A Conversation With Rachel Zucker and David Trinidad
Early this spring, Rachel Zucker told me I must read Notes on a Past Life (BlazeVOX [books], 2016), David Trinidad’s newest collection of poetry. She could barely describe the book—the ease of it, the immediacy, and above all, the complicated notion of trespass. I read it and felt the same way:burdened by questions. Notes on a Past Life conjures images and stories of a lost New York, a world filled with the titans of 1980s poetry—James Schuyler, John Ashbery, the rising Eileen Myles. In these poems, Trinidad delves into his photographic, seemingly endless memory until his words become an incantation, revealing every drunken gesture, every slight, and every one of his many friendships. Among those are touching remembrances of Tim Dlugos (whose posthumous collection, A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, David edited for Nightboat Books) and the disintegration of his ties with Myles.
Zucker, also a friend of Trinidad’s, wanted the chance to speak with him—to better understand the book and what she thought of it, particularly his willingness to use the names of living poets. Zucker herself is no stranger to autobiographical writing and wrestled with the idea of representation and betrayal in poetry through her impressive stint with the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. Her poetry explores the struggles of her own family life with bristling honesty and layered confusion. Her wounding and tumultuous memoir, MOTHERs (Counterpath, 2014), pieces together fragments, poetry, and her childhood journals in an attempt to grapple with the impact of the many mothers of her life, among them poet Jorie Graham and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. Wolkstein, Zucker’s biological mother, opposed the content of and revelations within MOTHERs and asked her daughter not to release the book, an encounter heartbreakingly detailed in the final publication.
Fittingly, Zucker and Trinidad mention each other in their books. Each is a player in the other’s complex, personal story. Their respect for and influence on each other is palpable, and the resulting conversation is a testament to both their friendship and their artistry.
TRINIDAD: I have to say, the only way I can do this comfortably is to pretend that it won’t be published, that we’re just talking. I’m trying to shake that sense of these shadowy faces looking over my shoulders—you know, judging every “umm” I say—
ZUCKER: But wait—let me ask you about that. When you were writing Notes on a Past Life, did you engage in a similar process of pretending that it wasn’t going to be published? Or, when you were writing those poems, did you always know that you would want to publish them?
TRINIDAD: I wasn’t sure at first if it would be a book, or a publishable book. The project kind of came out of nowhere. I had re-read James Schuyler’s A Few Days. They’re sort of “notebook poems,” so I started writing in my notebook, trying to emulate what Schuyler does—those poems are just so light, they have such a light touch about his daily thoughts and activities. I wanted to try that. The first two poems came very quickly and surprised me, so I started delving into some of the painful experiences and memories of my New York years. It was like being in a two-year trance, like I had to live in the past, in a way. I was living in a lot of pain that I had been carrying with me for decades, and I didn’t quite realize it was all still there. But it was. I was amazed at how much came back, and in what detail. Because it was primarily from memory, this book.
I think I did ask myself and some of my close friends, “Is this okay? Can I say this?” Someone said, “Well, maybe you’ll change the names later.” But I never really considered that. [Laughter] Because I’ve always used real names in my poems; it would’ve felt dishonest to change the names. That’s something I learned from the New York School poets, the intimacy of that, and it seemed like this book was addressed to them in some way. At some point, I just fell in love with the poems. I felt that I was doing something different than what I’d done before. I liked them so much I thought, “Well, there’s no way I can’t publish them.” I published a poem for Joe Brainard in The Poetry Project Newsletter, and I had such a feeling of exposure: “Oh, one of them is finally out there!” It got such a nice reception, but still, it was a very uncomfortable feeling—to let some of the cat out of the bag, so to speak.
ZUCKER: You said this book, in some ways, is addressed to the New York School poets, and comes out of re-reading Schuyler, and entering into that kind of intimacy—which I felt very strongly in the book, that intimate tone. I felt that the book was right in that overlap between the New York School and the Con-
fessional poets, who I know are also a huge influence on you, particularly Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. People don’t usually have a problem with the way that the New York School poets name names. That’s not usually considered sort of impolite or offensive or provocative.
TRINIDAD: I’ve always thought of it as affectionate.
ZUCKER: Yes! As a kind of coterie, a kind of “in” group, you know—familiarity and intimacy, as you said. A feeling that you’re right in there with those guys. But when Plath or Sexton reveal details or name names, or when Lowell says “my wife,” that was offensive and upsetting to some readers and critics. In terms of tone, your book is closer to the New York School. But there is another part of it that, for me, felt very much closer to Sexton than Frank O’Hara. I think that’s why I couldn’t put the book down, which is very unusual for me with poetry books—I love poetry, but I can pretty much always put a book of poetry down. With your book I also felt very, and I said this to you before, I felt worried for you. I don’t feel worried for Frank O’Hara when I read his poems, I never feel worried for him. But I feel extremely worried about Plath and Sexton. I don’t like Lowell quite enough to worry about him, but if I liked him more, I would worry about him. Was Sexton on your mind? I mean, I see her all over the book.
TRINIDAD: She was on my mind. It’s interesting you say that because there’s a section called “Two Odes,” and one is for Frank O’Hara and the second is for Anne Sexton. It’s about visiting her grave, which I happened to do just a matter of days before I moved away from New York.
TRINIDAD: I wanted to commemorate that moment. I’ve always felt that, yes, the New York School and the Confessional poets were my biggest influences. But you know, the poets of the New York School that I’ve always loved were the ones who were the most autobiographical, like Schuyler and O’Hara and Alice Notley—her books from the early eighties. And Joe Brainard, certainly. Also the wittiness and playfulness—their poems gave me permission to play a little bit more in my poems and not be quite so serious. Maybe that’s why I felt this was the book I was born to write, because it melds those influences. I guess at some point, and I don’t mean this to sound grandiose, but I felt I was extending what the Confessional poets do, taking it a step further by using the real names. Some of the names are my living contemporaries. When I was in the middle of writing the book, I read locally in Chicago, and I decided to read my poem about studying with Allen Ginsberg. Which not only talks about Allen, but other poets—living poets. Robert Polito, who had been my boss at the New School when I taught there, showed up, and that made me super nervous. I thought, “Is he gonna judge this? Is he gonna have a problem with this?” And my voice was very shaky; I couldn’t catch my breath reading the poem. I felt very exposed. But afterwards he said he loved it. I told him, “I thought you’d have a problem with it, the naming of names,” and his response was, “No, anything goes at this point!” I love that he said that—anything goes. It gave me further permission.
ZUCKER: Do you think that’s true, that anything goes? Is that true for you? Are there any poems that you didn’t include in the book because you felt they went too far? Or people or things you wouldn’t write about? I’m wondering: are there limits?
TRINIDAD: Very early on—and this had never happened quite so instantly before—in a flash, I saw the structure of the book, knew exactly what the poems would be and what they would address. I mapped it out, a sort of blueprint. Then I just filled it in. So, there were no poems that I took out. I just stuck to the plan. But in general, I don’t feel that there are limits. What Robert said gave me a kind of permission, but I still struggled with this idea of “Can I do this? Can I really say this?” And, you know, I ask those questions often when I’m writing—
ZUCKER: And those questions are in the book. That’s one of my favorite things about the book—you were just talking about the Ginsberg poem, but I love that it starts, “What have I left out?” Or the Sexton poem: “A story. (Let it come.)” I mean, you’re clearly talking to yourself and to the reader—the reader sort of overhearing you talk to yourself, urging yourself to keep telling what happened, to not leave anything out, to not be afraid of the consequences of saying what happened, saying how you feel about what happened—
TRINIDAD: That poem in particular, “After Ginsberg,” that was the last poem I wrote for the whole book. I said to myself, “Okay, this is your chance, your chance to say anything—everything you want to say.” That was it, that was really saying goodbye to those New York years. The poem was meant to close the door. While working on the book, I had a consultation with a psychic, and I asked her some of these questions that I’d asked myself: “Will anything bad happen? Should I be doing this?” And she actually said, “No, if there’s anything you’re hesitating about putting in, put it in. Don’t hold back.” So, that was the final permission. And it did give me permission to say specific things that I was unsure about.
ZUCKER: I keep asking you, “Do you regret it? Were there any negative consequences?” But maybe I should be asking you, “Has there been a positive outcome—not just in the response to the book but in your own experience?” I mean, it seems that, in a large part, this book caused you to live in the past—not that your other books hadn’t also done this to some extent, but this one really feels like a real exercise in memory, and a real kind of urge to go all the way.
ZUCKER: And I wonder if you feel like there’s been something curative, or . . . I hate the word closure. People have mixed feelings or anxiety about the idea of art as therapy, or art as self-therapy, and you know, “real artists” or “real poets,” many of them—I do not include myself in this—seem to feel really defensive about their work having a therapeutic effect. I think art can have a therapeutic effect on the artist and also be relevant to other people. Sexton and Plath, I think, were trying very overtly to achieve a therapeutic effect—it just failed. That failure doesn’t make their work less interesting to me, it makes it more interesting to me, the way they were consciously going back and trying to be introspective or look at their daily lives and go beyond the social norms, go beyond any kind of restriction. I guess my question is: after having published this book, on the advice of your therapist, this psychic, and other poets, has it had a kind of curative effect on you? Is there a way in which the writing of it changed you in a positive way?
TRINIDAD: I think so, yes. For me, as a poet, there’s always a therapeutic effect. I often write about the past and painful experiences. I think it sort of releases the pressure and enables me to move forward in life. This book was different because not only was it me looking back on these painful or disappointing experiences, but it was so tied in with my life and career as a poet: what I wanted, what I didn’t get, who I ended up being as a result of those fourteen years in New York and the choices I made. Part of what’s in the book, for me, is this feeling of, “I’m not sure if I want to be a poet anymore.” In a way, the risk—one of the risks—I took was being willing to say goodbye to it, you know? And if this book. . . I don’t want to say ruined, but if this book closes that door completely, I’m willing to let it go. Because I don’t want to be that kind of poet anymore, or I don’t want to be in that world anymore. I’ve lived in Chicago, now, as long as I’ve lived in New York, and this book kind of clued me in to where I’m at.
ZUCKER: So many of the poets that you mention in your book, not coincidentally, are poets that I work with, or that I live near, or that my students love, or that my students have mixed feelings about. And so I kind of felt like the target audience for this book, in a sense that I know all the people that you’re talking about—like, James Schuyler, who I never got to meet, is one of my most favorite poets in the world, and his work is hugely influential to me. So, I always love reading what you write about Schuyler and I always love kind of peeking in on your relationship with Schuyler. I mean, you know that I went and looked at Schuyler’s letters, and read as many of your letters to Schuyler, and his to you, as I could.
TRINIDAD: And that ended up in my book, your reading our letters. How did you feel about that?
ZUCKER: Well, months ago, I called you to talk about Anne Sexton. I was writing a lecture about confessional poetry and was all mixed up. You said, “This is a really interesting time for me to be having this conversation with you. I’m about to publish my most confessional book yet.” And then you sent me the manuscript, which I didn’t read because I was deep in the midst of writing these lectures. You told me that I was mentioned twice in the book. Later I bought the book, and I was reading it, and I forced myself not to look through the book for my name. I was like, “Just come upon it when you come upon it.” I was really excited, and a little nervous, to see how I would come up in the book. Certainly you have your complaints about some people, and I thought, “I wonder if I did anything to David . . . shit.” [Laughter] And I thought, “Well, I’m a human be-
ing, and I might have done something to him, I don’t remember. Maybe I told him I was going to come, and I didn’t show up. I did this; I did that—”
TRINIDAD: “And he’s so petty, he’ll probably put it in a poem!”
ZUCKER: No, no, I thought, “Whatever it is, we’re still friends, so I’m grateful for that.” Then I thought about how I’ve lost friendships over the things I’ve written about in my work.
TRINIDAD: Have you?
ZUCKER: Yeah, and obviously, the situation with my memoir, MOTHERs, was completely traumatic, in terms of my mother’s response to the book and then, you know, dropping dead. So, I thought to myself as I was reading, “Let’s see how you like it. Maybe you’re gonna show up in this book, and you’re not gonna like it. And you of all people deserve that.” [Laughter] That’s what I was thinking.
TRINIDAD: “Here’s your punishment, Rachel; here’s your payback.”
ZUCKER: I didn’t know! I’ve had some poems dedicated to me, and I’ve shown up a few times, I don’t think by name but probably recognizably, in Arielle Greenberg’s work, but I’ve never been in someone else’s poem. And then I got to my big mention, not just my name, and I almost started crying. First of all, I sound so much better in the poem than I think I ever have in real life. I don’t remember saying that.
TRINIDAD: You said, in life and in the poem, “Everyone’s young once.”
ZUCKER: I thought, “Really? That’s so nice!” I felt relieved, I’ll admit, because I was expecting something bad. But I also felt, like, “Wow, this is really gratifying.” The idea that I was important enough to show up in your book was very meaningful to me. But then I immediately felt embarrassed that I’d felt that way. That it make me look like a wannabe person.
TRINIDAD: This is so interesting because, while I was still writing Notes on a Past Life, you sent me a copy of MOTHERs. I opened it right to a page that had a reference to me. I was in the midst of such ambivalence about using the names I was using in my poems, I just thought, “I can’t handle seeing what someone else says about me in a book.” So, I closed it and put it away. Once the production for my book was done, I went to read in Milwaukee, and I thought, “Okay, what should I bring for the train?” I just grabbed your book, thinking, “Maybe I can handle it now.” And then, I had the same experience you mentioned—I couldn’t put it down. I finished it on the train back. I read your book the whole time I was away, except for when I gave the reading. And I love what you said about me. It’s such an honor to be in that book and be part of your story. I love the risks you take in terms of naming names. And I know it had—is “dire” too strong?—some pretty significant consequences—
TRINIDAD: —that I have not experienced. Well, a friend did email me when he was halfway through the book, saying he was loving it. He then emailed me the next day to say he’d finished it but couldn’t say that he loved it anymore. Later, in New York, I had dinner with him, and I asked him, “Do you mind telling me? Was it something specific in the second half of the book, or the whole general effect?” He said, “No, it wasn’t anything specific, but you know, I’m a friend of Eileen’s.” And I was fine about it. I said, “Look, you know, I’m not trying to turn you against Eileen; I’m not saying you shouldn’t be friends with her. I accept that I had a completely different karma with her, and in the book I’m simply trying to tell the truth of my experiences.” Don’t ask me what truth is, please, or at least not yet. It’s not like that was even a bad experience. It just made me realize some people are going to see it that way, that I’m trying to influence how they feel about certain writers. But that was never my intention at all. And really, people’s reactions are something, of course, I have no control over.
When I was still working on the book, I got asked to read at Dia in New York. I had just written a few poems that I was really high on, and in one of them, I mention burning Eileen’s letters. I mean, that was back in 1990, or the very early nineties. And so I wanted to read these new poems because they were hot off the press. That’s what Plath did. She had just written her Ariel poems, and she took the train into London and read them. So I thought, “I wanna do what Sylvia did.” I was shocked when Eileen showed up. She hadn’t been at a reading of mine in, like, decades. I said to her at the break, “Look, I just need to tell you, I’m reading some poems, and you’re in them, and I talk about burning your letters.” I gave her fair warning. And then when I got to that part, there was a gasp in the audience. Because Eileen was sitting right there. We talked after-
wards. She said that it was really hard for her to hear. She had me sign a book. It was very intense. And then . . . I guess this is okay to say. Shortly afterwards, she launched a Facebook attack against me—I had just joined Facebook—saying that, without any kind of warning, I gleefully read about burning her letters, and that this was a hate crime. I felt like she misrepresented what had happened. A lot of strangers hated me for a day or two on Facebook, but then it just . . . disappeared. In the midst of that, another friendship did end, over the poems I read at Dia. So, I have lost friends, just to correct what I said earlier. And it was painful.
ZUCKER: You know, I was so conflicted about publishing MOTHERs. And I am so conflicted about the poems I’m writing now. And I’ve been asked to take names out of poems in the past. I’ve been asked to not publish or not read things. Now, I’ve written these lectures, in part, about the question, “What are the ethics of representing real people in your work? Are artists allowed to do that? What are the rules, if there are rules? Who do the rules apply to? Do poems have different rules than other kinds of art?” I’ve been reading your work for years for guidance and permission, and I’ve been trying to figure this out because I think, similarly to you, writing in another way feels dishonest to me. And I don’t know what to do with that. Sometimes, I wonder—for myself, I’m not talking about you—whatever it is that makes me want to write in this kind of transparent, real or real-seeming way, and name names and write in a memoiristic, accessible, linear, narrative way—whether it’s almost a kind of fetish. To what extent is writing this way about telling the truth, and to what extent could it be about hurting people? I hope it’s not about hurting people, I hope I’m not out to hurt people. But let’s be honest, I don’t often write about, like, the nicest thing someone said to me today. I’m more likely to write about the shitty thing someone said to me.
TRINIDAD: I would say that that kind of writing is just one kind of writing. And it just happens to not be in fashion at the moment.
ZUCKER: Really? Don’t your students write stuff and bring it to you, saying, “I’m afraid that my parents will see this and I won’t know what to do”?
TRINIDAD: Well, that does happen, to which I just say, “Well, then don’t show your parents. I never did.” Because I knew what I was writing could upset them or hurt them.
ZUCKER: But then you published it.
TRINIDAD: I published it, but they never saw it. That was pre-internet, too, so where were they going find a poetry book?
ZUCKER: Maybe this is why your book felt really risky, in this particular way, which is: you were mostly talking about poets—and poets are the only ones who read books of poetry. It’s not like you say something so horrible, but I think that what feels scary is the idea that I felt pretty sure that the people mentioned in the book were the people who would read the book.
TRINIDAD: I’m not sure I agree, only because I don’t imagine those people reading my work. Other than the people I send the book to—and that’s no guarantee that they’re going to read it—but beyond that, it’s just very hazy to me, in terms of who I imagine might read it. Yes, I was aware of possible gossip. I remember when Jorie Graham’s ex-husband, James Galvin, wrote X. And several friends said, “Oh! You should read X; it’s a breakup book.” And I thought, “Cool, I like a good breakup book.” I bought it, and read it, and I was very disappointed, only because . . . it didn’t seem very specific. I thought, “Well, if you’re gonna write a breakup book, go for it, really go for the jugular!” And it didn’t.
Before I started working on this New York book, Bernadette Mayer came to Chicago and I read with her at a bookstore. We had a moment alone, and I don’t know why I asked her, but I said, “You know, when I was living in New York, I always heard rumors about how you and Lewis had a big falling out with Ted and Alice, and it was so bad you didn’t talk to each other.” And I said, “Have you ever written that story? I’d love to read that!” She said, “Oh no, too many people would get upset.” When I was writing my book, I thought back on that moment and realized, “Well, I guess I wanted to do it.” Maybe that’s why I asked her if she had done it. But the fact that too many people might get upset didn’t stop me, you know?
ZUCKER: I wouldn’t have immediately associated your work, or this book in particular, with Bernadette Mayer, but I think, actually, the sensibility is very similar.
TRINIDAD: I love her work.
ZUCKER: I do, too. So much. I think she’s such an underrated poet, I think she’s just amazing.
TRINIDAD: Another memory was just triggered—and this was years ago, like seven or eight years ago. Richard Hell wrote me a letter. He was upset about something—not something I’d written, but about an issue of Court Green we had edited. He was upset, and he said, “You know, I’m really hesitant to tell you this because I’m afraid it’s going to end up in one of your poems.” I wrote back to him, thanking him for his letter and responding to it and assuring him that “No, this will not end up in one of my poems.” Richard Hell is not a friend of mine, but it is interesting that someone saw me that way, as someone who would put that kind of thing in a poem.
ZUCKER: Did you feel like, “Wait, I’m not that kind of person—”
TRINIDAD: [Laughing] No, I thought, “I am that kind of person.” It’s just interesting that someone said it—to my face.
ZUCKER: You know, a lot of people say to me—they’ll say something to me, and they’ll say “Don’t put that in a poem!”
ZUCKER: It’s an interesting moment when that happens. I tend to feel very ashamed in that moment, very chastised. And then later I always have these good comebacks, you know: “You didn’t say anything interesting enough to get into a poem.” Or, “What kind of horrible monster do you think I am? I can tell the difference between . . .” You know, if someone tells me some very personal story, I’m not gonna just put that in a poem. But then, there is that question of “Wait, why not?” And, “How does that other person know I wouldn’t do that?” On the one hand, I write so autobiographically about my life, and my life involves other people, so I am writing about other people. On the other hand, I consider myself to be a very good keeper of confidences and secrets. I’m not really a gossip. But I guess there’s a lot of trust involved from other people.
TRINIDAD: I like to feel that, as a writer, I’m talking about real experiences that I’ve had, and that it comes across—that it be real, or seem real, to the reader. And that’s why I love using real names. There is this moment in “Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound” by Anne Sexton. It’s actually a love poem to James Wright, whom she was having an affair with. In the first or second stanza, she says, “and I am on the top deck now / holding my wallet, my cigarettes / and my car keys / at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday / in August of 1960.” It’s just so specific. I think that moment in Sexton really speaks to the New York School poets. Schuyler has many poems that are simply titled the date that the poem was presumably written. Sexton also says in her poem, “I am very sad.” That was a big moment for me. This was in the seventies when I first read it; I had never heard anyone say “I’m sad.” That’s one of the things that made me fall in love with poetry, and want to be a poet: “Oh, you can say what you really feel in a poem!” Because people don’t go around—at least they didn’t then, do they now? Do they go around saying “I feel sad today?” Maybe they do.
ZUCKER: Well, I do.
TRINIDAD: I do, too. But in general, in the world out there, people don’t go around talking about their feelings openly, right? I guess only in therapy and in poems is it okay for that to happen. Or at least it used to be okay to talk about your feelings in poems.
ZUCKER: You’re making me think of . . . when I was reading your book I went back and re-read, “This Dark Apartment,” which is one of my favorite short Schuyler poems.
TRINIDAD: Mine as well.
ZUCKER: That poem wouldn’t be so powerful and devastating if it didn’t have the names in it. At the end: “How I wish you would come / back! I could tell / you how, when I lived / on East 49th, first / with Frank and then with John, / we had a lovely view of / the UN building and the / Beekman Towers. They were / not my lovers, though. / You were. You said so.” There’s something so devastating to me about the end of that poem and the way the You is not John and not Frank but is this very specific You in that moment. But I had forgotten that that poem has the X in it.
TRINIDAD: Yes! Yes! Wasn’t it “Then X got on speed”?
ZUCKER: Yes, “Then X got on speed / and ripped off an / antique chest and an / air conditioner, etc.” I was thinking about that, too: “Interesting. Why didn’t Schuyler say who X was? Was it the speed part? Was it the in-bed-with part?”
TRINIDAD: I know, I know. Well, and the You remains anonymous as well, the person the poem is addressed to.
ZUCKER: Right. It’s sort of like the Sexton poem, that the date is so specific, that the poem is so specific, but there is the unnamed, as well.
TRINIDAD: But see, now we know! Now that a Schuyler biography is being written, we know who that person was. I forget his name. But Hymn to Life and The Crystal Lithium are dedicated to him—it’s Bob Somebody. He was a clerk, I think, at a clothing store. I might be wrong about that. He wasn’t a literary figure; he was a married man that Schuyler had this long-term affair with. That’s why in “This Dark Apartment” he says “Can’t you be content with your wife and me?” Isn’t that where he says, “I’m not built that way”? So, we can figure out from the poem that Schuyler had an affair with a married man.
ZUCKER: Berryman wrote a whole book of sonnets about his affair. Which, if he had published before that affair was over and before his marriage was over, probably would’ve been devastating. Probably was still devastating, I don’t know.
TRINIDAD: This takes me back to the dilemma I faced with my book, which is: “It’s okay to write about the dead, but the living you can’t?” I don’t know, I just thought that to wait until I am dead or those I mention in the book are dead. . . it just didn’t seem right. It just didn’t seem honest. Maybe that’s one of the places where I’m testing the waters—doing something that’s possibly taboo. I’m asking, “Is this taboo?” I don’t know. But it seems right; it seems okay to do this, although some others might not think so.
ZUCKER: Right, and I guess that’s why I used the word fetish earlier. Many of my poems, and most of my books, in a way, have started with the thought, “What am I most afraid to write about?”
TRINIDAD: I told you I recently read “The Pedestrians” section of The Pedestrians, and I just loved it. It did feel like you really captured the New York School mystique in that sequence. I got such a high from it, because it seemed so real. I said, “Oh, this is your life! This is your daily chaotic life.” And you write about aging. You write about being in a workshop, and a student using the word “cunt.” There are these real moments.
ZUCKER: When you read that, the workshop poem, were you like, “Oh, Rachel, bad girl! You shouldn’t write about your students.” Because I was scared to do that.
TRINIDAD: Not at all!
ZUCKER: You weren’t?
TRINIDAD: Not at all.
ZUCKER: You don’t feel like the student-teacher relationship should preclude things ending up in a poem?
TRINIDAD: I don’t. [Laughter] Honestly, I don’t. I do it in my book. Granted, it’s an ex-student; I tell that story about his poem. In a weird way, is anything sacred? This is one of the things I wanted to say earlier: we don’t own our lives the way we think we do. You know, we go through life thinking “This is my life. I own it. This is private. This is a secret.” But you know what? You die eventually, and there are no more secrets. So, if you wrote something that you didn’t want anyone else to see before you died, you should’ve destroyed it. Because it all comes out. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think differently now about the privileges of selfhood. We’re all in interaction with other people. We all meet other people. We all have slighted other people, either intentionally or unintentionally. But even if it’s unintentional, the other person felt slighted. Is it wrong to write about that? You know, if you’re a published poet, you are a public figure. You’re out in public as a poet, giving readings, and insulting people at cocktail parties, all of that. And what happens in the classroom—that’s very powerful and loaded, sometimes. Some poets are good teachers, and some poets are terrible teachers—can’t we write about that?
I also wanted to say something earlier—and this is a paraphrase of Heraclitus—The truth is good for everybody. I guess I believe that. Poetry has always been this safe place to tell the truth because . . . not that many people read it. You can publish a poem and get zero response; it doesn’t mean it’s not out in the world and being read. I like the way poems go out into the world. You write them, they go out, and that’s it, basically. But they do have a life.
ZUCKER: I do agree with you partly, but I also immediately thought of Kenny Goldsmith. I think he thought he was telling the truth, when he read the Michael Brown autopsy report. But I think that that caused a lot of harm and was a really stupid thing to do. And when it went out in the world, maybe he thought no one was really listening, or that he’d always been doing stuff like that, but I don’t think that was his truth to tell.
TRINIDAD: Well, does that mean we can’t write persona poems anymore?
ZUCKER: That is a great question; my students ask me that question all the time. I haven’t written a persona poem in at least fifteen years. I’m not against it, but I don’t know how to do it anymore. Maybe that’s the thing that scares me most, maybe I’ll do that next time. But I feel like I have been trying to develop some sort of ethical standard—for myself, not for anyone else—and one part of it is really writing from my own experience, and being really clear about that.
TRINIDAD: I feel like that’s what I’ve always done.
ZUCKER: Yeah, I think you have, too. I think one of the things that feels very clear to me is that you have the most to lose from Notes on a Past Life. That, I think, shifts the power dynamic somehow, for me. I think that if I felt like you had the least to lose, it could have felt cruel to me, or it could have felt mean-spirited. I hope that I’m writing from a similar position of vulnerability and self-exposure rather than sneaking up on somebody with a false-lens camera, or something.
TRINIDAD: I feel like maybe I’m okay with the fact that some people might find my work problematic, or something in my work problematic. I think that’s always happened with my work. From the get-go, I wrote openly gay poems at a time when that still made people uncomfortable.
ZUCKER: That seems like a really important question. I wonder to what extent you felt permission, and not just permission but a kind of urgent mandate to tell the truth about your life, in part because of feeling how important it was to come out and write an explicitly gay poetry and to be a person who’s out in the world.
TRINIDAD: And to break through that shame. I try to write the truth of what I’ve experienced. If I sent the work to everyone that might possibly be offended, I would have to change it, and then it would be less true. I can remember one instance of asking permission. I was new in New York, and I got asked to contribute to an AIDS anthology. I had just spent the day with Tim Dlugos. He showed me his home in New Haven, and drove me back to New York. On the drive, he got very angry about having to take AZT, and the fact that he was dying, and that there was no way to discuss it. I described that moment in a poem, put his words in it. And I sent it to him. I think all I said was, “Please like this!” Because I wanted to submit it to this AIDS anthology. He did like it. He called and said, “Was I really that angry?” I told him, “Yes, that’s exactly what you said.” He was fine about me publishing it. And in the years since, some people have told me how important that poem was for them.