An Interview with Thom Gunn

Perhaps the best testament to poet Thom Gunn is not the awards won or the honors or the number of books published (though he scores on all accounts), but rather the number of poets who count him a major influence and cite his poems as models of excellence. If that’s what is valued, then Gunn is truly one of our greatest treasures.

Born and raised in Kent, England, Gunn moved to San Francisco in 1954 and held a one-year fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied with the American poet Yvor Winters. He went on to produce one of a highly respected, prolific and emotionally authentic body of work. Gunn published his last volume, Boss Cupid, in 2000.

In the following interview, Gunn discusses his life and experiences as a gay poet in the United States. He talks about writing at a time when poets couldn’t announce their homosexuality, about how coming out can serve a writer, and about how his view of desire was informed by his sexual discovery. He recalls his friendship with Robert Duncan and remembers a minor epiphany he experienced as he passed a lit joint to Elizabeth Bishop at a San Francisco poetry reading. And he candidly offers the stories about some of his poems, discussing the sexual sense of “will” in his first two books, how his poems were colored by his “defiant” belief that homosexuality was choice (a notion he later rejected), how he wrote one of his books in part to prove to a critic that “good poetry could be written out of [homosexuality].”

A poet renowned for chronicling the AIDS plague years and their aftermath, Gunn also poignantly recalls the years when desire and death were suddenly, obviously, linked in his poems as in life. Thinking back to a particular poem, he recalls how he wrote the seminal “The Man with Night Sweats” (from the collection of the same title) late at night when he couldn’t sleep:

I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet.

My flesh was its own shield:
Where it was gashed, it healed.

I grew as I explored
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,

A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.

I cannot but be sorry
The given shield was cracked,
My mind reduced to hurry,
My flesh reduced and wrecked.

I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead

Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,

As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.

Gunn published more than thirty books of poetry in the United States and Britain, including his Collected Poems (1994); The Man with Night Sweats (1992), for which he received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; The Passages of Joy (1983); Selected Poems 1950-1975 (1979); Jack Straw’s Castle (1976); To the Air (1974); Moly (1971); My Sad Captains (1961); Touch (1968); and The Sense of Movement (1959). He also wrote the essay collections The Occasions of Poetry (1999) and Shelf Life (1993). His honors include a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. He taught at the University of California in Berkeley.

Gunn spoke via telephone from his home in San Francisco in December of 2003.

* * *

Christopher Hennessey: One thing I’m always struck by in your work is the speaker’s intense gaze—a gaze often focused on soldiers, toughs, heroes, “the Boys.” And you talk about that gaze in poems like “A GI in 1943” (Boss Cupid):

...Power
as beauty, beauty
power, that
is all my cock knew or
cared to know, taught
by the focusing eye, as it
isolated the god
from the crowd...

Is the gaze as an erotic act something you’ve been trying to explore, perhaps ever since My Sad Captains?

Thom Gunn: I would say even before, perhaps. That [“A GI in 1943”] was a serious moment of autobiography.

CH: So is this part of your project, trying to turn the gaze into an erotic act?

TG: I think as humans we do that, don’t we? That’s what pornographic film is all about. We look at things and think about what we’ve looked at. We treasure it in a kind of private art gallery.

CH: This makes me wonder if observation, especially observation of male beauty or power, is where poems like “A GI in 1943” originate for you?

TG: Many of my poems are not sexual, but this poem is.

CH: Did you notice any structural changes in how you composed a poem during the process of coming out? Did your writing change as you became more open?

TG: I really don’t know. I try not to observe myself in the process of composing a poem because I don’t want to come up with a formula, which I would then be unscrupulous in using. I would just be manufacturing a poem. I like it to come out as a surprise to myself.

Edmund White said at one stage that he thought coming out in public was good for any writer’s work. It was for mine because the subject matter is so much greater. You can never write about anything after having censored yourself widely enoughduring the fifties and sixties, in my case.

When I first started to write, I was aware of being queer, but I didn’t write about it because queer poems would probably not have been accepted by the editors I sent them to, and I probably would never have gotten to the Unites States to join my lover. There were real fears of being too open in the fifties, and I can think of very few writers who braved them. One of them was Robert Duncan, whom I didn’t meet until the late sixties, and another was Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s Collected Poems contains a wonderful poem about making it with Neal Cassady—I think it’s called “Many Loves.” It’s in the Collected Poems with a note that says it was not printed at the time it was written “for reasons of prudence and modesty,” so he had to deal with caution as well.

When I first started teaching at Berkeley in 1958, I could not announce that I was gay to anybody, though probably quite a few of my fellow teachers knew. It was difficult being a teacher and out of the closet then. But by the time I retired, the English department was proud of having a gay poet of a certain minor fame—such fame that poets have. So it was a very satisfactory change!

CH: Of course, though you were born and raised in England, your life in America is vividly reflected in the poems. (If I recall, it was after your move here that you felt open to trying syllabics and then free verse.) Is there something idiomatic or structural that’s entered the work?

TG: I’m not really the best person to answer this question. I don’t know how to sit outside myself and test against a hypothetical self who stayed home.

CH: I was looking at two of your poems written across the span of twenty years, “Modes of Pleasure” (My Sad Captains) and “The Miracle” (Passages of Joy), which I really enjoy [Gunn laughs heartily]. Well, it’s a great poem. Let me cite a bit:

‘Then suddenly he dropped down on one knee
Right by the urinal in his only suit
And let it fly, saying Keep it there for me,
And smiling up, I can still see him shoot.
Look at that snail-track on the toe of my boot.’

That’s certainly sexually open! But in some ways I see “Modes of Pleasure,” though coded, as just as open and connected to the queer experience. When you were writing that older poem, was there a way in which you tried to be as open as possible with form or technique?

TG: I was reading the poems of Rochester [John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a major poet of the seventeenth century] at that time I wrote “Modes of Pleasure,” so that might have something to do with it. I saw this poem as being a bit like Rochester’s, though they probably aren’t at all [alike]. Rochester made himself out to be bisexual, but I think that was only to shock. Most of his poetry is sexual, even pornographic.

“The Miracle” came about in a funny way. It was based on an anecdote: I knew this very attractive guy who was leaving San Francisco. I went up to a friend of his at a bar and said, I guess so-and-so has left, and his friend replied that on the way to the airport, he was so hot that they stopped off some place at the public toilet and had sex for the last time. The poem itself is similar in tone to a late poem by Thomas Hardy called “Her Second Husband Hears Her Story,” which is contained in his last collection, called Winter Words. It’s quite wonderfully grotesque. A woman in bed with her second husband tells him a story about her first husband who had a way of coming home drunk and raping her. She didn’t like this so she decided to take measures. She’s a very good seamstress, so when her first husband came home and passed out on the bed, she sewed him into the bed. In the process, she inadvertently stifled him, and he died of asphyxiation. She does most of the talking in this poem, but I think there’s just one phrase from the second husband that goes, “Well, it’s a cool queer tale!” which I use as the epigraph to my last book as a kind of joke. I use “queer” in quite a different sense.

It’s a wonderful poem. It’s probably the only good poem from that last book. He was in his nineties when he wrote it, after all.

CH: The Man with Night Sweats has become a touchstone book, praised by many for taking on the plague years in a highly emotional but unsentimental way. Did you have guides to help you achieve that balance? Were there poets who influenced you? Perhaps form was a guide?

TG: Donald Davie was someone whom I eventually got to know in the sixties and seventies, shortly before his death. He was consistently supportive, very kind to me, but he was very against queers. He knew I was queer; he never lectured me about it, but he spoke to other people with distaste for it. He reviewed one or two of my books, one of which was Passages of Joy. In his review, he said that he had admired the other books because they adhered to traditions of English poetry, but he couldn’t admire Passages of Joy because it advocated homosexuality. He saw gay liberation, as it was then called, as being absolutely unhistorical and so dwarfing potentially my own poetry. Part of The Man With Night Sweats was to show him [that] what I hoped he would admit was good poetry could be written out of this kind of sexuality. In conversations, he admitted that I had made a point. I thought his point of view was strangely ridiculous. He was not a ridiculous man—he was a good thinker and a good critic—but so many people from Sappho onward were open about being queer and wrote good poetry.

CH: I also notice that desire and death are linked in that book.

TG: It was so obvious during those years with AIDS. I hadn’t thought of them as connected before. I don’t think of sex as a self-destructive impulse, but I do view it that way in one or two poems in [The Man with Night Sweats], like “The Stealer.”

CH: Critics have said you often use end rhyme to balance out emotional content with the measure of form, “the steady drum tap accompanying a coffin to its cemetery,” as Henri Cole puts it. I feel that in poems like “Lament” (The Man with Night Sweats), that the rhyme paradoxically accentuates the emotion: “And so you slept, and died, your skin gone grey, / Achieving your completeness, in a way.” It’s so simple, seemingly effortlessly chosen, that it’s at odds with the complexity of the idea. Are you aware of modes where rhyme accentuates and controls the content?

TG: I think it has to. It’s not simply a decoration that could be subtracted from the poem. I wrote that poem about the death—which was very close at hand—of one of my best friends who died of AIDS. After he found out he was HIV positive, he came to stay in San Francisco to be in a city with good hospitals. After about two or three weeks, as I say in the poem, we had to take him to the emergency room, and a couple weeks later he was dead. It was very sudden and very violent.

You know we were a charmed generation. Unlike our parents, we grew up with antibiotics and stuff like that. We hadn’t had to suffer the deaths of our schoolmates from things like scarlet fever. We’d been spared all that. Then AIDS hit us. I had assumed that I would age with all my friends growing old around me, dying off very gradually one by one. And here was a plague that cut them off so early. I was thinking about this afresh last night, seeing the second part of Tony Kushner’s play [Angels in America] on TV.

I started working on the poem a day or two after [my friend’s] death. And I wrote it to serve my thoughts for a few weeks while I was writing it. If I couldn’t go to sleep, I’d think of the next few lines or some revision. So it was written very much in the heat of the event, which is not always true.

CH: So when you writing those poems, the emotional stakes were so high, did you turn to rhythms and rhyme as a way of keeping the strong emotional content in check?

TG: I suppose so. I would have said at the time that I was using rhyme and meter because I work best in rhyme and meter. I was most confident of myself in that way. I didn’t think of them as a series until very much toward the end. They came out one by one. I was writing about things that matter to me—about the people disappearing all around me. I never thought about it being a single continuing work, but that, in fact, is what it was.

CH: You’ve talked about the writing of the poems of Moly before and their connection to the use of LSD. I’m struck by the poems’ intense alertness to sound and an insistent rhyme and the punctuations of rhythm, with language reminiscent of Hart Crane in some respects: “The full caught pause of their embrace.” Did writing those poems radically change how you view rhyme and meter, perhaps even language itself?

TG: It was a book practically dedicated to LSD. I think there is a kind of inevitable consistency in a group of poems that you write over five to ten years that end up in a book. You didn’t mean for them to have this consistency, but your mind, your imagination, had this consistency. They’re not just a selection of poems randomly written—they do have connections that you never even suspected.

Hugh Haughton, a critic who reviewed The Man With Night Sweats, said that the whole of that book was held together by the image of the embrace. I thought, “Surely not!” But poem after poem, from the first poem onward, the book had this as a lasting image and I hadn’t even been aware of it.

CH: Let’s look at the mind and body in your work. I notice that when you discuss the body in your poems, you often are also talking about the mind: “A separate place between the thought and felt” (“The Corridor,” from The Sense of Movement). And in “A Sketch of Great Dejection” (The Man With Night Sweats), you write:

My body insisted on restlessness
        having been promised love,
as my mind insisted on words
        having been promised the imagination.

And:

How thin the distance made you. In your cheek
One day, appeared the true shape of your bone
No longer padded. Still your mind, alone,
Explored this emptying intermediate
State for what holds and rests were hidden in it

—(“Lament,” The Man With Night Sweats)

Has it been important for you to explore how mind and body are linked—and yet still separate?

TG: I do think of them as operating separately, but in relation to each other—sometimes even against each other. It’s a simple way of thinking, and many people wouldn’t approve of it—D.H. Lawrence probably wouldn’t—but I think that’s what we do inevitably.

I’ve never really thought about this consciously, except insofar as to accept your formulation of the two being separate in my poetry. I would think, though, that they are commonly enough separate in most people’s minds. “Well, I had this hard-on, but I thought it unwise to fuck him, because I knew he had AIDS,” for example is an obvious case of the mind and body working against each other—of the mind very wisely censoring the body.

CH: Were there poets who influenced you in this regard, poets who also write about the mind/body problem?

TG: I can’t think of many poets, except, obviously, Shakespeare.

CH: You’re exploration of “will” has also been much discussed—

TG: I should tell you something. When I was an undergraduate I had very badly annotated editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all of which left out the important fact that “will” [has] a sexual sense in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I had no idea of that. Obviously there [is] a sexual connotation to it, like in my first two books, Fighting Terms and Sense of Movement, but I didn’t know this until the sixties. I was constantly rereading the sonnets without giving the word “will” any primary sexual sense.

CH: In one interview you gave, the interviewer suggested that where you use the word “will” it can be replaced with “penis.”

TG: It could be. In Shakespeare, it could also be the female sexual organs.

CH: In “The Nature of Action” (The Sense of Movement), I came across a line that intrigues me in the context of will in your work: “the great obstruction of myself.” This isn’t just rhetoric—there’s something deeply personal for you in this topic, correct?

TG: I was much influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre. There’s a lecture of his printed as a short book called Existentialism is a Humanism, and I was probably very influenced by that when I was writing this poem and similar poems in the mid- to late fifties. Being in the closet, as it were, I saw being homosexual as a deliberate choice. I don’t think it’s deliberate at all now [laughs]. It’s got nothing to do with choice or the will, but I was being defiant about it. That really is the story of what I’m doing with the will, especially in my second book [The Sense of Movement].

CH: One of the poems from that book I really like is “The Reassurance” (The Man With Night Sweats). These lines are often quoted:

How like you to be kind,
Seeking to reassure.
And yes, how like my mind
To make itself secure.

I read that and I wonder: is a poet always trying to understand the self?

TG: What I’m saying there is that we control the content of our dreams. I was dreaming that dream to make myself feel good. But you know it’s not a choice. This was the effect of it, and the dream comes from inside me.

But to answer your question: do I think self-discovery or self-knowledge is an important part of my work? Yes. My old teacher’s definition of poetry is an attempt to understand—not that one can succeed in understanding, but the attempt to understand. That’s Yvor Winters.

CH: You’ve spoken at length in the past about Winters’ impact on you as a writer. I wonder if you’re aware of the impact you may have had on your own students—or the impact you’d like to have. Do you hope to pass on certain convictions about what poetry should be?

TG: Oh dear, no. I don’t think I’m as organized a person as that. I came over because I wanted to be in America with my lover (he was in the Air Force at the time). I didn’t know who Yvor Winters was. I hadn’t read any of his poetry. I hadn’t even read any of his essays in England.

With my creative writing students—[though] I’ve taught literature more than I’ve taught writing courses—I just hope to make them better. They get in the course because they have some talent, so I just hope to make them realize what they have and to make them even better.

CH: Is there a joy for you in teaching?

TG: I had a good time. I retired in 1999. I frequently admired what my students were writing, but I think their improvement doesn’t directly result from me but from being in a class, from being with each other.

CH: Are you working on a new book of poems?

TG: No, I haven’t written anything in four years. I’m sort of dried up. But I’ve often done this before, so maybe it’ll come back to me. Any time I finish or publish a book I have periods of up to two years of not writing anything. But you know, I’m seventy-four now!

CH: You’ve also written two collections of prose, Shelf Life and The Occasions of Poetry, in which you discuss other poets and your own life to some extent. You mentioned earlier that you try to not observe your own compositional process. Is talking about other poets a way to get at your own aesthetic without pulling back the curtain, so to speak?

TG: [Laughs] Perhaps, though I can’t think of an example. While I don’t satisfy my curiosity about the way I work, I’m terribly curious about the way other poets work. But I would think that’s true about many of us.

CH: You’ve written a lot about Robert Duncan. Does that say anything about your own work?

TG: In 1971, Duncan got an early copy of my book, Moly. He was in good health then, touring many places in the East by bus, giving readings. In the bus, he was writing these poems based on mine, Poems From the Margins of Thom Gunn’s Moly. I was very flattered by this—wouldn’t anybody be?—because he was a poet I admired and learned from. He said, “This is really going to upset my admirers.” And I thought, “It’s going to upset my admirers, too!” I was delighted and so was he. We had been constricted by people who tried to sum us up as smaller than we are and tried to group us into opposing factions. I was never opposed to Duncan. He was always an inspiration to me. I would go to lunch with him and his lover, the painter Jess Collins, and come away with my mind full of stuff I’d start writing in my notebook. Duncan was a terrific talker. I don’t remember any poems that originated from him in this way, but he was a charmer and full of wonderful ideas. Undoubtedly, he was a fertilizing element [for] every poet he met, including me.

He was a very endearing person with a wonderful sense of humor. When he and Elizabeth Bishop met, they got on terrifically well. They would talk and gossip together and laugh. I asked each of them separately what they thought of the other’s poetry, and each of them said the same thing: “Oh, I can’t read it. It means nothing to me at all.” Their poetry is immensely different—much more different than mine is from either of [theirs]. Once I was at a benefit for some imprisoned students in the sixties at San Francisco State, and there were lots of poets reading for the benefit: one was Elizabeth Bishop, and one was a protégé of Michael McClure called Free Wheeling Frank, literally a Hell’s Angel, who had written poetry dedicated to Beelzebub and so on. At one stage, Free Wheeling Frank handed me a lighted joint. I puffed on it, handed it to Elizabeth Bishop, and I thought: that’s where I stand, midway between Free Wheeling Frank and Elizabeth Bishop.

CH: You mentioned people wanting to put things in categories and being resistant to kinds of poetry different than what they write. Have you noticed more and more of this over the years?

TG: This is the fault of literary critics, isn’t it? I’m not putting them down as a group. But we learned in the university to consider Wordsworth and Keats as Romantics. They were only a generation apart, but Wordsworth didn’t even read Keats’s book when he gave him a copy. The pages were uncut at his death, they found. Keats was the one who originated the phrase “the egotistical sublime” about Wordsworth. They weren’t part of the same movement. They were connected historically in a rough kind of way, but to see them as the same thing is a great mistake, but that’s, I think, connected with the reason we tend to put poems into factions. And it restricts our reading.

CH: I once used the phrase “AIDS literature” in an interview with Doug Powell and he was surprised to hear there was such a genre. What are your thoughts on describing poetry this way?

TG: There have been two really popular subjects for poetry in the last few decades: the Vietnam War and AIDS, about both of which almost all of us have felt deeply. But deep feeling doesn’t make for good poetry. A way with language would be a bit of help.

CH: Sandy McClatchy said in a recent Paris Review interview that some gay poets these days too often restrict themselves to writing about “the hard-on or the virus.” You, for example, talk about friendship, and that’s just one topic that has set you apart, I think. Of those gay poets you may have read over the years, have you noticed changes in what gay men are writing about—or not writing about?

TG: I notice that for students, particularly for gay students, it’s too easy to write about “my last trick” or something, which we like to speak about, to write about, but it’s not very interesting to the reader. I very deliberately wrote a poem in my last book [Boss Cupid] called “The Problem,” where I was suggesting that there are other passions as great as or more important than the passion of sex. Mathematics could be an overmastering passion in this redhead guy—really that [poem] was autobiography—or another passion could be poetry.

CH: Let’s end by talking about desire. In “The Allegory of the Wolf Boy” (The Sense of Movement), the moon will “loose desires hoarded against his will / By the long urging of the afternoon.” And in “Modes of Pleasure,” (My Sad Captains) you write that “lust marks time / Dark in his doubtful uniform, / Preparing once more for the test.” And then in your latest book, Boss Cupid, Eros is the “devious master of our bodies” in “To Cupid.” The way you view, personify, and give body to desire over the years—how do you think that’s changed?

TG: Well, these are three different stages of coming out as it were. “The Allegory of the Wolf Boy” originates in a remembered story by Saki. His real name was H. H. Munro. He wrote a story about a werewolf who was a boy. I actually never looked up the story again, but I remember it quite vividly from having read it when I was fourteen years old. (I was probably about twenty-five or twenty-six when I wrote the poem.) It struck me as a marvelous allegory of sexuality—all sexuality—being covered over by clothes, and desire, the wolf, coming over the person who is very reluctant to acknowledge but can’t help acknowledging it. So that was one stage about being in the closet.

The next one, “Modes of Pleasure”—well, this was about going to the leather bars: “Dark in his doubtful uniform.” (A later poem about leather bars is called “The Menace,” from The Passages of Joy. I deliberately decided to write a kind of guide to leather bars for straight people, for people not into leather, so that people could see what it was all about.)

In the next example, Eros the “devious master of our bodies,” in Boss Cupid, well, there it’s all out in the open. I’m speaking of all desire, whether homosexual or heterosexual. It strikes me that we are very similar to heterosexuals. I know not all queer people think this way, but I do. I think for example, that most men, heterosexual and homosexual, enjoy being considered as sexual objects, unlike most women. I use Fabrice from The Charterhouse of Parma as my example there.

Actually, I came out in person to my friends—in my early twenties—long before I did in my writing; I think being in love helps to do that.

This interview first appeared in Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets, published in 2005 by the University of Michigan Press. Reprinted with permission.

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