The Complex and Interconnected World:
An Interview With Derrick Austin
I had the pleasure of meeting Derrick Austin back in 2009 while we were both undergraduates at the University of Tampa. If memory serves, the very first time I met Derrick was at an informal interview to be the submissions manager for our school’s literary magazine, Quilt. He was the editor-in-chief at the time, and, happily, I was “hired.” Seven (quick-moving) years later, I am thrilled to interview him for Sweet.
This interview comes on the heels of Derrick’s first book, Trouble the Water (BOA Editions 2016). I ordered a copy as soon as I heard it was coming out. However, the review copy for Sweet arrived first, and when I saw it on our CNF editor’s desk as I loitered between the hallway and his office, I not-so-shyly asked if I could thumb through it, or maybe if I could just hold it. Just for a second. I may or may not have squealed as I flipped through the pages.
There is something magical about books, how little black marks take on transformative powers, creating image and meaning, and that sense of magic is even stronger when you know the person behind the text. Trouble the Water is lush, vivid, and moving, as I believed it would be. Derrick writes the hard stuff, and he does it well.
Alysia Sawchyn: I recognize at least one poem in this collection—”Summertime”—from a previous life’s shenanigans [a formal poetry course taught by Janet Sylvester]. I think I actually have a hardcopy in a binder somewhere. Can you talk about the process of putting together the poems for Trouble the Water? Has a book been in the workings all along?
Derrick Austin: Gotta love Tampa shenanigans. So many poems, so many bad poems written back then. I’m glad “Summertime” was one of the better ones. As an undergrad, writing a book of poems was definitely a goal but I didn’t start thinking about organizing a collection until I was in grad school. So many things changed. I wanted my first book to be called Devotions, and I wanted the book to be three sections. A lot of my favorite collections had three sections, so that’s just what I thought people did. It felt like the most elegant thing to do. But when I finally saw the journey my book needed to embody, I needed that extra section. I needed that emotional disruption. And Devotions was too easy a title for these poems.
AS: Can you please expound (poetically, of course) on the following:
DA: So I’m gonna work backwards here. For horoscopes: my sun sign is Virgo, my moon sign is Cancer, and my rising is Taurus. The gist of that is I’m practical, analytical, guarded and grounded (all that earth in Virgo and Taurus) but at the end of the day I’m soft and pink (that exalted moon in Cancer). If I read my poems through that lens what I see is I like form and structure (Virgo) but the content of poems have to be luscious (Taurus) and emotional and true and maybe a bit much (Cancer). I loved horoscopes since I was a kid (Virgo again, I love systems of order). I love things that makes sense of peoples’ nonsense. The occult and tarot cards are endlessly fascinating (I used to watch Unsolved Mysteries all the time for the ghost stories and UFO abductions). It’s a way of making order out of disorder, which is one the amazing things poetry can do.
AS: One of my favorite characteristics of your writing is the juxtapositions—you pull from classical art and drag culture, religion and sexuality (our fan letter-writer calls it the “lurid and the sacred”), magnolias and hate crimes. What draws you to these contrasts?
DA: You gotta keep it fresh, you know? What we write across genres are tales as old as time; it’s the specifics that change and make writing fresh, strong, and lasting. Metaphor is finding connections in unlikeness. Finding connection in unlikeness is part of what I try to do with my poems that engage race and sexuality: seeing the intimate and erotic in an old religious painting or finding bullets and blood in a magnolia tree. The world is complex and interconnected and acknowledging that in my poems is part of my job as a poet.
AS: How do you encounter place and how does it affect your writing? The descriptions of setting and art are so lush in your poems, I wonder how much is based on memory and how much is based on research?
DA: Florida is such an explicit inspiration for everything I write. One of my mentors in Tampa and favorite poets, Martha Serpas, taught me so much about specificity and the power of naming. She’s a queer, Catholic, poet from Louisiana who writes about the ecological loss of her home state and reading her poems revealed the importance of getting everything as accurate as you can from local slang, to the name of a particular plant, to the time of year a particular event happens. I’m fortunate enough to have the Internet at my fingertips so I don’t have many excuses for being inaccurate. That said, a lot of my writing is memory-based too. Research only takes you so far. It’s up to me to fill those unique, emotional contours in each poem.
AS: You’re also renowned for your stellar gif use and placement. Can you give us a series of gifs to best illustrate how you feel about Trouble the Water?