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non-belief

Christopher Phelps: You mention in the introduction that you “had a hunch these poems existed but could never have imagined their scope.” Was there a specific conversation or event or book that inspired you to put together an anthology of faith-, religion-, spirituality-, belief- and non-belief-themed poems from LGBTIQ poets?

Kevin Simmonds: I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to pursue this, or why, but I’m certain my decision had much to do with Bryan Borland. He started Sibling Rivalry Press and, in my limited interaction with him, I had a strong sense that he could make this anthology possible. Bryan wants to gather and sustain the LGBTIQ community through our literary works. As far as I’m concerned, he’s doing something new in the publishing industry. Unlike many past and current queer publications / publishing houses, SRP actively strives to publish all kinds of writers, regardless of prescribed and more “mainstream” queer sensibilities. I respect and admire that.

CP: You also mention in the introduction that you “have come to prefer faith, which religion scholar Karen Armstrong refers to as ‘the opposite of certainty.’” Doubt has also been referred to as the opposite of certainty. Do you find faith and doubt to be intimately related? Do you think the LGBTIQ communities, in particular, having struggled to find their places in faith communities, are naturally positioned to write poetries that explore a connection between faith and doubt?

KS: Anyone who considers any kind of religion, especially those who grew up in the church, mosque, synagogue, coven, temple—wherever—should experience doubt. There’s such overwhelming hypocrisy, inconsistency, unanswered, unanswerable or badly answered questions. And being LGBTIQ generates more questions that are badly answered, modeled hypocritically by spiritual leaders and their respective flocks. It’s all a mess, really. As I say in the introduction, love is supposed to be the one common denominator, whether you’re Hindu, Jewish, Pentecostal or Muslim. When love and all its fruit come into question, you know you have a problem. A serious problem.

LGBTIQ people have been uniquely positioned—and “called,” even—to critically observe and then expound upon this messiness. Thankfully, mercifully, poets do their work in this and have been, like, forever. Many, like Whitman, took God back from the haters and re-gifted that Presence to us. Whitman made no distinctions between god and God or, for that matter, man, insect and beast. Others poets, like Seattle-based Crystal Ibarra, look at the God of Christianity and His followers and say, in essence, “piss off.” They distinguish themselves and their cherished beliefs from any capital or lowercase deity.

CP: To hate love is such a strange act, isn’t it? The contradiction of which leads haters to think it can’t be love they hate. So they think it’s sex they hate and that sex is what defines us, not love, and to my thinking this is the most destructive aspect of their hypocrisy (never mind the fact that there’s nothing wrong with the ways we have sex). For if someone is told not to (dare to) speak their love, how can it be known to exist? How can it be counted, let alone discounted? Historically and still, we are those for whom love has been a precarious fact, both a given and a problem: a paradox. In Collective Brightness, there are so many testaments to that love, so many paths into and out of the paradox, so many protean forms: tenderness, probity, irony, wistfulness, playfulness, anger. Some take the love paradox face-first, as in Steve Turtell’s “A Prayer”:

His book has a frayed, twisted ribbon.
Ah, the cover is Bible Black.

They sit opposite me,
a religious group visiting Sin City.

I eat my omelet, homefries, toast.
Halfway through the Book Review

I glance up. One of the boys
is staring right at me. Sadness,

maybe even desire in his glance.
I recognize myself in him,

as he wonders about me.
He is handsome and shy.

And afraid. And alone.
Please God, don’t let them

destroy him. Show him
he is loved and worthy.

Keep him from self-hatred.
Give him enough good fortune

to make him happy, enough
misfortune to make him wise.

Others repurpose the love paradox, as in Oliver Bendorf’s “The First Erasure,” redacted from a Westboro Baptist Church hate letter. Still others subvert it with Whitmanic kindness, as Ellen Bass’s poems do, or with Szymborskan sw(v)erve, as in Ana Božičević’s “Death Is All.” But perhaps my favorite of the Bs is Ari Banias’s “Some Kind of We,” how hard it reaches into the regress, into our bag of bags, to find a hypothetical ‘we’—hanging a lantern on what I love about our contemporary mess, its precariousness peeking out of itself to ask if things might be okay, if we might have some minimum in common:

These churchbells bong out
one to another in easy conversation
a pattern, a deep ringing that wants to say
things are okay,
things are okay—
but things, they are not okay
I can’t trust a churchbell, though I would like to
the way I can trust
that in this country, in every house and in most every
apartment, there somewhere is a cabinet or drawer
where it’s stashed, the large plastic bag
with slightly smaller mashed together plastic bags inside it;
it is overflowing, and we keep adding,
bringing home more than we need, we should have
to weave a three piece suit of plastic bags
a rug, a quilt, a bed of bags even, anything
more useful than this collection this excess
why am I writing about plastic bags, because
it is this year in this country and I am this person
with this set of meanings on my body and the majority of what I have,
I mean, what I literally have the most of in my apartment, more
than plants, more than forks and spoons and knives combined, more than chairs
or jars or pens or books or socks, is plastic bags,
and I am trying to write, generally and specifically,
through what I see and what I know,
about my life (about our lives?),
if in all this there can still be—tarnished,
problematic, and certainly uneven—a we.

Do you think things will be okay? What’s a poet’s political/critical role in this? Is private testimonial enough, or should we be testing our poetries less often in the college cloister and more loudly in the streets?

KS: Life is messy and things will never be OK. That’s my take on it. Yet something deeply observed and felt, something like the paragraphed observation you just made, can be transmitted beyond the “college cloister.” I’m confident of this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gathered all these resilient poets with their mind and spirit-altering poems. I’m their pusher. Remember that term? That’s what they used to call drug dealers back in the day.

I’m mixing metaphors like crazy but we need everything in our love arsenal—Ari’s “we,” Ellen’s wide, wide road, Oliver’s redaction and Steve’s quiet wisdom. Yes, that’s all complete metaphor but we live by assigning meanings to things, don’t we? Oliver turned an ignorant and hateful letter into a hymn…

I can’t speak for anyone but I’m fairly confident that every single poet in Collective Brightness feels called to “minister” to the unenlightened. They do it through their poetry, which is activism. Publishing and doing readings are activism.

We are taking it to the streets. I don’t know of any other anthology—shit, I don’t know of any book—that has a website with all these writers reading their work. And once we start these readings all over the world, there’s no stopping us. And we’re reading outside the rarefied halls of the academy or queer bookstores. We’re reading in museums and churches and temples and Islamic community centers for goodness sake!

CP: How do you feel about the role of poetry itself as argument or rhetoric? Many of the world’s religious documents are written in what is now considered poetry, but most of the fighting about religion happens at the level of prose—literal quotation, formulaic exegesis, anemic analogy. I sometimes wonder if the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins and company, might be more persuasive if they stopped using logic exclusively—the quotient of logic in faith is limited—and started using some poetry. (I don’t want to pass along that suggestion because I fear it might work. For disclosure, I’m a questioning agnostic: I like my God unknown, not excised.) Anyway, the argument has been made that the poetries in religions, the moderates among the fundamentalists, are what keeps them alive and kicking, and had religions just been their fundamentalisms, they wouldn’t have survived this long. They would have been simply debunked. But their (mostly undeliberate) “survival strategies” were to moderate themselves, to modulate themselves to the facts. So some atheists think the onus of bad faith is actually on the moderates—on the poetry, so to speak. What are your thoughts on this issue?

KS: Christopher, yes! Some will resent me for this, and I’ve said this before on the record: I consider the imperialists (ethnically or culturally Caucasian)—the people who want to control and enslave and codify—the enemies of poetry. All the unenlightened natives, with their ancient poems and songs and folk tales, know what they know in ways many of us never will. Yes, we need the imperialists for their logic and prose, their science and medicine and all that but not when it’s all wrapped around the throat and smothers those ideas that need and are poetry. Do you understand what I’m saying here? Push the spiritual beyond its poetry into prose and you replace mercy and grace with rules and edicts, healthy uncertainty into… you get what I’m after, don’t you?

As you know, all the poems in the anthology are organized solely by the authors’ surnames. So when something like Jen Hofer’s “Resolved” and Fanny Howe’s “The Apophatic Path” turn up on facing pages, I must raise my arms in surrender and praise! Both poems refuse to codify anything other than, well, the impossibility of pinning anything down. It’s like these poems are in perfect unison. Regarding Fanny, I know of no other contemporary poet who’s written so eloquently about and through apophatic theology, which defines God through negation.

My answers here are very circuitous, aren’t they? I resist talking about poetry as argument and rhetoric. Of course, my own work has its values and those values are obvious, I think. And I leave it at that. I’m interested in where the poems might lead instead of what their intentions might be. This may be unclear because my mind doesn’t work and process that way. I’m convinced that art can exist and function as argument and rhetoric but I don’t concern myself with that. Perhaps it’s because I’m stuck, in my own work, on what I see as two very different enterprises: explaining and expressing. Doesn’t rhetoric require explaining things? Having a complex series of wires? Whereas expressing is more abstract, open to interpretation and gestural? Ha! Do you see how funny this is? I’m returning to an earlier idea about codifying.

Moderates make me sick but the world would be gone without them. My partner is a moderate and he’s kept me from the window sill more times than I care to remember. You should know that I received many, many submissions for Collective Brightness and, honestly, I’m unable to remember any extremists—diagnosed through their poetry, of course. No ALL CAPS and !!!!!!!! or, conversely, those who had given in to apathy. In other words, LGBTIQ poets are survivors. Do you hear me? Survivors. And I’m sure there’s a scientific law or natural order of things that privileges life forms that, though able to survive on the extreme edges of things, subsists and flourishes in more stable and moderate conditions.

CP: Rhetoric need not explain. It need only persuade. But sometimes it explains in order to persuade. I’d tend to agree that rhetoric can get in the way of poetry’s other purposes. I suspect that many poets sometimes discover a rhetorical purpose in one of their poems after it was written, and that’s probably the way it should work. I do like when I feel I can discern at least some of an author’s intentions—so that meaning is shared, rather than separately brought, by writer and reader, to the table—but I also enjoy poetry that subverts intentions. In that mystery, other flowers bloom. I love Fanny Howe’s “The Apophatic Path,” how it speaks in the loveliest of tongues. In section 2 especially but in the whole poem I find a kind of rhetoric manifesting “what isn’t / is what is”—I might call it winning the argument by wiles, by charm. She even wins it by music, her rhymes irresistible because confident but unscripted. I leave that poem utterly convinced that not knowing is the way to know:

2

Basic science

will blend ghostness
among enemies.

Now bodies cemented

down in monster denominations
to be counted

one of the walking
corpses I see whitening

and emptying
under a sun

makes me know me
to be no one.

But of course a story, simply told, can be powerful rhetoric and testament, too. When I read Joseph Ross’s “The Upstairs Lounge, New Orleans, June 24, 1973,” my stomach hurt and I began to sweat. Nothing rhetorical needs adding (if rhetoric is sometimes an afterthought). The story and its context and the lyricism of its unfolding already do the trick:

2

Someone poured lighter fluid
onto the stairs that rose

from the sidewalk to the bar,
then anointed those slick stairs

with a match, creating a Pentecost
of fire and wind

that ascended the stairs
and flattened the door

at the top, exploding into the room
of worshippers, friends, lovers,

two brothers, their mother.
The holy spirit was silent.

No one spoke a new language.

3

Some escaped. Many died with
their hands covering their mouths.

One man, George, blinded by smoke
and sirens, his throat gagged

with ash, got out and then
went back for Louis, his partner.

They were found, a spiral
of bones holding each other

under the white
baby grand piano

that could not save them.

4

Then came the jokes.
A radio host asked:

What will they bury
the ashes of the queers in?

Fruit jars, of course.
One cab driver hoped

the fire burned their
dresses off.

I think of the statement William Carlos Williams made in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die every day for lack of what is found there.” Are there poems of especially fine storytelling that have caused a physical reaction in you?

KS: Joseph’s poem is striking because it’s so polyphonic. I appreciate poems that can manage poetry, storytelling and historical reportage simultaneously. I had a feeling Williams’s quote would make its way into this conversation. It had to.

The anthology is bursting, really, with poems erecting mythic stories and willing the reader into sublimity. Read that any way you’d like. Edward Debonis’s “Sacred Heart,” Amy Tudor’s “What We Love,” Dan Bellm’s “Brand new” and Moe Bowstern’s “I Give Up” transform the reader—simply by virtue of the momentary reading. The engagement, itself, must emit something into the universe: a heat, a wave, something measurable. And we mustn’t forget Benjamin Grossberg’s “Beetle Orgy,” from which the collection’s title is taken. We are exalted when he writes:

and God, also, comes to some knowledge
as if for the first time, is distracted and pleased
by the collective brightness of human skin. . . .

CP: “Willing the reader into sublimity”—I really like that. It does seem like willing, in at least two senses, is at the heart of both surviving suffering and salvaging from it. “I Give Up” strikes me as a powerful meditation that willed the writer (then reader) into sublimity:

Their wingbeats on the water
Sound like applause,
Like forgiveness.

Speaking of erecting mythic stories, how wonderfully taut is Joseph Legaspi’s “The Homosexual Book of Genesis”? And I’m glad you mentioned “Beetle Orgy,” a poem of such well-tended analogy: our being the accidental god of beetles, and not so different from them; God being like us, curious, distracted, pleased.

God leaning over the house on a casual tour
of the wreck of the world, noticing ornamentation
where it wasn’t expected.

May I ask my question in the form of an exclamation point?

KS: Joseph’s Genesis poem is funny, isn’t it? There are many other funny poems. R. Zamora Linmark’s “Bino And Rowena Make a Litany to Our Lady of the Mount” slays. And Megan Volpert’s tinybig poems are incredibly funny and deep. Here is “A place without work is no heaven to me”:

Sometimes during orgasm I see the faces of dead friends. They are waving and smiling with laughter from up and across, happy I have checked in by flinging a moment of condensed purity over the wall between us. I believe they are working as much as I am, finishing business and settling their accounts. Glad as I am to see them, sometimes one of these faces disappears where I can’t get it back again, and I celebrate that they have found enough peace to get recycled. Whatever the methods, a soul is the part of humanity that is a perpetual motion machine.

Compare those to Atsusuke Tanaka’s “Like a Fruit Floating on Water” and Seung-Ja Choe’s “I, From Early On,” two poems that are anything but funny. Rather, they are profoundly sad.

CP: I love how differently two people can read the same poem. You read Legaspi’s poem as funny, and I read it as ingeniously plangent: a tight little lyric, turning Genesis on its nose, and arriving at desire redoubled, with that choice word suggesting natural inevitability, “calcified.” I really enjoyed Volpert’s funnyserious, tinybig, prosepoetic epigrams, too. And to your list of funny poems, I have to add my favorite, Jill McDonough’s “My History of CPR,” which doesn’t resist being poignant in the midst of its humor:

In the 1700s, once we could print stuff, a guy
in the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned
posted broadsides like our cartoon Heimlich how-tos,
except they used fs for ss, suggested blowing
smoke up the patient’s ass. For real: somebody
should blow with Force into the Lungs, by applying
the Mouth to the Mouth of the Patient, closing his Nostrils
with one hand, while somebody else should throw the smoke
of Tobacco up the Fundament into the Bowels,
by means of a Pipe. At least they used a pipe.
That broadside says if you want to make mouth to mouth
less indelicate, it may be done through a Handkerchief.
Now I go to the movies, see Clive Owen punch
a fresh corpse in the chest. Human, angry with death,
at the dead, our puny lives. Imagine the first
time that worked, the look on the cavewoman’s face
when her cavehusband coughs a little, blinks, comes to.
Of course you’d hit the corpse, of course you’d try
to force air in, breath for the beloved, the lost
one, reverse everything. In Second Kings
Elijah mouth to mouthed a little boy,
revived him—maybe the first medical record,
first EMT: he put his mouth on his mouth,
his eyes on his eyes, and the flesh of the child waxed warm.

I’ve heard that some poetry workshops advise against that sort of thing. . . What’s the mantra? Be straight with your tone? (Homophone your tone?) I think I prefer my tones queer. Are there moments of tonal ambiguity in the anthology that you find particularly successful?

KS: Frankly, it’s difficult to write a funny poem. And today, there is no shortage of smart-alecky poems, which I find off-putting, juvenile and entirely forgettable. Megan, especially, seems to be a funny, razor-sharp person, so her poems happen to be funny. She’s not trying to be funny. There’s a difference. Collective Brightness is rife with poems that amplify the ironical. Irony is hilarious.

Choe’s poem is hideously dark and bleak and the dismal extremity makes me laugh. I’m familiar with Korean culture and it’s intense. Koreans feel and express very deeply. Yet, as an American, when faced with such absolute bleakness in a poem, a first-person lament like that, I can’t help but laugh. To be that down on your life and write about it. Do you understand where I’m coming from? The poem is much like one of David’s psalms. The sheer fact that the person has the wherewithal to write at all is cause for praise and thankfulness. From Choe’s “I, From Early On”:

No parents raised me
I slept in rat holes and fed on the livers of fleas
Blankly going to my death, anywhere would do,
I was nothing from early on.

We brush by each other
like falling comets, so
don’t say that you know me.
I don’t know you I don’t know you
You thee thou, happiness
You, thee, thou love
That I am alive,
is just an eternal rumor.

CP: I agree with you about smart-aleckiness. I prefer true playfulness, which it’s sometimes confused with: playfulness that isn’t juvenile, but is child-like in its curiosity and derring-do. I think there are too many gags in poetry, based, instead of on wordplay and insight, on a kind of literary sarcasm: irony’s jealous, passive-aggressive sibling that rolls a weary eye and works to undermine everything, including irony. Whereas in Tanaka’s poem, and in Choe’s poem, and in Kazim Ali’s “Home,” for that matter, and in dozens of others, the ironies don’t need opponents: they simply say, “here.” In this rat hole. Under this blanket. On this pond. Something has been found and lost, lost and found. Hear how many echoes patience knows. How absolute bleakness can remind us there is cause for praise. How few, but how sweet, the provisions of survival. Truly, it’s a beautiful collection, Kevin. Are there any final anecdotes, or wisdom words, or poem lines you’d like to share?

KS: “How few, but how sweet, the provisions of survival.” This is why I enjoy interviewers who are themselves poets, Christopher. These poets come from all over the world and find, conjure or imagine these provisions. In Kyoto. In London. In Singapore. In Australia. In San Francisco. In Atlanta and Cape Cod and Miami and Houston. Poets who’ve turned away from religion and those who are anchors of the congregation. These poets are surviving and their poems are proof, artifacts. Collective Brightness, then, is more than a book of poems. Of this, I’m certain.

___________________________________________

Kevin Simmonds is a poet, musician, and photographer originally from New Orleans. He majored in music at Vanderbilt University, and later received a doctorate in music education from the University of South Carolina and a Fulbright fellowship to Singapore where he launched the first-ever poetry workshop in Changi Prison. He wrote the musical score for the Emmy-Award-winning HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica and edited Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof (University of South Carolina Press, 2012), a posthumous collection of poems by Carrie Allen McCray-Nickens. His debut collection of poems is Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry, 2011).

More information can be found at www.collectivebrightness.com and www.kevinsimmonds.com.