Tobias Wray and Soham Patel discuss, among other things, his poem in the Fall 2020 issue of The Georgia Review, “Each of Us Chimera”; the role of queerness in nature; the nature of truth; the influence of women on gay men’s lit; and his forthcoming collection, No Doubt I Will Return a Different Man, selected by Randall Mann for the Lighthouse Series Prize at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
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Soham Patel (SP): Let’s start with your poem’s title. With only six syllables you begin retelling a many-centuries-long biological/mythological/dreamlike story. What draws you to these vectors? Why start there?
Tobias Wray (TW): I love that you counted the syllables. I often like compact titles, how they can push you into the poem. A gesture to the freak, to shared monsterhood, “Each of Us Chimera” came quickly as a title. It’s about shared history. Luis Cernuda writes in his own “Desolation of the Chimera,” beautifully translated by Stephen Kessler: “Dying is hard, / But not being able to die, if everything dies, / is perhaps harder still.” Many queer writers and artists who lived through or were born in the eighties and early nineties grapple with the post-ness of all that loss, the erasure of a generation to AIDS. Uncle Larry is likely one of those ghosts and has come to figure that personal loss for me. “Some mirrors have more questions,” goes the line in the poem.
The poem meditates on what we hold in common. I think of us, our culture, our being, as an accumulation. No part of who we are, biology included, is anything less than a collection of narratives. Growing up in the rural South, and then in a small town in North Dakota, I knew few other queer people. Until my late twenties, it seemed I was the only person in the history of my family who identified as queer. At night, I walked to the park and ran along a path darkened by a tunnel of trees, imagining a lone wolf chasing me. Some kinds of loneliness are indelible.
Before I ever read Cernuda’s poem I stared at the cover of Kessler’s 2009 translation of his book Desolation of the Chimera, which features an Etruscan statue of a chimera, the Chimera of Arezzo, with its various parts stacked over its body; a head at the end of the tail, a snake’s head, swings over its back, as a horned goat rears away from the roaring mouth of the lion. Weirdly, though the chimera is traditionally a she-monster, the statue depicts a maned lion, an improbable male. I imagine the poem took root there, pondering those three heads, that one threatened body. While the chimera is a myth, a monster monstrous for being an assemblage of incongruities, the word can also mean an unrealizable dream, a fantastic notion. John Donne’s sermon on distraction, “The Divided Mind,” goes there: “an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer.” Isn’t writing so often that, even as it feigns to focus? In the end, I want to succumb to the wolf’s open mouth, to turn and give myself back. This title, “Each of Us Chimera,” likely stuck because the poem describes a state of stuckness, a stalled-out-ness, which wants to make clean sense of the past in hopes of a viable future. But, in that very turning, in that hope, there’s the inevitable contradiction, a reckoning with the unknown. The resolution is never quite expected; the answer to the riddle, another question.
SP: Arrezo’s lion may well be, I’ll admit, my favorite animal, a Mmamoriri (the rare genderfluid lioness who sports a mane). Your want “to make clean sense of the past in hopes of a viable future” makes me remember something Sara Ahmed says about the queer archive in her book The Promise of Happiness. Lesbian pulp novel writers in the mid-twentieth century faced from their publishers a censorship that wouldn’t allow their queer characters to have happy endings—“lesbians and gays must turn straight, die, or go mad” so not to promote the social value of queer lives. Of course, as she points out, “we are not obliged to ‘believe’ in the unhappy ending,” but they are recurring in the archive. Your poem thrusts through disbelief of a simplified narrative, it questions it. Another question: How does this poem’s form make space for these turns you aim to embody with its content?
TW: That’s fascinating about Mmamoriri. I now can’t stop googling gender-rewriting cats and Colobus monkeys and Marsh Harriers. Thank you for the rich vein! Contemporary poets seem quite drawn to this queer-creature terrain. I’m thinking of some of the work in Bruce Snider’s recent Fruit. “After Reading the Wikipedia Entry on Homosexual Behavior in Moths” begins “they’re // what the spring / says and keeps // on saying: / they arrive // departing . . .” And I think of Natalie Diaz’s gorgeous river poems in Postcolonial Love Poem, which as a collection argues for rethinking and decolonizing our relationships to nature. From “The First Water Is the Body,” “A river is a body of water. It has a foot, an elbow, a mouth. It runs. It lies in a bed. It can make you good. It has a head. It remembers everything.” Then, Michael Walsh and James Crews edited an anthology that is somewhere on the horizon with Autumn House Press called Queer Nature Anthology, which tackles some of these subjects. They were kind enough to include my poem “Turing’s Theories Regarding Homosexuality” among its pages. The notion of queering nature strikes me as a useful reconsideration, given all of the assumptions we tend to bring to biology.
There’s a nature documentary out there somewhere that details the deceptive tactics of certain cuttlefish. Already known to flourish in camouflage, the males use their diminutive size or flash female coloration to trick some larger lug guarding a fertile female. I like that evolution depends on glitches. I hope we grow wilder, glitchier over time. But, I’ve always been curious about whether queerness and gender serve as evolutionary tactics, as productive or supportive in some sense. Are they good guides? Gender seems an especially dynamic script. I appreciate the other possibility just as much: utility and futurity may be false leads. It’s like a dialogue, this eagerness on nature’s part to persist and the certainty the universe seems to have about impermanence. Perhaps form is simply what takes shape between pressures, like crystal-forming molecules attempting to lattice their way to stability. That feels truer than the stalled engine metaphor I offered you before.
I like how you put it: that poetic form makes space. The chimeric shows up most consistently in the poem through its overlapping narrative voices, its multifaceted conversations. But it does, as you say, need to embody those turns, to hold them together. The trinity is a structure so celebrated, whether monstrous or sacred, it is Dante-level famous. So, I am drawn to the sturdiness of tercets, how architecturally sound they feel, as if they could bear a lot of weight. I think of such a formal choice as centering the work, how a potter aligns clay on the wheel in preparation for shaping. Here, those tercets lay a base, a steadiness. In an earlier version of the poem, the tercets evolved into a couple of quatrains at the very end, as if their DNA-like repetitions loudly mutated, but it was too wobbly to make it to the kiln. Variations are most viable when they are subtle, attracting only enough attention. I love to cruise forms, trying what suits me, discarding at will. I also love to fall into familiar flames. For me, a consistent form, its rhythmic lull, sets up a seduction.
SP: Your musing on queer creatures illuminates for me your poem in new light in that Larry’s companion, the Old-World monkey, has also been known to display queer behaviors. Another question: When you are cruising these forms and encounter ones you’ll eventually discard when you realize they don’t quite suit you, what use do you make of such rendezvous?
TW: I suppose I think of them in the same way I do ex-boyfriends, which is to say fondly. Those experiments have given me something that makes the next poem possible. Every attempt at a sestina gets me one step closer to the sestina I’ll be proud of, the one that sticks. I often use the going-to-the-gym analogy with my students, telling them that the writing exercise is what leads to writing accomplishments, how it’s usually a 10:1 ratio. Writing life reflects the day-to-day in its mundanity, in its endless culs-de-sac and wrong turns, but everything is part of the same arc.
In the poem, I say, “Someone once told me // gay men have become a commercial /of themselves. But, I thought we were / done buying that bullshit. Look, // something is owed, some reflection, / some response.” I’m arriving late to the conversation. Form offers both a way to speak to the tradition and to look at myself in the mirror. I mean, form is an invitation to cross a threshold. The argument of a sonnet, say. Or, a rapturous psalm. We make love or we throw a fit, giving those desires real dimension. Everything is a draft, everything is practice. To my eyes, there’s only choice in process, not in outcome.
Never despair if efforts in one direction don’t play out as expected, if they have to be discarded. Think of it in the sense of a game, a definitive play, a gesture toward reshuffling. The process is protean, prone to change, and will be honored as such. Likewise, I never delete or toss a draft if it is written with real attention. I suspect the day will come when I revisit those discard piles, the ghostly files languishing somewhere on my hard drive. Maybe some will have aged well. Maybe I’ve been writing my way back to them all this time.
SP: I remember in an earlier draft, Editor Maa encouraged you to think differently about the ending’s structure, to shed the quatrains and keep on with the tercets. What do you fancy about the editing process? What, if anything, do you fear?
TW: I’m certainly grateful to all of TGR’s editorial team for their efforts in seeing this poem to print. This process has been so wonderfully engaged and supportive. Gerald Maa said something in the midst of exchanges that I’ve been thinking about in the weeks since about writing being “propulsive in the sensation of thought.” I interpret this to mean that the reader and the writer think alongside one another, which would be apt. The same is no doubt true of a writer and their editor.
Not far from where I live is the Salmon River, which carves its way through one of the largest untouched tracts in our country, officially called the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. River guides offer tourists tours down the rapids. I think about how inviting the river seems at first, as the raft bobs and dips slightly. I think about writing as a wilderness of no return, how once in the water, the water has you.
I’m in the midst now of editing a book alongside my terrific editor, Caryl Pagel, and so this part of the process is very alive for me. I think of the difference between revision and editing as a matter of degree. Quite different from the gathering stages, editing still feels just as urgent, an effort at sustaining fidelity to the beating pulse of the original. My hunch is that editing, when it works, is not refinement, but still reimagining, actively navigating the currents of punctuation and line break, the little reshufflings. At a certain point in the process, I am making decisions rapid by rapid, rock by rock. It’s thrilling, that. When it’s going well, I’m always returning to the sensation of thought, the place of no return, Cocteau’s le sang d’un poète, my blood, my coat of arms, with all of its hands reaching.
SP: Speaking of your blood, what you say also reminds me of how much your mother comes up in the poem. She reads the poem in draft and corrects you. The writing process is laid bare in this moment. How are women represented in the context of the rest of your work? How do you authentically honor or critique them? What other ways do the familial and the poetic intersect for you?
TW: The forthcoming book that contains “Each of Us Chimera” is largely about my abusive father, the failures of patriarchy, and a fraught understanding of masculinity. I also see it as underscoring our need for feminist ideals. For me, they offer a reparative solution. My mother and sister are the only reason these poems exist. For one, in writing so much about family history, I felt I needed their support, their permission: I’m not sure where I would have landed without it. My poems are about lived questions—they come from deep and real fissures. These are traumas we’ve lived through together. That’s important to me. I’m lucky to be writing about our family alongside them, in conversation with them. This is how we’ve survived.
Jameson Fitzpatrick’s recent debut lands on this same question about the representation (or absence) of women in work that is often so inspired by them, but seldom mentions them. I think he answers it well. He writes, “The Poem They Didn’t Write was about the brilliance of women, / their friends, how many of their more enduring relationships began / with the two of them recognizing the animal of the other in their poems.” My mother, my sister, my dearest friends all deserve recognition for whatever acknowledgment my words may receive. I’ve written nothing outside their influence; that influence out-sizes any other. My work will always be thanks to theirs.
Not entirely pertinent to your question, but I’m reminded of a witchy ritual my mother once performed for us, my sister and me. When asked which of her kids she loved more (we were maybe ten and twelve at the time), she turned off all the lights and took a candle out of a drawer and lit it. She said this was her love for her son. And, she took another candle and lit it from the first. She said, “Notice how the flames are the same, how one fire becomes another of equal brilliance.” The kinds of beauty I am committed to perpetuating, they are maternal in nature.
SP: This commitment, from you, to maternal beauty brings me back to something you said about the monstrous and its relationship to queerness. To answer your question, yes—I think queerness and gender could be good guides for futurity, because both can become a disruption when we are able to think outside normativity and binaries. What I mean to say is we need the monster because we don’t understand enough about who we are, our perspective is too limited. We are also in a moment when we need to rethink everything, right? And you’re right, utility and futurity may well be as you call them “false leads.” We are taught to fear the monster. Incongruities are also kind of scary, as we are often taught.
You’re putting Jasbir K. Puar’s book “Terrorist Assemblages” back in my head. She’s talking about class, race—particularly the imaginary constructed body of the Muslim as terrorist—and nationalism as it intertwines with homonormativity in the post-9/11 U.S. (though she acknowledges she knows this particular phobia does not of course begin at that moment). Within all this thinking she also says queerness is actually no longer transgressive to dominant formations it attempts to resist or move beyond. We are normal now, she says. You teach Queer Literature in a university now, for example. I guess I’m just interested in this complexity, especially remembering Ahmed’s writing about unhappy endings. You say about the biological that a self is a collection of narratives. Your poem assembles many different memories here and we all remember different. What is your perspective on truth?
TW: Yes, I agree. Our monsters are precious exactly because they reflect a greater truth about who we are. We poorly understand how our relationship to difference, what we think of as other, defines us. I was definitely thinking about Puar there, who is forever connected to the notion of “assemblage” for me. That book was published in 2007—our recent national history reflects how little has changed, or really, how much those very problems have intensified.
We read James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Alison Bechdel, Maggie Nelson, Andrea Lawlor, Danez Smith, Jenny Johnson, Eileen Myles, and so many others in my Queer Literature course. The students who take that class are hungry for it, eager to talk about these works. I recall David Halperin writing about the threats he received when he titled his University of Michigan class “How to Be Gay,” drawing media attention in 2000. I first taught Queer Literature in 2018 and I have never received any kind of pushback, despite the conservative leanings of the state where I’m living. So, something has clearly changed. We’ve arrived at some new moment where the conversation isn’t necessarily what we can and can’t discuss, but more about where and how queerness matters. I would even say it is about how we use it. What happens when we accept that something that wasn’t deemed beautiful, in fact is? The chimera, or the Sikh turban (per Puar), or say, anal beads (don’t ask me why, but their resemblance to a rosary enthralls me). Is sodomy not sexy now? Countless men have hitherto died for the fear of it. The world we live in grows hungrier for an understanding that better fits what we call truth. With every black and brown body gunned down in the street we are presented new questions about the kind of world we are willing to endure.
No one really knows what so much disruption will bring. If there is anything good about this moment, it is that we have a chance to redefine so much. What social values get promoted from here? Among my students’ favorites from our reading is Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and this passage: “In a paradoxical sense, once I accepted my position as different from the larger society as well as from any single-sub-society—black or gay—I felt I didn’t have to try so hard. To be accepted. To look femme. To be straight. To look straight. To be proper. To look ‘nice’. To be liked. To be loved. To be approved. What I didn’t realize was how much harder I had to try merely to stay alive, or rather, to stay human. How much stronger a person I became in that trying.” Conformity is not the way to any version of truth, and there is no hierarchy of oppression. Truth is only another form we inhabit. We decide how it is practiced. We are responsible.
SP: Thank you so much—and many congratulations on your forthcoming debut! Can you tell us a bit about the vectors driving its composition and your decision to submit to that particular contest? And can we end where we started: in one of our earlier conversations you told me about the title; why and how does Alan Turing haunt your work so?
TW: Actually, the book is entirely about how things start, so this is fitting. Toward the end of his career, Turing worked on a theory concerning what drives morphogenesis, which describes how embryos, cells, and all life develop into more complex forms. His predictions were made years before they could be verified, but they accurately explained how stripes or spotted coats develop as patterns in nature, through chemical processes. This phenomenon itself came to be known as the Turing pattern. It was during this work that he was persecuted for his penchant for gay sex. Most folks know how the court forced him to take injections that would render him impotent, irrevocably alter his life, and lead to his suicide. His ideas, of course, endure; our lives are touched by them in numerous ways. He’s one of the few true geniuses.
Genius, from a Latin word that meant something like attendant spirit. Some older dictionaries offer it as a fathering force. That’s certainly how I think of the Turing poems, how he haunts them, as you say. A lot of the same things have haunted us both.
The first time I remember seeing the word homosexuality in print, sometime in the mid-nineties, I looked it up in the Dickinson Public Library’s old DSM—The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (somehow my surreptitious search through the library’s card catalog led me to this). What I read there felt misaligned, off-track, dangerous to believe. I sensed a need to arrive at my own definitions after that false start. One night, Travis R., a senior to my sophomore, offered to drive me home after some school event. He asked me who I pictured when I jerked off. My answer caused him to pull over under a streetlamp. It was the start of a blizzard, the snow coming down with clear intention, forming a curtain of pink bells around us.
Patterns arise of their own accord, triggered by some magic few can comprehend. For the rest of us, they arise only inevitably, with their lacquer of insistence.
Healthy father figures have been largely absent from my life. So, I’m interested in that, and the estimation of their value, their importance as examples. I’m interested in what leads to our becoming who we are, what we hold in common with other living beings. These poems are about certain patterns: failed fathers, maleness, queerness, and being in a world of false privilege, false certainty. They’re about the kernels of gender formation, queerness as an organizing force, as a history of resistance. My own queer longing and experience with abuse has left me and my poems restless, searching for a better understanding of the range of what else we could be.
As for the contest, I have long admired the work the CSU Poetry Center puts out, so it was a no-brainer to submit. Some of their books are ones I return to endlessly: Siwar Masannat’s 50 Water Dreams, Chloe Honum’s The Tulip Flame, Rebecca Hazelton’s Vow, and Oliver Baez Bendorf’s Advantages of Being Evergreen are all stunning collections, to name only a few. I am also an unabashed fanboy of Randall Mann’s work. His collection Breakfast with Thom Gunn was an early influence on my own poems and marks a kind of queer lineage for me and for this book. I’m unsure what cosmic debt I owe after such a synchronous alignment, but I’m happy to pay it.
The collection’s title, No Doubt I Will Return a Different Man, I drew from one of Turing’s letters just prior to his final ordeal. He writes, “I’ve now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me . . . I shall shortly be pleading guilty to a charge of sexual offences with a young man. The story of how it all came to be found out is a long and fascinating one, which I shall have to make into a short story one day, but haven’t the time to tell you now. No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.” The collection also turns to other mythic figures at various stages of discovery or metamorphosis—Samson, Odysseus, Icarus—to understand this chimera called masculinity. I try to think of it like Apollo’s archaic torso: a history of potential beauty, a code yet to be broken. Such figures are our mirrors, are meant to help us with our troubles. Maybe we are on the verge of breaking through, soon to arrive at some new era. I hope so. I want something better for us. Writing poems also helps—helps us to bear witness, helps us rekindle fascination, helps us to remember the more insistent beauty we’ve attempted to deny.