john fry photo1. When did you start writing poetry? When and/or how did you know that it was something you loved doing?

Though there are at least ten thousand different answers to the first question, the two cents I’m inclined to contribute are opposite sides of one coin. On one hand, the more mysterious one, I found myself writing poems in the still aftermath of Poetry having blown through where I was—the way that, even long after a wind has come and gone, a tree’s leaves continue to whisper. The linger of the not-quite-hiss of something half-remembered is what first spurred me to put pen to paper.

This murmur is what continues to provoke the states of bewilderment and wonder that I’ve come to associate with the beginnings of a poem. Neruda has this amazing poem called “Poesía” in which he speaks of where Poetry came from: it came in search of him and he had no cosmic clue where it had come from. I cannot begin to approximate where such a thing might come from, let alone how it searches for us, but I can relate to what Neruda speaks to in that poem.

The flip-side of that coin—how I began writing poems—comes at the question in a more autobiographical way. As the son of a United Methodist minister, the beginning of the Gospel of John is, to me, literally and figuratively true. In my beginning, the Word was. And because, according to the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth is the Word made flesh, so too is language incarnate; words matter because they are matter.

Simply put, the Bible is where poetry began for me, and it is still often where it begins, whether consciously or not. For all the wars I’ve waged against it, the Bible is both spring and spur for just about everything I’ve put down on paper.

This is apocryphal in the way that memory is always partially fictive, but I fell in love with writing poems—or endeavoring to make what I hoped were poems—around the time that I first read pieces by Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich at the age of fifteen or sixteen. I’d already fallen in love with reading and studying poetry, but it wasn’t until I encountered Lorde and Rich that I fell in love with writing itself. Not the polished, “finished” thing, but the messy labor of setting words beside each other to see what sparks might fly.

Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, which I read before I was seventeen, was pivotal in giving voice to a hunger I’d known but hadn’t been able to name. When I reread her “Twenty-One Love Poems,” especially “II,” I remember so clearly how lightning-struck I was to discover that, yes, it is possible for two women to love each other.

I came of age in a sub-standard public high school in a small town in South Texas, so it would be an understatement to say Lorde and Rich’s words were a revelation to me. Their words, along with Joy Harjo’s, Dorothy Allison’s, Judy Grahn’s, Lucille Clifton’s, and Gloria Anzaldúa’s, saved my life. If it was possible for women to love each other—there was the proof!—maybe it was possible for two men as well. It took me a while to muster up the courage to read the now-canonical queer luminaries like Whitman, Hart Crane, Ginsberg, etc., but it was the words of those women that made it possible for me.

2. Describe some aspects of your writing process (how you get ideas, how
long you usually spend on a project, your editing process, how you know
when a piece is finished, etc.)

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of composition, I’m unashamedly antiquarian in my approach. I write longhand, preferably with an extra fine black ink rolling ball pen, on legal pads. Ideally, the paper will be yellow. I don’t type a poem until it’s gone through enough drafts—whether five or twenty—to be some semblance of the whole it’s seeking to be. I then edit the printed copy with a pen. I often recopy it longhand again and go back and forth this way until the poem is as realized as it can be.

If the writing begins to falter or I feel like I’ve lost the original thread that sent me into this labyrinth, I will put a poem away anywhere from weeks to a year or more. Because every poem has a unique circadian rhythm, I’ve learned by trials and errors aplenty to be patient and to trust in the labor of working on a poem one page, one stanza, one line, even one word at a time.

Some poems coalesce with almost unbelievable speed—this seems like a miracle worthy of the New Testament considering how rarely it happens now—and those are to me a gift and a grace. More commonly, poems grow slowly over a period of weeks or months if not years. I may tinker with multiple poems at a time—which activates a different part of my brain used than that used for writing a first draft—but I usually draft one poem at a time unless I’m working on a sequence.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that I tend to generate new work during the spring and especially the fall, but tend to fall fallow in summer and winter. To keep me occupied, summers and winters are often spent rewriting and editing.

Poems almost always begin with a verbal image, a scrap of a phrase, or sometimes a whole line; something not only resonant but actively resonating. Where images, phrases, and lines come from varies, but they are often sparked, amplified, or complicated by whatever I happen to be reading at the time.

Along with a pocket notebook, I almost always carry a book (or two, or five) with me wherever I go. Some authors like Jean Valentine or Fanny Howe travel with me regularly. The words of others are still absolutely essential for anything I hope to make. I often experience the act of composition as an attempt at dialogue with other’s words that have meant something to me. For me, this dialogue has to do with listening as much as, if not more than, any utterance.

I will often contemplate a poem, dream about it, or free associate with it for a variable span of time before I begin the physical act of writing it. All of that inner alchemical work is as much “writing” to me as the outward action. Often I wait until I’m given a way in to start drafting the poem by hand. The way into a poem doesn’t always make it past, or even into, the drafting or rewriting stages.

I rewrite and edit obsessively. Whether I think about a poem for months before drafting it or, as sometimes happens, suddenly find myself scribbling, poems become themselves one line at a time. It’s like walking in the dark. The original order in which the lines were cast will occasionally be reflected in a more “finished” draft, but revision blows that order to smithereens more often than not.

The speed with which I have been writing during the past few years is for the most part slow if the product is a finished (sometimes abandoned) poem. I’ve come to feel content with a year’s harvest if I have even a handful of poems that hold up for me once the infatuation of having written a new poem has worn off. It is sometimes difficult to keep a balanced view of things in the face of poets who are more prolific; the amount of time it takes for a poem to come into being can be dictated by me only so much. I try to trust that any poem will always be smarter than me.

The best I can do is to emulate on the page what Samuel does in the temple. He hears a voice calling him and, thinking it is his teacher Eli, goes to him saying, “Here I am.” Samuel does this three times before Eli realizes that the voice calling Samuel is God’s. Eli tells Samuel to go back to bed and to say, if he heard the voice again, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” I have aspirations for neither prophesying nor priesthood, but I’m instructed by the attitude of attentive listening which bears a marked similarity to certain kinds of prayer.

3. How do you choose what subjects to include in your work? Is there
anything you most like to write about and why does it intrigue you?

I’m fairly skeptical of the notion that we have control over what we obsess over. I’m not sure where the weirdness in each of us comes from, but because our culture seems to thrive on a kind of internally and externally driven sense of alienation, it’s frighteningly easy to police the urgency and fire out of the form and content of a poem before it has even begun to breathe on the page.

I believe that certain things are given to us because of the contours of our lives. By “given,” I don’t mean chosen by us with any kind of intent, but what radically is with respect to our lives: being assigned a biological sex and a gender at birth; ethnicity; the languages one grows up with or the loss of that mother-tongue; displacement, diaspora, exile; the (im)possibility of coming home, however “home” is defined; growing up within a particular community of believers from infancy; the way a holy book can shape all the ways one sees the world.

It seems to me that artists make a conscious choice to let their thresholds stand open to what our givens might teach us. And teach us they will, though their lessons, like Sappho’s description of Eros, are often “sweet-bitter.” In my experience, they are ignored at the peril of the verbal art we aspire to make.

The thing about language that continually sends me zigzagging back and forth between the pages of the book I’m reading, words overheard, and the blank pages of my legal pad is the way that language can, even if only for a lyric instant, make the foreign feel familiar, or the familiar feel foreign. I know of no zone of language more capable of accomplishing this than poetry. Alice Fulton’s book of essays, Feeling as a Foreign Language, did a wonderful number on me about this subject in general, and it is what I seek as a reader, writer, and editor when reading submissions for Newfound.

The questions I never tire of rolling around in my head invariably reflect and refract the restlessness native to my interior; I have a predilection for asking questions with no definitive answer. Often the way in begins not in a state of knowing but in an active state of not knowing. The mode and mood I tend toward most is negative—in the rhetorical and the theological sense. For better and often worse, the via negativa has thus far fit my temperament best, but that has begun to change recently. I am fumbling toward learning what it means to praise.

As for what congregates in my poems? Mostly metaphysical things (in the classical Greek sense of the term) by spiritual way of the tradition in which I was raised. The vexed relationship between the body and the soul, the presence/absence of desire, the illusory war between the sacred and the profane; I cannot fathom an honest way to approach these enormously abstract things save by means of the lexicon indigenous to my imagination: the Judeo-Christian tradition. For example, whether or not a divide between the body and the soul actually exists, it is nevertheless felt; the killing ground of that conflict is the human person. (An equally haunting question is who exactly qualifies as human.) I’d wager most queer people raised within the Christian church have experienced some equivalent of this Gethsemane.

Whereas some people in these postmodern times might view scripture, liturgy, or iconography as anachronistic at best, or as aesthetic upholstery at worst, for me it is ever-living and urgent as myth. The Bible is definitely the text most audible in my work but, given my upbringing, there’s nothing original in this. I quote, paraphrase, reference, invert, echo, remix, and argue with it endlessly—but never merely for the sake of allusion. My relationship with the Bible, like my relationship with Christianity in general, is both visceral and vexed. Christianity is at once provocation and poultice.

There are days when I would like nothing better than to walk away into apostasy for good—I’ve tried on more than one occasion—but I’ve learned that I also can’t live without it. However heterodox my poetic ends may be to some, the Judeo-Christian tradition is the language I was given to speak where spirituality is concerned. “God-haunted” would be an apt adjective for my poems: haunted by the open-ended question of God, the possible absence of God, the indefinite presence of God.

Landscape often appears and has something to say, but because the line of sight in a line of verse frequently looks inward by way of the outward, outer weather is often an analogue for some sort of inner weather. Certain landscapes, qualities of natural light, the Wild Horse Desert of far South Texas, the Edwards Plateau area of West Texas, the Davis Mountains in far West Texas, and the American Southwest are significant to me in a way that goes beyond personification or pathetic fallacy.

4. How did you find out about the St. Sebastian Review? Why did you choose
to submit work to us?

I discovered St. Sebastian Review via Duotrope while you were reading for your inaugural issue and immediately knew that I wanted to send work your way; it happily found a home in your pages. As a writer whose work is as unabashedly spiritual as it is queer, my poems have sometimes met with resistance at opposite ends of the same spectrum. Some readers and writers with an investment in the Christian tradition have read poems of mine as unadulterated blasphemy because the sexuality given voice in my poems is unapologetically queer. I’ve also had people feel offended by the Christian elements in my poems. I have often wondered where the meeting place is between the two extremes that many of my poems try to inhabit simultaneously.

Though it is social because language is inherently communal, the act of composition is also fundamentally solitary. When that fact is compounded with being a queer person raised in a religious tradition or spiritual community that rejects you, it makes for one hell of a lonely road.

I submitted my work in the hope that the St. Sebastian Review might at last be a place where it would unquestionably belong, and that even the faintest singing inside words annealed out of my own loneliness might correspond with another’s. As Adrienne Rich writes at the end of her poem “Hunger,” dedicated to Audre Lorde, “Until we find each other, we are alone.”