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An Impeccable Illusion: An Interview with Derrick Austin photo

I recently had the good fortune to zoom with Derrick Austin in celebration of his second book, Tenderness. His first had set the new standard for aesthetically beautiful queer debuts, and I devoured the follow-up, which pulled back the curtain a bit on the speaker's selfhood—except of course when he's lying. As always, I got distracted during the interview, but this allowed time for musings on Monique Heart, The Nanny, and the most important question first:

* * *

Case: Most important question first: How did you feel watching the Met Gala?

Austin: Oh, it was terrible. As soon as they announced the theme I knew it was going to be terrible, like it's going to be terrifying or worse, just really boring and literal. It felt like a VMA after-party and not the Met Gala. The same people just shuffled over and there was very little I was excited about.

I felt that VMA vibe, especially with people like Troye Sivan. He was like, here's a jock and boots and a dress and a cuff, I’m ready. The only two I was excited about were Dan Levy and Lil Nas X.

Right. They actually attempted to do something and brought something different to the table. Whereas everybody else just wore nice dresses they could’ve worn to the Oscars. But no one wants to have fun with it! It’s depressing. If I had an army of stylists at my beck and call, I’d be dipping into archives and having fun.

…Your second book came out last Tuesday. How did it feel comparatively to the first, waiting for it to drop?

I had very similar feelings both times. I was awed that I did it, and that I could hold this thing I’d been working on forever. I was excited for it to exist, but also kind of embarrassed that it exists. What is this thing and why did I do this? Then I ignore it for a few days. This time around I’m really happy with it and super excited. I’ve gotten so much love for the book already. I hoped I made something better than my first book and that I did something different, pushing myself, and I think I did that.

My first is coming out next year, and now that I’ve started the second I’m finding it harder to write in general. Did you have that experience, and do you think being further out from your MFA program affected how you went about writing your second?

Yes, writing the second book was so hard compared to writing the first. I finished Trouble the Water and sent it out in Fall 2014, but I didn’t start feeling like a poet again until three years later. In 2017 I started writing poems that excited me. I had to shake off the remnants of the first book, those old impulses. Another thing I had to do was figure out how to appraise my poems by myself, without the workshop apparatus with deadlines and a group of people talking about my work.

What does that new process look like for you?

Writing Tenderness was a very private process. I didn’t really show the poems to anybody. The only person who consistently looked at drafts was Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Sometimes he’d comment on them, but mainly I did it just to share. It was helpful to know that at least one person was reading these ridiculous drafts. But otherwise it was just me hunkering down with the poems.

The other thing that was different was that I wrote the bulk of Tenderness when I was living in Madison. I had moved there because I got the creative writing fellowship from UW, and I stuck around for two more years. My friend, the poet Natalie Eilbert, hosted salons once a month with the fellows, the MFAs, and other writers in the community. We’d get together, bring wine and snacks, and share our work aloud. That was a new testing ground for me, as I’d never shared drafts in a space like that. It was fantastic to see people’s physical reactions to moments in poems.

That’s not something you get in workshop traditionally.

Yeah, and it’s such an important form of knowledge, in addition to having people cross things out and mark things on the page. It’s just as valuable to know when people laugh or gasp or wiggle around in their seats. You think about syntax differently. I love a complicated sentence, but that’s not the kind of thing that reads very well if you’re listening after two glasses of wine.

I think about that a lot. Like, I love Timothy Donnelly’s work, but they’re super complicated sentences, and you can’t sit there and follow as easily at a reading.

One of my favorite parts of Tenderness is the “Son Jorocho” section, the travelogue with friends, for how the geography slips in and out of the action. When traveling and writing, how do you decide what’s the diary portion of the experience and what’s the public-facing poem?

That poem in particular was hard to write. It’s one of the longest I’ve ever written, and I had to juggle all these places and characters slash actual friends of mine. I really wanted to resist this thing that happens in travel poems a lot—especially when it’s an American going to another country—where the speaker encounters something culturally specific and has a revelation about their Americanness, and I just don’t find that particularly compelling. With my poem about Mexico City, I really wanted to interrogate my Americanness and the various intersections that are happening. Anti-Blackness is global. Homophobia is global. But I’m also an American citizen gallivanting in this country that has a very complicated history with the US. The speaker grappling with those intersections while trying to have a good time is the public-facing part of the poem. I also had to make sure there’s enough of the place that’s recognizable to a reader, to acknowledge that the speaker is in a different context.

And something that makes that difficult to do is balancing the people in your life with your relationship to place. There are more people in your second book that might be known to other readers—Morgan, Danez, Marcelo... Was that a conscious decision to more toward friendship, or did that naturally click while writing?

A little of both. It’s an inclination I’ve always had that I didn’t get to show in my first book. There’s a poem in Tenderness that’s addressed to my friend Cody, and I’d written a bunch of poems about them when I was working on Trouble the Water but they didn’t quite fit there. I’m always writing and thinking about friends, but it was also something I wanted explicitly to do with this book.

I didn’t really have a plan for Tenderness at the outset, like I did with my first book, but I knew I wanted my second to be shorter than my first and I wanted to see if I could make poems out of my life, poems lived in daily experience, which I didn’t think I could do in my first book. I didn’t think my life was interesting enough to consider art or capital-P poetry. That was always the biggest challenge for this book, to see if I could rely on something other than my imagination. As I was writing these poems, more and more of my friends starting popping into them and I thought, What a great counterbalance to all the harrowing stuff in the book. It was important to me to have other energies there.

Yeah, the world is actively crumbling and terrible things are happening every second, and you’ve got to find that joy wherever you can.

Formally, there’s an uptick in sonnets in this collection. Do you have a fondness for the form?

I’ve always been interested in the sonnet and other received forms. The sonnet is a good container for a multitude of things. Because it’s a form that we know the history of, we know how to read it, and we know it can contain a lot of things that are unsaid. The reader knows there’s going to be gaps and therefore is ready to fill them in, so the sonnet can play with silence and time while remaining legible.

I really like our current sonnet Renaissance. I remember when I was an undergrad finding contemporary sonnets again and again—Erica Dawson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey—by all these poets doing interesting versions of sonnets. Sonnets aren’t archaic, useless engines, they’re endlessly shapeable to our needs.

And I’m excited about recent moves with sonnet sequences. Dorothy Chan has been doing these amazing triple sonnets, and it seems everyone’s written a crown. I’ll admit here to trying to write a crown for Monique Heart, who desperately deserves it.

Oh my god, yes.

It hasn’t worked out so far, but I’m trying.

She’s the best. Drag Race did her so dirty, and she should be a bigger star than she is at the moment. Justice for Monique Heart! Even on All Stars there were times where she was unfairly critiqued and didn’t get her props. She should’ve been in the top two at the end of it.

Do you think they’ll do an all winners season?

I guess at this point. I’ve heard rumblings that apparently it’s happening.

I want it to happen, and I want the prize to be RuPaul’s hosting job.

Yeah, because the thing about an all winners season is what could the prize be that would make it worthwhile? Most of the winners could make the prize money just going on tour. And frankly, Drag Race needs an overhaul.

Anyway, unrelated. But one of my favorite things to do is talk about influences. I want more poets to talk about pop culture.

I have a question I need to ask because it’s been driving me nuts. In your poem “Flies,” what is the book with the prince in it? I can’t figure it out.

Oh, I made that book up. I made up a lot of things. It’s funny, when I was teaching this week I was workshopping one of my student’s poems and they didn’t know they could make something up. I said, Yes, lie, lie all the time.

I love that. Well, your poems are very convincing.

Thank you. I love an impeccable illusion.

Can you tell me about your cover artist? It seems unusual these days to have a consistent artist across books.

Both books’ covers are by this fantastic artist, Diedrick Brackens, a Black queer artist who works mostly in textiles. It felt like fate in that the first time we met we collaborated on this project where he created a mini-installation and I was going to make ekphrastic poetry inspired by it, and that was the spring before my first book got picked up. When I first met him I found out the reason he wanted to collaborate was because he liked my poems, and he mentioned this really old poem that I didn’t know how he’d found it. He would have had to dig for it to find it, and when he was giving a presentation before the project opened I saw that image and knew I wanted it to be my cover.

We have a particular kind of kinship, this fascination with Black queer intimacy, especially as it relates to the South. There’s an interesting religious slash mystical component to his art I find really compelling, plus it’s so flamboyant in its patterning and images. There are so many interesting connections between our work.

Okay, to wrap up I have a few desert island this-or-that questions.

If you were stuck on an island would you rather have with you the novels of Melville or Hawthorne?

I’ll go with Hawthorne, because I’m one of those strange people who loves The Scarlet Letter. I’ve been meaning to read the rest of his work. And even on a desert island the prospect of reading Moby-Dick does not particularly appeal to me.

Would you rather be stuck with the show Dynasty or The Nanny?

Oh, The Nanny, 100%. Dynasty is fun and fabulous, but so is Fran, and she’s hilarious and so full of heart.

The paintings of Fragonard or Tiepolo?

That’s interesting because they have such different vibes, and funny because what am I going to do with paintings on a desert island? But I’ll go with Tiepolo. They’re beautiful, obviously, but there’s more there to meditate on, so I’ll pick my Italian.

The discography of Rihanna or Sade?

Oh, again, completely different vibes. It would have to be Sade.

And the companionship of Chris Hemsworth or Drake?

This. I mean, frankly, I don’t know what to do with either of them. I mean, I know what to do with either, but I feel like Drake would get on my nerves after a while and I don’t know what I’d ever talk about with Chris. God, I don’t know.

What if you knew it was only going to be for like two weeks?

That’s interesting. I still don’t know. Can I just have them both? Though I’m not trying to talk to either about anything.


image: Doug Paul Case