David is really interesting to me not just as a writer, but as a thinker. Which is why, when I initially got this idea, I was really excited to reach out to him. I haven’t found too many great writers (and people) who are also active sponges, in every room they’re in. David is not only an active listener, but the way he responds to poetry really gives me so much life. I sometimes wish I could pay David to follow me around and edit my life. He has a way of really complimenting the good parts before gently shifting you in the right direction, with just a nudge (“Yeah, man. I get it, ice cream is delicious, and who can blame you for wanting to eat it five times a week! You’re young and you look good in that shirt! But, man, I got this salad for you and I can’t think of a world where it wouldn’t vastly improve your already quality life…”). I imagine he would be an expert Jenga player. And this is to say nothing of his writing, or maybe it is to say everything of his writing. I’m not sure many people I read/hear craft as cleverly and brilliantly as David does. His poems do the same amount of lifting in one minute as they could do over five minutes. If I want to build a story, and make a space for it to land, I need to block out a suite of poems. David can do it in maybe ten or fifteen lines. Very few poets give me a permission to unlock like David does. He genuinely makes the writers around him better, more curious, more hungry. Merely by existing.
My past history as a journalist/interviewer tells me that you’re supposed to start gently, and build up to the more “exciting” questions, but fuck all that because no one is getting any younger. I’m going to ask about what I’m most interested in first. Tell me about Luciano Serafino. How was the concept of creating these mobsters and building a world of poems around them born?
I first hit on the idea of writing in the voices of queer mobsters during a thirty-thirty exercise, where poets try to write thirty poems in thirty days. What usually happens to me, in the course of writing the fifteen or so poems I actually write, is that I work through all my “good” ideas and start writing out the “bad ideas.” And of course, if you grind properly, the “bad ideas”—which are really just risky ideas—end up producing more compelling work than the “good ideas.”
I’d loved The Godfather, Scarface and Reservoir Dogs ever since adolescence, when I really needed alternatives to the models of manhood offered by my suburban upbringing. Each of those movies examines a limit of patriarchal masculinity, a point where something’s been taken as far as it can and breaks down. And the narrative structures all come from the Greek tragedies, which evolved in part to critique the function of power in a society while celebrating its excess (which I guess seemed like the best strategy for survival as a writer at the time). So you end up with these incredibly charismatic men making really glorious mistakes—and the story is told in such a way that some viewers will focus on the glory and others will focus on the mistakes.
So, at sixteen, I found Michael Corleone very compelling for reasons I didn’t fully understand yet. And at twenty-six I still felt drawn to him, but I also understood that attraction more fully, and saw his limitations more clearly. For me, the Luciano Serafino poems were an opportunity to explore aspects of masculinity that weren’t—perhaps couldn’t have been—fully explored in those movies. And working with such rich source material really kept the writing process moving forward through moments when I might have stalled otherwise.
There’s such depth of character development in that work. I think I told you once that after hearing you read “Luciano Serafino’s Assassin” I went home and hopped on Google, thinking that it was the recounting of a true story. It strikes me, just in taking in your work, that you carefully craft your work. I think there are writers where that is so evident, just by the way their work sits, or the way it demands to be consumed. And I feel that way about your poems. What is your process like?
Thank you. Achieving that sense of realism without losing the lyric energy of the poem took a lot of labor. Over the last three years, I’ve done ten or twenty drafts of each of those Luciano Serafino poems, including one poem that still doesn’t feel finished and hasn’t been published. It took months to get from the first draft of the first poem—at which point Serafino didn’t even have a name—to something that felt like an authentic voice. And I didn’t have a complete draft, or an understanding of why that voice felt authentic, or an intellectual understanding of what I was doing with it, for weeks after that. And I really try to write every day, even if that just means journaling or writing a postcard to a friend or opening up drafts and reading them aloud before getting back in bed with a bowl of ice cream.
What thoughts do you have on revision? I think so many writers struggle with the idea of approaching something after they have pulled it out of themselves. We’ve talked a bit about this before my asking it here, but can you talk about the importance of a healthy relationship with editing and revision?
Revision is almost the whole game, I think, if you want to write well with any degree of safety. And I mean safety from a mental health perspective. If you take that “first word best word” bullshit too much to heart (which I absolutely did as an adolescent), you tend to either end up with a process that lacks reflection or you end up minimizing risks because of the pressure to get things right the first time. You can write well that way, but producing risky meaningful work takes a lot out of you. And I know this because I really beat the hell out of myself when I do it, and I watch my friends and my students beat the hell out of themselves too.
So, if you can generate or collect a bank of strategies that make revision riskier and more playful or surprising, if you can really get down to the root meaning of the word, which is “to see again,” I think that really pays off in the long run. It relieves some of the pressure from the process, and it creates more potential for the writing to serve a therapeutic function. I recently saw the poet Rochelle Hurt read, and she said something along the lines of, “I write with wine, but I edit with coffee.” I thought that was brilliant, and it’s also what I’m doing right now.
You really enjoy reading and listening to the work of others. Any time we’re sharing a space where poems are being read, and I happen to catch a glimpse of you, you seem to be deeply engaged. What excites or attracts you, as a listener/reader? What poems/poets are out there right now doing things that push you to re-think what is possible?
I think a lot of people close themselves off when they hear an argument they disagree with, or a metaphor written in poor taste, or a clumsy rhyme. And I understand that in certain situations that might be a matter of emotional self-protection, or a question of just being too damn tired, and I respect that completely. But if I’m physically in the room with another poet, I really try to listen. Because what you get out of a poem has as much to do with the quality of your engagement as the form or content of the work itself. So I try to respect the work, and I try to respect the newcomers. I even try to respect the fools—Shakespearian tragedies could have been avoided by listening more closely to fools.
One of the extraordinary things about poetry right now is just how many voices are entering the conversation, and bringing something new to it, and really being heard and engaging with one another. So I almost don’t know where to begin talking about poets who excite and challenge me. Right now I’m reading Corey Van Landingham’s Antidote, which won The Ohio State University Press / The Journal Award in Poetry last year, and that book really uses each page to break my heart in a different way. I’ve also been telling everyone I know about Jamaal May’s Hum since it dropped in November. And I’m really looking forward to Jericho Brown’s second book. Please felt like such a complete, cohesive statement that I’m really curious to see how anything could possibly follow it.
You do some work with The Journal, which is the literary journal tied to Ohio State University. Can you talk about how you’re involved there, and how it has inspired you and your work?
The Journal’s been around for forty years, so we receive a lot of poetry submissions, around 200-300 a month. And those are poetry submissions, not just individual poems, and not fiction or nonfiction or reviews. My current job, along with the other Associate Poetry Editor Megan Peak, is to read every single one of those submissions and winnow the field down to things that have some real element of grace or danger or mystery. This is the second stage in a three-tier process, so every submission receives at least two careful readings by our staff. But from a logistical standpoint, we have to make cuts—and that is absolutely the hardest part of the job, especially when the rejection letters go to poets I know, poets I care about as people and whose work I admire.
What makes the work worthwhile is stumbling on a poem that works on your body—which is really where poems do their work, I become more and more convinced—before you’re even finished reading it. A poem that makes you think “Damn, a poem can do that? What have I been wasting my time writing all these years?” That makes all the hours of reading worthwhile. And then a few months later you get to see that poem on a perfect-bound page between a couple of beautiful paintings, and you know that writer’s holding the same thing in her hands, and people around the country are having that same feeling you had when you first read the piece. That’s why we do this work.
You’re not from Columbus, and you didn’t get your start in poetry here. Yet you’ve really fallen in with the poetry community here quite well. There are moments where I genuinely forget that you’ve HAVEN’T been around these parts for years, just due to the amount of activity you have contributed, and your genuine desire to connect with the poets here. Did you expect to make a splash like this when you showed up here? What about the scene really made you feel comfortable after arriving?
I’m really touched that you think of me that way. I don’t think I had any expectations in terms of how I would be received in the poetry community before I arrived here. I knew Scott Woods and Will Evans ran readings out here—they have good reputations in New York—so I looked forward to checking out the scene, and I haven’t been disappointed. But I also moved here to go back to school, so a lot of my energy and anxiety focused on that transition, and I wanted to balance that with other kinds of poetry/community engagement. I immediately felt welcomed and supported by the poets I met here, and by you in particular, so I tried to reciprocate that warmth and vulnerability. And I feel really privileged and really thankful to be able to do that.
Something I think you’ve been able to do, merely by existing, is help push forward this idea that there really isn’t this wide, unbridgeable gap between “slam poets” and “academic poets”. That is something I feel passionately about, this making sure we slow down the train of thought that tells people the worth/value of poets based on what their background is. How important is it to bring those worlds closer together?
I think you’re right that this gap is closing, although I think that’s really happening because of cultural forces much larger than myself. The academy’s an old system that functions through big clunky bureaucratic structures, whereas the slam is a relatively young network of grassroots organizations that have developed very quickly. So it’s taken time for conversation to develop across that divide, and that conversation isn’t always easy because it involves differing perspectives on questions of poetics and power and privilege. And it’s possible to identify particular poetic forms or conventions associated with each of these groups, but when we let the conversation stop there we aren’t really dealing with the larger questions, and we’re not really moving the conversation forward.
As for the importance of that conversation, I’m not sure what I can say except that it has been critical to my own development as a writer, to my development of a queer identity, and to my belief in the radical potential of the classroom.
So many of your poems really take me on a journey of well-paced imagery laying the foundation for really weighty topics/experiences. The best example I can think of is “Storyboard” which has a real beauty in how it sets up this scene of a conversation about trauma and survival. Even more impressive, to me, is that you tend to be able to do this in such little physical space, with so few lines. As a writer, or a poet, or a storyteller…what responsibility do you feel like you have to the way you present the stories you tell?
This is a question I think about a lot, especially with a poem like “Storyboard,” where the poem acts as a conduit for a story that really isn’t mine to tell. One of the basic functions of narrative is appropriation, for better or worse, so every time I tell a story I try to ask myself honestly who else has a stake in it. And I try to write the poem in a way that fully respects those individuals, which in the case of “Storyboard” meant writing lines like “I do not want to project” and “these are not her words” directly into the poem.
I think that poem works with so few lines because the silence or white space operates as an image, or a set of images, in itself. The em dashes, the long lines and the stanza breaks shape that silence differently than in the poems in Safe House, for instance. It’s a poem about the strength required for a survivor to tell her story, and it’s also about the speaker’s inability to make metaphor or drama out of the story, to process or transform it into anything other than what it is. I spent years trying to figure out what to say about that story, but in the end it rarely matters what men say about rape. Or it matters too much, and in the wrong way. But it does seem to matter when we listen.
Your chapbook Safe House was not only an impressive introduction to your work, for me, but also kind of something that made me feel like I instantly wanted more. Like a dope trailer to a film I’ve been waiting for, even. So I’m curious not only about the process/concepts behind Safe House, but I’m also more curious about what’s next. I find that when I finish one set of poems, there is a quick bloom that comes forward, new things that demand to be written. Or at least attempted. Is that something you’re finding?
I’m thrilled to hear that Safe House had that effect on you, because writing that chapbook took three years of my life and a whole lot of heartbreak. But it’s a bit tricky to isolate how completing the manuscript affected me because it also lined up with other transitions in my life. I wrote those poems while I lived in New York City, during which time I came out as queer and really fell in love with teaching. Helen Vitoria and Ocean Vuong, my editors at Thrush Press, accepted it for publication the night before I moved to Columbus for grad school. I read the acceptance letter while sitting on a stack of moving boxes, preparing to leave my friends and lovers and my creative community behind, geographically if not spiritually.
During the year and a half I’ve lived in Columbus, my projects have been determined to some extent by the structure of Ohio State’s MFA program, which has meant producing at a steady rate and under constantly shifting constraints without necessarily thinking in terms of a larger body of work. But this coming year, which will be my third year in the program, the goal is to write a thesis—meaning a full-length book of poetry suitable for publication—so, to answer your question directly, what’s next is constant terror.
I’m half joking about that—I look forward to the work, and I’m really grateful that I’ll have the support of two amazing writers on faculty here, Kathy Fagan and Jen Schlueter. But please don’t ask about my career plans. For real.
Finally, I wanted to talk about the literacy narratives project that you helped head up here in Columbus, with the assistance of some of your classmates. It was a real joy to be a part of, first of all. But also, since we haven’t spoken about it at length since it was completed, what were some takeaways you had individually from working on that project, and why did you feel it was a necessary/important thing to do?
This project has involved contributions from so many extraordinary individuals including yourself that it would be impossible to sum up here. Last fall I co-led a group of students who interviewed nineteen black poets about their writing and their lives as part of Professor Cynthia Selfe’s Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus Project. I was really struck by the generosity and vulnerability displayed by everyone who participated in the project, and to be perfectly honest my head is still swimming from all the things I learned during those interviews.
I really only got involved because I wanted to get out of the classroom, and off campus, and meet a more diverse group of writers. But as that first phase of the project concluded, I actually began to realize that I’d just scratched the surface of where it could go. So I’ve continued interviewing poets, and I’ve been reading the relevant literature, and I’m working on an article about what college English teachers might learn from black poets who write and build community outside of the academy. So I actually think of this as a project that I’m still just getting started with, rather than something that’s finished.
And one big takeaway for me has come from learning about the history of leadership by black poets in creating a thriving grassroots poetry community here in Columbus, and how much work has gone into making that a safe space for people of color to write and listen and perform. And I want to emphasize that I think about that work in terms of literacy, that it has to do with finding or furthering or taking ownership of a language to reflect on race and on experience more broadly, and creating a community that challenges one another to think critically through language. That’s been incredibly valuable for me as an educator trying to figure out how to open up my classroom for more honest and open conversation, and trying to create a space where my students can push one another’s thinking forward while keeping our focus on language.
David, thank you for doing this. What your presence in Columbus has done for the work of many poets here can’t be put into words and I hope we can catch up soon.
Thank you! Also, I hope you and Laura will come over for dinner some time soon.
DAVID WINTER wrote the poetry chapbook Safe House (Thrush Press, 2013). His poetry also appears in Atlanta Review, Union Station, Four Way Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and other publications. He is an MFA student in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University, where he has taught creative writing, professional writing, and composition. He is also working on a literacy research / oral history project about the writing and lives of black poets in Columbus. You can read David’s poetry and watch his interviews with black poets at davidwinter.net.