05/06/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Truth About Sex and Poetry: Interview With Alex Dimitrov, Author of Begging For It

In his debut collection Begging for It (Four Way Books, March 12), Alex Dimitrov gives expression to a voice that is strong, insistent, sensual, passionate, and wounded. I spoke to Alex about sex, panic, and degradation with regard to specific poems in the collection, but first here's a sample of Alex's writing:

Self-Portrait as Daisy in The Great Gatsby

When I walk in he is playing Chopin--
balcony doors open, drinks thinning in ice.

Outside an ambulance carries someone.

I sit in the chair next to the piano
to study how his face changes before the coda.

Why does it feel easier to live during a sonata?

In our letters, there are too many
hard vowels between us--

I always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it.

It is early in the century and all the men are late.
I wait for everyone to leave the party.

For the music to end.
To feel the last note.

Anis:Let's talk first about (your) American identity, which is like an envelope for the book, coming at the beginning of the book and then at the end, almost as two afterthoughts. In one of the early poems, "American Youth," you conclude, "I watched them live out my American youth." It's almost as if you're mocking the usual game of assimilation. What do you say?

Alex: I have a very complicated relationship with America, like everyone else. The book was almost called American Youth, that was my thesis at Sarah Lawrence College. And the poem you cite is one of the earliest I wrote. I remember watching boys playing outside of my house every Saturday. This was in Michigan and I was probably five or six. I never wanted to join them. I always wanted to watch. And my father would be at work, always working. And I'd be on the steps of the porch just watching them play with guns and swords and baseball cards and I remember thinking, this is America. This is it. I suppose I've never been able to get over or understand that image.

With regard to "This Is Not a Personal Poem," would you say that poetry is impossible now? Obviously not, since you've written a poetry book. But poetry as public act, with collective meaning, is that finished? Why or why not?

Poetry has always been a public art in the most private of ways. We write these incredibly personal things alone in our bedrooms and people likely read what we've written alone in their bedrooms. When someone dies, when we fall in love, when someone leaves us... these things are always happening to us. And poetry is able to hold all of them without diminishing their reality, without making a spectacle out of them.

I always think of the reader, I always think of other people when I write, when I read, when I do anything. Poetry is about relationships, like everything else in life. The relationship we have with ourselves and the relationships we have with people and things and what we make up and what we live through.

Let's talk about individual poems whose emotional impact I felt most keenly. Starting with sex and the poem called "Bloodletting." What makes sex comic? What makes it brutal? How does it affect (your) poetry? Why is there so little sex in contemporary poetry?

Sex is brutal and comic and strange all at once. I don't know how to tell you why because I don't really understand sex. I guess that's why I write about it. Or write around it, rather. I don't think I actually write about sex, that's boring to me. And sex, in addition to those other adjectives we're mentioning, is boring. Like eating. It's a lot like eating. I'd rather be making art than having sex. Or eating. Oh and sleeping too. I just think eating and sleeping are such a waste of time. They're only interesting if they're on film, if there's a camera in front of you. But Andy Warhol already did that. Everything is more interesting with a camera in front of you actually.

Let's do this next with the pervasiveness of panic in your book, specifically with reference to the poem "Seven Chambers of a Wolf's Heart."

Now panic is interesting, isn't it? That poem is actually about submitting to panic and fear as a way to move through them. Whenever you submit to something, it no longer has power over you. It's like a door you walk through. But you have to knock first. And that's terrifying. Being obliterated interests me, but only for the sake of transformation.

And the very important theme -- it seems to me -- of degradation in your poetry, with reference to "I Will Be Loving."

Well in that poem the speaker is degrading himself. And "I will degrade myself for you" turns into "for you I will be loving." Who do you think has the power there? Being able to turn degradation into something that is empowering, I'm interested in that. All of life seems like one degradation after another to me.

You seem deeply influenced by Plath. Agreed? What is the nature of her influence on you? Are you trying to fight it off? I'm thinking in particular of your poem "The Burning Place."

Yes, I'm influenced by Plath. I'm also influenced by Frank O'Hara, Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, I could keep going. Trying to fight off influence just sounds funny. Why do it? I suppose if one is really trying to convince themselves that they are doing something "new" -- but everyone who has done something new has had a deep relationship with the past. The future is in the past and the past is in the future. I'm obsessed with trying to know everything about what came before me. That's one gateway into knowing what I want to make. Or don't want to make. I wish you would just ask me about Lana Del Rey's last record. It's really good.

Can you talk about your greatest non-contemporary influences?

Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust, Roland Barthes. And many others.

Your poems use minimalist diction, are pared-down, concise, and sharp, usually aiming for a sharp stab of awareness, the rawness of sex and love and death. Talk about your process of composition.

Saturday is my writing day, all day. I don't go out Friday nights because if I do then I will have that night replaying in my head as soon as I wake up on Saturday. And when I wake up on a writing day I don't like to talk to anyone or engage with the world in any real way. Writing involves a lot of sitting for me. So I just sit and think and read and sit and think some more and maybe write something down and then delete it and write something down and then sit and think. You can substitute the word feel for think if you want. It's boring and exhilarating really. And then maybe something happens. Probably not. And around 10 pm I like to go out and have a late drink with my friend Rachel and just forget about what I was trying to write that day. Of course that's impossible. It's like forgetting you have a mother or forgetting you are a person. You can't. But I do love a late drink.

I'm very intrigued by the cover. Aside from the image, I also love the choice of stock for the cover. What about Rimbaud do you find present or absent in both your poetry and those of your contemporaries?

The cover of Begging for It is a photograph by David Wojnarowicz from his Rimbaud in New York series. My first summer in New York, this was in 2006, I remember looking at the photographs from that series over and over again. Because they held a key to my future life. I just knew it. There's part of the future in the past again. I love Rimbaud's passion. And Wojnarowicz's too. The passionate people are the people that interest me because they are the people that really change things. Change the past, change the future, change yourself. Always change yourself. The word change is much more interesting than the word new. So you see, I had to have that photograph for my book cover. It was the only one.

Anis Shivani's debut book of poetry is My Tranquil War and Other Poems (NYQ Books). He has just finished a book of sonnets called Soraya and is writing a new book of poetry called Empire. His short fiction collection The Fifth Lash and Other Stories just came out from C&R Press. Look for his novel Karachi Raj in October 2013.