Interview with David Trinidad

David Trinidad is the editor of A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos (Nightboat Books, 2011).  His most recent book is Dear Prudence: New & Selected Poems (Turtle Point Press, 2011).  He lives in Chicago, where he teaches at Columbia College. Recently, Trinidad discussed collaboration, influence, and craft with Andrew Terhune.

Andrew Terhune: Describe your friendship with Tim Dlugos.  How did this relationship affect your editing of A Fast Life?

 David Trinidad:  Tim and I became friends in the early 1980s.  I heard him give a reading in California, and fell in love with his work.  As a person, he was very charismatic; I think I always had a bit of a crush on him, though we were never romantically involved.  His poems had a big influence on me.  Their use of pop culture, for sure, but also the fact that they were so personable—they made you feel like they were speaking directly to you.  Not an easy tone to achieve.  I don’t think Tim really had to work at it; it was just there, intrinsically, part of his personality, his talent.  A kind of magic.

I had hoped that some industrious graduate student, some scholarly admirer of Tim’s work, would come along and want to edit a collected volume of his poems.  Since no such person had materialized by the late oughts, I decided to edit one myself.  I’m glad that I did, as the project benefited from being edited by someone who knew Tim personally.  There were certain things I just knew.  I had access to information that an “outsider” would have to do a lot of legwork to obtain.  And access to people as well; I was familiar with a number of Tim’s friends and acquaintances.  Also, I had a feel for Tim’s work, having been influenced by it and having been his friend.  Tim often called me on the phone to read me his new poems; that was a vital part of our friendship.  So I felt very close to Tim during the years I worked on A Fast Life, his energy and his spirit.  It was an intimate endeavor.

AT: In 1996 you edited Powerless, the selected work of Dlugos.  How does that experience compare to putting together his collected works?

DT: That was a different project altogether.  It wasn’t so long after Tim had died; the shock of his death was still very much with me.  And there was a page limit: the publisher said the book could not be longer than 125 pages; I had to work within that constraint.  I thought of Powerless as Tim’s “greatest hits.”  The crowd-pleasing poems he was known for, like “Gilligan’s Island,” along with his powerful last poems, like “G-9” and “D.O.A.,” the poems he wrote as he was dying.  There were poems I regretted not being able to include, like the “A Fast Life” sequence.  I remember that editing the manuscript was a painful process.  I finished the selection when I was on jury duty.  Sitting in the juror room, feeling trapped there, enabled me to focus, forced me to make the final choices.

AT: The book itself [A Fast Life] is a beautiful object and feels like a celebration of his life.  How does it feel to have Dlugos’ work presented in this collection?  Is there a sense of finality or does this feel like a new beginning of sorts?

DT: Oh, it feels terrific.  It’s gratifying to have all of Tim’s poems together like this, in such a substantial-feeling volume.  It shows Tim’s full range, and the way his work evolved.  And what he was able to accomplish in the relatively short time that he had.  For years many of the poems just sat in boxes in Tim’s archive at Fales Library at NYU.  No one knew they were there.

Now that the book is out, it does feel like a new beginning.  Readers—many of them young poets—are excited about Tim’s work, discovering it for the first time.  I see how responsive they are to Tim’s poems, how the poems speak to them.  Though Tim has always had his fans, there wasn’t much of an audience for his work in the years—twenty now—since his death.  I guess this audience was growing up during that time.

Personally, there is a sense of finality, as well as relief.  The project took four years from beginning to end.  I was a little sad when the book was done, after we had a launch for it at The Poetry Project in New York.  I said to a friend, “Now I have to let Tim go.”  She said: “But you had him first.”  Of course the goal all along was to get Tim’s work out there, into readers’ hands.  It’s like he’s come to life in this whole new way.

AT: What was your process for putting together you own new & selected?  How do the new poems mix with the older work?

DT: I had put together the selected part first, and asked my publisher, Jonathan Rabinowitz [Turtle Point Press], if he was interested in publishing it.  He said he’d like to, but wanted a section of new poems.  He gave me two years to write it.  I hadn’t written like that in quite a while; I’d tended, for many years, to write poems slowly.  So he really lit a fire under me.  I wrote forty new poems in a year and a half.  I noticed that the new poems were pretty much in dialogue with the old.  For instance, in the eighties I’d written a series of haiku based on TV shows from the sixties.  I now found myself writing haiku based on the sixties soap opera Peyton Place.  I’d watch an episode, then write a haiku about it.  There are 65 of those in the book.  I revisited old traumas, things that had haunted me, and that I’d already written about, such as the Sharon Tate murders in 1969.  But there’s new stuff, too.  I finally wrote about the men I knew who died of AIDS.  That was a long time coming.  And many of the new poems are informed by research I’d been doing on Sylvia Plath.

AT: Did any of this looking back at previous work have an effect on what you’re working on now?

DT: In some ways, it feels like it completed a circle, brought certain experiences and material to a close.  Though I could be wrong; I could find myself writing about those same things again.  And again!  In fact, a current project is a continuation of the Peyton Place haiku.  I decided to do the whole series, all 514 episodes.  One haiku for each episode.  I’m up to episode #175.  Kind of ridiculous, right?  But also kind of fabulous.  Here’s one of my favorites, number 95:

After Joe molests
Rita, she runs home to dress.
Prom night is prom night.

AT: Obviously pop culture is a big part of your work.  Do you find yourself continually going back to your nostalgic favorites (collectibles, movies, books) or has anything caught your attention lately?

DT: I’m always a little surprised by my subject matter.  I recently came across Salinger’s famous quote: “The true poet has no choice of material.  The material plainly chooses him, not he it.”  It does feel like that.  I try not to overthink things too much, just let myself gravitate—intuitively, or even unconsciously—to those “nostalgic favorites.”  Although it doesn’t feel like mere nostalgia.  It’s more mysterious than that.  A deep sense of attachment.  The hope, I suppose, is that the poem will transform my attachment into something tangible, or will make real that enigma.  I’m trying to unlock something, uncover some secret.  Robyn Schiff referred to this aspect of my work as “spiritual.”  That made me happy.  That seems right.

I do tend to cast into the past for material.  Nothing from the present has that kind of power, or hold over me—yet, I guess I should say.  Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be writing haikus about Medium or True Blood.  So few things in pop culture today interest me.  Lately, all I want to do is read poets’ letters.  Of course letters are now a thing of the past!

AT: You’ve collaborated with many great poets.  What motivates you to collaborate and how do you approach each project?

DT: The New York School poets made collaboration look fun, and it is.  It’s stimulating, too, opens me up, keeps me spontaneous, responsive.  Maybe in the way letter writing used to?  Only you’re creating something together.  I find it very exciting.  My collaborative projects stem from my friendships with other poets—they’re an extension of those friendships.  By Myself, which I wrote with D.A. Powell, came out of a late night telephone conversation.  It was Doug’s idea, to piece together an autobiography out of sentences from a myriad of celebrity autobiographies.  He called it a “Trinidad-esque” idea.  So I suggested we write it together.  And we did.  He provided one sentence, I provided the next, and off we went, alternating sentences—an exhilarating tug-of-war.  I often laughed out loud when I received his sentences via email.  I even laughed when I proofed the galleys of the book.

AT: Are you collaborating with anyone at the moment?  Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet, that you’d like to?

DT: Yes, I’m currently writing a book with Jeffery Conway and Gillian McCain.  This, too, was Doug’s idea.  He proposed a kind of sequel to Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse, which I’d written with Jeffery and Lynn Crosbie, and which is based on the movie All About Eve.  This time we decided to take on the movie Valley of the Dolls, render it as a Dante-like descent into the nine circles of hell.  It’s called Descent of the Dolls.  Doug wrote the first canto with Jeffery and me, then dropped out.  Gillian replaced him, just as Susan Hayward replaced Judy Garland in Valley of the Dolls.  Doug was our first guest star in the poem.  Others that have since made appearances are Wayne Koestenbaum, Denise Duhamel, and Aaron Smith.  We’ve been at it for five years now; it will probably take another ten years to complete.  As Jeffery recently wrote: “We grow older with this movie.”

We plan to ask more poets to make cameos in Descent of the Dolls.  Beyond that, I can’t think of a specific poet that I’d like to collaborate with.  It just sort of happens.

AT: In class once, I remember you referred to your own writing process as reaching “a sort of white heat” and here you say Dlugos’ process had “a kind of magic.”  Can you elaborate more on your writing process and when you know a poem is finished?

DT: Well, one tries to achieve a state of “white heat.”  There’s nothing like it, is there, when you’re in the midst of it, when the poem has an impetus of its own.  It’s akin to being in a trance: the words come, from you, yes, but also from someplace else.  I can’t take total credit for my poems—not only do friends help, via their feedback, but I believe other influences are at play.  I guess that’s how I would define inspiration.  It’s not something you can bottle and sell.  It’s something that the years of training and practice, the dedication to craft, prepares you for and opens you up to—white heat.  It truly is a kind of magic.

Andrew Terhune is the author of the chapbook Helen Mirren Picks Out My Clothes (greying ghost, 2010) and his poems have recently appeared in Rabbit Catastrophe Review, West Wind Review, Court Green, Meridian, and DIAGRAM.  He currently lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

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