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Awl That and More

An Interview with Chicago Writer and Performer Dave Awl

by Gregg Shapiro

September 25, 2002

Dave Awl's eagerly anticipated book, What the Sea Means: Poems, Stories & Monologues 1987-2002 (Hope and Nonthings, Chicago, 2002, $12.95), has finally arrived and the good news is that it was well worth the wait. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of hearing Awl perform as a Pansy King, a Neo-Futurist, at the annual Pride reading at Women and Children First, or any other venue, knows that he is an exemplary artist, who is able to communicate a vast range of emotions through his writing. Collected in book form, his writing has the same impact, washing over the reader and sending them on an unforgettable voyage.

Gregg Shapiro: You are a familiar name and face to theatergoers from your membership in The Neo-Futurists and as a performer in Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. How did you come to be involved with the theater company?

Dave Awl: You could blame it on Lisa Buscani. When I moved to Chicago in the summer of 1988, I didn't really know what to do with myself — I had expected to be pursuing a creative writing Master's in Boston and due to certain complications I found myself here in Chicago instead, canvassing for Greenpeace and waiting tables at Pastafina on Belmont. I had known Lisa from the college speech team circuit and at the time she was busy winning poetry slams at the Green Mill. I followed her lead and did some readings at places like Club Dreamerz and Batteries Not Included. Then in early 1989 Lisa got cast in Too Much Light and ordered me to come see her in it. I was immediately hooked. A little voice in my head said, "This is what you're going to do next." I launched an Eve-Herrington-style campaign to finagle my way into the cast and by summer of 1990 I was in.

GS: What was involved in the transition of your work from the stage to the page?

DA: Usually for me it's been the other way around. I was always very literary in my aspirations and envisioned every word I wrote, up to and including shopping lists, being published someday. So for me the struggle in the early days of Too Much Light and other shows was learning how to take words I'd written for the reader's eye and translate them into performance. Some of that is a matter of delivery, some of it is a matter of staging and judicious editing, and some of it is a matter of learning how to add little words here and there, to make the text less dense. And ultimately, I've always believed in the bardic concept of poetry as something meant to be spoken aloud, before an audience—so I refuse to believe that there's any good poetry that doesn't belong on stage, or shouldn't be read aloud. Which has sometimes put me at odds with certain of my collaborators, bless their little hearts.

GS: What The Sea Means contains some recurring themes and images. For example, moths fly in and out of the poems. What is the significance of the moths?

DA: Well, "significance" is a tricky word, but I think I can tell you how the moths got into the poems, and what they're after. In college I read about an analysis Jung had done, of the fantasies of a young American woman known by the interesting pseudonym "Miss Frank Miller." She had written a poem called "The Moth to the Sun," about a moth yearning to approach the glory of the sun, longing for "one raptured glance." I thought that perfectly captured the sense of lonely adoration the unrequited lover feels for the object of desire, not that I'd know anything about that. I'd found that sun gods, solar heroes and other heliocentric images were already popping up in my work at that time, quite a lot, and so the moth symbol seemed to make a lot of sense. I think gay men in particular are prone to unrequited yearning, because of the peculiar circumstances in which we often find ourselves in our youth and because so many of us are masochists. But it wasn't until I was compiling this book that I realized how numerous the moths, and other light-worshipping insects, are in these poems—they infest the book, as if it were a closet full of wool jackets.

GS: The city also figures prominently, in poems such as "The City Slept and Metal Phantoms," "The City You Almost Lived In," and "To The Would-Be Shaman of the Urban Age." Does this mean you won't be fleeing to suburbia any time soon?

DA: That's a pretty good guess. One side of me misses the open spaces, trees, fields and big sky of living in central Illinois, but the other side can't survive without gay newspapers, fringe theater, Thai restaurants, 24-hour buses and New Wave dance clubs. That side has the upper hand. When I lived downstate I wrote a lot of nature poems; in the city I started trying to figure out how those pagan, pantheistic impulses could express themselves in the landscape of the city.

GS: Public transit, which is also part of the urban experience, appears in a few places in the book, including "Story #423" and "The Language Families." How does public transportation figure into your creative life?

DA: When you spend several hours a day waiting on street corners for something that never actually arrives, you have both the time and the impulse to write about it. If and when you actually make it aboard a city bus or train — well, as anyone who experiences it regularly knows, material tends to present itself.

GS: There is a mention of a sister in "Told Me What? " and "The Octopus," but for the most part, you have kept your family out of your writing. Was this intentional?

DA: I wouldn't say I've kept them out; they just haven't shown up. I guess my focus as a writer is elsewhere. My sister Jane has visited me a few times in my poems because she's comfortable there — we have a very strong bond and tend to be on the same page about things, you should pardon the pun. That said, I should note that the sister in "Told Me What?" is not my literal sister, but a figurative, symbolic sister, as in "my lesbian feminist sisters."

GS: Your identity as a gay man permeates the writing. One of the most romantic and erotic of these poems is "Letter To Mark In Dublin." Did it actually begin as a letter or as a poem?

DA: "Letter to Mark in Dublin" definitely began as a poem—it was written specifically for the annual Pride month reading at Women and Children First. A lot of my poems are called "Letter" this or that, and what it really means is that the poem is an apostrophe — an extended address to a specific person.

GS: Did you ever send it to Mark in Dublin?

Nope. In fact I don't know how to get a hold of Mark now, and I'm not sure if I ought to because his situation was ... complicated. But I know where he hangs out in Dublin so if I ever go back, I'll look him up.

GS: There are a couple of poems that I refer to as the "post-coital snubbing poems," such as "Map of the Body" and "The Buddha Receiving a Gift of Heart-Shaped Chocolates."

DA: Let's just say I've had a lot of experience with unrequited attraction, like Prometheus had experience with vultures. But I should note that "The Buddha Receiving..." is about moving on from an unrequited attraction so there was no actual coitus involved, and if anyone's doing the snubbing in that poem, it's me. It's like my version of "I Will Survive."

GS: You also have a found poem in the book—"Notes from first trip to San Francisco." What was there, in the journal entry that you found 15 years after writing it, that made you want to transform it?

DA: I think all of us find our younger selves poignant. We know things they don't; we've also forgotten things they knew. When you flip through the pages of a notebook at 35 and suddenly encounter all the naiveté and yearning of yourself at 22, it can be very arresting. The poem is almost exactly verbatim from my travel notes in 1986, just edited slightly, and the last stanza is a postscript from the present. A couple of people have told me it's their favorite in the book. We were all once wide-eyed kids; partly we miss it and partly we're relieved to have gotten past all that.

GS: Were the titled sections of the poem "Bestiary" written separately and compiled or were they written with the purpose of being assembled for a long poem?

DA: Definitely the latter. I wanted to create a vehicle for light, humorous verse in the book. One of my idols is Kenneth Koch, who just passed away, and who really brought humor into poetry in a marvelous new way in the 50s and 60s. And I've been reading a lot of Pablo Neruda the last couple of years, and in particular I love the way he writes celebrations of ordinary things like watermelons or salt. So I wanted to do something like that. My "Bestiary" was directly inspired by Kenneth Rexroth, who wrote a series of short poems about animals arranged in alphabetical order — they're very droll and acerbic but have a canny wisdom running through them, too. I decided I'd write a "Bestiary" myself but I'd put my own twist on the concept — it would be a zoological garden of inanimate objects posing as animals.

GS: The book also contains some formal poetry, "Asleep While They Wake," "Lay Of The Antimuse," and "Stitching a Dummy," in which rhyme and meter are prominent. Can you please say something about that?

DA: I've always needed to write in formal rhyme and meter — my first poems in high school were written in precise dactylic quatrains. Part of me wishes that the whole free verse revolution had never happened, so that I could just write Elizabethan sonnets and dactylic doggerel all day. Instead I sneak rhyme and meter into my work wherever I feel I can get away with it. Post-college I'd have to say that Rilke and Auden have been my two biggest influences, and I find Auden's sophisticated, subtle use of meter to be both inspiring and infectious.

GS: You, like Marianne Moore, have included a notes section at the back of the book. Can you please explain why you chose to do that?

DA: The notes section started out a way to provide the stagings for the performance pieces, so I didn't have to clutter up the texts with a lot of stage directions in brackets and italics interrupting the flow. But then I started annotating the poems somewhat, too. I didn't have an editor per se for this book, so I put together a panel of friends who were writers and editors themselves to read and comment on the work. They would circle words like "Ouroboros" and "Lughnassadh" and write things like "huh?" or "what?" or "I don't think most readers will get this reference." It seemed to make a great deal of difference to people in their appreciation of certain poems.

I didn't want the annotation to get out of hand so I assumed a basic level of knowledge on the part of my readers — I think everyone's responsible for a core familiarity with Greek and Roman mythology, for instance. It's like that line from 24-Hour Party People — "If you don't know who Icarus was, you should probably read more." But Irish mythology doesn't get taught in the schools here, let alone alchemical symbolism. Also, there's a series of poems in What the Sea Means about megalithic stone circles in Britain and Ireland, places like Avebury and Callanish, and I figured some background would be helpful for readers who haven't been to those places. And frankly, the notes section gave me an opportunity to tell a few more stories, which is something I couldn't resist.

GS: One night a week, you can be found dancing to the New Wave hits and obscurities of the 1970s and '80s at the Chicago nightclub Neo on Planet Earth night. In fact, Planet Earth has become such an important part of your life that you have included some poems in the book to pay tribute?

DA: I think any poet has an impetus, and maybe even a duty, to write about the milieu in which he or she moves. I'm an old New Waver, and always will be, but the gay clubs these days are full of that repet-a-thud music that sounds like you're trapped in a washing machine with an unbalanced load, so by the mid-'90s I'd given up on hearing music I actually liked in the clubs.

Then one night in late 1998 my old high school buddy Cliff, who was a bartender at Big Chicks then, took me to Planet Earth, which was at the old Club 950 on Wrightwood and has since moved to Neo. They were playing Roxy Music, The B-52's, Devo, The English Beat, ABC, The Clash, Bronski Beat, The Psychedelic Furs, Patti Smith, and lots of Bowie. And they were getting the mix right, not like some awful "eighties night" where you're going to be subjected to Huey Lewis and .38 Special.

Best of all it, it was that truly diverse New Wave culture I remembered from the old days—gay boys and tolerant straight boys, straight women and dykes and transpeople all dancing together in perfect camaraderie. I felt like I had found my church.

I've since gotten to be good friends with the DJs at Planet Earth, Dave Roberts and Kristine, and we all agree that New Wave should be considered a musical style, like Swing or Rockabilly or Folk or anything else people are into. It's not about "the eighties" — decades are artificial constructions that don't really define musical periods. After all, New Wave began in the late '70s, with artists like The B-52's, Devo, Talking Heads, Blondie, and Split Enz, who did some of their best work before the '80s even rolled around.


Gregg Shapiro is a Chicago-based journalist, poet and fiction writer whose creative work has been published in a multitude of literary journals including Blithe House Quarterly, Spoon River Poetry Review, Gargoyle, The Illinois Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Folio, and The Washington Review, to name just a few. He was a 1999 inductee into Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame and a recipient of the 2003 Outstanding Support OMA (Outmusic Award). You can hear Gregg performing some of his own work on the e-poets.net Web site.

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