Interview with Randall Mann on Breakfast with Thom Gunn — April 11, 2011
Randall Mann is the author of two collections of poetry, Breakfast with Thom Gunn, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and California Book Award, and Complaint in the Garden, winner of the Kenyon Review Prize; and co-author of the textbook Writing Poems. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Poetry, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and The Kenyon Review. He lives in San Francisco.
Christopher Nelson: Why did you title the book as you did?
Randall Mann: “Breakfast with Thom Gunn” is an elegy that appears in the book. Gunn has been vitally important to me, a model of sorts: he’s as conversant with traditional forms as he is with free verse; he’s as comfortable writing about the literary as he is the louche. And the setting of much of his work is San Francisco, as is my work. Frankly, I am not interested in being cagey about my influences in hopes of being seen as some wild original. I’m not, I come out of a tradition, and Thom Gunn is an important part of that tradition.
Nelson: Most of these poems are in traditional forms or employ formal constraints. I enjoy how the often casual voice and the gay subjects make friction against that tradition. Why did you choose to work in the sonnet, sestina, pantoum, rhymed quatrains, etc.?
Mann: Well, free verse frightens me a little, so I always feel the need to rein things in. Each poem is different. For the pantoum “Politics,” the sestina “The Mortician in San Francisco,” and the sonnet “Queen Christina,” and a few others, I knew the form before I started the poem. But in most of the poems, the forms—or approaches to free verse, which is a form of form—declared themselves. I don’t usually have the luxury, if that’s the word, of knowing where I’m going when I sit down to write.
Nelson: Do you consider these poems confessional? If so, what’s being confessed?
Mann: I don’t feel as if I have confessed a thing in my poems. Many of the poems have moments of truth, or “truth,” but such details have been distorted; if the poems are not exercises in obfuscation, i.e., metaphor, then I’m not much of a poet.
Nelson: I read the love poems as pessimistic. Have we elevated love into something it can’t be?
Mann: I prefer the word disabused, or realistic. I don’t know what other people think, but I think that anyone who believes love “is forever” is perilously naive; love isn’t static; “love” is just a shorthand metaphor, a lame translation. But I don’t know. And I don’t know if one can glean anything from the glittering ruins of my relationships.
Nelson: There’s a tension between the romantic and unromantic in these poems, a sense that they inhabit each other, as in “wildflowers bloom in the streetcar tracks; / a syringe lies in the grass.” Do these poems strive for a balance?
Mann: Here I think about a jolting sentence in Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Physical love is unthinkable without violence.” The romantic is unthinkable without the unromantic: the wildflowers need those syringes; or, in the first poem in the book, “Early Morning on Market Street,” the “line of transplanted trees” truly inhabits the scene because they are “thin and bloodless.” The poems don’t strive for balance; the poems strive for, if they strive for anything, clarity and complication.
Nelson: Is there a connection between beauty and sadness?
Mann: Well, disappointment, perhaps sadness, sometimes starts the moment one begins to describe, and thereby reduce, beauty.
Nelson: Does the purely romantic have a place in today’s poetry?
Mann: If you mean mild poetry (almost always in free verse) that praises, for example, landscape and has a middlebrow problem—often a question about How Best to Write about Said Landscape—which is resolved with an epiphany that is the poetic equivalent of a wind chime on a back porch, then yes, not only does it have a place, but it’s taking up a whole lot of places on the bestseller list. Whether it’s any good is, of course, another matter.
Nelson: Your poems often present gay culture—or an experience of gay culture—as being closely connected to heartache and shadow-life: bars, drugs, desperate sex. Can you speak about this atmosphere?
Mann: I like that, shadow-life; I also like desperate sex. I mean, who wants to hear about—meaning I don’t want to write about—snoozy sex or the bright lights of the Castro Theatre that I see when I walk out my door? I don’t really have much to say about gay culture, but I have seen some things over the past twenty years, experienced some things, that asked to be distilled into, or embellished in, poems.