The Line / Break season three finale features queer poet and critic Randall Mann!
Randall talks with Copper Canyon Press publicist Ryo Yamaguchi about his favorite New Year’s Eve party, the freedom of formalism, and what he wants for the world.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:00):
Hey everybody, I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the publicist at Copper Canyon Press, and you are watching season three of our interview series Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We began Line / Break as a way to connect during the pandemic, and we have had such fun seeing poets on screen, hearing poems, talking about writing, books, life that we simply had to keep this series going. Thank you for tuning in. And this interesting kind of tangential memory of my first meeting with Randall Mann this fall in Seattle. I’d been driving this rented minivan around for some press business and this one night I found myself taking Randall to the hotel we were both staying at. It was our chance for some one-on-one conversation, but I had to follow these really complicated Google Map directions while we spoke. I don’t know if you remember this at all, Randall. The sharply winding narrow streets of Seattle were this tangle of blue lines on the map screen and Randall and I spoke about work and poetry, poetic history, formalism, all of these really heady topics.
Randall’s intelligence, the quick pace of our conversation, and the sense of a complex trajectory through a career, technology, and life in this weird dance blended in this cenesthetic meld with the turn-by-turn directions. It was an oddly transcendent experience, but mostly because of the incredible presence I was in, this extraordinary poet and thinker. I’ve had the great fortune to talk to Randall in more relaxed circumstances since then and I’m so eager to get to do so again today. Randall, hello. Thank you so much for being here.
Randall Mann (01:39):
Hey Ryo, it’s so nice to be here. And yeah, that drive was wild. I mean, I felt like I should apologize because I was getting heavy and deep and you were like, “Yeah, I need to find my way to the hotel.” But then it was all good. Yeah, that was fun and weird.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:57):
It was super fun. I couldn’t honestly have asked for a better way to just kind of talk and get to know each other because we were doing that, getting to know each other, your life and all that. And it’s funny and I’ll say, I mean, as someone who lived in Seattle for a long time and I find driving around there, I mean, like a lot of urban areas on the West Coast, it’s a little maddening because it’s not a grid. It’s really confusing. But we got there. We got there fine.
Randall Mann (02:20):
I mean, we did. We did.
Ryo Yamaguchi (02:21):
No car accidents. Yeah. Yeah. That’s super funny. Well, I’m grateful. I’m grateful to have that memory. I’ll have it forever in that night. Speaking of memories, so the holidays are upon us, Christmas is later this week. Hanukkah just started yesterday. Often when I think about the holidays, particularly when I’m in a more social setting, I think a lot about New Year and New Year’s Eve. And I’ve had some spectacular New Year’s Eves and I’ve had just absolute catastrophes on New Year’s Eve. So I wanted to start a conversation asking you about a favorite New Year’s Eve or a loathed New Year’s Eve in your past.
Randall Mann (02:58):
I think a favorite New Year’s Eve, I was at my friend Sabina’s house, a really close friend in Bernal Heights here in San Francisco. It was just kind of a thrown-together house party that kind of got bigger and bigger, but still in a manageable way. All of these people I really liked were there. And then, like children, we pushed the couches and the chairs aside and had a full-on dance party and it just kept going. It was super fun and it was really sweet because I love those people. And before you knew it, it was four in the morning.
(03:42): So yeah, I think that was a really good one. But I mean, I’ve had some whimpers too. I’ve had some existential, am I just sitting here? Is it 10:00? Am I drinking sparkling water and wondering if I actually have any friends or anything? So I mean, it’s hit or miss. I mean, so that’s funny because I was just talking with a friend and I was like, “I don’t really know what I’m doing for the holidays.” I mean, I feel like San Francisco is really, it feels good here right now. It feels festive and the vibes are great and it’s the first time you could really feel these kinds of vibes since the pandemic, which was great. So I definitely have, I’m feeling those, but I’m also like the holidays are bullshit, but in the most open-hearted way.
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:41):
Open-hearted bullshit. That’s great. Well, no, I mean this is a question because I mean, the holidays, they’re contentious. They’re divisive. I mean, people love them, people hate them, whatever. And New Year’s is like that too, because I think some people like the idea of New Year’s Eve, 10 o’clock on the couch passing out, that’s clutch. That’s the perfect New Year’s Eve. But yeah.
Randall Mann (04:59):
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:59):
Does it feel like-
Randall Mann (04:59):
I don’t think I can do that this year. Yeah. Yeah. I feel like I need to at least need to be standing at the top of Dolores Park or something and being like, “Look city, I’m here, we are here, let’s do this.” So we shall see.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:17):
Absolutely. For sure. I love the house party dance party. That’s great. I mean, we used to do that all the time in our old place in Chicago. Same thing. We push the couch aside. I love it. We would do it kind of a lot. But we threw a lot of parties. We threw a lot of parties. Yeah, it’s fun. It’s super fun. I’m really into this thing that we do, we’d call it “Spotify.” I use Tidal, but anyway, streaming roulette. So you’re playing the party, but then you’ve just got, the only rule is you got to add to queue. Everyone can throw on their songs and it’s recommended, but got to get it in the queue. It’s a jukebox thing.
Randall Mann (05:51):
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:51):
Whatever. Yeah, but you don’t know what you’re doing this year yet.
Randall Mann (05:54):
I don’t. I don’t. Oh yeah. You know what? I was just thinking of another really fantastic New Year’s. I was in Paris in 2016.
Ryo Yamaguchi (06:04):
Randall Mann (06:05):
And it was amazing. It was a cocaine and oyster party, but I was like, “We’re past the cocaine years.” But I had some oysters and they’re like, “Do you want cocaine or an espresso?” And I was with my friend Sabina again, and we’re like, “Hmm, maybe espresso.” And they’re like, that’s cool. And then I remember they played George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” right around the turn, and we were just losing our fucking minds. And then other people were really losing their fucking minds. So that was top tier. That was top tier.
Ryo Yamaguchi (06:43):
There’s three, I mean, that’s lavish, right? I mean, you’ve got Paris, you got oysters, you’ve got cocaine. I mean, something about that too is just unapologetically, I’m just going to go balls to the wall, right? I mean, just all the way out. Yeah.
Randall Mann (06:56):
Balls out. So yeah, it was genius. And then they started playing Prince and then I don’t know. It was just one of those things and yes, we actually had a flight at 6:00 AM so Sabina and I are going to bed for an hour. And we’re like, “Um, we are in our forties.” We are like, “We don’t fucking care. Let’s do this.” So anyway.
Ryo Yamaguchi (07:20):
This is great.
Randall Mann (07:21):
It was good.
Ryo Yamaguchi (07:21):
No. It’s okay to be in your 40s. Yeah, I’ve had a lot of, this past weekend and freaking every weekend I have these… You know what it is? It’s the increased frequency of the aging conversations of, “Oh my eyes,” and dah, dah, dah, dah. And I’m getting to a point where I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. It’s all in your head or whatever. You are as old as you feel. And if you need to go to Paris to an oyster and cocaine party to remind yourself that you’re still alive, then that’s what you do.
Randall Mann (07:51):
Yeah. Yeah. I treat aging like I treat my Grindr profile. I just don’t put any age on there. If you want to find out, I was like, “This is what 50 looks like.” I was like, happy birthday to me. So it’s like, yeah, I really don’t want to talk about that either. Let’s just get to it. And I don’t know, maybe I might be doing it a little more slowly or whatever, but whatever. I’m going to do that privately, so.
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:24):
That’s really funny. Yeah. Well, I mean, okay, well it’s kind of an important topic. Okay, so not aging, but thinking about memory and one context I have for thinking about, well, today’s conversation and the book and stuff. We’ll get to it. But this idea of looking back. I mean, your book is looking back over your career and I’m super like, well, I have a lot of questions about what that experience is like for you. But wait, well, let’s hold that in advance actually, because as we are talking about that, let me start with a question. So there’s sort of one question that I really always like to ask during these interviews, and it’s a question my predecessor had. I was going to ask it. And it goes roughly like this.
So you looking back in your childhood and this whole thing of growing up and growing up queer, I mean, it’s all in your work and I want to talk about that aspect of it. But for now, let’s just start with when you first recognized yourself in a piece of art. What was the germination of you as a poet or of a creative person at all? When did you first see yourself in that space? If it was in a particular piece of art or if it was a particular experience you had, something like that. You get what I’m saying?
Randall Mann (09:38):
So I would say that I first saw the possibility of poetry, which wasn’t necessarily seeing the self, but I guess in some ways it was because in classic fashion we had a collected Robert Frost out on the coffee table. Remember when people used to do this? And I remember sort of thumbing through it and probably loving all the wrong Frost, like Fire and Ice and shit like that. Nothing Gold Can Stay and all that. But I read it and something in me was moved by, whatever, the compression, just whatever was happening on the page. And again, there’s something about that that feels otherworldly or maybe if there’s a little bit of the divine, because I grew up in a household that liked reading, but it wasn’t overly literary. My dad’s an engineer and yet I read this and something shifted and I was drawn to it.
And then, that sort of was the gateway. When I really started to see myself more was when I started reading Keats. And that was fairly early, but just in general, the flint of putting words together. I remember. And speaking of aging, I remember when I was young, I co-wrote this disco song with my sister. My poor sister. I used to write dumbass plays and make her star in them and shit like that. But I remember we wrote this disco song called, oh God, this is bad. But Boogie On Down That Floor. I remember, I can still remember it in my head. So, I mean it was giving you real late ’70s disco.
So I was just drawn to this. Something in me has always been drawn to putting the words together and seeing, I think even early, the possibility of rhyme and a kind of structure. I mean, I didn’t have any words for it then, and I wasn’t thinking about it then obviously. But in retrospect, I was, so Frost, it was Frost, and then Keats. And then when I was in high school, I remember Thom Gunn, I read a Thom Gunn poem and there was leather and there were some bulges and I was like, okay, wow, this is really speaking my language even if I didn’t, again, have the language for it, both the queerness and the poetry. So yeah.
Ryo Yamaguchi (12:24):
That’s so amazing. Okay, I’m consellating a number of elements of this story that you’re, I mean, A: writing a disco song. What I love about the idea of writing a disco song too is like, it’s disco. It almost feels like already the song already exists. You just have to find it. I mean, there’s just a continuous beat that’s playing.
Randall Mann (12:43):
Basically life is disco and it is your choice if you want to step into it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (12:48):
Yeah, exactly. Oh, that’s beautifully said. Yeah, it’s totally. See, it is. It’s the stream. Yeah. No, and I’ve loved this too. Speaking of disco, I mean there’s been lots of reissues of vintage overlooked stuff from back in the day. And some of those disco, I’m from Chicago, I’m from Chicago originally, and lots of early ’80s disco stuff that’s kind of getting refound and it’s so good. And it feels that way too. It’s just this channel of water that’s just been moving underground the whole time that we just never saw.
Randall Mann (13:21):
Totally. Yeah. There’s this great, there’s this queer bar in the Tenderloin, one of the few left, and it’s called Aunt Charlie’s. And on Thursday nights, they used to, now they have it irregularly, but they would have Tube State Connection where you couldn’t have your cell phone on. You can’t have your cell phone on because there were no fucking cell phones in the time of disco. And then they put all this vintage porn around and they would play these stripping videos from 1979 and they would play deep cut bathhouse B side disco. So it was like you’re just sort of tweaked out on Fire Island in 1978 every Thursday night. It’s my favorite. It is the best. I love it so much.
Ryo Yamaguchi (14:09):
That’s amazing. Okay, so I’m also hearing maybe in my mind what I would say is conflicting sort of elements here. And here are the conflicting elements, which is this idea of disco and technique and technicalness and even some discos, it’s kind of machine music in a way. I mean, all dance music is. And then someone like Keats, who’s this slippery kind of wine spill sort of poet to me, romantic. And I’m curious, what was it about Keats that you think was compelling you, because Keats seems at odds to me with this.
Randall Mann (14:46):
Well, I mean I think probably early. I remember reading Endymion just particularly early. I mean there was something truly, I think special about the beauty of the romantic pitch of things and the way that it was constructed. Because I don’t think that something like disco and Keats are at cross purposes. I never would imagine I would’ve said this sentence, but I like having disco and Keats in the same sentence because I do think that they coexist. They coexist in my mind because one has a sense of freedom reading or listening to these songs. But behind the scenes, there is this craft. And yes, it’s more foregrounded in somebody like Keats and it’s sort of in the background of something like I Feel Love by Donna Summer. But they’re both, because they’re working, one has the sense of freedom to exist in the space that the art is creating and thereby not think about how it was made, but rather exist fully in the made thing. So that’s where they sort of overlap for me.
Ryo Yamaguchi (15:57):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Incredible. Freedom within this space. Freedom in, yeah. I mean this kind of like, oh, I don’t want to jump to the question just yet, but you’re touching on things that, I mean, I think before we get to some of this terrain, it’d be kind of cool to understand, I mean, your work, which I think you feel comfortable calling as queer formalism, like part of this history of that. And I’m sort of curious just for, I mean we’ve talked a lot about it, but I’m just wondering if you could maybe just define what that means to you, queer formalism and how it relates to your work. Yeah.
Randall Mann (16:40):
We have this trajectory of queer writers that have been, I mean people like Auden, et cetera. But through time we have this sort of formal approach toward writing. And then there is this layer of queerness, whether it is sort of hiding in plain sight or it is on the surface. I think it’s a sensibility, it’s a subject matter. And I think I am in a line of these, but I think also sometimes there is this, and you’re not saying this, but there’s this curious sense that those things coexisting is somehow kind of remarkable. And I don’t think that it is at all. I think, one, there is an incredible history of queer formal writing, but two, formalism is just, it just means you’re making choices in art. So I think defining what formalism is narrowly, I don’t think, works particularly well for me.
I just think, I mean, I know that there’s strict formalism, but ultimately for me, that just means I see kind of a panoply of choices. And then I listen to the poem and it’s asking me maybe to move in a particular direction based on subject matter, based on where I think the poem might be going. And if I’m paying attention, then I might do something as a consequence. But tenor and vehicle are the same thing. There’s no air, there’s no space between them because you don’t get one without the other. And to think of them as parallel things, I think is not at all, that does not at all work for me. I’ve never thought of that. I just think that the poem is how it’s being made and how it’s being made is the poem. And at the end you get this thing and hopefully there’s no tension between those things because there shouldn’t be tension, there shouldn’t be air, there should just be, this was the only choice for the piece.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:56):
Yeah, yeah. Fantastic. I love that. I love that. Yeah, that there’s no air between them. Nothing betwixt them. I’m hearing old philosophy here. No, and the tenor and vehicle mean the poem is the thing. And that’s something I think of, it’s an old Coleridge adage where it’s like, what is the poem? It’s the poem itself. What is the meaning of the poem? It’s just the poem itself.
Randall Mann (19:19):
The isness. I mean, it’s still a Stevensian sort of ontological thing.
Ryo Yamaguchi (19:28):
Yeah, I will never hear the word ontological without hearing a slap from here.
Randall Mann (19:32):
I mean, I think you either have to cock your eyebrow, put a sword inside of you, or have a slap when you say ontological. Because really, honestly, it’s a bit silly.
Ryo Yamaguchi (19:45):
Well, it’s one of my favorite words on earth. But there’s three options. I like those three options. And that’s great. You choose. You choose. You can pick. That’s really hilarious. Well, shoot, okay, do you want to read a poem? I mean, this seems like a good time.
Randall Mann (19:59):
Ryo Yamaguchi (19:59):
Does that sound good? Yeah.
Randall Mann (20:00):
Yeah. So I think I’ll read the title poem of the collection. So this has an epigraph from Ed Smith, which is… the epigraph is the entirety of the Ed Smith poem, which is called Converse All Stars, which I think it’s pretty great. So this is the epigraph. The sun sets, we are all robots. Market forces. Deal. Eating cereal over the sink, I think this is what’s real, the urgent piss, the grout like doubt. By now anonymous, no gent is in his lift. Adrift. This fall, all the kids want to shoot vids, amateur auteurs, little hard gadards, to boot, spittle by haunt. I want my hair and a split somewhere between mathematics and tricks buried in the yard to dream a multi-level scheme. Get a shovel. I shrivel by bleak acronym boutique, Jim Commie leak, Jimmy Hats, metallic, antibiotic, lost chats on a hill. A hell of passive investors reboot love with massive clawback provisions, money dripping off your robot back, the monsters, my stars.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:16):
Yeah, I love that poem so much. I mean, I’ve spent so much time with it and it’s so wonderful to hear you read it in the space. And I’m thinking of like, I mean, one thing that I think is kind of remarkable about that I see in most of your work, if not all of it, is this person, this speaker who’s just kind of caught in their own predicament of life. And they’re caught, in this case it’s quotidian. You’re eating cereal over the sink. And that feeling of being caught within this timeline, that is, I mean, going back to ontological or hydagarion or hagaylion where you have these sort of horizons of time and you’re looking forward and back. And one thing I really also hear and a question I have is about these sort of temporally located colloquialisms. Kids want to shoot vids, get caught in a lift. These sort of reference points that identify a time that we’re in. There’s a big difference across a span of this. And I don’t know if you have this or not, so this is the galley of The Selected, right?
Randall Mann (23:22):
No, I don’t have that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (23:24):
I need to send it to you. I need to send it to you. I always get these in a hurry. So it looks, it feels really good to have, I mean this is just kind of the fake one, but it’s in my end here. Looking back, so there’s a lot of that being caught in life and looking back kind of questions that I want to have. So the first one of these, if you don’t mind maybe starting a little pedestrian with me here, is just what the process of assembling a “selected.” I think we’ve called it legacy volumes. I mean, one part of this question is just technical, which is just, what was the assembly, how was curation and sequencing and that? But the other one is, which I’m more interested in, is what your emotional experience of looking back over all these poems was? Yeah.
Randall Mann (24:06):
Yeah. It was curious. I mean, in some ways the thought of a new and selected is, I mean, especially with a press like Copper Canyon, sort of like, wow, I have to quote a poem: I have climbed a mountain, there’s nothing left to do. But then it’s also like, dude, do I get to die now? What the fuck? It’s so weird. I’m like, I am only 50.
Ryo Yamaguchi (24:35):
Please don’t, please don’t, yeah.
Randall Mann (24:37):
So it was curious. I mean, it’s incredibly exciting. And then I’m just like, well it’s volume one like Madonna, so there you go.
Ryo Yamaguchi (24:50):
Just a quick, I just checked out the Immaculate Collection from the library this weekend too, and really enjoyed. That’s her first retrospective of the, anyway, it was kind of the same experience. Yeah.
Randall Mann (25:00):
Oh, I know. Oh yes, yes, yes, yes indeed. So it was really interesting. So then I was like, when I knew I was putting it together, I kind of put all the volumes in front of me. And with some of the poems it’s kind of like, oh, I know. I know that that’s a keeper. And as I was going through it. But one of the things that I really wanted to do is, I was not in favor of the approach of, for my first three volumes, I want to have two poems. And then at the last one I did, look how brilliant I am, because I’m going to have 49. I was like, eh, that always just seems a little disingenuous to me because I was pretty stoked when my first book came out.
So what I wanted to do is I wanted to have a broad representation of my career up to this point and really kind of chart the story, the kind of story of place, the story of queerness, both of a personal mythology and queer history writ large as I see it. And in order to tell that story, I wanted to have a meaningful representation from all of the books up until this point and general parity. So I have 15, 14, 15, 16 from all the five previous volumes. So going through it was really interesting and especially in the earliest book, Complaint in the Garden, because I wrote the first poem when I was like 21 as an undergraduate. It was like 1993.
And just to go back and you’re thinking about all these things. So most of the emotional responses were from the really early stuff because I was like, ugh. It was so long ago. But one of the things that really brought out was sometimes it’s just so easy to forget with the grind of the biz or just pushing forward. And that is, there was so much magic when I came to poetry. There was so much magic. All I wanted to do was write poetry. I changed my major and forgot to do other things except go out and be really self destructive in the ’90s. But then it was just like, I just listened and I just wrote poetry and it was so exciting. It was the only thing. And it really reminded me of that, not that really I’ve forgotten that, because poetry, every poem I write is still so exciting.
And it’s also one of the reasons why I love form, because it’s a puzzle. And I’m always enjoying myself. And the minute I’m not, then why do this? I mean, it’s not exactly lucrative. My fame is like, I don’t know what letter, but D list probably doesn’t do it justice. So I’m having a great time still. But looking at those early poems, I was like, oh, just remember when it was just so magic. And so it’s just a wonderful reminder because I love being a writer. I love writing poems and I’m appropriately self-aware to be like, oh God, calling myself a poet is so cringe.
But it’s also so amazing. And I think that to be in that space is, I think, really important. But it’s just still so fun. It’s still so exciting to write. It’s still so cool to sit down and not know where I’m going and have the poem tell me. I learn by going where I need to go. It’s just sort of exactly that. So that was such a wonderful thing, really, to be reminded of that. And the true mystery and magic of what it is that I’m able to do. So that was super cool.
Ryo Yamaguchi (29:13):
Yeah, that’s amazing. I love that magic. I mean, I’m so encouraged to hear you say that maybe it’s just sort of changed or that you still are so excited by the poems. And one would hope. I sort of feel, and I hear in that a little bit, maybe, and maybe I’m attaching my own personal feeling about this, but that sense too that you can sustain your work if the poems matter to you most or if you can get around the grind of the biz and that need, the professional, obviously we all kind of complain about this, the professional need to publish and that kind of stuff, which of course you’ve escaped by not being an academic. And that’s something we could talk about too. But the looking back at the time, I mean, when I’m also sort of hearing in your answer, and this is sort of a question I have. You mentioned a personal mythology, but then there’s also kind of, of course, a public mythology and about the queer movement.
And a lot of the poems look back over what it was like to be younger, to be uncertain about even your own sexuality. Of course, not having a community, of course, feeling that you had to be invisible, like an in the closet. And yet there’s this tinge of what I will call nostalgia for that time. And maybe part of it’s that self-discovery. And so one kind of question I had is your sense of looking back with both nostalgia, but also this acknowledgement that it was a lot harder, and it was a lot harder as a younger poet. I mean, all that magic, but you were younger, you were uncertain, maybe certainly you feel more confident now, right? Yeah, yeah.
Randall Mann (30:39):
Right. I mean, I wouldn’t call it nostalgia, I would call it grace. Because I look at something like Florida again, where I look at my younger self and try to be a little tender with the self and even tender with that time in a poem like Leo & Lance where I’m looking back and remembering when I was buying porn and it was kind of ridiculous. But then just for me, I mean, I’m not nostalgic for it, but it’s important for me to write about it and to write about it with some openness and some humor, I think, in some sense. But also to try and speak to the time that it wasn’t always easy. So I think that for me, nostalgia would maybe sort of say that I thought it was better than it was, or I wanted it to somehow be present and I don’t. But I want to be able to write about the timing in a complicated way and in a way that shows, I think, ultimately that it was difficult.
But that there’s a sense of trying, of just surviving it. And there’s a sense of tenderness that I feel toward all of us queer kids just in general, that if I think about my own particular story, sort of queer in the ’80s, with a loving family, but not a lot of information and then isolation and the default was homophobia and then HIV/AIDS. And just the whole thing was, it’s a mild form of, I use it really carefully, but it is a mild form of trauma for us to live through that. And then I carry that in my body. I know I do. And so again, my friends who are 10 years older lost everyone. But I think it’s important for me to write about it in a complicated way. And that does include openness. It’s not just, it was all stark, because it wasn’t all stark.
It was a complicated story. But I think it’s a story worth telling because, again, I think in some ways people don’t know the story. I have a poem called Friday where I talk about the story being of marooned on my shelves like Paul Minett. I think it’s sort of like, well, we had that, it happened, and then suddenly things shifted and then it’s just kind of ancient history when it’s not. It’s so current. I mean, that’s the funny thing about history, right? Our past lies before us. So in a classic, in an ancient way. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s something that I think about. I’m really trying to do it rigorously in a complicated fashion. In a fashion that hopefully is not easy, but I’m trying to do it with some tenderness and some compassion.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:00):
Yeah, no, and of course I think you do. And also with complexity, like you’re saying, and this is maybe part of the formalism and what form can do or formalism can do, which is allow for these complex and somewhat ambiguous tonalities that happen. And I think that’s… I feel that in reading some of the past, I feel that in reading some of your other poems about science and medical testing and things. And on that point actually, so this, okay, so Tobi, so my colleagues Tobi and Kaci together, they came up with a couple questions.
They have a really great one on form and this touches on a little bit of conversations that we’ve had in the past. So I’m just going to read this verbatim, this question to you. So let me pull it over if you’re ready for this one here. So Randall, so writing in form feels like this high risk engagement on the page, but I also wonder if writing in form provides any insulation or refuge that makes it possible to address the real dangers of a world that is hostile to queer communities? Does the form, do you think, create a safe space to engage that history?
Randall Mann (35:11):
I mean, I think it absolutely does. And I think that’s really well phrased because there are a few poems that I’ve written that have been difficult to write because of charged subject matters. Something like, there’s a pantoum called September Elegies which is about queer kids who committed suicide. And I remember writing that poem and just the act of writing it, even thinking about it makes me emotional. And when subject matter is really charged, that to me, an entry point to that is sometimes, well, how do I make sure that I rein it in? Because I don’t want it to be a selfish act. It is very fraught. Elegy can be very fraught. Writing about other people’s pain can be very fraught. It has to be approached incredibly thoughtfully because otherwise it’s an essay in narcissism. And you see this go wrong, and it’s not good.
So I wanted to say in that poem, September Elegies, I approached it very carefully and I was like, how do I make sure that I’m keeping away the self in some ways? Because this is so not about me, but all I have is a voice. And so I felt like this is all I can do is just, this is it. This is my currency. I can write about it. Write my way through it maybe, and then after the fact, perhaps someone will read it. I mean, I don’t ever think about that when I write, I never think about audience. But something that I know will happen is that it will have readers.
So with that poem in particular, because it’s maybe the most charged of all my poems, perhaps. Then I thought, well the pantoum works particularly well because the turning on itself is very much like the turning on itself of suicide. And then also the repetition, you can’t get away from what’s happening. And I wanted it to be unforgiving. I didn’t want you to be able to move away from the terrible truth of the poem. And so the pantoum, like, it is relentless. And also 27 of 28 lines are end stopped. I wanted to hold you, keep you and keep you and make it so hard. And so those choices pulled the poem in for me.
So yes, it provides permission, it provides a safe space, it pushes away, I think, any impulses for this writer to editorialize or to be selfish or to turn it back on me, the writer. And also, something like the pantoum, when I say it turns and turns on itself, I am very much in ars poetica territory. I know this is a poem, I know this is a form that is doing this, however, I still have something to say about it. So there’s a lot that I was thinking about when I was putting this on the page, and hopefully that can all be pushed away and just have it be this unforgiving and relentless piece, which is I think appropriate for the subject matter. So does that make sense?
Ryo Yamaguchi (38:44):
Yeah, yeah. And I think you’re also bringing in this twin somewhat polar element, but I’m very much in symmetry with that, which is, it’s not just a safe space. But also, I mean I’m going to use the kind of safe space, brave space language here, but it’s a safe space and it’s also a brave space. It is a place of intentional encounter that you cannot look away. And the poem is making you not do that, but it’s doing it with a moral dimension to it that is also asking the reader to not look away too. And I don’t know, that’s just a really wonderful dynamic as I hear you describing that unrelentlessness, that holding you, the inevitability of the poem, that particularly pantoum as it turns. That’s nonetheless, but it’s not fatalist either. I don’t know. It’s great. I just really feel like it’s really everything you’re describing is just walking this really fascinating, interesting line. But yeah.
Randall Mann (39:39):
I mean, I feel incredibly held by my formal choices because they enable me to move into the poem. So the constraints feel very freeing sort of paradoxically, but also kind of not too, because I feel like if I’m making the right choice for the poem, then again, there’s no distancing there. There might not even be any tension. This seems like if I want to turn and turn and tell a story and things unfold, but they turn back on themselves and perhaps a sestina would be a good choice. So it’s kind of just about is this the best way and the only way to tell this particular story in this particular poem? And so I feel like I have the openness and the safety to say what it is that I need to say. I mean, I do think that sometimes more rigorous formal choices can push away kind of open field impulses.
I don’t like an open field. It makes me nuts. I’m from San Francisco, I like hills, I don’t like an open field, so I don’t know where I am, but if you’re pushing up against me, I feel safe and I know where I am and I can figure out how to push the walls and figure out where I am. So in general, I like to know where I am and I like to feel that kind of compression. It really makes me feel like I know where I am and where it is that I might go. So that’s why free verse is fraught for me, which is why I rhyme like an addict in my somewhat free verse because that of course is my formal element, kind of maybe the chief formal element in my newer work, I guess, in particular. But in general too.
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:41):
Yeah, I love that compression thing. I mean, I often talk with people about how I feel weirdly calmed when I’m in crowded subways and crowded subway cars and stuff too. There’s just something about that being in.
Randall Mann (41:53):
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:56):
Yeah, it’s also the tactile, but hearing you, okay, so hearing you, okay, this whole time we’ve been talking about this and this idea of entering space, entering a poem. I can’t get the image of the dance club that you described out of my head of disco and the porn sweeping around you on these screens. And so part of this too, which this is a question I wasn’t able to fully write, so I’m going to try and come up with this question right now if you bear with me, and this might be the last one I’ll be able to ask with our time here. But so one element of this form too, and one element of this looking back and of course one element of queer history and everything that I feel like we’re dancing around and we’re talking about as you’re saying, and which you say with care of trauma and pain.
But the other element of all of this also is pleasure and desire. And when I think of dancing on the floor, and obviously with porn happening all around you, you’re just in this wonderful space of pleasure the whole way around. And I’m wondering if you feel that in your own writing, in looking back in the poems? What is the purpose of pleasure in the poetry? And I also say this with a temporal element, which is what is your desire then as you look in the future? We live in whacked out times. You live in a plate in San Francisco which has just undergone tremendous change over the last many decades. And with the queer community there, I mean, can it still survive there? And all these things? And so I’m kind of curious what you want, what do you want in the next few years or for your work or for just the world? Is that too big? And probably too big of a question.
Randall Mann (43:27):
You just ended, the question is what do I want for the world? So no, that’s not too big at all. Pleasure is essential. I mean, I think if it doesn’t give pleasure then it’s not a poem. And that can be defined in many ways. And ultimately it is… it lives in what the language itself is doing. Idiomatically in terms of root, in terms of what it is that’s being suggested, the associations, the inferences, what is happening with the language and how is that creating the line and then how is that creating the stanza and then how is is that creating the poem? I think it exists in the slippages and the mysteries of the language. Language is smarter than all of us. And so it has to be approached carefully. We have language as a palimpsest, language as an allusion. You can’t exist in a poem in a vacuum. And so I think about all of that, which is why I love idiomatic expressions so much.
That’s why I like rehabilitating them, which is why I like to take dead metaphors and beat the life back into them. I think about all of these things and to me there is great pleasure in the celebration of the language that is being used. And I mean you can argue that sort of some of these forms, they can seem so whimsical in a way. And I think there is great pleasure in say writing an elegy in trimeter. So that’s much that is, you have the lightness of trimeter and yet you’re beating it down a little bit with elegy. So the confusion that you can create. You can upend a reader’s expectations by making moves like that.
I think ultimately I write to please myself. That is full stop. And like I said, I’ve never once, not once in my life, thought about audience. I think about clarity. I think about, am I using the right word? Am I using the right punctuation? Is this the best way to do the poem? Is this the only way to do the poem? And then it’s like, “go little poem.” So ultimately the pleasure is my pleasure. I write to please myself. Because if I’m not excited, then how the fuck is a reader going to be excited? I mean, I think that’s the mistake poets make. It’s like I can’t write to a constituency. It’s like the death of the poem.
So I’m just going to write to please myself. You like it, you like it, you don’t, okay. So yes, yes, absolutely. The glittering pleasure of a poem is in the language itself. And the rest just takes care of itself. And also there’s a pleasure in writing the thing that it felt like I needed to write. Understanding that too. I mean, you can always tell cynicism in poems. Again, poems are smarter than we are too, just as language is too. So you can always tell if something is ground out. You can tell if it’s just all constituency. I’m not interested in any of that. I don’t believe a word of it. So I listen to the self, I let it guide. I sort of, I’m very careful the muse. I’m like, okay, just show me what you need to show me and whatever. So it’s all a mystery. It’s all magic. It’s rigor and magic. And then I just… you know… But you’re absolutely right. There’s no pleasure, there’s no point.
Ryo Yamaguchi (47:10):
Randall Mann (47:10):
Just in life.
Ryo Yamaguchi (47:13):
Exactly. Yeah. I’m just going to translate that to my question about what you want for the world too. Just pleasure.
Randall Mann (47:22):
There you go. I can’t help you with the world, but my little poem, maybe, I don’t know.
Ryo Yamaguchi (47:24):
Fair enough, fair enough. No, that was wonderful. It’s wonderful to hear that. And I feel that too. And I think that’s getting back to a little bit we’re talking about. It’s writing for yourself, writing because you want to be present to your own experience. And then trusting that as, I mean, and knowing as a reader that you experienced that pleasure also, or presumably. Rigor and magic. I mean, I want to talk about fitness, I really want to talk about working out too, but I don’t think we have time for that. Let’s leave it at that. I want to take this moment to think about that poem and we’re getting to the top of the hour. If you got another poem, maybe should we hear another one?
Randall Mann (47:58):
Ryo Yamaguchi (47:59):
And let’s close with that. That sounds great. Yeah.
Randall Mann (48:01):
Okay, so this is an older one. This is from my third book, Straight Razor. The Lion’s Mouth. I walk into a stanza. There’s decent gin here. The men are critically tanned in winter. The gin kicks in. Our eyes get all misty from an indrawn loss, eyes bright and dead as stars on someone’s walk of fame. I walk in, I walk, I raise my high ball to no one, which is to say to you. My bowtie misses your bowtie. My cords miss yours. Who says that love isn’t sartorial? Every pull of an argyle, every loop reminds me, a little bit, of you.
This is embarrassing. This is also true. Night comes, its one-sidedness. I think I’ll call in sick. I think I’ll go to, I don’t know, to Venice to feel something. It’s good for that. I go to Venice, no, not that one. I go all the way to Venice. I get the Ezra Pound haircut, have a leering coffee break. Mostly I go for the goodbye. The first cheerless stretch on the Eurostar because leaving it I tell myself is more freighted than leaving you. Just look, I left you six years ago and still can’t believe. Goodbye Venice. Goodbye dogfight and glut. I left you, I left so many anonymous denunciations in the lion’s mouth.
Ryo Yamaguchi (50:40):
Yeah, yeah. I love that poem too. I feel like I know so well and it’s so wonderful to hear.
Randall Mann (50:46):
Ryo Yamaguchi (50:48):
I mean safe, brave, whatever. I just feel good in the space of that poem and I don’t know. That’s wonderful. So thank you so much, Randall. I mean that was a beautiful reading.
Randall Mann (50:59):
Ryo Yamaguchi (50:59):
Thank you for this great conversation. I’m so happy we got to do it.
Randall Mann (51:01):
Me too. Yeah, no, that was fantastic. That was so fun.
Ryo Yamaguchi (51:04):
Yeah, no, I had a really great time. And let’s have more, we’ve got more to talk about. We got to save the world and we got to talk about our fitness regime, the whole thing. Yeah.
Randall Mann (51:13):
Disco, fitness, co-write our Keats and disco essay. I mean there’s a lot that needs to happen.
Ryo Yamaguchi (51:21):
Oh man. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Please put my name on that. I will co-author that with you. That sounds so good. Well, I’m super grateful for you and I’m super grateful for the poems. I’m grateful for all you out there for tuning in and paying attention to Line / Break. We’re closing in. We’re almost at the end of the season here. So thank you all for joining us and we’ll see you next time.