D.A. Powell

Interview with David Trinidad

You said once that Anaïs Nin was your first literary hero. Did your first efforts toward being a writer try to emulate Nin? And were they poems or prose?

Yes, very much so. I was writing both poetry and prose when I encountered Nin's work; her style influenced-or overwhelmed, actually-my own. I was nineteen, and very impressionable. My post-Nin stories and poems (none of which survive, thank God) were overly poetic attempts to state great insights and truths about my relationships and my life. Because the stories were so poetic-long on description and imagery, short on dialogue and plot-my fiction teachers kept encouraging me to concentrate on poetry. So Nin's influence helped direct me towards a more focused place as a writer.

I absolutely worshipped Anaïs Nin. I read all of her diaries and novels, went to hear her speak at Womanspace in Los Angeles in 1973. I met her once, in the lobby of the Vagabond Theatre, one of those great long-gone art houses. I was leaving, had just seen Bergman's Persona; she was coming in with Rupert Pole. She was wearing her trademark floor-length cape. I was awestruck; my friend Jenny Lens did most of the talking. That night I sent Nin a long fan letter and some of my poems. She kindly wrote back, commenting on my poems and inviting me to stay in contact with her, let her know how my writing developed. She died before I had the chance to write again. It was very generous of her to respond. And it meant the world to me.

I recall you mentioning that you had something to do with the estate of Jacqueline Susann (we were talking about Michelle Lee at the time, and you were saying that you had been to her home to watch the rushes of her J. Susann biopic before it hit the airwaves). At the time I meant to ask you (but forgot, so I'll ask you now) what is your involvement with the Jacqueline Susann estate? And could you also talk about (because there are continual references to Susann's novels in your poems-and even to her "non-fiction" doggy book) how much Jacqueline Susann has influenced your work?

I was living with Ira Silverberg when he, as editor-in-chief of Grove Press, reprinted Susann's novels. Through Ira I met Lisa Bishop, the executrix of the Susann estate. All of Susann's papers were in Lisa's garage in Encino, California. Lisa hired me to catalog them, flew me to L.A. The first and only time I've flown first class! A dream job. I was paid to sort through Susann's photos, correspondence, and manuscripts. There were letters from Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Princess Grace, and the like. Susann kept the most meticulous scrapbooks of her acting and writing careers: everything ever printed about her, neatly glued and noted, in chronological order. Four decades worth. It was a thrill-and an honor-to get that intimate a glimpse of her life. I appeared in two TV biographies-E! Entertainment and Lifetime-as "David Trinidad, poet and Susann archivist"! I also participated in a tribute to Susann at the New School. There I was on stage with Susann's editors and friends-Rex Reed, Rona Jaffe, Michael Korda, Esther Margolis-and her biographer, Barbara Seaman. What a trip!

Valley of the Dolls had such an enormous effect on me as a teenager. I just loved that book. As soon as I finished it, I started reading it again. I really lived in it. And then in the movie-that godawful, wonderful movie. That's why they appear in my work so often. Am I trying to explain or understand my attraction to all things glitzy and tragic? Probably. But I was also attracted to Susann's persona as a writer, as well as to her revelations about life, age, and fame-all seemed genuine, hard won. And I love her language. I realized that when I reread Valley of the Dolls for the New School panel. Her sentences are clean and direct, economical. And yet so evocative. I think of her as a primary influence. Yes, a very significant one. Along with other writers I discovered early on: Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Ray Bradbury, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Lillian Hellman. I learned a lot about language, about style and tone, about drama and storytelling, from them.

So you began writing in L A. Can you say a little about the literary scene there at that time? Who were your circle of readers and your influences?

Initially, in college, it was a group of my peers. We took workshops together, edited a magazine, organized poetry readings on campus. And partied, quite heavily. I was close to the poet Rachel Sherwood, who I met at Cal State Northridge in the mid-seventies. She was one of those wonderful, larger-than-life individuals-uninhibited, passionately intelligent, charismatic. She was the nucleus of our college circle. When she was killed in a car accident in July 1979, the group fell apart. That November, at a memorial reading for Rachel, Dennis Cooper sought me out. He'd seen some of my poems in Beyond Baroque magazine and wanted to include me in an anthology of poets in their twenties, Coming Attractions, that he was editing. I think Amy Gerstler and Jack Skelley were with him that night. Later we all became friends. Their work had a big impact on me. Dennis created a lively scene at Beyond Baroque, which lasted until he moved to New York, in '83 or '84. He brought a lot of interesting poets from around the country to read at Beyond Baroque. I met Tim Dlugos that way, and Elaine Equi and Jerome Sala. Those were very exciting days. Everyone had their own magazine and/or press, or ran a workshop or reading series. We'd all show each other our new poems. There was a real sense of camaraderie, of mutual support.

Dennis introduced me to the work of the New York School poets. I'd already read (and loved) O'Hara's Lunch Poems, but Schuyler's The Morning of the Poem was a revelation. Joe Brainard, Alice Notley, and Ted Berrigan also had a profound effect on me. In college I'd been influenced by such poets as Sexton and Plath, Ted Hughes, May Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop. The New York poets gave me permission to make new kinds of poems, to write about mundane or ordinary things, to speak with a more familiar tone. There was still a lot of sadness in my poems, but I guess I was learning not to take myself quite so seriously. It was great, when I eventually came to New York, to meet and become friends with so many poets I admired.

It's wonderful that you mention Schuyler, because I remember thinking that some of your work employed a similar line to his. A poem like "Pee Shy" for example, has that short line that I associate with much of Schuyler's work. It seems to stand in curious contrast to some of the other forms you work in-the haiku, for example, or the heroic couplet.

Well, "Pee Shy" was an exercise using three-word lines; it just happens to look Schuyler-esque. But his skinny, tube-like poems did appeal to me a lot at one point. They seemed so sleek and elegant, and so simple. I really wanted my poems to look like that. I remember forcing it at first-like trying to cram text into a girdle. I broke lines in all sorts of weird places, just to fit the shape. It took some time to get a natural feel for the form. And yes, they are quite different from some of the other forms I use.

But these tighter forms are, in your work, usually married to material from popular culture (haiku about episodes of 1960s sitcoms, heroic couplets formed from fortune cookie aphorisms, a villanelle based on the campy sci-fi flick Invasion of the Body Snatchers etc.) And this combination of form and content seems uniquely yours. Can you say how it is that you arrived at the making of this kind of poem?

I think it began with those haiku. Amy Gerstler, who has always written a lot of them, encouraged me to write some of my own. I wrote one called "Footnote," about Nancy Sinatra's boots. That got a lot of laughs at readings, so I kept writing more. I liked having to compress everything into such a tiny form. And I liked counting syllables; I'd tap them on my fingertips, on tabletops, on the steering wheel of my car. I wrote five or six haiku about TV shows from the sixties, which were also a hit at readings. Amy suggested that I write seventeen in all-one for each syllable in a haiku. So that's how "Reruns" came about. After that, I started playing around with other forms. I wrote my pantoum about Nancy Sinatra at that time. It seemed somewhat subversive to take a traditional poetic form and fill it with pop content. I didn't have much experience with forms; I don't think I trusted them, or took them very seriously. Maybe I still don't. In my last book, Plasticville, I played with the inherent artificiality of form, tried to make poems that are as toy-like, as plastic, as possible. Though I believe the sonnet and the sestina are pretty potent forms.

"Footnote" works on several levels, because it also comes at the end of "Meet The Supremes," which is a long meditation on the phenomenon of the 60s Girl Groups in general and The Supremes in particular. Its placement makes Nancy Sinatra a kind of footnote to the subject of Girl Groups. Also, the title is a clever pun, since the final line of the poem, "are you ready boots?" could be read as a note from Nancy to her feet.

Precisely! And though "Footnote" isn't really part of "Meet The Supremes," I envision it always following it.

The idea of the artificial isn't just enacted formally in Plasticville, it's a key part of the content. Again, you have numerous pieces of pop culture inhabiting the poems-particularly toys. You have Barbie and the Chatty Cathy doll-toy dolls, instead of the Valley of the Dolls (where "dolls" is a slang term for pills) that pervades the poetry of Answer Song. I guess I have to ask: when you were a little boy, did you play with dolls?

I wanted to, very much, but it was forbidden. My mother was fairly tolerant, so I got to steal some isolated moments with my sisters' Barbie dolls. But my father was insistent: "Boys don't play with dolls!" It was all pretty much as I described in my sestina "Playing with Dolls."

But that poem in particular is so packed with-how best to put it? In retail, they would call it "product knowledge." Was this research that you did before you wrote the poem, or did you actually remember all of the names of Barbie's friends, all of her accessories, and the details of "Barbie's Wonderful World?"

That poem was written prior to the Barbie nostalgia craze, before the image of the doll permeated our entire culture. I drew primarily from memory, though I did have a couple of those little fashion booklets from the sixties, with pictures and descriptions of Barbie's clothes. That's where I got the names of the outfits. Except for "Doll's Dream," which I made up to fit the sestina, they're all legit. I also lifted language from the booklets-"stunning ice blue and sea green satin and tulle formal gown," for instance. That's Mattel, not me.

You have Mark Bennett's floor plan of Mary Richards' Minneapolis apartment (from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") on your wall. It seems in some ways a reflection of your own world, that you have invented this space for yourself that is very much like the set of a TV show. I find that refreshing, because I love the artificiality of television.

In a recent interview you said that most poets today have one or two "pop" poems in their repertoire, but that none of them had gone "overboard" the way you have. Why do you think it is that you're so drawn to pop culture? It seems to be one of the signatures of your work.

I don't know if I can say why . . . it's always been a bit of a mystery to me. The poems in my first book Pavane are anything but "pop." They're serious and dark. Though I recently came across the first poem I wrote in college-a found poem about Marilyn Monroe. And I wrote "Clue," about the board game, early on. But it wasn't until I started reading the poems of Dlugos, Cooper, et al that I was drawn to popular culture in any kind of full-fledged way. Dlugos's "Gilligan's Island," for instance, opened doors for me. As did many of Dennis's poems. Oh, and come to think of it, getting sober was a big turning point. I began writing about girl groups and TV shows and Barbie dolls when I was newly sober. I guess I needed a break from the doom and gloom. I think I used pop in the same way I used, say, Greek myths and fairy tales in the Pavane poems. As a frame, or a sort of vessel. Something to pour my obsessiveness-and my longing-into. As a child I invested so much of myself in certain objects, in certain TV shows and movies and songs. I'm sure my pop poems are an attempt, in part, to retrieve (or least understand) those lost or buried aspects of myself.

You chose Dlugos's "Gilligan's Island" for the anthology Overlooked that Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer are editing. It seems that you've been instrumental in bringing Dlugos's work to the attention of poetry readers.

What would you say to someone who's never read Tim Dlugos before?

Simply to read him. His poems are wonderful-funny, friendly, good-hearted.

And smart, very smart. And heartbreaking, the later ones. He wrote the most amazing poems while he was in the hospital, dying of AIDS. People always tell me how much they cry when they read them. Powerless, the selection I edited, is just a small part of his entire body of work. Just fifty-one poems. Since I had space restraints, I tried to put together a kind of greatest hits. There are more than 500 poems in his archive at NYU. Will a larger selection ever be published? Will his work be properly anthologized? One can only hope. And continue to get the word out.

I remember being excited by Dennis Cooper's Idols, it's wonderfully transgressive. Do you see your work as transgressive?

Do you?

Yes and no. One of the startling things about Cooper's poems is the way in which they destroy the image of the teen idol. You're going after something that's almost opposite-taking images that are already culturally devalued (B movies, schlocky television shows, inane pop songs) and remaking them into things of beauty and value. In your litany poem "In My Room," for example, you saturate the page with the titles of songs that become elegy to adolescence. I think your poems are reaching after a kind of redemption, the way Joe Brainard's assemblage sculptures turned Prell Shampoo bottles and broken plastic toys into shrines.

Is that a fair assessment?

More than fair! You know, my work has been called a lot of things over the years-transgressive, gay, postmodern, pop, experimental, New York School, confessional. I would say yes, it's all those things, or has elements of all those things, but that's not all it is. One writes the poems one needs or wants to write. That's the job of the artist. It's the world that tries to label and categorize, or pigeonhole.

A colleague recently had a strong, adverse reaction to my use of the word "cunt" in a poem. He argued that the word was demeaning, and he encouraged me—on several different occasions—to take it out. The poem had already appeared in print, mind you. One of the last things he said about it was: "It's not transgressive." And I'm like: "Who said anything about transgressive?"

Well, I think it's incredibly generous of you to call someone who's that editorially pushy a "colleague." Especially since there was this other noun beginning with "c" just floating there, waiting to be used.

This list of labels can be both vexing and entertaining I suppose. I mean, "New York School" and "confessional" seem to be at opposite ends of the dance hall. It's like being called a "Jet" and a "Shark" at the same time. Has your writing been affected, either negatively or positively, by any of the critical work that has been done on you?

Of course I'd never see myself as a Jet or a Shark. I always related to the innocent outsiders, Tony and Maria. Didn't everybody?

When I was younger, I was acutely sensitive to what people wrote about my work. And much more willing-and I think this is true of a lot of artists-to take in, or believe the negative. I was deeply wounded by a review of my first book that was published in The Village Voice. It was in a group review that included poets I knew and admired, like Elaine Equi and Alice Notley. The reviewer, Ken Tucker (I'll never forget that name!), loved their work, yet had such contempt for mine. He said something like "not only is he serious, he's no fun." I cried when I read it. It didn't matter in the least that I'd gotten a glowing review in the Los Angeles Times. This was a hip New York paper, and in front of my friends! It's possible that his crack about my not being any fun contributed to the shift I mentioned-my determination to be less serious. I remember he put down my similes, calling them druggy or something, and so I stopped using similes.

I don't think anyone should take a critic's words to heart like that, to the point where it affects how or what they write. Though the result, in my case, was ultimately positive. I'm happy with the way my work has evolved, as painful as the process may have been. And the critic who wounded me so? Last I noticed, he writes about TV shows for Entertainment Weekly. Some of the poems he trashed have appeared in anthologies twenty years after the fact. I feel pretty petty talking about all this. I guess what I'm saying is that the poems, if they're any good, get the last word. And that's exactly as it should be.

Let's talk a bit about what you're doing now. This mammoth collaborative project with Lynn Crosbie and Jeffery Conway. Can you say how it began and talk a bit about the process? And when will we see the entire epic in print?

It's called Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse. We started it in February of 2000. In the last months of 1999, we wrote a 100-stanza renga called "Chain Chain Chain." I'd proposed writing it, as I was newly "divorced" and thought it would help me feel less lonely. We had such a blast, we decided to try a second collaboration. Lynn suggested writing an essay in verse about All About Eve, a movie the three of us were obsessed with. So off we went. I thought it might take us a few months to write, like "Chain Chain Chain," and end up being, oh, a fifty-page piece. Three years and 600 pages later . . . . We obviously got into it. It was such a surprise, and a continually exciting process. We alternated passages via email. Jeffery and I spoke on the phone quite a bit, wrote some passages together. The plot of the movie gave us structure, order, while at the same time sparking an irrepressible expansiveness. There seemed to be endless room to play, to stretch, to digress, to entertain each other. We were fairly anonymous through much of it, then got more personal, more confessional, towards the end. I don't think I've ever had as much fun, or as much freedom, writing something. It was a wonderful conversation, one we clearly didn't want to end. Turtle Point Press is publishing it in October of 2003, complete with 17 stills from the movie!

I've read the manuscript, which was wonderful, and I look forward to seeing the completed project in book form. And then what can we expect next?

I'm working on a new manuscript of poems, The Late Show. More about movies. Before we started Phoebe, I'd been working on a ballad about Natalie Wood's suicide attempt in the mid-60s. I became so immersed in Phoebe, it just had to wait. I picked it up once, wrote a few new stanzas, and then a day or two later 9/11 happened. So the poem was put down yet again. But now I'm back into it. The manuscript also contains some confessional poems-a sonnet sequence about Rachel Sherwood's death, a poem about my early sexual experiences. There are specific experiences that I'd like to address, that I've been afraid to address. Being raped. My mother's death. My friendship with Tim Dlugos, with Jimmy Schuyler. The past is always there, isn't it? So many dark corners. I'd like to push myself into some of those places, make myself uncomfortable, write a kind of poem I haven't written in a while. Or never written, for that matter.


© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review