the top-down patriarchal and punitive structure of “influence,” a poet can with joy and without shame learn from whatever poetries best answer their desires.

The 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards will take place on Thursday, May 26, 2011, in New York City. More info on the other finalists for lesbian and gay poetry (which count among them James Schuyler's Other Flowers), here.

Originally Published: May 23rd, 2011