On process, survival, and mysterious poet dreams
I was lucky enough to walk into my beginner level poetry workshop and see David Trinidad sitting, like a captain at the helm, at the front of the class.
I was a sophomore fiction major. I’d written poetry, but nothing serious, and was skeptical about being taught poetry, a subject I didn’t think lent itself to teaching. Fifteen weeks later, I emerged from that class as a poet, and I believe every bit of that is thanks to David.
A year after completing the course, I asked him about his poetry process, inspirations, and the extraordinary life he’s lived. This is what he told me.
David Trinidad is an award-winning poet from California. He has published numerous books, including his latest collection of poems, Swinging on a Star (Turtle Point Press, 2017). Known for his masterful exploration of pop culture in his poetry, Trinidad’s poems speak to very specific American experiences. His other books include Notes on a Past Life (BlazeVOX [books], 2016), Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera (Turtle Point, 2013), Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems (Turtle Point, 2011), The Late Show (Turtle Point, 2007), and Plasticville (Turtle Point, 2000). He is also the editor of A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos (Nightboat Books, 2011) and Punk Rock Is Cool for the End of the World: Poems and Notebooks of Ed Smith (Turtle Point, 2019). Trinidad lives in Chicago, where he is a Professor of Creative Writing/Poetry at Columbia College Chicago.
When you set about writing a new book of poetry, what is your process like? Do you compile poems you’ve already written which contain a common thread? Or do you write according to a preset theme in mind?
My first few books were compilations of poems that did not necessarily have a common thread. I just tried to make a bunch of poems, that I’d written over a period of years, fit together and make sense, produce a book that was a good read. I’m sure those poems “spoke to each other,” either formally and/or thematically. But they were written as individual poems, not as a book. At some point my books began to be generated around a central idea: elegiac poems about my mother (The Late Show), a book of haikus based on the soap opera Peyton Place, a book of memoir poems about the years I lived in New York (Notes on a Past Life). I’m currently working on a book of prose poems. At first that was the only guiding principle, that they be in prose. Now I see that there is a unifying theme: retrieval of remnant-like memories.
How often do you pen a new poem? How long does it take you to revise them until they’re as close to perfect as they can be?
I tend to write one or two a month. Every month I meet with my friend Tony Trigilio. We eat Thai food and show each other new poems. That always gets me to write something new, as I’d hate to show up empty-handed. A failure! The revision process varies from poem to poem. Sometimes it’s fairly close to “perfect” on first draft, sometimes I tinker (or obsess) with certain lines or images, sometimes a poem will need to be written over a period of days, months, even years. Different poems have different requirements (or demands).
How has your long career as a Creative Writing professor influenced your writing, if at all?
I came late to academia. I’d already had a career as a poet out in the “real world.” It’s wonderful to have a job that values what you do as an artist. Where what you do—write and publish poems, give readings, etc.—counts for something. I have time to write, time (and resources) to pursue scholarly interests. I’ve researched and written essays about Sylvia Plath, edited the collected poems of Tim Dlugos and Ed Smith. Edited magazines. In general, being a teacher has enabled me to lead a more literary life than I might otherwise have had. I feel I’ve managed to thrive as an artist in academia. And I’m grateful.
Your latest collection, Swinging on a Star, contains a string of poems about other poets, such as Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Lee Ann Brown. Why write about these poets specifically?
Those are all dreams I had about those poets. I often dream about poets. The dreams are usually mysterious. I suppose I wanted to try to capture that mystery in the poems.
A few of the poems in Swinging on a Star memorialize poets who have tragically died young. Is this a concept you find yourself returning to?
Yes, very much so. I became acquainted with death at an early age. My friend Rachel Sherwood died in a car accident at twenty-five; I nearly died in that accident as well. Then so many were lost to AIDS. Some of them dear friends. When I wrote my poem “AIDS Series” in 2010, it felt like finally I’d paid my debt to those men. A debt I owed them because I survived. I’ve felt that way about Rachel my whole life. There’s this way in which life itself, after such loss, feels “posthumous.” (I’m quoting Ted Hughes there.) I’m leading up to writing an entire book about Rachel. It’s taken me a long, long time to be able to face her, to pay that debt in full.
I’d like to know a little more about the inspiration behind the poems “The Old Poet” and “The Young Poet.” Were they written together?
They weren’t, actually. “The Young Poet” was written a few years before “The Old Poet.” Both were written in response to attitudes I’ve noticed in the poetry world. I wish I could say they’re Blakean songs of innocence and experience. But the young poet doesn’t seem particularly innocent, and the old poet hasn’t learned from their experience!
I was recently browsing the collections on the Poetry Foundation’s website, and came across one of your poems (“A Regret”) listed under a “Love Poems” collection. Among the other poets in this collection were Frank O’Hara and Audre Lorde. How does it feel to be included in a collection with these big names? Do you ever feel like comparisons such as these get to your head?
I’m still astonished when I’m grouped with those kinds of poets. It’s more humbling than head-swelling. A true honor to sit next to some of my heroes.
Interview by Jerakah Greene
Turtle Point Press