Poets Go Pop: Derrick Austin on the "Best Thirst Poem" He Hasn't Written Yet and More
Poet Derrick Austin, author of Tenderness and Trouble the Water (BOA Editions), talks about pop culture's ability to make us feel as if our own lives are worthy subjects for art.
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You can head over to these posts to learn more. To celebrate, I’m so pleased to share a brand-new installment of Poets Go Pop with the incredible Derrick Austin.
About Derrick Austin
Derrick Austin is the author of Tenderness (BOA, 2021), winner of the 2020 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and Golden Poppy Award nominee, and Trouble the Water (BOA, 2016) selected by Mary Szybist for the A. Poulin Jr, Poetry Prize. His debut collection was honored as a finalist for the 2017 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the 2017 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry, the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, and the 2017 Norma Faber First Book Award. His chapbook, Black Sand, will be released by Foundlings Press next month (you can pre-order it here).
Derrick’s poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Best American Poetry 2015, Black Nerd Problems, Gulf Coast, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, The Nation, New England Review, Tin House, and Tupelo Quarterly. He has received fellowships from the University of Michigan, Cave Canem, The University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing, and Stanford University. He lives in Oakland, CA.
Derrick was kind enough to correspond with me for our interview this winter. Check it out, and don’t forget to grab a copy of his incredible books and forthcoming chapbook at the links below.
Un-Cinematic Writing: An Interview with Derrick Austin
Caitlin Cowan: Your book, Tenderness, uses movies, music, and even video games as sites of reflection on sexuality, loss, and memory. But it's also a book that's deeply invested in history and fine art. In your poem “Thinking of Romanticism, Thinking of Drake,” the references to “pound cake” and “in my feelings” are woven seamlessly into a poem about a villa where Byron and the Shelleys holed up for a while in the summer of 1816. Do you find such collages of so-called “high art” and pop culture difficult to pull off? Why or why not?
Derrick Austin: Not at all. It’s so much a part of my daily conversation with friends: we’ll talk about the similarities between spirituals and Rachmaninoff. We’ll say of a Cate Blanchett red carpet appearance that she’s serving John Singer Sargent. There’s no distinction between high and low art for me. Besides, the mashing together of various art forms is so much a part of digital life. Twitter is a hodgepodge of memes and references to all kinds of cultural production. Lord knows I’m always tweeting jokes about Dante or Sappho with a Wendy Williams gif. I value surprise and transformation in art. What unexpected connections does a poem present? The collision of high art and pop culture is one way of creating surprise.
CC: “The Lost Woods as Elegy for Black Childhood” takes its inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. For those who didn’t also grow up with the game, as I did, The Lost Woods turn children who enter them into monsters. This brilliant and important poem points to the racist adultification and vilification of black children and the resulting violence and punishment they often face. Do you find the immersive aspect of video games productive for poetry?
DA: Growing up, my favorite video games were RPGs like Final Fantasy or plot-heavy adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda. They offer new worlds where I can better examine myself and my relationship to the real world. It’s akin to writing a poem about Greek mythology or Biblical stories. The worldbuilding in video games is similar to the structure of myths—yes, there’s the in-game lore but how can your character move through the world? Is the world 2D or 3D? Can they jump? Run? Can they enter anyone’s house? Can they break property? Can they do harm to non-playable characters? How do NPCs react to you? How is your character raced, classed, and gendered? So many possibilities for critique, curiosity, and wonder.
CC: I love your poem “Daydreaming of Chris Hemsworth,” which appeared in The Offing earlier this year. Its last lines, “Today, I’m most pleased / not getting what I want,” seem to say something not only about desire but also about the pull of pop culture and its place in our lives. Would you agree?
DA: I hadn’t thought about that particular angle regarding the allure of pop culture. Though there have always been connections between movies and escapism, substitution, and illusion. Hollywood has always been dreamland and celebrities, the people who populate it. Sometimes the dream is more pleasurable than the reality. Don’t we all want to feel the fantasy?
One reason pop culture poems can appeal to non-poetry readers is its potential to affirm the material of our daily life as a worthy subject of art.
CC: I’m interested in instances of poetry in popular culture because I think such interventions have the potential to mint new readers. But invariably, increasing the reach of poetry has the potential to alter the way that poets, poetry, and the public interact. Are there things that you enjoy about the “intimacy” of poetry as an art form and as a community? On the other hand, do you think there are positives to increasing the approachability of poetry in our culture?
DA: We need all kinds of poets and all kinds of poems about anything and everything. Not every poem is going to reach everybody. One reason pop culture poems can appeal to non-poetry readers is their potential to affirm the material of our daily life as a worthy subject of art. Seeing one’s world in a poem can be so liberatory. It can invite new readers and writers. I don’t think having more readers and writers of poetry will change the intimacy of the form. That very intimacy is what drew me to poetry. The poem became the room without ego: I could deeply think and feel and imagine without fear or shame.
CC: Is there a piece of pop culture that you'd like to work into a poem but haven’t yet?
DA: I’ve wanted to write a Sailor Moon poem, and even though I wrote one called “Silver Millennium” it isn’t collected in either of my books. I hope one day to write one that will appear in a book. I feel like I’m cheating with that answer though. So I’ll say, there’s a poem I’ve been struggling to write based on a picture that always makes the rounds on Twitter: it’s the photo of Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves looking dashing on the set of Much Ado About Nothing. It’ll be the best thirst poem I ever write… whenever I get around to writing it.
CC: Do you have a favorite poem or poet that crops up in a tv show, film, or song? What about its appearance delights you? If not, what’s a poem you love that you’d like to see used in a film, on TV, in a song, or elsewhere in the pop culture ether?
DA: One of my earliest encounters with poetry was through watching X-Men: The Animated Series: Beast would quote Dickinson, Tennyson, and the Bible in the middle of a brawl or during a poignant moment. I didn’t recognize the poems then, but their inclusion in a Saturday morning cartoon delights me in retrospect. As an adult, I think Jane Campion’s movie Bright Star about the courtship of John Keats and Fanny Brawne is one of the best movies about a writer I’ve ever seen. Luminous, melancholy, erotic, it’s like a Keats poem come to life. But it also unashamedly leans into how un-cinematic writing is: there’s no great scene of artistic fervor. It’s a lot of sitting around in rooms and crossing things out on paper and doing anything other than writing.
You can keep up with Derrick on Twitter at @ParadiseLAust and here on his website.
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