Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16!
Now, let’s say hello to C. Bain.
What are you reading?
I’ve been working on a screenplay set in the American Civil war, so that led me through a few books (Catton’s The Civil War, She Went to the Field, Frederick Douglas’s autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) and eventually to In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, a book of Alice Walker essays. I was looking for guidance specifically about writing about American racism while being white. Walker says several things about how Flannery O’Connor did that successfully. Of course, I’m getting much more than that. Walker is really generous, and there is a lot in that collection. I’m thinking specifically about the power of ancestry and tribe, narrative and identity, and about telling the truth, (individual, personal, unornamented truth,) as a political act.
In terms of poetry, people I know have been keeping me very busy. Ocean Vuong, Saeed Jones, Casey Rocheteau, Ricky Laurentiis, Morgan Parker, Angel Nafis, Danez Smith.
What is the role of poetry in the twenty first century?
I think there is a question underneath this question about art and social change, and the role of the artist. My opinion about this has changed in the past 10 years. I used to think that art was never sufficient activism, that there had to be something more I was doing, as a dayjob or as a volunteer, to legitimize me. I did direct service work for several years, and even though there were things about it that were very eye-opening and intense and valuable for me, the thing is that that work is not specifically mine to do in the way that making my art is mine to do. What I am gradually coming to (as I get older, and as I become more and more visible as a trans person) is that actually living out my values and my truth and being as honest and articulate about that as I can be is the deepest activism I am capable of. For me to be an out trans person making art and speaking and relating to the world is the deepest activism I am capable of. And we all have that available to us, to use poetry (or whatever your métier is) to relate, honestly/specifically/humanly, with each other. The empathy and expansion of consciousness that we can affect through being our true selves is what can actually change the world. I think there is an argument that no human endeavor is actually important, on a universal scale, (or that it might once have been but that our ship has pretty much sailed.) But if there is any “point” to human life, it is relating to each other. And poetry is a special avenue of that relationship.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
I think there is a fear and a joy in equal measure that brings me to the practice of writing and performing. I think I make the art that I do because I am afraid of being rejected, and when I perform, whether I feel rejected by the audience or not, it doesn’t kill me. There is some material, about my mental health, and about my sexual history, that I dislike having as part of the public record. The nice thing is that people don’t consume poetry in the same way that they consume hot media, so those things can almost be hidden in plain sight. I think we are in a really interesting moment as far as public and private life, how the “social” is kind of eating up everything.
What is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?
The misconception that bothers me most is that you need special tools or training in order to understand or make poetry. What attracted me to poetry initially, and what still attracts me, is that anyone can make a poem in their own language. You don’t need to “understand” a particular poem or poet or style before you begin. My responsibility as a poet is to be as specific as I can be about what is important to me. And that is ultimately coming from an internal source.
How important is accessibility of meaning? Should a reader have to work hard to “solve” the poem?
This question is I think really a question about individual intentions of individual writers. I have written work that I wanted to be clear and anthemic and understandable. I have also written things that were completely coded, disguised versions of anything they might be said to be “about.” I get a lot of pleasure out of poetry with clear emotions and narratives (Sharon Olds comes to mind) and I also love getting to see writers go so deeply into their own world that they do not worry about keeping the reader alongside them. I think Terrence Hayes and Audre Lorde are both writers who offer a great range, from poem to poem, of how much is “understandable,” versus how much is impressionistic or even private.
In general, while I have written poems that I wanted to be difficult emotionally for audiences, I try not to make the reader do much work to follow me. I think the reader does the work of having their own emotions and associations with the piece, and they don’t owe me anything.
C. Bain is a gender-liminal writer and performer based in Brooklyn. He is a former member and coach of several poetry slam teams. His first full-length collection, Debridement (Great Weather for Media 2015) was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle Award for Trans and Gender Variant literature. His work has been published in PANK, TheRumpus.net, BOOTH, and elsewhere. He reviews books at Muzzle Magazine. He makes theatre, and is an artistic associate with Sacred Circle Theatre Company. His current project is a screenplay about a trans* soldier in the American Civil War. His work deals extensively with embodiment, sexuality, and trauma. But he’d rather just dance with you.
Stay updated on the 2016 Dodge Poetry Festival as information becomes available!