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I love when an interview turns into a master class.   My interview with queer poet/writer/editor David Groff was both extraordinarily  engaging and edifying.

A trail blazer for queer writing and more recently a torch bearer for aspects of queer writing that are too vital and magnificent to be lost; David has provided an impassioned and evocative voice to the world of literary arts.

For the past twelve years David Groff has been an ardent participant in various aspects of the publishing community.   He has edited literary and popular novelists, memoirists, and journalists whose books have been published by some of the top publishing houses.

His literary work has been published in American Poetry Review, Bloom, Chicago Review, Confrontation, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, Men on Men 2, Missouri Review, North American Review, Northwest Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Poz, Prairie Schooner, QW.   His book “Theory of Devolution” was selected by poet Mark Doty for the 2001 National Poetry Series open competition and was published in 2002 by the University of Illinois Press.   David is also currently a guest teacher at the City College MFA Program in Creative Writing.

His latest editorial endeavor is “Persistent Voice: Poetry of Writers Lost to AIDS.” It is an outstanding and beautiful collection of  poems  by writers  we have lost to the rampages of the AIDS epidemic.   The book contains poems ranging from writers such as Reinaldo Arenas to Cookie Mueller

Co-edited with Phillip Clark, “Persistent Voices” serves as both a testament of the power and beauty of poetry to outstrip the realities of disease and death, and an important historical tribute to fallen writers whose lyrical musings were untimely extinguished.

Recently I met with David at a diner in Manhattan to talk about the “Persistent Voices” collection, the enduring metaphor of AIDS, and the importance of being a “cultural worker. “

Can you tell me about how you got into poetry and/or publishing?

I went straight from college to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When I was a kid, before I came out, I decided that I wanted to be president of the United States.    There was some point when I realized that the reading I had to do to become president was really boring and I could get attention in other ways, so I got into poetry.   I went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, worked on the Iowa Review and then got a job in book publishing here in New York City. There was a lot in book publishing that tried to seduce me a way from poetry. Publishing is a business: it satisfies you in certain ways because it allows you to read some wonderful work, but it is also a business.   So over the years  I keep up my poetry and my other types of writing even as I was trying to make it as an editor at Crown, which is now part of Random House.   I ultimately went off on my own to be a book doctor and content guy, which is what I do now.

What year did you move to New York?

I came to New York in the eighties, right when AIDS was cresting.    AIDS was really a major part of my life in those years, professionally as well as personally.

There was never a point for me when sex and death were not entwined.   I think that is something that men of my generation, and younger men, are still contending with.  Professionally, I published a book called “When Someone You Know Has AIDS.” Also when I was at Crown I acquired and edited Paul Monette’s fiction.    Paul had HIV and wrote “Borrowed Time,” his memoir about AIDS.    Paul also wrote fiction, and I edited his fiction work at Crown. I also published a collection that included my poetry, called “Poets for Life”.   It was edited by Michael Klein, and it was an anthology of poets responding to the AIDS crisis.  That collection got a lot of attention in the late eighties as HIV and AIDS was really emerging on to the scene.   Personally, more and more of my own poetry became centered on what I was witnessing and encountering here in New York; just being here in the city  when it was a bomb site.   When it felt like there were snipers on every corner.

What was the impetus for putting together the “Persistent Voices” anthology?

The impetus really lies with my co-editor Phillip Clark. Phillip grew up reading a lot of these poets.   We met at a party after a book convention here in New York.   It was a party for Tab Hunter, the fifties movie star and matinee idol, who was coming out of the closet in his memoir. Tab’s book was about to come out and there was a party for it.   I remember Tab showing up looking extremely tan, anyway at the party I ended up talking to this bright eyed, fresh faced guy from Virginia who had this great idea to do this collection of poems composed of poetry by people we lost to AIDS.   I was immediately attracted to the idea and I was immediately impressed by Phillip.   So over a long period of time Phillip and I worked together slowly but surely reading a lot of poems and developing a strong collection of people who were the best, truly representative and in some cases the least well known of poets we have lost along the way.   It was really Phillip’s idea.   He is younger than I am and he came out reading these poets when a lot of them were still alive in the late eighties and he was still a teenager.   They were of surprising importance to him.   I felt that for Phillip it was an act of preservation.   These were poets, who by their example and their words, helped give him a sense of identity and literary place in the world.

Phillip has been the captain of this ship, and I have been pretty much the first mate the whole way through.   It has been a wonderful partnership.   He is not only a great guy, but also a really acute reader of poems.

I know part of putting together some of these anthologies is really about detective work.  Did any of the works that you stumbled upon surprise you?

That is a very good question.  There were a lot of these poets I knew of because they were on the scene with me.   A lot I knew personally, like Melvin Dixon, Essex Hemphill and Assotto Saint.   I knew Reginald Shepherd, who we just lost in the last year.   Many of them were not new to me, but there were a number who never really appeared who I heard about only in passing, like David Craig Austin who died in his twenties and having just graduated form Columbia’s MFA program and had done one or two terrific poems.   William Bory, I never really heard of before, and others I had not really thought of as poets, like Cookie Mueller.

How did you find some of these poets that were maybe not as well known?

Many came from survivors who knew people who knew people.  So there was this kind of word of mouth.   People would say “You know Assotto Saint, but you also really need to know this person.” or “You heard of Richard Ronan but you also really need to read this other poet who really needs to be remembered.”   There has been this real stock of goodwill that sprang from the initial talent search.

There were also a lot of poets who we did not include, who did some wonderful work, but they were not necessarily strong enough. We wanted to make sure every poet included could stand as a great poet, not just have them in the anthology for questionable sentimental value.   We wanted this collection to show accomplishment, as well as be a memorial.

Were there some poets who you wanted to get, but couldn’t because of estate reasons or other complications?

Not a single one.  I am staggered still by that fact.  There were not any executors who felt these poets’ work did not belong.   Even people whose death from HIV might have been downplayed at the time, or even poets not widely know to have died from AIDS, those executors stepped forward and got behind this collection because of the context of the project and because time has passed.   Every single estate waived their permission fees.
I have been on the other side of the desk.   I  know if you want to quote T.S Eliot or Cole Porter in your tender coming of age story it could cost you a lot of money.  Even from the best known poets, from the major presses, in every single case we were able to get the rights for free.    All the royalties from this collection will go to the PEN Fund for Writers and Poets with AIDS, so that paved the way, but even beyond the charitable aspect I think people really wanted the poems to be out there and the collection to succeed. If they asked for money we could not have done it.    There has been enough anthologies torpedoed over the years because certain estates would not allow for permission.    I have lost hair over the years dealing with these issues as an editor.  Thankfully this was not the case with this project.

What is the Pen Fund?

The PEN Fund for Writers and Editors with AIDS was started in the late eighties as a sort of an emergency fund for a lot of those people who suddenly found themselves unable to pay the rent or were out of a job or otherwise found themselves in dire straits and needed real money.   It is now part of a larger fund for relieving writers who still face serious financial difficulties because of HIV or AIDS-related illness.

So there was really a lot of good will towards this project?

Yes there was. I also think timing of it is right.  AIDS is still very much with us, and to deny that for an instant is to deny the still persistent struggles of those with HIV and AIDS in America, and the rest of the world, have to endure. At the same time the idea of AIDS has really changed in the national consciousness.    HIV and AIDS has really become this sort of   privatized thing in our lives.

Do you think that now that AIDS is seen as a manageable disease it is easier to look back at these poets and those years when the epidemic was at its height?

A number of things have happened.   If you have health insurance, and you have a decent income, and you are lucky in the West, you can survive with HIV and AIDS for a long time, although poets like Tory Dent have died quite recently.   But yes AIDS as metaphor has changed.  But in a way I think that is negative thing.   There are just as many people who have HIV in this zip code now as they did in 1987 and 1988.

HIV and AIDS has become privatized.   It is  not really discussed out in the world or in public discourse.  It is now something discussed in bedrooms when you negotiate safer sex, or online when you chat about sex.   It is talked about in the doctor’s office when you talk about the regimen you should go or when you worry about the side effects of the facial wasting protease inhibitors.

So much of the conversation that dominated us then is now not public. It has gone private behind closed doors.   I think that’s bad.  I think it is the mission of certain books to bring that conversation back into the public sphere in ways that will ideally carve out some attention that AIDS is still with us and is persisting. Probably in ten years from now, unless things change, we could probably do another anthology of writers or poets who have died from AIDS and that collection would have all new poets in it.

That is an interesting and tragic view.  We have gone from a very public discourse about HIV and AIDS to a very private one?

Yes and unfortunately it remains a continuing ongoing cataclysmic event.  A continuing earthquake.

I remember reading somewhere I think it was in the writing of Edmund White that a lot of writers stopped writing longer work because they felt they would not have time to finish it and they turned to short forms like short stories and essays.   Poems seem like the perfect vehicle to voice urgency in ways that other types of art can not provide.

I think you are on to something.    Phillip Roth has just published a new novel, he must be close to eighty, and his new novel is only a hundred and some odd pages.   I think you tend to write directly when you feel time is short.   I think there is something in AIDS that demands the intensity and distillation that poetry provides.   Paul Monette was busy writing a memoir of his lost lover, but he was also writing these incredibly furious poems that are some of the greatest poems of anger and grief that we have.  It could not have done that in prose, that kind of reduction, like a sauce.    It was something incredible intense and pungent.   That being said it’s important to note that a lot of these poets in this anthology may have know about their HIV status but did not write explicitly about it, or might not have know at all, or knew about it very late in the game.   So maybe half of the poems in this anthology are directly related to HIV and the others are poems that have nothing overtly related to HIV in them, but of course now we are reading them within that context. I think that is a bold thing for the executors to do.   To let us include certain poets like William Dickey and Richard Ronan who did write about HIV, but whose work is now inevitably seen in the framework of the disease.

How has putting this collection together informed your own work and poetry?

I think in some ways it has crystallized some of my own concerns around AIDS and HIV and given me a context.   When I came to New York I had to write about AIDS because one: everyone I knew was terrified of it, two: everyone was finding out they were HIV positive.  We lived and breathed it. AIDS inevitably became part of my poetry in ways that were both angry and elegiac. Now as I put a new collection of my poetry together I continue to deal with AIDS, but in a slightly different way.   Now I primarily deal with notions of survival and love.

What does it mean to love when all the issues of mortality are in bed with you?

We are all mortal, I just sleep with it.

It is a definite factor in my life and my intimacy.   I think this book gave me a context for it, for understanding I was not left out as a writer.   Gay Poets are not entirely marginalized because there are just so many of us, but at the same time there is some discomfort we have to deal with in ourselves when writing about queer content, in particularly when it comes to AIDS content.  AIDS can feel old fashion, something that only old gay people can write about.   To see that was a body of literature out there by writers who had AIDS or wrote about the disease was sustaining to me.  I should add that it can be easy to turn AIDS into a metaphor and deny the intense implications it has for people’s lives.   We have been warned by Susan Sontag about this, but at the same time poetry is motivated by great metaphors.

AIDS is both an outsized metaphor and an intense reality for all these huge issues of love, death, class and injustice that exist on the planet. And like all the best metaphors it is real. You don’t want to lose the imperative to cure AIDS and stop rectifying its injustices, but at the same time as a writer I can take it as a way into one of the richest signifiers for love, death, sex, righteousness we have.   I really believe that AIDS is one of the great metaphors of our time.  I wish some straight writers would notice that, but maybe it is a particular calling of queer writers to take on AIDS, as they do in this anthology, and make it real for everyone.

One of the major issues that queer writers have is that queer content is seen by the mainstream as being only specific to gay lives.   If you write about your same sex love it may say a lot about gays and lesbians, but in the eyes of the power holders it may not say anything about love in general.

Our subject matter is denied universality and that is infuriating to me.   It has been true of AIDS, and true about queer love, and true about queer rights, that it is only about ‘us’, and that is not about everybody.   This deeply pisses me off.    If there is one imperative we should have as queer writers it is that we should demand from mainstream culture that our subject matter not be de-nurtured of its thematic potency.

This leads me to a publishing question. It seems that a lot of writers who have side stepped that trap of being put in a niche by their publishing companies, writers like say Bret Easton Ellis, did not strongly identify as being queer when they started releasing their books .    Are the publishing houses putting strongly identified gay writers into a niche or is it a wider cultural issue?

I think it is a complicated question.   There was a time in the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties when it seemed that there was a big audience for queer and lesbian lit and for queer literary content in general.   It seemed it was being bought not just by gay people, but straight people were buying it as well.   It seemed like these books, using the parlance of the time, were crossing over.

The big crash came when the sell figures came in and the audience was much smaller.  Why was it smaller?   I think it was never that big. I’m not convinced that there were many straight people who read a lot of queer content.   I think we have a lot of wonderful woman friends, and moms, and sister who did, and that is great, but it is small numbers, and they are not going to pay 28 dollars for a hard cover.  It comes down to queer people reading queer content. That is fine, but it seems that fewer queer people are reading queer content these days.  It seems that once AIDS got under control and we felt some sense of progress in the nineties we stopped needing books in the same way. We found other ways to forge and collaborate our identities. We found it in Will and Grace; we found it in Ellen Degeneres.  We don’t need books as that desperate thing like we did before.   It pains me to believe that gay books don’t sell as well.   The initial problem to overcome is to get our gay bothers and sister to read our books and never rely on the mainstream to do it.

One of my editor friends mentioned that there is a large readership for books of Jewish interest, may it be literary or non fiction.   But there are not that many Jewish people in America, and yet more Jewish readers buy books.  I know that may be a touchy subject, but it seems that gay readers need to support our own books, and really evangelize for that.   That being said more and more queer writers are rewarded for doing less and less gay/queer content. You are allowed to be funny.  You are allowed to include queer characters and queer content in a larger tableaux.   What I like to think of as the “Six Feet Under Syndrome” or the “Gay Best Friend Syndrome” but the more sex you have, or the more overt you are, or the more urban you are, the harder is to get published, including by other gay editors in mainstream houses.   So that work is being done by smaller publishing houses.   You still may want that book to break out and cross over, but it is a real challenge.   It is much less of a challenge for poetry, because less is at stake.   There is a cross over audience of straight poetry readers and there are simply fewer units sold.   You don’t have to sell 7,000 to succeed in poetry, even though that would be nice.

What about E. Lynn Harris, David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs? Some of the latest gay bestsellers?

I think you are allowed to be queer and funny.  If you are funny, straight people will read you even if you have a fair amount of gay content.  Writers like Burroughs, Paul Rudnick and David Rakoff;  humorists have always been exempt from the squirming disdain that the mainstream media has for queer lives in general.   We have been more successful in mainstream media while being funny.   Maybe it’s the court jester syndrome, maybe it’s disarming, and maybe the books are less overtly sexual.

E. Lynn Harris was successful because he built up a coalition of audiences.   E. Lynn was read by gay men of all colors, and an incredible loyal audience of African American woman who read him because he recognized the complexities of their lives.   He created an audience made up of three or four different strands that he was able to braid together.

Certain literary writers are able to do that too; it is an important skill to have. The successful trick with any book is building a strong and sometimes disparate coalition of readers.

I know you teach.  Do you teach your students how to navigate some of the aspects of actually getting published?

I will be teaching a course next year called “Writing as a Cultural Act.”   This course is really an attempt to support people in doing what I think you might have to do to be successful as a prose writer or even a poet.   I think it has to be more than just writing that one damn book.   If you really want to be good for the culture, improve your writing, and to establish your career you just can’t write that one book.   First, nobody will publish the book unless they know who you are, and you can already prove your credentials.   Second, the book is not the only way to have an impact or to make money.   What I tell people to do is to become a person of letters, which is really an old fashioned term.  Write everything.    Essays, reviews, non-fiction, curate.   Become a real cultural worker.   If you do that you will get further, and you’ll be taken seriously.   You’ll professionalize yourself.   You’ll raise the level of discourse in the culture, and you will be more likely to get your book published as well.

I have so many people who come to me and say “I have written this terrific novel.   It is just like ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’   It is really good!”

I say “Great! What other books is it like?”

And they say “I don’t know? I have not read any other books.”

Sometimes I feel there are more people writing than reading.   Reading is an important part of having a cultural context of what you are doing.   People need to be reading, writing on multiple platforms, and really engaged in the culture around them.   We all believe that we are going be discovered just by writing this one great novel.   People may feel like they are going to go from zero to sixty, but that is very rare.   It helps to be a cultural worker.   The more you get published in various outlets and the more you build a community around your writing the more legitimized you are, and the more likely you will be surround by a community that will teach you to become a better writer.   There is a drawback to this of course.   This does not leave much room for antisocial writers.   I mean if you are Emily Dickinson and you’re stuffing your poems in your drawers you will never get published.   It would seem that new upcoming literary writers have to be very socialized and (laughs) have the ability do well on an NPR interview.

Going back to “Persistent Voices” I have one last question. What do you want readers to take away from this anthology?

The great thing about art is that it always gets the last word.   Ann Coulter will vanish into the dust from which she arose.    Glenn Beck will become a pile of spit, and so will his words.  What lasts generally is art, works of art.   History, which no one really wants, belongs not to the victors, but to the creators.    I would hope that people reading this anthology would hear voices that do indeed last, and recognize that we can exist beyond our limitations.

Please buy “Persistent Voices”.    It is really that powerful.

There will be a  Persistent Voices reading held at The Housing Works Bookstore on Tuesday, December 01, 2009 at 7:00 PM.

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

126 Crosby Street, New York, NY 10012 :: 212-334-3324

A  World AIDS Day event.


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[...] but a few days before that it was gay poet and editor David Groff’s birthday. So to celebrate, read all of the interesting and important things he has to say in this interview in Mary.Interestingly, David talks a great deal here about the very issues I brought up (but did not [...]

Queer Content, Straight Readers?–Talking with David Groff | ] Outside The Lines [ added these pithy words on Sep 17 10 at 6:42 am

This is a fantastic and important interview…well done William and thank you David for your great insight and time…

Troy Rutman added these pithy words on Nov 30 09 at 10:44 am

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