It is time again for my monthly interview series with an emerging GLBT poet. Today’s post features an interview with Jeremy Halinen. I first became aware of Halinen when he published my poem “Against Our Better Judgment We Plan a Trip to Iran” in Knockout, which he helps edit. Since then I have followed Halinen’s work and become a fan of his.
His first full-length book, What Other Choice, was published late last year. Halinen has graciously offered to do a drawing along side this interview. Anyone who makes a comment on this post and leaves an email contact will be entered in a drawing to win a signed copy of his book. Halinen does request that only those who don’t already have a copy enter. You have until 11:59 PM EST on Monday, August 1st to enter. That is one week from today. I will email the winner and announce it on my blog. But first, you need to read this great interview.
Stephen: When did you first know you were a poet?
Jeremy: Am I a poet? I can’t think of anything I’d rather be, but I don’t know if anyone can claim that about themselves. I certainly didn’t think of myself as a poet until at least age 18 or 19, if even then. I started writing fiction as a child and always suspected I’d grow up to be a best-selling novelist. Although I wrote a handful of poems in my childhood and teen years, I didn’t really read much poetry until university, at which point I recall The Vintage Book of African American Poetry, edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton, being a touchstone collection for me. I started writing poems regularly in my journals during my first year at university and soon began to share them with any friends who would read them or listen to me read them. Eventually I think I thought that more than anything else in my life writing poems gave me reason to live. I wasn’t out of the closet yet and was struggling internally with my sexual orientation. I think there was both a lot of despair in my life then and a lot of hope, and poems gave me hope, gave me a sense of control over at least part of my destiny.
S: I also started out thinking I was going to be a great novelist, so I connect with that aspect of your journey. Your first book, What Other Choice, came out late last year and I actually reviewed it here on my blog. It’s a great first book and contains a lot of sharp and powerful poems about the gay experience. Could you speak a little bit about putting together the book? When did you know you had a book and not just some poems (if that makes sense)?
J: What Other Choice is actually not my very first book, although it is my first full-length collection. In my senior year at St. Andrews (yes, no apostrophe in “Andrews”) Presbyterian College my chapbook manuscript Fragments of Water won the 2003 Alan Bunn Memorial Award, a contest open to all juniors and seniors at the college. It was a pretty big deal to me at the time, and I’m a bit surprised that I can say this, but I actually still like the book; I’m not claiming it’s great literature or anything, but it still interests me on the rare occasion that I pick it up and flip through it. Here’s a poem from that chapbook that’s more domestic and more playful, I think, than many of the poems in What Other Choice:
My lover asked me
not to walk around the
house without a shirt on.
He said my nipples
were watching him like
eyes, making him nervous.
“They’re only watching
you,” I said, “because you’re a
sight for sore nipples.”
My lover said that was
sweet, but he didn’t
want to be stared at.
Would I please put
on a shirt or would he
have to do it for me?
“What if my nipples are
afraid of the dark?” I
asked. “What then?
My lover said nipples, like
eyes, are sensory organs and
cannot be frightened.
“Fear is in the mind,”
he said. “Your nipples
will be fine.”
What Other Choice was a long time in the making; I began writing its poems in 2005 and finished them in 2010. It took a long time before the manuscript was formed and it actually felt like a cohesive collection.
S: Wow, I didn’t know that about your first chapbook. Who doesn’t like a poem about nipples? That is quite an accomplishment at such a young age.
I connected a lot with What Other Choice because you are direct and don’t shy away from explicit material and you reveal many flaws of the speaker(s) in your poems. I do much of the same in my own work.
I know from my experience, some readers and even fellow poets don’t always like it when such explicit material is included in poems (especially when it is gay-sex related). People often say someone is doing this only to shock people. Have you met that resistance with your own work? How would you respond to that perspective?
J: I’ve met with some resistance, certainly. I tried to get a number of what I consider some of the best poems in What Other Choice published in literary journals but those poems were rejected over and over, poems such as “My Cock Is Climbing Mount Everest,” “Or,” “Sugar,” and “Where There’s a Fist, There’s a Way.” I can’t say that it was the explicit content in those poems that precluded them from publication, but a couple of times editors said that such content was what caused them to reject the poems. I found that frustrating, of course, as I think that such narrow-minded opinions can stunt especially a young poet’s development. Luckily for me and my readers such as you who actually like my explicit poems, I didn’t let the rejection change the way I wrote and kept such poems in my full-length manuscript. In some ways, I’m glad that those poems weren’t published in journals earlier though, as it gave me more time to revise them and make them stronger. I think that it’s important for daringly explicit work to be as polished and as of high literary quality as possible. Here are some explicit poems of mine published in an edgy new online journal called Menacing Hedge, poems that aren’t in What Other Choice and that took me a long time to get published (I started sending three of them—“John the Baptist’s Headgear on a Platter,” “Origins,” and “Prayer,”—out in 2007).
I don’t write poems to shock people, and I know that some people think that poems with explicit gay sex in them are intended for such a purpose, but usually that’s not the case. (That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with shocking someone with a poem, if such a thing is still possible.) I write the poems I write because they’re the ones that I’ve been given to write and also because I think it’s important for us as gay people to write about our own lives, rather than let others (who do not know what it is to live our lives) write about us and thus define us. I think it’s important for young LGBTs to have poems they can turn to, poems that can help them make sense of who they are and what they experience. Being an L or a G or a B or a T is not easy in America, let alone much of the rest of the world. It’s dangerous at least some of the time, frequently stressful. We need poems (and stories and plays and movies and music) that is honest and that gives us hope.
If we LGBT poets don’t exercise our freedom of speech—that precious muscle, our tongue—we’ll lose it. We must insist on making our words and ideas known in the world.
S: I couldn’t agree more. These are some of the various reasons that keep me writing the poems that I write. You have a poem in your book titled “Dear Laramie, Dear Liar, Dear Once Upon a Time.” It obviously references the murder of Matthew Shepard. This is a topic I’ve also written about and it seems to be one that lots of gay poets have tackled. What made you write this poem and why do you think that murder has had such an impact in gay poetry?
J: It’s shameful that more than ten years after the murder of Matthew Shepard, LGBT people are still being murdered. From what I’ve heard, transgender women of color are disproportionally victims of hate crimes against LGBT people in America, not to mention that they are often economically disadvantaged because of rampant discrimination against them. I want to say to anyone listening: Wake up, America; we are all brothers and sisters; if you hurt one of your trans brothers or sisters, you hurt yourself.
You know, I can’t remember exactly what made me write “Dear Laramie, Dear Liar, Dear Once Upon a Time”; I do remember writing it, how it came to me quickly one day, but it certainly wasn’t a poem I planned. I’d certainly read a number of other poems dealing with Matthew Shepard’s murder, most notably poems in Charles Jensen’s The First Risk. What I think is perhaps most moving about “Dear Laramie, Dear Liar, Dear Once Upon a Time” is that it’s poem not about his death but a poem that imagines a Laramie, a world, in which his being gay doesn’t put him in danger.
S: I have read many on the topic and I have to say yours is one of my favorites for the reason you just mentioned. It takes a different twist on the event.
You are the second poet I’ve interviewed who lives in the Seattle area. How would you describe the poetry scene there and do you feel location changes how and what you write?
J: I love Seattle; we have some great independent bookstores, including my favorite, the poetry-only Open Books. We have all sorts of poetry readings going on all the time. There’s really too much for anyone to keep up with, and I don’t even try. I imagine location affects how and what I write, but I’m not sure how. That said, I don’t consider myself a poet of place. My focus is more on the human condition, rather than where it’s set.
Living in the heart of Seattle as I do probably effects how often I write more than what I write. There are so many things to do in Seattle that I may write less here than I would if I lived in some little isolated town without many distractions. For now, though, I’m happy here, although I wish the rent wasn’t so high.
S: From looking at your educational background, you seem to have attended a few religious schools. You also have some poems coming out in an anthology focused on faith, religion, and spirituality within the GLBT community. Religion is often portrayed as an enemy to the gay movement, and, in many ways, it has been. What is your perspective and what got you involved in this particular anthology?
J: Yes, I attended a number of religious schools. I didn’t have much choice in the matter in middle school and high school, and it seemed easiest for me to go to a religious university, although I wasn’t really sure what I believed then and hadn’t really thought of myself as a Christian ever since I turned ten. I tried to “believe,” as I was taught I should, but I doubted for years and years. During my first year at Trinity Western University I took two religious studies courses that opened my eyes to the origins of Christianity and let me begin to view the Bible as a fallible document written by men with agendas, rather than the infallible “Word of God.” It wasn’t easy at first to let go of the “Christian worldview” (which happened to be homophobic) that I had been “instilled” in me, but I did eventually let it go. Now it seems so foreign to me, it’s hard to believe that I ever bought into it.
The poems of mine you mention that are forthcoming in collective BRIGHTNESS: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality (which is edited by Kevin Simmonds and forthcoming in October 2011 from Sibling Rivalry Press), “Some Nights Even God Is Agnostic” and “Stranger,” both first appeared in What Other Choice and are poems that don’t put the Christian concept of God in a great light.
As far as what I “believe” about faith, religion, and spirituality at this point in my life, I think consciousness is pretty fucking cool and might come as close to the pinnacle as anything. I tend to be monistic, suspecting that matter and spirit are one.
S: You edit the literary journal Knockout. How did Knockout come into being and how would you describe the mission of the journal? What kind of work do you look for?
J: Knockout came about in 2007 and began when Brett Ortler, my coeditor, and I were poetry editors for Willow Springs at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. We only had so much time left before our time at EWU and Willow Springs would end, and we both wanted to keep publishing and editing great poetry, so we decided to start Knockout. One of our primary goals from the get-go was to publish a 50-50 mix of work by LGBT and non-LGBT poets. We’ve since also published some short fiction and creative nonfiction, as well as some poet interviews; poet Rickey Laurentiis and I are currently interviewing poet Cyrus Cassells about his forthcoming book The Crossed-Out Swastika for Knockout. We’ve been lucky to publish so many great poems by great poets during the past several years. I’m excited for the forthcoming issue, which will showcase the winners and runners-up of Knockout’s 2009 International Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize, as well as poems by poets including, but by no means limited to, Todd Boss, Cyrus Cassells, Billy Collins, Julie R. Enszer, Scott Hightower, Christopher Howell, Rickey Laurentiis, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Dana Guthrie Martin, and Jory Michelson.
After this forthcoming fourth issue, I’m actually stepping down from coeditor to editor-at-large. It was a difficult decision to make, but I feel that I need a break from Knockout for the foreseeable future. I’ll still be involved in soliciting some work and in reading some submissions, but I won’t be doing nearly as much as I’ve done on the first four issues.
S: It really is a great publication. I was thrilled to be in the third issue. You’ve done a great job of getting a wonderful balance of poets.
Who are your greatest influences?
J: I don’t think I could ever answer this question fully or without leaving people out inadvertently, but some poets who have made a huge impression on me and my writing include Ronald H. Bayes, Theodore Enslin, Denver Butson, Jeffery Beam, Jonathan Williams, Thomas Meyer, CAConrad, Christopher Howell, Jonathan Johnson, Nance Van Winckel, John Wieners, Larissa Szporluk, Antler, Nathan Whiting, Richard Siken, Carol Guess, Elizabeth J. Colen, Dana Guthrie Martin, and Carl Phillips. I could go on and on.
S: Now for some fun: What poet(s) dead or live would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?
J: I’m not going to name any living poets; it wouldn’t be prudent. The only dead poet I can think of right now that I would most like to have “slept” with, had I been alive and of age at the time he was alive, is Langston Hughes. He was such a handsome man, with a rich voice. Who could resist?
What kind of sex? I think I’ll leave that to the imagination.
S: What is something that you absolutely love that would surprise most people?
J: The smell of ozone.
S: Who are a few artists who would appear on the soundtrack to What Other Choice?
J: I can think of a few composers whose work would appear: Henri Lazarof, Gustav Mahler, and Erik Satie.
S: What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?
J: “You Are Jeff” by Richard Siken (which you can find in his book Crush). I’m also pretty partial toward CAConrad’s poem “It’s True I Tell Ya My Father Is a 50¢ Party Balloon” (which you can find in his book Deviant Propulsion). And many of Carl Phillips’s poems belong in this category.
S: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic?
J: I don’t think I’d want a celebrity to play me; I’d rather an unknown actor played me. If I had to pick a celebrity, I would probably pick Ryan Kwanten (who plays Jason Stackhouse in True Blood).
S: If he plays you, there’d better be some good sex scenes. Lastly, what are you currently working on?
J: I imagine that by the time there’s any interest, if ever, in making a bio-pic about me, Ryan Kwanten and I will both be nearly dead, so I hope there are no sex scenes if he plays me then.
I’m currently working concurrently (and rather slowly) on five full-length manuscripts, actually. One is a book-length erasure poem, another is a book of prose poems, yet another a book of short linked poems, and still another a book of poems based on the title character of CAConrad’s delightful collection The Book of Frank. Here’s a couple of my “Frank” poems that will appear in that book (and which first appeared in my chapbook Fragments of Water, which I mentioned earlier):
when frank was a
child he was chubby
and his father worked
in the deli section
of a small grocery
one night after hours
frank’s father took him
to the store and
laid him stomach-down
on the meat slicer
he sold sliced frank
the next day for
seven dollars a pound
parents of other chubby
children at frank’s school
noticed frank’s rapid weight
loss at the next
pta meeting they asked
frank’s father how frank
had slimmed down so
fast soon after they
began to show up
after hours at the
deli with their own
chubby children and frank’s
father made his fortune
when frank was a
teenager his father found
frank’s stash of gay
poems and bit frank’s
wrist frank grabbed a
pair of scissors and
plunged them into his
father’s neck frank’s father
never punished him again
The fifth manuscript I’m working on is just a loose collection of poems that hasn’t taken much shape yet but will, sooner, I hope, than later.
S: So you really aren’t doing much? Wow, that’s a lot of stuff to work on and keep up with. Thanks for doing this interview and talking poetry with me.
J: Thank you, Stephen! Congratulations again on your forthcoming first book, He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. I’m looking forward to reading it when Sibling Rivalry releases it next March!
S: Thank you.
Jeremy Halinen is cofounder and coeditor of Knockout Literary Magazine. What Other Choice, his first full-length collection of poems, won the 2010 Exquisite Disarray First Book Poetry Contest and is available here and here. His poems have also appeared in Best Gay Poetry 2008, Crab Creek Review, the Los Angeles Review, Poet Lore, Sentence, and elsewhere. He resides in Seattle.