Criticism & Features



By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Breakfast with Thom Gunn, University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Randall Mann is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. He is also the author of Complaint in the Garden, winner of the Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry; and co-author of the textbook Writing Poems.

Invoking such a renowned literary figure in the title is a brave move. This will inevitably draw comparisons between your work and Gunn’s, especially since the book’s setting is partially in San Francisco, Gunn’s former stomping ground. You are both gay, both formalists, and are unafraid to texture the work with an explicit queer sensibility. The title poem addresses the speaker’s brief but memorable meeting with the poetry legend, but the book as a whole extends beyond homage or artistic influence—it is a bittersweet love letter to a lifestyle and the landscape in which “all fog, all love, will lift.” How is Gunn’s San Francisco now Mann’s San Francisco? Or is it still the same relentless city? Were you conscious of capturing a different angle? And why is formalism a perfect medium for capturing that perspective?

My San Francisco is, I hope, like Gunn’s, unashamedly sexual and slightly self destructive, the fragile beauty of men and the cityscape a vital part of the pathos of the poetry.  But I am not trying to re-cast or update Gunn’s literary city:  I worked on Breakfast with Thom Gunn for almost a decade, and I never thought of it as a kind of project about San Francisco.  (I tend to avoid thinking about my work as a kind of project; the word “project” makes me nervous, the grandiosity and willful ambition of it.)  I am a place-based poet (much of my first book was set in Florida, where I grew up), so naturally the backdrop is the places I have lived in San Francisco, the modes of transportation I have taken, the men I have taken up with, etc.  Form was often the right medium for capturing what I had to say about the city’s history.  For example, I wrote a sestina about my friend Tom, who embalmed Dan White, the assassin of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk; I knew I wanted to turn back to the killing of Harvey Milk, and carefully go over and over again the details of the events, both of the shooting and, years later, White’s suicide.  For these reasons, a sestina seemed perfect:  the form lends itself to such a narrative.  I knew for years before I wrote this poem that it would be a sestina:  I even had the end words—queer, hands, White, Milk, years, shot—which I filed away until I was ready.  Form is a great organizer of content, a great equalizer of emotion; I would have been afraid of approaching a moment like this in queer history without the compression that form affords.

A poem that stands out is “Little Colonial Song” with its suggestive and racialized language/ context: “When night is falling on the state/ we’ll eat our fish and loaves/ of Wonder Bread before we head/ toward dark sequestered groves.” This is one of the few moments you not only talk about the erotic but also the exotic, and the complicated politics of the (dark) Other as object of desire.  Previously in the collection, “Fetish” also spoke to the way people (usually “straights and amateurs”) misinterpret queer space as a “free-for-all” space that sanctions any behavior. If a gay man has to confront the fetishized gay body, does a gay man of color have to navigate the fetishized gay and dark body? Is there room in gay space to address race or is that conversation erased the current struggle for gay rights?       

“Little Colonial Song” came out of my re-reading of William Bartram’s Travels, its lush descriptions of eighteenth-century Florida; but there’s no getting around his exoticization of the place and its native people.&nbsnbsp; And yes, you’re quite right that, in “Fetish,” the “straights and amateurs” are like latter-day colonizers of a gay ghetto, those who ape our contained, false freedom yet get to take a late-night taxi back to their straight lives, take off their fuck-me pumps, and ease into their marital sheets.  I am queer; I am multiracial (I am, in spite of my German name, more Latino than anything, and also Filipino)—so my very existence, and by extension my art, is the negotiation of gay and dark, there’s no avoiding it.  And when I write, at the end of “Fetish,” “I am a fetish.  I am canonical,” it’s a self-aware, wry acknowledgment not only of the parameters of longing (in this poem, the paraphernalia of desire), but of the longing for acceptance and love.  There is room for race and queerness in the conversation.  And there is always room for fetish.

The trio of poems “Ovid in San Francisco,” “Ganymede in Polk Street,” and “Orpheus at Café Flore,” speak to the importance of the Greek and Roman myths as symbols of sexuality and, particularly in the Ovid piece, folly. That relationship is clear from the onset—the book cover to Breakfast with Thom Gunn depicts an all-male interracial orgy taking place among Roman columns. Why are these myths particularly relevant to gay poets/ poetry? And can you say more about that daring cover?  

The queer journey has always been Ovidian—that is, one of myth and betrayal and transformation and renewal and love.  These myths provided me ancient, rich, brutal tales on top of which I could tell my little tales of the city.  And the cover of the book?  Well, I saw Boy Party in the DeYoung Museum years ago; the second I saw it I knew that I had to have it on some future book.  It’s an oil painting by Jess, who was the poet Robert Duncan’s partner; I still find it moving and unsettling.  My hope is that Breakfast with Thom Gunn is very like the cover painting:  in the foreground, there is tenderness between men, a long kiss, hand holding, a suggestive touch; and in the background, there is a cultish, animal surrender to queer desire.