Christian Gullette on Architecture in Verse, Grief’s Layers, and Poems as Liminal Spaces


Lit Hub is excited to feature another entry in a new series from Poets.org: “enjambments,” a monthly interview series with new and established poets. This month, they spoke to Christian Gullette. Christian Gullette is the author of Coachella Elegy (Trio House Press, 2024), winner of the 2023 Trio House Press Trio Award. He is the editor-in-chief of The Cortland Review and works as a lecturer and translator. Gullette lives in San Francisco.

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Poets.org: There is a sense that the speaker in Coachella Elegy is observing and retelling scenes with a reserved tone, which might seem rather unexpected for a book with elegy in the title. What influenced your approach to voice for this collection?

Christian Gullette: Emotions like grief bring many conflicting emotions all at once, a space that I find very intimate and intense precisely because discomfort and what’s unsaid are so acutely felt when grieving, yet sometimes impossible to express. For my speakers, grief has multiple layers, often seething and raging and full of despair just beneath the surface.

Defying expectations that a poem should convey a single feeling in a very direct way actually amplifies and elevates the tensions. Grief can make me want to look away or deny or crave pleasure. Sometimes all at once, with no real resolution. That resistance feels very personal and from the heart to me; elegies, like the eponymous poem in the collection, can contain a jarring mixture of joy, beauty, horror, and silent loneliness tempered with ambivalences about how to feel.

The speakers in these poems have been through loss of different kinds—physical, emotional, environmental, legal—and they are suspicious of redemptive narratives or mythologies.

I think often about Thom Gunn’s poems in The Man with Night Sweats, and how at first, elements like rhyme can seem so distancing, given the intensity of death and despair, until I realize that the rhyme is drawing my attention to a rage building beneath the lines, making it even more potentially explosive.

Poets.org: The juxtaposition of joy and brevity speaks to a power dynamic that bubbles under the surface of many of these poems. “The Fish” acts like a sequel of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem of the same name, and it engages with the same form and power. Only, instead of Bishop’s release of the fish at the end of her poem, the speaker here notices the “bone-colored napkins” with which hotel guests will wipe their mouths clean.

How true is it to experience pleasure while the world seems to be on the verge of rupturing, and can you speak about what power means within this collection?

CG: I love pools. I love pool parties. But I’ve also found that being in a pool full of people partying to a DJ can still suddenly feel excruciatingly lonely. It sounds so counterintuitive, but a landscape can be heartbreakingly beautiful but also potentially tortured by human environmental catastrophe.

The body is so miraculous and erotic, yet decomposition is at any moment. My speakers are no doubt tempted to try to control experience, so they don’t experience pain or disappointment, especially in a world full of destruction and loss. The speakers in these poems have been through loss of different kinds—physical, emotional, environmental, legal—and they are suspicious of redemptive narratives or mythologies.

But the speakers seem to also understand that recognizing the coexistence of pleasure and pain, beauty and loss, is a tension that informs them both. They are never far from one another.

The more I write into these tensions, the more room there is to recognize and question the destructive myths of America and California and things like queer utopias and land displacement and ecological precarity. The more my speakers can consider their own complicity, for example, with contributing to drought in a search for poolside pleasure in the desert.

Poets.org: Three prose poems titled “In Transit” separate Coachella Elegy into its four sections. Mirroring the nature of transit, these interludes occupy a liminal space, serving as a passageway from one section to the next, rather than occupying a section of their own. What are your thoughts on the idea of the poem as its own liminal space—a place of transition, potential, and the in-between?

CG: My brother Jeremy, who died in a car accident and who is the subject of many of these elegies, loved to drive. One of the “In Transit” poems is about times he would spend whole afternoons circling the highway around our city, helping motorists change tires, but really, I suspect, searching. Searching for an exit from his own suffering and sadness.

But also searching for validation, connection, and joy. Searching for the pleasure of selflessness but also the pleasure of resisting societal expectations, a middle finger to how he was supposed to drive. But always still going in circles.

Architecture, literally and metaphorically, maps the topography of many of my poems.

After my husband’s battle with cancer, we moved west to San Francisco, itself another form of searching. But never quite from where I was going. And even when I do feel at home, there’s always a sense it’s still becoming or revealing the ways it isn’t what I wanted it to be.

Maybe I never really knew what I wanted. I’m fascinated by the notion of searching, and in-between and liminal spaces can make that searching palpable, particularly when there’s a realization that where you thought you were heading or needed to head to either doesn’t really exist for you or never did.

But there’s something else. That’s the surprise.

Poets.org: Coachella Elegy is lush with imagery, even in your depictions of tattoos on both servers and lovers. When you began to collect these poems, what was your process in mapping out its topographies—both of California and of the various male figures who enter the speaker’s space and imagination?

CG: I realize there are a lot of cocktails in the poems, which is both funny and, on a more serious note, probably related to a search for escape and pleasure and the forgetting of pain. There are also lots of celebratory toasts, I notice.

And yes, lots of bodies, their eyes and skin. That purple arrow a surgeon draws next to my husband’s soon-to-be-removed eye is another form of tattoo, and bodies are often marked in the poems in a way that ironically acknowledges their temporariness.

Some of the earliest poems in the collection contain a lot of bees. They serve both as a reminder of environmental loss and of regeneration and bloom. They are also a link to the Beehive State, or Utah, where my brother went to school before he died. Most of the elegiac echoes in the book come from the Beehive State.

Water and pools are very much part of my imaginative process, places of pleasure and eros, but also solitude and reflective surfaces and hiddenness and danger. In one of the first poems I wrote about Palm Springs, “Mid-Century Modern,” the male figures are triangulated, their gazes held in tension in a way that amplifies those contrasting emotions that I associate with water.

The mother figure in “Interior Design” brings in a counterpoint to that, with references to world building both in the literal sense of making blueprints, but also a child’s topographical perspective of both family and the world. Architecture, literally and metaphorically, maps the topography of many of my poems.

Poets.org: What are you currently reading?

CG: Diane Seuss’s collection Modern Poetry and Cindy Juyoung Ok’s Ward Toward are recent books that I’m still savoring. I’ve just started two much-anticipated biographies: Michael Nott’s Thom Gunn: A Cool Queer Life and Christopher Isherwood: Inside Out by Katherine Bucknell.

Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?

CG: This could be a very long list with so many poems that I return to, so I’ll just include the poems mentioned in the conversation: “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop and “The Man with Night Sweats” by Thom Gunn.

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“enjambments,” a monthly interview series produced by the Academy of American Poets, will highlight an emerging or established poet who has recently published a poetry collection. Each interview, along with poems from the poet’s new book, and a reading by the poet, will be published on Poets.org and shared in the Academy’s weekly newsletter.



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