The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Eric Tran about his debut full-length collection The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer (Autumn House Press, March 2020), activating the spiritual through poetry, approaching comic books in a sacred way, and more.
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 Mary-Kim Arnold, Ariel Francisco, Heather McHugh, Thea Matthews, Benjamin Garcia, Sumita Chakraborty, Vijay Seshadri, Molly Spencer, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: In the piece I wrote about why we chose this collection for our Poetry Book Club, I mentioned that I had a hard time figuring out what the title was referencing—can you help me out here? Is it a situation where you’re playing with the flexibility of the word gutter and its many meanings that acts as a motif?
Eric Tran: In regard to the title, I really love how words can give you different looks (to borrow from RuPaul) depending on the context. “Gutter” and “spread” are comic book terms, talking about the layout and the space between the pages. But I also love the idea of a head in the gutter, and of course what “spread” can evoke. And the idea of the gutter (which means the margins between comic panels) being a home for marginalized people
I’m not a very religious person, but the amount of space that prayer occupies in my life has really taken me by surprise. I’m sure it also surprises other people given a lot about me. But who’s to say that someone like me can’t invoke prayer?
Brian S: I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and haven’t been one for twenty-six years now, so I have a complicated relationship with prayer, too, but part of that is recognizing that everyone, even people unsure about belief, maybe pray, and I’m certainly not going to make assumptions about that
Eric Tran: Depending on how liberal you want to be with the concept of it, I’d argue that we pray near constantly.
Brian S: I’m good with that.
Eric Tran: I was very nervous about telling my friends about approaching poetry as prayer (for some interesting reason all my friends in medical school were very religious), but they never batted an eye. Some of us even practiced Lectio Divina together, which is a form that comes up in the book.
Ren F: What does prayer mean to you, especially outside of a strict religious basis?
Brian S: I was going to ask about that; can you expound some on what it means to approach a text in that way? I love the idea, especially of coming toward a text that many religious people would not think of as sacred.
Ren F: I think I have a similar relationship to poetry in terms of being directly addressing the spiritual, independent of some direct connection to religion
Eric Tran: I first thought about it when I was going through somewhat of a spiritual crisis, actually—just feeling like I was holding up more than a mortal could. I bounced around options a bit and nothing really stuck, until I realized that in poetry I was slowly and methodically thinking about myself in relation to greater bodies (either groups of people or maybe celestial bodies.
I found Lectio Divina through a podcast by some M. Divs thinking about Harry Potter, and their idea was that a sacred text is one that has intentional ways of teaching us how to be in the world. And gosh, think of a poem that hasn’t done that!
Ren F: Yeah, for me the way poetry can address and contact a direct sense of awe has always been spiritual. I grew up atheist but kind of always spiritual.
Eric Tran: I was also at a talk recently about “beauty,” and the lecturer posited that beauty was a text reaching towards something profound or larger than itself, and that to me was another way to talk about poetry’s spiritual power.
Ren, can you think of poets/poems that address the spiritual?
Brian S: Someone who jumps immediately to mind for me is Gabrielle Calvocoressi.
Ren F: For me, Mary Oliver is very much like that. It’s on the side of the natural world, but the fervor with which she wakes up at dawn to greet the world and be a part of it.
Eric Tran: Yes to both! I heard Gabrielle read a poem about the anniversary of their mother’s death and it was like a whole church procession for me.
Brian S: And Aimee Nezhukumatathil also, the way she approaches nature and the world. It’s glorious.
Ren F: I don’t know if either of you have any direct experience, but there’s something distinctly Unitarian about this subject for me.
Eric Tran: I don’t! Can you say more?
Brian S: Not direct experience, but I’d also like to hear more.
Ren F: Unitarianism was pretty closely associated with transcendentalism, and while it used to be/can be somewhat Christian in nature, these days it is largely stripped of direct Christianity.
What it does have left is a focus on the power of comparative experience, the use of words and other experiences to help us grow as people. It’s a notoriously hard faith to summarize but Unitarian services often look a lot like someone standing up to read from fiction or nonfiction, including poetry, and then reflecting or reveling in the spiritual in it.
Brian S: I think any faith you’re a part of is hard to summarize because you know both the nuances of it and the stereotypes that outsiders think they know about it
Ren F: Haha, yeah. At any rate, the hymnal as such of a Unitarian church contain some of these poets.
Brian S: The conversations I get into about Jehovah’s Witnesses, even though I haven’t been one for more than half my life…
So who do you think of, Eric, when you think of poems/poets who address the spiritual?
Ren F: I guess also, are you thinking specifically of the spiritual and poetry as a way to treat or deal with grief?
Eric Tran: I think certainly it’s related to grief, like how loss pushes us both deeper into ourselves and also way beyond ourselves, corporeally and temporally.
I haven’t figured out if anything helps contain or deal with grief. I get the statement a lot that my book was a way to process and I’m not sure that’s the case. I’m not sure if anything helps with grief but time.
Brian S: I think that’s right. I also think my therapist would agree with you on that.
Eric Tran: And even then I’m finding that grief doesn’t end, it just puts on different clothing—this is now grief in a fun spring floral, this is grief relaxed in sweatpants.
I like your therapist already, Brian.
I’m having a hard time thinking of poets that aren’t expressing or invoking spirituality. One name that comes to mind [of a poet who addresses the spiritual] is Danez Smith, whose collection Homie was just featured in the Poetry Book Club. I think I focus on authors who unite spirituality with unexpected topics—I think of sam sax’s poems on sexuality, Shira Erlichman’s poems about mental health.
Brian S: It catches you in places you don’t expect it to. Like a song on the Muzak station in the grocery store that’s supposed to be there to be ignored and then you’re just standing there on the soup aisle grabbing cans of beef stew for no reason.
Eric Tran: Yeah! And isn’t that also beautiful? Like, now whatever you were grieving gets to be associated with some so ubiquitous as cans of soup.
Ren F: I heard one that grief is a ball in a small box with a button in it. and as life bounces you around you keep hitting the button that causes the grief to strike. over time the container gets bigger but the ball and the button are still there.
Brian S: And every so often there’s an event which makes the box smaller again.
Eric Tran: And I bet the ball itself changes shape by bouncing around in its container.
Brian S: Prageeta Sharma’s newest book, Grief Sequence, is sitting on the table next to my desk and I’m working my way towards being able to open it up.
Ren F: Life wears new grooves, yeah.
Eric Tran: Oh man Brian, there are so many books I don’t feel ready for. But you can just tell it’s going to be right when it’s right. I only just read Marie Howe’s What the Living Do.
Brian S: Let’s talk some about your relationship with comic books.
Ren F: Yeah, I was going to bring that up!
Brian S: There’s a line in “Days After Orlando I Read the X-Men” which says, “I know, metaphors painted so thick the layers won’t dry, but this all feels like web and tissue” and I’m interested in the way you approach the medium as a reader. I think comics get a bad rap generally, but there are some times where the metaphors are, well, unsubtle.
Eric Tran: Oh, absolutely.
Ren F: I also thought, when I read that poem, about how a lot of writers will hide their influences. Even if it is about comic books they’re putting layers of paint on it so it’s nameless muse…
Eric Tran: One of the reasons I love comics is for their sheer camp value—from the really old ones where the superheroes like Superman were meant earnestly to modern ones that are poking fun at themselves (a superhero who derives power from using alcohol and drugs, for example).
Brian S: I feel like I’ve been seeing comic book references come into poetry a bit more in the last few years. Like poets aren’t hiding their guilty pleasures anymore.
Ren F: Yeah.
Eric Tran: And, I’d argue, why should they be guilty?
Ren F: Absolutely.
Brian S: They shouldn’t be! I think very often we writers are afraid of how other writers will perceive us if we admit we read things that aren’t Very Important Books.
Eric Tran: Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates had runs in comics recently, which I think definitely lend credibility to the genre.
Brian S: And Yona Harvey was co-author on Roxane’s run, I believe.
Eric Tran: Right, I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently with newer work—what was I afraid to put into the first book for respectability reasons? Some of the results from that have been poems about bottoming, for example. I also think whether it’s comics or Gothic literature, we hide a lot of society’s concerns in these metaphors, so it makes so much sense for poets to mine that for material.
Brian S: There’s this messed-up tension in poetry sometimes where as writers we want to be read but we also have been trained to not want it, because a wide readership means you’re too accessible or too commercial and I think the references that have been popping up recently are pushback against that attitude, and I’m happy to see it.
Eric Tran: To be honest, that’s been one of my biggest insecurities (which still creeps in)—is this poem too easy? Too digestible? Too “commercial”? I bet a lot of poets of color and/or queer poets struggle with figuring out how or if they fit into a traditional canon and I too am so excited by how much room there has been for them recently.
Brian S: Is it horrible if it is, though? I mean, no one writes bangers every time. Everyone has some b-sides. I love that the canon is continuing to be forced wider and wider. Poetry is better for it.
Eric Tran: No, I don’t think so—to bring up Mary Oliver again, “Wild Geese,” while so approachable also shows me new things every time I come back to it.
Ren F: Yeah, definitely. I think about that a lot. How what we can share especially with people who don’t read much ends up being the most approachable. and how sometimes that’s what comes back to you in the night. The simple lines. “Wild Geese” in particular was the poem I was thinking about when I brought Oliver up earlier, but a lot of her poetry does something similar. It shows how much you can do with language that’s relatively spare.
Brian S: How long did you work on this book, Eric? And what’s the oldest poem in it?
Eric Tran: I definitely had phases with the book, many came during medical school (that’s when my last chapbook, Revisions, came together) and then another big burst when I first started psychiatry residency last year. The oldest poem is probably “My Mother Asks Me How I Was Gay Before Sleeping with a Man,” which came from my MFA days—about ten (!) years ago.
Brian S: That’s such a beautiful poem.
Eric Tran: Thanks! I’m glad it found a home in this collection, which I think is a statement about how we feel like we need to put a book together so quickly, but different versions of ourselves can collaborate on a book.
Ren F: I like that idea of different versions of one’s self working on a book together.
Brian S: I’ve never heard that expressed before. But it’s so obviously true it feels like it should be self-evident.
What are you reading these days? Is there anything coming out that we should have our eyes out for?
Eric Tran: Admittedly, so many! I’m reading a lot of debuts right now. Marlin M. Jenkins’s Capable Monsters (which features Pokémon), Jessica Q. Stark’s Savage Pageant, Esteban Rodriguez’s Dusk & Dust, Jim Whiteside’s Writing Your Name on the Glass, Tommye Blount’s Fantasia for the Man in Blue…
Brian S.: Do you have any readings planned for the book? Maybe not immediately, since the imminent pandemic and all.
Eric Tran: I actually will still be at AWP—I understand we all have reasons to be or not to be there. I’m starting a tour of local NC places, leading some courses at mental health conferences and poetry conferences, teaching some workshops and visiting classes.
Brian S: My reason is mainly not having money enough for a family of four to go, but the health situation makes it easier. Also, I have family local to San Antonio, and my relationship with them is, well, challenging.
Eric Tran: Still getting it all together, though. It’s been an interesting challenge trying to make my work schedule align with travel. I’ve never really understood the idea of supporting poets who work full time until trying to plan this tour.
Brian S: But San Antonio is a lovely city and I hope everyone who goes is able to enjoy it. Kansas City though, that’s driving distance, so I’ll be there in 2021.
Thanks so much for joining us tonight, Eric, and for this really powerful book.
Eric Tran: I hear that’s also a fantastic city—someone told me the best burger place is there. I’ll refrain from saying it because I don’t remember the name and also so it stays a local treasure.
Thanks for having me!
Photograph of Eric Tran by Erik Donhowe.