An Interview with Douglas A. Martin
Douglas A. Martin is a poet and novelist whose newest collection, In the Time of Assignments, is due to be released by Soft Skull Press on March 15. The book is a generous collection written over the past decade, a record of moments -- still frames that, taken together, suggest the story of a life.
Juliana Spahr calls Martin “a writer of luminous, brooding prose,” and readers familiar with this work will find that his poems spring from the same foundations as his prose but that their form leads to a repurposing and revelation of the shared material. The poems are unguarded in their emotional honesty -- the poetic voice is vulnerable, in love, damaged, ambitious, and unabashed in its sexuality. Though the poems are linked to one another and carefully arranged (the book is divided into three sections, each tied to a distinct geographical location -- “Little Dramas from a Red State,” “In a College Town,” and “I Move to New York to Become a Poet,”) there is no certain sustained narrative thread; no concrete cast of characters; no event spelled out in all its details. As the pieces accumulate, their troubled self-awareness and the collection’s slow creep of structural irony throw the notion of single, seamless personal identity into doubt.
Martin was raised in Georgia, but in 1998 he moved to New York. He teaches writing at The New School for Social Research and in the MFA Writing Program at Goddard College. He has published two novels (Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother (2006) and Outline of My Lover (2000), a book of stories (They Change the Subject), and two earlier collections of poetry. His writing has been anthologized in SLAM; Bend, Don't Shatter; Dangerous Families: Queer Writing On Surviving; Best Gay Erotica (2000, 2002, 2003); and Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. It has also been adapted in part by the Forsythe Company for their multimedia ballet and live film Kammer/Kammer, performed worldwide. He holds a recent doctorate in English from the CUNY Graduate Center.
Lena Dunham, a filmmaker and a creative writing student at Oberlin College, recently spoke with Martin about the connections between his poetry and prose, his writing process, and the distinct structure of his new collection.
Your forthcoming manuscript In the Time of Assignments has a fascinating structure. It’s split into three parts and each section seems to correspond with a period in your personal history. Did this feel like a very natural format? How did you develop this idea about the manuscript?
Even though I wasn’t still really thinking of myself as a poet anymore, that’s who I was reading and studying, mostly. When I couldn’t sleep at night, when I saw reading more wasn’t going to help me to do that, I’d give in to working on all these poems I had, ones that I’d accumulated over the years since I’d been trying to be a writer. The initial writing took place in a lot of locations. Editing all of these poems, though, took place mostly in bed, focused in a way I hadn’t been in a long time because of such sadness and not wanting to retreat back to a journal about what was going wrong with me. Moving back and forth through the poems, at 2 am, 3 am, 4 am, I began to see that I could push a narrative a bit over the structure of the whole manuscript, or maybe that it was such a structure that might make what I had feel like a real manuscript. Some natural groupings developed that had to do with the location where the poems were written, like was I still in Georgia or now in New York, primarily, but also based on my degrees of awareness of audience or none, was I lyrically addressing a defined love object for me or not when first writing the poems, and what sorts of goals could I now see behind them, now that more time had passed, now that I was smarter about them?
Another thing that I was just giving in to in the structure was the idea that the poems had different degrees of dependency on each other, that some of them couldn’t and I wouldn’t want them to stand alone. But I also realized that the idea of the narrative, of the poetic development, could be its own thing to interrogate and show the failures of at the very time that I tried to push that. It was happening within most of the poems, why couldn’t it also happen across them? How close could I get to structure the whole book as one big, big poem? I’d done a similar thing with my book of stories, They Change the Subject.
You write fiction and poetry but blur the line between the two. Your novel, Branwell, is incredibly poetic. Your poetry often has a clear narrative thread. Do the practices of writing fiction and poetry feel very different to you? How do they inform each other?
I’m glad you see Branwell in that light. There’s a poem in the manuscript with which I first knew I could really just write a story if I wanted to. Fittingly, perhaps, the poem is called “Simulation.” In the story version of the same intrigue, another character comes into the frame, from the lyric to the situation’s real world navigation. The story is called “Threshold” and specifically, structurally deals with the connotations of this one word and the one or two or three bodies it comes into contact with, there.
Poems for me used to be impulses, impressions, angers, interventions into my own life, monologues in search of a listener, even; this idea plays into some of the collection’s titlings. These were urgencies that had somehow gone beyond just what I needed to put in the diary I no longer keep in any real, recognizable way.
Once I’d started writing pieces specifically for performance, those pieces started to grow, basically to become stories, though I had always been aware of when I read how I was not only doing a “set,” I was creating a feeling of different stories based on the order I’d read my poems in. “I” always becomes a through thread when you are standing in front of a group of people saying it. In some ways, my work moved from following a thought to following an action or a series of actions. Subjects became less shadowy for me.
I’m supposed to not “just say things” in my poetry, and I’m supposed to “just say things” in my fiction, but there is a dialect between the two for me. Poetry for me has always had a performative dimension. I started writing novels really because I was tired of trying to whip up audiences back in Georgia. The novels I have written, at least in the composing of them, have never seemed to need an audience to justify them in the way that poetry does for me. There’s a little more faith that they might somehow see the light of day outside of my hands. But I also see the novel as its own poetic structure, really, and I don’t think about writing poems anymore, even though I feel myself drifting away from any driving concern to explore the novel, how fine of a line I can walk there. In some ways I’ve gone in my thinking from my earliest notions of what can be a poem more towards now what can just be a book. How small can a book be? I think about conceits more than anything and how language will or won’t fall around that. Poems captured moments, and I still think of moments in my prose like that; narrative sequences manipulate the importance we attach to them.
I’ve asked this question to other poets and am always curious about what type of response I’ll get, so here goes: your poetry feels experimental and subversive but also confessional. Confessional has become something of a dirty word in contemporary poetics. What does the concept of “confessional” poetry mean to you, and would you consider your work confessional?
Yes, in some senses, but not only, and I’m glad you think it feels other things, too. I have a poem somewhere, maybe in one of the little chapbooks I made in Georgia, about confessional poets and four letter words. I like lots of dirty words and don’t keep myself from trying to work with them. Lots of us know how we can get little charges out of these things, and why we want to, in whatever kinds of rooms. I had a practical understanding of this when I first starting reading my work out, performing it, in loud bars or before bands back in the South, or in coffee houses while people were trying to be on dates, or anywhere art was being made friendly for kids. What could I do to get these people to listen?
I wrote my first poem after the first time I had sex. I’m sure this is not unusual, and maybe some people “grow out of” this, but poetry always seemed to me to be the place where you got to express what you couldn’t under everyday circumstances. Those everyday circumstances over life change, of course. To insist on my sexuality, in the way that I do, no longer confront silence, it now confronts mainstream mobilizations of it. My work has always been about me trying to put some version of me, that I can live with, back together, and then trying to put that into society. Often I just have no one I need to talk to the way I need to talk. So I cast my voice out. I don’t believe in the pure utterance, by any means, and my poetics is also concerned with this. What I really think, although I’m trained in theory, particularly that of a deconstructive bent, is that you have to be in a pretty comfortable place to begin with to begin to dismantle the subject.
You’re the co-author of the book The Haiku Year, and your haiku have been published on the internet and beyond. What about this form appeals (or doesn’t appeal) to you?
I started to like the haiku in that it was a moment I could have or take almost instantly. At least that’s how most of them came to be. I’d see something or come across something -- you know, the haiku is supposed to be grounded in concretes -- and have a feeling not unlike the “oh, that would make a good picture” feeling. I should say too that for me picture taking is always the Polaroid. It was a small space where the words could develop this image that could both come into a relief and then fade out before you, in whatever time or lines it took you to absorb it. You set on a moment, and then it always comes out either better or worse. That’s like language for me. I wrote them a bit more when I first moved to New York, because I wasn’t taking pictures -- could no longer afford the film.
I find too that I like the haiku because it’s something small enough I can hold it and shape it in my head while walking from point A to point B, and then when I get to where I’m going, I can decide then whether or not I want to get out paper for it. I can do this with the actual words of the haiku, where I can only play around with the parts of a novel in a more abstract, thematic, architectural way while I’m walking.
When I was asked to be part of the “haiku challenge,” write a haiku every day for a year, the project that eventually became the book The Haiku Year, I’d never written them and didn’t want to write them because I knew there were rules I didn’t understand, really. When I said I’d do it, I decided okay, I know the basics -- Tom Gilroy told them to me -- and that I’d just keep changing them around for myself each month. Little problematizings for myself. Like one month all my haiku had to all be about sex, or one month it would be that I would really try to follow the syllable counts, or one month rather than seasons having to be included I’d try writers or books; see, intellectual seasons. One month do all ones with just fifteen beats, or fixate more on how I could get the lines to look most even on the page. One month they all had to connect like one, long sequence. The landscape around me, and that I’m living in, is obviously not Basho’s.
In addition to being a writer, you’re a teacher. As a creative writing student, I can’t imagine what it would be like to teach other people what I’m learning along the way. You’ve been a student for a long time as well. How does it feel to impart your writerly knowledge?
I like to share. When I first learned long division, that very night I tried to explain it to my sister. I wanted her to know, too. And my teaching is self-consciously weird. I have no problems telling students that. I don’t try to hide anything, ever, and I just try to admit where I’m coming from, that I am going to teach in metaphors, that I am going to be elliptical, that I am going to talk about film technique and contemporary art as much as I talk about sentences.
I’ve also learned more about writing as a teacher of it than I ever did as a student. Just like I learned more about my writing by going back to school as a doctoral candidate in English Literature. Though here’s a weirdness: I am truly motivated by being able to be Doc Marten [sic] one day. I moved through literatures I never would have before, in ways I never would have before, reading to a different degree of concentration. I didn’t grow up with any pedigree, and so I’ve had to supplement my instincts. A lot. I see my own classroom as the space for this, too. I have to feel like I’m still going to learn something myself every class or I don’t want to do it. Anytime I get down on it, like I’d rather be doing my own work, I just try to remind myself that I am. I am working with the materials I’ve dedicated my life to. Period. Do I think you can teach someone to write? No. But I think you can show them how to focus or approach differently, and my students do this even for me, when I take them into account.
I also know that some people approach teaching like “you can’t give them all the secrets,” but I think whomever you’ve told the secrets to still has to sit down and do something with them. That’s in keeping with my poetics. I like to see what people make of what I’ve told them. That teaches me about the world and what parts of it I do and don’t want to be in.