Luminous Debris: New & Selected Legerdemain 1992-2017
(Barrow Street Press, 2018)
The first book I ever read by Timothy Liu was Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry (Talisman House, 2000). In this landmark anthology, Liu carefully curated the work of more than fifty mainstream and experimental poets published since 1950. Given the rigor and breadth of the collection, it was clear Liu’s searching intellect and love of language matched his desire to feature a full and nuanced representation of gay poetry. His capacity as editor prevented him from including his own work in Word of Mouth, but later that same year I was able to sample his poetry in another anthology, Michael Lassell and Elena Georgiou’s The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry on the Next Wave (St. Martin’s Press). I was not disappointed. The five Liu poems included there—“Vox Angelica”; “Mama”; “The Size of It”; “Reading Whitman in a Toilet Stall”; and “Strange Fruit”—sent shivers through my back and shoulders, as if a hand had been pressed to the base of my spine.
Such a visceral response was due, in part, to the balance Liu strikes between a raw, unburnished spontaneity and his rigorous commitment to revision. He admits such balance is achieved through discipline: [“The poem isn’t reportage, it’s a poem. If in real life there are eight details you can think of or recall, the poem might only need three. I’m selecting details based on how the metaphors might move rather than mere narrative facts. I want the reader to feel pleasure following metaphor to metaphor in a condensed arc. The right images can invite a specificity and spontaneity. Strangely, the less you have, the more spontaneous it becomes.”] The result is such that the immediacy of an original draft—however much it is edited—is never abandoned.
After writing ten books in twenty-five years, Barrow Street Press has fittingly honored Liu’s achievement by issuing Luminous Debris: New & Selected Legerdemain 1992-2017, a two-hundred-plus page sampling of what the poet claims is the “detritus” of an ongoing, “manifest force” that drives his creativity. Equally important to him is his passion for the occult, of which the tarot specifically plays a prominent role in the organization of the new collection. Begun as a face-to-face discussion at Good Stuff Diner on June 25, 2018, the conversation below was then augmented and edited through several email exchanges.
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Let’s start with a general question, one you’ve probably been asked several times already. In most “New and Selected” poetry collections, new poems are placed in the first section of the book. Successive sections often function retrospectively and move chronologically from either oldest to newest or newest to oldest, depending on how the poet wants to map his or her body of work. But Luminous Debris: New & Selected Legerdemain 1992-2017 does not do this. Instead, it arranges the poems in one of five sections, each of which is named for a suit present in a deck of tarot cards. What were your reasons for organizing the book this way?
Timothy Liu: I wanted to do a sort of remix. In the “Foreword” to my first book, Richard Howard mentioned off-handedly that I don’t merely write poems but that I write a poetry. I’ve always kind of liked that. When I was putting this book together I thought, “What if I had held back all of my books and what if this were the only book I had in print?” So I mixed up poems from the last 25 years to create an arc. Even though stylistically I’ve tried different things in different books, I feel like my poetry is all one thing anyway.
Alongside poetry, I spend a great deal of time with occult esoterica. I give tarot and I Ching readings here in the city and in the country, so I wanted to foreground that preoccupation by arranging all the poems of this book into a tarot deck. Additionally, when I give readings from this book, I generally read six poems, one poem from each section. I ask audience members to shout out a number between 1 and 20 or 21. People come for a poetry reading but they’re also getting a six-card tarot reading! This introduces an aleatory element into live performance. By contrast, the book itself is carefully arranged in terms of the arc of each section. You don’t have to know anything about the tarot to dive into the sequences.
Rail: I really like that you’ve organized the book as if all your other books were no longer available. Occasionally, other poets have organized their “New and Selected” collections non-chronologically and/or thematically and while there have been varying degrees of logic for this, the organization itself didn’t seem essential or necessary. Your reasons for organizing it this way are genuinely compelling. I want to get back to Richard Howard’s distinction between your writing “a poetry” as opposed to “merely” poems. I was wondering if you could perhaps interpret how he meant that.
Liu: I think he saw me as a prolific writer. I showed him new poems every week. He felt that there was already a body of work that preexisted or predated my first published book. He knew I was working through material that was “coming out” in the form of poems (literally!). When he wrote the “Foreword” I think he was acknowledging that I don’t just write 3-4 poems a year—there’s a manifest force behind my poems, a poetry.
Rail: So he recognized that the individual project—your first book—was part of a larger design?
Liu: It’s like when you think of someone who might make paintings but first and foremost is an artist. The paintings are the detritus in the wake of all that energy.
Rail: That’s a good analogy. Not every painter is an artist. Some just paint paintings; some poets just write poems. Richard Howard recognized that you were working on a different plane, that your work is the result of a more forcefully-directed process.
Liu: And yet there was a double-edged-ness to him making that claim. Was he also saying that somehow the artifice fell short of the vision?
Rail: I think it implies—and this is not a bad thing—that any individual poem from you is part of a much larger piece. With some poets, say someone like Elizabeth Bishop, you read one poem from her and it is an event in itself. Maybe Howard is saying your individual poems cannot be disconnected from the rest, so that the poems are part of a poetry. They also aren’t static: a single poem’s energy is charged by its relationship to the other work, and since your work is always growing and changing, the individual poem changes. Even an old poem becomes new again.
Liu: I like thinking of poems as being constellated with each other in the way that a tarot card from a deck is its own entity but, in the context of a reading, can be grouped with other cards, as each reading usually starts with three cards. A typical tarot deck has 78 cards in it. The odds of choosing, say, “Death,” would be one in seventy-eight. Seventy-eight is a magic number. To pull three cards in a row—do you know what the odds are for that exact sequence? One in 456,456! If you do the math, it’s one over seventy-eight times seventy-seven times seventy-six. And so it becomes another magic number. With Luminous Debris I had way more than seventy-eight poems to choose from, many of its constellations aleatory and unexpected. The mighty task of a “New and Selected” is deciding on the cut, given the limited number of pages a publisher wants. In my case, it was about 200 pages. I was looking at ten books of poems and thinking, “So what do I do—twenty pages from each book?” The idea of a tarot deck became appealing because it gave me a finite way to structure the work. I ended up choosing 120 poems for the book.
Rail: And the whole time you had in mind organizing those 120 poems under headings of specific tarot cards?
Liu: Either by suits of the Minor Arcana—Coins, Cups, Wands, Swords, and an added suit of Stones—or choosing twenty-two poems for the first section of the book to form the Major Arcana. If you don’t want to read 200 pages of poetry in one sitting, you could read just the first twenty-two poems, which is about sixty pages, to get a good idea of the kinds of poems I’ve been writing.
Rail: Would you explain this a little more fully?
Liu: About the middle of the 1500s, playing cards became available to the public. Prior to that, the decks were made strictly for the nobility. Once the printing press got off the ground, the merchant classes were given access. The tarot comes out of that. Back in the day, a typical stack of playing cards would have fifty-six cards instead of fifty-two; each of the four suits would have ten pip cards and four royals: a King, a Queen, a Jack (also called a Knave or a Page), and also a Knight. When the chivalric strain of knighthood ended, that was the first royal to vanish from the deck. Meanwhile, there were also these religious parades in northern Italy that would go through town. People were mostly illiterate back then so they were taught through these parades called Trionfi. The parade would start with a banner of the Fool, then maybe a Juggler, and you would go all the way through the hierarchy ending with Judgement Day and The World. Even if you didn’t know how to read and write, you could stand before the parade, watch this sequence unfold, and get a complete education on how to bridge your physical life with a kind of spiritual inheritance. These twenty-two images ended up as trump cards which were added to the fifty-six playing cards. That’s how we get the seventy-eight cards. Luminous Debris opens with twenty-two poems that take the reader on an archetypal journey mirrored by the Major Arcana. The 22nd card in the tarot is called “The World,” and the 22nd poem in my book is called “Walking in a World Where We Are Sometimes Loved.” In earlier iterations of Luminous Debris, especially in the “Table of Contents” and design, I had a lot more information about which poem corresponded to which card—but I took all of that out. I felt that it was too distracting. I just want someone to go from one poem to the next, without all this other apparatus attached to it.
Rail: I like the idea that you had this structure to work with. Even if it’s not always evident or overtly explained, one reacts to it subconsciously because of the archetypes you speak of. Do you sometimes find yourself writing towards these archetypes or towards the language of cards, or are the occasional correlations between the language of the tarot and your poetry the result of your being drawn to an archetypal way of thinking?
Liu: Here in Manhattan, I met with a Jungian analyst for over a decade. That might have something to do with it! Over that period, his office moved from Central Park West to Riverside Drive, and we finally ended up near Penn Station at the old Edgar Cayce Center, and as it turns out, my first gig as a professional card reader was at one of their Psychic Healing Fairs.
Rail: Were you interested in tarot cards when you started writing poetry? Or did it come later?
Liu: When I was a young teen, I used to give magic shows in my neighborhood. Anytime my dad came to New York City on business, he would visit the Lewis Tannen Magic Company and return home with a new trick for me. He also gave me their catalogue, which had the heft of a bible!, and I still have most everything my Fundamentalist father ever gave me, stashed away in a box. Somewhere around this time I got my first tarot deck. It was a Mini Rider-Waite I got at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I don’t know what happened to that deck—it just vanished—but when I came back from my Mormon Mission, I started writing poems in earnest and also studied the I Ching, so it was natural to pick up the tarot again. As long as I’ve been writing poems as an adult, I’ve been immersed in divination and the oracular. Both are vatic arts.
Rail: When you were putting the book together, did you look at one of your older poems, presumably not initially written to conform to a suit in the tarot deck, and think of it differently because you were now drawing correlations?
Liu: Take the Suit of Cups for example. Literally, a poet could do a search, if they have their poems in manuscript form, to see if any of their poems mention cups. The Cups are the suit of summer. They also embody the element of water. Feminine intuition and feeling. That’s a pretty wide palette. Most people could probably justify putting almost every poem they’ve ever written into such a section.
Rail: It’s my favorite section of the book, by the way.
Liu: Really? What did you like about it?
Rail: Partially, because the poems in it have the features you’ve already mentioned—water, summer, an embrace of the feminine. Many of the poems in it are narratively satisfying. I also saw some startling juxtapositions in your sequencing of the poems there. The section begins with “Nostalgia”—a poem that represents a certain kind of poem you’ve written throughout your ten books—single line utterances with no enjambment, deliberate spaces between the lines to suggest something sub-textual in the white space is drawing the individual lines together. I often find myself startled by individual lines in these poems. I read them slowly, focusing on horizontal movement along specific lines as opposed to vertical movement dipping down into a story. On the other hand, the section has a number of narrative poems that work very differently. To me, there was a breadth of style and approach in this section that was very satisfying. I felt here, more than in the other sections, that if someone wanted to get a sense of the range of your work, Cups would be an ideal place to start.
Liu: Wonderful! Maybe I’ll tell people to read this section instead of the first twenty-two poems from the first section. [Laughs]
Rail: The narrative poems are more direct but they work beautifully alongside the end-stopped poems…what would you call the latter?
Liu: I call them end-stopped monostichs. They are collages that syntactically allow each horizontal line to remain more fragmented than if it were to run on. You could enjoy the Cups section without knowing anything about the tarot, but here’s a little sidebar: the state of nostalgia usually corresponds to the Six of Cups. But the poem “Nostalgia” is not the sixth poem in Cups; here I’ve placed it as the Ace of Cups in terms of its premier position, a kind of chalice or Grail. Cups, as I mentioned before, is the suit of Summer. The poem’s first line is: “The weight of summer fruit in a gilded frame.” So in this section of the book the reader is going to get, if you will, twenty poems as pieces of fruit, each in a gilded frame. In the second line of “Nostalgia” I mention “jars of anthurium”: jars are certainly cups and there’s the Stevensian idea that if I placed this jar in Tennessee . . .which harkens back to Keats’s Grecian urn . . . So there are all these things I was thinking about, which I don’t need the reader to be thinking about, but if they do . . .
These suits comprise the Minor Arcana of the tarot. Arcana means “secret”—not just old/arcane but secret, old knowledge. The joy of using an arcana as a structural device is that I could hide a lot of secret knowledge in plain sight. Like the way “Nostalgia” ends—“Some valentines torn open after a sudden rain”—so there’s the water again. And it’s the idea that in this section you’re also going to get twenty valentines. The final poem of this section is literally called “A Valentine,” water coursing through that entire poem as well.
Rail: And the valentine is torn open, which suggests a narrative. There’s so much implied in that image.
Liu: Yes, very much so.
Rail: But poems like “Indian Summer,” “Summertime,” “Vespers,” “Two Kinds of Alone”—which may be my favorite poem in the book—and “My Last Night on Nova Scotia” are narrative. While they are clearly arranged, edited, and mindfully designed—they still seem spontaneous. In this aspect, they remind me of the poems of Rane Arroyo. Like many of his poems, the poems I just listed have propulsive line endings that promote quick movement to the next line and continue downward through the narratives—an effect very different from the monostichs, which tend to feel horizontal as each image and individual line is pondered slowly.
Liu: Two of those poems you mention—“Two Kinds of Alone” and “My Last Night on Nova Scotia”—are very autobiographical and confessional. In “Two Kinds of Alone” I’m trying to find a beloved who I last heard was on the island of Rhodes. I’m stalking him. It’s a stalker poem. “My Last Night on Nova Scotia” refers to a trip that I took after a breakup. I was trying to get some perspective and find a way forward from a relationship that had failed. In both poems, the beloved is very present in my mind. In its original draft, “Two Kinds of Alone” was three times as long. My draft for “My Last Night on Nova Scotia” was twice as long. In the editing process I kept asking myself, “What does the reader not need to know?” The poem isn’t reportage, it’s a poem. If in real life there are eight details you can think of or recall, the poem might only need three. I’m selecting details based on how the metaphors might move rather than mere narrative facts. I want the reader to feel pleasure following metaphor to metaphor in a condensed arc. The right images can invite a specificity and spontaneity. Strangely, the less you have, the more spontaneous it becomes.
Rail: The poems also seem paradoxically more generous. It doesn’t feel like you’re withholding; rather it seems as if you’re saying “I am giving you everything,” even when you aren’t. By revising what isn’t needed out of the poem, you create an illusion of more fullness. Could you speak to that?
Liu: For me, the fullness in poetry follows William Carlos Williams’s modernist line, “no ideas but in things,” which really goes back to Tang Dynasty poetry. It’s not that Williams meant poems should have no ideas. He trusted sensorial images could ground a poem, keep things animated. When we talk about an image, it’s already a thing. There’s that great essay by Jack Gilbert called “Real Nouns.” In it, he says nouns and verbs are what make the poem tick, not the adjectives and adverbs. Gilbert compares Yiannis Ritsos—my favorite twentieth-century poet—and Ritsos’s choice of nouns and verbs to the more flowery, ornate, baroque style of his contemporary Odysseas Elytis, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I really like that essay. It’s not that I don’t get baroque sometimes: I do and I think in this book there are some poems that indulge in that. But generally, the generosity you speak of is not in Latinate polysyllabic diction but in the rightness of the Anglo-Saxon monosyllable. I’ve always felt that about poetry.
In “Two Kinds of Alone” and “My Last Night on Nova Scotia” I did twist the truth a bit, made up some things, but the poems are staged in real locations. I love [Wallace] Stevens to death and his “The Idea of Order in Key West” (1934) is certainly located in Key West, even though he hardly describes any of the flora and fauna. That poem had to be birthed there. “Domination of Black” (1916) is also located in a specific place: there had to have been real peacocks that he saw, otherwise the ones in the poem wouldn’t have the power that they do. A poem could be really abstract or full of word play and fragmentation, but if I’m reading someone’s collection, I often ask myself, “Where am I grounded? Where are the poet’s feet touching the earth?” With some poets you’re not sure. I don’t know how earth-bound Rilke was in his sonnets or elegies, but I love them just the same. There’s a saying that has been haunting me for the last several years: “What does it mean to be famous for five miles around?” The storyteller Martin Shaw explores this in his latest book, Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia. What if our life’s purpose was to get to know all the living entities within a five-mile radius from where we live? That’s stunning to think about. Powering off our phones! When you talk about the generosity that can happen in a poem, I think this kind of grounding is essential.
Rail: And the notion that there’s an endlessness within the restriction. When you revise and edit, you are often restricting, cancelling. Before I forget, Yiannis Ritsos—earlier today I was with a writer friend who asked me to name a major literary influence. For me, without question, it’s Yiannis Ritsos. I have read him non-stop for years. BOA editions came out with a book in ’89 or ’90.
Liu: A bible of a book!
Rail: From that book, I learned of his many translators, so I started searching for various individual collections. I don’t think any poet has influenced me more than he. Many of Ritsos’s “Testimonies” are in the third person, are brief observations arranged in long, blocky lines, and are marked by surprising, often startling juxtapositions and turns of perception. Odysseas Elitis’s work is wonderful but for me Ritsos’s poetry is so much more powerful. When I read Elitis my reaction is often intellectual, whereas when I read Ritsos, my response is visceral, a kind of “zero at the bone” that Dickenson spoke of and whose poems often elicit the same feeling.
Liu: I was thinking about Dickinson just now when we were talking about being famous for five miles around. Her limited circumference was the entire universe. When she writes about a narrow fellow in the grass, we know that’s a real snake. And we feel really located in a Ritsos poem. It was important for him to provide a postscript for every poem, letting us know where he wrote it and when. Adrienne Rich did this too.
Rail: Adrienne Rich can definitely be considered a poet who wrote “a poetry” as opposed to a writer who wrote poems. Every poem from her is one piece in a much larger design.
Liu: Both Rich and Denise Levertov were similar in the way they notated and documented their poems. The poem itself was a kind of diary entry, part of a much larger thing. Back to Ritsos, one of the things that mattered to me was discovering he had an erotic life with men.
Rail: But the homoerotic is everywhere in the poems.
Liu: It’s in the poems, but still, the autobiographical fact somehow kicks things up a notch from homoerotic to homosexual. When I was a kid, three of my favorite bands were AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Judas Priest. I didn’t know until thirty years later that Rob Halford has been a fag all along, duh! I was so clueless that I didn’t even know that Freddie Mercury was gay. I mean, how did I miss that? Pete Townshend does guys? Cool beans! I felt that way about Ritsos. Like—Oh, no wonder I love his work!
Rail: And yet the homoerotic element, though prevalent in so many of his poems, is still subtle and, to a degree, submerged. It’s there and palpable but not spoken of directly. Sort of like [Gerard Manley] Hopkins’s “Epithalamion”—where most of this unfinished poem concentrates on the bodies of young men. At first when I noticed this sort of focus in Ritsos, I considered it an aspect of the Greek world, a way he might consciously connect himself to the ancients. But then I kept reading and quickly realized, um, no—this is something else. Also, one of his best translators, Kimon Friar, was openly homosexual.
Liu: Yes, and there’s that beautiful black-and-white photo of Ritsos and Friar on a balcony. They’re not lovers; they’re brothers.
Rail: A deep understanding. In his youth James Merrill had an affair with Friar.
Liu: Lovely! One of the fun things about being a gay writer is knowing who slept with whom. I can trace my sexual lineage back to Whitman. I have this secret, invisible Whitman membership card! I remember the first poet I’d slept with who told me about his lineage all the way back to Whitman. In our afterglow, he said, “Now, you’re part of that long chain.” It’s kind of like a bonus, a twofer: I spent a night together with someone and then I found out my cum travels all the way back to Whitman. Thinking about Kimon Friar and Ritsos, that’s another gay poetic baton being invisibly passed from one homosexual to the next.
I never slept with my mentor Richard Howard, who had a pretty notorious reputation. But when my first book came out and I organized a launch for it, one of the poets I invited to read at the event picked up my book and said, “Hmmmm, a ‘Foreword’ by Richard Howard. I wonder how you got that?” I felt so sullied, insulted, in those bygone days before #MeToo and #TimesUp. My book was published because I wrote the poems; Richard Howard felt a kinship to them. Our gay lineage had nothing to with swapping fluids. Maybe swapping words.
Rail: There are many kinds of reading, with poetry especially. As gay poets we try to find things that reflect our own experiences. We aren’t just reading a book, we’re entering it. We seek a complete immersion in the work. It’s penetrating you and you are penetrating it.
Rail: There’s also something really satisfying for me as a reader knowing that someone else in the world has felt what I’m feeling. Wherever I am now, someone else has been there. I am not walking this world alone. That’s the feeling I felt when I read “Two Kinds of Alone.” I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve never stalked like that”—at least not in that form [Laughs]—but every step of the way, I was with you, I was there. I’ve been through everything in that poem, even if my particulars were different. That’s what made me go back to that poem 30 times. Whether the events in the poem happened or not, it is an entirely true poem.
Liu: Oh, they happened alright! [Laughs] I would question whether or not a poem like that could have been fabricated. Anything is possible, but necessity is the engine driving that poem, at least for me. If it were just some fantasy, I don’t think the poem would exist as it does.
Rail: Nor would you have been able, I suppose, to strike that balance we spoke of earlier between restraint and generosity, leaving some things unsaid yet so much of the experience seems to be offered to us through the poem.
Liu: I have a little secret thing about that poem, but before I tell it, let me cite it in full:
TWO KINDS OF ALONE
The one where you sit waiting
by the phone, or logging on
to look for emails that have
slowed to a trickle, the messages
left on your machine of music
you cannot name mixed in
with dog barks, clicks, and bits
of silence timed to last under
just a minute at that certain
hour to show they are clearly
intentional—when all of this
stops, what choice do you have
but to leave your mate, get on
the plane that will fly direct
to Athens or some such place
known for its marvelous ruins
and begin to search for the one
who promised you something
more than an ancient wonder
that no longer stands, say on
Rhodes, go to the place of his
last known address you sent
books, a postcard with nothing
else on it but an Attic krater
of Patroclus binding Achilles’
wounds to convey what you
could not, after having dropped
more than a thousand bucks
across seven time zones after
having been told “Don’t come!
I never asked you to visit me.”
It is only after all of this that
you arrive at the other kind
of alone, one where you don’t
yet know how to use the phones
nor where to find the nearest
internet cafe, the rhododendrons
in bloom, the scent of jasmine
and Vespa heat rising up over
the city walls, the moon already
waxing full as you traipse on
up a trail along that cliff leading
to a villa you stake out for two
nights in a row, wondering which
window is his as you crouch
in the branches of a gnarled pine,
then saying “Fuck it!” the third
night as you hoist yourself up
through a ground-floor window
left open, almost sure the dry
pasta on the sill and that bottle
of catsup are things that belong
to him, the barest outlines of
a laptop flipped open on a desk
as you stand there in the dark,
a woman now bringing laundry in
from the line outside, you can’t
go back the way you came, oh
what have you done, your lover
nowhere on this island to be
found, having fled the day before
your planned arrival, this then
is your paradise, look around,
at what you could never imagine
Here’s the secret: Linda Gregg wanted me to change the ending of the poem by ending with the penultimate line. I thought it was a great suggestion and I could totally see the poem ending with that. But I ended up leaving the final line in. Sometimes, when I read the poem at a reading, I don’t read it; other times I do. Not only are there two kinds of alone, there are two endings to this poem! One is what happens if you forego the final abstraction and just give the command, “look around.”
Rail: If it ended with “look around” it would end in affirmation.
Liu: And now it ends in abjection! [Laughs]
Rail: I don’t think it is abject but “what you could never imagine” suggests that you have to create your own reality, you have to go beyond what you thought possible. You have to locate yourself in a situation or place you didn’t think you would be in. Just above those last few lines in the same poem you say, “as you stand there in the dark . . . you can’t / go back the way you came, oh / what have you done, your lover /nowhere on this island to be / found. . . this then / is your paradise.” You wouldn’t have imagined this. You had to thrust yourself into this strange new circumstance.
Liu: Yeah, I really had to get on that plane and go to Greece and humiliate myself, go to the place where my Beloved had gone.
Rail: This could have been a self-pitying poem, but it’s not. Instead, you embrace the gift of your new aloneness.
Liu: Where the poem ends, my life went on. I couldn’t go back out the window because there was a woman out there taking laundry off the line. So I took a detour and headed straight for the door. Just before I got to it, a guy in his sixties walks out and asks, “Can I help you?” I said, “Yeah, I’m just trying to find my way out.” He said, “How did you find your way in?” I told him I was looking for a friend of mine, a woman who had brought me there. And he said, “Oh, you mean Carla.” “Yes, Carla.” “Well, she’s right over here” and he walks me over to the dining room. Then I see a door that’s open to the outside and say, “Oh, I know where I am—this is how I came in.” And so, after a quick bow to everyone, I raced out. This coda is funny to me but separate from the poem.
Rail: Definitely. The exchange you had with the man: “I can’t find my way out.” / “How did you find your way in?”—this is a poem itself! Was he speaking English?
Liu: Yes. It was at a translation center on Rhodes. There were people from the U.S. and other locales but English was the common language. Travelling alone, being able to converse in my mother tongue was quite a relief.
Rail: A lot of your poems are about marriage. Several of them have the word marriage in their respective titles.
Liu: I’m married to the artist, Chris Arabadjis. We met in 1992, just a few days before my first book came out. The tombstone dates for this book, 1992-2017, are the same dates for how long we’ve been together. So the book is dedicated: “for Chris, for having come all this way.” The whole way. The word “tarot” doesn’t actually mean anything but people have come up with diverse meanings nonetheless. In the word “tarot,” some people see the word “Tao” (way), others “Torah” (law), or even “Rota” (wheel). A lot of fuss has been made out of this word that has no meaning! But I like the hidden notion that it could mean “the way.” Anyway, the path of marriage is very strange and if you’re going to be together with someone for a long time, what you end up experiencing is a series of marriages. Whatever my relationship is now with Chris in 2018 is not what it was in 2008, is not what it looked like in 1998. So I have repeatedly meditated upon the notion of commitment. There’s also a conundrum: How do you honor security, or what I call the sacred vessel of the relationship, versus how do you keep your own life alive and exciting and dangerous? You can’t have it all in one place or one relationship, so there’s the challenge of trying to negotiate. Every year I’ve written five or six poems called “The Marriage.” I have about 125 of them. Over the years, in almost every book since the first one, there’s at least one poem, if not three or four, called “The Marriage.”
Rail: And there are poems with other titles that include references to bridegrooms, etc…lots of imagery about many kinds of marriages. Is there something about the concept of marriage beyond your own experience of it that occupies your imagination?
Liu: I think these are meditations on what it means to sign on the dotted line for the long term with someone. Often they are critiques of marriage . . . if you’ll indulge me: Every year, I challenge myself to write at least one poem that will upset Chris, just to keep my edge. You know how to cut a bitch? Got to keep the blade whetted! Last month, I read one such poem at the Great Mother Conference up in Maine and afterwards, two women went up to Chris in tears, asking him “How can you bear hearing him read that poem?” And he said, “I love that poem!” So let me read it to you off my phone:
SILVER ANNIVERSARY ODE
My husband breaks his back
molar on a piece of gravel
stuck in a bowl of rice
and beans I cooked for him
before retiring to bed,
to have something after spending
a late night at the office
preparing a legal draft
to cover his own ass with HR
when a more-than-competent
underling has consistently shown up
less than half the days he’s paid
to work, and I won’t go
into all the details
nor will I mention how it has
crossed my mind that either of them
could be having an affair
if anyone would bother
to ask, which I don’t, and it
looks like the tooth will cost $650
to repair which is more than
twice what it will cost
to replace the forty inch
flat screen our cat knocked over
when workers started
jackhammering the sidewalk
two floors below and freaking kitty
the fuck out, a 4K smart TV
we only got to watch
one episode of Westworld on
before dragging the thing
down to the basement
where everything we no longer want
magically disappears, and this
my friends is what it feels
like to be married over 25 years,
our collective libido
having trickled down to a stream
so thin the chances of it
making it all the way
to the storm drain
are less than half the time it’d take
for a five year old
to fold this poem into a plane
and fly it over a gorge
somewhere outside of Ithaca
where the void awaits,
where the suicides continue to leap
every chance they get.
Only Chris would know that he made the ending of this poem possible. I was hiking with a friend (the poet Joe Hall) in Ithaca and texted Chris a pic of Lucifer Falls, and he asked, “are they still committing suicides and leaping into the gorge?” So I asked Joe who now lives in Ithaca, “are they?” and he nodded. So that made it into the poem.
I like the idea of “people leaping every chance they get” because there’s something appealing about not making it into their fifties, or whatever age they’re going to be, to end it early. There’s something about that. If you survive marriage, if you stay together, if you keep it alive somehow, if you do your individual work and continue to meet every day, there’s something about it that is remarkable. At the same time, when I say in the poem that our collective libido has trickled down to this thinnest of streams, I’m bowing to a truth and calling a spade a spade. One of the biggest clichés you hear about marriage, like at parties—and I don’t care if you’re gay or straight—is “Oh, our sex life is better than ever after fifteen years!” If it was so great you wouldn’t be underscoring the fact, right? [Laughs]
Whatever your sex life is after fifteen years, and whether or not you want to parse it out with a close friend, can make for an interesting conversation. But at a party? Puh-lease.
Rail: You can’t have bragging rights over something that is false.
Liu: A lot of people have very simple cliché notions about what a successful or soulful marriage is, and that would include how hot the sex is after fifteen years? Try fifteen months! Although every relationship is different from start to finish, there are collective truths everyone discovers. If you’ve been together with someone for five or seven or ten or twenty years, congratulations! You’re not that special.
Rail: We’re not above or beyond those general trends.
Liu: In some ways that is cool, because we can also meet at the level of a poem. Yannis Ritsos can be imprisoned and separated from us and yet there’s something to be gained about knowing if he wrote a certain poem in his twenties or thirties. Having DNA, having these genes that cause us to age and self-destruct, we share a common legacy, including a “dream of a common language” as Adrienne Rich puts it. Right now we’re in the middle of race wars and race riots in poetry. And I think that’s fine, that there are a lot of injustices, we’ve all came from somewhere else until we got here. But what about the archetypal? What if you find yourself on a shamanic journey where it doesn’t matter what race you are as you traverse the Three Worlds? So it’s kind of interesting, this tug of war we engage in daily, cis and trans, gay and straight, white and black—fine. If that’s where you’re making your poem and that’s where your poetry needs to go, then great. Bring it! There are so many places to be. But I don’t live in a lot of those places when it comes to poetry. I live in this gendered desiring body, I live in New York City, I live in Ulster County, and I have friends of every stripe you could think of, so if it’s not my life, it’s someone I’ve met. That said, it’s like, you know . . . I had a conversation with a dear friend who asked me a few weeks ago: “Why is it that straight male poets have difficulty writing sensually about the male body?” I said, “Are you sure about that?” And he said, “Okay, give me some examples”—and we had a really hard time trying to find one. And that is a wonderful question, and I don’t have an answer for it, so I’m now asking, can we come up with a straight poet, even in his twenties or thirties, who writes sensually about the male body? Maybe a poem like, “A Blessing,” by James Wright; though it’s not explicitly homoerotic, the sensuality in it comes close, both with the ponies and between the men.
Rail: How about “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” where Wright says: “Therefore, / Their sons grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October, / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.”
Liu: Yes, there’s an opening or softening in James Wright. Even in Franz Wright—I love his poems, too. I can think of another straight man whose sensuality is not strictly directed towards the female body: Robert Creeley. In For Love, there is a lot of abjection and inadequacy that he feels about his own body, but it’s such a sensuous book, in a different kind of way. Here’s one example:
There is the sign of
to borrow the theme.
But what or where to recover
what is not love
I saw her
and behind her there were
flowers, and behind them,
And here’s one that’s purely abstract with no image in it at all:
LOVE COMES QUIETLY
Love comes quietly,
about me, on me,
in the old ways.
What did I know
able to go
alone all the way.
Rail: There, the abstraction of love becomes embodied.
Liu: Yes, “drops / about me, on me”
Rail: Like fluids.
Liu: Yeah, that word “drops” is doing double duty as both a plural noun and as a verb across the enjambment. With male poets—gay or straight—I want that feeling of cock and cum in a poem, its pearly ghostly ever-presence! And when I’m reading a poem by a woman, I want the feeling of a pulsing wet vagina somewhere in the vicinity encoding the language. It doesn’t have to be in every poem. But even Emily Dickinson wrote about “volcanoes in the crease.”
Is that too much to ask of a great poem, or any poem? To feel a dick and balls anchoring the male imagination while a chthonic force erupts out of the earth, throbbing and entering us through the perineum? I’m talking about the root chakra—hell, I’m talking about all seven chakras sparking up along the spine of a writer or artist who serves as a conduit joining the seen and the unseen, the hidden and the revealed, and whether that’s happening or not, well, you can bet I’m going to notice.
Timothy Liu’s latest book is Luminous Debris: New & Selected Legerdemain 1992-2017. A reader of occult esoterica, he writes in Manhattan and Woodstock, NY. www.timothyliu.net