David Trinidad "Not for Beginners"

David Trinidad "Not for Beginners"

an interview with editorial board member Kyle Ballou

Have you recently found yourself in conversation with another writer or artist?

I feel like I’m always in conversation with whatever I’m reading, watching, seeing, listening to. It’s an organic process. I tend to be drawn, these days, to writers of the past. Much more than to what’s going on now. The last two years I worked on poems, very intimate and personal poems, about the years I lived in New York. Some of the poets I felt in dialogue with, who more or less showed me the way, were A.R. Ammons, Hilda Morley, John Berryman, James Schuyler, Robert Lowell, Federico García Lorca, Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn. And Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath—always Sexton and Plath. I also studied the paintings of Pierre Bonnard. And read Schuyler’s art writing. And was in conversation with the poets I was writing poems about, as well, that I knew in my New York years.

If your work (either selected or as a whole) were made into a movie, who would you cast in it? Who would direct and where would it be located? Would you want to take part in that process or not?

Well, James Franco would play the young me. Just kidding. Maybe David Strathairn? Richard Hell once likened me to Greg Kinnear, for what that’s worth. Maybe, now that I think of it, because Kinnear once played a gay character? As to who would direct . . . Clint Eastwood? Just kidding. Though I did like Hereafter. I don’t know. The Coen brothers? Wes Anderson? Actually, Todd Haynes could probably do the poems justice. And the guy who directed A Single Man—Tom Ford. At least everyone would look like male models. It would be located where the poems take place: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago. So many cities! I don’t know that I would want to take part, but I would like to visit the set, get autographs.

What have been some of your greatest setbacks? And how did you overcome them/are you still figuring things out? Humbling moments?

I guess I’d consider my alcoholism, throughout my twenties, a great setback. Not until I got sober at thirty did I really begin to write in the way I’d always wanted to write.

I also think careerism has been a fairly constant frustration. I’ve never felt that I’m in this (poetry) just for myself. So it’s been repeatedly disappointing, and discouraging at times, to run up against other poets who are trying to get as much as they can—to satisfy their egos and feel important or superior, to be top dog—without much consideration for others. Or morality. That’s what careerism is: to be ambitious at the expense of your own integrity. “It’s not enough to have talent,” says Carol Rossen, “you also have to have character.” So how to remain vital and open and generous, in an increasingly unethical milieu, is tricky. It’s an ongoing challenge. Maybe “it was ever thus,” as a friend recently said. But it’s certainly been exacerbated by the fact that social media has allowed narcissism and self-promotion to run rampant.

Humbling moments? There have been many, many. Read my poems.

What is the poem you have always wanted to write, but have not been able to?

I don’t know that there is one, to be honest. When I was young, of course, I think there were many. For a long time I wanted to address James Schuyler in a poem. Whenever I’ve attempted that, the poem has ended up being about him, not to him. I don’t know if it’s that it’s too scary to speak directly to him, or what. He was very hard to talk with in person. I don’t think I have the need, any longer, to speak to him—in a poem, at any rate. But you never know, it still could happen.

What makes you daydream?

Music. Reading sometimes, I’ll find I’ve drifted off in thought. Being in transit—in a cab, on a train, in a plane. Definitely in a plane—up in the clouds. Acupuncture. A massage.

When pulling something from pop culture, what strikes you the most? Is it something you enjoy? Something that inspires you? Neither? Both?

I think both, yes. Usually it has to be something that has a strong or mysterious emotional pull. Something that had significance for me in the past. It’s rarely something from the present. Nostalgia is almost always a factor.

Your poem “For Jeffery,” which is in Columbia Poetry Review (issue 28), reflects time spent on separate coasts. What was it like to revisit those memories? Did you learn anything new afterwards?

I wrote that poem in Chicago, looking back on my life in New York and, before that, Los Angeles. Stirring up those memories was like watching a strange film, as I say in the poem—something outside of myself, and yet I lived it. The poem was written as a birthday present for my friend Jeffery, so it was a joy to write. To relish our enduring friendship. Did I learn anything new? That it’s hard for me to be succinct. I say that in the poem, too. I always think I’m going to be brief, then end up going on for pages and pages. I suppose I already knew this about myself, before I wrote the poem. But I really intended to be brief!

What is your favorite time of day in New York? Los Angeles? Chicago?

New York: late afternoon, preferably in spring or fall. Los Angeles: midnight, preferably summer. Chicago: either morning (reading and writing) or late at night. Whatever city I’m in, I love the small hours. I’ve always been a night owl. I love those early, quiet, dark, solitary hours.

How do you store your poems?

On my computer. Or is it “in” my computer? I print out hard copies of everything, too. Call me old-fashioned, but the poem needs to exist physically, I feel. I print drafts as I work on a poem, like to mark them up, make a mess of handwritten corrections and revisions. In black ink. It feels alive that way. I still keep all the worksheets, as a record of the poem’s unfoldment. It’s a habit.

If you had to give your life a title, what would it be?

Not for Beginners.

If you could write poetry in any other language, what would it be?

Ancient Greek.

Does your early work have anything to say to your current material?

There’s a certain advantage to not knowing any better, don’t you think? There’s no such thing as perfection—we’re proof of that—so relax. Where are your similes? We’re lousy with them.”

How does geography or landscape influence your work? Do you need to be in a certain environment to write?

I think cities have played an important part in my poems, insofar as I’ve lived in cities my whole life; they’re where the experiences (in the poems) take place. Film, as a landscape of sorts, has been very important. In terms of how I view the world.

I like to write at home.

What do you think the new breakthrough in poetry is going to be? What do you think is missing from poetry?

I don’t think we can know what the new breakthrough will be—that’s the thing about breakthroughs. Many are placing their bets, trying to predict the trends, but I don’t think you really can. Art can’t be calculated like that. What I think is missing is a predilection for, or even a conception of the possibility of, the wild, the unpredictable. I see young poets approach poetry as if it’s a career path, or business school. Is there room anymore for the genuine, disruptive, new thing? I hope so. I’m more inclined to trust the thing most resist, rather than the thing everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon for. But many seem to want, or need, to conform. Human nature? There’s safety, I guess, and obvious benefits, in being part of the group, in toeing the line, in identifying with the dominant mode.

Which words, under no circumstances, should never be used in poems? Or, which words do you just not like?

I have a distaste for fancy words like “effulgence“ and “translucence” and “luminosity.” They seem like catchwords for beauty. For twenty-five years I’ve told students never to use the word “gossamer.” I hate that word. But I recently used it in a poem! It surprised the hell out of me, breaking my own rule like that. But it was the perfect word. And I felt a kind of relief. There really aren’t any rules.