Walking The Straight Razor

Poet Randall Mann on writing slowly, being violent with traditional form, and never abandoning his voyeurism.

Randall Mann is a patient poet. Five years separate his first two books, Complaint in the Garden (2004) and Breakfast with Thom Gunn (2009). His latest, Straight Razor (2013), was written over a four-year period that he describes as “exhausting.” After reading it, you understand why. Here, he mourns the death of close friends, catalogs the body’s (and our nation’s) brutalities, and writes (beautifully, harrowingly) against our received understanding of love and intimacy.

Mann’s latest is at once revealing and standoffish, formal and free, excessive and austere. But for all of this, it is rarely a book about the strange attraction of such opposites. Instead, Mann is content to record these disparities, to inventory them, in order to remember, even as he recognizes that memory—much like writing itself—is only ever an approximation.

Straight Razor , which is a Lambda Literary award finalist, is a snapshot of a life lived on two coasts (with occasional pauses abroad), punctuated by wry observation, snippets of pop songs, and of course, sex. And it describes this life in a voice that is uprooted, elegiac, and flayed by loss, but does not flinch.

Earlier in his career, Mann wrote, “It isn’t / beautiful, of course, this life. It is.” With Straight Razor, we find Mann still balancing the contradictory and the corrective, hungry to find new ways to describe his complicated relationship with longing and desire.

Your first two books are vitally connected to place. Complaint in the Garden and Breakfast with Thom Gunn feel like Florida and the Bay Area, respectively. Rather than explain what Straight Razor is, could you instead talk of where?

Randall Mann: In the background of the book lies Florida, an “empire of moss,” that swampy place of my youth that I can’t seem to shake; and San Francisco, where I’ve lived now for more than 15 years. But this is not a book about place. If Straight Razor has a landscape, it’s one of disaffection, which is to say affection, the longing for it, the resistance to it.

But the collection doesn’t hold much back. What exactly are you resisting?

RM: Basically everything: suspension of disbelief, as in the title poem, where the speaker, even though he knows he should be enjoying the given sexual role-play, can’t shrug off the artifice; silence, which I often see in one poem as “an artless / prompt”; death in the face of death; any notion of an uncomplicated, sterile childhood; the elaborate performance of modern queer life; sex; love; the preening literary pose. Yet while embracing, in my opposition, all of these.

I’m interested in the ways you manipulate, sometimes violently, traditional form. What do these fractured forms offer you as a poet?

RM: The poet and critic John Hollander called formal structures “a necessary condition of poetry, but not a sufficient one.” It’s necessary for me, at least, to think about form and content side-by-side, one not just informing but becoming the other. And there’s a point in a making a poem where one has to stop thinking and, to quote a great Theodore Roethke poem, “think by feeling.” When I decide to deviate from a strict form, it’s in service to the poem; in other words, I’m moving away from a prescribed way of doing in order to get closer to feeling. Poetry is possibility, and a formal choice is an exercise of such freedom.

Insufficiency, deviation, departure, freedom—you sound just as restless as the poems. Where are you going next?

RM: I’m not entirely sure, and that’s exciting. I have a number of poems that reference my job, some poems that are obliquely about ideas of order—but basically I don’t have a theme or anything; I just tend to write poem by poem and then see what I’ve got after a time. In a project-driven life, this feels almost subversive. I’m not the fastest writer—my books have come out about five years apart—and I’m in no hurry to overthrow myself.

Your books often embrace larger structural framework, no? There’s the Divinely Comedic triptych of poems in Thom Gunn, and “Fling” in Straight Razor is an amped-up echo of “Ode” from the last book. “Ian Hamilton in Florida” mirrors “The End of Last Summer” from your first. Do you conceive of your books as part of a larger whole?

RM: I suppose so. The three books make up an accidental triptych of sorts. Straight Razor is, like my other books, an almost equal mix of formal and free verse; I return to working in syllabics, which is a nod to my first book. Even some of the titles recur in the books. My free verse has become more structured, with rhymes and wordplay and rhetorical turns; while in my formal poems, to your last question, I am more inclined to undermine the form. My concerns—queer longing and loss and satire and betrayal; my need to reorder the world—are at the center of Straight Razor, as they have been, as they probably always will be.

Your poems seem to eavesdrop on the world. There are bits of conversation, pop songs, and scraps of journals and letters are scattered everywhere. What effect does this listening have on your making of these poems?

RM: I’m no original, and since I rarely traffic in “ideas,” I’m a parasite: I feed off of conversations, offhand observations, the way the city looks at this or that time of day, songs, admissions of loved ones, etc. I used to get anxious about the times I wasn’t writing, but then at some point I realized a life fully lived—books and work and travel and conversation and sex—would give me everything I needed, as long as I was willing to do two things: one, remain vigilant in my sidelong voyeurism; and two, be willing to use even the most private details of my life to inform a poem.

Despite its flashiness, Straight Razor is a deeply elegiac book.

RM: There are times, and I almost hesitate to say this, when elegy feels like a moral obligation. At least it has for me. The poem “End Words” is an elegy for two poets, Reetika Vazirani and Rachel Wetzsteon, who committed suicide; Vazirani also took the life of her son; the details are unspeakable. I knew both poets a little, and they had so much promise—and this is of course what we mourn, too, when people die young. There’s another poem in the book, “September Elegies,” which I wrote for four bullied gay boys who killed themselves, all in one horrific month in 2010. There have been times when I felt that all I could do was write, to give voice to the now voiceless.

That’s a difficult contradiction—a moral obligation to speak to (or for) that which is unspeakable. Do you think writing is enough?

RM: I’m not sure what you mean. If the writing honors the subject matter, stays humble, and the poem is an act of charity rather than self-indulgence, yes, the writing is enough—for the writing. If you are a moral giant on the page but then in person are creepy or hateful or whatever, well, you’re on your own. But it’s complicated, isn’t it. I think of the great British poet Philip Larkin, who, through his letters, revealed all too many sad, small-minded opinions, which diminish the person, but not, I think, I hope, the poems.

I imagine someone coming up after a reading and asking, “Did that really happen?” Straight Razor often seems to provoke an autobiographical reading. Is this intentional?

RM: Yes and no. Autobiography is a dirty word for poetry: many of the details in the poems come from my real life; many do not. (In the poem “Detention,” the speaker went to “Jim Jones Middle School”; I went to middle school, but, um, not that one.) I tell a form of truth but always, always bent. I would like the reader to believe the poem really happened, and if that’s another way of saying I’m encouraging a straightforward read, I’m fine with that. I have to be.

Do you really have to be?

RM: What I mean is, there’s no profit in trying to micromanage a reader’s reaction to my work; the conversation is between the poem and reader. I need to do everything I can as a writer to be as precise, judicious, clear, and appropriately mysterious, so that my work can engage, yet hold at arms’ length, a reader.

Eric Smith’s poems and reviews appear most recently in Indiana Review, The Rumpus, and Southwest Review. He teaches at Marshall University and edits cellpoems.

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