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,
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
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
"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
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
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
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?
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
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
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.