The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Cameron Awkward-Rich about his new collection Dispatch (Persea, December 2019), what makes a love poem, elegies, and being groomed by cats.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Danez Smith, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Eric Tran, Mary-Kim Arnold, Ariel Francisco, Heather McHugh, and more!
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This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So, about this wonderful book of yours: in the piece I wrote about why we chose the collection for Poetry Book Club, I kind of jumped off of what Jericho Brown said in his blurb, that this was a book of love poems. Do you agree with that assessment, and was that in your mind as you started thinking of it as a book (as opposed to just poems)?
Cameron Awkward-Rich: I’m glad that you jumped off of what Jericho Brown said, because I think it was that blurb that convinced me that what I intended to put into the book came through. I don’t think that it’s entirely a book of love poems, but I do think that it’s a book that is both interested in the question “How do I love the world, despite all of this evidence that I shouldn’t?” and also came out of a deep love for my friends.
Brian S: Something I pointed out in the half-handful of poems I looked at in the piece is that the love poems offer respite or breathing space. And I was serious about the physical reaction when I read those lines from “Aubade.” I have four cats and a dog and I sometimes get weird looks when I tell people i don’t let them lick me in the face, but I see where those tongues are like fifteen hours a day.
Cameron Awkward-Rich: Four cats?! Anyway, yes, I’m actually glad that poem worked for you. It almost didn’t make the cut in the final shaping of the manuscript, but I figured that there are all of these poems that are direct addresses to other friends, loves, intimate strangers, and if I am honest, my cat is the creature that has been most consistently with me through the writing of this book and the last. So, she deserved at least one poem.
But also, I liked what you said in your piece about the ambivalence that runs through the love poems, perhaps especially the poems that call themselves “Love Poem”—part of what I was after was writing love poems that didn’t skirt away from the fact that love can be an injurious relationship, just as much as an enabling one. That the impulse to idealize the beloved is not, exactly, the same thing as love
Brian S: Absolutely. “Aubade” is maybe the closest any of them get to being a “pure” love poem, whatever that is. It reminds me of when Facebook was new and you could post a relationship status and they added “It’s complicated” and I wanted to just put it on that forever even though I’d been with my partner a decade at that point. Because it’s always that. Never simple.
Like these lines from the first one titled “Love Poem.” “I hated / the idea of being / touched / could never / get used / to hours / with someone in them” Damn right that’s love, too. But it’s not what we’ve been trained to recognize as love so sometimes it takes us a while to understand that.
Cameron Awkward-Rich: Yes, precisely.
Brian S: I want to ask you about “Anti-Elegy.” I read that as a list of trans women identified only by their ages and/or the mode of their deaths, and a part of me wanted to see names, perhaps in a note at the end of the book, but when they weren’t there, I thought perhaps that’s the point, that trans women are erased, that the list is all most people see of them, if they even see that much. Is that a reasonable reading?
Cameron Awkward-Rich: That is a reasonable reading. I guess I should say that the list in my head is not technically only trans women, but also trans young people of all genders who took their own lives. I did toy with the idea of including a list of names in the back of the book, but if that poem is about anything, it is about trying to interrogate the assumption that this kind of elegiac memorialization—keeping the dead alive, with us—is actually an ethical thing to be doing, if what that means is keeping them alive in a world that did little to support their living.
So, part of the point is that those lists of names… it’s not clear to me what work they do in the world, actually. Especially because most people who read that poem come to the same reading that you do, that it is a list of trans women who have been killed, which means that people are aware of the problem, that a lack of knowledge/representation isn’t actually what’s going on.
Brian S: And there’s the further complication that there’s a not-insignificant number of people who don’t see their deaths as a problem at all—who even celebrate it.
Cameron Awkward-Rich: Yes. It’s something of a cliché to say this in the worlds that I live in, but something that trans people know intimately is that visibility—what these lists of names hope to provide—is in many ways a trap. There are actually kinds of agency/abilities to maneuver that comes from remaining unseen, unnamed.
Brian S: Right. Thomas Page McBee wrote a column for Rumpus about his transition, and he did a piece about the fear he felt when going into a public restroom. And yet anti-trans activists loudly proclaim that trans people are just ravenous for the opportunity to attack them in those spaces
Cameron Awkward-Rich: Can I ask you a question? What is it about Jericho’s blurb that made you try to read the book as one about love? I know that won’t be the first read for most people, so I’m curious if you remember what stuck the first time through.
Brian S: I actually didn’t read the blurb until after I’d read the book all the way through the first time. But I saw the different ways you were playing with the idea of love. I didn’t mention this in the piece, but I was really drawn to the poems about your relationship with your sister as well, perhaps because that’s the family member I’m closest to. The blurb just sort of crystallized it for me.
Cameron Awkward-Rich: Got it got it. How great! It’s funny, I think that you are attuned to the poems that I worry are most idiosyncratic, or not completely aligned with the “project” of the book. But in my first book, where I was really working out what it meant to be newly living in the world as something like a man, my father (or, the figure of the father anyway) was central. In Dispatch, though, these less-overdetermined relationships took center field—cat, sister, friends, strangers in the archive.
Brian S: I love that! Okay, before the hour ends, who are you reading right now? Anyone we should be watching out for or reaching back for?
Cameron Awkward-Rich: Well, my reading right now is all over the place, but I’m really excited about a handful of books coming out in 2020. In particular: Justin Phillip Reed’s The Malevolent Volume and Rick Barot’s The Galleons. But, speaking of love poems, my partner and I have been reading this really delightful, strange, nonfiction ode to animals by Lucy Cooke called The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife. It’s really quite great. Also I’ve lately been quite obsessed with Lucille Clifton, which is a perpetual recommendation.
Brian S: Ah, we featured Justin’s last book in the Poetry Book Club when it came out and I have a review copy of the new collection. Going to have to move that one up the pile. And I’m going to have to look for that Cooke book. Thanks so much for joining us tonight and for this book as well. It was a real pleasure.
Cameron Awkward-Rich: Ha! Yes, I think Justin’s new book is better than the last one! And yes, thanks so much for chatting with me. It was fun!
Photograph of Cameron Awkward-Rich by Sam Ace.