The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Derrick Austin
The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Derrick Austin about his new collection, Tenderness (BOA Editions, September 2021), looking for “the Florida” in any landscape, the rich possibilities of friendship, 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 Amanda Moore, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Matthew Olzmann, Jennifer Huang, Angel Dominguez, Jos Charles, and more.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I’d like to start by asking you about the role geography and place play in these poems. How fundamental is that to the way you approach your work?
Derrick Austin: Place and landscape have always been central to my writing. Florida is the state that I lived in the longest and when I was a student learning how to describe that landscape was so important. That landscape was as much physical as it was emotional.
As I’ve lived in other places, particularly as I was writing Tenderness, I found myself looking for the Florida wherever I was: looking for the water, the flora, the heat. Though the landscapes in Tenderness are so much rangier than they are in my first book. I wrote the bulk of it when I was living in Madison, Wisconsin and the Midwest features in the book alongside other places I’ve lived and visited.
Brian S: I was going to ask about Florida because of the poem “Birth Chart,” and also because that’s where my wife is from, and where we lived before coming to Iowa. The line “don’t think I make light of water” really resonated with me because as a person who grew up on the Gulf Coast, I’ve always felt like outsiders don’t really understand the relationship we have with tropical storms and hurricanes.
What part of Florida did you live in mainly? We were mostly in Fort Lauderdale and thereabouts. It all kind of blends together unless you live there and know the boundaries.
Derrick Austin: That relationship with the water is so real! Even more than its physical presence, it’s how we measure time, too. I lived in the Panhandle: my family moved to Eglin Air Force Base and then we moved to Niceville, near Ft. Walton Beach. Then I went to college in Tampa, before I finally left the state.
Brian S: Speaking of geography, I grew up in south Louisiana near the Mississippi border, which would have put us closer in physical distance than even where you went to college. Lots of people also don’t know how big Florida is. Like, you can drive all day and not get out of it.
Since “Birth Chart” mentions hurricanes, is that one way you measure time as well? Speaking of events in relation to which hurricane they were before or after?
Derrick Austin: It’s definitely one way I think about time. I wrote the first draft of “Birth Chart” when I was a graduate student in Michigan. It was summertime and I realized I hadn’t thought about hurricane season at all, which was so jarring. It’s such an important stretch of time on Gulf, a time when folks are both on edge but also really chill about the prospect of a storm blowing in. Living in the Midwest made me realize how different my sense of time was: sure there are seasons in Florida and it can get cool if you live by the water but there aren’t the obvious markers of seasonal change. In Florida, it’s hot and green or hot and brown.
Brian S: We called it summer and not-summer.
Derrick Austin: Exactly!
Brian S: I’d like to shift gears some to the relationship poems in this book, the ones which really seemed to evoke the book’s title, Tenderness. I don’t recall a collection lately which focused so much on friendship; it was really refreshing. Was it one of those things where you started writing poems on the subject and more kept coming?
Derrick Austin: Yes, even though I didn’t plan it that way. Unlike my first book, where I knew what kind of book I wanted it to be, I didn’t have a clue what the second book would become. I knew that I wanted to see if I could make poems out of my life, my history and my daily goings on. I didn’t know how to do that when I was beginning as a poet. I’d written poems in the past about friends, but they didn’t make it into the first collection. So, I took that urge and ran with it [in Tenderness].
Brian S: You even have a poem titled “To Friendship.” That poem gladdened my heart because, I think, I learned about poetry in a world that told me to avoid sentimentality because it’ll come off as sappy or insincere, and here’s this poem just laying it all out on the table. That closing line, “I didn’t know I could choose any of this,” is just beautiful and sincere and sort of daring the reader to embrace the emotion.
Derrick Austin: Thank you! I’m so glad that line resonated with you. I also thought that one might be too sappy but honestly I wanted to risk it. Something I love about friendship as a relationship model is its capaciousness: a friend can be so much to one person, a mentor, a confidante, family, a lover, a ride or die. It’s so rich with possibility!
Brian S: What time period does this book cover? Did some of the poems that didn’t make it into Trouble the Water find a home here?
Derrick Austin: The oldest poems are from 2014 and the newest from 2020. Some poems, like “Taking My Father and Brother to The Frick,” I wrote when I was getting Trouble the Water ready for publication, but I knew they wouldn’t make sense in that book. They felt so different. There was a cleanness to the line and a new kind of vulnerability.
Brian S: You mentioned some time in Wisconsin and now you’re on the West Coast. How have the changes in geography and culture (and I think, having done a similar set of moves in my life, that the two are really closely connected) affected your poems?
Derrick Austin: I’ve been reassessing and thinking about my relationship to place a lot lately. I mentioned earlier that I lived in Florida longer than any other place, and that landscape was so tied to my identity as a writer. But it’s been a decade since I’ve lived there. Ever since, I live somewhere for a few years and then pack up and move to the next place. Midwestern imagery and locations crept into the poems in Tenderness. In the new poems I’ve been working on, the California coast has deeply influenced them. That said, I think the most important affect that the Midwest had on me was the community I made there. The poets and fiction writers I met there truly changed so much about how I think about poems.
Brian S: Every month I do this I hope it’s the last month I ask this question but unfortunately not yet. What’s it been like trying to release a book during a pandemic? How has it been different from the first book’s release?
Derrick Austin: It’s not ideal having to promote a book during a pandemic but I’m fortunate in that we are far enough along that we understand the new conventions. It’s not like the early months where we hadn’t started Zoom readings and figured out ways to do readings and have conversations. Compared to the first book coming out, I was so much more nervous. And I was very nervous when my first book came out! I was worried how Tenderness would be received, especially against the first book. We always hope our next book is better than our last and that was very much on my mind.
Brian S: Do you have some readings set up already? Online, or in person, or both? I’m kind of hoping that when we’re back to doing in-person readings primarily that organizers still make them available online for those people who can’t get out to them easily for whatever reason.
Derrick Austin: Me, too. I’ve loved the access that these online readings have provided. It’s an archive, too. I hope we can keep that going in the future.
I’ve got readings in person and online this month. My first in person reading in two years is this weekend at Grace Cathedral. I’m beyond excited!
Brian S: Who have you been reading lately? And are there any new collections or poems you’ve read that we should be on the lookout for?
Derrick Austin: Joy Priest’s Horsepower and Taylor Johnson’s Inheritance were two books of poems I read for the Sealey challenge that I adored. Mark Wunderlich’s God of Nothingness is astonishing: gorgeous, dark, and, in moments, very funny. I can’t wait to dig into Phillip B. William’s Mutiny, Sandra Lim’s The Curious Thing, and Shangyang Fang’s Burying the Mountain.
Brian S: Last question: where can people find you and your work online?
Derrick Austin: Folks can find me on Instagram and Twitter at @ParadiseLaust. Links to poems and interviews and other goodies are up at my website: derricklynnaustin.wixsite.com/authorpage.
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us tonight, Derrick, and for this amazing new collection of poems.
Derrick Austin: Thank you for having me!
Photograph of Derrick Austin by Danny Montemayor.