Spotlight: Alex Dimitrov

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Every Part of Our Lives: Alex Dimitrov

Interview by John Deming

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Alex Dimitrov and I drank white wine for a couple of hours at Cafe Loup on May 1, 2013. We discussed poetry, persona, and what it means to be “personal.” The following was transcribed and then edited. Read David Eye’s review of Alex’s first book, Begging for It.

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JD: To start at the beginning: how did you get involved in writing poetry?

AD: Well, I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and I studied with Anne Carson there. She was someone I read very closely and obsessively as a freshman in college, and still do. She taught in the Classics Department and I just knew I had to study with her. It was supposed to happen that way.

What did you read?

I read Autobiography of Red, and like most everyone who reads it, I didn’t know what to do with myself for the next however long. So I took a class with her called Essay Writing for Poets, and I really wasn’t sure that I was a poet; though I was writing poetry, I was also doing video work, and she was amazing because she really destabilized that identity of the “poet,” what being a poet means, what being an artist means. Similarly, I’m really interested in destabilizing the insular role of the poet in our culture, meaning I’m interested in the poet as a pop culture figure as much as a literary figure.

Yeah, she’s still destabilizing the “poet” label . 

She’s still doing it. The first day I came in to class she played a John Cage recording, and that was sort of her version of going over the syllabus. I think she’s brilliant.

Was this when you were a freshman? 

I was a freshman when I found out about Carson’s work, but I took her class in my third year at Michigan. I began writing poetry early in high school after I read the confessional poets.  I read Plath and Sexton, Lowell, Berryman. And I wrote really bad imitations of their poems, naturally. Then when I got to college, I sort of read everybody. Dickinson was the first poet I ever read, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I don’t remember.

So how did you end up coming from Michigan to New York?

Well, I had to come to New York. All of the great people that I was reading had at one point lived in New York, or really just stayed forever, however long forever is. I became obsessed with that 50s group of artists, Johns, Rauschenberg, Cunningham, O’Hara. I had no idea if New York was a literary home for that kind of scene still, but I wanted to find out. So from Michigan I went straight to Sarah Lawrence College, which is just outside of New York, but I lived in the East Village the entire time I was a student there.

Who did you work with at Sarah Lawrence?

Thomas Lux, Victoria Redel, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Marie Howe. All really fantastic teachers and people. Marie Howe changed my life. She was my thesis advisor and incredibly instrumental in helping me write my first real poems, the first poems that were important to me. Of the poems that I wrote as an MFA student, I probably kept three or four in the book and they were all ones she helped me with. And we’re still friends and very close.

Do you know which ones?

Yeah, I do, the ones about my father and my childhood. “The Underwear,” “The Crucifix.” I remember writing them in her class and being terrified by it and her coaching me through that. Marie introduced me to the work of Cavafy, she sat with me for a long time on her red couch in her office, invited me to tea at her apartment. She encouraged me, she was honest with me. I adore her.

You mentioned reading Lowell, Plath and Sexton when you were younger, and you have poems like “This Is Not a Personal Poem,” which appear very conscious of the discussion about autobiography in poetry. How does autobiography function in your work?

That’s a hard question. I can’t be a confessional poet because it’s not the late fifties and sixties. Those writers are important to me, yes. But I’m not interested in figuring out who Alex Dimitrov is. I hope I never figure out who Alex Dimitrov is.

So are you interested in persona in your writing? Are you very influenced by Berryman?

I love Berryman. I love Love and Fame. What he does with persona in The Dream Songs. I’m teaching those this semester. They continually impress me.

That’s maybe more my question with regard to autobiography—the line between autobiography and persona.

Yeah, I think that having to be just one person has always been very boring to me. One thing writing has functioned as, again, for me, is an act of imagining a self and trying to capture the self I embody, on paper. And then there’s all the selves in between those.

But I’m very interested in being personal, to riff off of the word persona.  I feel that all of my poems are personal and interested in an address that is intimate even when we don’t know who is being addressed or who is speaking. Is the “I” always me? No. It’s an “I.” Is the “you” always you? No. But it can be. I want to be very close to my reader. As close as possible.

The I/you tension plays out in interesting ways in a lot of other poets as well. Are you interested in Whitman?

Absolutely. Whitman was one of the first poets that celebrated the individual and the individual’s story and the individual’s life. Of course, so much of the world, our world, is also in Whitman. Everything, all the time. You, me, everyone.

Yes, an almost religious quality accepting every part of someone’s nature, even the messier parts: “I absorb you all.”

And Ginsberg becomes an extension of that Whitman, too.  Everything is “holy.”

Well that brings me to another question. You mentioned “The Crucifix” before, and in some of your promotional materials, you have involved religious imagery. What’s your relationship with that?

The questions of life and death, the big questions, the ones that interest me the most, my first encounter with those was through religion. For better or worse. I was raised Christian Orthodox.

Church every Sunday?

I used to go to church every Sunday with my grandmother, but it wasn’t entirely to partake in the ritual; it felt more personal than that. I would write down things that I wanted to tell the saints and I would leave those little notes in the church. Again, that I/you relationship. That obsession with intimacy. And then I just wanted to know things. Why do we die, where do we go, why are we alive. Christianity, of course, answers those questions and unsuccessfully. So I found poetry.

Did every “answer” just generate new questions?

I just don’t believe in a Christian god. But I love Catholic iconography and Christian Orthodox iconography. I love ritual. I love the idea of deep devotion. The idea that what you love can destroy you because love can destroy you.

Do you consider yourself a Christian?

No. That would subscribe me to some sort of moral code, so no.

There’s a lot in your book about America specifically.  Are you interested in being an “American” poet?

Sure. I mean, I am an American poet. Being an American poet is also something that changes all the time. It’s not static. Like Ginsberg and Whitman, America is very present in my imagination, sure.

Sometimes it seems like America is in a perennial state of finding itself. And it sometimes seems, these days, like geographical identities are becoming less important and corporate identities more important. Does that complicate this notion of trying to write about America? 

Writing about America is endlessly complicated. I don’t want to glorify America in any nationalistic way. But I was born in Eastern Europe and grew up with the end of communism and a regime that was anti-intellectual, oppressive for artists, and really oppressive for anyone who was a thinking person. America for me very tangibly meant freedom, as flawed as that freedom was and is. I could not have the life I’m living right now if I had stayed in Eastern Europe. I know that. And I don’t even want to talk about Russia and everything that’s going on there right now in terms of LGBT rights and what happened with Pussy Riot. It makes me sick. It also makes me sick that we live in a country where African American teenagers are killed on a regular basis. That’s America. That’s what America shouldn’t be. But I’m glad I left Bulgaria. I’m glad I don’t live in Eastern Europe. I don’t have some romanticized notion about my roots and I actually hate talking about that in interviews or in relation to my work, because people want to give it more importance than it actually has, or see it as some illuminating lens into my work. Well, it’s not. I do consider myself an American poet and I love that being an American poet  allows you to oscillate between extremes. Whitman’s the extrovert, the great self-promoter, and Dickinson’s something else, something very different. And I have needed her, I have needed that Dickinson many times.

Where do you see yourself then—I don’t know if I mean like as a person or as a poet—introvert, extrovert, or just basically someone trying to negotiate the experience?

Well, when I was a kid I always wanted to be a pop star or a movie star.

Can you sing?

Yeah, and I did when I was younger, then somehow I ended up being a poet, which is great, because being a poet is better than being a pop star. Do you think anyone’s going to be listening to Miley Cyrus in 100 years? I bet you a small but devoted group of people will still be reading Emily Dickinson. As they are now.  As they were 100 years ago. Poetry is the most incredible thing. It speaks to every part of our lives. It serves every part of our lives. Public, private, everything in between, everything we imagine, everything we can’t. Poetry has room to hold it all. I think I’m very—I think I appear very public, but I’m actually very private.

Let’s talk about that Alex Dimitrov then. What don’t people know? There are people who are aware of your reputation as a poet who just published his first book and who runs the Wilde Boys salon. But public perceptions are often that alone; I know Proust said our social personality is a creation of the minds of others, which I think is kind of true, no matter how much we hope to control it. Who is the introvert?

Most of the time I’m the introvert. I juggle a lot of things, I write mostly on weekends, because I don’t have much free time. And when I do, I don’t really want to see anybody. I want to read and write. This is why I don’t have a boyfriend. Oh well. Neither did Emily Dickinson. I wrote a poem once called “Emily Dickinson Never Had A Boyfriend.” I do think some people may have a sense of me as being very extroverted through social media, as a result of the salon, some quote the New York Times or Out magazine or whoever ran once. Oh well. People can think whatever they want to. It’s not like I can stop them.

With social media, it can seem like anything is too much, and then nothing is way too little.

Exactly.  Sometimes people want to talk to me so much about Wilde Boys as an entryway into my poetry, as a way of understanding it and what I do, similarly to how they want me to talk about being an Eastern European immigrant, and I’m just yawning throughout the whole thing. I think my poems are a lot more complicated than that.

But we also discussed an interest in, say, fifties and sixties poetry culture earlier, and I know you are very interested in the New York school. People are interested in, say, John Ashbery because of his great poetry, but people also really want to read [David Lehman’s] The Last Avant Garde to get a sense of what it was like—his culture and so forth.

Sure, and I love The Last Avant Garde. That book was very important to me when I first moved to New York and when Wilde Boys was just a small, impossible thought in my head. I was very interested in starting a scene. When I started Wilde Boys, I was interested in bringing together poets from the New School, NYU and Columbia, all these programs that I felt should have been more connected than they were, in terms of who was hanging out with who. And I wanted to bring everyone together, specifically the queer poets at first. Because I didn’t think that there was a space for queer poets that was private.  I think that a public queer space is very different from a private queer space.

But it started very small.

It started very small. It started as ten people getting together. It became bigger as people started telling others about it and as the press picked it up.

And you have had some very influential poets at Wilde Boys—Ashbery, Bidart.

Jorie Graham, Brenda Shaughnessy, Michael Cunningham, so many incredible people. At first only gay male poets came, and then I decided to open it up to anyone who identified as queer or wanted to contribute something to that conversation, you know, about queerness, and ultimately the conversation that’s most interesting to me is about poetry, about art. Art is more interesting than queerness.

So back to you and your own writing, then. You said you work on Saturdays and Sundays.

Yes.

Do you spend your time on new material these days, or revision, or what?

I’m a little more than halfway done with a second book of poems and I’m also working on several other online projects that I’ll share at some point. Some sooner than others. There’s also a novel but I need years for that.

How do you know when a poem is finished? 

I don’t know. I’m a perfectionist, I don’t think anything is ever finished.

Does the impulse toward perfection ever lead to revising something into extinction?

Sure, that’s happened before. But the impulse toward perfection has also helped me make some beautiful things.

What do you think of the role of poetry in the public sphere? It seems the internet has a significant role in a new proliferation of poetry, and that people have more access to your work if it’s published online than in a more classically reputable print journal.

I think poetry and the internet are in a long term relationship that’s based on true love. As poets, we have so much potential to change people’s lives for the better by giving people poetry instead of advertising, instead of chit chat, instead of the same ten words used in the same ten ways on the same ten television shows—and we can do that more and better than ever through the internet. We can give people the real, which is what poetry is, and make them excited to go live their complicated lives instead of making them feel dead because they’re surrounded by dead language on the street, on the train, on television, at the movies. Well, the internet is everywhere and nowhere at once. Which is a place poetry is very comfortable with. The internet is a huge part of my creative process and my creative work. I don’t see that changing. What I see is the internet changing poetry and vice versa. I’m so happy to be alive and making things at this particular moment.

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