Conversations with Adam Falkner: On Poetry, Social Identity, and Queer Narratives

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“Nowhere would anyone grant that science and poetry can be united,” wrote esteemed 19th-Century writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his 1817 treatise on animal morphology, Zur Morphologie. “They forgot that science arose from poetry, and did not see that when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends.”

200 years later, we have gone from the page to the screen; coding languages have replaced much of the poetry that makes up our cultural heritage. In the age of the smartphone, what role can poetry serve in our daily lives? Can the two truly be reconciled?

In his new release, The Willies, Adam Falkner offers unabashed takes on subjects scrutinized under the lens of scientific inquiry: alcoholism, male sexuality and family trauma. Falkner’s poetry takes aim at the consequences of cultural inheritance and the identity issues we often choose to gloss over with Instagram filters.

We spoke to Adam Falkner about embracing poetry’s emerging impact on technology, acknowledging the role of inheritance in our lives, and the importance of writing in exploring issues of race and identity. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SCINQ: Would you be able to tell us a little about some of the inspirations behind The Willies? How the project came about?

ADAM FALKNER: The book was a couple of years in the making. The poems themselves span the better part of a decade.

The Willies is a book first and foremost about costuming and hiding from ourselves and the stories we tell to avoid confronting larger truths in our lives. The two narratives I am telling in the book are about my journey into queer-hood/my coming out as a gay man and the story of my father’s addiction, substance abuse, and subsequent recovery.

It’s a meditation on masculinity and attempting to redefine what it means, so that we can not only be better to ourselves but so the people we claim to care about can be less shrapnel in our own refusal to acknowledge who we are. In some ways, that is the impetus for the book.

For many years I have been writing a lot about issues of race, specifically whiteness and white privilege. In the development of this book, a lot of those poems were roped into this larger framing of costuming. In trying to understand and depict myself in terms of race and the various costumes and posturing that I inhabited as a younger person. I also write a lot about alcoholism. This framing in The Willies brings those respective areas of my body of work into conversation with each other.

SCINQ: The “Intake” poems included in The Willies are often framed within a clinical setting. How did observing the clinical treatments for alcoholism inform your writing process?

AF: The “Intake” poems in the collection I think are interesting because I rarely read them out loud. I think in the reading process —the intimate reader process— the “Intake”poems play such a critical role in marrying these two narratives. I think I was given an up-close example of the potential cautions of an unexamined life in the case of my dad. I watched him tap dance around the bigger questions of his own life and rely on substances for relief. In that, I recognized that unless I figured out a way to also ask myself those questions —not necessarily the same questions that he needed to interrogate for himself but the ones I needed to interrogate for my own — I was going to die. I was going to fall down a similar path that would be a relatively unexamined life where I wake up at 40 and assume that I have done my best without really interrogating what those questions were in my own life.

To answer your question about these intake poems, they’re all called “Intake” and most of them take place in clinical settings. They deal with him allowing himself the courage and the permission to move from a space of addiction into a desire to get healthier. In the book, the physical metaphor of an intake or a rehabilitation space or an A.A. meeting really represents his desire to find himself and to be whole. The more that I wrote about him in that process, the more courage I drew while thinking about my own story. It made sense to extend that metaphor of him finding respite and courage in treatment to my finding respite and courage in coming out. It was an important tool to use that notion of “intake,” of moving from one space of fear into another space of courage. It felt like an important blade that could cut both ways in trying to bring these stories together.

I think, to some degree, the questions that have anchored my life are questions about inheritance, access, privilege, race, and identity.

SCINQ: The family trauma and explorations of race explored in The Willies are reminiscent of some of your older poems such as “My Father’s Family.” Did you intend for The Willies to stand as its own work or to be part of an overarching narrative?

AF: There’s the old adage that writers that are lucky write the same story their entire lives. Writers that are extremely lucky get to tell the same two stories. I think, to some degree, the questions that have anchored my life are questions about inheritance, access, privilege, race, and identity. Anything I sit down to write will be about writing with that on my shoulders. I make an effort to more deeply interrogate my own inheritance, what it means to have inherited those things, and in what ways I’m called to account as a result of that.

Everything I write is somehow an extension of that desire: to better understand myself and what I have inherited in this world. I think the idea of trying to pinch together various spaces of my life that I’d been incentivized to keep separate was a compelling drive for the development of The Willies. I had written about a lot of different things; all of them quietly tapping on these soft doors of whiteness, trauma, gender and sexuality. The book was an opportunity to bring those together because they really are quite kindred in terms of wrestling with inheritance. I think on a very meta level (not to get too much into the father character in the book) that as much as the speaker is wrestling with his own inheritance, the courage that the Father Figure is wrestling to find is a similar interrogation of his own inheritance. It’s not a centerpiece of the book but it’s central for sure.

SCINQ: Women in The Willies are often portrayed with various degrees of denial over the men in their lives. I think of the mother’s concrete mantra of “no family is perfect” in “Thanksgiving” to the symbolism of dementia in “My Grandma Calls Me Barack.” What were some of the challenges you faced when writing about women for The Willies?

AF: I’m extremely fortunate in my life to be surrounded by such a powerful collection of women — be they in my immediate biological family or women that have played roles of mentorship in my life. Much more than the men in my life, I think women have called me to myself. Back to this notion of shrapnel for a second. One of the tragic pieces of masculinity — and this is not only true of masculinity but of any agent identity, or group. It’s like white people learning about themselves at the expense of people who are not white. It’s like men learning about themselves at the expense of people who do not identify as men. To what extent is that okay? To what extent does that require more interrogation?

I hope that the book does not leave completely unacknowledged the small, pivotal roles that women in my life have played. I also wanted to write specifically about my own and other mens’ issues that they’re wrestling with in terms of their own inability to think for themselves without relying on other people walking them to the watering hole.

In a poem like “Joey From Dawson’s Creek Was My Beard”, I think that’s a good example of the ways in which women in my younger life were used and pawned as a kind of prop to aid my own queer development. That’s both true of my mother, my grandmother and definitely true of all the various pop culture references, various girlfriends, and teenage girls that are involved in the life of this young speaker. There are girls and women everywhere teaching this speaker about themselves. Part of the trauma of the closeted, cultural appropriationist, queer kid nature of this speaker (and maybe men in general) is that when we are scared to ask ourselves really directly who we are and what we want to become, we don’t also ask ourselves who we are hurting as a result of not asking those questions. Often the assumption is that by not asking myself those questions, I’m just hurting myself. There are so many people that are caught up in our own shrapnel, our own bomb blasts.

In the case of the stories depicted in The Willies, I think women tragically play that role where I am at once deeply dependent on them; and attracted to them; and attached to them. I deeply identify with their power and their sensitivity and their emotional vocabulary and their labor. And at once, I am terrified of all those things because I would prefer not to see them in myself. Which of course, I do.

SCINQ: The Willies offers a relatively ambiguous stance on male sexuality molded by societal stigma and heteronormative family values. What ethical considerations should writers consider when writing about their own queer issues?

AF: I like this question, too. One of the reasons why I like it is because it gives me the opportunity to talk about the importance of intersectionality. Not only in the way I understand the stories in The Willies, but also in the way I understand my work at large.

I think it is essential for any writer —not necessarily young writers, but any writer that is undertaking the serious and urgent work of writing about issues of identity, difference and power — to understand themselves and the parts of their identities that matter to them. The parts that are salient to them; the ones they are most and least aware of; the ones they have earliest memories of; the ones that give them power, the ones that make them at once seen and unseen. I also think that it’s really important for people to understand the ways in which those individual group memberships are impacted by a whole litany of other things. It was important for me in writing this collection to be able to tell a very wide pallet about the ways in which my queerness was impacted by so many other factors in my life.

I think sometimes in queer narratives or coming out stories that it’s very easy for young writers, in particular, to focus on what feels to be the truth they need to tell and the trauma in their life (specifically as it relates to one part of their identity). I was made so sharply aware that the luxuries I had that were afforded to me in the process of my coming out a decade ago were directly tethered to my race, whiteness, social class, and a whole list of other factors that were present in my life. To only write about queerness and addiction as though those were completely separate from those other privileges in my life would not tell the full picture.

I also think it’s true, even taken out of the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ work, to think carefully and critically about the ways in which our various intersecting selves come together. I am always a queer man. I am never not that thing, but that matters way more or less depending on certain rooms I’m in. When you start throwing other factors about my identity into the mix, it really shades and colors my experience. Certainly, my experience coming into myself as a queer person. I always bristle at statements like “This one’s a queer poem,” “This one’s whiteness poem,” et cetera. They’re all queer poems because a queer person wrote them. The pressure to make everything that we queer-identifying writers write be gay as fuck is extremely limiting not only for the humanity of the poems but also the person writing them.

Sometimes, I find that young writers feel like they scare themselves out of telling the stories that matter the most because we think we need to tell them perfectly. Or we need to write to keep writing the gay poem until we get the gay poem. Giving ourselves permission to, not necessarily in the case of this book for example, not tell an entire story about my father because that’s scary and huge. I can never write the poem that does it justice so I don’t write anything at all. Rather, I shrink down small snapshots of him reading the New York Times, having a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette in the morning. Done. End of poem. By isolating different moments like that instead of feeling the pressure to bite it all off at once, I think allows intersectionality to creep into how we see ourselves as writers and creators and thinkers in ways that writing the all-encompassing, male sexuality, whiteness stigma poem won’t. You’re never going to be able to do it.

I think it is essential for any writer –not necessarily young writers–but any writer that is undertaking the serious and urgent work of writing about issues of identity, difference and power to understand themselves and the parts of their identities that matter to them.

SCINQ: How have your experiences as a slam poet influenced your writing process?

AF: I would say that my chief editing tool is reading my work out loud. I mean even before it goes to any one of the five people whose blurb is on the book. Whether it’s Hanif [Abdurraqib], Jon Sands, Shira [Erlichman], Jeanann [Verlee], or Saeed [Jones]. It’s important for me to feel good about the way my mouth sounds around the language I write. That’s partly connected to slam and my socialization in the performance world as a younger poet. It’s also really connected to my relationship with music.

Music for me was the first literacy in my life. I found my way into books and even giving a modicum of a fuck about schoolwork by finding a teacher who allowed me to write whatever chicken scratch raps and verses and songs I was writing away from school. It wasn’t really until I started appreciating the academic value of how musicality was making its way into my writing that I started to take it seriously. The natural pivot from that observation as a high school junior many years ago was slam or performance or theater for me. In many ways, I’m in constant pursuit of ways to make the musicality of language stand up on the page in a way that sometimes poems don’t.

I’m a big believer in the democratic nature of poetry. It’s the same reason why I think that reviews for poetry books should be in The Scientific Inquirer. I think people should have and find access to the stories that poets tell. There’s often such a prohibitive wall around the genre. That’s part of why I published the book with Button [Publishing] and how I think of my ideal reader for this project: it’s not just a kid sitting in an ivory tower with his MFA instructor chatting with their four colleagues that are going to read his book. It’s also the queer kid in a cornfield in Kansas who may not have access to the stories poets are telling about identity. Part of that has to do with the musicality of language and the urgency I feel for capturing that music on the page and in the brick and mortar artifact of the book.

SCINQ: I want to go back to the conversation about how poetry can transcend the boundaries that it’s currently finding itself in right now. Certain schools/approaches to poetry such as ecopoetry and electronic literature attempt to bridge the divide between the humanities and STEM. In what ways do you see poetry contributing to current discussions regarding environmental/technological issues?

AF: This is a conversation around how digital life is changing the landscape. I am intrigued and captivated by the number of new readers that are coming to the genre. There are more people reading poems right now in America than there have been in 30 years. In part, that’s because poetry is getting better. I said it. And it is getting queerer and browner and more courageous and more interesting and it is getting more aggressive in speaking back to the political factors that shape our lives. The other reason is that there is a bigger recognition of the frailty and the vulnerability of the publishing industry to meet this new readership.

One of the reasons I am excited about the genre is the way that technology, digital learning, and micro-learning experiences are drawing in folks that tend not to think about poetry at all. It is widening an understanding of the potential for the genre itself. There are poems on Chipotle cups and UNIQLO T-shirts and, of course, there is a corporate antagonistic argument to that, which 99% of the time, you’ll hear me making. But there’s a beautiful, silver lining to the way that poetry is being scaled because of the digital capacities that we’re now understanding are central to how people learn; how they name the word and the world. In that way, I’m deeply excited.

With each passing year, there’s more profound technology that is evolving to help people both find the genre and tell their own stories either through it or adjacent to it. The world of the poet and the publishing poet is rapidly shifting online. There aren’t many journals that aren’t online in some way, shape, or form or that aren’t creating new ways for people to find their art. It’s an exciting time to be a poet.

There are more people reading poems right now in America than there have been in 30 years. In part, that’s because poetry is getting better. I said it.

SCINQ: I also think Youtube and social media speak to the immediacy of the genre. The fact that I can log onto Facebook and see a poem go viral because it speaks to thousands of people who wouldn’t otherwise browse the poetry section and find it speaks volumes. I think technology definitely has increased the accessibility of the genre.

AF: I would even argue that poems that are going viral now are very different from the poems that were going viral a decade ago. If we even had the same concept of “viral” as we do now. There are poems that are really speaking about the world and that’s exciting to me. You just look at the poems that were captivating the internet’s attention for three hours at once a decade ago are really different than the poets that are now talking about mental health, police brutality, Black Lives Matter. These are deeply political stories popping up on your Amazon cart when you’re shopping at Whole Foods online. It’s a really rude and beautiful awakening to the world that exists outside of our small lives. If poetry can be a small hammer that helps bang the world into shape, then that’s originally what it was intended for. I’m inspired by places like Button and a bunch of other presses that are really recognizing the urgency and the potential for digital media to not only engage people in the genre but also shift other people’s politics and democratize story.

– For more information about Adam Falkner, visit adamfalknerarts.com.

WORDS: Aaron Tremper

IMAGE SOURCE: Adam Falkner

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